This post is part one of three.
In its entirety it constitutes 2,000 words that I wrote following a fateful flight between Calgary, Canada and London Gatwick last year, but never posted.
It’s about a connection I made with a perfect stranger.
= = = =
The valet brought the car up from the hotel car park and we made the relatively short drive to the airport. I was driving and S was navigating.
It was early afternoon on a Saturday and we were flying from Calgary to London, bringing to an end what had been a wonderful holiday in the Canadian Rockies. The weather those final few days had been unforgettable: dark blue skies, not a cloud in sight, warm temperatures.
We were right on time. It was about 2 hours until the flight was due to leave when we checked in. The queue was rather longer than on the way out. I had a feeling it would be busy – again. And it certainly was.
We reached the check-in desk and as I handed over the passports, I asked, politely, if it might be possible to have 2 aisle seats toward the rear of the plane. It’s a 9 hour flight from Calgary to London. Economy class – when you’re 6ft tall – is never pleasant, especially if the plane is full.
“I’m sorry, all aisle seats and window seats and seats together are now gone”, said the clerk. I performed what the script might call a ‘double-take’. In all the years I’ve travelled I don’t think I’ve ever had such a response, especially when checking in a good 2 hours before the scheduled departure time. “Check-in has already been open for several hours. Others have paid to check-in online. The flight is fully booked. Sorry…” he said. Not as sorry as I was.
We both felt a sense of impending dread. Not sitting together was an irrelevance but knowing we would each be sandwiched between strangers on both sides for a 9 hour flight was an awful thought. I really, really wasn’t looking forward to it.
And so we boarded the plane. We were in the first group to board, rows 32 – 44. I was row 38. Seat 38 E. To give some idea of where that is, I’m denoted by an M and x represents other passengers:
xxx xMx xxx
My worst nightmare of a seat. Truly. I have dreaded my whole life doing a long-haul flight in such a seat. Returning from Montreal four years prior the flight was about 40% empty and we had lots of spare seats in which to stretch out. I had, naively, assumed it might be the same this time round.
The two who would be sitting on either side of me were already seated. Both had not been far ahead of me in the queue, I realised, having noticed them during check-in. Both young men travelling alone, early-mid 20s, good-looking in that ‘all-Canadian’ way. The one on the left was rather fashionable – tight black t-shirt, chiselled jaw. The one on the right looked more… guileless. Not trendy. Short blonde shaved hair. Salt-of-the-earth.
I already felt mildly stressed. I had that rising sense of claustrophobia. An air steward was walking down the aisle – I stopped him: “I don’t think I can sit here for 9 hours. I’m 6ft tall. I can’t do it. There must be some spare seats on the plane???!!” I pleaded. He hesitated a moment and then said he would ask the ground crew what the status was and come back to me.
After a futile wait I decided to bite the bullet and, entering the seat from the left side, I asked the trendy guy to please make way, which he did. I sat down. I was holding a carrier bag into which I’d decanted the stuff I wanted for the flight. Globe & Mail (newspaper, acquired at hotel), book, mp3 player, tictacs, flavoured polos, water. The bag was actually quite ungainly for a centre seat. Not ideal.
I closed my eyes for a moment or two and sighed – probably audibly.
“Busy, isn’t it…?” the salt-of-the-earth guy on my right remarked.
And so it began.