Johannesburg – London (JNB – LHR)
Aircraft: Airbus A340 – 600
Time: 0100 UTC
‘Right, I’m off,’ Brooke said over her shoulder as she stepped out of the back galley and into the cabin.
‘Sleep well,’ called Stephen from where he was tidying up the aftermath of the dinner service which had just zapped the very last of her energy.
‘Oh, I will,’ she said. She paused, reaching out to the panel next to the door and switching off the cabin lights, plunging Economy into darkness. There was no subtle, slow dimming of lights tonight, they needed to know that it was sleep time now, it was a non-stop flight from Johannesburg to London and not a non-stop service.
She walked quickly up the cabin, avoiding the eyes of anyone who looked her way in case they should dare to ask her for something. Reaching the crew rest door that stood invitingly in the middle of the cabin she took the key from its hidden pouch and turned it anti-clockwise in the lock before stowing it again. Inside Brooke swiftly descended the stairs into her favourite of all crew rest areas, that little piece of heaven that was loaded amongst the suitcases in the cargo hold. It was a personal preference, but for Brooke she could get to sleep in the tiny bunks under the stairs that were known affectionately as ‘the coffins’ in minutes. Others hated having to contort their bodies just to get into one, rushing down to secure the bigger bunks at the end, or pulling rank and reserving one with their name-badge rudely pinned to the curtain long before breaks even began. For her though, she had always been quite flexible thanks to her love of gymnastics as a child, the snugness of a coffin was perfect, and since they were always the last ones left there was never a need to rush down.
Brooke fumbled for her torch that hung from the belt loop of her skirt, someone had already turned out the lights, probably presuming that since first break started five minutes ago everybody was tucked up by now, just the dim glare of the control panels cast a grainy light at the bottom of the stairs. Brooke ran her left hand along the wall and felt her way around the stairs and to the back. All the curtains were pulled, and she was surprised to find that both coffins were occupied too. Brooke shone her torch around, confused for a moment. There were six bunks, with six crew on first break… so why wasn’t there a spare one for her? She pulled the corner of each curtain back gently, revealing the shapes of bodies behind, all cozy underneath their blankets, just as she wanted to be. Defeated, Brooke stood at the bottom of the stairs and shook her head, someone had obviously messed up the breaks, and her tired body was going to have to wait another three hours before it got a chance to sleep.
‘What happened?’ Stephen asked, as she walked glumly back into the galley. He was wiping down the galley sides, order restored quickly to the chaos she had left just a few minutes before.
‘All the bunks are taken,’ Brooke moaned.
‘Oh no.’ Stephen looked at her sympathetically. He knew how tired she was, he had been at the room party with her until 3am, and right now she wished that she had left when he did and not when the sun had come up. Despite having the whole day in her hotel room to recover, sleep had been fitful, and she really just needed to press the reset button… crew rest had been her only shining light as she had powered through the first two hours of the flight.
‘Somebody must have been confused,’ Brooke said. ‘I guess I’ll be on second break then.’ She rolled her eyes.
‘Here,’ Stephen pulled down the jump seat at the back of the galley and patted it, indicating for her to sit down. ‘I’ll make you a cuppa.’
‘’Make it strong,’ Brooke said, if she had to stay awake for another three hours she would need a huge dose of caffeine. ‘And don’t ask me to do a juice and water for at least an hour,’ she warned, her flight-attendant smile was unavailable for the foreseeable future.
‘Right, get yourself off,’ Stephen said, gently shaking Brooke’s shoulder as she sat dozing off on the jump seat. She heaved herself up and nodded, actually struggling as she tried to find the energy to talk.
‘Aren’t you coming?’ she asked.
‘No, I’m not tired,’ Stephen answered nonchalantly, cleaning the galley side again as he had seemed to be doing for hours on end. Brooke shot him the most shocked look that she could muster. Nobody declined a three-hour break on a twelve-hour overnight flight… nobody. Clearly though, Stephen was one of those superhuman types that could just keep going, and she wasn’t hanging around trying to persuade him what his was missing out on.
She followed one of the other girls in through the door and pulled it closed behind her, sliding the latch across to lock it. There was excited chatter below as the others quickly undressed and climbed into their bunks that were still warm from the previous occupants. Calls of ‘night all,’ were followed by the swish of a curtain and the extinguishing of the light behind… no one was wasting any time. Brooke waited patiently on the stairs until she could squeeze through and to the back again, having seen all the other bunks be filled and so knowing that both the coffins must be free since Stephen wasn’t coming down.
This time she could see, she was the last one in and as such was responsible for turning out the lights. Turning the corner behind the stairs Brooke was surprised to see the curtain pulled across one of the undesired bunks. Another day she wouldn’t have questioned it and would have just climbed into the other, but today she had had time to do the calculations. There was no way that she could ignore the injustice that not only had she missed out on her first break, but now someone had almost got away with staying in bed through them both; she didn’t care how tired they were.
Brooke leaned down and pulled the thick curtain of the bottom coffin back on its runners with a whoosh, hoping that the sound would disturb the inhabitant. She could make out a large man’s body, clothed and laid on his back, with an Economy blanket barely covering his legs. She knelt down to see better, unable to recognize who the culprit was, and trying to remember the rest of the crew… but apart from Stephen she couldn’t recall another male.
The light overhead didn’t quite reach into the bunk and Brooke reached out for the shoulder that she could make out closest to her, shaking it at first gently and then not so. The ferocity of her shaking increased with her annoyance, until she couldn’t help herself any longer and unclipped her torch from her belt.
‘It’s time to get up sleeping beauty,’ she said abruptly, clicking the button and shining the light rudely into his face… Brooke dropped the torch. She could hear herself making a noise, a strange involuntary mixture of a scream and a gasp, as she jumped up and backed away. Her eyes were fixed to the shape of the body that lay motionless still… the wide-eyed, dead body that had just taken the once affectionate term ‘the coffin’ to a whole new level.
Landing into London Brooke wondered how she had managed to hold it together these past six hours, knowing what she knew about what was below the cabin floor. With no intentions of diverting over Africa they had pushed on to home, pretending to the passengers that things were just dandy, smiling with gritted teeth. She sat now in First Class with the others, adrenaline still keeping her on high alert, and with an overwhelming urge to run off the plane. She knew that wouldn’t end well though, not with the dozen or so police officers that had boarded as soon as the doors were opened. With the passengers long-gone, they had had what she assumed was a debrief and were now feebly answering whatever question the police officers could think of next.
‘Do you usually check the crew rest area before leaving?’ A lady officer asked Anita, the Flight Manager, her notepad open and pen poised.
‘Yes, Chloe?’ Anita turned to the new girl who had been responsible for that, who was sat bolt upright with a petrified look on her face.
‘It’s my fault.’ Stephen held his hand up before Chloe could speak. Brooke could see the worry on his ashen face, the face of someone who knew that they had really messed up. ‘I wanted to show Chloe how to do the checks, so I went down with her to test all the equipment. I said I’d check the back bunks but I couldn’t have done it properly. I’m so sorry.’ He shook his head slowly, knowing that he had just committed the heinous crime of not doing his pre-flight checks properly. It wasn’t that they all didn’t skip the odd thing occasionally, but he had just been caught out in the most spectacular of ways. Brooke looked at him with sympathy and hoped that his honesty would go some way towards them in the office forgiving him, that he hadn’t just ended his career in this way.
‘Right folks,’ an older policeman who looked like he was in charge, appeared behind them and stood by the opened aircraft door. ‘You can all get off home now, you’ve had a long night.’ Sighs of relief were followed by crew and pilots standing and gathering their bags together quickly.
‘We are pretty sure the poor bloke was just trying to stowaway,’ Brooke overheard him saying to the Captain as she passed them huddled together in the galley opposite the door. ‘He was an airport employee, and we don’t suspect any foul play. That’s all I can tell you, but we’ll get in touch if we need any information from you.’
Brooke looked down the cabin as she made to get off, just as a black body bag was lifted through the crew rest door and into the empty cabin. Her body turned cold and she shivered, turning her eyes away quickly and walking hurriedly off the plane. All the way at the end of the jetway she could see Stephen walking with giant strides, obviously desperate to get away; she was glad that it wasn’t her that had slipped up and hoped that she would fly with him again one day so that they could talk about what had happened with hindsight; he was a nice guy.
Stephen sank back into the soft leather seat of his car. It was a beautiful day and enough of it had been wasted. He put on his sunglasses and turned the key in the ignition, the throaty roar of the Porsche engine making him smile. Brighton would be alive this afternoon, and he would be there in an hour if he put his foot down.
As he drove towards the carpark barrier he pulled up alongside Brooke who gave him a supportive wave. He tried to look worried and hoped that she bought it. No, he wasn’t worried about not doing his crew rest checks, he was quite sure that they wouldn’t sack him, maybe a painful bit of retraining and a warning… but that would be all. No, he had just got away with so much more than that.
That taught him, he thought as he sped along the M25, the speedometer passing 110 mph. No one got away with stealing from him, and especially not some jumped up South African ground staff guy who thought he was all that. He laughed as he remembered the look of shocked recognition when they boarded on the plane. There he was, his Grindr date from the previous night, mindlessly cleaning the cabin with Stephen’s missing Breitling watch proudly on his wrist.
Perhaps he had gone too far, okay so yes he had, but the scum had deserved it. He had been grinning like an excited child when Stephen beckoned him down into Crew Rest when no one was looking, thought Stephen was too dumb to notice the watch… had actually believed he was so special that Stephen wanted a repeat of their actions from the night before. No love, I wasn’t blind drunk like I had been then, and no, the pillow across your face as you lay on the crew rest floor wasn’t some part of the game you stupid piece of shit… and you realized too late…