airport interior with skylights

Who Will Be Humbled

Gavin Michaels, his monk-strap shoes soaked in seconds by the early-morning December rain, sprinted from his black taxi to Heathrow’s Terminal Three. Once inside, he pressed the wet from his hair, shivered, and strode to Fast Track Check-In. It was largely a painless procedure, a brisk bother of “good-mornings.”

Gavin draped his drenched topcoat over his leather briefcase and dripped through the terminal’s duty-free shops. He passed the deserted World of Whiskies, Caviar House and Jo Malone boutique to Gate Seven and entered the antiseptic emptiness of the Emirates Airlines lounge. It was desolate, save for the sole hostess. Gavin caught her kohl-lined eyes and puddled into a butter-cream armchair.

“Was it soomthin’ I said?” Gavin asked her, with a smile, as he surveyed the barren room.

She noted his northern accent, placed it around the industrial city of Manchester, and ignored his attempt at levity. “Coffee? Or, perhaps, Champagne?” the hostess asked. She took his coat by the collar and shook it.

“Laphroaig,” he said. “Neat.” It had been a weary week of client depositions and Gavin, who hadn’t yet had breakfast, thirsted for a wee dram. He noticed her name etched into her gold-plated lapel badge: Samira. Her Emirates uniform of red hat, white scarf and beige suit served as a flattering stop-sign. It was professional. It was stylish. And it screamed “don’t even go there!” in no uncertain terms.

Undaunted, Gavin studied the contrast between Samira’s toffee colored skin and dark red lipstick. His intense gaze was rewarded with a tired smile and a reveal of straight white teeth.

“I’ll be right back,” she said.

Gavin marveled at the sight of her swaying to the lounge bar. “No fool like an old fool,” he thought. Decades of international travel accelerated the aging process to the point where, most mornings, he shuddered at the sight of himself in the bathroom mirror, as he patiently waited for his mental faculties to coalesce around his a.m. Adderall.

The visage that confronted him in the morning mirror amplified Gavin’s despair, which derived from the professional redundancy that encroached with the inevitability of high tide. His once-sinewy swimmer’s arms were slack and a turkey wattle jounced below his jaw. His hair had silvered far past the point of “distinguished.” The ruddy complexion of his youth, which once communicated prosperity and vigor, had dulled to grey. And his deep-set eyes were enshrouded in dark puffy pillows of flesh that stood silent witness to years of cigarettes and Scotch.

Outside, above the rain slick tarmac, a shard of lightning bisected the London sky. Gavin winced at the thunder’s boom, as he still did in reaction to virtually every unexpected blast since that cloudless September day in New York City nearly eighteen years ago. He remembered how he was still smiling after Hewitt’s ruthless, straight-set U.S. Open rout of a weary Sampras just thirty-six hours before that fateful day. Gavin stepped through the Manhattan streets to an early morning meeting at Cantor, only to find himself besieged by banshees, as a mindless genie swirled atomized death. Blinded by toxins, Gavin brushed the dust from his brow, only to tremble at the sight of his Savile Row suit, now encased in human ash.

Beyond the lounge’s rain-splattered floor to ceiling windows, Gavin watched as a queue of jumbo jets shuddered in the wind. Harried baggage handlers tossed Tumis with one hand and clutched their caps with the other. Their chores completed, they raced to warmth.

Gavin checked his Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso wristwatch and noted the time: only seven in the morning. He’d barely make his Capital Grille luncheon appointment in Manhattan. No matter – they’d just have to wait, he thought.

Samira returned with Gavin’s drink and proffered the sterling silver serving tray. “What is your flight number, sir?” she asked, as he sipped the peaty elixir. New information lit the departures board. Gavin’s flight was delayed due to weather up and down the eastern U.S.

“Well then, this will be a wait,” he said, finishing his Scotch. “Please join me.”

“I’ll be right back,” she said. And she was, along with a green bottle of Laphroaig and a Perrier for herself.

“What shade of lipstick is that? It’s stunning,” he asked.

“Thank you,” she said, her smile guarded. “It’s Guerlain Kiss Kiss, and the shade is Spicy Girl.”

“Simply stunning.”

Samira looked down. When her eyes returned to meet Gavin’s she rerouted the conversation. “Do you travel to New York often?” she asked.

Gavin placed her soft southern accent in Mayfair. “Yes, but mostly to Hong Kong,” he said. “And Australia. I have meetings in the States for another week, and then…” his voice trailed off. As he tipped his drink, his monogrammed cufflinks flashed. “And then, home. Finally.” In his mind’s eye, he opened the stout door of his Kensington townhome to an expanse of easy affluence often photographed by interior design publications.

Continuing the imaginary tour, Gavin walked past the center hall staircase to the parlor, where he sidestepped his massive Ludwig drum kit, sat on the bench of his ebony Steinway B grand piano, smiled and exhaled. Gavin arched his fingers and began Chopin’s Waltz Number Two with a tenderness rarely associated with his can’t-lose litigator peers.

“I wish you a pleasant and successful journey,” Samira said, breaking Gavin’s reverie. “It must be very difficult. All your air travel, I mean.”

Gavin put his glass down and smiled, finally warm and relaxed. “Nothing compared to when I was with the band,” he said.

She cocked her head and took a sip of water. A full impression of Spicy Girl was left along the glass’s rim. “The band,” she said flatly, eyebrows up.

Gavin explained. He was the original drummer for Dire Straits.

“Dire Straits? Seriously?” Samira asked. She scanned the lounge for newcomers; there were none. She poured two fingers of whiskey into Gavin’s glass.

“God, I loved those days,” he said. “At first, anyway. We toured the States and Europe, of course, and the Pacific Rim: Singapore, Bangkok, Manila, Tokyo. And then, there was Hong Kong. But, finally, I quit.” His tongue loosened, he told of a particular late one night at the recording studio in ’82. “We were at the famous Power Station when there was a curious pounding at the studio door,” he said.

“Our road manager, Billy, opens the door and there’s Jaco Pastorius, skinny, shirtless, barefoot, waving his fretless bass in one hand, and a bottle of Jack in the other,” Gavin said. “Mind you, we all knew he, Jaco, had a predilection for starting idiotic fights and getting himself hurt. This was during his final days with Weather Report.”

“And then what?”

“He screams like a madman: ‘I’m John Francis Pastorius III. I’m the greatest fucking bass player in the world.’ I figured, ‘well, here we go.’”

Samira shifted forward in her seat, engaged, and sipped her Perrier.

“Jaco barged past Billy, who grabs the kid by the collar and is about to give him the heave-ho. But Jaco sinks to his knees, places his bass guitar and bottle on the studio floor, folds his hands before him, and begins to preach.”

Gavin then imitated Pastorius’ American accent, to Samira’s delight. “‘And do not call anyone on earth father, man, for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. For, those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

“And we just looked at each other,” Gavin said with a boyish smile, pleased with his own performance.

“And then?”

Gavin’s voice grew somber. “As he left, I saw the boy that once was Jaco, and he said to me, ‘I’m so sorry, man. I’m so sorry.’ And, then, he was gone.” Gavin stared into his empty glass and tried hard to focus.

“I should really eat something,” he said.

“I think I can remedy that,” Samira said.

Gavin smiled as she left. He poured himself another drink, removed his necktie and chuckled to himself as Samira returned.

“You seem a bit brighter,” she said. “If somewhat far away.” She placed a small bowl of chipped ice, and a platter of toast, preserves and sweet butter before him. He took a small bite from a toast point, put it down, placed a few pieces of ice in his glass, swirled it with his forefinger, sipped and then looked up, having remembered something from long ago.

“It’s been nearly 20 years since Hong Kong’s Kai Tak International Airport closed,” he said. “I suppose you’re too young to remember the Kai Tak Heart Attack.”

Samira, for the first time that morning, laughed. “The what? You do realize that was quite a non-sequitor.”

Gavin spread some butter and preserves on the toast, took a bite and savored the flavor. Then he put down the food and spoke, the forefingers of both hands out, as if to guide imaginary jets around Kai Tak.

“Back in the day, the approach into Hong Kong was notorious. Kai Tak was built in the twenties on Kowloon Bay, opposite Hong Kong Island. It sat in a bowl, surrounded by mountains, water and, later, apartment buildings. As airport traffic increased, they built Runway 13/31. It jutted out into the harbor, and the descent was known as the Kai Tak Heart Attack.”

“OK. Do explain,” Samira said, with genuine interest. Gavin’s face brightened as she leaned forward in her seat, and his pace quickened.

“Now,” he said, fingers fully extended, “an aircraft with clearance to land on Runway 13/31 began its approach across Victoria Harbor, one of the world’s busiest ports, and densely populated Kowloon. Upon sighting ‘Checkerboard Hill’—an orange-and-white painted marker above a park—the pilot veered right, a forty-seven degree turn at two hundred miles an hour, just two nautical miles from the runway. From there, the aircraft shot over a jammed residential area.” Gavin swooshed his hand, like a descending plane, over the toast points, and past Samira’s cheek. She blushed.

“But the fun really started in typhoon season, from May to November in Hong Kong, and added even more complexity to the landing,” he said. “In good weather, with a light wind, the approach was fairly easy, once you got the hang, but with the unpredictable winds and rain, it was a real handful.”

Gavin leaned back and looked out upon the rain-swept tarmac. Samira fixed another piece of toast for him. “Here, get some more food into your stomach,” she said, offering the snack. “You really know quite a bit about flying.”

Gavin took a greedy bite. “I piloted Hawker Hunters for the RAF in Viet Nam.” He took another bite and continued.

“I think it was in ninety-three,” he said. “I was flying into Kai Tak. The weather was beastly. Halfway through the turn onto finals, a vicious rainstorm lashed the airfield and the pilot overshot the runway. Made for an interesting story.”

“What happened?” Samira asked.

“What happened was our seven forty seven’s nose and wing ended up in the harbor, is what happened,” Gavin laughed. “In ninety-eight or so, they built Chep Lap Kok. Now, Kai Tak is a cruise ship terminal, with retail, restaurants, a nice park. Decent dim sum. The paint on Checkerboard Hill is peeling; twenty years of tropical weather will do that.”

He paused and finished his drink. “Kai Tak? Kai Tak was special.”

As he spoke, Samira’s thoughts turned to her childhood, and family flights led by her Beirut-born father, a New York City-based diplomat who left war-ravaged Lebanon for the States in eighty-two. Ten years later, after the Gulf War, her father flew in and out of Iraq and at one point, he took his wife and children to visit family in Bagdad.

“A penny for your thoughts,” Gavin said. He leaned forward and stared into Samira’s eyes as she spoke.

“Yes, I suppose it’s my turn,” Samira said, her eyes now far away. “Flying into Bagdad? Our father briefed us beforehand about the importance of a quick landing. I remember that first time, with my mother and father, and two brothers, on our way to visit my jida. My grandmother. My dad held my hand and looked at us all reassuringly.

Samira clenched the armrests of her chair. “I looked out the window during final approach. The flaps extended. The landing gear dropped down and locked into place. The aircraft rolled sharply and spiraled, like one of those narrow lighthouse staircases.” She made a downward corkscrew gesture with her right hand. Her faced flushed with the memory of this early ordeal. She placed her opened hand to her heart. Gavin noticed her matching Spicy Girl nail polish.

“By the time you figure out what’s happening, the wheels touch ground with a thud and the airplane rolls to a stop. I remember turning to my father and asking, ‘What was that?’ My little brother, Sayed, had thrown up. My eldest brother, Ismael, blurted out: ‘We almost got shot down by a missile.’ I burst into tears.

“That was my welcome to Baghdad International Airport.”

At that moment, Gavin envisioned Samira as a skinny little girl with wide eyes, her soul filled with horror, a flame of pain within her. He tried to lighten the mood.

“Ah yes, the old Bagdad Corkscrew landing,” Gavin said. “The whole thing takes less than ten minutes, roughly the same as a regular approach, but it all takes place directly overhead, instead of beginning twenty miles from the runway.”

“You have no forward vision,” she said. “You see only sky, or ground. My teeth hurt after that first time. I clenched them so hard, I cracked a molar.

“But we did have a great view of Bagdad. Infinitely better than getting blown out of the sky,” Samira said.

Gavin shook his head. “At some point, after you’ve done all you can do, you give yourself over to a higher power, don’t you,” he said.

“Yes,” Samira said. “For, those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

“That poor kid, he had so much talent. More talent in his little pinky than…” Gavin downed his drink.

Outside, the wind picked up. The departure board inside the lounge flashed. The morning’s entire slate of flights was cancelled. The lounge was still empty. Gavin shook his weary head.

“It wasn’t meant to be,” he said. He locked eyes with Samira.

“Maybe it was,” Samira said. She took his hands in hers, studied his weathered face and searched for the rock drummer within. They closed their eyes as one and waited for the storm to pass.