Monday, 8 April 2013

Alternative Realities

Seeing the newspaper report of the 2 Degrees CEO & his wife being hauled out of their crashed wreckage off the coast of Raglan (not far from here) is somewhat poignant for me, as my partner is also a private pilot, as is his father – it’s been in his blood ever since he was a lad. There are no guarantees for any of us - every time we jump in a car, we take a risk of not making our destination. Flying is no different- there some increased risks (especially with aerobatics like he does!), but there are less idiots up there in the sky. Pilots are by nature very cautious folk, but still, sometimes sh*t happens, as it must have for the Hertz couple.   Arohanui.

When I write, inevitably I draw on my own life experiences. It may be as simple as a line I overhear which sparks an idea, which leads to a story, or it may be an actual experience I have gone through. The tricky thing is to write about these incidents without indicting anyone – including myself! So of course I change characters/scenes/ plots/ outcomes from the original, but still some may recognize the original occurrence.  What you will never know is which bits are real and which bits I made up!


One day I am going to take these stories I made up from real-life jump-off points and publish them in a book called ‘Alternative realities: things that might have happened but didn’t”.

This story will definitely be in it:


I watch the clouds every day from my hilltop home, forming shapes and patterns over the landscape. As individual as personalities, no two clouds are ever the same. Some days they are painted streaks against the azure blue sky, wisps of vapour I can almost taste as a hint of lemon in an icy sorbet. Then there are days the balls of cotton fluff dance along the sky, animal shapes which contort and change as they race in the wind. Other days, they hang full and heavy, pregnant with rain, threatening, menacing.

 He should have known better than to take off that day.

 And the sunsets. Oh, the sunsets.  As the sun leans down in the western sky beyond the mountain, the last gorgeous golden rays radiated each day are taken by the clouds and enhanced. Silver linings shine out behind cumulus, fingers of light stretch through between cirrus, every slightest hint of colour is reflected and refracted to produce a rainbow of not just the usual orange and red and gold, but tangerine and cerise and mauve and peach, yes, peach - into the indigo evening sky. 

 ‘Take offs are optional, only landings are compulsory’, he often joked, not listening to his own advice.
Clouds. So innocuous. Almost nothing at all. Just vapour. Untouchable, unobtainable. You can walk right through them. So harmless, so innocent, so stunningly beautiful.
‘Metservice says it’s clearing,’ he justified to himself, as he packed his headset.

Swan feathers and tutus, light and airy in the blue sky, innocently hid the angry grey turbulence which brewed just beyond. As if a frustrated artist had wielded her paintbrush haphazardly, dabbing and streaking the sky with violence, the storm fermented far to the west, clandestinely challenging the blue sky.

‘It’s just a quick trip to the coast. I’ll be back by 5. Saves hours of driving.’ He kissed me goodbye, same as any morning.

 In winter, the clouds cannot hold themselves up and fall silently to the ground. Some days it is porridge thick; other days, so light that a halo of sun glows through, silhouetting the trees in a hazy shroud. People grumble, complaining about the fog, cursing the coveting blanket that surrounds us. But it is these mornings I choose to go out, walking amongst the mist along the country roads, claiming the fog as my own in the same way the Scottish claim the ‘mist in the Glen’. I embrace it, as it embraces me.

 He rang the airfield where he planned to land. ‘It’s clear. Just a little bit of drizzle,’ they said. His instincts should have told him to be wary. Drizzle does not fall out of blue sky.

 I am fascinated how I cannot see further than a hundred metres around myself, but as I draw closer to something, it gradually becomes visible until it is part of my landscape. Meanwhile, behind me, what I have passed by is enshrouded in mist. A metaphor for life - the future stands before us,  we know not what it holds until we get close enough to it, while behind us, our past is soon lost in the fading mists of memory.

 He had been flying for years. Flying was in his genes, in his blood.  He was a cautious man, a good pilot. Who knows what else was on his mind, that influenced his decision making that day? And what, now, did it matter, anyway?

 I loved the way the clouds could change my perspective of the mountain, daily. Once I took photos of it at the same time each day for a month. Some days the mountain lay long and languid as a sleeping goddess on the landscape, picture book fluffy clouds dotted around like in a child’s painting. Other days the mountain had completely disappeared, covered in cloud as if a blanket had been hung before it. If you did not know the area, you would never believe there was a whole mountain range just there, just beyond the green grass and kahikatea trees in the foreground. But my favourite scene was when the clouds would intersperse themselves between the peaks and valleys of the mountain, changing the two dimensional scene to a series of foothills and furrows, closer crags and more distant ridges. Suddenly the mountain range became visible in three indomitable dimensions, with the depth and perspective an artist would have appreciated.

 Who would choose the job of a weather forecaster? How can they ever know what might blow in from the coast, island country that we are. It changes so quickly. Most days it doesn’t matter at all, if you get caught in an unexpected shower or happen to wear a layer too many on a warmer than expected day. But some days, it can be life changing.

This day, the sun peeked through the uncertain clouds, some high, some low, some racing through the sky on a fervent wind, while above lurked the greyer, more solid clouds, in no hurry to go anywhere. Knees damp on the grass, my mind drifts with them as I dig, turn, work the soil, planting bulbs. There is something elemental about the smell of freshly turned earth. Perhaps it is our soul responding to the reminder that therein lies the origin of our body - dust to dust, ashes to ashes.

The small aircraft had set out below the bank of high cloud, flying uneventfully across the plains. Tufts of light fairy-cloud kept him company as he watched the road twist and turn below. There is such a feeling of freedom, defying gravity and several other laws of physics, soaring above the intricacies of the everyday, bringing all his senses alive.

The lifelessly dry, flaky-skinned bulbs are placed in the damp soil, hope buried for the spring, when the tulips and daffodils would fill the air with their carefree scent, at the end of what would be a bleak, lonely winter.

The flat land soon gave way to foothills, before he entered the valley with walls of green native bush on either side. Pockets of blue above the distant range hinted at promise and possibility. As he flew further into the valley, the land rose up to meet him from below and the hillsides grew closer. Gradually, the clouds drew in from above, the range ahead became grey. The small plane circled lower and lower, searching for a clear patch between the clouds.

The first rain fell fat and cold, not just droplets but spoonfuls of water, in riverlets down my neck, sending me inside. Dirt still clumped beneath my nails, I put the kettle on. Steam formed clouds of its own, trickling down the glass as it hit the inside of the window, matching those on the outside pane. Quietly, I sat drinking tea, reading the paper, having a perfectly pleasant morning, oblivious to what was just out of sight, just beyond the fog that was yet to clear.

There were no clear patches, anymore. White, fluffy vapour had crept in from all sides, called to the valley floor as the temperature had dropped. The plane circled frantically, like a fly in a trap. Up or down were the only choices.

The water that fell freely, innocently, outside, had sent me indoors to shelter. Yet once inside, I sought its sustenance. Water. One could float on it or drown in it. An element, both vital and lethal, changing form and potency at whim, it seemed.

'Down’ were trees, rocks, rivers. ‘Up’ were clouds, storm, rain, and eventually blue sky. While the earth may be overcast, always, above the cloud, was sunshine and infinite blue sky. It was the best of a bad choice.

I lit the fire. It was not particularly cold, but a fire helped dry out the air, clear the dampness that had surrounded the house as the clouds closed in. The wood was solid and fragrant, a hint of the pine tree it once was, still clinging to it. The match struck immediately. I watched the flames lick and flicker at the paper and tinder dry pinecones. Fire- beautiful, innocent, innocuous - when contained. Deadly, if let loose. Vital, yet lethal. I shut the door to the fire box firmly.

‘Up’ were also the valley walls. Trees, rocks, streams tumbling into cascading waterfalls to the valley floor far below.   Visual Flight Rulebook and all training cast aside, ‘up’ he went, the embracing, encompassing clouds forbidding him from seeing the future, until it was upon him. And in that instant, there was nothing he could do to change it.

Five o’clock came and went. ‘No news is good news,’ I told myself, trying not to watch the clock. And I would be proven right. There would be no news that was good news, that night.

There was no body to recover. The plane had burst into flames, a scorch mark on the hillside his epitaph.  He had always said he wanted to be cremated. His body turned to vapour, his DNA intermingling with the beautiful, turbulent clouds that blew from the west, bringing rain inland.

The young officer had clearly not had experience at this before. This was a small town, it didn’t happen very often. It was certainly the first time in his short career. I almost felt sorry for him, wanted to comfort him in his awkward task. I already knew, of course. There could be no other possibilities. I had sensed him in the rain clouds as I breathed in their density.

There would be just a small article in tomorrow’s paper. Two lines, under the headline ‘Light Plane Crash’.  His name, in black ink on white newsprint. 

People drew in, like clouds, around me, encircling me, enshrouding me, their sympathy a stifling blanket which threatened to suffocate me. The vaporous clouds had turned to liquid and I was drowning in a sea of grief, only some of it mine. Why do people bring food, food and more food, when sadness fills the stomach with its dull ache, allowing nothing else to enter?

I escape from the silent din made by these friendly strangers in my house and walk out, into the cool refreshing mist that the evening has brought. The worst of the storm has blown over, and the stars begin to dare show their faces and between the drifting clouds.

Light. If it were not for the darkness, we would never see the stars, even though they are always there. Deep within, I know this night will pass, the morning will shine again tomorrow. There will be clouds, there will be rain, there will be fire and water and light, but for now, I let the last of the storm clouds that took him wrap themselves around me, as his arms would have that night, and I sink into their embrace for one last time.



  1. Goosebumps! This story stays with you for a long time after you've put it down." drowning in a sea of grief, only some of it mine" Fabulous work, Monique.

    1. Thanks Jennie - my biggest fan (my only fan lol!)