Maybe I can calculate my way out of it? Terminal velocity, 54 m/s, @ 37,000 feet, which gives me about two and half minutes (not exactly, but considering, that’ll do). To do what? Think of a way out? Go over every detail and see if I could’ve done it better? Reassess my life via Nairobi, South B Hospital, seven and a half pounds, small bassinet in the corner of a mud-brick home, loving mother and father, primary school, high school, and Mrs Otieno telling Mama the boy’s some sort of mathematical genius. Straight to my senior year, university, and here I am, falling, third year B. Comp. Sc. branded Nike and American Dreams, Kamau in my head saying a discrete time system in which the output is equal to the input: y [n] = x [n-1], and Shana, my girlfriend telling me if I get to London, if I get to London, but Kamau rabbiting on a sine x over x type function and its Fourier transform complement. All of this, and here’s me doing the maths, a minute and fifty seconds, forty, thirty, and I can see the suburbs of London, far below the Dreamliner’s wheel-well, the big tyres coming down, grabbing for a hand-hold, but falling towards some strange infinity in the shape of suburbs (becoming clearer), streets, homes, and a fat man in underpants sunning himself in his yard, the seconds ticking down, but luckily, time waiting for me to catch up. Shana, Shana, Shana, shouldn’t have listened to the stuff about Big Ben (there, in the distance) and how someone as smart as me could make millions, lecture at a university, a proper one, not a rubbishy Nairobi one, and I could tell people, like Kamau, suppose my function is the cube root of seven minus 9: f (x) = 7 – 9

Fifty-four metres per second? No asking time to slow, to reconsider how I got up this morning, slipped on my American shoes, my American pants, read a magazine full of American dreams, before Shana came in and made sure I had everything ready, three coats, four pairs of pants, and the bottle of oxygen I’d bought for $50. See, I’m not stupid (remember that about me in fifty-nine seconds’ time). I did the research. Found that most people fall out on take-off (online schematic: ‘Boeing XC45 2003’), worked out how to get in, where to sit, where to hold. Shana’s brother, a luggage handler, counting his $100. People became unconscious, and when the wheels dropped, fell to their death. Most were never found because they ended up in the ocean. A strange, quiet, anonymous, singularly terrifying but publically invisible death of the black man, the cheap life, the numbers hardly worth counting. And it wasn’t a good survival rate. But I’d calculated it, over and over, to make sure, understand the curl of F dot n in respect to the faces, dozens of them going through my head, imagining how it would end, the sunbather getting bigger, looking up, noticing something small and black falling from the sky. What sort of equation could solve such a ridiculous problem except the knowledge that a third component of zero F (x, y) =<p, q>=<F1, F2, 0> sometimes helps. Sometimes doesn’t, still falling, and he’s squinting now, unsure, but thinking maybe it’s a black angel, or dog, lost from BA Cargo.

If I ask nicely, can you slow, can you stop, time? 54m/s per second is terminally fast, barely a moment to remember my mother’s face, her voice, the way she’d hold me at the school gate and say no, no, never, I’ll never let you go, you’re warm and wonderful and beautiful, my son. Do you know how much I love you? So much I prayed to God to give you a gift and he did! The smell of her powder, her arms, her breath, and Papa’s sweat, the feel of his hand on my chest, slowing my breathing when it got too fast. Mama! Papa! The man in his underpants standing, calling for someone, and a woman running out. I could almost wave to them, but none of it should’ve happened like this. The rewarming, the reoxygenation, who else would’ve known? The hypothermia, the big wheels squeezing the intestines out of your arse, the going mad (yes, I read, it can happen that quickly), the decompression, the nitrogen embolism, all of it calculated neatly, nicely, on the back of a legal pad, completing the transform x (n) = a u[n] 0<a<1.

I can almost call down to him, tell him to be careful, make room. Although maybe it’s more a question of physics. Newton explaining how it would end with an apple, force, mass, acceleration, although I can’t vary any of these coefficients. Just ask time to slow, to stop, so I can come to rest an inch above the earth, like Wile E. Coyote, every night on the Astor 23X in the window of the Tabaka radio shop. Nope. Mama telling me to work through each of the problems slowly, sitting beside me for hours, taking me to the exams, me scribbling x (n) = u [n] 0<a<1 as a way of making sense of the world, although there were always the dead dogs, the rapists, and Shana telling me we could do better, Max. We could live in a Manhattan penthouse. If you climbed out of the wheel well, claimed asylum.

54 m/s. It’s not slowing. His wife’s shaking her head. Mama smelling much the same, but with the clematis coming in the window. Quick, quick, quick, it can be solved, Max! Full marks, son. The world’s your oyster (opening beneath you) if you’re good at maths. Coming up to meet you, the fields of green, the trees, the high street with more people noticing, pointing up, and me at age six, running with the boys along Lusaka Road, kicking the patched ball (Papa’s), making a goal from a cardboard box, my small legs, our small legs, running about in the muddy sunshine, the way we cheated, laughed, jumped on top of each other, fell to the earth, grazed knees and broke teeth, so long, not really, six, seven years ago, and always the dream of better shoes and pants if you could become American (via London). Newton making it clear that for every action there’s a (what was it? the drift towards infinity, the value of x, y, no, e, e = 2.718281828459 … going on and on forever, never resolving, because nothing irrational ever did, and in the end, ever could).

Sitting, on the day of my entrance examination, trying to work out how 1/N transform x (y) = -N(t) could answer one of several questions about underpants, all white and baggy, the powder to cover the smell of cooking, of sour body, of dead animal in the sewer that stopped flowing every August. But I couldn’t solve it, and looked at Mama, watching anxiously, but she just smiled and whispered do your best, and I did, but it never resolved, and here are the roses I’ve heard so much about, the cup of tea on the garden table, the radio muttering something about horses, time slows and stops, and there’s no point having any regrets about where you held your foot, or how slippery the bar was (the schematics hadn’t mentioned that), or all of those equations going to waste in a beautiful English summer garden. T (period X) = I don’t know, Mama, I don’t, the linear equaliser where Lu = 0 when u is unknown and L is the linear operator, Shana it can be done but, the smell of apricot-coloured rose, of life, of love, of the end of the small dreams we dared to dream sitting in our house, listening to the sound of


 

Stephen Orr is an Australian writer of novels (most recently, This Excellent Machine), short stories (Datsunland) and various forms of non-fiction. He has an interest in how people fit (uncomfortably) into unwelcoming landscapes (ie the Australian experience).

 

Image banner: Kaj Schmidt via Flickr Creative Commons

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