Brief Encounter (Part 3 – Arrivals)

Brief Encounter (Part 3 – Arrivals)

This post is part three 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.

Part 1 / Part2.

= = = =

And so it went on. We talked – in all – for about 8.5 hours, the full duration of the flight. We talked about, in no particular order: life in the UK; life in Canada; differences between Canada and the US; the university systems in the UK, US and Canada; our various attempts at keeping fit; families; politics; manual vs automatic cars; books we had both read in the last year; our personality types (Myers Briggs – we’re similar to within one letter); our values and our aspirations… And that’s just the stuff I can remember.

Above all – I felt a profound connection with him. I experienced him as intensely authentic, honest, decent, unsullied. He didn’t have that urban, cloney, contrived persona that is – to me – so very staid and yet so very common in cities like the one I live in. Instead – he was something rare and special and honest and real and any description I give won’t be enough to accurately describe him. It just won’t. I felt that we were perfectly attuned to the same wavelength and the white noise I experience with the vast majority of people I interact with was not there. It surprised me considerably.

I scribbled my contact details on to the back of my boarding card which I then gave to him, telling him that if he needed any help or wanted to meet up again whilst in Europe to get in touch. He was meeting up with a friend for a small part of the trip but most of it he’d be doing alone.

I felt – as I reflected at the time – that I’d met a kindred spirit.

So 8.5 hours later (having nearly lost my voice) we arrived in London. The flight had gone more quickly than I could ever have imagined. It had felt like half the actual duration. I introduced him to S who seemed rather miffed. We went through immigration (he was in the non-EU line, of course), then met up again in baggage reclaim. S raced off as had a train to catch to London Bridge and so the two of us travelled to Victoria together. On arrival I helped him get an Oyster card.

I told him to contact me if he needed any help or info at all. I knew he was meeting a friend flying in to London later that day and would be with them for a week in France and then back in the UK – on his own. And we then said our goodbyes.

He emailed me two days later. And I’ve replied.

PS I shouldn’t need to add this disclaimer but I will – my chance encounter with him didn’t, in my mind, constitute a ‘love interest’; instead it represented a ‘connection’ – like in Lost in Translation. It really was like that. I felt like I’d made a genuine connection, met someone who I was actually on a very similar wavelength to. Through fate. I considered his sexuality to be really rather irrelevant.

Brief Encounter (Part 2 – 35,000 feet)

Brief Encounter (Part 2 – 35,000 feet)

This post is part two 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.

Part 1.

= = = =

“Busy, isn’t it?” the guy on my right remarked. “Yes. I can’t believe how busy it is. I got to check-in 2 hours ahead of this flight and there were no aisle seats left. I can’t quite believe it” I replied.

I don’t really remember what was said next. It was small talk. Irrelevant. Used to pass the time. It lasted a few minutes. The air-steward came back “we’re moving you to 12 F – an aisle seat – after take off” he said. “OK, thanks”, was my reply.

We began taxiing along the runway. The plane felt about 97% full. A mere handful of empty seats, all centre ones between 2 other people. The engines roared as we hurtled down the runway; I tried to relax. I stopped pulling in my legs which is an unnatural position to maintain. My left leg pressed against the trendy guy on my left, he shifted to the left slightly, no doubt to give me more room. My right leg pressed against the guy on my right’s leg but he didn’t budge. But I relaxed. I really wasn’t bothered. Any hope or prospect of personal space was not going to happen in that seat. If our legs were pressed against one another then so be it.

We climbed steeply into a dark, sapphire sky. The weather had been exquisite that day and the prior three. Just unbelievably good for the time of year. Time passed and after a while the fasten seat belts sign went off. A few minutes later the air steward returned. “I’m sorry, there isn’t a spare seat after all. You’ll have to make do where you are and we’ll make you as comfortable as we can” he said. “OK. Fine.” I said. There really wasn’t much else I could say.

And then. The guy on my right and I struck up a conversation again. It came from nowhere and started once again as small talk. Stilted, as talk with a stranger invariably is. We talked about how the flight had left early which was of course good. He asked what I’d been up to in Canada. I told him. I asked him what he was off to do in the UK. He was off to ‘do Europe’ and travel. He was excited. But he hadn’t slept the night before saying he’d been anxious. After saying that he suddenly went rather quiet; bashful I suppose. “You have every right to feel anxious” I said, “travelling on your own is a big deal, it’s totally normal to feel like that.”

He asked if I’d travelled on my own. I told him that I’d left the UK for Japan on a one-way ticket aged 21 to teach English for a year and had been very nervous indeed. He wanted to know all about it. I told him all about it.

He then stuck out his hand and introduced himself – which I shook – introducing myself. I began to relax. I was warming to him. Something about him put me at ease. He was younger than me by quite a few years, early-mid 20s in comparison to my early-mid 30s, but who cares. We were two passengers having a chat on a plane.

I realised at one point that I’d not really looked him in the eyes. We were sitting adjacent, not opposite one another, which is not conducive to in-depth conversations. But time passed and we kept talking. After an hour or so we were kind of leaning in toward one another – much more relaxed and at ease – and we did look one another in the eyes and his were as blue as the night sky. He wore a t-shirt, very blonde hairs on his arms. Well built but not in a gym-rat way. There was something… strong but gentle about him that I found magnetic.

He asked about me. I asked about him. He is first-generation Canadian. We talked. And we talked. We flew over Greenland and eastward over the Atlantic – toward Europe – with the sun setting behind us. A meal was served and we continued to talk as we ate. I offered him a tictac after the meal which he accepted.

And then the cabin lights were dimmed and the vast majority of passengers fell into a fitful slumber. But not us. We kept talking. And the cabin felt cool as the temperature had dropped quite a bit. But I felt the warmth emanating from him – we were so close and my right leg and right arm were pressed against his. From a window along the row I could see the darkness outside but also a faint, red corona along the distant horizon; the rest was total blackness. I felt… completely at ease, completely relaxed.

Brief Encounter (Part 1 – Seat 38E)

Brief Encounter (Part 1 – Seat 38E)

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.