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"Irrational Fears" by Mark Barlex

Check-in was smooth, baggage drop easy. The absence of belts, buckles, coins and earrings meant she cleared security having expended a fraction of the psychological effort she’d set aside for the task. 

It was a good start.

But, in the buffed marble and strip lights of the terminal building, she was stopped short by the idea that it had all been too simple, that although nothing so far hinted at the potential horror to come, there would still be a price to pay, and that days that started as well as this could just as easily end as badly as her imagination would allow. 

The ledger of life would have to be squared and tallied, her universe brought back into balance.   

She was scared of flying. 

Illogical, she knew. Flying was the safest form of transport; statistically, empirically, anecdotally. Planes didn’t just fall out of the sky.

No, she thought. They never made it off the runway. When they did, they ran out of fuel and glided serenely into housing estates. They got lost in fog. Engines were wrecked by whooper swans at thirty thousand feet. Crews forgot or never knew which flashing warning lights meant what. Captains fell asleep. First Officers were still leafing through instruction manuals when the fuselage hit the tree-line, or belly-flopped down a motorway in a shower of sparks.

It wasn’t incorrect to say that flying was the safest form of transport, she thought, but it was disingenuous. Walking was much safer. No-one had ever walked into the side of a mountain and exploded. They may have fallen off one, but that was something different altogether.

She bought a magazine. She tried to think about something else. She couldn’t. She resorted to logic.

Apples and oranges. She wasn’t comparing like for like. Safety was a calculation based on distance travelled versus frequency of incident. Flying was safer than walking because you couldn’t walk as far as you could fly. 

Although you could. And the further you walked, the greater the chance of an accident. But the accident would be the result of external forces, not something intrinsic to the act of walking itself. You might get run over. You might freeze in a mountain pass. But walking in and of itself wouldn’t kill you. 

Aviophobia. The fear of flying. The big one. The last to overcome. All others had been skirmishes in the foothills; small victories and easy wins, picked off and banked before the final assault.

Tactics. Name her fear. Seek it out. Engage. Emerge stronger.  

And when the going got tough, keep going. And think of something else in order to get through.

She bought a cup of coffee. She drank it. She went to the toilet.

Arachnophobia – spiders. Ophidiophobia – snakes. Close cousins in terror. A one-on-one in the flat with Rocco from Collette’s Jungle Party Experience had gone a long way to seeing off both.

“You’d be surprised how often we do this,” Rocco had told her. It was a Tuesday afternoon. Collette was his sister. It had been her day off.

  “She’s having a break,” he confided. “From the children, not the animals.

  “Avoid Pinner,” he warned.

A bristly tarantula formed a black and orange epaulette on his shoulder. He cradled a four-foot Royal python in his arms like a sleeping puppy. 

He angled his spider-shoulder forward.

“Pick it up,” he said. “Go on.”  

She had. 

“The Colombian red-leg,” Rocco announced. “Aggressive, but not particularly venomous.”

She felt her heart race, her skin cool and wrinkle at the thought of what she was doing. She focused on the frame of the living room window, wondering how much it might cost to get stripped and re-painted, what value doing so would add to the flat, whether or not she should sell the flat, and where she would move to if she did. 

The Colombian red-leg scampered weightlessly from her palm to her elbow, from her elbow to her shoulder, and back to her palm. 

“We used to have two,” said Rocco, devotedly stroking the tiny dome of the spider’s head. “But … Pinner.” Seemingly exhausted, the red-leg padded gratefully onto the back of his hand.

He shrugged the python towards her.

“Touch it,” he urged. “It’s not slimy.”

It wasn’t. The snake’s body arched upwards as if welcoming her attention. Silently running through a list of direct debits and standing orders, she accepted it into her arms. Softly, she held it, respectful of its weight and power.

After a minute, it flexed and began circling back towards the comfort of Rocco’s chest. As it left her arms, its head hovered briefly in mid-air. Rocco leaned forward and kissed it gently on the snout.

“Don’t tell Collette I did that.”

Spiders. Snakes.


Acrophobia. Heights. She’d booked excursions to five-hundred-plus-foot seafront observation towers in Portsmouth and Brighton. 

Rehearsing recipes for vegan lasagne, and chicken on the bone with paprika and green peppers, she’d ridden to the top, and made herself look down onto the cities below; the roads and houses, the lead and asphalt roofs of office blocks, the heaving sea and the narrow, white backs of gulls gliding beneath her feet, identical in either location. 

When her eyes swam and her head turned heavy, she’d made herself keep looking, calculating portion sizes and cooking times in order to reach the other side of the feeling. When the sensation had passed, she’d quietly punched the air.


Piece. Of. Piss. 

Of course, she’d told herself, that had been low-hanging fruit. More abstract fears would be a different challenge.

Atychiphobia; the fear of failure, which she had had to work hard to define and defuse. Being specific helped. Degree? She had one. Career? She earned a living. Relationship? Robert had turned out to be a prat. In fact, finding that out had been a significant success.

Failure, she’d decided, was an external construct, a function of other people’s minds. The trick was to stop it from getting into hers. 

Allegrophobia. Being late.  For what, she decided to tell herself? She resolved to live in the moment and let whatever happened, happen, when it did, whether she was in time to see it or not. Getting to that point had required focus and dedication, but that was what she was good at, allowing her to loop back to failure, to the concept of which she administered another, thorough kicking.

Other fears she’d approached philosophically. Coulrophobia. Equinophobia. She’d been kind to herself about clowns and horses, giving herself permission to avoid them both. Clowns on horses were unlikely, she had decided. If she saw a clown on a horse, she’d emigrate.

Aviophobia. The fear of flying. Why she was here, roaming departures before she embarked on a nine-hour journey she thought would either cure her or dissolve her mind forever.

She passed a sushi bar, a pub chain outlet, bureaux de changes, signs for airline service desks. The multi-faith prayer room was closed. 


Statistically, it was safer than driving. She wasn’t disputing that. But that was because there were several tens of thousands of times as many cars on the road than there were planes in the sky. And yes, she realised her ratios were screwy, that the aircraft she was counting only belonged to commercial fleets, like the one she was making herself travel with later that day, and that the cars she was counting were all cars, everywhere, belonging to and being driven by anyone. 

Also, cars drove on roads, often into each other. Planes flew in the seemingly infinite sky. The safety record of a billion-and-a-half cars, being driven by at least that many people, in the crowded constraints of what was effectively two dimensions, could not be compared to that of thirty-five thousand aircraft, with windows and radios and lights, being flown by crews of professionals adhering to pre-agreed protocols, in the vast, three-dimensional expanse of the air. And still, planes managed to crash.

She bought herself breakfast. 

The garish, manic café she chose promised an average wait time of twelve minutes between order and food. She wondered why. If you were in that much of a hurry, would you really order a meal? Peeved and unnerved, she thought about punishing the irrelevance of the claim by taking her custom elsewhere. But she was hungry, and something related to but not quite about her adopted mantra of living life in the moment meant she felt obliged to stay. She was also at the front of the queue to be seated.

When her food arrived, after a wait of twenty minutes which seemed to prove a point, she treated herself to a bout of nit-picking to calm her anxiety. 

The coffee was lukewarm. When the sausages were cooked was anyone’s guess. The baked beans had sought safety by fusing themselves together. The scattering of flash-fried mini croutons was pointlessly difficult to eat. The meal as a whole had the appearance of having been assembled some time ago, to a pre-ordained, pre-approved pattern ticked off by a focus group, and stored somewhere hot, but not quite hot enough. 

Why the staff had taken twenty minutes to bring it to her table was a mystery. Perhaps they were waiting for the coffee to cool down. She laughed out loud at her own joke.

“Everything OK?”

The waitress was at her table.

“Lovely, thank you.”

She left a tip. Generosity felt like a tribute to a higher power. Rounding up her bill was buying luck. She felt better.

She went to the toilet again. She bought an ironic Toblerone. She told herself that if – when - she got on the plane, she would steal a pillow, some branded headphones, or a copy of the laminated safety card to prove she’d actually taken off. She would keep it in a drawer in the kitchen and look at it whenever she questioned her resilience.

Wait. What kind of idiot was she? Of course she couldn’t steal the laminated safety card. What could invite disaster more effectively than planning to steal the aircraft’s laminated safety card? If she’d wanted to tempt fate, could she have done it any more effectively? 

She set about making amends, She took the escalator to the lower concourse and pushed a ten-pound note through the Perspex dome of the charity collection point. If she ever got on the plane – and suddenly it wasn’t at all clear that she would - she would put a similar amount in the little good causes envelope she’d find in the netted pouch of the seat in front of her. She’d recycle properly. She’d sponsor a goat.

She bought herself a coffee. She sat in an empty row of moulded plastic seats in front of the towering glass wall of the departure hall. Her head spun. Her ears felt hot. She began to search for something to occupy her mind. 

Outside, she could see a low, flat, yellow vehicle, pushing aircraft from one part of the terminal apron to another.

Its dimensions, its rectangular flatness, made her think of a very large paperback book on wheels. The way it moved, slowly, humbly, reminded her of a tugboat guiding bigger, more glamorous vessels in and out of port. A road-tug, she decided, although its tiny wheels and proximity to the ground meant the perfect level of the runway apron was possibly the only surface it could actually operate on. 

For a few minutes, she couldn’t work out how the thing was finding its way from one aircraft to another. Then she realised it was being operated remotely by men in orange hi-visibility jackets. One walked behind with a hand-held controller the size of a shoe box. The other walked in front, beckoning the yellow vehicle towards him like a compliant farm animal. When it successfully docked with the front wheel of a parked aircraft, he clapped. When it began to pull the aircraft towards a stand, he clapped some more. 

The man’s enthusiasm made her wonder about his relationship with the machine, whether he worked with it every day and understood its strengths and idiosyncrasies. He would have given it a name, she decided – something wry perhaps, like Steve - and secretly begun to look forward to seeing it each morning. She imagined how sad he would be when Steve began to wear out or was replaced by a more advanced model. She wondered if he would have decided to retire at the same time and take Steve home with him like a superannuated police Alsatian. 

She wondered if the bond between them would begin to fray once the man fully understood the commitment he’d made. Assuming Steve was electric, would re-charging him all night in the garage prove ruinously expensive? Would he lose patience when Steve became stranded on speed humps? When Steve malfunctioned, would he attempt to mend it himself? Would he make a mess of it? And would his wife gently tell him he’d done everything he could, and suggest it was time to let Steve go? If that happened, how would he get Steve to the dump?

She drank her coffee. 

She acknowledged the sheer size and internal volume of the departures hall; its light and structure, the mammoth steel columns, the giant bolts and washers that reminded her of ocean-going anchor chains; the arrogant waste of opportunity represented by an eighty-foot gap between the uppermost level of usable floor-space and the curving steel roof, filled with nothing except warm air and sparrows. 

What was paint, she wondered, looking at how much of it had been used to colour the icy white interior of the cavernous hall. Water, obviously, but what else? Where did its ingredients come from, and what were the costs to nature of extracting them? She was sure it couldn’t be recycled. What if the contractors had ordered too much? Was the workforce entitled to what was left over? Would they want it? Did hundreds of houses in this part of southeast England boast the same polar white interiors? Would frequent-flyers invited to Sunday lunch be suddenly triggered, and find themselves rifling pockets for boarding passes to present to their puzzled hosts?

She sat back in her plastic chair. Spooling, internal voyages like these made her calm. 

She made her way to the departure gate.

On the way, she was overtaken by a cluster of men and women in distinct uniforms; blazers, pencil skirts, cream blouses; white shirts, tapered grey trousers and waistcoats; ties, ascots in airline livery; dark, fitted suits, peaked caps; briefcases, overnight bags on wheels.

The flight crew. The cabin crew.

Something about them reassured her; their air of confidence but lack of complacency; the care they took over their appearance; the way they walked in lockstep.  

It was going to be OK. Instantly, unchangeably, she knew it. She would fly today. She would vanquish her fear. 

She would take her seat on the plane. She would watch the safety demonstration and absorb the laminated safety card. The aircraft would taxi into position on the runway, pause, then accelerate to the point at which it lifted smoothly into the air. 

The light green and grey fields would unfurl below them. A red-brick farmhouse would reveal itself in the fold of a hill. The aircraft would break cloud cover and she would see the sun reflected off the sheer white of the elegant wing outside her window, its sturdy rivets, its rakishly upturned tip. 

With the cabin crew’s permission, she would unbuckle her seatbelt and order a gin and tonic, the first sip of which she would take as they crossed the English Channel, the last drop of which she would tip into her mouth as they cleared the Belgian Ardennes on their way south and east.

Twice, there would be turbulence; once over the Tirol and again just past Pristina. The plane would shake and judder, but the passengers would laugh, and whoop and clap the biggest dips and rolls. Someone would shout, “Again! Again!” and everyone would laugh.

“That was what we call ‘clean-air turbulence’,” the captain would advise over the intercom.

He would speak almost melodically, in an accent she would ponder for several minutes, and eventually place somewhere in south Wales. 

“Basically wind-shear off the Alps and the Sar mountains.” 

Penarth, Pontypridd, Pontypool. Somewhere thereabouts, she would decide, triangulating. 

Although she wouldn’t see it, she would imagine the flight crew behind the cock-pit’s locked door; giggling, shaking heads, dabbing at uniforms with scented wet wipes. 

“What are we like?” the First Officer would snort, remarking on the idiocy of opening a flask of soup after – after – being specifically warned by air traffic control of bumpy patches ahead.

“Us! Of all people!” he would opine, to gales of laughter. “I mean … really!” 

She would think about falling asleep, but before being able to, a tiny girl in a plum, crew-neck cardigan would escape her parents and stand next to her in the cabin aisle, her minuscule hand on the armrest of her seat. The child would stare and smile. She would smile back. The child’s father would join them, full of doting exasperation, making a point of rolling his eyes.

“I see you’ve made a friend,” he would observe, looking at her, not his daughter. “Is she being a nuisance?” 

“Not at all,” she would reply.

An hour later the child would be back, solemnly handing over her father’s mobile phone. Chuckling, he would come and retrieve it.

She would watch two films; one she hadn’t seen but thought she should, and another she had, but thought she’d like to see again. The first would make no sense but prove hugely enjoyable. The second, infused with significance by speed, altitude, and just the right amount of alcohol, would this time make more sense than anything she had ever watched before, and in some way change her life.

Hours later, nestling in the debris of long haul, she would pull the complimentary synthetic airline blanket around her shoulders and sleep, seatbelt fastened and visible for the benefit of the cabin crew. Shortly before landing, and without waking her up, someone would gently raise her seat to the upright position and tuck her in. She would open her eyes as the aircraft jolted onto the runway at their destination, exactly on time. Her fears would have been proved irrational. Her misgivings conquered forever.

Or, the plane would have barely penetrated the first band of wispy cloud before it began to violently pitch and yaw. As it did, she would sadly acknowledge that her primary instinct about air travel had been correct; statistically, flying was the safest form of travel, but on a personal level, it only had to go wrong once.

Mystery red light in the cock-pit. Canada goose in the starboard air intake. No one would scream. No urgent alarm would pulse through the cabin, underscoring imminent disaster. Whatever happened would happen very quickly and be over before anyone had realised it had begun. Except, perhaps, the more experienced or observant members of the crew. Except, of course, her. 

Basophobia. Fear of falling.

Thanatophobia. Fear of dying.

As the aircraft began to corkscrew downwards, she would sigh. “Obviously …“ she would whisper to herself, allowing that thought to run into the next: something around the question of who would clear up the wreckage and how it would eventually be disposed of. Those sorts of things didn’t happen by themselves.


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