My flight is delayed and I’ve been moved to first class. I take my seat and notice the empty space beside me. Thank God.
I’m leaving London and it’s been a soul healing trip. I’ve laughed more than I’ve cried and I’ve smiled until I felt silly. I love deeper now than I ever knew I could and I’ve felt gratitude pour out of me each day. It would be nice to have the row to myself so that I can reflect on my adventure in peace.
We sit and wait and I’m offered prosecco – glass after glass.
And then you barrel onto the plane.
You eye the numbers above the rows and stop at the seat next to me.
You try to get into your seat but your knit bags swing from your arms, this way and that and your cane falls to the ground. Your long grey hair loosens from its braid and springs out around your face until you manage to get a hand free to brush it away.
There’s a bottle of water on your seat and you pick it up and ask me who it belongs to.
‘It’s yours. The perks of first class, I guess. We get free water.’
‘Oh! Well isn’t that just lovely!’
I smile to myself and feel silly because the three glasses of prosecco I had while we were waiting for you to make it to the plane are hitting me and yes, I suppose a free bottle of water on a 9 hour flight could be seen as a lovely gesture.
You sit down and shove your bags under the seat, one after another like a clown car and I can see the flight attendant eyeing you and I feel strangely defensive.
They bring the menus around so we can choose our meals and you ask if it’s complimentary.
I like you already.
‘It’s the perk of being sat in first class. We get to enjoy a meal,’ I say.
You seem genuinely pleased and begin to tell me of your morning. From leaving your house before dawn so you could travel to the airport. You’re old, you say, and getting around isn’t as easy as it used to be, especially with luggage.
You make it to the airport early enough only to wait two hours at check in because you need a special number in order to get into Canada. You have this number, you assure me, but you didn’t have a printer at home and now the place at the airport to get a new number is having computer issues. That’s why you were so late.
I smile as you tell me this. I think of the difficulties of getting to the airport myself that day, lugging my life in a suitcase behind me and I don’t ever want to get old. It seems hard.
You ask the flight attendant for a cup of hot water and pull your own tea bag out of your purse.
‘I always travel with my own tea,’ you tell me.
The flight attendants pass around tablets and headphones so we can watch movies and I take one, unsure of whether I really want to watch anything.
You ask me where I’m from and why I was in London.
A very small town, and to get back to my old self, are the short answers.
I’ve had a full two weeks and I am heading back to a place I do not want to go to, but I feel strangely okay because I know it’s temporary. Being able to see this and have peace with it is a new thing for me, so I was looking forward to having the next 9 hours to myself just to think and reflect but I can see you looking at me and I believe in magic, so there must be a reason we are sat next to each other.
As the day unfolds, you and I sat next to each other, thousands of miles from the ground, that belief is only made stronger.
You tell me about your mother. How she got a scholarship to Oxford but that the scholarship didn’t cover living expenses so she couldn’t go. That changed something in her, you reflect, all these years later. There was a sadness and an anger that she simply could not become the educated woman she was meant to be simply because of money.
We talk about books and you tell me you love reading memoirs. You recommend Brown, by a Canadian journalist whose name you can’t remember. It’s a difficult thing, being brown in this world, you say. I smile, because I’m not sure what else to do.
You ask me what I’ve been reading and I tell you that I used to only read novels because I loved escaping into other people’s lives, but that the last year has been particularly tough so I’ve been reading lots of self-help and psychology books, finding my escape these days in healing myself. I feel like I might never need to escape again, I say.
You ask if I have siblings and I explain that I do and that we aren’t close but that’s its okay now. We are how we are and it’s okay that it’s like that. Things were hard growing up and we dealt with the same situation in very different ways and we didn’t always realize that’s what we were doing, but we both see it now and so we help each other how we’re able to and I think we’re both happy with that.
I ask why you are flying to Toronto and you tell me of your daughter. She lives in Toronto with her husband and kids. You tell me your grandson is handsome and the girls are always noticing him. Your daughter is talented musically, you mention this a few times, and now, weeks later, after I google her name from the card you gave me, I think musical prodigy is probably the more correct term.
There isn’t a lot of money in music, you tell me.
You explain that you are an artist and your daughter is a musician and her husband is Irish and so you go and rent an apartment in Toronto every time you are able to get your visa extended. You can’t work legally, but you sell paintings sometimes for cash and you travel the festival circuit with your daughter and her family.
They have a family travelling band and these people sound like the best kind of hippies and you assure me that they are.
We talk about how people don’t always do the things they most want to do in life because other people tell them that they can’t. Or because their fear is so big and they can’t always see past it and then sometimes, it’s too late to free yourself.
Your family seems to live in freedom permanently, I say, and you explain that there is a price to pay for following your dreams and sometimes it’s that it’s -35 in the middle of winter and the power goes out for a week because it’s Canada and you have no money for a repair man let alone a generator.
And so you borrow and rely on others and try to scrape money together for things like that, and that is the cost.
I tell you about how I used to live my life small, never stepping out to follow my dreams and you tell me that my story sounds like Plato’s Cave.
I tell you I don’t know it, and you explain that there is a story in Greek mythology and you think that maybe you have the story confused but you can’t quite remember now, but there was a room full of people working day in and day out and there was a glowing orb in the middle of the room and everyone was told not to touch it. So no one did. And then one day, someone got up from their desk and went to that spinning, glowing ball and everything they had ever wanted was right there in that orb and had been just waiting for them this whole time.
You smile and tell me that’s probably not the story, that you’ve gotten it mixed up, but how it sounds like what I am saying.
I laugh because I have no idea if you have just invented a new take on Greek mythology or if what you are saying is real, but I think it probably does not matter at all.
You lean over and say that if I ever have kids, you should think that they would be extremely lucky to have me.
I smile to myself and think about the kind of woman I should want to be when I am your age and I hope it’s quite a bit like you. I hope I live freely. I want to paint pictures and travel and read books and follow things that bring me joy. And then I realize that I try to do those things now and I make a silent promise to myself to never ever stop trying. It took 32 years to get to the point where I can do what I want and hopefully if I keep going, I will eventually feel less guilt.
Lunch is served and we eat and you ask for more hot water for your tea bag. I watch you re-use this tea bag 3 separate times on this journey. We are sat in first class and you are re-using a tea bag from your purse. I think of my own grandmother. I think of all the times growing up when I watched her dunk her tea bag in hot water and then sit it aside on a plate to save for later.
I want more for myself but I also want to be grateful that I am able to have more. I want to make sure I stay grateful and I think sometimes I still keep myself small because I am afraid of taking up more than my share.
These are the things I think over lunch.
I nap for an hour, the early morning and the late night before and the good byes and the ex-loves and the prosecco of that day all combining inside me. I wake to music playing beside me.
I glance at you and you have your headphones plugged into your tablet but they aren’t all the way pushed in, so your music is just playing for all of us to hear.
It’s fado music and I recognize it instantly because fado is about saudade and boy, do I ever know saudade.
The music plays on and eventually 4 flight attendants swarm the cabin, just now figuring out where it’s coming from. They all seem to tell you at the same time that you can’t have your music playing and I want to tell them all to calm down, but instead I watch from my seat. I watch you pull your headphones out of your ears so you can hear them. My insides are smiling deep down.
‘Oh my. I didn’t realize my music was playing for the public.’
‘I know,’ I say.
‘You’d think I had committed a crime.’
‘Don’t listen to them,’ I tell her. ‘That’s fado music.’
You turn to me in your seat and we discuss saudade and Portugal and language and music for the next while and I have never been so happy to be sat next to a lady on a plane as I am to be sat next to you.
Afternoon tea is served and we are deep in discussion and I think we’re both trying our best to ignore the flight attendants who bark about music on a plane.
We are given scones and clotted cream and I tell you that before I ever moved to London, I was so excited to try scones and clotted cream but that in my whole two years there, I never ended up having either.
‘Oh dear. I fear an airplane is not the best place for your first interaction with clotted cream.’
I am laughing out loud now and the rest of the plane may as well be empty. I have a new friend with old stories and I have clotted cream and going back to London didn’t kill me.
Magic is alive on the ground and in the air and I remind myself that this is why I need to say yes to my life.
This is why I have to get out of bed on the hardest of days. This is why I need to write my words down and then use them to heal myself. Because you can’t ever know what experiences are coming. You don’t know who you are going to meet and how that meeting can change your day or your mood, or how the memory of that person can stay with you months later and make you smile from ear to ear.
We land and you give me a business card. I noticed you taking them out of your purse, one of yours, artist, it says, and one for your daughter and her family’s travelling band.
You give me your daughter’s card and tell me I should look her up if I am in the area and that it was lovely to meet me and my insides glow and the pleasure has been all mine.