N.K. Woods worked in financial services for years but left the world of business behind to study Creative Writing in the University of Edinburgh. She received her MSc in 2018 and has since had stories published by Tales From the Forest, The Galway Review and Queen Mob’s Teahouse. Raised in Wexford, she now lives in Kildare but loves to travel, especially to Oxford, home of her all-time favourite bookshop.
Risks & Rascals
‘Où sont les parachutes?’
The French voice cut through the hum of Spanish conversation and made Leo’s hearing aid squeal. Although the lady who’d spoken was standing by the front row, he could hear and see her perfectly from his seat in the middle of the small plane. She pointed towards one of the propellers, slapped the palm of her hand off her forehead and sighed in a despairing yet resigned way that reminded him of his wife, Ginnie. Looking swiftly away, he leaned across the empty seat beside him and stared out the window.
Everyone was on board now, except for the young couple arguing on the tarmac. Very fair hair and red skin, burnt and sore looking, suggested they’d have been better off holidaying in Scandinavia than Central America. A minute later they appeared in the cabin and the woman stomped to her seat, 5C, directly in front of Leo, while the man, his T-shirt damp with sweat, trailed along behind her.
Once the door was closed and everyone was strapped in, the stewardess pulled on a life jacket. But before she could make the usual announcements, the fair-haired woman was on her feet again, fiddling with the overhead locker.
‘Sit down, babe,’ said the sunburnt man, sounding embarrassed.
‘You’re not the boss of me,’ snapped his companion, with such ferocity that passengers in nearby rows turned to gawk.
Still in her yellow life jacket, the stewardess marched down the aisle. Leo was taken aback by how much she resembled the neon-clad lollipop lady who was forever holding up traffic near his doctor’s surgery. The woman from 5C plucked a guide book from her handbag and waved it like a weapon before sitting back down. Tutting at her behaviour, Leo shut his eyes but almost immediately a soft voice close to his ear made them spring open.
‘¿Está todo bien, señor?’ The stewardess hunkered down and studied him closely. It was as though she’d discovered an unaccompanied minor on her flight. Speaking very slowly, she asked, ‘Is everything okay?’
‘Yes, thank you.’ Two days had passed since his last proper conversation and his voice sounded croaky through lack of use. He cleared his throat and added, ‘Better than okay. Marvellous.’ She patted his arm, straightened up and returned to the front of the plane where she delivered the pre-flight spiel in Spanish and then English.
The engine roared to life and the propellers began to turn. Leo’s heart raced with anticipation. He waited until the plane had taken off and then pulled his battered satchel out from under the seat and retrieved his diary. He stroked the leather cover and traced the embossed 1953 with his index finger. Half a century earlier those numbers had been gilded but the gold sheen was long gone – worn away like the enamel on his few remaining teeth. He turned to a page at the back and his mood lifted at the sight of the list. He’d felt very alone when he woke that morning but now he couldn’t help smiling; seeing the page was like coming face to face with an old friend. Twenty-eight of the thirty items, written in his own blocky handwriting, had been marked off but he counted them all the same. Running through the entries and the red ticks was like leafing through a photo album in his head but before he reached the half-way point, the cries of the woman in 5C intruded on his memories.
‘Christ on a bicycle,’ she exclaimed, slapping her companion with her book. ‘You said you’d read the important parts, all of them! So what, you skipped the travel fact list because the “Risks & Rascals” page was all your pea-brain could handle? Or did you think flying on a Category 2 airline would be a laugh?’ She thumped him again and demanded to know why he had memorised the paragraph about robberies instead of organising different transportation.
‘Leave off. I didn’t see that bit. I swear!’ While squirming to make himself a smaller target, the man dropped his water bottle but was too busy to notice. It rolled under his seat and came to a stop by Leo’s feet.
Ignoring the bottle and the quarrelsome couple, Leo went back to his list and found comfort in the familiar names. Abu Simbel, Samarkand, Palmyra, Machu Picchu, Petra, Easter Island…. The pictures in his mental photo album expanded into a mini-film as he lingered over the memory of dancing on the beach with Ginnie while the famous stone Moai, majestic in the moonlight, stood guard. Hundreds of nights had passed since that lovely evening, but it felt like yesterday. They had hoped to visit more ancient wonders together, but the trip to Easter Island had been their last before circumstances put a stop to all thoughts of travel. Recently, however, his circumstances had changed again, granting Leo one last chance to see out the list he’d compiled as a geography-obsessed schoolboy. His parents, parochial to the core, had scoffed at his dream of seeing the world, but he’d refused to be deterred. Hard work and a head for figures had paved the way for his explorations – and paid for them; but imagination and creativity were the real keys to his success, along with a refusal to accept the word no. The charming bulldozer, that’s what Ginnie had called him, usually while rolling her eyes. Recalling the name and the last time someone had tried to say no to him, he chuckled.
‘Absolutely not. You cannot travel,’ his GP had spluttered. But his oncologist had been more sanguine. What was the worst that could happen, he asked, rhetorically. There was still time, a few months, and Leo was old enough to make his own decisions. That had made them both laugh.
After retrieving a pen from his satchel, Leo pressed down firmly on the page and marked off Chichen Itza. On his visit to the site a few days earlier, and to the horror of his tour guide, he had slowly ascended the temple pyramid. The fretful guide had refused to let go of his elbow on the way up and walked directly in front of him on the way down. Slippery as soap after rain, the man had said; he’d earned every penny of his tip, and the round of applause from the people on the ground who’d cheered when both he and Leo reached the bottom step safely.
And soon Tikal would be ready for its tick, the final stop on an adventure that had taken a lifetime to complete and cost Leo more than he’d ever expected. He would climb to the top of one of the temples there too, if his legs held out.
‘Mate, hand me that water?’ The man in 5D twisted round in his seat like a child playing peek-a-boo and draped his arm through the gap to point at the bottle. ‘You on your way to the rebel base too?’ He began to whistle a tune which Leo recognised but couldn’t place. ‘Star Wars….yeah? Tikal’s in the first one. A classic. You seen it?’
Eager to cut off the flow of chat, Leo tapped his hearing aid. ‘Forgive me but I don’t hear so well anymore.’ He hadn’t missed a single word but being old provided a litany of ready-made excuses that people were generally eager to believe. He made a show of noticing the bottle and handed it back.
As the minutes went by, the sky outside grew steadily darker, but the first half of the flight was uneventful, if a little bumpy. The seatbelt sign never went off so no one moved around apart from the stewardess. Leo saw her thrust a sick bag at a passenger near the cockpit. Almost at once, the unmistakable smell of vomit spread through the cabin. The sour smell made him long for a tub of Vicks VapoRub. He never travelled without Vicks – Ginnie always brought it along, claiming a little dab under the nose was a lifesaver in stinky places – but this was his first solo trip in decades and he’d forgotten to pack it. But at least he had his medication. He patted his shirt pocket and was reassured by the sound of the little pills rattling around in the plastic bottle. He considered popping a tablet into his mouth but decided to wait until he had a coffee to help wash it down.
A male voice crackled across the intercom – the pilot making an announcement in Spanish. Based on the rapid retreat of the stewardess and the way she disappeared into her seat, Leo guessed they were in for turbulence.
The plane dropped. The fall was so sudden that someone screamed. Another drop, more severe, soon followed. Leo gripped his armrest with one hand and pressed the diary to his heaving stomach with the other. An overhead locker shot open and a bundle slowly unfurled. A coat. Its hem caught on the latch and the dangling sleeves swayed as the plane shook, almost like laundry on a clothes line. The fair-haired woman’s handbag fell too. Coins from her open purse rained down like hailstones. More of her belongings dropped out and scattered when the bag hit the floor. Hairbrush, lip balm, mints, wallet, paracetamol, tissues, keyring, postcards. Leo silently named the individual items to distract himself. When he was finished, things had settled and he relaxed slightly, but then the plane lurched upwards and that was even worse than falling, as if the laws of gravity were being mocked. A bearded man across the aisle took out a rosary. His fingers moved quickly from bead to bead, so quickly that the only prayer he could have been saying was a one word plea for help.
Lightning flashed outside, sending streaks of blue through the dense mass of clouds. Leo didn’t want to look but he couldn’t tear his eyes away; the sight made him think of bulging veins. He gripped the armrest and his diary with such force that his hands hurt. He’d gone through so much to make it this far; he had to make it to Tikal. He wasn’t afraid of dying but it couldn’t happen yet, not after he’d waited so long for his passport to be returned. As if to ward off harm by cocooning himself in pleasant thoughts, he tried to conjure up images from his travels but his mind seemed intent on revisiting places he hated: the interview room that smelt of unwashed bodies and fear, his solicitor’s office, the hospital, the impersonal flat he’d been renting since the house sale went through.
More lightning transformed the sky beyond his window. Another bulging vein, just like the one that had throbbed at Ginnie’s temple when she threw her wedding ring at him after learning how their adventures had been funded.
And then it was over. The extreme buffeting stopped and the light brightened as the clouds thinned out. Within minutes the stewardess was on her feet. Even the seatbelt sign went off.
It didn’t take long for a queue to form outside the toilet at the back of the plane. Leo needed to go but doubted if his legs would support him if he tried to stand. They’d given out once before when, during his weekly visit to the local station to sign on, he heard from a senior officer that the case against him was being dropped. Compassionate grounds due to his failing health was the excuse given; although mention was also made of how, on reflection, the amount in question, a few thousand a year, wasn’t worth prosecuting a sick man over. That day, as he was helped up from the floor, half carried to a chair and given a cup of tea, the unspoken verdict had been that becoming an object of pity was punishment in itself, a lesson in humility, but Leo had taken an entirely different lesson from the experience.
The fair-haired woman stood, gathered her belongings and stowed them away before heading for the toilet, but she overlooked her wallet and lip balm. Both were under her seat. Leo waited until she was gone and then, with some difficulty, leaned forward and retrieved them. Briefly, he held the heavy wallet in his hand, estimating how much cash it contained. A lot, based on its weight. Using his satchel for cover, he eased roughly a quarter of the notes out and tucked them into his diary. Then, with an effort, he hoisted himself up using the seatback in front for support.
‘I believe your wife dropped these,’ he said, holding out the wallet and lip balm.
Pale now beneath his sunburn, the Star Wars fan grinned weakly as he accepted the items. ‘Cheers. She’d have had kittens if she lost her spondoolicks. She’s not my wife, though. I’m still technically a free agent. What about you?’
‘I lost my wife….’ replied Leo. He left the sentence hanging, not explaining that Ginnie had left him when, just shy of his retirement and thanks to discrepancies found by the eagle-eyed accountant hired to be his replacement, he’d been arrested for systemically dipping into the company’s pension scheme. ‘I’m sorry to ask but would you mind helping me as far as the lavatory? My legs are a little wobbly.’
Not only was the man happy to assist, but everyone else was solicitous too and Leo was allowed to skip the short queue, past the French lady who declared in excellent English that her next holiday would be by train and 5C who stood aside without complaint when she heard about her wallet. He took his time in the cramped toilet but when he emerged his assistant was waiting patiently to guide him back to his seat. The stewardess took over then, appearing with a pillow and a blanket. After tucking Leo in and making sure he was comfortable, she asked if he needed anything else. At first he demurred but then murmured, ‘I don’t want to put you to any trouble but some coffee might calm my insides.’ He patted his stomach for emphasis and watched as she left to do his bidding.
Cosseted under the blanket and the attentive eyes of pitying strangers, Leo drifted into a daydream about his next adventure; the rebel base, the last stop on his list but a place where he felt sure he’d fit in nicely.
For The Galway Review 8 (Print anthology 2020)