They were on their way to America, just he and his mother. The others had flown the week before and were waiting for them.
They sat in the row of two seats on the left-hand side as they boarded, his mother by the window. Rubin felt overshadowed by the sheer vastness of the plane.
Minutes after take-off, it became apparent that something wasn’t right and that it would take close to a miracle to restore normalcy. The engines were struggling; they hadn’t been powerful enough in the first place, and the plane just couldn’t gain height. It laboured close to the ground like a floundering kite, like a prototype whose inventors hadn’t uncovered the reliable technology of uninterrupted flight. Rubin suspected that they’d known this and that they should not have allowed the plane to take off as it was. He felt angry and deceived.
Meanwhile, the aircraft was meandering in the midst of all things which it could crash into, appearing to be drawn to danger, as if to torment Rubin. Its movements were not stomach-churning but more measured, as if coming into land on a quirkily-placed airstrip in the middle of the city. Rubin knew there was no such airstrip, nor could there be any palatable reason for landing there if there were. There was a stark but muted sense of danger; the passengers remained quiet, the engine-noise was inconspicuous and Rubin was free to behold the spectacle in peace as was watching a film.
He was reluctant to look but couldn’t stop himself, utterly fascinated, transfixed. He peered out beyond the diminutive figure of his mother to see the plane skirting high office blocks and skyscrapers. But just as it threatened to make actual contact, it managed to escape collision at the last possible moment, leaving the tiniest of gaps between the tip of the wing and the unyielding concrete. Had no one on this flight been told that buildings were permanent, brute fixtures, did they not know of the repercussions of hitting one, and did they not appreciate the unwavering sanctity of life? Rubin knew that these buildings could not just vanish into thin air, and hitting them meant impact and crashing with destructive force.
This horrifying period of uncertainty dragged on. Again and again the plane had near misses and Rubin couldn’t quite believe that it continued to defy the physical immutability of the buildings. But it still couldn’t rise above its dangerous flying height. Rubin had accepted this; he had relinquished hope that the plane could climb to normal altitude; he still hoped that there could be some successful resolution, though he had no idea what that resolution might be. The plane continued on its low-level course, limboing under bridges, wending its way between gaps too narrow for its size, and still Rubin was incredulous that this was happening as it was obvious to anyone that the plane should be climbing, and not held down so close to the ground.
He was embroiled in fear, consumed by it, waiting for a resolution, still not quite accepting that he could be the victim of a plane crash, that this could be his time to die. Despite the fear, he had an idea that the plane would somehow be safe since it was inconceivable that it could crash, as crashing entailed loss of control and death which Rubin was not ready for. He clung on obstinately to the thought that he was immortal, untouchable. It was inconceivable to die in such an alert frame of mind, and the god whose existence he so readily denied to others, would ensure that this could not happen. Yes, he was a coward, relying on something he normally didn’t believe in. It was palatable to die with life force spent, when lying on your death bed, partly decayed and naturally wasting away. It was harsh and inconceivable to die on edge and brimming with life force.
The plane was still stalling badly, metres from the ground. Rubin felt how he imagined it felt like to drown. It was as if he knew he would not be able to raise his head above water, the pressure from above and around was just too great and he felt forced downwards, inwards. The notion that his fate was sealed gave him some momentary solace. He thought: ‘I wonder how this ends, I am not scared.’
And then finally it happened. The plane careened into the sawn-off logs of the side of a wharf and started to sink slowly. It was all rather innocuous, an anti-climax. Rubin didn’t know where it was going initially, these were one or two moments where he was not fully conscious of what was going on. There was no gruesome crunch of metal, just a scraping, marking the resistance of the great weight of the plane against the wharf. The cold, rational observer in Rubin was not alarmed, just surprised; a methodical speculator that would have bet with some confidence that this was not going to happen. This observer remained aloof: ‘Ah, we have hit’, the voice said. ‘Interesting. It has not happened before, but it has now’, and there was a sense that although it was an unwanted event, life would continue regardless and there was no escaping the immediacy of the reality. He didn’t black out but the next moment was disconnected from the previous ones, the atmosphere and hue had completely altered, and the interior of the plane now looked more like a cargo plane or hovercraft or even a spaceship. There was just more space.
His view unrestricted, he caught sight of some of the other passengers lying down on the floor of the vessel, oddly calm seeming to have come to terms with their predicament as if resigned to death in moments of epiphany. Rubin was impressed, and the prevailing atmosphere appeared to exert a calming effect on him too. One of the passengers was sitting up with his legs stretched out in front of him. Burly, muscular, authoritative, he appeared to be in charge and so Rubin was drawn to this man, although he wasn’t exactly sure why he was an authority figure. He asked him where they were, because first and foremost, Rubin wanted to know whether he was dead or not. The man replied that they were under the sea, in a tone that suggested that it was quite normal to have sunk to the sea bed in an airplane. It took Rubin a moment to process the remark. Surely it was not possible? Surely what the man had said was not true, surely the aircraft could not be submerged underwater like a submarine, yet still sealed, safe and self-contained. Did this not mean that they were drowning or had already drowned? So he was not dead, he thought, that was good, in a way. Then the reality sank in that he would have to deal with things now. Die or resist? He wanted just to die, but even that was too hard a task to contemplate. But how could he cope with the alternative? There was no way out of the plane. They were completely stuck. And it seemed like the most awful fate for Rubin to endure, to have to wait in abject fear for death to come upon him. In its own time.
Then somehow Rubin realised that they were not stuck, and his resolution to die was scuppered. He wasn’t relieved though. He had an idea that there was an escape hatch at the top of the plane, and it would be possible to try to open this hatch and swim out of it. He looked up and saw the hatch directly above his head. Had the authority figure pointed this out to him? Perhaps, and in a moment of resolve, without considering the hazards of swimming out of a plane into the open sea, Rubin pushed himself up to the top of the plane -- he must have evidently clambered over some seats -- and opened the hatch. He expected a vast and hostile swell of icy, deathly water, and the pull of pressure and to have to hold his breath for aeons before any highly improbable emergence from the surface. By which point he’d be dead. Just him, his tired little lungs and the great ocean. But as soon as he popped his head out of the hatch, he caught sight of the most heart-warming and consoling sight he’d seen since he’d started this awful journey, something that made life fulsome and satisfying again. And his bubble of fear dissolved. Just above him swam a team of men, equipped with all kinds of safety paraphernalia, among these beacons and flags, and dangling right in front of Rubin, a number of brightly coloured ropes, one red, one blue, one yellow. All he needed to do was grab the red one, his assigned rope, and he would be hoisted directly to the surface. He did so and the rope pulled and he had no trouble breathing.
They were resigned yet relaxed, tired but grateful after such a trying ordeal. The room where they were now was comfortable and stood just below the surface, like a waiting chamber. Rubin guessed that they must be waiting for the other passengers and because this was so obvious, it never really crossed his mind that his mother was absent. Someone else had the job of saving her, they were saving her now and there was no need for him to worry. And in the meantime, they chatted about various things, Rubin cannot remember what exactly, but he didn’t feel left out or patronised.
The chatter continued and became increasingly inconsequential. Rubin started to wonder why it was all taking so long and whether, perhaps, they were not tasked with saving the other passengers and amongst them, his mother. He was becoming impatient and wanted to know what was going on. Had he neglected her? He was still reluctant to ask as he didn’t want to appear stupid, but he did anyway, just in case he was wrong. One of the men who had saved him gave a curious response. It was not that they were not saving her, but Rubin had got it wrong if he thought they were here to.rescue the others. What did this mean? So Rubin had waited for nothing and his mother had been back on the plane all this time? How absurd! And she might be dead after all this time. He could go down and see if he liked, they added rather offhandedly. They had not taken responsibility for her after all.
He went back through the hatch and into the plane. He was not scared for his own safety and he swam with ease. Down and down, but it was not all that far. The plane was empty now, like an open shipwreck, desolate, pervaded by an air of abandonment. But there was still one man there: the authority figure from before. Why he was just there on his own, Rubin couldn’t fathom, still sitting at the far end of the plane, legs stretched out in front of him. Rubin looked towards him and asked if there was anyone else here. Was there anyone who hadn’t yet been saved? The man pointed to a body resting on the floor in front of Rubin which he hadn’t noticed it until then.
It was dead, unmistakeably dead, static, immobile, and worse, it looked to Rubin like life had left it some time ago but it took a few more moments for Rubin to recognise this body as his mother’s. But if it were his mother’s body, it could not possibly just be dead. How could she die just like that without warning him? He came closer. The mouth was agape, the eyes open, and the stare, although in death, held something instantly recognisable to Rubin, an expression that was inimitably hers. He then knew this to be his mother, and this moment of recognition sent a dull pain plummeting through his stomach, and for an instant, he felt like he was going to suffocate.
He started to wrestle with her body in an attempt to move it and to take it back up to the surface.
“Do not bother, she must be dead”, the man said. Not she is dead, but she must be dead.
Rubin looked up.
“But how could you let her die?” He was still not convinced that the man really knew she was dead.
“We’re not here to look after everyone, but you can try to take her up if you like.”
Perhaps there was still hope. Rubin grabbed her, and only now when he started to swim with her in his arms, did he realise that it was very unlikely she could be resuscitated. The man was right, this was no put-on, no joke, no dream. Rubin felt indescribable wretched torment. He felt pure grief for the mother he had absolutely adored. What he wanted most was for her to be alive. What was beyond any doubt was that she could not be, now and never again.
Two questions occurred to him: how could he go on without her? And why had they just let this happen?