“Hello! Do you mind…?”
The man was gesturing to the empty chair on the other side of the table, an inquiring look on his round, stubbled face.
The business class lounge was busy, but not full, and there were still free tables elsewhere – although none in the immediate vicinity. Maybe the man wanted to be nearer the window, with a view of the planes. Maybe he just wanted the company.
Whatever, Jim didn’t care. “No problem – it’s fine.”
“Thank you!” The man sat down, arranging his bag and his jacket and his paper around him. As soon as he was settled, he got back up and headed to the buffet, returning with a plate and glass: croissant and orange juice.
Jim had returned to his magazine, seeing but not reading the page in front of him. It was too damn early for news on China’s massive currency stockpile. It was too damn early for flying, come to that – it was just too damn early for anything.
He felt his eyes close, and did nothing to stop them. His morning so far had not been easy, between playing Hunt The Passport after almost no sleep, having to direct the driver to his apartment building, and then discovering that the scheduled A380 had suffered some unspecified mechanical failure, and been replaced by a 777, albeit one of the newer ones. This was the only moment of peace he’d had so far.
“Where are you going?”
Jim jerked upright. “Uh… London.” No eye contact, no elaboration. Shut it down, shut it down NOW.
“Me as well! You are seeing your family?”
Yes he was. “No.”
“I am visiting my sister!”
Just die. “Oh right.”
“She is living in Shepherd’s Bush? Do you know Shepherd’s Bush?”
Not today. Not now. No. No. No. “Not really.”
“She has a very nice flat. I work in HR – I am a manager. What do you do? Do you live here? I’ve been here for two years now…” He burbled on. On. On. And always. Questions. Questions. Questions. After a few minutes he was mercifully distracted by a beep from his phone.
Jim sighed and took another hash brown from his plate, eating it with his fingers. He stared back down fixedly at his magazine again, wondering if it was too early to head to the gate and the blessed sanctuary of his seat.
Then he heard the crunch, and an appreciative noise.
He looked up to see his unnecessary companion finish off a hash brown. His hash brown. Smiling, the demon in human form reached over and took the last one from Jim’s plate. “These are very good!”
Jim’s mouth dropped open. There were no newspapers on the table, no crap about identical packets of biscuits – just two plates, one with pastry crumbs, one, now, with fried potato crumbs. The man had just eaten half his breakfast. He’d eaten half his breakfast, and was now staring round the airport in rapt, guileless fascination.
Say something. What do you say to that? It was just… you don’t… it was his BREAKFAST! But the man was Indian or Pakistani; perhaps this was a cultural thing? Was Jim just being racist? Being somewhat self-conscious about his status as a white, Western male, he often found himself over-compensating, and probably being just as racist through conspicuous, even patronising generosity or patience as others were through abuse.
Don’t be bloody stupid, he thought. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, you just don’t take food off a complete stranger’s plate. He pulled himself straighter in his chair and prepared to broach the subject, when Smiling Boy himself stood up, gathered his goods and chattels, and with a cheery wave and “goodbye!” wandered off towards the toilets.
Jim sagged, paused. He picked up his magazine, and headed with his bag towards the gate.
Despite the plane change, Jim still held on to a window seat on the shady side of the plane. Today he had managed to position himself at the front of the queue to board, and was consequently arranged in his seat, head back, eyes closed, while the rest of the self-loading cargo shuffled past him, most similarly too drained to talk.
He’d got busy with the stickers, indicating that he just wanted to be left alone for the flight – no meals, no duty free. Water, iPod, headphones to hand, divider up – whirrrrrrrrr – to separate him from whoever got shoved next to him – and as soon as the sign was off, the seat would be going down and he, Jim, would be going. To. Sleep.
Feeling slightly more cheery about his situation, Jim glanced out of the window at the ground crew doing whatever the hell it was they did. His fingers played idly over the seat controls on the armrest. He gave the recline button a prod. No response. He sat up and tried again, more firmly. Nada. Aw, fuck.
He stood and grabbed the attention of a nearby trolley dolly (sod PC, he was tired and fed up).
“Hi, um, listen – my seat controls don’t seem to be working. I can’t recline my seat.”
“No, sir, you can only have your seat down after takeoff, when the captain switches off the fasten-seatbelt sign,” said the Dolly on autopatronise.
Jesus fuck, give me strength. Jim pinched the bridge of his nose, and looking down at his feet, continued in tones of utter patience. “No, I know that. I wasn’t putting my seat down – I was just trying the controls. I fly a lot. The controls still work before takeoff – but mine don’t. Can you see if you can get them working, please.”
Dolly came over, tried the buttons for herself. Oh, what a shock. She headed off, to find the purser he hoped.
Three minutes passed. Jim stood.
The purser pursered up. “I’m sorry sir, but your seat controls don’t appear to be working.”
Yes, we know that bit. “Can I move to another seat, then?”
“I’m sorry, but the flight is completely full – there’s nothing else.” Seeing Jim’s eyes flit towards the extreme front of the plane, he added “I’d be happy to upgrade you, but we’ve already had to move first class passengers into business. I’ll gladly be making a…”
Jim stopped listening. He was past caring now – and what the fuck did it matter anyway? It was just a seat. And he’d probably get an upgrade out of it when he emailed the airline later. “It’s fine. Nothing we can do, right?”
He sat back down and stared out of the window again. Slowly his head slipped back onto the pillow behind. His eyes closed. Again. He could still hear the boarding passengers, but only as a vague background susurration. Voices, clunks of the overhead bins. Bags bumping against the sides of the seats.
Thump. Rustle. Clunk. Thump. Whirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.
Jim wanted to cry. He wanted to wail and scream and beat the seat in front of him and throw his water over the cabin and smash the window and rip up the magazines and snap off the TV screen and shove it DOWN THE THROAT OF THE MAN WHO JUST WOULDN’T LEAVE HIM ALONE.
There he was, smiling all over his fat fucking face like he’d just seen his best fucking friend in the whole motherfucking, cocksucking world. Die, motherfucker, die.
“I’d hoped I’d see you again! It was so nice talking to you earlier!” No dude. You talked. I screamed FUCK OFF with every nuance of body language I could. “This is a nice plane, no?” The man looked around, apparently delighted.
Maybe Jim had got it wrong. Maybe he was handicapped or something. Autistic, Asperger’s, whatever. Normal people weren’t this cheery all the time.
He sighed, and smiled weakly at the Thing from Planet Twat. He’d have to get bored eventually and shut up. Have to.
He considered for a moment popping one of the illicit Temazepam tablets he had stashed in his wallet, and dealing with the problem chemically. But he needed to be awake and functioning on the other end, he had to get to Bristol. And he was tired enough anyway – sleep was not going to be a problem.
Sure enough, the Freak was amusing himself now, albeit at the moment by putting the seat divider up and down, whirr whirr up and down, whirr whirr up and down. Eventually the Dolly asked him to stop, as they were about to take off, leaving it down. Freak started rummaging through the seat pocket in front of him, pulling out a couple of the magazines and flicking through them.
Jim leaned back again and closed his eyes, trying to let the tension inside him drain out.
Rustle, rustle. Chuckle. Rustle, rustle, rustle. Chuckle, chuckle, chuckle. Definitely brain damage, dude, HR manager or not.
“Heeheehee. Abu Zhabi.
“Abu Zhabi. Heeheehee.”
The guy was just saying it out loud, normal speaking voice. Evidently he’d seen something about the UAE’s capital, and was finding it hugely amusing.
Is there a polite way to tell a stranger to shut the fuck up? Not if they’ve got the self-awareness of a mushroom, and apparently the same sense of humour.
Perhaps this was hell. Perhaps he’d died on the way to the airport, and this was his own personal hell, for never going to Confession, for never saying his prayers, for not leaving a tip.
Jim opened his eyes and looked around. The crew was in the last stages of prep before the up, up and away. In a minute he could risk putting on his iPod, without being told to turn it off before takeoff.
“This is the part I don’t like.” Uh-oh. “I fly a lot on business, but I never like taking off – takeoff is the most likely time for a crash, yes? Hahaha.” The man smiled cheerily at him.
“Er, I guess so. But it’s not very likely.” No. No conversation. No pity.
“Oh, I know – but still I’m nervous. Do you get nervous?”
“You are very lucky. I always get nervous. But it’s good to have someone to talk to, isn’t it?” Oh, yeah, that’s it – pile on the fucking guilt.
“I suppose so.” God.
As the Frightened Freak rumbled on, the bloody interminable safety film started up, first Arabic then English. These always seemed to last forever, but now, with this… thing droning on next to him, and his iPod sitting inches away – mocking him – it felt so, so much longer.
Fine. Survive takeoff. Then iPod. Then sleep.
The plane had long since pushed back, and was now swinging round onto the runway.
“Ohhh, here we go!” said his neighbour as the engines powered up. He looked anxious now.
“It’ll be fine.” Jim ground out the words, staring fixedly ahead. The Freak craned forward and towards him, looking out of the window, then leaned out into the aisle, trying to see to the other side of the plane.
“Are you alright, my dear? Did I hear you say you were scared of flying?”
Mercy be! A miracle! The middle-aged lady on the other side of the aisle had taken pity on him, and engaged the Freak in conversation. As the man gleefully took up the opportunity, his new interlocutor shot Jim a meaningful look.
He didn’t need telling twice. With a suppressed but lung-deflating sigh, Jim turned away from his neighbour and back to the comforts of his business-class pillow. As the man’s voice burbled on in the background, he smiled slightly, then drifted off…
Jim awoke with a start. Something was wrong, something bad was happening, the plane was shaking, the lights were too bright, someone was…
Someone was shaking his arm.
Coming to, he turned towards the source. The Creature From The Black Latrine was still clamped to his arm, while in the background the trolley dolly was trying to politely intervene – presumably on the basis that she’d seen Jim’s stickered instructions to be left alone.
“My friend, my friend – you are going to miss your breakfast…”
“No, it’s fine – I don’t want anything.”
“Oh. You do not want breakfast?”
“No. I ate in the airport.” Remember, fatty?
Evidently he did. “Ah, yes, but I think then I gave you some help, isn’t it?”
He grinned broadly. Jim shot him a glare of pure, untainted loathing. He stopped grinning. Dolly took a step back and the woman across the aisle blanched slightly.
“It’s fine. I just want to sleep. It’s fine.”
Pre-empting further discussion, Jim turned smartly away and closed his eyes, but Orpheus and his lyre had evidently fucked off to first class. Beneath his lids, Jim’s eyes continued their attempts to transform into miniature laser-beams and further down his jaw ground away at his fillings.
Once breakfast had been served and his tormentor had started tucking in, he reached for his iPod and headphones, as quietly and gently as possible so as not to attract attention. Ensconced in the cans, he put on his six-hour playlist. Escape.
Amazingly, the next few hours contrived to pass relatively smoothly, barring a brief interlude when the Freak attempted first to plug his airline-issue headphones into Jim’s seat – and then attempted to use Jim’s screen – before being spotted and corralled/assisted by one of the crew, and without Jim having to do more than anything but gesticulate, briefly.
After this Jim managed to settle himself into a sort of waking trance. It would be too much to say that he was at peace – the mere presence of the man in the seat next to him engendered almost a feeling of blind panic. But like a man on a tightrope, always inches away from oblivion, he had found equilibrium – a space where he could, he hoped, cope indefinitely. Certainly to the end of the flight.
With two hours to go, and somewhere over Germany, he even managed to get to the point of closing his eyes again. He thought he could almost feeling himself slide into sleep, the music fading out, everything fading out.
AND THEN THE MUSIC FADING IN AGAIN AND GETTING VERY VERY FUCKING LOUD INDEED.
This time he didn’t need a moment, he knew exactly who was responsible. There could only be one. He whirled to his neighbour, who was holding Jim’s iPod in his hands, and was playing with the wheel.
“Thank YOU…” Jim snatched the iPod from the man’s podgy hands. “Please don’t touch that. Great. Thanks.”
“It’s very nice, isn’t it? My sister had one for her birthday…”
“I–“ Jim bit back his intended remarks, pertaining to exactly where the man’s sister could relocate her iPod. Something inside him snapped – the tightrope had gone, and he was falling.
This man needed to be stopped. And only he could stop him.
It surprised Jim how quickly he thought up the plan. He stifled a giggle, and took a deep breath.
“Excuse me, can I just…” Jim stood up to leave his seat, the Thing shutting up and compliantly pulling in his legs slightly. Jim headed to the toilet, mercifully unoccupied. Once inside he sat on the closed seat and fished out the Temazepam tablets from his wallet. Four of them; how many to use? Fuck it.
He methodically broke all four into the smallest pieces possible, and stowed them in his hand, ready for use.
Coming out of the loo, Jim extracted a bottle of water from the Dolly, opening it and taking a swig before he even started walking back to his seat. Keeping the bottle open, and taking small sips, he strolled back down the aisle. With his water in his right hand and the crushed-up pills in his left, he stopped at his row, and crab-walked in until he was stood facing his tormentor – now playing with Jim’s headphones.
Then he tipped the bottle forward, pouring out the water over the man’s legs.
“Oh, god, I’m so sorry…” As the man looked down and started patting at his trousers, Jim leaned forward as if to help – but dropping his pharmaceutical payload into the Freak’s almost-full glass of orange juice, sat on his arm rest.
Success! He didn’t seem to have noticed anything, and settled back down after drying himself off with the towel proffered by Dolly. Now, he just had to drink.
Go on. Drink.
Music and sleep abandoned, Jim was leaned forward, staring fixedly at the in-flight map on his screen and stealing glances at the man and his drink.
Drink. Drink it.
Jim leaned back in his seat, angling his body out towards the aisle, his target in view.
Drink drink DRINK!
Jim realised he was curling and uncurling his fists, cracking his knuckles. He turned his head more towards his neighbour.
The man apparently took this as an invitation to make more polite conversation, this time embarking on a discussion of what a terrible problem his company was having with people taking sick days, and how did Jim’s company deal with this, and were these people really sick, did he think, and was it perhaps swine flu or something like that…
Throughout the torrent of inanity, Jim felt his face turn into Jack Nicholson from The Shining. The eyes stretched and the teeth bared and the neck muscles tautened under the skin, flanked by rising shoulder blades. He leaned forward and forward, flitting his vision between the drink and the man’s flapping jaws, as if willing him to just take a MOTHER FUCKING DRINK.
He broke into the conversation. “Gosh, I’m thirsty. Are you thirsty? I am.” Jim took an ostentatious drink from his still-half-full water bottle. “Ahhhh.”
“No, I am ok at the moment–”
“But what about your orange juice? It’s important to keep hydrated on a flight…”
“Oh, but I think it is a bit too acidic for me. I get terrible heartburn sometimes…” The man smiled and patted his ample stomach in illustration.
Jim stopped falling. He landed. Hard.
“DRINK IT! DRINK IT! DRINK IT YOU MOTHERFUCKING PIECE OF SHIT! THAT’S ALL YOU HAVE TO DO – JUST DRINK YOUR DRINK. DON’T PLAY WITH MY IPOD, DON’T PLAY WITH MY SCREEN, DON’T WAKE ME FOR BREAKFAST, DON’T PLAY WITH THE DIVIDER, DON’T EAT MY HASH BROWNS, DON’T ENGAGE ME IN YOUR POINTLESS. FUCKING. CONVERSATION. JUST SHUT YOUR MOUTH, DRINK YOUR DRINK AND
The man’s jaw had dropped as he gazed up at Jim, who had risen out of his seat, face scarlet, eyes burning, saliva flecked around his jaw, breathing through his nose.
Jim realised the plane was silent.
He looked up to see the entire cabin staring at him, motionless. Turning forward he saw the purser marching down the aisle, already occupied by two Dollies, one of whom was leaning over the woman opposite.
“I…” He turned to the purser.
“Sir, please sit down. There’s no call for that kind of language. Please. Sit down.”
He sat down. “I…”
His neighbour was still staring at him, aghast. Tears trickled down his round, stubbled face.
The purser turned to the man. “Are you alright, sir? Is there anything…”
Jim stared at his hands in his lap. His mind had gone blank.
In the aisle, the purser was now next to the woman, who was pointing towards the man’s orange juice. He turned around and picked up the glass, giving Jim an unreadable glance. He took the juice away to the galley, followed by one of the Dollies.
The plane landed at Heathrow on time. As it taxied towards its bay, the captain made an announcement over the Tannoy, asking passengers to remain seated even after the plane had stopped at the gate, to allow the police to board first and conduct their business.
As the officers led Jim off the flight, they stopped in the galley for the purser to sign some document.
One of the Dollies stepped forward. “People like you make me sick.” She glared from under her makeup.
Jim looked back down the aisle; the man was talking away happily at the woman opposite. She had a glazed expression on her face.