by Lincoln Donald
I fly back and forth between Sydney and Los Angeles so often that I have become quite sensitive to any variations in the regular routine aboard the aircraft. Last month, on the 14-hour non-stop return journey to Sydney and about two hours before we were due to land, the cabin crew began whispering in nervous huddles. I sensed something was wrong, perhaps seriously wrong. But it wasn't until after breakfast had been served and we were only a half hour out that the Skipper came on the line.
"This is John Williamson, your Captain, speaking. We should be arriving at Kingsford Smith Airport in Sydney at 0933 hours on what ought to be Sunday the 8th of July." He paused. "I say it ought to be Sunday because . . ." There was another long pause broken only by a few crackles from the speaker. "I don't quite know how to put this . . . . Despite crossing the Date Line, the aircraft still seems to be travelling through Saturday, caught in some kind of time warp. Put simply, it appears we failed to loose the day we should have lost when we crossed the International Date Line and are 24 hours ahead of schedule. I know this defies logic, but the flight from Los Angeles which was due to arrive on Saturday is about two minutes ahead of us and we are in visual and radar contact with it. I can hear their radio exchanges with Air Traffic Control, but both they and the controllers seem deaf to our transmissions." He paused again. "As far as I can tell we are not in any danger and I will keep you advised of developments."
I must have crossed the International Date Line, that imaginary line that bisects the Pacific Ocean, more than fifty times. As a Brisbane-based advertising executive responsible for the account of an American fast food company, I travel to Los Angeles once a month for planning meetings at the client's head office. I always find it easier to accept the phenomenon of gaining a day -- I even had two birthdays one year -- than of losing a day. I am never sure where all those lost days have gone, but I know I must lose that day if I am to line up with the day and date in Australia when I arrive home.
I usually leave Brisbane on a Saturday and pick up a direct flight to Los Angeles from Sydney. I arrive back in Sydney the following Saturday, sometime after breakfast. I often spend the weekend there with my daughter Julie and her family, playing 'Pop' to my two small grandchildren. Then I return to Brisbane.
Had I been following my usual schedule, I would have been on the aircraft which was now just ahead of us, but the American Independence holiday had interrupted my meetings and delayed my departure. On this trip, crossing the Date Line meant I would loose Saturday and with it the third birthday party for Joshua, my grandson. However, I consoled myself with the thought that I would arrive in time to visit him on Sunday, his actual birthday.
The initial reaction of the passengers, most of whom were exhausted from trying to sleep through the long night across the Pacific, was a disbelieving mutter which was only broken when an elderly lady took beads from her handbag and began to recite quietly, "Mary, Mother of God, ... " Everyone started talking at once, but before anyone could panic, the Skipper was back on the line.
"As Air Traffic Control is totally unaware of our presence, we have decided to follow yesterday's flight as closely as is safe and to land directly behind it. I will park the aircraft at a safe distance from the terminal until we find out what's going on. All passengers should assume the emergency landing position illustrated on the card in your seat pocket when the "Fasten Seat Belts" sign comes on. Once again, let me emphasise that I don't think there is any danger but it is better to err on the side of safety. If you have any problems, the cabin crew will assist you."
We held our collective breath but it was the smoothest, safest landing in a 747 that I could remember. We taxied close behind the earlier flight until, near the terminal, the Captain pulled away and parked this hulking great aircraft on the tarmac apron and shut down the engines. We sat and waited to see what would happen next -- and we waited and waited. Nobody had taken the slightest notice of us. After a quarter of an hour it was clear that nothing was going to happen unless we made it happen. It was a worried sounding Captain who came back on the line.
"My radio transmissions are still not being acknowledged and I can't imagine that we could be ignored like this if anyone in the tower or the terminal can see us. I can only conclude that we have in some strange way been rendered invisible because we should not actually arrive here for another 24 hours. I have decided to activate the emergency slides so that you may leave the aircraft. There is no urgency about this as there is no emergency. Please don't rush. Just take your time. I repeat -- this is not an emergency. When you reach the tarmac please remain in the vicinity of the aircraft until we can assess the situation. The cabin crew will tell you when to begin disembarking and will assist you. If you feel physically unable to leave the aircraft in this way please tell one of the crew and other arrangements will be made. Thank you."
Apart from two elderly ladies and an old gentleman with a walking stick who elected to remain on board, we all made it to the ground without incident. In fact, I quite enjoyed myself; it was like being back on the slippery-dip in the park when I was a kid. I had expected that the emergency evacuation of an aircraft so close to the terminal would have caused an almost instant wail of sirens and a speedy foregathering of emergency vehicles from all over the airport but there was not even the hint of a reaction.
Suddenly I realised I could be at Joshua's birthday party if I could only work out how to get there in my apparently disembodied state. Normally I would take a cab to Central Railway Station, a train to Pennant Hills and walk from the station to Julie's place. Leaving my fellow passengers standing around the aircraft, I hurried to the terminal and slipped surreptitiously through Immigration and Customs.
I have often felt invisible when ignored by taxi drivers, waitresses, and shop assistants, but this time I soon proved to my own satisfaction that neither the cabbies nor their would-be passengers could see or hear me. I lurked near the head of the queue until I heard a man say "Central" and slipped into the back seat of the cab while he was stowing his luggage in the boot. Checking the clock and the indicator boards on arrival at the station I was pleased to see I would arrive just as the party was getting into full swing. It was to be a lunch-time affair so that the adults could enjoy a smorgasbord while Josh and his little friends stuffed their faces with fairy bread, ice cream and birthday cake.
There were plenty of empty seats on the train but as I was not sure what would happen if someone tried to sit in the seat I was occupying, I elected to stand. At Pennant Hills I strolled up the hill from the station to the charming old house Ron and Julie were busy renovating. Avoiding excited small children, I sidled in the open front door. Retiring to a quiet corner, I settled back to dote on Joshua, my about to be three-year-old grandson and Ailsa, my almost two-year-old granddaughter. There were seven mothers and about a dozen very active little kids who were never still long enough for me to count them accurately. I couldn't really participate in my disembodied state but decided it was a better way of filling in my time than hanging around the airport.
As the climax of the afternoon Julie emerged from the kitchen holding aloft the birthday cake with its three large candles. Everyone gathered round to encourage Josh in his efforts to blow out the candles. It was then that I felt a tug on my trousers leg and heard a small voice saying "Pop. Pop." It was Ailsa, telling me in her own way that she wanted me to pick her up so that she would get a better view of proceedings. Without thinking, I bent over, scooped her up in my arms and moved behind the small crowd in front of Josh and his cake. He huffed and puffed several times to the out-of-tune accompaniment of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" and blew out the candles one by one. Suddenly it struck me -- my little granddaughter had been able to see me and was now contentedly curled up in my arms sucking her thumb. I took her to her bedroom, tucked her up in her cot, replaced the thumb with a dummy and crept out the front door to reassess the whole situation.
My cheery "Good-bye! Hope you enjoyed it," to a couple of departing mothers was totally ignored. Even Joshua failed to notice me as we almost collided when he rushed out to say good-bye to one of his friends. Accepting the inevitable, I set out for the railway station. I wasn't sure why I was going back to the airport but felt it was important to be there when the flight I had been travelling on was due to arrive. I didn't know whether I would meet myself disembarking or what might happen but I had a gut feeling that it was vital to be there. There were plenty of people at the taxi rank at Central Station wanting to go to the airport. When I arrived, I found a quiet corner in the Overseas Arrivals lounge in which to curl up and go to sleep. I was awakened by someone gently shaking my shoulder.
"Would you like some breakfast, Sir? We are only about an hour out from Sydney."
We were back on the aircraft, and my first thought was that it had all been a very vivid dream, but, after breakfast, I was quickly disabused of that simple explanation for the strange events of the past 24 hours.
"This is Captain Williamson. I am pleased to welcome you back on board Flight 962 from Los Angeles to Sydney. We have been cleared to land at Sydney's Kingsford Smith Airport at 0935 hours local time on what, I am pleased to say, is definitely Sunday the 8th of July. The weather in Sydney is fine and sunny with a forecast maximum temperature of 21 degrees Celsius." After a long pause he went on, "Over the past 24 hours we have all been through a very strange experience but everything now appears to have returned to normal. However, as the air traffic authorities and the airline are totally unaware of this incident, neither I nor any member of the crew intends to report it. We would only be laughed at and possibly tested for hallucinogenic drugs. If any of you feel disposed to complain to the company or speak to the media, I will, of course, deny that anything out of the ordinary occurred on this flight. We will arrive in Sydney at the correct time on the day on which we were scheduled to arrive. I suggest we all forget the whole incident. Thank you."
He paused again, then went on, "The company requires that, at the conclusion of each flight, I advise my passengers as follows. I do so on this occasion without much conviction." He cleared his throat. "Thank you for travelling with Amalgamated Airlines. I trust you enjoyed your flight and will choose to fly with us again the next time you travel."
We landed without incident. I took a cab to Central and the train to Pennant Hills to give Joshua his presents and spend three or four precious hours with him on his actual birthday before flying on to Brisbane.
After a few weeks I was quite prepared to believe I had dreamt the whole thing. But I hadn't. A couple of days ago, after yet another trip home from Los Angeles on which the Dateline behaved itself, I was visiting Julie in Sydney when she handed me a bundle of snapshots.
I leafed through the photographs, making appropriate appreciative comments
until I came to the two shots of Joshua blowing out the candles and cutting
his birthday cake. There I was in the background, standing behind the kids
and their mothers, holding Ailsa high in my arms so that she could see
what was happening.
Lincoln Donald is an Australian writer. Apart from stints as a freelance press photographer and a diplomatic courier, he spent most of his working life in middle management in various government and commercial organisations. In all these jobs he needed to write, but it was dull stuff, with the facts frequently getting in the way of a good story. Now retired, he only discovered the joys of writing fiction a few years ago. On the net his stories have been published in a number of zines including EWG Presents, Story Bytes, Writer's Hood, and AntipodeanSF. He is a regular contributor to Seeker Magazine. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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"The Day That Never Was" © Lincoln Donald. Used by
permission of the author.
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