Strangers on a Plane
7 April 2003
The problems began right from the check-in queue. I don't suppose it helps, being one of the down-market flight operators flying to the most down-market destinations, but it sets the tone early on. Hundreds of badly-dressed (and I mean offensive) travellers heading to Liverpool and Luton - the orange-clad staff almost seem fashionable by comparison. I'm almost ashamed to be seen with them, but I console myself with thoughts of a higher purpose, a just cause to be stooping to these depths, and I take a deep breath so I don't have to inhale their odours with any greater frequency than absolutely necessary.
Looking back, the whole set-up is like a movie, or at least a filmed novella. The same characters keep recurring throughout the drama - first introductions at the taxi rank or train platform, the minor dramas of a misplaced passport or late arrival, the touching scenes in the duty free section, final calls for boarding - and it reminds me of the structure of one of those Airport films, where these segments of life are supposed to give you some sense of connection to the otherwise empty personas. In this case, it removes any traces of sympathy I might have had.
Let me run through the protagonists as they're introduced to me. First up is a guy who appears to be some sort of representative from Nissan. This judging from the fact that he is wearing a shirt with Nissan embroidered on the top part of the pocket. Yes, his shirt has a breast pocket. In which resides, quite openly, a pair of ballpoint pens. Oh, and it's short sleeved. He appears impervious to this fashion travesty, and will go on to retain his tie throughout the journey, despite the unseasonal warmth. [I can just see his bosses drilling him from his first day: 'While you wear this shirt you are a representative of this company and will maintain a level of presentation commensurate with our professional reputation.'] Each time I see him he is reading his book with the same precise stance, bolt upright with his cheap Casio showing, and all I can think each time is whether his arms are tired yet.
The next encounter comes in the departure lounge. A scrawny, wiry guy who clearly fancies himself as some kind of rocker is sat with who I can only assume is his girlfriend, though why either of them would consider propagating their species is beyond me. Absurdly, he has rolled up one sleeve of his black T-shirt to expose the very upper part of his arm, where sits a clearly fresh tattoo (I can tell it's fresh as the edges have a bruised, purple tinge) that I understand he's very proud of. Either that or he needs to expose it to the air so it can heal properly. What disgusts me more is the way he tuts and half-smiles in my direction when a further delay is announced by the tinny voice on the PA, like he is making some sort of connection between the two of us. Or the three of us, as his girlfriend is apparently getting in on the act as well. I just look away before anything serious happens.
I take my place on the plane and find, to my surprise, that Nissan man is sat across the aisle from me in the same pose as before. From the pockets of conversation I can hear around me I can discern no single demographical majority, which pleases me, as the impact is always greater when the social spread is wider.
Diagonally opposite sits an elderly gentleman of indeterminate class. His only distinguishing feature is the size of his nostrils; in profile, he resembles a sans-septum Daniella Westbrook viewed from below. I consider how much gak he could hoover up in one sniff - and then he stuns me by flaring the bastard as he mutters to himself (whether as a sign of madness or a prayer for safe flight is impossible to tell, and ultimately inconsequential).
Three seats ahead I can only make out the upper echelons of a Burberry baseball cap, which is enough for me to deduce the origins of its owner. Though this has been getting harder of late - it originally pinpointed location to within a thirteen-mile radius of Romford, but since Essex man has been colonising most of outer London and the surrounding counties with his hairstyle, outfit and accent this particular piece of haute couture has been spotted on football casuals as far and wide as Gloucester. All that can be seen of his travelling companions is the quiff-like lip at the front of their hairstyles, which is enough for me to build a firm mental picture of the three of them burlying around the airport, bellies full of lager and McDonalds.
The couple next to me are more reserved. They quietly talk about their break, already nostalgic for some of the sights and thinking of another trip, but also looking forward to their return home and the welcome they will receive from their children. There are mentions of another on the way, though from the look of the mother not very far advanced, and the talk reminds me of the family I left behind; it's times like this that most test your resolve, your dedication to the task in hand, your commitment to the journey. I've been told the way through is not to think of the family on the ground, but of my brothers who took this journey before me, and who I'm set to join.
I look around again at Nissan man; pseudo-rocker; nostrils; the Burberry crew; family. None of them knew they would be on a plane together this morning; none of them know where the others are going; at the end of the day, when I unclip my seatbelt, whisper a prayer and detonate the explosives strapped to my chest, none of it matters anyway.