Willemien de Villiers

Flight

Lucas’ favourite linen jacket strains across his back and pinches his armpits as he puffs forward in his narrow seat to remove the in-flight magazine from its pocket. Ever since Mila’s sudden death one year ago, all his clothes seem to have shrunk. Lucas is seated at the very centre of the plane and he looks with forlorn envy at a large man diagonally across from him, leaning comfortably against the oblong window. This man is wearing a striped jelabba, or is it a gandora? – Mila would have known the difference.

A moment earlier, when the silent and surly fight attendant snapped his seatbelt extender into place, Lucas knew that coming on this trip – a gift from his well-meaning brother – was a mistake.

The long flight to Madrid is finally airborne. Red-eyed, dishevelled attendants throw meals onto the small trays as if competing in some bizarre race; then, after removing the empty containers with similar haste, disappear for the night.
 
Lucas does not sleep, but tracks the plane’s slow, blinking creep on the screen attached to the seat in front of him. A memory from a previous flight (when Mila had secured him a window seat) arises; of feeling obliterated by the darkness of the African continent that was only occasionally broken by sprinkles of golden light coming from fires or electrified villages or larger towns. How afraid he had felt then, and how reassuring Mila’s steady breathing had been. He coughs away the spasm of grief that attempts to release itself from somewhere deep inside: spleen, gut, lungs, heart?

The child next to him sleeps. Lucas is thankful for the child’s presence; for his indifference. When awake, he turns his back to Lucas and cuddles his mother. The elderly woman on his right is also asleep, snoring softly. Lucas feels grateful for her contained presence too, and closes his eyes to better see and hear Mila’s wry comment about so much gratitude under such difficult circumstances.

*

The holiday itself is dull and uneventful, as he knew it would be. Even sighting the Rock of Gibraltar from the railing of the ferry carrying him to Morocco fails to lift his mood. It merely reminds him of the snout of Hangklip, close to the small Cape village where Mila grew up. Jabal Tariq, he hears a man next to him say. Mila used to refer to the Rock by its Arabic name, and she had told him of its meaning in Phoenician times; how it was believed to be one of two markers that defined the limits of the known world.

In Morocco Lucas shops for Mila: lustrous bolts of vegetable silk in colours that bring tears to his eyes. He sips endless glasses of mint tea with cunning stallholders who fail to sense his loss. They sell him an embroidered red leather bag and Hands of Fatima bracelets to ward of evil. He buys a ring from an old Berber woman whose chin is decorated with a tattoo; a large +-sign that bleeds blue into her soft skin.

On the day before returning home, Lucas flies back to Madrid and books into a small hotel near the Reina Sofia museum where Mila had spent many hours studying Picasso’s ‘Guernica’. Its strong anti-war sentiment impressed her; the artist’s commitment to democracy made her eyes shine. His luggage travels to his top-floor room accompanied by a wafer-thin chambermaid; at the lift’s return, he enters it and manages to press the button with his elbow. He shoots upward, firmly encapsulated by the minute contraption’s wrought iron frame.

On this last day, Lucas buys two ornate statues of the Virgin Mary; if his wife’s atheist soul was moved by this insipid-looking woman, who is he to argue? He also buys a string of rosary beads and a pack of prayer cards displaying gaudy saints.

Lucas arrives at the museum at noon and soon finds the famous painting. He doesn’t like this monochromatic portrayal of war at all; always managed to escape its fraught gaze by drifting away to the ‘Woman in Blue’. Failing to find his wife in either painting he leaves, tugging at the sleeves of his jacket. In its pocket lies an image of the screaming man in the top right-hand corner of the painting; a bookmark he bought at the exit. The man’s arms are thrown up in despair, yet to Lucas he seems free.

The hotel manager arranged for a taxi to take him to the airport. Lucas lowers himself into the passenger seat while the driver places his luggage in the boot of the car. He pats his pocket holding his plane ticket, passport, the ‘Guernica’ bookmark, then glances up at the rear-view mirror. He watches in disbelief as two stocky young men deftly heave his bags from the car, turn around and run away. Opening his door, he tumbles out onto the pavement. The sound of ripping fabric liberates his lungs and he screams and screams into the indifferent, milling crowds.

Lucas frees his arms from the now-useless jacket and thrusts his fists into the air. In the far distance, he sees flashes of purple, red and green as the thieves inspect their haul.

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