Footsteps, Part 2

Read the first part of the story here.
See all the parts here.

Footsteps, Part 2
January 2011

The day he had flown to America was a Monday – the second Monday of the new school term – and already the novelty of going back to school had worn off for the children.  That morning he and Niamh slept in by half an hour and when they went to the boys’ room they found them both already awake, cocooned rebelliously in their duvets, giggling at their parents’ confused faces and dishevelled hair.  It had taken a concerted joint effort to make hurried breakfasts, fill rucksacks and tumble them out the front door; but when Dougal finally saw them walking to the bus stop at the bottom of the road – a small figure holding the hand of a smaller one and kicking up a shower of golden leaves – he wanted to run after them and gather them into his arms.

Niamh and Dougal ate breakfast in silence, across the table from each other; then she wished him a good flight, kissed him efficiently on the cheek and left.  He spent the rest of the morning going through his presentation: he had written it weeks before but he revised it every day.  Now the pages were crumpled and covered in so many scribbled corrections that they were almost impossible to read.  He had tried several times to write up the presentation afresh, but he could not leave it alone and every copy eventually ended up as an unintelligible forest of ink.

He worked with the television on and muted.  The news came on; now and again he would glance up at the reporter’s look of accustomed concern, as she mouthed the headlines that scrolled along the bottom of the screen.  WARNING AGAINST ‘MIRACLE’ SLIMMING DRUGS ● AFGHAN OPPOSITION LEADER’S CONDITION UNCLEAR AFTER BOMB BLAST ● SPIELBERG’S ‘BAND OF BROTHERS’ RECEIVES MIXED CRITICAL REVIEWS AT PREMIERE.  He added his own headline to the list: SUCCESSFUL LYNCH DEAL OPENS UP PROMISING AMERICAN FUTURE.

Dougal imagined going into the office on Friday morning to a crowd of cheering colleagues.  Familiar faces would grin hearty congratulations, and the small team of programmers he had led for three years would surround him and pat him on the back.  At the end of the corridor, his boss would lean back in his chair and spread his arms wide.  “My friend, you have done great things this week!  You have pushed the boundaries of our company and proven yourself to be a valued and capable employee!  America has opened its doors to us and it’s all because of you!”  He would stand, come forward from behind his desk and shake Dougal’s hand.  He would enthusiastically wish him luck in his ventures across the Atlantic.  The fantasy always culminated there, in the jubilant office, skin to skin with his superior.


He had not enjoyed the flight, although he was able to appreciate that the world from above was, actually, quite beautiful.  London, long since behind him, had lost its sprawling awe as he ascended.  The exact height at which it had ceased to be a real city was unclear, but as the plane had banked and stretched its wings, he could only conceive of it as a million shards of broken glass on black linoleum, reflecting the light of a swinging, naked bulb overhead.  Still, throughout his seven airborne hours, he had not been able to shake off a strong sense of fear.  He tried to distract himself with his presentation, but the words had lost their meaning through repetition and his hands were shaking.  Instead every news report and documentary he had ever seen about plane crashes crowded into his mind – twisted wreckage burning vividly against patches of scorched grass and the placid, indifferent sky.

He hated how flying made everything feel so small.  In the plane his existence shrank to small packages of hot food, tiny cups of orange juice and the trivial little screen on the back of the seat in front of him.  The thick window pane forced on him a limited reflection of himself.  Air stewardesses trimmed the day into neat segments by punctually wheeling their trolleys up and down the aisle.  He could look out of his shrunken porthole at a wide expanse of uninterrupted cloud-tops, but he could not straighten his legs.

Only time was stretched and swollen by flying.  Seconds inflated and plodded along the aisle, visibly slowing the hands of his watch.  Time feasted in the plane, greedily fattening itself while everything around it shrivelled like burning paper.  Minutes dragged like hours, and hours warped into tedious lifetimes.  Dougal worried that he would disembark an aged man with withered legs, bent over, his frail beard brushing the runway.  When people looked into his eyes they would see an infinite stretch of impossible clouds filling his tiny skull.  He sat and waited and suffered his distorted claustrophobia, as the minutes crawled achingly by: human chaos measured against the rhythmic ticking of the clock.

Somewhere over the Atlantic the clouds parted and Dougal could see all the way down to the ocean.  The rumpled surface was scattered with flecks of snowy foam and the minuscule movements of the water made the whole vast body look like it was breathing.  He pressed his face against the window and the steam from his breath suffused the view with a dewy mistiness: water superimposed on water, masking the wheeling waves and heady depths of the sea.  He pictured the industrious steamship that must have carried his progenitors across this restless terrain.  Like him they had not known what they would find when the crossing was over, and their same anxious hope had travelled through the decades and thirty-five thousand feet into the air, to Dougal’s seat in the sky.

Read Part 3 here.

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