MONDAY LAN CHILE S.A. FLIGHT LA 801 CONFIRMED
25 AUG 08 – DEPART – SANTIAGO/ARTURO MERINO 2300 NON-STOP
Terminal: TERMINAL INTERNATIONAL
27 AUG 08 -ARRIVE – AUCKLAND/AUCKLAND INTL 0400 13HRSOOMINS
Terminal: TERMINAL INTERNATIONAL
- AIRCRAFT – AIRBUS INDUSTRIE A340 ALL SERIES PAX
- CLASS – ECONOMY
I dried my bum with the towel, wiped up the puddle in the lobby toilets, and completed my impromptu shower before leaving the hotel that had refused me a real shower, with a smile. Within 15 minutes my shuttle for the airport had arrived. I got onto my third bus for the day, a minibus, and opposite me was a fat Aussie slob with tattoos like sleeves, the extent of both arms. Next to him sat a stunning Brazilian girl named Daniela, angling away from his B.O. The chalk and cheese of life, of my life over the last two weeks, sat right here in front of me. And for all of his physical deformities, B.O. Slob was the one I wanted to hug.
* * * * *
I checked into the Flight of Adversity within minutes. Flight LA801 was not full, and as an Airbus A340-300, I knew the whole middle aisle deal. I smiled at the man at the desk, who didn’t seem to know exactly how to respond.
“Would it be possible to get a seat on a middle row without anyone else?”
“Because I’d like that, if possible.” He shook his head and sighed. You’d think I’d asked to borrow his car for the year. “You said the aeroplane wasn’t very full?”
“So there are some middle rows with no one in them.”
“So could I have an aisle seat in one of those rows, please?” His face said, ‘when you put it like that, it’s hard to pout with integrity’. He tapped hard at his keys, refusing to look up. I gave him permission to hit the desk – punching at keys rarely disperses enough anger. He handed me my tickets, concentrating hard to look over my shoulder.
“Have an enjoyable day,” I said smiling, which caused obvious consternation. As I left, I checked my boarding pass for the follow-on leg from Auckland to home, and saw that he’d put me on a window for that one. I glanced back, and saw that the look had changed. I won’t describe that one.
I passed through customs, putting my camera and computer through the electronic-resetting machine as a man made me stand in star-jump pose before waving a beeping wand over me and fondling at my genitals. I spent my final money on a Chile fridge magnet and a Dunkin Donuts wrap, lining my stomach like a baking dish, readying myself for the flight home. I sat in anticipation, waiting for almost the entire jet to board before getting on. I then headed for seat 42D.
Hope. It’s a dangerous emotion on long-haul flights. Inevitably, there is always this universal joke in the wings, just waiting for its moment to play out. I buckled up, aware of my relationship with hope, trying not to focus on it. I arranged my goods, ritual-like, iPod in place, wallet out, even ready to begin picking at nails. There I was, sitting all on my own, in my row of four. A fug of anxious calm enveloped me. I repeated the mantra that ‘whatever will be, will be’, like I was Edith Piaf or something. More and more passengers boarded. A whining French woman looped in my head. We were getting ready to take off. I was safe; sweet, flat sleep was mine. An announcement came overhead, telling us that we were waiting on two more passengers. I heard the loading dock pull away from the jet.
A mincey looking ginger-ninja and his lanky prostitute of a girlfriend walked down the aisle. No judgement. No bitterness.
The prostitute and the ginger-ninja
Whatever will be, will be.
They smiled at me, as they plonked themselves down in the two seats beside me.
A sensation that can only be described as a mix of every unpleasant emotion one has ever experienced, swelled through my veins. I had to think fast. I remembered that look on the face of the check-in desk guy. Edith started up again. The jet was doing its customary ‘sit still for no reason’ thing. I shot a look towards the back, and among the jungle of heads, I spotted two free rows. A blade of grass shimmered in the breeze – nope, make that one; a stealthy jaguar of a man slipped into place. I turned towards the front, only to see a man-lion out of the corner of my eye from the window aisle – my aisle – get up and walk aft to swiftly to claim his spot. A hunt was in tow. I watched as a wave of emotion crossed his face, as he performed his territorial pissing.
Let it go, Mark. Fuck this. Doesn’t matter. Bastard.
Frantic, I looked back to the front, and again counted heads. And there I spotted it. A free row, ten rows ahead. I looked behind once more, and saw not a single row free. There were the two gentleman, bliss across their gobs, in a sea of agitation, doing just what I wanted to do. Marking out territory.
With a jolt I jumped up, the plane beginning to ferry, and walked the ten aisles forward. I plonked myself down, the calm of the aftermath. Death stares came from every direction. I removed arrows from my back, and the in-flight magazine from the pocket in front. I thumbed it nonchalantly, my heart pounding. An ether of jealousy sprayed the cabin.
I took a breath, thinking. In my hurry, in my reaction, I’d left my seat pockets full, ten rows back. So I had nothing to mark my spot, nothing as entertainment, and my wallet and iPod were at the back of the plane with the prostitute and the ninja.
I untied my fleece from around my waist, bagsing one seat, and plonked the magazine as a marker on another. I unclipped my safety belt. The jet took a corner as I walked the aisle, bumping a jealous arm. I grabbed at my iPod, wallet, passport, and copy of the New Zealand Herald. I winked at the mince and the prostitute, and turned back. A couple of eyes bored, pupils fixed. I dared them back.
I bumped the very same arm on the way back, this time eliciting a wounded howl. Eighteen seconds later I was back in my seat. Had it been nineteen, and the wolves would have had my little hatchlings.
I sat again and reminded myself to breathe. I stretched my neck, the lividity from ski-stillness now well and truly flowing. I returned to an article heraldling the sixth fourth places New Zealand had secured in the Olympics, and waited for the plane to take off. Another ‘long enough to cause trouble’ pause happened at the end of the runway. I counted sheep. I felt comfortable, but, as a pirate, I wouldn’t feel truly safe with my loot until we’d taken off. A couple more checks of locks, wheels, propellers, whatever they do, and we were ready. The motors wound up.
And with that, just as I adjusted my eye-patch, a large, ageing New Zealand lady slipped into the end of my row. Her name was Bitch.
Bitch-eye view of the flight...
I looked at her for a few seconds, willing her to evaporate. Instead, she picked at the cellophane around the inflight rug.
“Bet you thought you had the row to yourself didn’t you?”
Watching twelve hours of blissful sleep evaporate before your eyes, not once, but twice in three minutes is character building. I’ve been robbed at knifepoint. The emotions are similar.
“Didn’t you?” Bitch reiterated.
It was an attempt at small talk, like asking someone when their grandmother had died. I was gobsmacked. There is an unwritten, unstated law of seat allocation on longhaul flights, borne out by the pall of emotion that had enveloped the cabin for the previous ten minutes. It’s primal. If you grab a row, it’s yours. No statement required. It’s obvious. The idea of doing what this lady had just done is morally abhorrent. Like stealing someone’s crack pipe. You just don’t do it. It’s bad manners.
Yet I had no leg to stand on. While I’m happy to play the seat-hog rules when they work for me, and I’d never dream of breaching this unspoken law myself, I understand that when challenged like this, it is indefensible. You just hope that others see the invisible wall too. This woman clearly didn’t. Not only that, but she felt making a joke about it was the appropriate course of action. Her nieces call her blunt Betty.
I stared at her some more, swallowing razor blades. Choosing to take the higher moral ground in this murky water, I gave her the cold shoulder. It was the most mature response I could muster. And the only one that didn’t include swearing.
* * * * *
Fight-flight LA801 continued in much the same vein. Choosing to steadfastly ignore Bitch was taking considerable energy. I placed my book in the seat hold in front, when another curve ball came my way.
“Would you mind not doing that?” a serpent hissed. Hello. What do we have here?
“That’s the third time…” her voice trailed off.
Confrontation is not my thing, but there was still the whole pall thing going on. I was up for it.
“Sorry, what’s the problem?”
“You just keep doing that.”
“Placing things…” again, her voice trailed off. I let it sit.
I ate my dinner sullenly, doing my best impression of a teenager. After dinner, Bitch popped her facemask on. By then, my entire daypack sat in the no man’s land seat pocket in front. And here began the politics.
Picture this. Seats one to four. I was in seat two, as close to centre as possible, guarding against the enemy. Clearly, it had worked well. Bitch was in four. She’d been gradually marking out space; the wrapper from her face mask, a packet of chewies, surreptitiously strewn across seat three. I’d spread my legs in the pose of domination and pulled up the armrest, my right leg holding the non-wrapper half of seat three. The power play had begun.
With her facemask on, stealth passive aggression took full flight. I lay myself out, my head on the aisle-armrest of seat one, my feet tucked up and on seat three. On top of the wrapper and the chewie. With my shoes on. Rough, eh?
Over the ensuing five minutes, I’d heard Bitch sigh, pull at the chewie from under my feet, which I obliged by lifting – no need to be impolite – and my head had been knocked twice by aisle traffic. The first time was a mere brush; think sleeping peacefully as a bird swoops. The second time I got whiplash. Stunned and momentarily unsure what had happened, I lifted my head and looked back down the aisle where a man continued, oblivious, causing an entire row of torticollis. It had to be Bitch’s husband.
It was when Bitch starting playing footsies with me that I gave up. That I’d had four seats, then three, and now two was just not doing it for me. Clearly, I don’t have what it takes to invade new lands and rule with totalitarian subjugation.
“Here’s an idea,” said finally. Bitch lifted the eye shield from one eye and removed an earplug.
“How about I lie on the floor at our feet, and you can have all of these seats? That way we can both lie flat.”
To my mind, at the time, there was no irony in my statement. If there was, Bitch would have missed it. This could have played out in several ways, but I knew exactly how it would.
And that was that.
There’s not a lot of room at your feet. There are four metal struts that sit between each seat, and never really warm up regardless of how much they are heated by various body parts. The floor is carpeted, but has far more metal edging than is strictly necessary. They don’t dry clean Airbus A340-300s very much. People keep their feet down here.
I actually got as good a rest on metal struts as one could hope for. From Bitch’s snoring so did she. The seats blocked the sound of her snoring, but not the Plaza Dorrego men’s reunion that adjourned in the aisle by my head after a marathon three-hour sitting.
In the morning Bitch offered me a chewie, but I declined. I knew where my shoes had been.
* * * * *
I’ve been back in Australia for two weeks now, long enough for the joys of the return trip to be little more than a memory, and an occasional spasm of sciatica. I made it through customs, only having to eat the jar of cheese-stuffed olives from Argentina as punishment for importation. The lack of yellow fever vaccination proof again threatened to derail me, until an official from a side office walked up and told me, “You’re a doctor – if you get sick, report it to yourself.”
I love Australia.
But I have been left pining a bit, thinking back on the trip, wishing for some more of the craziness. A little bit, just something to hang my hat on. Just a little taster to keep me going until the next trip.
And then it came, just two days back.
An email from Janin Alejandro, the taxi driver who had hoped that I could find his ex-Chileno girlfriend. The one who’d moved to Australia twenty years back. I’d done a Facebook search, and pulled up 89 Cecelia Leals. I forwarded it to him, hoping one of them was the one. This was his reply:
“Hello as these graces for the mail but I did not have good results
I wait it you finds been OK in your vacations
If you can verify something when arrives to australia I it am going to be grateful very much
For My Pardon for my terrible Englishman and graces(thanks) for dealing.
You are a very agreeable person and of good heart.
I wish the better (best) thing you for you and your family.
I plan to bring Janin to Australia later in the year. I’ll import him in a jar of cheese-stuffed olives. And I’ll stow it in Bitch’s boogie board bag.