Adam Welch

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As Close as it Comes

[ Longlisted for the London Short Story Prize 2018. ]

AT THE UNFORTUNATE age of 44, around 32,000 feet in the air, a man described on his passport as DANIEL JORDAN SYME (Ojai, California) passed away in his sleep. He was sitting at 48H, an aisle seat about halfway down the plane, mostly remarkable for being equidistant from both sets of restrooms. He had not been unwell before it happened, aside from the odd nosebleed now and then. On the contrary, he’d been a robust specimen for his age: lean, fit and, poignantly, somewhat handsome. He wasn’t the kind of person to just randomly die. But then, he did.

KAY ELEANOR HUANG (Merced, California), who was sitting in 46G, had been immediately struck by his handsomeness. As he shuffled along the aisle to his seat, pre-take-off,  her eyes flicked his way, idly taking in the neat waistline, the tanned forearms, the taut neck muscles. She thought about all these parts of him while she wondered whether to lunch on the chicken salad or the croque-monsieur, which was what was on offer that day. Then, when she was done, she turned round to get another, better look. But her chance had passed: her position was not great. The angle and distance between their two seats was a little awkward for discreet viewing. She wasn’t, then, the last person to see him alive, though she did try.

    (NB: KAY ELEANOR HUANG, to paint a picture, is not at all bad looking and, in small doses, has a sweet personality, but is not exactly the kind of person that you would want to sit next to on a flight. In confined spaces she gets a little restless and finds it hard to get comfortable, which means she always asks for an extra cushion and then spends hours trying to figure out a useful place to put it. She has slender arms and very sharp elbows, which jut out at awkward angles when she performs these contortions, meaning anybody trying to sleep in the vicinity is likely to be prodded awake or, if already awake, just prodded. On the flight back from Sydney she was in a particularly volatile state because, she had discovered, once in Australia, that she had a crippling fear of poisonous animals. She had been so convinced that she would be stung by a scorpion, or bitten by a snake that she had refused to go outside for the duration of the trip, preferring instead to stay inside and write draft emails to her ex-husband, which she then didn’t send, but copied and pasted into an increasingly large Word document. It was with a sense of relief, therefore, and a newfound, and somewhat histrionic appreciation of life, that she boarded the return flight to San Francisco, which would explain her sudden, impulsive desire to ogle the soon-be-dead man.)

    It took a while for anyone to notice something was the matter. DANIEL JORDAN SYME’s heart stopped beating four hours into the flight, during lights out. At this point in time, many passengers were enshrouded in blankets and eye masks, lying stiffly back in their seats in stances of rigid discomfort. The corpse, therefore, was not immediately conspicuous. It was only discovered when RICHARD ASTER NEAL WALMAN (Twin Falls, Idaho), who was in 48J – a mid-row seat with a slightly stiff recline function – felt the need to urinate. Seeing that the man next to him in 48H  was (to his eyes) asleep, and knowing how difficult it is to fall asleep on a plane, however many cushions and suchlike they throw your way as palliatives, he tried to hold it in as long as possible, hoping that his fellow passenger – who looked blissfully happy – would rouse himself in a few minutes, when the snacks came round. Out of a sense of courtesy, Richard tried to distract himself by watching an episode of Modern Family (the Dunphys go for breakfast, almost get hit by a truck, it’s a good one)  on the in-flight entertainment system. But this turned out to be a bad idea: he laughed, and the force of his laughter caused a small amount of urine to trickle down his trouser leg.

    (NB: RICHARD ASTER NEAL WALMAN is a widower in his late-60s and, though not usually troubled by incontinence problems, is also clearly not the young, strapping man he once was. In fact, he has a particularly withered and disappointed look to his long, paper-coloured face, caused mostly by the situation with his daughter Marie, who married an unpleasant Australian in 2012 and has been living 7,419 miles away and 17 hours ahead of her father ever since. He tries, whenever possible, to catch her on Skype, but the time difference and instability of his wi-fi connection (which was last updated a decade ago, despite the fact he lives in San Francisco, supposedly the great technological centre of the universe) makes this difficult and almost as frustrating as not seeing her at all. After these abortive sessions, in which they exchange banal pleasantries and he never manages to explain to her how he feels, how it seems that, along with her laughter and fine chestnut hair, and gossip and continual shower of little kindnesses, she has taken the very sun out of his world by removing herself so far away, he feels utterly heartbroken, almost physically so. He has spent much of his adult life squirreling away money for Marie, hoping to present her with a large inheritance on his deathbed, and so leave her with parting proof of his deep love and support for her. But he has grown so desperate to see her face to face that he now finds himself repeatedly dipping into this fund to pay for flights back and forth from Sydney, which he finds exorbitantly expensive. This is the reason that he tries to get as much as he can out of the airline during each flight, and why, before he went to sleep, he drank three glasses of water, a bloody mary, a bottle of mini wine, a Coors light and a vodka tonic, and why, consequently, he so urgently needed to urinate that he found himself in the unfortunate scenario of having pissed himself.)

    It was shortly after this incident that the flight attendant was called, though, it must be said, the attendant in question didn’t hurry to row 48. He was a little bored of scuttling back and forth to satisfy RICHARD ASTER NEAL WALMAN’S demands, and was beginning to wonder whether, it wasn’t his duty, after all, to tell the old man he had now had just about enough. But eventually he got there, and was a little taken aback to find, not just RICHARD ASTER NEAL WALMAN in a hunched, upright stance, with a visibly expanding dark patch on the front of his beige slacks, but also, on the other side and just in front of him, the quivering form of KAY ELEANOR HUANG, who had got up to stretch her legs and so, accidentally-but-not-really, involved herself in the whole thing.

“There’s something wrong with that man,” said KAY ELEANOR HUANG.

    (N.B. The flight attendant wears a badge on his top right lapel which says “GARETH” but nobody ever calls him by his name. Even though the first thing he does before he passes out the nuts and/or coke is say “Hi my name is Gareth and I’ll be looking after you today, all right?” Even though he phrases it as a question. People like KAY ELEANOR HUANG and RICHARD ASTER NEAL WALMAN don’t even tend to say “Hello” or “excuse me,” or anything like that. They don’t even concede poor “GARETH” the use of an impersonal pronoun or honorific like “You” or “Mister”.  They just push the button and clamp their lips together, because they know that “GARETH” will come and feed them, whether they talk to him or not. In their defence, though, it should be said that “GARETH” has a somewhat forgettable aspect about him. There’s a waxy, over-polished look to his carefully maintained eyebrows and shaped sideburns that looks expert, but not entirely convincing, not entirely real. He’s been up in the air for nearly four years, and, if we’re being brutal, the altitude and the repetition has sucked the fun out of him. It’s only so long, after all, that you can carry on feeling bored before you end up becoming boring yourself.)

“Please, sit down,” said the flight attendant.


“I’ll just get something to mop that up for you shall I?”

KAY ELEANOR HUANG would not sit down.

“No, not him,” she said. “Him. He’s not breathing.”

“I just need to… get…” said RICHARD ASTER NEAL WALMAN, and tried to push past the corpse of DANIEL JORDAN SYME. The motion caused the corpse to slump suddenly sideways into the aisle, which caused FLORA MACKINTOSH (Jamberoo, Australia), who was sitting at 48G,  to be startled from her own nap with a squeal, and leap half out of her seat, jamming her thighs upwards against the bottom of her fold-down tray table. The glass of Diet Coke that was sitting on the tray table vaulted upwards into the air and emptied itself onto the right thigh of JASON MACKINTOSH (Jamberoo, Australia) in 48F, who also jumped up with a shout and proceeded to generally fuss and gripe about the whole thing, as kids are wont to do in such situations. Meanwhile FLORA MACKINTOSH, a hand on her chest, demanded loudly to know what was going on and the flight attendant did the best he could to nod pleasantly and reassuringly at her while trying to manoeuvre the corpse back into its seat (much to the distress of RICHARD ASTER NEAL WALMAN). JASON MACKINTOSH began to cry. Now all sorts of people were standing up to take a look: ALLIE GRACE FURRELL (Sydney, Australia) in 47F; GERT VAN DEN BOSCH (Rotterdam, Netherlands) in 49H; even THOMAS FURSEY (Santa Cruz, California), who was sitting in 54H, six whole rows away from the incident.

(N.B. Of these early responders the most intriguing is ALLIE GRACE FURRELL, who is one of those people that finds themselves inexplicably drawn to tragedy – who finds it difficult, in fact, to connect with anybody by any other means. Her circle of friends is composed of people whose children have become mixed up in drugs and keep disappearing and coming back with missing teeth, or whose husbands have slaughtered themselves and left them with mountains of bills, or whose brothers have been paralysed in car accidents. You could find all this admirable, taking an inventory of the salads and tray bakes ALLIE GRACE FURRELL heaps with great largesse upon her unfortunate associates, but you also have to be a little bit suspicious of the way she seems to thrive and be nourished by the sounds and processes of grief and mourning, by how she starts to experience the physical symptoms of anxiety if she’s too long separated from scenes of sadness, destruction, violence and catastrophe, and how, whatever cultivated horror she finds herself in the midst of, she always remains so indefatigably upbeat and perky, her nostrils flaring slightly, her tongue moistening her lips. Her preternatural ability to spot a disaster from afar is incredible, and also a little unsettling. By way of example, it’s worth noting that as soon as the corpse of DANIEL JORDAN SYME flopped over from seat into the aisle, ALLIE GRACE FURRELL felt a quickening in her chest, seemed to sense the delicious miasma of doom that was billowing outwards from seat 48H, and was immediately on her feet. Clearly she would have loved to be part of the macabre spectacle that was unravelling just yards in front of her. Yet almost as soon as she raised herself from her seat, another flight attendant had arrived and told her that she must, at all costs, sit down, which is why, at this point, ALLIE GRACE FURRELL, for better or worse, drops out of the story as an active participant.)

The second flight attendant that arrived –

(N.B. She wears a name tag saying “BELLA” but doesn’t care whether people know her name or not because she believes that one day she will be famous and they’ll all see)

– was a little bit more experienced and, after conferring with her colleague, was quickly able to come up with a plan, focusing first on the more urgent problem, that being the leaking bladder of RICHARD ASTER NEAL WALMAN. And so the legs of the corpse, still relatively pliable, were rotated round ninety degrees, and RICHARD NEAL ASTER WALMAN was accompanied to the nearest restroom, his progress mapped out by the wriggly line of urine that he left behind him. As the plane was cruising at a slight upwards angle at this time, this line actually crept further down the aisle, eventually reaching as far as seat 56G, where MITCHELL SANDER KING (Tucson, Arizona), didn’t know what to make of it at all.

(N.B. He didn’t let him bother him too much – he was halfway through a Transformers and something had just exploded, or was about to explode. A sensation of sustained explosiveness is what these films generally go for, and what we seek them out for, the result being a feeling of blissful distractedness that we can, of course, all appreciate as necessary sometimes.)

The next steps were informed by both intuition (on behalf of the flight attendants) and procedure (on behalf of the operating airline). It was decided, to preserve RICHARD ASTER NEAL WALMAN from the unpleasant experience of spending the next six hours of the flight sitting next to a dead thing – an experience that ALLIE GRACE FURRELL would probably have enjoyed even more than mashing her face into a giant birthday cake – the body of DANIEL JORDAN SYME would be moved. Unfortunately, there was little in the way of appropriate equipment on board, so the flight attendants soon saw they would have to find some way to adapt the drinks trolley for this purpose. Actually, with a couple of fleece blankets thrown over the top, it seemed relatively well suited to the purposes of transporting human remains. The corpse itself was much lighter than expected – they had it loaded up before RICHARD ASTER NEAL WALMAN had emerged from the restroom –

(N.B. Mostly because RICHARD ASTER NEAL WALMAN is the kind of man who, once lowered onto a toilet seat, thinks it prudent to wait around for a while, in case anything further can be coaxed out of his body,  and by so doing save himself the effort of a second trip)

– and, what’s more, had made good progress by the time the old man returned to his seat and struck up a conversation with RACHEL ANDERSON QUINN (San Francisco, California), who, though sitting in 48K, the window seat just two spaces down from the dead man, had, incredibly, slept through the whole thing and, understandably, had a few questions.

(NB: more on that later)

The trolley rattled as it travelled, causing many people in the aisle seats to turn around hopefully, in the expectation of being presented with a snack or beverage. GRAHAM FURLONG (Sydney, Australia) who was sitting in 37J – a premium economy seat –  was especially relieved to hear the rattling because his last sachet of miniature sour cream and chive pretzels had, by unlucky chance, contained only three pretzels. It was an amount that, far from satisfying the twitching cravings of GRAHAM FURLONG’s empty stomach and dehydrated tongue, had instead intensified these urges, to the point where he was thinking of requesting several packets at once, just to make sure. He was a little taken aback, therefore to turn and find that the trolley was loaded with a mysterious, lumpen object.

“What the hell is that?” he asked the second flight attendant, who was pushing the trolley. Then: “Do you have any more pretzels?”

“Sorry,” said the second flight attendant, “We’re taking this up front. They’ll be round with more pretzels shortly, sir.”

GRAHAM FURLONG held up the empty packet of pretzels and waved it in the air, stretching his arm out into the aisle, blocking the way of the corpse, trolley and air hostess.

“I mean, obviously you’ll have to trust me on this,” he said, waving the packet. “But there were only three in here.”

“And they’ll come to take the trash, too,” said the second flight attendant.”

“I know we’re not up there,” said GRAHAM FURLONG, waving down the aisle, towards the front of the plane, “but we paid our money too. It’s a bit rich, is all I’m saying.”

The air hostess sighed and turned around.

“Gareth,” she said, “Can you bring some pretzels up here?”

The first flight attendant wasn’t there. No one was. But the gesture mollified GRAHAM FURLONG, who retracted his arm, and the second flight attendant was able to proceed.

(N.B. There’s a reason GRAHAM FURLONG is so bitter about his seat, and overly anxious about the pretzels, which of course don’t really matter at all, in the grand scheme of things. The reason is that, as a director of his company, he’s used to travelling in style. All through his working life he has sat in the front of the plane, and been given champagne, and plenty of room to stretch out his chunky legs to their utmost extent. It’s only recently he’s encountered the more subdued level of luxury to be found in premium economy, because it’s only recently that his company has admitted to itself that what it has always delivered – mid-range Italian restaurants, where the recipes for the dishes are reasonably authentic but the execution of them is not what you might call overly loving – is no longer a thing that people want. The consensus is that people don’t want convenience, they want an experience. Or, at least, this is what GRAHAM FURLONG is told by all the 26-year-old consultants that come to his office daily to tell him how to do his job. The company, in short, is not doing well, and has slashed its travel budgets. GRAHAM FURLONG’s demotion to premium, therefore, represents not just a less comfortable ride but, more than that, something of an existential crisis that he is very much at the centre of. What GRAHAM FURLONG and his middle-aged colleagues are currently being forced to ask themselves, in the wake of the public’s increasing indifference to them, is this: what, exactly, constitutes an experience? Indeed, have any of them ever had one?)

The corpse of DANIEL JORDAN SYME made its way through rows 39 to 34 without further incident and also had a smooth ride of it in business class, where the aisles were wider and people, like JEMIMA FLORENCE STANTON (Sydney, Australia) in 24F and BRIAN ASHER NOLAN (San Luis Obispo, California) in 24J were plugged into spreadsheets and documents and diagrams and generally tapping away at things. They barely looked up as the corpse went past but, a few seconds later, both leaned slightly into the aisle, sensing that something was not entirely right. They then turned and gazed at each other in the eyes for three full seconds. But that was as far as it went – their laptops, in this particular moment, proved more compelling than either corpse or the  prospect of an unexpected in-flight connection.

(N.B. This doesn’t mean that the whole thing would never have worked. JEMIMA FLORENCE STANTON and BRIAN ASHER NOLAN are of similar age, income bracket and attractiveness. Both are single, but have been dating people on-and-off for long enough that they don’t need to prove a point to themselves or anyone else. They’ve been hurt, for sure, but they no longer feel the need for revenge. They’re people that have seen and endured and forgiven much, and though it has made them cautious, it has also made them kind. They would have been kind to each other. And they would have had lots to talk about. BRIAN ASHER NOLAN is wonderfully eloquent about mannerist painting. JEMIMA FLORENCE STANTON always recommends amazing books. They looked good together too, sitting across the aisle from each other. But it wasn’t like it was fate. An algorithm had put them there. These were simply the seats it had chosen.)

One of the perks of death for DANIEL JORDAN SYME was that he got an upgrade. Given the whole situation, it was the least the flight attendants  could do, but also the sensible choice, because in in first class there was more room, and less chance that someone was going to freak out. Here, in the front of the plane, the seats were like futuristic space pods,  arranged in slanted rows, so that the passengers did not have to acknowledge the fact that there were other passengers on the flight. The only thing they saw, and cared to see, was the people who leaned over them, offering up one of the many things that were on offer in this section of the plane.

(N.B. This is what you get for however many thousands of dollars extra it is: pillows, as many as you can imagine; glossy magazines full of more stuff to buy; cocktails, mixed at a bar, not at a trolley; a jersey sleepsuit; cheese and port; a little zip-up pouch with a toothbrush and tiny toothpaste; flight attendants that do not ever look confused, tired or upset, just thrilled to be alive.)

Because this design was so successful no one really noticed as the corpse was lowered down, from the trolley, and placed, on its back in the fully reclined pod/seat/vessel marked 1K. Laid flat on its back, in this egg- and also coffin-shaped compartment, it looked remarkably peaceful. As the second flight attendant covered it with one of the airline’s branded fleece blankets, tucking it in at the sides to create a neat, cocoon-like shape, she actually had a powerful feeling in her stomach, like something had moved on with a certain quiet grace and beauty –

(N.B. She has IBS)

– that though this seemed like it was a crisis, it wasn’t a crisis, it was just the way things are, and will continue to be.

Unfortunately, while the second flight attendant was taking a moment to reflect upon the beautiful mysteries that are so crucially enmeshed in the giant, inscrutable net of wonders that is this living, breathing universe, DAVID MASSEY (Bristol, UK), who had silently arisen from the futuristic space-pod marked “2F” and crept up behind the flight attendant, with the hope of ordering another trio of mini-burgers –

(N.B. food in first class is served both at fixed mealtimes and on an ad-hoc basis according to the whims of the passengers)

– happened to glance over her shoulder and see the corpse of DANIEL JORDAN SYME, lying there, dead.

“Is he ok?” he said, taking in the corpse’s sheet-white skin, its thin lips, its conspicuous lack of movement.

The flight attendant turned round, and blocked his view.

“I’ll be with you in a second,” she said. “Please return to your seat.”

“I mean if he’s in trouble, shouldn’t we be landing?”

“Please” said the flight attendant.

“I’m not a doctor, but I studied,” he began. But the flight attendant interrupted him by putting a hand on his shoulder. She looked at him curiously, assessing. It was the look of an expert.

“Do you want some more mini burgers?”

He nodded, meekly, and turned back towards his seat, sat down. The mini-burgers arrived almost instantaneously: it was a miracle.

(N.B. It’s true, DAVID MASSEY was, once, on his way to becoming a doctor, having enrolled on the medical programme at Oxford University at the age of 18, as many young men of his class and status do. (In case it isn’t apparent from his seat number: he’s rich.) Unfortunately, he dropped out after the second year following an upsetting incident, in which a fellow student, for a lark, smuggled a dead woman’s clitoris out of the dissection room and, during a drinking society event, dropped it in DAVID MASSEY’s wine glass. Unbelievably, these things happen. This is why DAVID MASSEY decided to leave and take a year out in Australia, as far away from the clitoris as he could possibly get, and why, even today, that’s where he feels safest. It’s why, now, he only drinks liquids he can see through completely. It’s why before eating the mini-burgers, he disassembles each one into its component parts and lays them in separate piles upon the plate, just to be sure. And it’s why he’s generally squeamish about dead things, particularly the idea of them being in contact with his own body, or even in close proximity to it, as was the case on the plane. And while his medical training, along with the assurances of the flight attendant, make him well aware of the fact that, at this early moment post-death, the body is unlikely to start smelling or liquefying, it also makes him aware of the fact that the corpse’s blood, no longer being pumped by the heart around the body, will now be draining and pooling downwards. That the whole underside of the corpse will be turning a deep purple. That, worse, though the external signs of decomposition will take some hours to appear, that this does not mean that the process has not already started. DAVID MASSEY knows, in fact, that once the corpse’s cells stop receiving oxygen they will start to produce energy via a process called anaerobic glycolosis, which lowers the PH of each cell, meaning that the walls of the organelles and lyosomes within each cell will begin to break down, and the enzymes within those organelles and lyosome will float out into the cell itself. The enzymes then begin digesting the cell. The corpse, starved of the elements of life, begins to eat itself. It’s the same process that makes an aged steak taste tender. That lets the knife glide through it like butter, and the pieces slide down the throat with a minimum of chewing.)

Shortly afterwards DAVID MASSEY, in contemplating the mini burgers, dissected on his table tray, had a panic attack, which was probably the most upsetting and terrifying part of the flight for everyone in the first class cabin, apart from the ones who were asleep.

On that note, what about RACHEL ANDERSON QUINN in 48K? She and DANIEL JORDAN SYME, who were sitting just two seats apart, had nodded off at the same time, about 2 hours into the flight. Yet one of them had never woken up. By the time RACHEL ANDERSON QUINN returned to consciousness, DANIEL JORDAN SYME had simply disappeared, as if he had never really existed. She asked RICHARD ASTER NEAL WALMAN what had happened, but he had been given very little information himself. He was frustratingly inarticulate and doddering, preoccupied with the embarrassment of his own trousers. The first flight attendant apologised, and gave them all ice creams. RACHEL ANDERSON QUINN felt the need to say something.

“How crazy,” she said. “He looked fine.”

RICHARD ASTER NEAL WALMAN had his mouth full of ice cream, but nodded. A bit of melted chocolate dripped onto his lap. His lap was a disaster.

“Makes you think,” said the first flight attendant, offering up a hot towel.

Then, it was very, very quiet.

(N.B. While RACHEL ANDERSON QUINN was asleep, she dreamt of the old house she used to live in when she was growing up, which was far bigger and nicer than the place she lives now. The house had been a classic craftsman, a pale purple-grey in colour, with three bedrooms and a long flight of steps out the front, where you could sit out and people watch and drink lemonade in the summer. In the dream, she was sitting on the steps with her sister, who she didn’t talk to anymore, and her mother, who she talked to too much, and they were trying to share out two pieces of a pizza between three of them. Her sister said she would just take the cheese and toppings off both and leave the rest for the others to share between them. This was a selfish and unhelpful suggestion quite typical of the sister, who had got married and lucratively divorced and now had salon blow dries three times a week, but never sent birthday presents. In the dream, as in life, RACHEL ANDERSON QUINN, felt like she had just keep quiet to put up with it, despite the gnawing, nagging feeling inside her as she sank her teeth into the limp, tomato-sauce-covered dough. As she stared disappointedly out towards the street, a gust of wind stirred up some of the leaves that had been gathering around the bases of trees on the sidewalk, and piling up in the gutters. It must have been a strong gust, because some of the leaves leapt into the air and started spiralling around each other, like courting birds. It was at this moment in the dream that DANIEL JORDAN SYME’s soul left his body, though the two events were not related, nor is it ultimately possible to say, really, whether either actually happened, it’s more just one of these situations where it depends what you believe.)