The budgie woman
by William Vickerstaff
’12A…13A…14A. Here we are!’ Ellie said to Bowser, teddy of some twenty two years and two generations, a might older than Ellie by a good fourteen years. The airline chaperone clicked Ellie’s seatbelt together, enquired that it wasn’t too tight, told Ellie to hold onto her bear – ‘Bowser!’ Ellie insisted – tightly during take-off, because it surely could be very scary for a bear with all that noise. Having received assurances that Bowser would be well cared for she got a pat on the head, told to press the magic button if she needed anything at all and left alone.
Ellie had a window seat – all the other seats on her row, all the way over to the other window, were empty. She could see a scattering of grown ups towards the front and, when she looked back the way, craning to peer over her headrest, to the rear of the plane. One of the pretty stewardesses caught her eye, waved and smiled reassuringly.
Ellie wasn’t frightened of flying – she had been on many aeroplanes (‘hairyplanes’ as her Daddy called them as they leapt and shuddered sometimes, but he would hold her hand very, very tightly and they would always be safe) but this time was her first alone. Daddy would be waiting for her when she got off, but, until then, she was on her own. Well, not really…she had Bowser of course, who was company enough for any little girl.
She decided she needed to go to the loo. The nice lady who brought her onto the aircraft had pointed them out and, as the seatbelt signs were not actually lit up, there was no engine noise and the stewardesses hadn’t done their ‘life-jacket dance’ yet (Dad again) she figured it would be fine to make a quick visit. Not wanting to trouble the busy stewardesses clanging and banging meal trolleys into place and, being as she was a big girl, Ellie unclipped her seatbelt, slipped into the aisle and headed to the rear toilets. Bowser she left to guard the seats (not quite knowing why they might need guarding, but sure he would do a good job, none the less).
When she came out she was ushered quickly back to her seat…the Cap’n (Ellie wondered how anybody could fly a plane with a hook) was ‘preparing for take-off’ and she would have to be ‘seated and belted’ lickety spit.
It was nearly night time when she had boarded at JFK. The hug Mummy had given her was tight and long and the tears she had seen in her eyes had nearly made Ellie weep. But she wanted to prove that she was a big girl and could do this. She had only ‘fessed up’ (yep, Dad) to Bowser that she was just a teeny weeny bit frightened about being on her lonesome for the ten hours it would take to get to Daddy, but everybody (including Gramps) had said it would be over before she knew it. So Ellie sat staring out of the window, as the pretty ladies did their dance, at the bright flashing lights and luggage trucks and those funny stairway things that drove around looking for people to climb up and down. The voice that told her over the intercom that the lights would be ‘dimmed for take-off’ sounded very important. Probably the Cap’n (though Ellie was disappointed he didn’t ‘Yarr’ or ‘Harr’ at all).
The take-off was scariest. The scream of engines, the pushing sensation and ears going ‘pop!’ Gramps had given her some sweets to suck if her ears hurt. But they didn’t. Nor did Bowser’s, as he declined a sucky sweetie.
As the ground fell away Ellie lost interest in the view and turned her attentions to the seat TV. As she looked around she now saw a fellow passenger in her row, at the opposite window. In the dark the figure looked more than a little scary dressed, as she was, in head to toe solid black. Ellie figured it was one of those women she had seen at school – in cultural studies - a muzlin woman, and what was it?…a yash mac. Yeah, that was it, yash mac. But this lady also had a cloth over her head, the colour of the night sky. It totally covered her head, shoulders…all the way down to her waist. Ellie couldn’t even see her hands. And she leaned forward so that her head rested against the seat in front. Motionless. Ellie guessed the poor lady was so tired she had fallen dead asleep as soon as they had taken off. Though how she had gotten to the land of nod so quickly with all the screaming and howling of the engines Lordy only knew.
The Cap’n came back on the intercom (Ellie imagined a black beard) ‘we will be cruising at thirty five thousand feet…’
Ellie watched the figure over on the other side the aircraft. With the blanket covering her so she looked like Grammy’s budgie, Timmy, when he was put to sleep of a night, ‘Now, Timmy, time to go to beddy-byes’ Grammy would say and warble whistle to calm the little yellow and blue bird as his lights were put out.
Ellie felt the aircraft lean over to turn and as it did a hand flopped out from under the budgie woman’s blanket. An imperceptible shriek uttered from Ellie and Bowser was immediately employed to cover face and protect and defend. Peeking from around the stalwart bear’s ear Ellie stared unblinkingly at the exposed extremity. The skin was like…well, what was it like? It was like something she had seen at the Zoo…a lizard maybe, or a snake…and it had drawings on its lizardy skin, symbols and scribbles and signs, like those henny drawings some of the muzlin woman had.
The hand lay still for a good long time. But, from the relative security of from behind Bowser’s right ear, Ellie could not look away.
Then it reached up and lifted the Timmy blanket. Enough to show Ellie a little of the face that went with the hand. And one, deeply glowing, red lizardine eye.
The dim glow illuminated the sign above the row of seats opposite Ellie. She looked up and read.
Ellie was looking DEF in the eye, right there, in row 14.