Lawrence Brice liked this aphorism. He used it regularly.
He also liked what he often said about air travel: 'Flying means dying.'
‘Flying means dying. Well, to me it does anyway, and I really hate flying’, he said, ‘I always have done. All my life. As long as I can remember that is. I’m constantly terrified in the air, despite the fact that flying is part of my job. 'And I must admit it's worse after that Concorde business. And then that Air France plane with fallopian tube problems.' Lawrence smiled at his joke. ‘But it just has to be done I suppose, when you’re an integral part of a petroleum multinational. A key member of and international team. Like we both are now. Since I took you on, that is. Because now you’re an important member of a worldwide business group too. We’re VIP personnel. Both of us. As you’ll find out on our trip’.
Lawrence Brice liked the idea of being an important person. And he liked the idea of going on a business trip with his new secretary. But most of all he liked talking about how he coped with his paranoia. ‘Fear of flying’s proper name is aerophobia,’ he went on. ‘That’s its medical label, anyway. It’s an anxiety disorder. And believe me, I’ve got it big time. I’m a nervous wreck the whole time I’m in the air. Even though I’ve flown almost every month for the last twenty years.’ He used this rare self-deprecating weakness as a foil to everything else that he was so good at. He thought people would think more of him because of this common human foible. Especially if he laid it on a bit. ‘I have this recurring dream, you see. Well, there are two versions of it really. One is that I’m watching this huge passenger plane crashing. And it’s taking a long time to do so. Excruciatingly long, you know how it is with nightmares. And small, anonymous, black figures are jumping out as it gets lower. Without parachutes of course. Just like nine-eleven.’ He paused and turned towards her. She was sitting up next to him in the enormous double bed. ‘The other version is even more frightening. This is the one where I’m actually on the plane that’s about to crash. And everyone’s pushing and fighting to get to the door. Even though no one’s got a parachute in this account either. And even if they did, they wouldn’t have a chance. Because, although the odds against dying in an air disaster are slight, when your plane actually does crash, the odds against surviving are huge.’ Lawrence was talking to his secretary Laura. His relatively new secretary. ‘She’s been with me now for…let’s see, mmm…how long is it?’ he thought to himself. ‘About four months, I suppose, probably. And she’s really good. In every sense of the word. In the office and here as well. I definitely hope she lasts.’
In the office, Lawrence's affair with Laura was an open secret.
His last secretary had left him in the lurch. Well, that’s what he told everyone. But she did leave rather suddenly, and he’d convinced himself that she’d let him down. ‘Perhaps I’d become too dependent on her’, he’d often thought since she left. Well, he knew there had been difficulties. With their relationship. But he never told anyone about that aspect. In fact he tried to avoid thinking about it himself.
Suddenly Lawrence realised that the pause in conversation had been quite protracted, and he brought his thoughts back to the business trip they were planning. And his well thought out plan to take Laura with him. ‘OK Laura, so what flight have you got us on?’ he asked. ‘Well, I’m not sure that I can make it yet,’ she said hesitantly, and then with more conviction. ‘But you said you like the one that gets in early. It’s a DC10, as I think you know. But I thought you might like to consider travelling on a 747 with Air Pacific. It leaves much later, but it gets in at a more civilised time.’ She turned to the elaborate bedside table and consulted a sheet of paper. ‘Let’s see, yes, the AP arrives mid morning local time just as I said. And it’s much more convenient for me. That’s if I do come. You know, with all the arrangements I’ll have to make. But, as I’ve told you, Peter is being more than a little difficult about it.’
Laura knew that, because of Lawrence’s phobia, she had to give him all the technical details possible about the flights. He’d done an enormous amount of research into the safety issues of air travel and he knew exactly how many incidents and emergencies there’d been for the various makes of aircraft and the airlines that ran them. And she knew that although he was well aware that, statistically anyway, air crashes were usually due to pilot error, he had memorised the safety records of all the better-known international carriers. He was always consulting airline alert Web Pages on the Internet, and he knew what seats the experts indicated were the safest in case of an emergency. He also knew that the statistics for the ten major world airlines indicated that there was only one fatal accident per two million flights. ‘Which is fine,’ he’d told her, ‘providing you’re not on the one that’s next in line just after aircraft number one million nine thousand nine hundred and ninety nine has just taken off. Because that would be a nerve-racking flight, wouldn’t it? No matter how relaxed you are when flying.’ Laura looked at Lawrence to make sure he had finished, and then she went on. ‘So its either the 747 or the DC10 to choose from. Which one would you like me to book us on?’ ‘Laura, that’s your department. You make the decision. I can take any flight. Jane never argues with me about that. We argue about almost everything these days. But never about what flight I take. So book the 747 if it suits you better.’ Suddenly Laura decided to show what an efficient secretary she was. Acutely conscious that he was watching her intently, she got out of bed, plugged her laptop into the phone jack and within a few minutes she’d booked two first class seats on the Jumbo.
But very soon after she had made the booking, Laura ran into difficulties with her husband. ‘He’s being very difficult darling’, she told Lawrence. ‘And he’s very suspicious. He keeps asking questions about the rooms we’ve booked, what kind of business we’ll do, and he can’t help making crude comments about why you want me with you. Now he’s started calling it my “monkey business” trip. “You know what monkeys are always doing”, he says. ‘I really don’t think I’m going to be able to make it.’ ‘Mmm. Well, if you can’t you can’t. But it might be worth it if you keep on trying. On the other hand, it could be your lucky day. I had my recurring dream again last night. It was terrifying. The cabin filled with smoke. The smell was nauseating and I was so terrified that I couldn’t move. And you got up to go somewhere, so I couldn’t find you to talk to about the crash landing procedures. Even though I knew that there was no point. No one survives air crashes. Not when that monster falls out of the sky from twelve thousand metres. And when I woke up, I was sure someone in my dream had said we were on BA 101. Which is the flight you booked us on wasn’t it? Yes, I thought so’. Laura wondered for a moment whether he made these dreams up. But she could see how stressed he became when he was thinking about flying. ‘Do you know’, he’d said to her one day, ‘ that they use the most amazing euphemisms for death. The airlines, and their regulators, I mean. There’s this site I found that talks about air turbulence. Well, anyway, in 1981 an aircraft over Holland experienced what they call a “catastrophic structural failure”. Apparently as it came out of some clouds, eyewitnesses saw one of its wings break off. Naturally everyone on board was killed. Some turbulence, I’d call it! ‘And do you know what they call crashing into a mountain? “Controlled flight into terrain”. That’s what happened to that pop star, what was his name? You know the one. Jim or Jimmy somebody or other. You remember the joke. What sings and flies into mountains? Answer, Jimmy Whatever. I know it’s an old one, but they’re usually the good ones. Anyway, he died because the pilot controlled his flight into terrain.’ Laura knew that Lawrence knew the statistical likelihood of all kinds of other euphemisms occurring. He knew that based on the two million figure, problem take offs were the cause of 16% of fatal incidents, whereas 84% were as a result of difficulties when landing. ‘Taking off’s the easy part, you see. It’s getting back to terra firma that’s difficult. Especially when there’s a problem. Like an engine on fire or a hole in the fuselage,’ he added with a diffident laugh. He’d also told her in great detail about websites offering help for passengers with a fear of flying. ‘But most of them are just money grabbing schemes, he said. ‘Almost everything they say, other than “send lots of money for our CD’s or tapes”, is to do with statistics. ‘According to life insurance figures, the chances of dying in a car are one in five thousand, whereas achieving the same end in a plane the odds are one in eleven million. ‘They all quote the tired old fact that you’re at greater risk driving to the airport than you are in air. ‘And that’s without any knowledge of the danger our petrol tanker drivers face. Because we go to great lengths to hide the facts. Despite all the safety devices, they’re actually sitting in front of a very large bomb as they go hurtling along the roads at break neck speed. ‘But, when you have aerophobia, like I do, you’re twenty nine times more frightened of getting in a plane than you are of getting into a car. ‘By the way Laura, that thing about the petrol trucks, it’s highly confidential, so please forget I said it. Don’t repeat it to anyone. Do you understand? We have enough PR problems without the media getting hold of that one.’
As the day of departure approached, Laura’s problems increased. Her teenage son Sam was in some difficulty at school. And Laura’s husband was deliberately being more and more difficult. He’d told her in no uncertain terms that if she went away on a business junket with her boss, she’d be looking after Sam on her own when she got back.
‘Well, keep on trying,’ was all Lawrence said when she brought him up to date with her problems. She could tell how irritable he was. But she was reluctant to admit it was anything to do with her indecision about going abroad with him. ‘Poor darling, he really is troubled by these dreams’, she thought. ‘It’s probably wiser not to discuss it though. The less said about it the better, I suppose. Otherwise he’ll have me dreaming that the 747 I’ve booked him on is going to crash in flames.’ It was about then that Laura realised she’d already decided Lawrence would have to go on his trip alone. But she chose not to tell him until it suited her. She’d bide her time, she thought, and pick her moment with care.
But when she finally broached the subject, Lawrence appeared less disappointed than she’d expected. When she eventually told him that it would be impossible to go on the trip, all he said was, ‘That’s OK. Only one of us will die in that plane crash then.’ She thought he was making a joke of it. ‘I’ll tell you what though,’ he continued, ‘let’s book this room again on the day I leave. So that we can say goodbye. Properly, like. Well, you know what I mean.’ And she’d agreed.
Outside the hotel, after they’d said goodbye ‘properly like’, as Lawrence had described it, the atmosphere had been a little strained. Was it his fear of flying or was he going to miss her, Laura wondered? She thought she detected a change in his demeanour, and the session in the hotel room had certainly not worked as well as it usually did. He’d not ordered Champaign this time, and even when she was on top of him, he seemed less interested than usual. Or did he simply have his mind on business matters?
Eventually when the time came to part, they went down to the grandiose foyer and went through the huge and imposing entrance. She asked for a cab, and when it arrived it all ended rather quickly. With an uncharacteristically quick peck on the cheek, the door slammed and the taxi pulled out of the bay on its way to the airport. ‘I just wish he’d stop thinking about those awful statistics,’ she mused. But then her mind turned back to office matters and the long list of tasks Lawrence had left her to remember him by.
The next day Laura was up early. Well before six in fact. There was always a lot to do on a Friday. Her husband’s breakfast. Sam’s sandwiches that he was always complaining about. The grocery shopping list. And she usually spoke to her mother for about fifteen minutes on Friday mornings.
In the background Laura was vaguely conscious of the pips on the radio. The 7 o’clock breakfast news was about to come on in her kitchen.
A few seconds after the hour on the other side of the world, the 747 that Lawrence was booked on touched down at its destination. It was almost an hour late due to strong headwinds over the Gulf, as the pilot had explained to the passengers just before landing. But Lawrence was not one of them. Because he was not on the plane.
Laura only started to pay attention to the regional news when she heard the announcer say that a taxi driver and his passenger had been immolated in a horrifying accident involving a petrol tanker on the airport freeway. Their names were being withheld until their relatives had been notified.
Just then her phone began to ring.