God and the Airport Check-In Girls by Paul Taylor-McCartney

Terminal One buckled beneath the immense volume of passengers waiting to board its planes. They seemed to ooze out of gaps in the concrete or fill minute cracks in the mock-marble flooring of Departures. Toddlers clung to mums and dads for dear life. Dogs scrapped with cats and caged birds sang to one another throughout the vast, cavernous space. Across the squirming, uneven rooftops of matter, the winding queues of passengers never appeared to reduce in size. But this was no ordinary airport.

Here, no traveller quite knows how they acquired their tickets or the manner in which they travelled to the terminal – and certainly have no concrete idea of where their journey will take them. And unlike most other airports, Terminal One’s passengers craved flight – the chance to leave terra firma behind and enjoy a little mid-flight entertainment. They clutched their tickets and passports to their chests – dumb and content – inching forward in their serpentine queues to reach the check-in desks. Stephanie and Trinity have worked tirelessly for Go Missing Airlines since the day the airport opened countless decades ago. They were part of God’s initial recruitment drive to get the nation airborne. He’d hand-picked just two dozen girls from a line-up of beautiful woodland nymphs: Miss Anthrope, Miss Adventure, Miss Demeanour and Miss Creant among some of his favourite specimens. He spent most of the competition repelling young, ambitious girls eager to seduce him.  Stephanie had surmised that God was probably homosexual, with a purely aesthetic appreciation of the female form. But since God had perished – he’d accidentally overdosed on the poisonous gases of the talula plant and his young angel, Putrid, was discovered face down in God’s own swimming pool – the industry had changed beyond all recognition. Fresh directives now circulated every other minute. Info bursts loaded into headsets that rang out with this or that disembodied voice and all pretty much communicating the exact same thing. You must prepare for a gradual increase to your working hours. Promotion thresholds have had to be raised. Need you be reminded of your contractual obligations, ladies? And, worst of all: There is to be a widescale commitment to reduce the journey times of all outgoing passengers in Terminal One.

You see, in any standard, regular airport this final directive would have been well-received. Island to Continent flight times were too often drawn out and any reduction in the length of time it took to get from A to B would be welcomed by passengers with open arms. But Terminal One was no ordinary airport, as previously mentioned. In fact, Old God had once decreed that every passenger worthy of his attention would be granted the privilege of being made famous for fifteen minutes – a simple condition that appeared to be set in stone – and for many years had worked for everyone. But when Old God died, a team of executives initiated a range of strategies to bring fame, if not fortune, to every living soul on the planet.

Old God is dead. Long live our New God! went the chant. Anyway, Old God no longer had a say in such matters, and so vital seconds were shaved off his original mandate. Soon, it was fourteen minutes thirty, then ten minutes twenty–five, six minutes eleven… and so on. Modern travel and population explosions melded together whole regions of people and the world became a much smaller place for humankind. Terminal One’s new schedule was a desperate measure to ensure everyone – deserving or otherwise – was granted a seat on one of its planes.  

Stephanie and Trinity sat alongside one another but rarely spoke. Since their shift now lasted fifty weeks out of every year, they no longer made the effort to socialise outside of work. They led insular, bone-wearying lives and although this suited Trinity – she was never quite able to recall accurately how she’d even come to be a check-in girl – her colleague Stephanie wanted so much more from life than to process people for Go Missing Airlines. Whenever she had a spare minute, she glanced back and forth across the desks and the airport’s glut of passengers. She hated the girls on Compensation Airlines – she thought them to be insidious, back-stabbing devils.

Then there were the girls who worked the desk over at Break-a-Leg Airlines. They had the unenviable job of explaining to passengers they should expect to lose a limb, or in some cases a head, in order to make the regional news headlines. Of course, Stephanie preferred them to the girls at Transplant Airways, where every one of its passengers appealed to the public via patient cams – many of them hairless, sallow-skinned and in an endless search for spare marrow or hand-me-down livers.

Neither could she imagine herself feigning the degrees of sycophancy on display at I’m a Celebrity Airlines. There, loudmouthed karaoke singers and obese, chip shop owners’ sons had makeup artists apply lip gloss and accessories – a few check-in girls even following their passengers onto the conveyer belt that carried them to their planes. Stephanie was soon brought back to reality by the stinging gaze of one old dear who’d not the faintest idea how she and her husband had wound up in the airport. They both feared flying more than anything else in the world.

‘Excuse me, young lady.’

Stephanie merely affected her usual grin and placed a hand on the counter ready to receive the couple’s travel documents. ‘Yes, how can I be of assistance?’

The old lady’s top lip trembled as she spoke. ‘We can’t find the way out of here and we have to be home by five. Do you know if it’s five o’clock, yet? You see, that’s another thing, there don’t seem to be any clocks anywhere inside the terminal, and that is most unusual for an airport, wouldn’t you say?’

Taking the couple’s passports, Stephanie soon had their details gracing her monitor: ‘Well, we have a place for you on our next flight, so you’re definitely at the right counter.’

Mr Fellows looked forlornly at the check-in girl and his grey jowls animated for a second or two before he returned to his terror. 

His wife was less inhibited when she said: `But where exactly are we meant to be going, dear? There must be a gremlin in your machine – the flight intended for a different Mr and Mrs Fellows, perhaps?’

Stephanie’s patience grew to fully stretched, so she decided to speak more directly with the couple. ‘You’re scheduled to go missing. You’ll board shortly and land in some unknown place. That’s all I know – all any of us know, to be fair! Are either of you vegetarians, by the way?’

The colour drained from the old woman’s face as her mouth busied itself with yet another round of questions: ‘But what of our families?  Won’t they have something to say about our disappearance? And where exactly is this unknown place you mention? Will our poor sons know where to find us? Will we ever get to see our twelve grandchildren again?’

Stephanie straightened her back and transformed, as goddesses are apt to do, into a woman more senior in years – the image of Mrs Fellows, in fact. In an instant, the couple warmed to her.

‘Do calm down,’ Stephanie smiled. ‘I only know your disappearance will trigger a search to ascertain your whereabouts; whether or not your families locate you, is information I’m not authorised to access. I would if I could. I can’t even tell you the reasons for your disappearance, only that your golden wedding anniversary picture is scheduled to appear on the internet, milk cartons, news and radio reports for the sum total of… let’s see… seventeen seconds.’

It was the husband who spoke next, as his spouse had gone quite green about the gills. ‘Seventeen seconds? I must say, that’s not much coverage at all for two missing pensioners!’

Stephanie’s disguise quickly dissolved, and she was once again her normal self: ‘Cutbacks, I’m afraid. Fame is just not what it used to be.’

‘But seventeen seconds?’ the old man gasped, suddenly having to hold onto his wife for support.

Stephanie’s voice and tone became entirely resigned. ‘You would find journey times no greater – no less – if you flew with any other airline here, sir. Now, if you would be so kind as to help your wife onto the conveyer belt, I can attach a barcode to her and then do the same to you.’

Although deeply dissatisfied with the service they’d received, the old couple trundled forward and soon disappeared through the tiny hole in the wall beyond the check-in counter.

A moment later – as one set of goddesses signed off and made way for a less fatigued batch of check-in girls – there sounded a fanfare of trumpets. A signal of sorts, thought Stephanie, and the hall was quickly cleared of all passengers. Rather theatrical curlicues of smoke drifted to the four walls and seeped into the brickwork, a magical sight indeed – and all the more powerful for the suddenness with which everything occurred.  

‘What’s going on?’ Trinity asked no-one in particular.

Her question was soon answered when a colossal hatch in the domed ceiling slid back and there appeared a platform of mythic proportions. The last time the workers of Terminal One had witnessed such a grand gesture was over a decade ago – an identical image then but executed in reverse – when God’s feather-lined coffin had ascended the air.

Today, the same platform descended until it brought to eye level a twisted, ugly youth whose puss-filled spots covered every inch of his face.

‘Good evening, ladies,’ he announced, the fanfare cutting part way into his greeting and lessening the impact of his arrival. ‘My name is New God – recently appointed Director General of Terminal One.’

Stephanie and Trinity eased forward on their stools, as did many other goddesses.

‘My job’ he smiled, ‘is to ensure we’re all working to capacity by monitoring the overall quality of the service we provide.’

New God then stepped from the platform and lost a good three feet in height. In reality, he was no taller than a breakfast-bar stool.

‘I must confess,’ he continued. ‘I’ve already been hard at work crunching the data, assimilating reams of numbers from various surveys and highlighting areas of concern. It’s been my job to analyse and now – unfortunately for some of you – provide my withering critique.’

New God’s long-winded report unfurled before the line of check-in girls, like it was the aquiline neck of some great, fantastical beast. They could only watch on as New God referred to such and such a date when this or that airline had carried more or less passengers than a rival company and – for the first time since the airport had opened – the words competitive fervour were uttered and the check-in girls feared for their positions as one.

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‘From today,’ he grinned, ‘I’ll publish a league table based on how many members of the public each airline manages to process in a single day. The results for yesterday are already in and I’m pleased to announce I’m a Celebrity Airlines is top of the pile!’

Only the check-in girls from that airline applauded themselves, whilst all others sat in silence awaiting New God’s next announcement. ‘Of course, someone must appear at the bottom, and that honour goes to Go Missing Airlines…’

Stephanie’s cheeks flushed with anger to the same depth that Trinity’s were plunged in embarrassment.

A perfectly manicured hand was soon thrust into the air. God nodded once to Stephanie for her to speak. ‘Miss Scellany,’ she began, rather nervous now everyone was staring at her. ‘Go Missing Airlines. We’ve been extremely busy these last few years – what with the world’s population increasing and people bowing out of life, but I simply don’t see how we can hope to compete against the likes I’m a Celebrity Airlines. And to that end, what will happen to companies repeatedly appearing at the bottom of your league table, sir?’

New God simply frowned and stood motionless for ten seconds until he spoke. ‘Underperforming airlines will be monitored more closely, of course. Its check-in staff reprimanded – a report filed, that sort of thing. Nothing more threatening than that I can assure you, Miss–?’

Stephanie took a deep breath and continued: ‘… Scellany, sir. Sorry, does that mean our airline is already failing and we should prepare for an intervention from you?’

New God turned his back on the check-in staff and mumbled a few words to a group of directors, stood close by. They appeared to share a joke before New God returned to Stephanie and the matter at hand: ‘If it was the case that Terminal One – and therein any airline operating within Terminal One – was working to full capacity, then there would simply be no need for an authority–figure like myself to step in and take charge, should it be required of him. Sadly, your airline, Miss Scellany – as well as many more besides – is not processing as many people as one would have hoped… and that, to put it simply, is not good enough!’

Stephanie was stunned. She next felt the cool, crisp tips of Trinity’s fingers rest lightly on her wrist. ‘Let it go, darling. God always knows best.’ But Stephanie questioned this New God. In her humble opinion, he knew nothing. Stephanie quickly came to deplore his arrogance, his unfeeling manner, his negative attitude to the older members of Terminal One’s workforce. In fact, most girls soon learnt this New God was impossible to please. He began from the premise that only he and the members of the board were industrious, with increased passenger numbers prized above all else. A few check-in girls, led of course by Stephanie, were considered rebellious types and were watched with extra vigilance by God’s team of spies and sycophants.

She turned to her friends during one tea break and asked: ‘And how exactly are us poorer performing airlines supposed to increase our numbers?’

It was a girl from Break a Leg Airlines who answered: ‘You could try what some check-in girls have started doing – that is, distributing a little promotional literature among the passengers. Might help you pitch your brand above someone else’s?’

Stephanie’s eyes widened – surely that sort of diabolical behaviour wasn’t going on. She had to ask: ‘We all offer the same deal though, don’t we?’

Another girl dragged the last of the nicotine from her cigarette and shook her head in a very matter-of-fact manner. ‘All the other girls are up to it. They don’t want to get on the wrong side of this New God, you see, so they usher passengers to one side and convince them they should fulfil quite different destinies to the one originally planned for them.’

Stephanie stood from her chair and flicked a few strands of loose hair away from her face. ‘And they’re promising longer journey times, I suppose?’

‘Not just promising,’ cut in the girl from Transplant Airways. ‘They’re delivering. I’ve actually seen one desk assigning passengers anything up to a minute’s worth of fame…’

Stephanie stood from her chair and paced back and forth across the cafeteria. ‘As much as a minute, you say? Small wonder that some days we’re struggling to meet our numbers!’

Another girl spoke next, her timid voice in stark contrast to all the others who had spoken before her: ‘Actually, New God’s latest directive states all airlines can now – when and where necessary – pay less attention to the needs of each passenger.’

On hearing this, Stephanie left the room, unable to comprehend the extent of this New God’s ignorance and, for the first time since leaving Heaven, she sobbed.

A long week later, Stephanie and Trinity no longer communicated on any level. The latter said she’d grown used to living in a dictatorship, even having difficulty recalling God’s previous incarnation. Stephanie knew deep down that nymphs like Trinity would temporarily keep this New God’s empire afloat, but it was obvious that Terminal One was clearly no longer a platinum-standard service. It’d quickly fallen on hard times and Stephanie contemplated the unthinkable – the previously unutterable – resigning from her post as check-in girl and living out the remainder of her days as a lowly mortal.

Naturally, New God being what he was, refused her offer of resignation – claiming he couldn’t afford to lose such a valued member of staff. In truth, Stephanie knew he hated her as much as she hated him. What he really feared was the scope of her influence and the backlash that would ensue, following her sudden departure – a host of resignations soon appearing on New God’s desk. The board would quickly bay for his blood if Terminal One’s infrastructure faced erosion from within. It was clear, New God was only as powerful as those who believed in him. So, should his fragile house of cards come tumbling down, he would naturally forfeit his position, if not his life.

‘I need to find some away out of here,’ Stephanie whispered to her screen, noticing only then a passenger stood at Trinity’s desk – a man of quite peerless beauty. His commanding presence urged the space about him to give way; in his striking green eyes there lurked a certain mystery. Stephanie regretted him going to her colleague’s counter, but she heard what he had to say, nonetheless.

‘I’ve always known about this place,’ he remarked. ‘A meeting place of sorts.’

Trinity merely nodded as she checked his papers, her mind evidently on some other topic, doing her best to ignore the passenger as he spoke on. ‘I’ve often wanted to run so far from them. Sometimes in the middle of conversations, just rise from my chair and, well… disappear.’

Stephanie looked at Trinity’s monitor and caught the man’s name in time before it vanished from the screen: Kenneth Lawrence Hampton.

The thing that always stopped me in the past,’ the passenger added, ‘were feelings of guilt, as they may never discover what became of me.’

It was at this point Trinity attached a long strip of bar code to the man’s left wrist. Stephanie longed to be that strip of paper – to be lashed to him, sticky and closefitting. Her mind raced through the possibilities… The long hours she’d spend gazing into the swirling hues and tones of his eyes. His perfect mouth connecting with her own. The cradle of his hips against hers. The pleasure of exploring his body and breaking through the seemingly impenetrable defences of his mind.

‘So, that’s it?’ Hampton asked at last, wondering next how his sizable body was to squeeze into the tiny gap at the top of the conveyer belt.

‘You’re all done, sir.’ Trinity beamed. ‘Have a pleasant onward journey!’

As the passenger mounted the runway, he surveyed the check-in hall one last time – a room teeming with people from all walks of life. He also saved one last look for Stephanie – the enigmatic goddess who’d been studying his every move the last five minutes. And it was this fleeting glance, whose brim ran over with lust and longing, that set Stephanie’s heart alight and provided her with a solution to her current problem.

She told no one of her plan to escape her dreary life, with its perpetual cycle of disappointments – her actions becoming ever more accountable. In fact, the moment there appeared a slump in passenger numbers, she trawled through the airline’s directory of female names. Her eyes soon settled on one Odi Mahano who was, that very evening, due to fly with Go Missing Airlines. With some careful editing, Stephanie fixed it so that woman would never experience her seventeen seconds of fame. They were to become Stephanie’s instead.

All she had to do then was adopt a suitable name from all the wonderful names she’d encountered over the years, attach a bar code herself, leap up onto the conveyer belt and fill the spare seat on the late plane out of Terminal One. In the skin of her invention, Helen French, she would go in search of Kenneth Lawrence Hampton and, as is the way with all goddesses who’ve been imbued with a sense of their own mortality, she would make it appear she’d been lost to the ether. Just like one of her passengers, in fact. When, in reality, she would become the exact opposite of lost.

She’d become found.

About The Author

Paul Taylor-McCartney is a doctoral researcher with Leicester University, following a part-time PhD in Creative Writing. His research interests include dystopian studies, narratology and initial teacher education. His poetry, short fiction and academic articles have appeared in a range of notable UK and international publications including Aesthetica, The Birmingham Journal of Language and Literature, Education in Practice (National Association of Writers in Education), Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine and Dyst: A literary Journal. He lives and works in Cornwall.

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