Tuesday, February 15, 2011


I always try to be friendly to strangers, like taxi drivers and bell boys, especially seat companions on long haul flights, not because I am a naturally effervescent person, but rather due to a belief that if I reach out and try to make some human contact - before the stranger reveals themselves as a psychotic murderer - maybe the tenuous relationship thus established will subvert any violent intentions and, let's face it, save my life.  I realise this may be viewed as an unattractive character trait on my part, and I apologise if you find this offensive.  Put it down to a glitch in my trust circuits.

I was squashed into the window seat in the last row of the plane.   I chose the seat so I would not be clambered over.  If I need to get up, I would rather do the climbing myself.   My neighbour - James, let us call him - was tall and thin with angular features and dark straight hair.  I noticed his hands were elongated , with long thin fingers and the hint of webbing between them.  James was grateful for the aisle seat so he could unfold his legs and rotate his ankles.

When I spoke to him, he revealed he hadn't actually spoken to anyone since he'd boarded his first plane.  He took his first flight earlier that morning from a regional city to an international hub, and when I joined him, he was beginning the third leg of his trip.  It was the first time he had left his homeland, his province even his region.   He was unfamiliar with the flying procedures, listening intently to the safety announcements, afraid to undo his seat belt, or to get up to use the toilet.

He told me later that he hadn't eaten during the three hour transit time:  he had no money in the local currency and did not understand how to get some.  He  had no idea what the local prices would be when translated into his still unknown sterling.

I gave him my lunch and introduce him to cheese, while pointing out the plastic-wrapped cube on the tray was not representative of the breed.

We spoke about bicycles and the availability of rice, artery walls and of love.  Eighteen hours previously, he had said a tearful farewell - he was still crying - to his pretty wife, for three years.  His grant covered one flight to the University and one flight back home.  He had an allowance for books and accommodation and living expenses, but not for frivolous things like love or phone calls.

James was an only child, as was his wife.  In time, they would be allowed to have two children if they chose to.  His father was dying and was not expected to live until James returned.  He was expected to die in the next few months but there was no provision in the grant for a delay for sentimental reasons.

His English was surprising. He had never had a conversation with a native speaker before - everything he knew was from non-native-speaking teachers, books, recordings and films.  He told me he was worried about learning technical terms, new academic standards, conventions in presenting information and bizarre prescriptive formatting rules. The laboratory equipment would be unfamiliar, his bed cold and empty, the food unrecognisable, his supervisor unavailable, the weather alien, the rain relentless.

No one would meet him.  He had to make his way from the airport by bus to a train station, and then by train to the University town where some one might meet him, if he wasn't too late.

James did not murder me with his plastic fork and knife.  In fact, a few months ago I had an email from him with photos of his new baby boy, and it is not three years since that flight. 

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