Photograph by Tomer Ifrah, Story by Mazin Saleem
I modelled a calm attitude for my manager to settle the waters after the scene with the air-rage dad. The rest of our team didn’t look at me as they walked along the beachfront, trailing skimmers like lacrosse nets. Calming me better was the stark, school-like way this morning’s screams and splashes had swapped with a tinny, echoing quiet. Even our wave machine had hushed itself out. Worse than the dad’s volume and his kids treading on my sandals was what’d enraged them and where. On the hull above their table, where their babyccinos had supposedly arrived lukewarm, the quilted dapple of the pool merged with sunlight through the girders. I thought of the watery reflections of a camera obscura in science class, of the heartrending sweep of headlights across the ceiling of my childhood bedroom. I was pulled back down by the chuckle of the pool filters, the ventilation fan’s monotone breath and the all-encompassing hum-and-strum of the airship.
Clipboard in hand, I followed the shoreline, ticking off boxes. Once I’d filled the last I could let in the throng. In seconds every table would be full, every fresh towel, every mobile disc of shade beneath the palm trees planted too near the sun. The air-con gave just a hint of the chill through the walls. As I sat on a lounger to check its regulation 40º tilt, the wall behind phased from translucent to transparent, apart from where our slogan was printed. Above the reverse lettering, the vault of the blue sky deepened; below, the plain of clouds widened; then a break in the clouds showed sea, spread amid fronds of farm-tiled, road-laced land. Between sea and land the shoreline wasn’t a line but a grading of yellows, greens and feathery blues.
The hull in the next chamber, where I’d had to move staff from the casino to help out, stayed transparent from launch. Its pool was a clear suspended tube; swimmers could look down through the sun-flaked water at the curve of the Earth. Marketed as near as a human could get to personally flying, the pool jostled with jealous guests inside and envious guests outside. The airship’s stately pace made swimming in here less like the dive and dart of a flying dream than a near-death or out-of-body experience, or so guests wrote in the ‘What did you like?’ box of their feedback forms.
That all the chambers demanded so much time from our staff can’t, though, have just been due to their elevation. Swimming miles above ocean, skiing miles above mountains, building sandcastles in the sky… the tender anguish of these adventures had to be due as well to their surreal juxtaposition. How marvellous that sand from a prehistoric seabed now reposed in the sky as a fake beach. How wondrous that these great tongues of lukewarm water inside the airship travelled through air so cold outside that it made huge feathers of vapour and ice. What were scientific advances or lucrative new technologies compared to our lounge pianist playing ‘Clair de lune’ in the almost horizontal light of the moon itself? Or our guests joining the Mile High Club not in sealed-off plastic loos but in bubble bedrooms surrounded by clouds? I should’ve told that dad to come with me on a walking tour - they weren’t expensive (weren’t cheap either) - out on a gantry, masked and tethered, to sit with feet dangling off the edge and at a tilt from the air current, even at our gentle cruising speed. Shown him how we dwarfed the Earth and not the other way round.
When I was about to let in the afternoon stampede, my manager caught my eye. She pointed towards the beach, where our slogan lay sloped in reverse like the shadows of geometric clouds. With a tut, she pointed farther out. The wave machine was always meant to be subtle, not churning tall breakers for our guests to surf but a low tumble up the beach then a hissing drape back down. Beyond subtle—the machine wasn’t on. Without it, the airship engines left a fizzy grid uniform across the pools and indoor seas. Their waters looked like a blank spreadsheet at a rolling boil.
This was my real job, combing this spreadsheet out of sight of the guests, shoring up their illusions against the tide of reality. Because in among the surrealism were more mundane juxtapositions. Till the tours of our airships, never before had used plasters floated in chlorinated and lightly salted water through the troposphere. Never before had urinal cakes crisscrossed the sky like so many sodden UFOs. We’d had to seal the balconies after too many guests took the rare chance to litter from ten-thousand feet. All the news stories had led with the same photo, of a hermit in a deep forest who’d felled an ancient fir only to find its topmost spine crowned with the embossed lid of a cup of Coke. Not only helium kept our industry afloat but licensing deals, onboard franchises, business concessions.
No human flight without pollution and crashes, no moonwalk without the cosh of nuclear war. Our slogan, ‘Manmade Miracles’, was an oxymoron. Once dragged out of dreams into reality, down to Earth, they were no longer the same, like surreal sea creatures brought up from the depths all warped. By realising miracles we’d missed their point; the melancholy marvels of flying dreams, fairytales, myths had never been a goad for us to make them come true. They were meant to remain unrealised—as a lesson. Grasping them came with a forfeit; the term ‘business concession’ struck me as never before: no airships without airshops. The force that’d put a beach up here was - and not by accident - the same that’d elevated guests who wanted to talk to the manager who ticked you off on their own feedback forms. Up here, with only other airships for company, hanging in the distance and not seeming to move, like congealed clouds. Wave machine or not, I let in the guests.
Mazin Saleem is a writer from Manchester based in London. His first book The Prick came out with Open Pen in 2019, followed by the spin-off The Pricklet. He writes regularly on books and films for Tribune magazine, Strange Horizons, Little Atoms and more, and has had short fiction published in 3AM magazine, Litro, Minor Lit[s], and The Mays. His interests are rich and varied.
Tomer Ifrah Born in Israel in 1981, Tomer began photographing documentary stories in 2007, after his first trip to Ethiopia. Since then he become committed to documentary photography, taking on long term projects while addressing social issues and daily life stories. He has won several awards for his documentary work in Israel – representing a variety of issues. Along with working in Israel, Tomer frequently travels around the world for assignments and independent documentary projects.