The wind rushing past my face the cords snapping against each other with angry vehemence, half steel, half slack, all useless all under swathes of silk, flapping and shaking my body twisting and struggling against the old man also dangling from the knot of cord and silk and fatal acceleration pull, pull and tug, yank free the loops and whorls but none of them giving way the threads meshing further our speed exponentially increasing and
And then, all still and calm.
A few seconds ago I had been clutching with anxious fist to the door of the airplane, a 200 mile an hour breeze stinging my cheek, the land a patchwork of greens, browns and greys a mile and a half below me. ‘1, 2, 3… go! No! Not both…’ were the last words I heard from our jump instructor as I leapt into the space and my heart leapt faster.
The thrill of unconfined emptiness around me, the wind rushing past my ears as I accelerated to terminal velocity was unfathomably exhilarating. I gasped for air and spread my arms wide and I laughed manically. In another few seconds I would reach the end of the static line and the failsafe procedure would automatically trigger my parachute, snatching me back to a safe falling speed.
2… 1… the cord pulled tight and grabbed at my parachute harness. Metres of nylon cord and silk streamed upwards and I braced myself for the reassuring, sickening tug.
Instead, another body struck me with breathtaking force. Dizzy with the blow and spinning uncontrollably, it took a few seconds to realise I was looking into the face of another parachutist. And we weren’t slowing down.
I looked up in panic. That tangled mess of fabric, flapping uselessly in the hurricane that rushed past us, was of no use to us now. I looked down in more panic than I’d looked up. The ground, although so far away, was rushing towards us, its ill-defined collage beginning to form into recognisable fields and buildings.
And then the sudden silence. The still and the calm.
‘Ironic, isn’t it?’, he said as the parachutes furled with refined poise. Our speed was now that of a gentle drift, as if part of an experiment to prove the lack of gravity on the moon.
Downwards we still fell, but with calm dignity and quiet assurance.
I looked at my companion. An elderly gentleman, his tufts of white hair incongruous against his green helmet, his eyes twinkling behind the goggles and his face glowing in unruffled amusement.
‘I said, ironic, isn’t it? I mean, did you ever see the film ‘Kung Fu’? The one with David Carradine?’
I was falling, presumably to my death, in a serene feather-like certainty, and an old man was discussing 1980s films with me.
‘You know, where he wants to travel with the guru, and the master turns to him and says,’ and here his voice turned to a tremulous imitation, ‘ “if you tie two birds together, though they have four wings, they cannot fly” ’.
I twisted in my harness, trying to fathom this bizarre nightmare.
‘And here we are with not one, but two parachutes, yet unable to prevent ourselves falling to our deaths. Ironic, isn’t it?’
‘Ironic?’, I blazed. ‘What are you talking about? Why are you so calm?’
‘Calm? Well, this is all very fascinating, isn’t it? A career as a philosophy professor, with the end of life as my special interest, and here I get to experience one of the most extraordinary proofs of one of my postulations that I could ever imagine. Too bad that I’ll never live to publish the paper. Braddock would be devastated. He’s never accepted my theories. Ha! He’d be laughing on the other side of his face if he could see me now.’
‘Falling to your death?’
‘Falling to my death, but immortal in my theories. Ironic again, don’t you think?’
We both fell to silence for a few seconds.
‘No use to me now,’ he said after a few seconds, and took his helmet and goggles off. ‘Might as well have the full experience, eh?’
‘Why is it so still? What’s happened?’, I eventually managed as he strapped his helmet and goggles to the ineffective cords.
‘I can see my house from here. There – just beyond the coppice. You see the grounds, and that little stream? Beautiful, isn’t it? Best view you’ll ever have of my property. Apart from the wine cellar. That’s a mighty fine view of an evening, let me tell you.’
I waited for him to continue.
‘You know the biggest shame of it?,’ he mused. ‘I had a ’64 Pétrus that I was planning on opening next week – anniversary of my wife’s death. Now I’ll never know whether it had blossomed. Such a waste. Or my investment manager’s gain.’
I gave in. ‘So this is proof of one of your postulations, did you say?’
‘Why yes, m’boy. Let me explain. You have a moment?’
I shrugged my shoulders.
‘You know how there are river insects that live for a single day?’
‘No, not mayflies. that’s a myth. But no matter. Do you think they come out of their cocoon and think “well bugger me, I’ve only got a day to live, I’d better get moving”?’
‘I’d never really thought about it.’
‘Or a Galapagos turtle. Does he think “Lordy, 200 years to go. Better spin that out a bit”?’
I looked down. Roads were now clearly delineated and I could just make out the jackets of the farmers on their tractors. But movement was at a snail’s pace. A perfect aerial view of bucolic contentment. My companion carried on.
‘No, no. I tell you, I postulated that the life experience was identical. Most mammals have roughly the same number of heartbeats in their lives, and I believe their experience of life has parity. The tiny dormouse sucks every ounce of life out of every second of his brief sojourn on this planet slowing it to a rate we can only imagine. The mighty elephant, in contrast, believes that time moves at a lightning speed. Their perception is the same. Otherwise, it would all be simply too much to bear. Life would become intolerable for one or the other.’
‘My dear fellow, isn’t it terribly obvious? And why don’t you take off that helmet? You’re no more likely to survive a terminal velocity impact with or without it.’
I unclipped my helmet and held it out as if to drop it.
‘Don’t let it go, for pity’s sake! It could hit someone down there! Be sensible, my dear chap.’
The idea of being sensible whilst being lectured to by a professor of philosophy as I fell to my death suddenly made me laugh. Uproariously, pant-wettingly (and I confess to you, at that moment I finally gave in to the terror and allowed myself the luxury of relaxation), I shook in a near-hysterical convulsion.
‘Don’t waste the moment!’ He grabbed me by the arm. ‘Stay alert! You’ll never experience this again. My theories extend to the afterlife and, having been right once, I’m prepared to bet on myself again.’
I calmed down.
‘OK, no, it’s not obvious. And how long have I got?’
‘Hmm… well, I’m not really a physicist, but I think the terminal velocity of a human body is around 120 miles an hour. We were flying at…’
’10,000 feet,’ I offered.
‘… is that what he said? Well, that’s about a mile and a half, isn’t it? So… hmm… two miles a minute, plus a few seconds to reach terminal velocity, accelerating at 10 metres per second per second… now what was that in Imperial?’
‘We haven’t got all day…’
‘But yes! Yes, we have! That’s the point! You’ve hit the nail on the head, young fellow! Anyway… yes… we have just under a minute from leaving the plane to hitting the ground.’
‘But we’ve been falling for several minutes and we’re not even half way down.’ As I looked up, the plane had barely moved from vertically above us. Our jump instructor was leaning out, his mouth forming a wide ‘O’, his hand caught midway in reach for our falling trajectory, like ‘Still Life in Failed Health and Safety’.
‘Haven’t you put two and two together yet? Dear sweet Lord, what do they teach these days? In my days… no matter… Your mind has now accepted exactly when you’re going to die. You have the rest of your life ahead of you. Sadly, it’s only about 40 seconds now, but you can live it at a speed that your mind can compass.’
‘When you didn’t know how long you had to die, your mind sped along like a steam train, but your perception of mortality was vague. All those plans. That ’64 Pétrus. That new car. They were all in the future, and that future was – to your mind – infinite. Now it’s determined and, unless you have a heart attack before you hit the ground, we can now be pretty certain of the moment of your death. From here,’ he pointed around him, ‘to there,’ pointing to the ground ‘is an entire lifetime.’
My earlier hysterical laughter had disappeared. I felt the enormity of my impending death weigh on me.
‘There, there, young man, don’t be disconsolate. The journey depends on how comfortable you are with the concept of death. If you’re terrified, life rushes past you in a flash. To those with true enlightenment, life can last as long as you wish. Be strong, my young friend. Everything you ever wanted to imagine is in this next few seconds.’
‘But there was so much I wanted to do.’
‘And if you’d done it, what then? Sooner or later, you’d still be here, racing towards death. This way, you can prepare for it. It won’t be taken away from you unexpectedly.’
‘Don’t you have any regrets?’
‘Regrets? I’ve had a few.’
‘Please don’t start singing now…’
‘If I offered you another year of life, you would have packed it full of everything you’d ever wanted, and you would have been as selfish as you could possibly be, wouldn’t you? And what would you have gained, as you lay on your bed, a second before you died? Nothing. This is a luxury, my friend, a luxury afforded to few. You can face your inevitable destiny with equanimity, and make your peace with your conscience.’
I looked up again at the parachute, trying to hide my tears.
‘I’m Peter,’ he continued. ‘You never asked my name.’
‘Nor you mine. I’m Chris,’ and I offered my hand out of polite habit.
‘If you’ll excuse me, I think I could probably drift over to my house if I cut myself loose now. With any luck, I could hit the ground next to my wife’s grave. Can you imagine? Together at last. What an artistic triumph. Somehow, I think then Braddock would know. My dear chap, it’s been a pleasure to pass these dying moments with you. The experience of a lifetime,’ he chuckled, then took a firm hold of his harness.
He looked me in the eye, and his eyes twinkled again with the warmth of a well-lived life. He had a plan, a perfect way to end his days, next to his lifetime companion. His transcendence lay in acceptance.
The clasp gave way, and almost immediately he shot away to my left. He floated and twisted and aimed his body for his target.
I had no such plans. I’d lived my life with no direction, and here I was, ending it as I’d lived. I’d never live to see my grandchildren, I’d never say goodbye to my wife. I wouldn’t know if Toby enjoyed his week at scout camp, or whether his best friend Lionel was really gay. Whether I was in line for promotion, nor if my accumulator would come off.
But then… there was so much I would never have known and was never going to. I was never going to have known if my wife cried when she heard the news, nor if she’d remarry, or die of a broken heart. I never knew my mother’s heartbreak nor her joys. I was never going to have taken my great-grandchildren to play squash and history had determined that I would never have died of smallpox.
Every second had been unique and every microsecond was now precious. I spread my arms wide.
I could see anxious faces turned towards me, hands pointing and screams trapped within this frozen time, the fields, the hedgerows, the roads gaining definition and colour their blended greens and browns and greys becoming detailed limes and olives and russets and ochres and dirt and charcoal and silver the final landing place defining itself as I grew closer fields becoming plots becoming tussocks becoming blades of grass each aspect of leaf and stem and frond becoming unique each its own life each spending the seconds to the end of its days in pointless avoidance of the inevitable my face turning towards the onrushing ground my arms spread wide to welcome you I welcome you I welcome you the earth my friend my laughter breaking in the stillness my hands outstretched to grasp the perfection of existence the stone the mud the pebble the dust the