JFK, New York, 1994
Being the last to board an already fully-seated airplane is not a pleasant experience. Racing down the gangway alone, with bags bouncing on your shoulder like jockeys at Aintree, avoiding the glares of the ground stewards.
When I finally made it to the door of the plane, and took that step from safe dry land into the safe-keeping of total strangers, I had to face the plastic smiles and silent chastisement of the air stewardesses, one of whose job it was to welcome me onboard.
I squinted at her name badge. Mary B.
I guessed there was a Mary C and a Mary O’D somewhere else on the plane. Maybe they were serving champagne cocktails in Business Class, making small-talk with pin-striped executives – one of whom could be their ticket out of there. I suppose that’s what most girls were stewardesses for in those days. So they could draw straws for Business Class service and, with a bit of luck and a little work, go from jet-lag to jet-set in under 100,000 miles. It was apparent that Mary B had drawn the short straw on this occasion, and was stuck serving ready-meals and fizzy drinks to the great unwashed in economy.
It was also Mary B’s job to show me to my seat. We had allocated seats in those days, can you believe it? It was a safety measure designed so that the staff would know if anyone was missing in an emergency. How quaint. I ignored another stewardess as she made a great show of closing the door, not-so-subtly reinforcing the fact that everyone onboard had been waiting for me. Following Mary B to my seat, I glanced about apologetically at anyone who cared to notice. As I recall, most people were too busy settling themselves, strapping in children, rummaging through bags or flicking through magazines to notice my walk of shame. I began to wonder if I was to be consigned to the bowels of the plane with the smokers as punishment, when an empty seat came into view. The airplane had eight seats in each row – two, four, two. This empty seat was by the aisle, next to a window seat. A brief moment of disappointment on seeing that the window seat was occupied speedily dissipated when I saw what it was occupied by – a long-legged hunk of a guy, mid-twenties, with strawberry-blonde hair.
I’m sure it galled Mary B to leave me with such a doll, but with one last plastic smile, she stalked off back to her station. I used the mandatory overhead bin baggage-stuffing exercise to give my new travelling partner time to appreciate my flat tanned stomach before settling down beside him.
A summer on the beach in New Jersey had developed my confidence and honed my conversation skills and we relaxed into friendly banter. He really was a picture. And, it appeared, a gentleman. He offered the window seat almost immediately. I declined with a ‘no thanks, but keep trying’ smile. He was friendly. Tick. Scottish. Tick. A newly-qualified dentist. Tick. And just look at him. Tick tick tick tick TICK. But even now, I remember thinking how we would never exchange phone numbers or ask if the other frequented Edinburgh/Dublin. Or even happen to bump into one another at the stewardess’s station halfway through the flight when lights were low and other passengers slept…. So much for love at first viewing. But as the conversation tailed off, and we dozed side by side like a comfortable couple, I’m sure I felt grateful that at least I wasn’t seated next to a 30-stone woman, or a man with a weak bladder.
I don’t recall the rest of the flight. I suppose I must have spent much of it reliving the four months just spent – a time that I knew even then were special, life-forming. Happy remembering, punctuated by hospital-food meals and jolly announcements from the overtly-jolly pilot. Perhaps Mary B was up in the cockpit with him, making him giggle.
Somewhere, halfway across the Atlantic, I began to think about home, as if my American-summer self was beginning to wane as we crossed from one airspace to another. I’m sure I felt the usual mixture of excitement and dread; longing for home, dreading the idea of reverting to my old self and losing all I had become. In those days, the passengers cheered when the tyres stopped bumping the runway and settled on the soil of home, but I can’t imagine now that I did so. When I stood to take down my bags, I knew that my companion who only hours before had held such possibilities and promise was clearly part of the past – part of the final chapter of a summer story that would always mean so much, but that was now over.
And it was at that moment I turned and saw him. No more than four rows away across the cabin, he stood, retrieving his bag at the same moment, others seated around him. Our eyes locked together in strange recognition for what must have been three or four seconds. A lifetime.
And then, we both looked away, as strangers do when they realise they have been staring just a little too long.
You were standing on the quay
Wondering who was the stranger on the mailboat
While I was on the mailboat
Wondering who was the stranger on the quay
(Richard Murphy, 1985)
I had felt that way before. In the way you see a dress in a shop window and instantly know that it will be yours and that you will have fun in this dress, go to parties in this dress, have adventures while wearing this dress.
So I saw him and he saw me, and we saw our future. Our path. Our love. Just for those few seconds. If it had been a movie script, I suppose the other passengers would have melted away, and Mary B would be somewhere stage right, setting off fireworks as a backdrop to the enormity of it all.
But as it was, we didn’t meet again for some time.
And when we did, and he followed me from the room, and we confronted what we already knew without speaking, well, that’s when it all really begins.