Things started to go pear-shaped for Zach Caan when a Madrid airport security officer mistook him for an infamous baby-faced terrorist.
The teachers who had accompanied his class on the trip to Spain waited until the last minute before boarding the flight home. Getting the rest of the kids home was apparently a bigger priority than preventing Zach from being incarcerated in the Spanish equivalent of Guantanamo. Mrs Stevens, a parent governor who had come along as a chaperone, agreed to wait with her thick-necked daughter, Erica, for airport security to clear Zach.
It took the authorities five hours to realise that he was just a terrified thirteen year old called Zach Caan from Affrington, rather than a threat to national security. But his booked flight had already arrived in Manchester and his classmates were probably sitting in the comfort of their homes. After a great deal of exasperated sighing, the airline agreed to transfer them onto the next flight, which would start boarding in another hour. Erica and her mum glared at Zach as if it was his fault that he had been interrogated for five hours in a room small enough to be called a cupboard, by an overzealous airport security guard.
Erica pointed at him and smacked a meaty fist into an open palm. Zach gulped. Erica had a twelve inch height and twelve pound weight advantage over him. Rumour had it that she spent three nights a week training in Brazilian Jujitsu, and that she had broken her last sparring partner’s wrist with an arm-bar. Zach on the other hand had clocked a couple hundred hours of Tekken on his PSP, though he doubted his virtual experience would amount to much in the real world. Zach thought it prudent to hide in one of the larger duty free shops that sold books, dvds and video games. He browsed half-heartedly, knowing he didn’t have enough Euros to buy a chocolate bar, let alone a full-priced game.
Half an hour later, the worst storm ever recorded in Western Europe blotted out the skies. Zach watched in horror as the word cancelled clattered down every destination on the departures monitors. To make matters worse, the batteries on his PSP went dead at about the same time.
With all flights out of Madrid grounded, Zach spent the day avoiding Erica and browsing through the selection of newspapers and magazines abandoned by fellow travellers. Most of them just happened to be in Spanish, a language that he sucked at despite three years of classes. In the end, he lay down across a set of grey seats and dropped off to sleep.
He awoke a few hours later when an airport official announced that he had found seats for Zach and the Stevenses on a small charter flight. The plane was headed to London instead of Manchester, but it was the only flight going out tonight.
‘Esta en England, no?’ responded the official when Mrs Stevens tried to explain the geography to him.
‘Yes, but it’s over two hundred miles from where we live.’
‘Puede montarse este avión, o puede esperar hasta que mañana y ver si hay un disponible entonces.’ You can get on this plane, or you can wait until tomorrow and see if there is one available then. Take my advice, get on the plane.
Zach sighed; he didn’t want to spend the night in the terminal with only a grouchy Spaniard and the Stevenses for company. Apparently, they felt the same way about him. And so he came to be seated in a plush leather-upholstered seat, with a large port-window and teak panelling, a short distance from the man who had enough money to charter a private jet and enough clout to convince the officials to allow them to take off.
He craned his neck in an attempt to memorise as much detail as he could. No one he knew had ever been in a luxury jet before. Perhaps the coolness of the experience would grant him a few hours of popularity back at school. Zach was resolute that he would forego sleep just so that he could enjoy every minute of luxury he could take in.
Sitting towards the front of the cabin was the money. A tall athletic man in a burgundy turtle-neck and a sharp, black suit jacket and pants was stabbing out an email on his smartphone whilst barking out a staccato of dictions to his assistant. All he could see of her from his seat were a slim set of legs sticking out into the aisle with a tablet computer balanced on her knees. The other passengers were a few scary looking, square-shaped guys that had to be bodyguards, and one other man who was sat towards the back of the cabin, his face mysteriously hidden under a wide-brimmed hat.
Outside his window large dollops of rain pounded the blade-shaped wing like a power-shower. The ground-crew looked thoroughly miserable, their fluorescent coats plastered to their skin, as they rushed about to make sure that all the baggage was loaded and the plane was fuelled and ready to go.
Finally, the seat-belt light came on and the engines powered up with a thrum that vibrated deeply through Zach’s body. The plane began to tax along the runway, but all he could see was the grey of the rain against the black of the night. An invisible force pushed him into his seat as the plane accelerated. The cabin floor tilted back as the plane shook with the effort to get its bulk off the runway, like an obese chicken trying to catch some air. The aircraft juddered a couple of times before it levelled out. Zach waited for his ears to pop like they were supposed to but nothing happened.
‘Ladies and gentleman, I am Leopold Nicadimus, your Captain today,’ came a nasal drone over the plane’s PA system. ‘Flight X4573 is now under way. We will be arriving at our destination, London Stansted Airport, in approximately two hours. Please remain in your seats for the duration of the flight. Thank you.’
The plane banked until the wing on Zach’s side dipped towards the grid of lights far below them. That must be Madrid, thought Zach. The inbound flight had been on a larger jumbo jet. On this little executive jet, Zach thought he could actually feel the shifting pull of gravity as the plane levelled out. The view turned to grey on black.
Zach yawned. There were a number of large television screens around the cabin but nobody had thought to switch them on. With his PSP still dead there was nothing for him to do. In a couple of hours he would be stuck in another airport. He wondered what his dad would say when he found out that he would have to drive down to London to pick Zach up. His dad was a taxi driver. He worked most nights of the week and slept during the day. He clocked a couple hundred miles a night, but would grumble like a man in torment if he had to give his family a ride anywhere. One thing was certain. He wouldn’t be saying, ‘No problem, kiddo, I’ll set off straight away.’
* * *
For someone who’d planned to stay awake for the duration of the flight, Zach slept for an awful long time. So long, in fact, that it registered even in his dream state. Someone should have woken him up by now. Oh no, they’d forgotten him again. Zach’s eyes snapped open. He unbuckled his belt and anxiously glanced around. The cabin was empty. Arggghhh.
He grabbed his backpack from the overhead storage compartment and stumbled along the aisle toward the light that was flooding in through an open door. Still feeling thick from sleep, he squinted as he scrambled down the steep metal steps.
‘Wait for me,’ he called blindly, shading his eyes with an arm against the glare.
His eyes finally adjusted and he looked about.
This wasn’t London Stansted.
This wasn’t even England.
Thick foliage and trees competed for every inch of space that Zach could see. Wild animals called to each other as strange birds shrieked amongst the trees. No; this was definitely not England.