Penny A Scream

I drew back the curtains and peered out into the early dawn. My eyes focused, with relief for once, on the horrible grey skies and low-lying clouds. Thank God for British weather! I sighed. ‘Emily Wainwright relax!”. It would be impossible for us to sky-jump in this weather.

I knew I still had to go through the motions. So, we would all set off for Barnoldswick. A small town in Lancashire is famous only for its product of bed manufacturing. Everyone worked in some way or another for the firm Silentnight. Today was Saturday Jessica and my free day. Yippee!

Jack Wainwright (the brother) and Jessica Taylor hooted outside her garden gate. It was only 6:30 a.m. on a weekend. I climbed into the front of the little Mini, folding up my long legs and nervously slammed the door shut. “Cockerham here we come!” we sang together as they were driving towards the university town of Lancaster. I wound down the window- no electronic winder in this classic car. Who cares – it drives! I could see the blue sky on the horizon, scattered with white, fluffy clouds or maybe some looked like candy floss you buy in the village fairground.

These clouds were rushing towards them. Panic started to set in for Jessica and me, friends since First Grade in school. Both engage in nervous giggles trying to control the butterflies in their tummy. Good job Jack Wainwright was driving (I always referred to my brother by both names as there are several Jacks in the football club), or we would have been in a ditch by now This was a country road with lots of S-bends and cows and sheep were often walking in the road with the local farmer as he changed their grazing meadow.

From the back seat, Jessica tapped me on the shoulder.

“Hey, kiddo. If lads can do it, we girls can do it better!”

Jack scoffed, “Wait until you are there. See how much bravado you feminists have then!”

I was not to be deterred by a typical brotherly response, “Well, at least we will do it with more flare! Even if we scream all the whole way down!”

In truth, my stomach was plummeting, like a skyscraper elevator falling out of control, crashing towards the basement. We girls went quieter and quieter as the Mini ate up the kilometres as we motored towards their destination. Mind you, we had yet to jump! There was no turning back now, we knew we had to do it. We couldn´t renegade on a dare from my brother. Imagine all the comments afterwards from him and all his football cronies in the local “Greyhound” village pub this Saturday evening. We all grew up together The tormenting may seem unkind, even harsh. No! Just normal Lancashire banter over a few glasses of the local Thwaites beer.

Closer and closer – you could see the aeroplane overhead, spilling its jumpers into the now glorious sky. The buzzing of its engine was so loud now. Yet, Jessica and I did not take in the beauty of the event. Our only thoughts were, “Oh dear! That will be us in a bit- one after another…” or words to that effect. “What have we got ourselves into for bravado’s sake?”

Jessica said in a squeaky voice from behind, but to no one in particular, “Is my breakfast going to stay down? That is before I am hurtled out of what looks like a toy plane.” Silence now engulfs all three in the crowded little Mini. Jack was trying not to mock them – it was so funny. He had not believed for one minute they would see the dare through to the end. Then they would have to pay for his beer all evening. Now, that was a nice thought on his wallet.

Emily’s and my previous booking had been cancelled a few weeks earlier due to heavy rainfall, so we were familiar with the drill, once our driver had found a parking space on some vacant farmer’s land. Us girls linked arms for comfort and walked towards the Parachute Centre to register. Our names were chalked up on a little blackboard outside the clubhouse. The instructor told us that we jump in order, on a first come, first serve basis. Jessica’s green eyes switched from the ever-decreasing list to the skies above. The plane just kept on going. Straight up. Drop its ‘cargo’. Land. Re-load more instructors and would-be-dare-devils, some happily excited, others white with nerves, but still, they climbed in.

Jessica gasped, “What if the plane runs out of fuel?”

Jack could not resist! “Well then everyone jumps out!” Doubling over in laughter. He was ‘cruising for a bruising’ from us two girls when this would all be over. We will not forget his comments!

It was time for our final briefing. They would be next. The RAF’s (Royal Airforce) motto of “Knowledge dispels fear” sprang to mind. The organisers reminded us what to expect, where to sit, and what position to take up when we exit. (‘Quickest way down, I should think,’ Jessica muttered under her breath.) It was emphasised that they must remember to breathe, so they could relax (!!??) and enjoy the downward flight.

The briefing was over in twenty minutes, not a long time to put your faith in your instructor. I guess, long enough for you to perhaps not think too deeply about it.

Long sighs from both of us girls. Eyes fixed on terra earth, safe old Lancashire soil.

“ Jessica ‘suit-up’ now please.” My name was called to and I met Bill Tumbleweed, my tandem jumper, for the first time. The suit fitted snugly over my normal clothing. So, no T-shirt could billow out. Then I was strapped into my harness, which had four hooks (only four is that enough?) on the back and I would be attached to Bill. One hook can hold the weight of six people. I trusted them. I did not dare think further.

I was tickled pink with my vibrant, chic-looking helmet. One not to be seen in Skipton Market Town on a night out –  not even Ascot Races. My thoughts were scrambling on the edge of bizarre. Then came the goggles and gloves. While I checked my trainers were securely fastened, Bill, dear old reliable Bill, double-checked everything for me. He tightened the harness so I could hardly breathe, not that I could at this stage.

We all started to walk over the field towards the plane half-expecting to see a tarmac runway, but it was just a field. Hoping the farmer had moved all his sheep and cows off it first. Stupid, flippant waffling remarks lost on the morning breeze.

 While all the time I was preparing my calmness, this wretched cameraman, Stanley Snodgrass, (it seemed a good idea at the time to have one), was in my face. Questions, questions and more questions, my mind was racing, and I was burbling unknown sounds, but not to anyone. “Ask me later if I survive.”

The plane seemed so tiny inside, with just a bench down the middle. The instructor slid in with me sitting in front of him and Bill hooked them up together. Hah! Jessica would now jump first. I winked at Bill. I had planned that by seating order in the plane, not the blackboard list. The door was shut. Not the secure ones that the ‘Trolley Dollies’ do on Budget Flights en route to Ibiza, just a plastic sheet!

We heard Jessica gasp from near the doorway, “You’re kidding me!”

The take-off was very bumpy, across the cow-pat field and the engines were so loud on this “Islander” plane. The dear old cameraman was right in our faces. We know now why Prince Harry got cheesed off with paparazzi, and this was, for us only a one-off!

Jessica and I gripped our instructors’ hands, “Don’t let me go” the Besties said in unison. “We won’t!” The ground fell away from them so rapidly, that the planes’ wheels were locked in the undercarriage. They were committed now.

The altimeter on their wrist read 2000ft …5000ft. At 8000ft, Bill was diligently doing his final check. This was where I had to sit on his lap. After all, we were now attached by hooks. The safety-tinted goggles came down. Everyone was trying hard to concentrate on the job at hand. Michelle was so quiet, for once.

My last fleeting thought was, ‘Why would anyone willingly want to throw themselves out of a perfectly, smoothly-sounding aeroplane?’ Yet here was I, Emily Wainwright, and  Jessica Taylor placing ourselves, our lives and our perfectly formed,(well, we thought so anyway. Lol.) healthy bones, in the hands of our tandem instructors, along with our tried and tested parachutes opening. Aah! I forgot for a moment -Jack’s dare!

Is Jessica not worrying about landing? I mean, how will he not crush her, she is so petite, or at the very least, not push her face into a cow-pat on Patty’s Farm (very aptly named)? Maybe he will just arrange that for an extra laugh with the lads over tonight’s jokey questions about, “What was the funniest thing that happened today while taking those girlies up there jumping?”

The plastic sheet was pulled back. The plane is way above the clouds. Now all sense of height is lost. I glimpsed views of farmland and the River Lune’s estuary beneath them. The wind is rushing in and it’s cold. Brrrr!

Everything happened so fast then. One minute Jessica and I were clasping each other and giving the thumbs-up sign, the next minute Jessica was gone, falling away from the safety of this ‘toy’ plane. I swear my heart stopped! I honestly did fear it was the last time I would see my ‘Bestie’ in one piece.

Utter and complete panic gripped me. How on earth was I supposed to breathe? Bill had shuffled us across to the doorway. I was hanging in mid-air, trying to tuck my legs under the plane. He was rocking himself ready for flight. I was talking in unknown and, unprintable fork tongues, thinking what an appropriate surname he had for a lunatic skydiver- Tumbleweed.

Then we just went… ‘Oh, my Giddy Aunt!’

The adrenaline rush was a hundred times worse than gulping a can of Monster or Prime. My stomach felt like it was squashed into my flamboyant, pink helmet. Eyes tightly shut. The sound of that rushing wind in your ears, as you drop, drop and drop some more. All senses of your outer extremities were lost.

I take a peek as the cameraman flies into vision. Their arms are outstretched. I try to smile as we free-fall. I am on video. ‘Will it be on YouTube tonight?’ My cheeks are pulled back like I am in the wind tunnel. I think I am saving myself loads of money from ever needing to have Hollywood Plastic surgery. Really? Why am I still thinking – still overthinking everything?

Slight jolt and the rainbow parachute canopy opens above. Floating, calmer but deathly quiet. Bill asks if I am okay with sign language and I reply feebly, “Yes.”

Floating over the estuary with the sunshine turning the waters golden, I could not get over the spectacular and panoramic view that met me. Me, a young eaglet in flight. ‘What was all my fuss about?’ The tranquil beauty of the skies over Lancaster University. Then Bill points to the tiny white-painted cross we have to land on. The size of my thumbnail at this moment. Gulp!

Bill shouts, “Do you want to have a little fun?” Wasn’t this enough? Oh, whatever. He took us into spiral twists and the g-force hit my stomach.

“Enough! Stop!” Bill was laughing. Bill obliged while the queasiness ebbed. He couldn’t hear anything I was saying. Then the masochist did it again when I thought I couldn’t take much more. I could only hear his laughter echoing in my mushy head.

The patchwork of fields and cows were hurtling closer. You could see people, in the temporary car park. The cross was massive now. We drifted slowly down. Bill was running across the field. I thought it was all over, as I was dragged ungainly across the farmers’ field.

Oh no! Cow-pat – too late!

Bill unharnessed us. “You did great lass!”

Jessica was charging across the field shouting gleefully. I was trying to right myself, but my legs were like jelly, I kept toppling over. We embraced, cow-pat covered and all. We were both still in one piece. Then jumping about, “We did it! We did the dare!”

Emotionally charged I grabbed the now ‘darling’ cameraman, kissing first him and then Bill. “Bill Tumbleweed you are my hero!”

“Stanley Snodgrass don’t you dare put this video up on YouTube!”, I threatened him laughing now.

He chuckled back, “Did I hear you say ‘dare’? A dare is a dare!” Oh, no…

I smiled as we walked towards Jack’s car where he leaned against it grinning. “Well dumb little sister, you sure enjoyed sharing that cow-pat with hugging everyone. Clean up and change before you get back into my car!”

PS. If you want to know why people jump out of aeroplanes, try it yourself. It’s probably easier than you think. Skydive next weekend -if you dare!

Aside: A short story based on a true event of a friend whom I worked with for many years in Skipton, and who kindly allows me to use her intellectual property. I think she did the skydive around 2nd September 2000 (according to the scribbled notes I found). All names are fictitious.

© Rosie Reay: “The Ebrovoice Short Stories Collection.” May 2024