Notes on a dawn flight

From where I’m sitting I can see the wing of the plane flexing. I watch as the panels move up and down, the final stretches in preparation for what will be a juddering sprint down the runway and into the air.

My six-year-old daughter is sitting next to me in the window seat. She points to the metallic strips running from the tip of the wing towards the curved body of the plane.

“It looks like parcel tape. Is the wing held on with parcel tape?”

She smiles at the thought as I lean past her and follow her gaze, cupping the back of her plaited head in the palm of my hand.

“No, just Cello tape” I say, “This is a budget flight.”

The plane takes off from Dublin at about six, dawn still unbroken. The air outside stiff with cold.  I hardly ever look out of the window when I’m flying, least of all when we’re taking off. Although I understand the rough science of aeronautics – I know it works and why – there’s a part of me that simply doesn’t believe it. It’s easier to suspend my disbelief when my eyes are closed.

Eliza though is braver than me in so many ways. She pulls me back to the window and points at the orange glow of cars, homes, businesses and streets lights. Whole neighbourhoods and road systems mapped out with electricity. A circuit board of life.  We continue to climb, moving away from the city centre, and the surrounding towns and suburbs becoming little more than cobwebs of orange, like silky fibres gleaming on a dewy morning.

The sea finally brings the dark, broken only by the plane’s strobing wing and overhead lamps. We are a phosphorescent tube of bad air, bad coffee and cramped legs. The man to the right of me has finally surrendered the arm rest and is now sleeping noisily. He gives off a curious smell. A mix of stale breath and new leather.

I turn back to Eliza and the window. She’s busy looking for stars but there’s none to be had. They’re either wrapped up in cloud or not visible because of the curve of the porthole. In the distance another plane is winking at us. A cheery, twinkling morse code, passed between two early birds.

“Look! I’m flying.”

“I’m flying too”.

The UK coast line arrives in a string of orange light, like lazy Christmas decorations or the luminous side of some terrible deep-water fish. Further inland the patches of light grow denser. No longer isolated webs but a bed of glowing embers, as if the earth has cracked open and is now sparkling with volcanic heat rather than humming with the shimmering ghosts of burning ancient forests and long-dead sea creatures.

It is Eliza who sees the dawn first. A shy blue light seeping into the aubergine black. Shaming the man-made orange glow with its purity, its subtlety. Its shifting sublime beauty.

Violet to aqua; milk to elephant grey; hard peach to dusty charcoal. This is the slow death of night and the birth of day. No it’s more. I hold Eliza’s hand. It is the birth of this day, never to be repeated.

Washing away the old year

My five-year-old daughter enters the river first. Elbows pumping and knees lifted high, she dashes in, her excited shrieks turning to loud yelps of surprise as the chill shoots through her.

I follow close behind, my feet instantly numb as they plunge into the tannin brown water. I find myself laughing with my daughter; laughing off the cold; laughing off the decision to go swimming at the turn of the New Year.

Grinning wildly she turns back towards the muddy beach and my wife and son who are sitting with their chins sunk deep into parkas – cradling hot chocolate and cheering us on.

I keep moving. Pushing towards the small waterfall that brings the Little Ouse into the northern edge of Knettishall Heath; my body gasping involuntarily as the water reaches my stomach. This is the slow torture of gradual immersion. I hold my breath and sink down, my shoulders and face tingling and burning with the cold. I know it’s probably just seconds, but it feels longer. Minutes. Hours even. A whole year of concerns, worries and squabbles sloughed off in a bone-chilling baptism of copper water.

I stand quickly and walk back to the bank, picking my way around heron tracks that I missed in my rush to get in.

Two dog walkers are returning to their car; stamping their feet in the cold. I can see them looking over as I gladly take the towel from my wife and wrap my hands around the mug of hot chocolate. My feet ache from the cold, but I’m happy, waiting for the glow to start – the delicious post-swim feeling that lasts a whole day; an earthy cosiness that makes your own skin feel like a duvet.