Chanel at the Bottom of the Oceanby Stephanie Ye
The flight attendant is falling through the sky at 198km/h. The sheer velocity, the terminal velocity, has ripped the clothes off her back, the shoes off her feet, even chunks of dark hair off her scalp, the locks twisted round the hairpins that once shaped a fist-sized chignon.
Some time passes, and the flight attendant is now 7,632m under the sea, at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. Down here, the water is zero deg C, but all the salt keeps its molecules from knitting into ice. She rests on ground that has never been dry; pressing down upon her is layer upon layer of ocean. These environmental conditions, hostile to the development of life, are helpful in preserving her flesh, its fatty tissues transmuted to inert wax.
She wonders if anyone knows she is here. Far, far above and beyond her, in the land of sunlight and air and warm blood, the professionals who are paid to deal with such things are arguing over what happened to Flight FA758, an Airbus A120 carrying 168 passengers and seven crew from Singapore to Chennai. They draw diagrams and pore over spreadsheets; they offer carefully-worded statements to reporters, who turn caveats into soundbites into electromagnetic signals, which dart back and forth between the satellites in space and flow along the undersea cables that snake across the ocean floor. The arteries of the global circulatory system course with speculation; somewhere amid all that speculation is the truth.
The truth of how and why she fell from the sky is something the flight attendant herself does not know. She attributes this amnesia to the ocean, the way it mummifies everything swallowed by it. Her sparks of self that once danced so effortlessly across the synaptic gaps are now paralysed. Her brain is just a lump of mute wax. All she can think of is the hard smooth sand, the cold black water. Every so often, something nuzzles her toes, slides across her stomach, her face: deep-sea fish, prospecting for food. She tries to call to them, make tok-tok-tok sounds with her tongue, but that muscle remains limp in its cage of bone.
For a while, in the distance, she has been seeing drops of gold drifting across the blackness, like embers carried in the wind. She tells herself she is hallucinating, her sight-starved eyes inventing their own nourishment. But one drop drifts close, just centimetres from her nose, and now she can make out the tendril it dangles from, and behind it, the toothy maw.
The anglerfish glides by, unhurried; she basks in its bioluminescence, imagining its cold light warming her skin just a bit. There’s no heat, of course; but in her skull a memory unfurls amidst the wax. It drips through her brain and slithers along the inside of her cranium; it trickles hotly down the canal of her left ear, emptying out into the bowl of its concha.
At the age of fifteen, she named herself Chanel.
She had an image of handbags with a quilted surface, like potholders; she did not find this style particularly attractive, in fact she thought it dowdy. But she did not trust her own aesthetic sensibilities, and she respected the prestige of those interlocking Cs.
She named herself Chanel because that was better than being Bong Ting Ting, a name she despised, ugly-sounding in Chinese, plain comical in English. It was the name of someone whose parents were uneducated, who was poor, who lived in a rented flat in public housing, who was always soaked in equatorial sweat, who would never own a quilted handbag.
She named herself Chanel because she liked how it felt in her mouth when she said it; the shapes it made were like the way a cat moves, dainty yet so sure of itself.
It was after Chanel left school and joined the flight attendant training course that she met other self-christened girls: Celeste, Chantal, Dion, Kandyce. Like her, they aimed to escape the life they’d been born into. Like her, they wanted to be flight attendants because going somewhere new would mean being someone else.
One of their classes was Speech. A lot of Fairwind’s passengers were Western expats, fleeing the grind of their Shenton Way banking jobs with weekends in Bali or Phuket. The girls had to learn how to communicate clearly and confidently with these passengers, part of good customer service, but also in case of
Their teacher’s name was Mrs Percival, but like most of her trainees she was Singaporean Chinese. Her English had a foreign, intimidating sound. She told them to stand up straight and e-nun-ci-ate:
Say wind, not weeeend. Thank you for flying Fairwind!
Thank you for flying Fairweeend!
During lunch, Chanel left the table to go to the toilet. Passing the outdoor seating area, she saw the back of Mrs Percival’s head, and overheard her conversation on the phone:
You’d love it, they all have names like Celeste and Chantal and Dion! There’s even a Chanel! How naff!
Chanel did not know the word naff. But she understood the sneering tone.
This understanding remained with her through the rest of the afternoon. It warmed her cheeks and belly. It pulled at her jaw and lips and tongue and forced her to e-nun-ci-ate.
Fairweeend. Fairwiiind. Fairwind.
After Chanel received her first payslip, she went online to a webstore that sold hundreds of fashion brands. She’d thought of visiting a boutique in Orchard Road, but then she imagined the watchful eyes of the shopgirls. At the menu, she selected the option to sort by price. Scrolling for forty minutes, she finally found it: a key purse, small enough to clutch in a fist but not so small you couldn’t see the quilting of the leather, the two interlocking Cs in golden metal.
It’s dark again, the anglerfish long departed, the darkness absolute. The memory has cooled in her ear, solidified into wax like everything else of hers.
She realises she can hear a humming sound. It must have started so softly, so subtly, a cat’s purr, that she wasn’t aware she was hearing it until the clouds of sand start to swirl around her body. Louder now, the hum is the sound of a helicopter’s blades; now, the roiling of a tropical thunderstorm. Something’s coming, something not of this place. She sees a light, far off, a white light too hot to be from the body of any deep-sea creature. She feels herself shift ever-so-slightly against the ocean floor.
As a teen, Chanel spent the afternoons after school hanging out at the mall. She went for the air-conditioning, and the clothes. She’d walk from shop to shop, flipping through the items on the racks, imagining the kind of women who’d wear them. She never actually bought anything. There simply wasn’t the money. As a cleaner, her mother barely made enough for her and Didi, and as for their father, the best thing he’d ever done for them was leave.
Chanel’s mother told her: Ting, if you spend all your time shopping and not doing your maths, you’ll end up like me.
But Chanel couldn’t see the point of mathematics, couldn’t put her heart into multiplying binomials or finding the volume of a cone. She was vexed by vectors and didn’t care if x satisfied the equation. At the O levels, she barely scraped a pass.
But a pass was a pass, and the Fairwind ad in the newspapers said three O levels and a minimum height of 1.58m were all that was needed.
When Chanel came in, the recruiters took in her clear skin, her thin but sturdy body, her quick smile and pleasant voice, her compliant air. They accepted her to the flight attendant course at the airline’s training centre on the outskirts of Changi Airport. It was here that Chanel learned how to properly stow luggage, how to perform CPR, what to do when the cabin fills with smoke, how to open the plane door, how to read a flight manifest. There were numbers, but ones with purposes that were apparent, that didn’t form problems but solved them. She filled notebooks with her shaky cursive and revised her lessons on the MRT during the one-hour journey between her home and the centre.
Nine months after Chanel qualified, she bought her mother a sofa. The old one was ratty, its foam stuffing bulging out of splits in the warped vinyl. Chanel went to Ikea and selected a cream-coloured two-seater, its name embellished with a pretty array of circles and dots above the letters.
Her mother fussed, said Chanel shouldn’t have wasted the money. She also insisted on draping a bedsheet over the cushions before sitting down:
It’s white, I’m scared I’ll dirty it.
Ma, the covers are one-hundred-percent cotton, machine washable.
Her mother patted the back of the sofa, as if it were a good dog. You know, Ting, she said, You’re now the age I was when I had you.
It’s a machine, a metal thing, the size of a minibus. Its glowing eye engulfs her in its glare. The humming is a physical thing now, a throbbing heartbeat. The water pulses all around her, clouds of dirt billowing across the beam like clouds against the moon. Then she sees the arms extend out of the metal body, long thick metal arms that bristle with all kinds of joints and screws and angles. The arms reach out towards her and, tenderly, pick her up.
Chanel was twelve the first time she flew, a two-hour flight to Surabaya to visit her mother’s relatives. At the Indonesian airport, she received the first stamp in her passport; later, all her cousins laughed when she remarked, disappointed, that the sky in Surabaya was blue, same as Singapore’s.
In her first year of work, Chanel travelled to more places than she’d ever been in the preceding eighteen years of her life. Fairwind was only a regional airline serving destinations within a six-hour radius from Singapore, but these included Cebu, Chiang Mai, Chengdu, Siem Reap, Yangon.
Then there were the passengers: fat pink Americans, pale translucent Swiss, hairy Hungarians, Emiratis with their white robes and cloth crowns. The only nationality Chanel allowed herself to hate were the China Chinese, and she swapped horror stories with the other girls. China tourists put their feet on the seats, hid the inflight cutlery in their hand luggage. They left the toilets smeared with bodily fluids and used up all the moisturiser. The difference between them and the Chinese in Singapore showed that race wasn’t everything, that where you’re from affects who you are.
Sometimes, the girls would tease one another about a handsome passenger, whisper: Maybe…? Kandyce said she knew someone whose cousin’s friend served a millionaire and ended up marrying him.
Ya, but I don’t think millionaires fly Fairwind, Chanel replied. We don’t have First Class.
Chanel already had a guy back home. His name was Benson. They’d met when she was seventeen, at the Jalan Besar pool. She’d just finished her O levels and was planning to apply to Fairwind; she was there to practise for the swim test.
She’d only been in the water for five minutes when an alarm sounded. The swimmers left the pool and gathered at the bleachers, confused and dripping. The lifeguards said there was a lightning advisory.
How long will it last, someone asked, and the guards shrugged and said: Half an hour. Could be longer.
Everyone peered at the sky, which was white and unreadable. It wasn’t raining.
Chanel didn’t know if she should leave or wait it out. If she left, she’d wasted $1.50. But waiting was no fun. Her stuff was in a coin-operated locker; she was only in her swimsuit but if she got her towel out she would lose the twenty cents.
The guy sitting next to her on the bench had his bag. He offered her a towel. It’s clean, he said, I always carry a spare. That was how she got to chatting with Benson. Seven years her senior, works in IT, drives a Suzuki Swift. It helped that she could see he had a nice body.
Benson wasn’t her first kiss, but he was her first grown-up boyfriend. He took her to jazz concerts at the Esplanade and foot massages in Rochor; he knew where to get curry at 3am and ice-cold beers at noon. He kept his cards in a money clip and ate ribeye steak. He set up a shared Google Calendar so they could keep track of each other’s schedules on their smartphones; he drove her to and from the airport whenever he could.
Her mother nagged, Isn’t Benson upset you’re away so much? But Chanel knew they were not that kind of couple, clingy and insecure. The only time Benson ever expressed unhappiness was when he was over at her place and saw the payslip beside her laptop.
That’s twice my base pay! Trolley dollies earn so much?
Chanel understood his bitterness. He was older, and the man in the relationship. He was a polytechnic graduate whereas she only had O levels. Nonetheless, she was hurt by his remark. She had told him all about the training, he knew full well that flight attendants were more than just waitresses in the sky.
But she simply replied, It’s danger pay. Anyway, you can be an IT guy until you’re old, but I can’t be a flight attendant forever.
The humming machine lifts her from the ocean floor and bears her off through the black cold water. She assumes it is carrying her upwards, but it’s hard to get a sense of direction in such a featureless place. It’s like flying through outer space, a space without planets or stars, just a probe making its lonely way across the lightyears.
Some time passes, and now she feels the water getting warmer, no longer the temperature of ice. In fact, her flesh is tingling, the wax slowly dissolving. The tissues of her body shiver, the blood in them on the verge of becoming liquid. In her brain, the sparks of herself are awakening from their stupor; they shake and shudder, bracing themselves for the leap across the synaptic gaps. Far above her, she can now make out the surface of the ocean: it looks like rustling leaves, scudding clouds. She smiles as her body trembles in the light, trembles with the ocean as it throbs all around her.
Chanel could rattle off a list of careers she might try after her flying days were over: retraining as ground staff, or moving into hospitality, working in a hotel as a receptionist or even manager.
But as a flight attendant, she had yet one goal: flying long-haul.
The Fairwind girls told one another they liked short-haul because they were never too far from friends and family. Turnaround meant they flew from Singapore to Wherever and back home again in time for dinner.
Yet Chanel would walk by the giant information board in Departures and feel a stir in her stomach as she watched the little rectangular flaps whir through their cycles, finally falling into place to reveal those famous, faraway names: London. Paris. New York City.
If she worked hard, she reckoned that in three years she could get a transfer to Fairwind’s big brother, the national flag carrier, which flew to more than sixty cities across six continents. She knew flying long-haul would entail extended stretches away from home, even more irregular schedules, grumpy and demanding passengers, horrible jet lag. She was unsure if Benson would be happy with this career move. She knew her mother wouldn’t be.
She also had a vision of herself that she never told anyone else.
She is standing in a wood white with snow. She is wearing a long black coat. Maybe it’s even Chanel. There are lights in the distance, those of a famous city. If she walks towards them, she’ll be there in a matter of minutes.
But right now, she’s content to remain amidst the darkness of these trees. Through the leaves, the outstretched branches, she can hear the wind roar. The currents surge all around her, extending their trembling hands. They tug at her coat, twine round her fingers, cradle her face and skull. Snowflakes fall slowly upwards. Beyond, the lights of the city shimmer and pulse. She closes her eyes, breathes deeply. Her body melts into the immaculate cold.
On the other side of the ocean’s surface, on a boat, the search team cries in dismay as the underwater camera shows them that the flight attendant’s body, discovered in such a pristine state, has since disintegrated in the arms of their remote-controlled submarine. Her flesh has crumbled into dust; pieces of her have been swept away by the ocean currents.
Later, it will be the task of one of them, a pathological expert, to explain to the victims’ families, officials and the media that the corpse, so well preserved by the darkness, pressure and freezing temperatures at the bottom of the ocean, had been unable to withstand the exposure to light, movement and warmth.
Inevitably, a public debate breaks out about whether to continue retrieving the bodies of the plane crash victims. Some talk about the need for forensics examinations and proper burials; others argue that it’s best to leave the corpses where they lie and that disturbing them does no one any good, brings no one back to life.
STEPHANIE YE is a Singaporean writer based in London. She is the author of the short story chapbook The Billion Shop (2012) and the editor of the fiction anthology From the Belly of the Cat (2013). Her work has been staged as a dance performance in New York City, translated into German for an art exhibition in Berlin, and used as an O-level examination text in Singapore.