A Sunday evening flight to Malaga from sunny Belfast. We’re booked on the airline run by the man whose name rhymes with ‘bleary’ – which is how I am feeling. We’re not even in the air yet. We’ve been unlucky to be herded on late. Only a little late, but late enough to miss our slot, so we sit on the runway for…. well, nobody knows. We sit, overheating, for as long as it takes. Twenty minutes into the delay and an announcement is made: yes, the toilets may be used and devices may be switched back on. It’s not a good sign. In unison, the clicking of safety belts ripples in soft percussion through the cabin and everyone rises as if called to stand for a toast at a wedding. Really? How can everyone need a pee? There are 33 rows, six people per row and the flight is full. I begin to ponder the likely duration of the delay. If 198 people all need to go, each averaging three-minutes (I re-consider, reduce it to two minutes), and there are just two bathrooms, then that’s one long delay. My worst-case scenario mental arithmetic is interrupted by an impeccable lipstick-wearer asking if I might consider swapping seats with her so that she can sit beside her sister. “I’m just 25 rows back, would you mind?” She turns to negotiate with the man next to me, asking if he’ll do the same. Sister number three is 24 rows back. Being one of three sisters myself, I absolutely understand the necessity of sitting together. After all, one sister will have the snack bag and how can they share if they are not sitting together? (Or is that just me and my sisters?)
I bookmark the page of ‘The Old Man and the Sea’, gather my bag, remember my jacket from the overhead locker, throw the borrowed pashmina over my shoulder and make for the back of the plane. That’s when it dawns on me. This is not a simultaneous urge for bladder emptying, this is a groupthink game of musical chairs! The yellow and blue airline carrier doesn’t place travellers together (who knows why), and, with nothing else to do but queue for the loo, ‘seat swapping’ has become the game of the moment. I make the slow journey from 7E to 32F, witnessing boiled sweets being traded in good humour for magazines. Mr. B’Leary’s seating plan is being shaken loose like a snow globe. A family of four who are scattered randomly, as if a slovenly gardener has thrown seed potatoes into the vegetable patch, are brought back into one neat drill. Kasparov chess moves are executed so that the pink-sashed hen party can sit together: up two, across two; bounce, bounce, bounce; and I am the pawn – relegated to the back. Give them a week away together and they might be quite happy with random seating on the way home, I think to myself.
I’ve gone from mid-row to a window seat, which, (despite feeling like a bit of a pawn), I consider to be an upgrade. An upgrade until the woman behind me begins to vanilla vape. It is just about bearable in a sickly-sweet way until it mixes with an overwhelming pine fresh disinfectant that’s being piped through the air vents in a chemical assault. I wonder if it is a sedative, if the company that rhymes with Bryan-air is allowed to sedate – by stealth – unruly travellers, for things are getting a bit out of hand. On cue, vape-lady steps forward as a suitable candidate for full-scale sedation by successfully hooking her iPhone to her mini speaker to play an eighties medley at full volume. “Never gonna give you up,” she’s singing along with Rick, following up with Deacon Blue’s ‘A Ship Called Dignity’. She’s telling her friends that she has pre-mixed Bacardi into her bottle of coke, declaring, ‘No flies on me!’ I’m onto the last four pages of Hemingway, it’s not looking good for the old man, and the Deacon Blue soundtrack is bizarrely appropriate. I can barely breathe as I read about the old man’s last run into Havana harbour: “..he knew that it was over. He swung the tiller across the shark’s head where the jaws were caught in the heaviness of the fish’s head which would not tear. He swung it once and twice and again. He heard the tiller break and he lunged at the shark with the splintered butt. He felt it was sharp and knowing it was sharp he drove it in again. The shark let go and rolled away. That was the last shark of the pack that came. There was nothing more for them to eat.”
“Excuse me, miss,” the air steward has finally plucked up the courage to reign in disco-vape-lady, “you’re not allowed to vape on board, and could you please listen to the music through earphones?” For all her Bacardi fuelled holiday excitement, she acquiesces without hesitation. We sit on the runway for a good while longer. Musical chairs has finished. Rest rooms are at rest. All is quiet. The funny detergent smell has faded. We’ll be in the air soon enough, I think, and, as a quick postscript, I remind myself, worse things happen at sea.