A week after my triumphant first jump, and I'd been on a high the entire time. I relived it all every time I needed something to daydream about in Maths, I'd say I dreamt about it the way people dream about important things, but that would be a massive fucking lie, just as it is when anyone says they dreamt about anything remotely coherent that isn't to do with nakedness and squelching. At school, I was infuriating, trying to get the teachers to discuss terminal velocities and the science of falling out of planes, the best exercises to stop me from hurting my ankle on landings, how best to write it up (took me long enough on that one). There must have been at least a few teachers who wished I'd met that lake. I speak from experience, the irritation of dealing with the over-excited attention-seeking pupil is a unique phenomenon to be tolerated and bitched about after in the staffroom.
John and I agreed to keep it going, and booked ourselves another jump the following weekend, and the stars are looking to go in our favour. It's another gloriously sunny day and we're not even fazed by turning up in a wedding car this time. We casually breezed past week's trainees, acted like we owned the whole airfield. Youth really does make you stupid. I had somewhat optimistically bought my dad's old paragliding jumpsuit, thinking that as I'd jumped I was now cool enough to wander about in a fetching mint-and-black number than slum it with the orange-suited proles. In hindsight it's only fair that my instructor laughed me back to the changing rooms, but at the time miffed hardly begins to cover it. we were scheduled to jump later in the afternoon, so had a few hours of dossing about, eating nasty burgers and watching the real skydivers swan about in tight Lycra suits with contrasting grab-handles. Yeah, you heard that right. Technically, I can see why these outfits make sense. When you're doing the whole synchronised thing, it makes sense to have easily-identifiable grabrails, and tight clothing does make for less wind resistance, but on the ground? It was like a skinny 1970's reunion. I was surprised they weren't wearing platform boots with goldfish in the heel. The hilarity was increased by seeing them practice their synchronised falling on the ground. Ever wondered how they do it? Well, each person gets a tea-tray, attaches casters to it, and then lies belly down it, shifting in tiny circles while someone barks out unintelligible codes. It was like synchronised swimming without the make-up or creepy twin girls from Ukraine or wherever. It's funny, when I was helping with the paragliding it was the pros that I most wanted to be like, and here the idea of stuffing myself into some spandex and grabbing someones luminous-clad thigh at 10,000 feet seemed the most bonkers idea I'd ever come across. But then, that had never appealed to me. I'd discovered the existence of sky-surfing, and was convinced that one day I'd be throwing myself out of planes above mountains with a snowboard on my feet, doing incredible-looking stunts before hitting the slopes and being the kind of superheroine you don't really get outside of Freelander adverts.
So, back to training. There was a recommended five-jump training programme before you were let off the static line that opened your parachute and were allowed to go solo. We'd already done one, and now we were on to handle pulling. The site's main shed had a practice area, where you got in a harness, were hoisted up into the air and would practice your jump technique, what to do when it all went wrong et cetera. Last week, they had shown us picture after picture of how canopies look in various states of entanglement, and asked us what we would do in each situation. This time, we were practicing pulling our main chutes, and again we had the pics, just so we knew when to go with the fake and when to really throw our reserves (do this, and you have to buy a round in the pub apparently. Seems a little unfair to me, but that's macho bullshit for you). I was doing fine, hours of reading various manuals on paragliding and parachuting helping me identify the various tucks, snags and kill-you-in-the-face SNAFUs that we checked for after those magic four seconds after we left the plane.
So, once again the troop out to the little Cessna, the briefing on handle pulling, and I'm second out this time. In contrast to last week, I was positively buoyant on take-off. I was humming Song " by Blur (every person's action movie soundtrack of choice in 1999) and thinking about my textbook jump so much I barely noticed when I was asked to shut up by the long-suffering instructor. John was first out, and it looked good. Now me.
Again, I'm in the doorway. I'm positioned, I'm ready. Legs dangling into nothingness, the engines go quiet, the pilot "feathering" them to bring down our airspeed. Three. Two. One. Go.
They teach you how to scream in the sheds. You turn the screaming fear into something positive, something aggressive.
ARCH THOUSAND!- arch backwards, arms and legs splayed out on a rack of speeding air. Slow your descent by increasing your surface area. Pull the fake cord, and pull it good.
TWO THOUSAND!- Taste that adrenaline
THREE THOUSAND!- You're still in freefall, and time stops making sense
FOUR THOUSAND!- It must have opened by now?
CHECK CANOPY!- And now you're allowed to look, to try and match the sight behind you to those photocards that got flashed at you by the guys in the hangar. First time, it had looked more perfect than anything in creation, a blue and white unfurling that meant I was going to live, goddammit!
I'm screaming now. Real, terrified screaming. I can't see the canopy. I look over both shoulders, and the fucking thing just isn't there. Fuck. I'm going to die. This is how it ends, this is how it's over.
The guys on the ground tell me that the canopy came out low, in my blind spot. It took an extra second or so to open, but that second was enough. I've never screamed in genuine, utter, animal terror before or since, and never want to again. My life didn't flash before my eyes, there was no feeling of peace or Jesus or anything other than blind, screaming, utter terror.
After that second, the canopy opened, and I snapped alive again. I hung in my harness like a corpse, barely able to register my legs, my arms, nothing. Sobbing in fear and relief, it took the instructor asking if I was OK and shouldn't I be reaching for brakes by now that made me realise I wasn't on the ground yet. I did what I'm good at: shaking my head, gritting my teeth and just getting the hell on with it. And so I did. Still shaking, I raised my right hand, went looking for my brake. Gloved, trembling fingers came up blank until they found a small tag and pulled slightly. Pulled enough to release it from it's dock and into my peripheral vision, but not so far as to work. What I saw in my peripheral vision was a small, red tag. A small, red tag saying "DANGER: WATER LANDING ONLY".
Well, that was it as far as my nerves were concerned. Not only had I had my two seconds of certain death, I had also nearly killed myself through panic and fucking up. I spent the next few thousand feet in a state of shock, realising that my fear of something that wasn't a problem had nearly caused me to plummet out the sky like a stone, my canopies fluttering uselessly behind me.
Like I said, nobody really dreams about actual things, but there are times I remember that feeling of utter, utter....fail is I think the best word to use. Failure to think rationally, failure to take control. Failure to think it through. Fucking idiot.
So, back to the airfield. I was a shaking mass of fear, embarrassment and anger at myself. I muttered something about being freaked by the rear-sitting canopy, and agreed that the best thing to do was just get straight back up there, get past it. I heard them talking about someone nearly pulling the "DANGER" cord in the shed where 'chutes are repacked, as it was undocked and "They don't do that by themselves". I said nothing, my bravado from the morning gone.
Late afternoon and I was back in the plane, fourth out. I wasn't humming anything this time. I was terrified, worried that I was really going to fuck up this time, that I wasn't good enough to do this. First two got out, and then we got a report on the radio. Gusty conditions on the ground meant we were going to land, and there would be no more jumps. I went home, unsure if I'd had a lucky escape or if i should book in again.
Nearly a decade on and I'm thinking I should have booked in again. I've looked at going back, but a lack of willing accomplices and some (justifiable) fear is stopping me. I feel pretty damn proud of doing something like that for fun at an age where I should have been sitting at home listening to Nine Inch Nails and taking three hours over my hair (OK, there was a fair bit of that too) but still, could have done better....