Extract: Learning to Fly by Jane Lambert

I’m very pleased to welcome author Jane Lambert to the blog today. She has kindly agreed to share an extract from her novel, Learning to Fly, which was published in June 2015. You can order a copy of the book here: Learning to Fly Jane will be talking about her novel at a Blackwell’s Writer’s Event on Thursday 18th August as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Extract

It is never too late to be what you might have been  ̴  George Eliot

Reasons for and against giving up the glitzy, glamorous world of flying: 

Pros:

  1. No more cleaning up other people’s sick.
  2. No more 2 a.m. wake-up calls, jet lag, swollen feet/ stomach or shrivelled-up skin.
  3. No more tedious questions like, ‘What’s that lake/ mountain down there?’ and ‘Does the mile high club really exist?’
  4. No more serving kippers and poached eggs at 4 a.m. to passengers with dog-breath and smelly socks.
  5. No more risk of dying from deep vein thrombosis, malaria or yellow fever.
  6. No more battles with passengers who insist that their flat-pack gazebo will fit into the overhead locker.
  7. No more wearing a permanent smile and a name badge.
  8. No danger of bumping into ex-boyfriend and his latest ‘I’m-Debbie-come-fly-me’.

Cons:

  1. No more fake Prada, Louis Vuitton or Gucci.
  2. No more lazing by the pool in winter.
  3. No more ten-hour retail therapy sessions in shopping malls the size of a small island — and getting paid for it.
  4. No more posh hotel freebies (toiletries, slippers, fluffy bathrobes etc.).
  5. Holidays (if any) now to be taken in Costa del Cheapo, as opposed to Barbados or Bora Bora.
  6. No more horse riding around the pyramids, imagining I’m a desert queen.
  7. No more ice skating in Central Park, imagining I’m Ali MacGraw in Love Story.
  8. Having to swap my riverside apartment for a shoebox, and my Mazda convertible for a pushbike.    

 

‘Cabin crew, ten minutes to landing. Ten minutes, please,’ comes the captain’s olive-oil-smooth voice over the intercom. This is it. No going back. I’m past the point of no return. 

The galley curtain swishes open — it’s showtime!

I switch on my full-beam smile and enter upstage left, pushing my trolley for the very last time …

‘Anyheadsetsanyrubbishlandingcard? Anyheadsetsanyrubbishlandingcard? …’

Have I taken leave of my senses? The notion of an actress living in a garret, sacrificing everything for the sake of her art, seemed so romantic when I gaily handed in my notice three months ago, but now I’m not so sure …

Be positive! Just think, a couple of years from now, you could be sipping coffee with Phil and Holly on the This Morning sofa …

Yes, Phil, the rumours are true … I have been asked to appear on Strictly Come Dancing. God only knows how I’ll fit it around my filming commitments though.

Who are you kidding? A couple of years from now, the only place you’ll be appearing is the job centre, playing Woman On Income Support.

This follow-your-dreams stuff is all very well when you’re in your twenties, or thirties even, but I’m a forty-year-old woman with no rich husband (or any husband for that matter) to bail me out if it all goes pear-shaped. Just as everyone around me is having a loft extension or a late baby, I’m downsizing my whole lifestyle to enter a profession that boasts a ninety-two percent unemployment rate.

Why in God’s name, in this wobbly economic climate, am I putting myself through all this angst and upheaval, when I could be pushing my trolley until I’m sixty, then retire comfortably on an ample pension and one free flight a year?

Something happened, out of the blue, that catapulted me from my ordered, happy-go-lucky existence and forced me down a different road …

‘It’s not your fault. It’s me. I’m confused,’ Nigel had said.

‘I don’t understand,’ I said, almost choking on my Marmite soldier. ‘What’s brought this on? Have you met someone else?’

‘No-ho!’ he spluttered, averting my gaze, handsome face flushed.

‘But you always said we were so perfect together …’

‘That’s exactly why we have to split. It’s too bloody perfect.’

‘What? Don’t talk nonsense …’

‘I don’t expect you to understand, but it’s like I’ve pushed a self-destruct button and there’s no going back.’

‘Self-destruct button? What are you talking about? Darling, you’re not well. Perhaps you should get some help …’

‘Look, don’t make this harder for me than it already is. It’s time for us both to move on. And please don’t cry, Em,’ he groaned, eyes looking heavenward. ‘You know how I hate it when you cry.’

I grovelled, begged him not to go, vowing I’d find myself a nine-to-five job so we could have more together time, swearing that I would never again talk during Match of the Day — anything as long as he stayed with me.

Firmly removing my hands from around his neck and straightening his epaulettes, he glanced at his watch, swigged the dregs of his espresso, and said blankly, ‘Good Lord, is that the time? I’ve got to check in in an hour. We’ll talk more when I get back from LA.’

‘NO!’ I wailed. ‘You know very well that I’ll be in Jeddah by then. We’ve got to talk about this now. Nigel … Nigel …!’

For three days I sat huddled on the sofa in semi-darkness, clutching the Minnie Mouse he’d bought me on our first trip to Disneyland, as if she were a life raft. I played Gabrielle’s ‘You Used to Love Me’ over and over. I wondered if Gabrielle’s boyfriend had dumped her without warning, leaving her heartbroken and bewildered, and the pain of it all had inspired her. If only I had a talent for song writing, but I don’t, so I channelled my pain into demolishing a family-sized tin of Celebrations chocolates instead.

Cue Wendy, my best friend, my angel on earth. We formed an instant friendship on our cabin crew training course. This was cemented when she saved me from drowning during a ditching drill. (I’d stupidly lied on the application form, assuming that it didn’t really matter if I couldn’t swim, because if I were ever unfortunate enough to crash-land in the sea, there would surely be enough lifejackets to go round.)

‘Look, hon, this has got to stop,’ she said in an uncharacteristically stern tone, a look of frustration on her porcelain, freckled face. (As a redhead, Wendy has been religiously applying sunscreen since she first set foot on Middle Eastern soil as a junior hostess twenty years ago; whereas I would roast myself like a pig on a spit in my quest to look like a Californian beach babe.) ‘Okay, so it’s not a crime to scrub the toilet with his toothbrush, but who knows where that could lead? You’ve got to stop playing the victim before we have a Fatal-Attraction scenario on our hands.’ 

‘Eight years, eight years of my life spent waiting for him to pop the question, and now he’s moving out to “find himself”. I think I’m entitled to be a little upset, Wendy.’  

Prising Minnie out of my hands and hurling her against the wall, she straightened my shoulders and looked deep into my puffy eyes.

‘I promise you that, in time, you will see you’re better off without that moody, selfish, arrogant …’

‘I know you never thought he was right for me, but there is another side to him,’ I said defensively. ‘He can be the most caring and sweet man in the world when he wants to — and I can’t bear the thought that we won’t grow old together,’ I sobbed, running my damp sleeve across my stinging cheeks.

‘Come on now; take off that bobbly old cardie. I’m running you a Molton Brown bath, and you’re going to wash your hair, put on your uniform and high heels, slap on some make-up and your best air hostess smile, d’you hear?’ she said, pulling back the curtains. ‘And while you’re in Jeddah, I want you to seriously think about where you go from here.’

‘But I want to be home when Nigel …’

‘You always said you didn’t want to be pushing a trolley in your forties, and how you wished you’d had a go at acting. Well, maybe this is a sign,’ she said gently, tucking a strand of greasy hair behind my ear. ‘It’s high time you did something for you. You’ve spent far too long fitting in with what Nigel wants.’   

‘It’s too late to be chasing dreams,’ I sniffed, shielding my eyes from the watery sunlight. ‘And anyway, I just want things to go back to how they were. Where did I go wrong, Wendy? I should have made more effort. After all, he’s a good-looking guy, and every time he goes to work there are gorgeous women half my age fluttering their eyelashes at him, falling at his feet. He can take his pick — and maybe he did,’ I whimpered, another torrent of tears splashing onto my saggy, grey jogging bottoms.   

‘Get this down you.’ Wendy sighed, shoving a mug of steaming tea into my hands as she frogmarched me into the bathroom. ‘And don’t you dare call him!’ she yelled through the door.  

Perhaps she was right; she usually was. She may be a big kid at heart, but when the chips are down, Wendy is the one you’d want on your flight if you were struck by lightning or appendicitis at thirty-two thousand feet.

For the last year or so, hadn’t I likened myself to an aeroplane in a holding pattern, waiting until I was clear to land? Waiting for Nigel to call, waiting for Nigel to come home, waiting for Nigel to propose, waiting until Nigel felt ready to start a family? 

Yes, deep down I knew she was right, but I was scared of being on my own. Did this make me a love addict? If so, could I be cured?   

 

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Hayyaa’ala-s-salah, hayya ’ala-l-falah …’ came the haunting call from the mosque across the square, summoning worshippers to evening prayer. It was almost time to meet up with the crew to mosey around the souk — again. Too hot to sunbathe, room service menu exhausted, library book finished, alcohol forbidden, and no decent telly (only heavily edited re-runs of The Good Life, where Tom goes to kiss Barbara, and next minute it cuts to Margo shooing a goat off her herbaceous border), the gold market had become the highlight of my day.

Donning my abaya (a little black number that is a must-have for ladies in this part of the world), I scrutinised myself in the full-length mirror. No wonder Nigel was leaving me; far from looking like a mysterious, exotic, desert queen, full of eastern promise, it made me resemble a walking bin liner.

I read the fire evacuation drill on the back of the door and checked my mobile for the umpteenth time, then cast my eyes downwards, studying my toes. I know, I thought, giving them a wee wiggle, I’ll paint my nails. It’s amazing what a coat of Blue Ice lacquer can do to make a girl feel a little more glamorous, and less like Ugly Betty’s granny.

As I rummaged in my crew bag for my nail varnish, there, stuffed in between Hello! and Procedures To Be Followed in the Event of a Hijack, was an old copy of The Stage (with another DO NOT PHONE HIM!! Post-it note stuck to it). Idly flicking through the pages, my eyes lit up at the headline:

 

DREAMS REALLY CAN COME TRUE.

Former computer programmer, Kevin Wilcox, 40, went for broke when he gave up his 50k-a-year job to become a professional opera singer. ‘My advice to anyone contemplating giving up their job to follow their dream, is to go for it,’ said Kevin, taking a break from rehearsals of La Traviata at La Scala.

 

That was my life-changing moment; an affirmation that there were other people out there — perfectly sane people, who were not in the first flush of youth either, but were taking a chance. That’s what I’d do. I’d become an actress, and Nigel would see my name in lights as he walked along Shaftesbury Avenue, or when he sat down to watch Holby City, there I’d be, shooting a doe-eyed look over a green surgical mask.

‘What a fool I was,’ he’d tell his friends ruefully, ‘to have ever let her go.’ Hah! 

But revenge wasn’t my only motive. Faux designer bags and expensive makeovers were no longer important to me. I wanted the things that money can’t buy: like self-fulfilment, like the buzz you get on opening night, stepping out on stage in front of a live audience. Appearing through the galley curtains, proclaiming that well-rehearsed line, ‘Would you like chicken or beef?’ just wouldn’t do any more.

Inspired, I grabbed the telephone pad and pen from the bedside table, and started to scribble furiously.

  1. Apply to RADA/CENTRAL any drama school that will have me.
  2. Hand in notice.
  3. Sign up with temping agencies and find part-time job.
  4. Sell flat, shred Visa, store cards, cancel gym membership, and Vogue subscription (ouch!).

 

From: academy@ads.ac.uk

To: m.mouse@gmail.com

Subject: Audition

 

Dear Emily,

Following your recent audition, we of The Academy Drama School are pleased to offer you a place on our one-year, full-time evening course.

We look forward to meeting you again at the start of the autumn term, details of which are attached. 

Sincerely,

Edward Tudor-Barnes 

Principal

 

Whey hey! It was reckless, irresponsible and utterly mad, but I was tired of being sensible or doing things simply to please others. Ever since I’d played the undertaker in a school production of Oliver! I’d wanted to act. Okay, so I may be running twenty-five years late, but now nothing and no one was going to hold me back.

 

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