Summer Shorts: Beijing Bound

Up in the air – flash fiction by Nick Compton


Been saddled up on this airplane economy seat for too long. I know it doubles as a floatation device, but I have a strong breast stroke and don’t plan on surviving a spiraling free fall from 30,000 feet into the deep Pacific, anyway.

United, from New Orleans to Denver to San Francisco to Beijing. Over 20 hours of mind-numbing, time-bending flight.

You start out early in the morning. Pull yourself out of a warm bed next to a soft girlfriend to load luggage, slurp coffee and pace off reams of reserve energy that would otherwise remain bound up in the maddeningly close confines of a trans-pacific budget flight.

Inevitably, there’s traffic on the pre-dawn interstate, a searing spill of nuclear hot coffee on fresh dress pants and a bitter back-and-forth stemming from nothing other than lack of sleep and heavy nervousness.

Board the first flight at 7:30am. Enjoy the novelty of the roaring jet engines, in-flight television shows and beverage carts.

Board the second flight after a little delay and burn through an hour or two flipping through Sky Mall (Shit, a camera the size of a stick of gum!) and the propagandist in-flight magazine – “Charles Scratchansniff became the first Delta card member to reach 10 million air miles on Wednesday, September 6th. Mr. Scratchansniff is a consummate child sex trader, and flies back and forth from Chicago to Bangkok at least twice a month. He credits the warmness of the in-flight staff and promptness of the customer service agents as his main reasons for booking Delta.”

Soon, the consistent din from the engines and the never-ending hiss of the pressurized air that shoots through the overhead turn nozzle grows old.

By the start of the third flight, an inconceivable 13 hours straight to Beijing, the airplane game is stale. No leg room, terrible packaged food, and some ungodly chick flicks and kitschy re-runs.

Of course, you’re slammed next to a window, stuffed into an overbooked airplane crawling with babies, invalids, and unhappy, red-eyed attendants who seem to be suffering profound hangovers.

The pilot gets on the intercom and warns everyone that he hasn’t slept in 48 hours and has just consumed a dangerous amount of rum, but not to worry, because the co-pilot is a straight-laced nerd right out of college who is conducting his first trans-Pacific flight.

The first meal looks like the unholy puke of a quaint English country gentleman. Some mutant version of shepherd’s pie. Tepid and congealed. Pebbles of beef and crunchy green beans and carrots smothered in thick gravy. On top of instant mashed potatoes. Served with a cup of iceberg lettuce and a bite-sized brownie.

Shortly after the first meal, the lights are clicked off and passengers urged to tilt back and close their eyes. They contort their bodies like Houdini – huddled over the tray table, curled in their seat, necks thrown back, attempting to sleep. Some are successful. Most are not.

After a few quiet hours, the lights are turned back on and a stewardess walks the aisles throwing cold cream cheese danishes at passengers like she’s feeding farm-pond trout.

The pastries taste like preservatives and corn syrup and the ingredient list spreads a full five inches around the entire plastic wrap. A serving has something like 700 calories and enough sodium to turn the Great Lakes brackish.

The long, long, remainder of the flight drags on timelessly. The cadence is thrown into question because breakfast has ostensibly been served and coffee drunk. What to do now? Try for more sleep? Stay up and read? Suck it up, denounce testosterone and watch Jane Eyre?

Nick Compton is a writer and editor living and working in Beijing

This story was an entry for Beijing Cream's Flash Fiction for Charity competition