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Caroline is aware of the sound of a plane’s engines, a distant whine on the aural horizon, growing louder, rising in pitch. Although she has come to the beach to escape the noise of the island’s biggest town, the distant plane is only a minor annoyance.
       As the sound grows louder, people around her begin to look for the plane in the sky. It is invisible against the glare of the sun until it appears like a sudden mirage, very close, low, moving impossibly slowly. Holiday makers on the beach pause, phones in hand, to watch the plane descend on its final, tree-skimming approach to the airport’s outer marker. Three times a day, six in high season, it’s a spectacle that is noted in most guidebooks.
       Engine noise reflects from the water, and she feels the vibrations in her gut. It’s impossible not to watch, impossible not to stand hypnotised with the other customers of the beach bar. But today the more experienced among them sense something wrong in the uneven whining of the engines, and Caroline has spent enough time in airports to know that the plane is too low. It wallows in the hot, island air as though it is treading water and then begins a ponderous bank away from the crowded beach — perhaps a rookie pilot misjudging their approach and going around for another shot.
       The watchers on the beach freeze as the plane dips lower, then lower still, until its wing touches the water, gently slicing the waves. But this moment of delicacy is an illusion. The pull of that graceful curl of water is enough to pitch the plane violently. Its engines give a final scream and the fuselage quivers. It hits the sea nose-first, flipping and lurching into a cartwheel that destroys it in a vast explosion of spray and steam.
       Caroline stands with the others, unable to move. It is all over in a few beats of her hammering heart, but those moments seem to have stretched out, filling her past and future. Later she will remember the sound of rain — debris and scattered spray falling back into the sea — and the beautiful rainbow that appeared briefly above the sinking sections of fuselage. She will not remember the smell of aviation fuel or the screaming of frightened children on the beach, although others will. The whole event has taken seconds. It has been captured on two-dozen cell phones. A metal tube travelling at 130 miles per hour hitting the water and breaking apart, conceding to the dreadful Newtonian certainty of action and reaction.
       For everyone on board, and everyone on the beach, the path of life is altered. She is completely unharmed, but Caroline feels this change, although she is only distantly aware of it and won’t be able to verbalise it until years later. ‘As though,’ she will tell her therapist dreamily, ‘the points on a train track were switched and the train moved from one line, one set of destinations, to another.’
       In the long moments following the crash, she stands, bare feet buried in the hot sand, dazzled by the sun on the bright sea. The rain of spray falls away and the silence that has closed around her fractures. She becomes aware of voices and screams. Men, locals she presumes, drag small pleasure-boats down the beach and steer them towards the sinking wreckage. Behind her, a drunken Frenchman is speaking in English, trying to sound unimpressed, ‘Not the best landing I’ve seen.’ An American nearby repeats, ‘Oh my God’ over and over, speaking into her mobile but giving no indication of a two-way conversation. Oh my God. Oh my God.
       The heat of the sun is suddenly too much. Caroline feels sweat running down her temples and her mouth is dry. She feels the sickly sweetness of the cocktails she has been drinking rising in her throat as her entrails churn inside her. She runs, not towards the sea like the others, but to the small toilet block behind the bar where, hovering above the dirty pan and clutching her skirt around her stomach, she empties her bowels.
       At the tiny, metal sink, she washes, glad of the cool water. She is trembling. Is this shock? she wonders. Nobody else from the beach is in here shaking. Disgusted at her weakness, she slaps her own face and turns to a small mirror hanging on the far wall. Her image, skin pale and glistening wet, is caught in the small, dirty oval of glass. She raises her hand to wipe it, touching the cold reflection, and it is at this moment that she recalls the woman.
       As the plane began its final desperate bank and turn, she had seen a single face at a window; a woman’s face, framed in the little rectangle of grey glass. In her mind, she replays the moment before the fuselage ruptured. The whole thing had been so close it was possible to see bags being flung from shattered lockers, the colour of the seating, but not people. She hadn’t seen a single person, she realises, except the woman at the window.
       Staring at her own face, reflected in the tiny mirror, she is sure of what she saw. The woman at the window, staring back at her, raising her hand not to touch the glass, but in a wave.

Her hotel is expensive. Gentile, beige modernity unfurls from the glass doors and potted palm trees to the counter, elevator and bar area. Her room is large, neat and bright. It overlooks a deserted pool area, empty deckchairs and tables beneath awnings, all surrounded by a high wall. Behind the ornate brickwork is the quayside and beyond that, the blue sea.
       On the phone later that evening, her husband’s voice seems unfamiliar — that of a person she once knew somewhere else, a long way away. ‘Well thank God it wasn’t your flight…’
       She loses interest in what he is telling her. With the phone clamped against her shoulder, she flips through the pages of her diary. Her finger hovers over today’s date and a scribble of altered plans. A chill passes through her. It was the plane she had been booked on before she had been persuaded to take an earlier flight — an opportunity to take some time for herself before the conference; a couple of days in the sun. But she is not used to leisure time, mistrustful of it. Her first day had been a tour of the island’s unimpressive historical sites: monuments in sultry, cobbled squares and colonial ruins on the hills overlooking the marina. This, the second day, had been for shopping, until boredom and the clamour of the town had driven her to the beach.
       Her husband is still talking. ‘So what happened afterwards?’
       ‘After what?’
       ‘After the crash?’
       ‘Look, I have to go. I still need to prepare for the presentation tomorrow.’
       ‘Is everything alright, with you, I mean?’
       ‘Yes, of course.’
       ‘Okay. If you’re sure?’
       ‘Okay. Bye. I love you.’
       ‘Yes, of course,’ she replies, and hangs up.
       Caroline always requests a window seat in business class, the same part of the plane she had seen the woman at the window. It’s impossible to tell for sure, but the woman may have been in her seat. It isn’t difficult to look up a seating plan. Then she calls the emergency number that has been repeated at regular intervals on the news broadcasts.
       ‘Is there a list of those on board?’
       ‘A full list will be released when all families have been traced and contacted. Are you trying to locate a family member?’
       ‘A friend.’
       ‘What’s their name?’
       ‘She was in seat 5F.’
       ‘And your friend’s name please, ma’am?’

Later, showered, dressed, make-up re-applied, she goes down to the bar. The chatter is inevitably all about the crash. There is nothing else to talk about.
       Almost all of the patrons are men. Almost all are bragging, competing to be the one who was closest to the impact or most involved in the aftermath. A mingling of awe and jealousy is directed towards those who were closest to the action. She takes a gin and tonic to a table close to the bar, content to listen from a distance. The loud posturing of men is territory she is used to, and she finds the bullshit amusing.
       A big man in a crumpled but expensive linen shirt turns to her from a nearby table. ‘Did you see it?’
       She hesitates, considering a lie.
       ‘The crash,’ he prompts, as though there could be any doubt.
       ‘Quite a thing, wasn’t it?’ He is well into his fifties, but his voice is deep, public-schoolish, overconfident in a way she once found attractive. ‘I’m Hugh.’
       They shake hands and she is drawn reluctantly into the dissection of the afternoon’s events.
       ‘I was on the beach when it happened,’ he says, with a forced gravity that makes her want to laugh. She doesn’t remember seeing him amongst the others, but to her surprise, she remembers very little about the afternoon, other than a meandering walk back to the hotel. Her memory of the event itself is like a video camera knocked out of focus and swinging about in a sweeping blur of imagery. Only occasionally is there a moment of clarity, a sharp detail: the men dragging boats down the beach; the roof of the aircraft peeling away; the woman at the window.
       She lets him buy more gins while she listens to those around, all talking loudly, filled with a nervous need to explain, or to exorcise. The back-and-forth of the conversation rattles around her, although she barely hears it. When Hugh’s attention falls back on her, she asks,
       ‘You said you were along the beach from the bar, more or less as close as I was, maybe closer?’
       ‘I guess so.’
       ‘I have a question.’
       ‘Did you… were you able to see anyone? On the plane, I mean, through the windows, or when it… Do you think you could see them well enough to recognise them?’
       ‘No way. It was too far away and moving too fast.’ Seeing her face, he adds, ‘You didn’t know someone who was aboard her, I hope?’
       ‘No. Nothing like that…’
       ‘Well, let me freshen your glass.’

She takes her drink out to the pool and the noise of the bar slips away. Staring into the surface of the water she can recall with absolute clarity how beautiful the plane looked in the moment before it broke up, with the sun bright on its fuselage, its wing tip about to touch the glistening membrane of the sea’s shifting surface. The smooth carapace of the silver hull gave no indication of the events that must have been going on inside. These things would be spoken of later, at inquest hearings, in the testimony of the survivors. They will play the cockpit voice recordings full of indistinct shouts and electronic voice warnings: Sink rate. Sink rate. Terrain. Terrain. Pull up. Pull up. Terrain. Terrain. For now, she imagines the panic of those last moments– a slowed-down world – in which the woman in the window seemed to see her, recognise her, and wave.

She is exhausted but can’t sleep. There is a current running through her, as though the percussion of the planes’ disintegration is still vibrating through her body. She lies on her bed in the flickering light of the television. The only channels in English are news channels. They are interested in only one subject. Other events: a coup in central Africa; another right-wing American talking about immigration; industrial disputes, are bumped down the order and get only a brief mention at the end of each news segment. Meanwhile, interview after interview ask the same endlessly re-formulated questions: causes; terrorists; pilot-error. Experts and technicians, less dramatic in their demeanour than the salivating news-jockeys, suggest something more prosaic: there are six million working parts on a modern airliner. Computer generated simulations of what happened are intercut with footage captured on mobile phones. Already, the plane, Sunworld Airlines Flight 458, has become known by its call sign, Sunny 458.
       On her laptop, she watches footage of the crash, uploaded from phones. She replays them, freezing the picture, searching for faces at the windows of the plane, squinting at the blurred, low-res images of the shattering fuselage. She pictures the plane as she had seen it in its final moments, counts the windows, looks again at the seating plan. She is certain — as certain as she can be — the woman had been in her seat. On a clip of footage shot from the beach, she sees herself. She freezes the picture. In it, she is staring out, still holding her drink, smiling slightly as though she is watching a performance of some kind. Was that the moment when her eyes had met those of the woman at the window? What had it been like for her? Had she looked out, away from the panic unfurling around her, over the tropical sea, blue and still, the white sand of the beach, so close. Had she seen that little glimpse of paradise and imagined that things would be okay after all, because the plane was moving so slowly by then and the ground was so close, and a landing seemed possible after all as, somewhere in the noise behind her, the cabin crew shouted. Brace. Brace. Heads down. Heads Down. Brace.
       When she finally sleeps, it is with the crash simulations quietly playing on the television. Electronic voices invade fleeting dreams before she falls deeper, away from the waking world. Sink rate. Pull up. Sink rate.

The morning is bright and breezy. She takes a cab. The taxi driver’s eyes linger on her a moment too long. She slides across the seat, out of his line of sight.
       ‘Town centre, please.’
       ‘City centre. We are a city.’
       It doesn’t feel like a city. She could walk across it in half an hour. The taxi is an extravagance.
       She steps from one air-conditioned environment to another. The conference centre is glass-fronted, flags lining the pavement outside. In the foyer, service staff are dismantling tables. At the doors to the auditorium, an apologetic civil servant informs her that the conference has been cancelled. A number of the lead speakers were on Sunny 458. He smiles sympathetically and, on behalf of the Municipality and the Conference Centre, offers condolences for any colleagues she might have lost. Only when Caroline leaves does she realise that she has left her presentation materials in her hotel room.
       She wanders through the central district. Most of the businesses are closed as a mark of respect and the main street is unnaturally quiet. On the quay she pauses, staring out across the sea, and thinks of all the distant cities full of people who are oblivious to the fate of Sunny 458. She recalls a bar — Singapore? Hong Kong? — Yes, maybe it was Hong Kong. Dark, no windows, but expensive. Catering for business men and women on stop over: people passing through. People still living in other time zones, gathering to drink Martinis at 10am local time. Frequent fliers, like her, never engaging with the locals, never having time to equalise to the pressure of their surroundings, getting drunk, dancing, enjoying liaisons that would not be mentioned in jet-lagged phone calls home. For those people, and billions of others, the news of a faraway plane crash was, at most, a passing moment of interest glimpsed on a TV screen while they made breakfast for the kids, queued for the bank, or sat in a bar drinking beer and eating pretzels.
       At a newspaper stand, she pauses. The front pages show photographs of bodies laid out under sheets in a large room – a community hall or gymnasium. She can understand neither the headlines nor the captions, but she wonders if the photographs have been taken illicitly. They are invasive, as though the people in them have been filmed by a stalker as they slept.
       The bodies are laid out in precise grids and each has two sets of numbers, one of which, she realises, are seat numbers. They have been arranged according to the seating plan – the matrix that decided who lived and who died. In the rigid arrangement of bodies there are gaps. Spaces left by the ones who refused their place amongst the orderly lines of their fellow passengers: the living. She thinks of the woman at the window – tries to work out where she would be. It is strange to think of her lying with the others, close enough that they could reach out and join hands with one another, as though the shrouded figures have chosen to lie together. These people, strangers in life, have been united in death: ‘the victims’, ‘the dead’, ‘the passengers of Sunny 458’.
       Caroline is thinking of this as she steps off the kerb and is nearly run over by a speeding Jeep. It dodges around her, horn blaring, as she jumps back. Shaking, on the pavement, she gathers herself, tucking her hair behind her ears and adjusting her sunglasses. Cautiously, she crosses the road and sets out towards the airport, even though it is hot and the terminal is two miles from town. Along the airport road, there is a line of cars, and when she reaches the single-storey terminal building, she finds a small crowd has gathered there.
       Inside, people wander around dragging suitcases. The airport, they say, has been closed to non-essential traffic for twenty-four hours to allow investigators and emergency teams to fly in. The departures board confirms this. Back in London, the arrivals board will be showing incoming flights arriving from all over the world — Calgary, Basel, Dresden, Nice, Seoul, Jeddah, Oslo, Hamburg, Stavanger, Sofia, Los Angeles — but not from here, not today. Boards in other airports would announce cancelled departures. Connecting flights would be missed, delayed. A minor airline somewhere will ground its entire fleet of A320s for routine maintenance. The share value of Sunworld Airlines will tank, only to rally again later in the year when fuel prices fall. A web of minor consequences and electronic impulses fan out across the globe, dissipating, becoming lost as they are swallowed by routine and business-as-usual.
       Caroline watches the people around her, wondering who they are, why they’re here, if they know how strange this place is. She feels as though she has been cast adrift: no longer here on business, nor is she here on vacation. She is just here, moving through the day-to-day of island life without a reason. To the world around her, she is irrelevant, and for the first time in her life, Caroline feels invisible. On her phone — switched off since the previous evening — messages and emails are silently stacking up. At home, her husband and daughter are going about their lives as though she does not exist. They are as used to her absence as she is used to theirs. She is due to fly back to them in two days, what would have been the end of the conference, but she feels the world slipping away from her and for a moment she considers staying here, floating, half-way between two continents. It is a fleeting thought. When a list, taped to a white-board, tells her that her flight home is one of those that will be rescheduled, she is filled with a sudden panic — an urge to get home that goes beyond the usual yearning for rest and the familiar.
       Around the airport’s only information desk, uniformed personnel with clipboards are answering questions from anxious customers. It takes time to get to the front.
       ‘I need to get home.’
       ‘We’re so sorry for any inconvenience caused by recent circumstances. We’re making every effort to re-establish normal timetables. Please contact your airline directly to find out about flight alterations.’
       Caroline begins to move away, but turns back to the desk clerk. ‘Could you help me with something else? I know someone who was… She was in row five, seat F.’
       ‘Their name please, ma’am,’ says the clerk.
       ‘Five F. Please check. It’s very important.’
       The clerk hesitates, but seems to yield, looking down at his monitor, scrolling through a list. She watches the pupils of his eyes as they move, searching rapidly down the screen in front of him. ‘Five F was empty, ma’am.’
       ‘Yes, ma’am.’
       ‘Do you have a list of passengers?’
       ‘No, ma’am. If you give me your friends name…’
       ‘I… I’m not sure.’
       ‘Not sure?’
       It is clear from the clerk’s changing tone that he suspects her of something: perhaps of being a reporter, or just a ghoul.
       ‘You should go please, ma’am. That information is for relatives only.’
        His hand moves towards the phone, perhaps an empty threat, but she is already turning to leave.
       She steps through the glass doors and into the sudden heat of the street outside. Standing beside the terminal, she watches the airstrip through the security fence. The angled shadows of airport buildings point across a neat strip of lawn to the tarmac and the sweeping geometry of the taxi-way.
       On the apron, a plane is taxiing to a stand. The din of its turbines resonates through her body. Inside her, the vibration feels like fear. She feels a tremble running through her that matches the lowering pitch of the engines as they wind down.
       Beyond the airport, across the scrubland at the end of the runway, a small armada of boats and floating platforms have assembled at the crash site. The shoreline near the salvage operation is taped off, as preparations are made to raise the larger pieces of wreckage from the shallow water inside the reef. On the beach, the Minister for Commerce and Tourism, ashen faced, surveys the scene and addresses the press. Later he will attend the nearby resorts, shaking hands and listening to the complaints of outbound tourists whose flights have been delayed, and hotel managers who fear a downturn in visitor numbers. For a generation the island will be remembered as the scene of a tragedy. None of this matters to Caroline, or to the world across the ocean.
       Out on the tarmac strip, the plane has come to a halt. Ground crew move towards it at a leisurely pace, conserving energy in the heat of the morning. Caroline watches the aircraft. It is a hundred feet closer to her than Sunny 458 had been when it hit the water, but from where she stands the windows are nothing more than small black smudges. Even at this shorter distance, she realises, she is unable to see through the dark bubbles of glass.
       Caroline closes her eyes against the dust stirred up by the jets, swirling in vortices in the hot breeze. The air is thick, and the smells of baked earth and engine fumes fill her nostrils. The dying whine of the aircraft engines and the heat of the day folding around her, squeezing the air from her lungs, carry her back to the beach and the sweet, sickly taste of a pineapple cocktail caught in her throat. She can see the rainbow hanging in the spray above the sinking wreckage and the woman in the window breaking apart with the fuselage, dissipating in the shimmer of heat and fumes, leaving no trace of herself.

© David Frankel

This online version of  “Sink Rate” appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the editor and author.  It appears in Best British Short Stories 2022, edited by Nicholas Royle, published by Salt Publishing, 2022. “Sink Rate' originally appeared in The Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology, Vol 14, 2021.

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