Nine Deadly Sins with Coffee, part 52 – A Descent of Fire
When I was younger I did some flying lessons. They began as ‘Try Out Day’ gift for one of my birthdays, and developed into an expensive hobby which I had to give up when I took out a mortgage on my midweek apartment in London.
As soon as I experienced the sheer joy of the Carnforth Flying School’s venerable Cessna talking off from it’s old grass strip near our home, I was hooked. Climbing, steeply, into the air and seeing the landscape falling away, below, was like entering a new world – one quite different from a trip in a commercial plane: scrubbed nicely clean and sanitised…
Tightly buckled into the small cabin of the Cessna, with my instructor next to me, sharing the intercom link in the headset, was a magical experience.
That was many years ago. There was no coffee in the cabin today, though. And my instructor was no stranger…
“I didn’t realise you had become a pilot!” I shouted above the noisy but vibrant engine. “Did you know I had done some flying, too?”
“Yes–you told me, once – many years ago.” John took his eyes off the altimeter and smiled across at me. My headset cracked with his voice. “Didn’t you stop just before you were due to do your first solo flight?”
I nodded, conserving my throat. There was sadness at the memory; a thing not finished, a road not taken…
“I did some student flying in my thirties,” said John, “But it got very expensive; too expensive for our young business to support,” he nodded at the memory, his eyes also somewhere far away. “Went back to it when I retired from the IT world. Recently qualified as an instructor!”
“So what’s all this got to do with Prometheus, the Hound of Hell, and Heracles?” I said.
John looked down through his side window. We were levelling off from our steep climb and turning Westwards.
“Notice how the worlds change; how ‘lived in’ become a ‘map from above’?” he said, ignoring my question.
“You couldn’t have a coffee with someone up here in the air!” I laughed, getting his drift. “Unless you were in the same plane…”
John smiled at that. “I’ve brought a flask, but I’m saving the coffee for something special.”
I turned to look at him, but the ironic smile on the lips said that there’d be no more for now… I decided to elaborate on what I knew to be an important connection between the scale of things and their realms, “But down there on the ground, where the view is much more local and small-scale, there are people drinking at Rose’s Cafe.”
Morecambe was just coming into view on the horizon, the early sun catching the tops of the taller buildings, making golden shards out of the faded glory of the old seaside town. It was beautiful…
“Which way then? Your choice!” asked John, levelling the plane off at our cruising altitude, somewhere over the small town of Kirby Lonsdale. Far below there were a multitude of tearooms, I thought, smiling to myself, but we wouldn’t be visiting them, either.
He never wasted an opportunity. I knew the choice of direction was a metaphor. “Pick what to do…a bit like Cerberus, then – the three headed dog? The one that guards the entrance to Hades?”
He laughed at my artifice. “Three heads, three choices?” he said. “And I like ‘guards’. Go on then…the enigma of the three headed dog that stops dead people leaving?”
“One of the central issues of our lives – the trap of Desire!” I said over the resonant boom of the engine and its whining thrum-thrum.
He banked us slightly left, taking us onto an easterly course. The line of the distant ocean was a field of gold, lit from the dawn sky behind us. “And the other two heads?”
“The left is sensation, the right, ‘good intentions’. They all have snakes wrapped around them…symbols of Illusion, I believe?”
John nodded. “Very good,” he said, levelling us off with the shining gold dead ahead. “And does Heracles attack the Sensations or the Good Intentions?”
“Neither!” I laughed, over the whining notes. “He strangles the middle one – Desire, itself, with his bare hands,” I’d had another flash of inspiration and added, “and thereby frees himself…and all the other dead people, if you think about it…”
“Like Buddha, then – he attacks the cause, not the symptoms…” John was smiling so much, his teeth were catching the gold of the sun, too. “Wonderful stuff! All yours, then…”
He sat back and let go of the controls. The Cessna’s nose began to dip, slightly – he hadn’t trimmed for level flight; probably deliberately!
“No!” I screamed into the dawn. But my hands reached out and took the controls as the old memories and skills came back to aid me.
“The Carnforth field is on 120 degrees, over there.” He pointed into the golden air. “You can set her down on your own–you can fly us to the underworld…”
My mind was shouting, but strangely, there was a sense of calmness; of purpose, there too. “Where’s the wind?” I yelled into the mike.
“Coming straight off the sea, I would say, right in line with our approach to the strip… you’ve been blessed with the perfect approach!” He looked around us then clicked on his radio link. “Charlie-Victor-Delta-Hotel forty-two…final…”
“Roger Charlie-Victor-Delta-Hotel forty-two.” Crackled the almost instant response.
Were they all in on it? I wondered.
“Damn you, uncle John,” I muttered, loud enough to be heard in his headset.
He chuckled. “Very appropriate that… besides, you seemed keen to take the controls.”
I was about to object, violently. when I realised he was talking metaphorically. Yes, sod it, I had pushed to take the ‘controls’; and had obviously seemed ready to go ‘solo’ even if he was next to me in the cabin… I wondered… Maybe one was never alone in the cabin of life, just not used to conversing with a loving intelligence that always sat next to us…
The landscape was getting bigger, houses and churches were becoming clearer, below, in all their detail. I recognised the height, the speed, the distance… I was doing it right…
About a half mile out from the small grass airstrip, which I could now see, there was a sudden flash of red and gold below us. I looked down and, for a second, I’ll swear I could see a tiny shadow of the plane in the gold-licked metal of the Glasgow to London train as it flashed by at a huge speed.
Then there was no more time to think, just to act. “Flaps to twenty,” I said pushing the the throttle back in, and trimming the plane as we coasted over the edge of the field and seemed to hang in the air, sinking very gently to land with a noisy series of bumps.
The Cessna quickly lost her speed on the grassy runway. With a simple, “I have control.” John upped the revs and taxied her off the runway and onto a remote part of the boundary, while I sat, numbed and looking straight ahead, silent and happy in a way I could not find words for.
I came to in the now silent cabin, at the smell of coffee being poured from a flask. The aroma filled the small space, along with another, less expected smell. I turned round to see him holding a steaming plastic mug out to me. In his other hand, he had a miniature bottle of cognac.
“The cognac’s for my cup of coffee,” he said with a wily smile.
“Why?” I whispered, feigning outrage.
“Because I’m preserving your liver,” he said, chuckling…
(Image – Prometheus and the return of the vulture)
Nine Deadly Sins with Coffee is usually published on Thursdays.