Scarlett Thomas

Appendix 1: shoes

1 The thing that always intrigues me about this horror I have – horror of things in the sky – is shoes. I have to put shoes on the moment I hear that sound – a distant hum, a movement in the air, sometimes a skateboard coming down the hill which is wrong, wrong, but almost sounds like a helicopter. I can always hear these sounds before anyone else can. It’s like I’m employed to do it, with a packed lunch, a thermos and aircraft-overalls; paid to scan the skies with my ears. I am that thing they have at airports, the thing with the large concave flaps like elephant ears. I don’t know what this thing is, or what it does, because I avoid airports. You do that when you have a hierarchy of aircraft.

a I keep my shoes on all the time now. Is this being prepared? It’s hard to tell. But I know what I’m prepared for. The hierarchy of aircraft; things in the sky.

1. Balloons of any sort, hang-gliders, clouds, weather (see 1.2)

1.1. If everything in the sky fell into this category, the world would be, simply, nice. None of these things makes a noise, particularly – apart from weather, and the noises weather makes don’t really belong to anything. Yes, thunder belongs to lightning, but it’s air, particles, light, waves, uncertain quantum matter, laws of thermodynamics, I don’t know exactly (and neither do you – no one knows what those little particles are up to or what the universe is). The thing about lightning: it can’t fall on your head. Yes, it can electrocute you  (and the shoes are good for that, always shoes, always good, see Appendix 1, 1a) but that’s a natural death and not an accident; or if it is, it’s an accident that happens to you. Who wants to die in someone else’s accident? A balloon falling would be a soft, cushiony death, I imagine. A hang-glider coming down; well, that’s just one person coming down, quietly, out of the sky. One on one. No explosions there. It’s exciting seeing a hot air balloon, however nuts and paranoid you are. (I guess that guy in that TV programme wouldn’t feel that way about balloons, always being chased around by one and so on, but balloons in the sky and balloons on the ground (see 1.3) are not the same thing.) 

1.2. Except hail, which is freakish.

1.3. The thing about things on the ground. (Like mice and spiders.) You can always climb to avoid them. They cannot fly. You cannot get on top of aircraft; they can only fall down on top of you. Unless you can go underground you really cannot escape.

1.4. You could say that weather is not ‘aircraft’ because it is in the air but not a craft. Yet it is crafted. By God? By scientists, soon, apparently. And it moves (see below)

1.4.1. Some definitions: Air: above me Craft: a thing that moves

2. Airplanes

2.1. Twelve. I am good at tennis. I am competitive the way I am now but with childish temper, grey gravel and sweatbands. I play every day in the local park, on the public courts. I can see the courts from my tree house in the garden. When they are free I tell my step-father – my tennis-partner, martial-arts teacher, maths-homework helper, cook, shopper, expert on music and animals and space and so on (all this due to not having a proper father or, inexplicably in my case, having two pretend fathers and now this unreal, hyperreal one… The dad of the hyperreal, he’d like that; he’s a cultural theorist) – and we walk through the fire station, down stinging-nettle alley and past where the paedophile lives and where all the kids sort of nest, in dens, in the summer. We play, and I have tantrums due to him usually winning, and he doesn’t mind. I get pretty good but hide my skill from the girls at school. It’s not make-up, it’s not sex-jokes, it’s not ponies.

2.1.1. Because I am so good at tennis I go to a summer training camp at the David Lloyd Tennis Centre in Hounslow. While there, I save all my daily snack money for no reason other than to impress someone and prove that I can be perfect and controlled. It’s like anorexia of money, and it compels me. Everyone else has Cokes and crisps in the breaks. I have milk, which for some reason is very cheap.

2.1.2. Hounslow is close to Heathrow.

2.1.3. Every time a plane comes in to land at Heathrow it’s like it’s going to land on my (cheap, horrible) hotel. I am there on my own. Whose idea was that? I start to obsess about the planes. Logically, since planes sometimes crash, or land in the wrong place and so on, one could crash or land in the wrong place on me. It seems that the probability of this happening in a place where a plane flies over every two seconds is higher than it would be, say, at the North Pole.

2.1.4. It’s the noise, more than anything else. The noise a plane makes when it flies over is similar to the noise a plane makes, I imagine, when it comes down. This has something to do with the speed of sound.

2.1.5. The David Lloyd Tennis Centre is like a womb/bunker/nest. The courts we play on are all inside, and it’s orange and echoey, like being inside a hollowed-out fruit drop. You cannot hear, or see the aircraft. The world could end outside, and they could put signs up and announce it over loudspeakers, and you’d never know. A lifelong dilemma starts here: is it better to know or not know? This connects with operations: if someone’s cutting into you with a knife would you want to know or not know? I avoid operations. Other places you cannot hear aircraft:

. Safeway
. The Tube
. Inside any moving vehicle (due to engine noise)
. Anywhere with headphones on
. Anywhere with the tap running if it’s a normal airplane and not a helicopter or military plane (see 3 and 4)

2.2. Flying is unnatural

2.3. Twenty-one. One of my pretend dads has come for my birthday. I am considering going to work in a topless bar so people will notice that there’s something wrong, although what’s wrong isn’t abuse or anything you’d concoct a childhood memoir out of, it’s just that I still wish my English A Level had gone better, and people would stop thinking I’m doing worse drugs than I am, and I wish I had a better car, and some kind of reassurance about the future i.e. that I am going to do something interesting. Perhaps if I took the least appropriate job in the world, someone would force me to do something interesting, because I’m scared of having to find the interesting thing for myself. I’m drinking tea and smoking and so is my dad. In the air there’s a sound, a craft. I will not show fear. Instead I say, ‘Surely aircraft can’t change gear in the sky,’ to make a sort of joke out of the death-noise, and my dad laughs.

2.4. September 12th 2001. A small plane flies over my quiet little town after dark, at a time when planes never fly over (one of the reasons I tend towards being nocturnal is that nothing – apart from maybe aliens – flies here at night). Tonight it’s not just me; everyone opens their doors and looks out, saying, What’s happening? Is it them? Is it our turn? And everywhere in the world that night, everyone thinks they are in Manhattan, for whatever reason.

3. Helicopters

3.1. Eight. One of my pretend dads, the one who actually fathered me but who hasn’t officially told me this yet, has taken me on ‘holiday’ to hang out at The Mansion while OMD record their new album. I am vaguely impressed that my friend/uncle/godfather manages a pop group even though me and my friends haven’t heard of them and OMD are not Bucks Fizz. And since I don’t know what to call my uncle/friend/godfather (by ‘proxy’ according to my mum; something to do with us not being actual Christians) I don’t mention him anyway, and our life in a council house in Barking isn’t glamorous enough to exist alongside knowing someone from the showbiz world, so I separate the two in my head and am careful to never mix them up.

3.1.1. While there I learn that the drummer, Malcolm, can hold his breath in such a way that his ribs show; I am taught how to cross a number seven so you don’t confuse it with the number one; and people talk about how the really dangerous thing about helicopters is the way so many people have their heads cut off by the blades.

3.2. Ten. My friends and I decide that if we ever had to star in a porno shoot (like if aliens kidnapped our parents and used a porno shot as part of a deal we had to fulfil to get them back) we would cross our legs and cover our breasts with our hands while simultaneously hiding our faces just in case any embarrassing body parts were inadvertently revealed. We also vowed never to stop liking Wham, never to kiss boys and never to walk near helicopters.

3.3. Helicopters are metal insects, flying wasps, killer cockroaches. They come down all the time. I recently admitted my fear to someone and he said he’d actually seen one come down. I haven’t told many people about this fear, which leads to this statistic: 25% of the people I’ve told have actually been witnessed a helicopter crash.

3.3.1.  I have to be outside when a helicopter flies over. I have to see it. (See Appendix 1, 1a,)

3.3.2. Helicopters do something terrifying: they circle. Planes do not circle, not around here at least. Even military aircraft (see 4) do not circle. Helicopters also hover. The more they hover and circle, the greater the chance they will fall on you. It’s maths.

3.4. Twenty-two. University. I’m running a film society with a girl called Dominique. We’ve gone to see The Last Seduction together and I’m obsessed with modernism and cultural theory and Radiohead and text and the death of the author, God, etc, and I watch this film wondering if I’ll ever wear a suit like that, underwear like that, lipstick like that. I have a reputation as a kind of femme fatale, maybe only in my imagination actually because I am weird, but not this sort. I would do anything to wear a suit like that. This is not the point of the film. I forget about the anal sex scene at the end and recommend it to people who will in no way like it.

3.4.1. The other film I often do this with is Wild at Heart. I forget the opening scene and the bit on the road with the brains. I’ve grown out of Wild at Heart now, and I don’t think I ever really liked it in the first place, or I only liked the bits that reminded me of the Wizard of Oz and the funny bits. Not the brain bits.

3.4.2. I’m in Dominique’s flat in a block in Islington, a maze I can’t run out of, and there are helicopters and I’m saying ‘Why do you think they’re flying out there, now, like that?’ At this time I’m not so good with weather and cannot understand why rain doesn’t just wash people away, and I also think a lot about how quickly we’d all die if the sun moved closer to the earth, and how finely balanced everything all is when there are big unknowable planets involved. I’m not so aware of cosmology at the time, and sometimes when there’s a big moon I think it might be coming closer, to collide with the earth. In a sense, the sun and the moon are potentially aircraft, as are satellites, stars, asteroids, space junk and so on. I want to run outside but I can’t. Dominique says everyone had said she should see the film because she’s so like Linda Fiorentino. She’s not. I would do anything to make the helicopters go away and for the noise to stop. I’m hot and I want to go home. I’m such a loser.

3.5. Here’s something that’s also maths, and is like tosses of coins, or taking olives out of a jar that only contains green or black olives. I am a writer now. I write novels, and stuff for newspapers. I also appear, somewhat reluctantly, and usually in ridiculous clothes, in magazines. I have the kind of job I’m embarrassed to tell people about, not in an artificial-inseminator way but because it always leads to the same conversation: have you actually written any books, have you had any of them published, was it a real publisher, are they available in bookshops, would I have heard of you. Each question leads you further away from the questioner (except the last one which, unless you’re Stephen King, you can just forget about, and which brings you back to a position that’s way more normal: loser, failure, etc.).

3.5.1. Nevertheless, with every answer you fall out of categories like a paratrooper falling out of a plane; these categories including any known demographic, the audience for anything – but particularly anything to do with questionnaires about work stress, any sort of survey – and the target market for any product apart from soup, specialist magazines and stationary. You are an island. More people are trampled to death by cows every year than write books. This means I feel conspicuous. Aircraft don’t fall on ordinary people. (You become extra-ordinary, a freak statistic, at the moment of impact.) The thing about everything I’m scared of (train crashes, bombs – although I’m actually sort of fascinated with bombs – car crashes and so on) is that the likelihood of any of them actually happening is close to zero. But I have already been tainted with the mark of probability. I am already doing something less likely than being killed by soap. I am a target. Zero is not actually that far away from one, all probabilities lying in between. Another unlikely job is a pony wanker, a key role in a scientific project they reported on the news. They’re collecting sperm from Dartmoor ponies: how else would they do it? While carrying out your tasks as a pony wanker, you could also get crushed by a cow. All summer I’ve been telling people about the pony wankers, saying they’re like horse whisperers, although I think they probably get machines to actually collect the sperm. People still think it’s funny, though, and you need funny stories when you talk to people.

3.6. I live near Dartmoor now.

3.6.1. There are lots of different sorts of helicopters here. The police helicopter, which is yellow; the coastguard helicopter, which isn’t; the helicopter they use to airlift hypothermic school kids after misadventures on the moors; and then various other sorts carrying tourists, aerial photographers and so on. We are in a town in a valley which I keep telling myself is safer than being on top of a hill (probability, maths) but when those big jumbles of metal throb in the air within the valley, you think that being on the hill would probably be OK.

4. Military Aircraft

4.1. Eighteen. I’m in our common room, which is some plastic chairs and one table, lots of fag ends and a burnt-out old stereo, and Stuart is talking about how he likes this fascist band. His brother is in a wheelchair and we are pointing out that Hitler would probably have gassed anyone in a wheelchair and Stuart should not like music with a definite neo-nazi subtext. At some point during the day we hear that America has declared war on Iraq. We decide the world will end that night. I go home and don’t bother with any essays, poetry, sociology etc. What’s the use of sociology when we’re all going to die? I imagine the nukes coming from the East. Midnight. Bang.

4.1.1. Around this time, but also anytime whenever there’s any of that world news with runways on ships, you will hear a military plane overhead and it’s always spooky, the news flying over your head, and you will say things to your companion like, ‘Looks like Maggie/John/Tony is really gearing up for something this time,’ while, silently, your insides break apart like a jigsaw puzzle you’re clearing away before dinner. If you’re alone you can scream, but not as loud as the thing in the sky. Otherwise you will find yourself with your fingers in your ears thinking, Silent death, silent death, silent death, silent death.

4.2. When military aircraft fly over – an event always accompanied by a loud shrieking noise, like a million ghosts dressed in metal – people use the word ‘exercises’. This implies practice, which implies that there’ll be some mistakes.

4.2.1. It is impossible to tell, when the noise comes – out of nowhere, when you’re doing something innocent like talking to your bank manager or paying for a printer cartridge – whether this is instant death or not. A bomb falling out of the sky would sound just like this. Aircraft falling out of the sky sound like this. The sound is exactly, precisely, like the last sound you’d hear before death. Your body prepares itself and you try to think profound last thoughts while the bank manager or the woman in the computer shop act like nothing’s happening.

4.2.2. If you have read the Harry Potter books you will be familiar with Dementors. The Dementors make a noise like military aircraft.

4.3. Fifteen. We are staying in the Yorkshire Dales. My youngest brother Hari is about two. I am sometimes in charge of looking after him for a couple of hours when we go to visit local cities. One day we are in York Minster and Hari is sitting on a log, saying log, very loudly, like it’s a new word he wants to show off. The ‘log’ is a wood sculpture of Jesus. We leave.

4.3.1. On this holiday there seem to be lots of screaming military aircraft flying overhead. I am constantly trying to make contact with friends in the outside world. I write on green graph paper with my cheap French fountain pen in which I have a cartridge of electric-blue ink. I have recently been to France on a school trip. I got lost in Strasburg and our coach nearly fell off a cliff. I am well-adjusted, sort of, but when my mum says she wants to hide under the bed whenever one of these military aircraft flies overhead, I think it’s probably a pretty good idea. No one realised that the problem with the Yorkshire Dales would be these planes. We had been expecting Wuthering Heights and fresh milk from cows.

4.3.2. One time on this holiday we all trek up to the top of a hill called Simon’s Seat. There is a perilous – actually fatal – drop beneath us. A mist rolls in fast and suddenly we cannot see where we are going. I suggest that we stop until it clears. Kid’s adventure novels talk of disorientation in any of the following: clouds; darkness; deserts; snow storms; sand storms; dust storms; clouds of flies. The lesson from these books is always the same: never move. Stay where you are. My hyperreal dad thinks that it’s unlikely we’ll get disorientated and fall over the edge if we do move. I freak out and scream at everybody to stay still. I am known for these outbursts. I don’t want anyone to die. Although I mainly want to run away with a busker I saw in Haworth.

4.4. Anywhere remote and/or beautiful will have been targeted for military flight-practice. This means that it is impossible to escape from noise; impossible to ever control your environment. The quietest places, retreats, cottages, dwellings in hills, all come with urban myths about the time a jet flew over so low everyone could see the pilot’s eyes. This makes me feel claustrophobic, and it’s all wrong. Surely it’s a basic human right to be able to go somewhere quiet if you want to?

4.5. If only there was a way of knowing when this would happen, like buses coming or rainstorms approaching, it would be a lot easier to deal with. The surprise factor is simply too much like all those nuclear-war scenarios I grew up with. If a military jet flew over my house every day at 5 o’ clock, for example, I wouldn’t mind so much. It would be expected. Why can’t they just publish these things in the local newspaper alongside the tides?

4.5.1. There is no way of finding out anything about military flights because there is no one you can ring and say, for example, ‘I’m pretty scared of military jets. If you could tell me a place I could move to where there’d be no military jets I would be very grateful.’ I am, however, planning to phone the council and pretend I’m making a film and see if anyone – anyone – can tell me anything about when to expect these aircraft in the area. A film is a commercial enterprise and it’s therefore OK to be concerned about it. Someone may lose money because of the noise. My fears are just my fears and no one at the council would really care about me losing my mind, unless after I actually lost it I became threatening in some way.

Appendix 2: Zen

1 In a book, possibly my Zen Guitar book, which tells you that even if you can only play one chord, you should attempt to play it like it’s the most profound interpretation of that chord ever and so on, I read about a Buddhist practice where you relinquish control and, as this would apply to me, stop worrying about whether the thing above you, the aircraft, is going to fall and kill you. You simply allow things like that to take care of themselves. If you die, you die. If not, you live. For a while I tried my own version of this, a Valmont-inspired chant that I would repeat whenever something approached overhead: ‘It is beyond my control, it is beyond my control…’ But everything isn’t beyond your control. You have to look before you cross the road, you are required by law to take care when you drive. You actually won’t survive very long if you take no responsibility for anything. So where does this stop? If you hear a helicopter, should you prepare to run? At what point do you panic? Do you still think, It won’t hit me, that would be too unusual, when it’s a millimetre from your scalp

a Is it natural to have pieces of metal flying in the sky? It is not.

© Scarlett Thomas 2002