Authors: Ann Halam
Table of Contents
“We’ll have to hurry,” I said. “We’re going to be operated on in the morning.”
The room had grown dim. Outside, the brilliant sunlight was fading into the swift tropical dusk. Soon it would be night. I wished I knew if it was Day Forty or Day Forty-one. This seemed to matter a lot. If this was my last day on earth, I would have liked to be able to think I’d still been free when it began. A free castaway, a prisoner in paradise. But I had no way of knowing.
Operated on in the morning.
We formed a small crowd in the big confused mass of travelers in the Miami airport departure lounge . . . most of us identified by
jackets, or at least
lapel buttons. We were going to spend the next three weeks together, fifty British Young Conservationists. We were prizewinners in a competition run by the
TV program. Part of the time we’d be staying on a wildlife conservation station deep in the Ecuador rain forest; part of the time we’d be visiting the Galápagos Islands.
I’d enjoyed flying from Gatwick as an unaccompanied minor. It was the first time I’d been alone on a plane, but that hadn’t frightened me at all. Now I was beginning to feel scared. I’d won a place on this trip by thinking up a biodiversity experiment about beetles. But I suppose I’m a typical nerd, good at the details, not very smart at seeing the larger picture. I’d gone in for the competition because I liked my science teacher, and it had been like doing any interesting piece of homework. I had not thought it through. I had never sat myself down and said to myself, “Hold on, Semirah, what if you win?
You are shy.
How are you going to survive for three weeks surrounded by total strangers?”
Two presenters from the
TV program were coming with us—Neil Cannon and Georgie McCarthy. They were at the center of a chattering group, tall, thin Neil with his spiky ginger hair and freckly tan, Georgie with her glowing dark skin and her cheeky smile. Both of them looked very friendly and cheerful and genuine, the way they did on television. They were the only people I wanted to go up and talk to. They seemed like friends, because I’d seen them so often on TV. But I knew that was an illusion. Real life is different. So I walked about instead, counting my fellow prizewinners.
There were thirty-seven teenagers and ten adult organizers, including Neil and Georgie. There were actually fifty prizewinners, but the other thirteen were traveling on another flight. I decided I was in the rain forest already, or else in a zoo. Maybe I was a new young animal, freshly arrived, and I had to find the enclosure where I belonged. I spotted a baby giraffe; a wolf cub; a slinky green-eyed lizard; a couple of pointynosed, mischievous young lemurs; a pouchy-faced boy with tufty auburn hair who looked amazingly like a guinea pig, the kind with the fur sticking up in rosettes. There was one sad girl with big eyes and smooth fair hair sitting by a set of beige pigskin suitcases (while the rest of us had backpacks and nylon stuff-bags), who was like a baby seal—beautifully dressed and totally helpless. There was an awkward, gangly boy with a huge nose, carrying a fluorescent orange puffa jacket, who looked like a newborn wildebeest, stumbling over his own legs. There was a Very Cool Girl, with long black hair, long brown legs, black T-shirt, gray cutoff combats, and a battered rucksack that looked as if she’d borrowed it from Indiana Jones. . . . I couldn’t think of an animal comparison for her. She didn’t look lost or anxious at all. She must be one of the keepers.
But what kind of animal was
? I didn’t know.
I walked all the way around the zoo, and then came back to a girl with a round face and fluffy hair, who looked like a baby owl. I like owls. I was about to say hello when along came Very Cool Girl, with her beautiful hair swinging. She smiled at me, and so did the baby owl. But oh no . . . My throat closed up. I simply
speak. I can’t talk to strangers! I swerved off, and pretended I’d been heading for a nearby drinks machine.
On the row of seats by the machine there was a big chunky pale boy with bristle-short dark hair, sitting by himself. You wouldn’t have known he was one of us, except that he had a
information pack lying facedown on top of his rucksack. I’d given up on the animal identities, so I didn’t try to think of one; but I decided I’d sit down, not next to him but a couple of seats away, to drink my can of Coke. I would try to look casually inviting, and maybe we could strike up a conversation. I sat down, giving a sigh that might have been a sort of noncommittal half-hello. He looked up from the game he was playing on his GameBoy and stared at me, narrow-eyed. His expression said very clearly,
I’ve got your number, Unpopular Girl. Stay away
I am not unpopular. People like me when they get to know me. It’s just that I’m chubby and shy, and maybe I work too hard, so I’m not very sociable. . . . I shrugged and walked away, trying not to feel insulted. But being glared at like that naturally didn’t make me feel any better. I decided he was an animal after all; a bad-tempered, solitary kind of animal, liable to lash out and best not approached.
Our flight was delayed. I still hadn’t managed to talk to a single person when we got on the little bus and were driven out onto the tarmac to board our charter plane. I’d spent most of my time reading a book (well away from the nasty boy). It was hot outside, even though it was evening by then. I remember looking around at all the gray tarmac and the planes, and the smoggy sky, and being glad I was going somewhere green and wild.
There was some swapping of seat allocations, as the lucky people who’d made friends arranged to get next to each other. I had no part of that. I was extremely surprised when I found I was going to be sitting with Very Cool Girl.
“Do you want the window?” she said. “I’ve got it, but I’d rather have the aisle.”
I said yes, I would like the window; and we sat down, me thinking how sophisticated not to want to sit next to the window.
“My name’s Miranda Fallow,” she said, holding out her hand. I wasn’t used to people shaking hands with me, but from Very Cool Girl it seemed adult and right.
“Howdeedoodah,” I said, “I’m Semirah Garson, people call me Semi—”
We shook hands. Her grip was thin and hard. My grip was pudgy and shaky, and my palm sticky with sweat. I hoped she wouldn’t think I was afraid of flying. I looked out the window at the fascinating tarmac, miserable with myself for having said
like that, and wishing I hadn’t told her my nickname, as if she was likely to be interested.
We were flying to Quito, the capital of Ecuador. We were going to stay in a hotel there, before traveling overland to the rain forest base.
It’ll be all right once
we’ve settled in,
I told myself (hoping it was true).
be working, helping the scientists, learning about the
wildlife. It’s easy to talk to people when you’re doing
Back at home, my brother and my parents were getting ready to go to Jamaica for their summer holiday. My brother thought I was mad to prefer going on a science trip, and I was beginning to agree with him. But I wasn’t going to get downhearted. Even if I didn’t make any friends, even if I never had a single conversation beyond “could you pass the graph paper” or whatever, this had to be the trip of a lifetime. Meeting real scientists, seeing the Galápagos . . . The tarmac started to move: slowly as we taxied, then faster and faster until it slipped away from under us, and we were soaring up, with Miami and its skyscrapers, and the huge ocean stretching beyond, all spread out below. Miranda took out a book. I went on staring through the window until we’d reached cruising height.
It had been a long day. Soon my eyes began to close.
I dreamed that I was counting tree frogs. They were brightly colored, like jewels, but they had too many legs. I was piling them one on top of another. The legs kept sticking out in all directions and I kept trying to tuck them neatly into the heap. It was one of those anxiety dreams you get when you aren’t properly asleep. While I stacked up these frogs that looked like beetles, I still knew I was on the plane. I could hear some people talking loudly. I wished they’d keep quiet, because they were making me lose count. . . . The voices kept on getting louder. Finally I opened my eyes.
The window beside me was black. The cabin was dark, except for the FASTEN SEAT BELT signs, and the little glowing lights that led to the emergency exits. My eyes felt sticky; I’d gone to sleep with my contact lenses in. I remember peering at my watch and thinking,
That’s funny, I thought we were supposed to be in
Quito by now.
The noisy conversation that I’d heard in my dream wasn’t happening in the passenger cabin. The sound of loud voices, shouting voices, using a language I couldn’t understand,
was coming from the cockpit.
I looked around at Miranda. She was awake too. We both had our seat belts fastened; I hadn’t unfastened mine since takeoff. We didn’t speak. She leaned down, unlaced her hiking boots, and took them off. Then she reached under her seat and pulled out her bag. I saw her grope in the outside pockets and transfer some things to the pockets of her combats. I knew, right then, exactly what she was doing, and why. . . . I slipped my reefs back onto my bare feet, and bent to fasten the Velcro straps. I felt a weird tingling in my stomach and my throat. I badly wanted to go to the toilet, but that didn’t seem like an option at the moment. I’d already noticed, with some unsuspected instinct deep inside, that Miranda and I (our seats were in the back, near the tail section) were near an exit; and seen which way we should go to reach it.
“What’s happening?” I whispered.
Miranda said, “I don’t know. Shhh—”
They say in an emergency you should drop everything and save your life if you can. But if you can get hold of anything useful, before things go completely bananas, you really should. Take it from me. I couldn’t get to my bag. I started trying to reach for my jacket, so at least I’d have my contact lens case, which was in one of the pockets. But it had slipped too far under the seat—
I don’t really know what happened next. I’m almost sure I heard a loud bang, like a gun being fired. I know the plane started lurching all over the place, like a car driving too fast on a very bumpy road. Then one of the cabin crew came out of the cockpit as if she’d been pushed out, looking very scared, and there was a strange man behind her, not in uniform, his face covered . . . I
his face was covered . . . by a mask. But there was so much confusion. A couple of boys in front of me and Miranda had got up from their seats. I don’t know what they were trying to do. A girl started screaming at them to sit down, and the grown-ups had to intervene to break up a fight. It was dark, and I was scared. I concentrated on keeping quiet, not getting involved, hoping I was wrong about what seemed to be happening, hoping whatever was going on would be over soon. Then the plane
My ears popped so hard it felt as if they were bursting. There was a huge, big roller-coaster scream that went all through the cabin; and I know that would have been the end,
. . . but the plane leveled out again with an ear-ringing shock that was like hitting an invisible brick wall. The undercarriage (no, not the undercarriage, I mean, the belly of the plane, I don’t know what it’s called) seemed to hit something hard as rock, bounced, and hit again.
“We’re ditching in the sea,” said Miranda, softly. “Let’s stick together, huh? Can you swim?” Even now she sounded cool and grown-up, and in control.
There was pandemonium in the cabin, but her quiet voice cut through it. If she’d shrieked like everyone else, I’d never have heard her. I said, “Yeah, I can swim,” and we got hold of each other’s hands.
Things became calmer, now that the situation was desperate. The shouting and screaming died off. We were told to unfasten our seat belts and get out into the aisle. I shuffled for the exit along with everyone else, holding Miranda’s hand so tight, you’d have had to cut my arm off to get me loose. Next thing I remember, I was in the water. Miranda was beside me. We were treading water, buoyed up by our life jackets, in the dark, in a crowd of other bobbing heads and bright blobs of life jackets. We were trying to get to one of the big yellow life rafts, but we were being smacked around by waves that were chopping and smashing wildly at us from every direction. Something bashed me hard in the knee. I heard Miranda yell, “We can’t do it! We have to get away from these rocks!” I was absolutely trusting her with my life, so I swam with her, in the opposite direction from everybody around us. And that was very lucky, because it meant at least we were swimming
from the plane when the explosion happened.
I can’t remember hearing anything. I was simply flung up high in the air, still surrounded by water, and then deep down, down, down . . . and then flying up again, choking and gasping, being thrown about like a rag. Then I was swimming again, with Miranda beside me. My eyes were sore and blinded by salt, my throat was raw, my lungs hurt, and the water seemed cold as ice. I was thinking of the pilot, or whoever it was, who had managed to level out of the nosedive. I was thinking,
I owe that person a life. Whoever managed to do
that doesn’t deserve for me to give up now—
Cold black salt water. A blackness overhead lit by brilliant stars. Two heads bobbing near me. Somewhere nearby, a long, steady roaring sound . . . “Miranda?” I yelled.
“Yes, it’s me.”
“Who’s that with you?”
Whoever it was didn’t answer, maybe they couldn’t spare the breath. There was no sign of the life rafts, or any other bobbing heads. The three of us seemed to be completely alone, and I thought of the great huge ocean stretching out forever.
With sharks in it.
“Listen,” croaked Miranda, bumping into me. “Listen to the breakers. Look, I can see the shore. We can make it. Come on,
Ahead of us I could see a cone of darkness blotting out the starry sky. There was a moving, glimmering line where that darkness merged with the surface of the sea: I knew this was the foam of waves breaking on a shore. We swam. My wet denim jeans made it feel as if my legs were encased in concrete, and I wished I hadn’t put my reefs back on. Miranda had had more sense, taking her boots off. I tried to kick the sandals away, but I couldn’t get rid of them. I don’t know how I kept on swimming, but I did, for an incredibly long time. When we got in among the breaking waves I was picked up and thrown back, time after time, and that’s when I really thought I was done for, because I had no strength left to fight. The water didn’t seem like water, it seemed like an enormous, cruelly playful living thing, tossing me about in its claws and its teeth. I was shouting at it, inside me somewhere,
Stop it, stop it, knock it
off, you big
. . . But finally, finally, there was sand underfoot. Finally, finally, on my hands and knees, I crawled out of the waves’ reach. Miranda was there with me, and someone else. We rolled over and lay on our backs on the hard wet sand. There was no moon, only the stars, shining blurred and bright; the brightest stars I had ever seen.