Par Avion

I have never asked for power over people's lives. Every time I see these things I feel ill and haunted for days.

In May 1932, just before leaving on a flight to Zurich, I made the acquaintance of Samuel Permezel, a man who made a rather startling claim. It was a tale which I found hard to believe at first, but one which subsequent events made hard to dismiss. Permezel was a taxi driver, and our journey from my hotel to Lyon-Bron Airport was long enough for him to tell me his story. He was a tall, thin, ugly man, and as he hauled my luggage into the taxi I noticed a wide scar stretching down from beneath his cap to his right eye.

"So you are English, ah? Ha, to think you English were our enemies for hundreds of years... but then we became friends because of the war. C'est la vie! So you are my friend. But of course you were too old to fight in the war. You are lucky. I was in the French 6th Army - at the battle of the Somme I was hit in the face by a splinter of shrapnel. They thought I was dead for two days. It was only when they stopped fighting to take away the bodies that they saw I was still alive. The metal was stuck behind my eye, but the doctors said it would be best to leave it there - so I was pensioned off, and now I am a taxi driver. But sir, you know this lump of metal, it has given me the ability to see the future."

"Oh, really? Goodness me!"

"I know it sounds, er... how would you say, jolly rum what? But just listen! Sometimes, in the morning, I find that my left ankle had become jammed underneath my right thigh while I was asleep. Then, throughout the day, everything that I eat or drink tastes like absinthe! And, perhaps two or three times, I have these strange daydreams, ideas coming as if from nowhere or for no reason. It is only in the days afterward that I will learn of some event, never far away from where I live, that I had already seen before... You see? For instance, in 1921 I woke in such a way, and whenever I was not driving my taxi I would suddenly find myself thinking of a large building on fire, with the firemen struggling to put out the flames. It was three weeks later that a fire destroyed the south wing of the Lyon Museum of Post-Roman Archaeology. But I am rarely given enough knowledge to change the course of tragic events."

"But couldn't that just be a coincidence?"

"No, no, no, I assure you that it happens too often to be so. No, it is real."

He turned briefly from the steering wheel to look me in the eye...

"If only it were not. Let me tell you about a time when I have been given enough knowledge to change things. In the winter of 1929, I woke to one of my days of premonition, and all morning, with feelings of an intensity I had not had before, I saw a truck falling down a snow covered hill, injuring and killing people as it went, then smashing through the ice covering a river. I did not recognize the place, but from the slope of the bank I guessed it to be a place near the Saone. I told them I was ill and could not work my roster, and I went there. It did not take me too long before I found the river bank that I believed I had seen in my vision. High on the bank was a part of the road that curved in a way that might be risky to a passing vehicle, and between the road and the river there were people moving about their daily business. Despite the cold and snow beginning to fall, I decided I had to stand there all day, to see how I might stop the tragedy. The snow continued to fall, and the road surface became more slippery - I suspected that this would be the cause of the accident. I walked further along the road and waved to vehicles to try to make them take more care.

"The first few vehicles turned safely. But then, a truck coming toward me seemed to panic from my waving, and braked too hard. Its rear wheels locked, and its tail swung out, causing it to slide sideways along the road, out of control. It slammed into a roadside café with an explosion of shattered glass, wicker furniture and the bodies of the bystanders.

"So events such as these have made me realise that any serious attempt at changing what I had seen results in them unfolding in a different way, but just as tragic."

As he spoke, he seemed to grip the steering wheel tighter, as if it was the wheel of a ship in a storm...

"I am not a politician, I am not an industrialist. I am a simple man - I have never asked for power over people's lives. Every time I see these things I feel ill and haunted for days. And it is only in the slightest of ways that I can alter the course of fate for the better..."

His conversation was paused by the necessity of negotiating a large street intersection, but he didn't seem interested in continuing his story once we had driven through it, so I said nothing. As we neared the airport, a sweeping rain had begun to lash in waves across the windows of the taxi. When we arrived I was tempted to wait until the rain had eased, but realised I might miss the flight, so I turned my coat collar up and stepped into the rain. As I helped the fellow wrestle my luggage out of the vehicle, he said,

"Enjoy your flight tonight, sir. Where are you going?"

"To Zurich. I've never been there - I've seen many of the cities of Europe, but travelling to a new one is always exciting."

"You are certainly a lucky man, sir. Wonders behind you, and wonders yet to see!"

"Yes indeed! Well, thank you, and here."

I paid him the fare, plus a handful of coins of various currencies which had been accumulating in my travels. He thanked me and returned to his taxi, but seemed to turn and look at me for a moment or two before he climbed in.

The rain had made the darkness of the evening fall earlier, and by the time I was directed toward the aeroplane from the hangar it was very hard to see anything at all. The aeroplane was smaller than most of the liners plying the routes of Europe, and with its biplane construction and worn paintwork it looked as if it had just returned from a dogfight over the trenches. Inside the cabin there were seats for eight passengers and the pilot - there was a strong smell of engine oil and gasoline, and the seats were shabby and uncomfortable. I was the only passenger that night, and was instructed to sit towards the front by the pilot, a blonde, Germanic type with an aggressively jutting lower lip. His pre-flight preparations outside of the aircraft seemed to be more concerned with getting out of the rain than doing his job properly. Eventually he climbed back inside and took his seat.

Even though I had never flown before, I was constantly reminding myself that my fear must not stop me from new experiences. But as soon as the engines were started, the entire cabin was flooded with a horrendous clattering which was extremely alarming, and I had to calm myself by an act of will. I glimpsed the four or five instruments in front of the pilot... it seemed that there were hardly enough to tell him anything at all, particularly in the darkness. He kept working at his controls, and the plane began to move and moments later seemed to float off the ground in a rather haphazard fashion.

For some time the aeroplane moved through the darkness, the rain streaming along the windows and the engines roaring. There was no sense of forward movement or orientation, only the continual buffeting of the weather. As we rose higher, the cabin grew colder, and I was forced to button up my coat... I had been given no time of arrival in Zurich, so I had no way of knowing how long I would have to endure the experience. My misery was growing worse every minute, when suddenly there was a tremendous shock to the plane, as if it had been hit by a sledge-hammer. The engine on the right began to spit shreds of flame into the night - the pilot looked back and cursed, then began to work at his controls. The engine's propeller stopped, and the plane suddenly felt as if its nose had swung to the right like a drunken man. The left engine started to howl even louder, and the aeroplane seemed to be skidding sideways through the air. The pilot kept struggling at his controls, and I began to fear that he was too busy keeping us in the air to work out where we were going and what to do next. At one point the plane began to tumble with terrifying violence, and it took repeated frantic kicking movements by the pilot to regain some sense of control.

In all my travels I had never looked death in the face as I did that night. To be facing such a violent end, and yet be utterly incapable of doing anything to increase one's chances of survival, or even to know when the end would come! How could the pilot know where he was, and where he might be able to land? And then, in words punctuated by the distraction of staying airborne, he began to yell at me through the roaring of the remaining engine...

"LOOK DOWN!!... LOOK DOWN!!"

"WHAT??"

"DOWN!!"

"AT WHAT??"

"LIGHTS!! LIGHTS!!"

"WHAT LIGHTS?"

"FIND... TOWN!! LOOK AROUND!!"

I could hardly see which way was down, let alone make out any lights, but it was clear that unless we were able to make out some sign of habitation beneath us, we would be unlikely to survive the night. I kept looking back and forth through the windows, searching until it seemed as if my eyes would seize up, but I could see nothing, and so my death was becoming a certainty, and my horror began to overwhelm me...

Then, from nowhere, and for no reason, a word came into my head... "Behind."

I looked out the window, backward, past the tail of the plane... I stared in that direction, as the plane jolted about... I kept staring into the rain... and then, far off, almost too faintly to be seen, I caught glimpses... there was something, behind the tail...

"BEHIND US!! BEHIND US!! DOWN THERE!! LIGHTS!!"

The pilot didn't look to confirm my sighting, but wrestled the plane around. We plunged out of the heavens, reeling from one side to the other, through the rain and darkness. Sure enough, there were lights, and as we came closer we could see a little town. The rain had started to abate, and the pilot flew an unstable sweep over the town to find somewhere to land. Our luck held, as the pilot managed to see a small field.

"GET READY!" he yelled as we neared the ground. The plane fell down and slammed onto the grass, rolled for a short distance, and the noise of the engine died away. The instant that the plane stopped moving I wrestled the cabin door open and staggered away, eventually collapsing to my knees in mental exhaustion.

We had survived against overwhelming odds. The townsfolk rushed out into the miserable night to assist, astonished and agitated themselves over our survival. We had been flying over the western Alps when we ran into trouble, and the region had quite a high elevation, with the winds often associated with mountainous terrain.

In the end, I travelled the rest of the way to Zurich by train. The fact that it was I who had spotted the little town did nothing to assuage the overwhelming horror of the experience, and I vowed I would never fly again. As I sat in the train, my nerves began to return to some level of equanimity, and I was able to reflect on my ordeal without too much distress. It was only then that I remembered the off-hand words of the taxi driver as we parted... "Wonders behind you..."

Much later I obtained his address, and wrote to tell him that I suspected he had saved my life on that rainy evening in the sky, and to express my gratitude. He replied in a vague manner that neither asserted nor denied that he had made any difference to what had happened that night, and finished by telling me that he had taken to sleeping with a cushion underneath his left knee.

July, 2010

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