As I near the airport, I see the police presence that tells me another demonstration is under way. Development for the new runway started three months ago, and periodically a cluster of protesters forms near Arrivals to make their feelings known. They’re no trouble, in the main, and—although I’d never go on record with this—I sympathize with them. I just think they’re going after the wrong target. We’ve created a world in which we need to fly—that can’t change now. Better, surely, to tackle the factory emissions, the landfill?
I think guiltily of the daily wet wipes I use and resolve to dig out my Clarins again. A banner’s been stretched across the road. plains not planes. They must have only just put it there—security’s pretty tight around the airport. The police can’t stop them demonstrating, but they take down their signs as quickly as they go up. It seems a pretty pointless exercise, given that anyone traveling to the airport either works here or has a ticket to fly somewhere. A sign isn’t going to change their minds.
I slow for the roundabout, glancing to the left where a woman holds a placard showing a photograph of a starving polar bear. Seeing me looking, she thrusts it toward me, shouting incomprehensibly. My heart races, and I reach for the central locking, my foot slipping on the accelerator in my haste to pull away. The absurdity of my reaction—to a woman on the other side of the railings, for heaven’s sake!—makes me cross with the lot of them. Maybe I’ll keep using the bloody wet wipes, just to spite them.
After arriving at the car park, I lock my car then wheel my case to the shuttle bus. I usually walk to the crew room, but the pavement’s slippery with gray ice thrown up from the roads, and what was fresh snow at home is slush here. I can’t wait to touch down in Sydney and see sunshine, dump my bag at the hotel, and head to the beach to sleep off the flight.
In the crew room, there’s the buzz in the air that comes with hot gossip or new rotas. I queue for a coffee and cup my still-cold hands around the plastic. A woman in civvies looks at me appraisingly.
“You on the Sydney flight?”
“Yes.” I feel myself flush, half expecting her to call me out on it.
You shouldn’t be here…
Instead, she grimaces. “Rather you than me.”
I look for a name badge but don’t find one. Who is this woman, so full of opinions? She could be anyone from a cleaning lady to a finance manager. Hundreds of people pass through the crew room even on a normal day, and this is not a normal day. Everyone wants a piece of Flight 79. Everyone wants to make history.
“Santiago’s fourteen hours, and that’s not too bad.” I smile politely, getting out my phone to signal that we’re done, but she doesn’t take the hint. She comes closer, pulling me toward her and dropping her voice as though someone might be listening.
“I heard something went wrong on the last test flight.”
I laugh. “What are you talking about?” I speak loudly, banishing the tiny seed of fear her words have planted within me.
“A problem with the plane. Only they hushed it all up—they made the crew sign confidentiality agreements and—”
“Stop it!” I’m 99 per cent certain I’ve never worked with this woman—why has she latched on to me, out of everyone here? I scan her face, try to work out where she’s from. Human Resources, maybe? Not Customer Services, that’s for sure—no one would ever set foot on a plane again. “This is nuts,” I say firmly. “Do you really think they’d launch a route without being a hundred per cent certain it was safe?”
“They had to. Otherwise Qantas would have gotten there first—they’ve been working on it for far longer. The test flights ran with a fraction of the number of passengers and with no baggage. Who knows what’ll happen with a fully laden plane—”
“I’ve got to go.” I drop my half-drunk coffee into the bin, the lid crashing down as I snatch my foot off the pedal to walk away. Stupid woman—ridiculous to let her wind me up. But a curl of fear wraps itself around my heart. Two days ago, the Times took a press release on the race between Qantas and World Airlines and twisted it. how fast is too fast? ran the headline, above an article that hinted at corner-cutting and cost-saving. I spent an hour on the phone with Dad, reassuring him that yes, it’s safe; no, they wouldn’t take risks.
“I couldn’t bear it if—”
“Dad, it’s perfectly safe. Everything’s been checked and double-checked.”
“It always is.” His tone was loaded, and I was glad he couldn’t see my face. I didn’t rise to the bait. Didn’t want to think about it.
They took forty staff members on the three trial flights last year, monitored their blood sugar, their oxygen levels, and their brain activity. The cabin pressure’s been tweaked and the noise levels reduced, and even the meals have been specially designed to combat jet lag. It’s as safe as any other flight.
“Good luck!” the woman calls after me, but I don’t look back.
Luck has nothing to do with it.
But my pulse is still high when I slide into the briefing room a few minutes later. It’s packed—not just the crew but a bunch of suits I mostly don’t recognize.
“Is that Dindar?” I turn to the flight attendant next to me, whom I’ve flown with once before. I check his name badge. Erik.
“Yes, that is Dindar. He is here for the launch.”
Figures. Yusuf Dindar, the airline’s CEO, only makes an appearance on days like today, when a big launch means television cameras and kudos for the men (because they’re all men) behind World Airways. The race for the first London to Sydney nonstop flight has been neck and neck, and behind Dindar’s self-congratulatory expression this morning is a flicker of relief that they got there first. He stands, waiting until all eyes are on him.
“Today, we make headlines!”
Everyone applauds. There are whoops from the back of the room and a flash of photography. Amid the anticipatory celebrations, I feel a chill in my bones.
Something went wrong…a problem with the plane…
I shake the woman’s words away. Applaud fiercely with the others. We’re making headlines. London to Sydney in twenty hours. Nothing will go wrong. Nothing will go wrong, I repeat, a mantra against the growing sense of doom I feel.
I know why she’s rattled me. It’s because I shouldn’t be here.
Personnel drew names for the crewing, although whether we were winning the lottery or drawing the short straw wasn’t quite clear. There was a flurry of messages on the WhatsApp group.
Anything? Not yet.
I heard the email’s gone out. So desperate to do it!!!
Andthenanimage: a screenshotfrom Ryan’sphone. Congratulations! You have been assigned to the inaugural London–Sydney direct flight on December 17. He had captioned the picture with a crying emoji, and Twenty bloody hours!
I messaged him privately. Offered to take his place. I didn’t tell him why, of course—tried not to show how much it mattered—but he still held out for a swap on Mexico City, plus a bunch of gift cards I’d gotten for my birthday. Crazy chick! he’d concluded, and I had to agree.
And now I’m here. An interloper on the most important flight in recent history.
“I’d like to introduce the pilots for this historic flight,” Dindar is saying. He waves for them to join him at the front of the room, and there’s a shuffle of feet as people move to make way. “Captain Louis Joubert and First Officer Ben Knox; Captain Mike Carrivick and First Officer Francesca Wright.”
“Carrivick?” I say to Erik, as everyone claps. “He’s not on the crew sheet I’ve got.”
Erik shrugs. “Last-minute switch. I don’t know the guy.”
Dindar is still going. “There will be a number of invited guests on board.” By “invited guests” he means people who haven’t paid. Journalists, a smattering of celebs and “influencers” who will spend sixteen hours of the flight Instagramming and the other four drinking. “But I urge you to treat them no differently from our paying customers.”
Yeah, right. The journalists might be here for a jolly, sure—free business-class trip to Australia? Take my passport!—but they’re after a story too. Think Daily Mail meets TripAdvisor. Long-Haul No Hypoallergenic Pillows Shocker.
Once Dindar and the suits have finished congratulating themselves, we hold the crew briefing. Mike and Cesca will handle takeoff and the first four hours of the flight, then they’ll take their break in the bunks above the flight deck. Louis and Ben fly for the next six hours before the crews switch again. As for the cabin crews, there are sixteen of us, split into two shifts. When we’re not working, we’ll be up in the bunks at the back of the plane, pretending it’s normal to be sleeping in a windowless room full of strangers.
Someone from Occupational Health comes in to talk about the dangers of fatigue. She reminds us to stay hydrated, then demonstrates a breathing exercise that’s supposed to help us maximize sleep during our breaks. Several members of the cabin crew start laughing; one pretends to fall asleep.
“Sorry,” he says, jerking upright with a grin. “I guess it works!”
As we walk through the airport, in pairs behind the pilots, there’s an atmosphere of fevered anticipation, and I feel the buzz of pride I always do before a flight. Our uniform is navy, with emerald trim on the cuffs and hems and around the lapels. An enameled pin on the left breast pocket says World Airways; on the right side, there’s a badge with our first names. Our emerald scarves when spread out are a map of the world, each country made up of a tiny repeat of the airline’s name. For today, we wear a new pin. Flight 79. Making the world a smaller place.
An in-house photographer snaps us from all angles, and a whisper of London–Sydney follows us to the gate.
“Like being on a red carpet!” one of the crew says.
Like walking to the gallows, I’d been thinking. I can’t shake this feeling—a single bad apple in a barrel of good ones—that something terrible is about to happen.
Some people get this feeling every time they fly, I suppose: a pool of dread at the pit of their stomachs. I’ve always thought how sad it must be, to spend those miraculous hours of flight clutching the armrests, eyes screwed shut over imagined disasters that never happen.
Not me. For me, flying is everything. A triumph of engineering, working not against nature but with it. Adam laughs when I geek out over planes, but is there anything more beautiful than an A320 taking off? As a kid I moaned when Dad took me to the airport, where he’d stand by the perimeter fence, taking photos of the planes. For Dad, it was the photography that mattered—he spent equally long days by the river, getting the perfect picture of a heron in flight—but slowly I found myself drawn in.
“Got a great shot of that triple seven.” Dad would show me the digital screen.
“That wasn’t a triple seven,” I’d say. “It was an SP.”
I loved to draw, and I’d sketch nose shapes in my notebook, no longer complaining when Dad suggested we spend Saturday at the airport. When we flew to see family, I never cared what films they were showing or what nestled within the foil-wrapped food trays. I pressed my nose against the window and watched the flaps moving up and down, felt the gentle movement of the plane in response. I loved it all.
So it’s unsettling, this flutter in my stomach, the creeping sense of dread as we board the plane. The door to the flight deck is open, all four pilots crammed inside as they prepare the flight, and I feel a shiver down my neck.
Erik notices. “Are you cold? It is the air-conditioning—they always have it too cold.”
“No, I’m okay. Someone walking over my grave.” I shiver again and wish I’d chosen a different expression. I check the cabin equipment, something I’ve done so many times before, but today it feels different. Pressure. Seals. Oxygen tubes. Fire extinguisher. Smoke mask, survival kits… Each one essential. Each one the difference between life and death.
“Get a grip, Holbrook,” I mutter. I carry a box of tonic water through the business-class cabin to the lounge and help to stock the bar. The plane has a bespoke layout, supposedly designed to improve passenger comfort on such a long flight. There’s a galley at the front, between the flight deck and the cabin, with two bathrooms and the stairs to the relief bunks hidden behind a door. Business class comes first, followed by their private lounge and bar—curtained off from the rest of the plane—and another pair of bathrooms. The economy cabin is laid out in two halves, with a dedicated “stretching zone” between the two, and more economy loos at the back. Three hundred and fifty-three passengers in total: all breathing the same air from the second the doors close in London till they open again in Sydney.
Business-class passengers board first, eyes already looking toward the bar and scoping out the beds as we check tickets and take coats to hang in the cupboard by the galley. There are too many crew members on board, with all sixteen in the cabin to greet passengers as they board. Half will disappear to the bunks after takeoff, leaving Erik, Carmel, and me in business class, Hassan in the bar, and four in economy. For now, with everyone downstairs, there is a sense of mania that seeps along the cabin. Twenty hours. Where else would complete strangers spend so many hours locked up together? Prison, I suppose, and the thought makes me uneasy.
Those in business class are offered champagne. I see one man knock his back as though it’s a shot, before winking at Carmel for a second glass.
You can tell the troublemakers from the outset. It’s something in their look as much as their behavior, something that says, I’m better than you. I’m going to make your life difficult. It isn’t always the drinkers, though (although free champagne doesn’t help), and this guy isn’t giving me bad vibes. We’ll see.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome on board Flight 79 from London to Sydney.” As the senior crew member, I have the dubious privilege of addressing our passengers. There’s nothing in my script that marks out today as special, but a cheer goes up regardless. “Please ensure all mobile phones and portable electronic devices are stowed for departure.”
I walk into the cabin, noticing a large bag at the foot of a woman with long salt-and-pepper hair, wearing a green jumper.
“Can I put that in the overhead locker for you?” “I need it with me.”
“If it can’t fit in the storage compartments, it’ll need to go in the locker, I’m afraid.”
The woman picks it up and hugs it to her chest, as though I’ve threatened to snatch it forcibly from her. “I have all my things in it.”
I try not to sigh. “I’m sorry—it can’t stay here.”
For a second we lock eyes, each determined to win, then she lets out a tsk of frustration and starts pulling out the contents of her bag, slotting jumpers, books, cosmetic bags into the numerous storage cupboards surrounding her seat. I make a mental note to double- check her seat when we land, in case she leaves any of it behind. Once settled again, she loses her grumpy expression, looking out of the window as she sips her champagne.
At the captain’s announcement—Cabin crew, prepare doors for departure and cross-check—the collective excitement in the cabin grows. Most of the business-class passengers have already delved into their welcome gift bag, and one woman has already managed to change into her souvenir Flight 79 pajamas, much to the amusement of her fellow passengers. There’s a special video message from Dindar, ahead of the safety briefing, which everyone duly ignores because no one they know has ever needed it. Carmel and I collect the empty glasses.
“Hold your horses, darling, there’s a bit still in that.” A woman with twinkly eyes grins at me as she scoops her glass back from my tray and downs the remaining half inch of champagne. I remember her name, from the boarding list—one of a handful that have already stuck in my mind. By the end of the flight, I’ll know the names of all fifty-six passengers in business class.
“Do you have everything you need, Lady Barrow?”
“Patricia, please. Well, Pat, really. Just plain old Pat.” She has a naughty smile—the grandmother who slips the children extra chocolate when Mum’s not looking. “The title is my children’s idea of a joke.”
“You’re not really a lady?”
“Oh, I am. I preside over a whole square foot of Scottish soil,” she says grandly, then bursts into infectious laughter.
“Do you have relatives meeting you in Sydney?”
Something passes across her eyes—a fleeting darkness she hides with a lift of her chin and that naughty smile again. “No, I’ve run away.” She laughs at the surprise on my face, then she sighs. “They’re very cross with me, actually. And I’m not entirely sure I’m doing the right thing—I’m missing my dogs terribly already. But it’s the first year without my husband and—” She stops abruptly and lets out a sharp breath. “Well, I needed to ring the changes.” She puts a manicured hand on my arm. “Life’s short, young lady. Don’t waste it.”
“I won’t.” I smile, but her words echo in my ear as I make my way down the aisle. Life’s short. Too short. Sophia is five already, the days hurtling past.
I tell people I came back to work because we needed the money and because Sophia’s case worker felt it would help with her attachment issues—and both those things are true.
“But this is all caused by neglect, right?” Adam said, when we discussed it. “The fact that for the first few months of her life, she was essentially abandoned?” The case worker nodded, but Adam had already continued, working through his thoughts out loud. “Then how does it help her for Mina to go away?”
I remember the stab of fear I felt, that the glimpse of freedom I’d seen would be snatched away.
“Because Sophia will learn that Mina always comes back,” the case worker said. “That’s the important bit.”
So I went back to work, and we were all happier for it. Adam because he didn’t have to worry about money; Sophia as she began the slow process of understanding that I’d always come back to her; and me, because parenting Sophia was tough—really tough—and I needed to get away. I needed the break, but, more than that, I needed to miss her; missing her reminds me how much I love her.
Checks complete, I wait for the PA from the flight deck—Cabin crew, take your seats for departure—and slip into the jump seat nearest the window. There’s a roar from the engines, then the tarmac picks up pace beneath us. The flaps extend with a thud, the air pressure building until it’s hard to say if you’re hearing it or feeling it. The tiniest of jolts as the wheels leave the ground. I picture the space beneath us, the lift of the nose as we soar from the runway. Improbably heavy, impossibly bulky for such a graceful, beautiful maneuver. And yet somehow it works, and we climb, the pilots increasing the thrust as we push up and up. The sky has darkened, nimbostratus weighing low above the ground so that it feels more like dusk than midday, sleet lashing the windows until we’re too high for it to strike.
The bell chimes at ten thousand feet, and like Pavlov’s dogs, there’s a flurry of activity. In 5J, a petite blond cranes her neck to look down toward the ground. She’s tense, and I take her for a nervous flyer, but then she closes her eyes and leans back in her seat, and her face stretches into a slow, private smile.
We’re underway. Seat belts off, passengers on their feet, bells already summoning drinks. It’s too late now. Too late to do anything about the voice in my head warning me not to take this flight. It’s my conscience, that’s all. My own guilt for engineering a place here, instead of staying home with Sophia, for being here at all, when life could have worked out so differently.
Too late or not, the voice persists.
Twenty hours, it says. A lot can happen in twenty hours.