The ice will wake you. You’ll hear it dropping in the plastic cup, sense it being passed in front of you to the woman in the window seat you haven’t spoken to since the flight began. You’ll drift, then you’ll open your eyes and stare into a face that would be prettier with less make-up. Her strip-light smile won’t fade as she asks you, patiently, for the third time if you’d like something to drink. You’ll order a gin and tonic even though you don’t want one because that’s what you do on flights. While she rummages for the gin needle in the haystack of unwanted brandy you’ll wonder if you’ll get peanuts or mini pretzels.
You’ll bet on pretzels.
And you’ll be right.
You’ll mix your too-strong gin, take a swallow and thin it out with tonic. You’ll do your best not to make eye-contact with the woman to your left but you’ll eventually fail. She’ll smile, say hello. Raise her cup as a toast. You’ll smile back and take another sip. You’ll compare inanities about the quality of the drinks, the screaming baby six rows in front and the in-flight movie choices. She’ll tell you how rare it is these days to be on a plane with a two-three-two seating configuration and you’ll smile to yourself but it won’t reach your eyes. She’ll ask if you’re on holiday and you’ll say no.
Again you’ll say no and wait out the inevitable pause until she asks, “Well if you aren’t flying for business or pleasure, why are you flying? If you don’t mind me asking.”
You’ll delay around a large mouthful of gin and wave her off as she starts to retreat, afraid she’s offended you in some way.
“I’m flying home to bury my mother.”
And once those words are in motion the rest will start tumbling out. She’ll say how sorry she is and you’ll tell her it’s kind of her and then you’ll explain. How the plane will land on time but it’ll be delayed for fifteen minutes on the ground because of a problem with the walkway. How you’ll make up seven in the airport terminal because you’ve only got hand luggage and passport control is always quick but you’ll lose another four because the arrogant prick in front of you in the car rental queue will demand an upgrade in the hope that if he makes enough noise he’ll get one to shut him up. How he’ll fail and storm off in a tirade of promised communications to head office that he’ll never write. How you’ll lose another minute empathising with the assistant about how rude people are these days then how she’ll wink and give you an upgrade. How you’ll be thirteen minutes behind schedule when you leave the airport and how you’ll make up the time and a bit more on the motorway. How you’ll get to the edge of the village you grew up in and hammer the steering wheel, screaming at the cement truck blocking the road, at the line of cars boxing you in from behind. How you’ll abandon the car and run the last mile so you can be home by five like you promised. How you’ll stagger through the front door at six minutes after five and see the flat, dull look in your sister’s eyes that tells you all you need to know. How she’ll tell you that your mum died just after three and none of it even mattered.
The woman next to you will retreat behind a wide-eyed stare and try to form the question you know must come. And when she finally finds her breath and asks, “How can you possibly know all this…?” you’ll pause and wonder if you can come up with a suitably palatable lie.
You’ll think you can.
And you’ll be wrong.
And in then end you’ll tell her the truth.
“I’ve been here before.”
Header Image: “KitchenLH” by Etan J. Tal – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:KitchenLH.jpg#/media/File:KitchenLH.jpg