It’s impossible to sleep on short flights run by low cost providers. They want it to be this way. If it’s not the safety announcements, it’s the food and drinks trolley, the rustling of bags filled with peanuts and flavors of pretzel only available on planes. Or it’s the garbage bag whizzing by (before anybody has had time to finish their drinks ‘n’ snacks), and then the King of the Messages, Duty Free, menacing the passengers by aggressively listing the vast array of perfumes and aftershaves offered. “We know!” The whole plane wishes to cry, “They’re the same bloody ones the duty free in the airport had!”
Here comes the trolley now, overladen with Chanel and CK, spewing toxic vapors into the air as it chugs past. A wave of coughing, like ripples on a pond after a stone has been cast, expands throughout the plane. Then, in case you still have money in your pocket, the announcement advertising the airline’s lotto tickets: just scratch away the silver (you’ll have to use your fingernail, you’ve already given them all your change) to see if you’ve won up to ten thousand pounds. Cue another procession down the aisle, luminous airline uniforms careening into the passengers on either side, the clump clump clump of their high heels on the carpeting. A quick note on the weather, the tailwind and the altitude, and then we’re descending, slamming overheard lockers, tray tables and windows, incessantly clicking the metal seatbelts. Try and sleep through that.
The setting up of the food tray is as exact as the setting up of a chessboard before a match. Each bowl, plate and utensil is placed in its appointed position, to reposition them is unthinkable. Peeling back the metal lid, steam billows from bright green broccoli and pallid chicken, beads of sweat sit plump on the skin and drip from the lid and the walls. A bread roll, vacuum packed; a salad, vacuum packed; and a chocolate pudding, vacuum packed. Portions of butter, water, salt and pepper all measured out exactly, following stringent regulations. On one side of the aisle people are wolfing their meals down, wildly stabbing and ripping huge chunks despite the fragility of the plastic apparatus. Opposite from them, in D, E and F, people are picking at their food, rearranging it with the knife and fork as if the tray and its contents are a sliding puzzle. Never eating much, they just take a nibble here and there, pulling faces at the synthetic tastes.
“Lamb or chicken, Sir?” The question, emanating from somewhere behind him, was gradually advancing. Anticipation, coupled with a fear that he might select the wrong dish, grew inside him. The question echoed around the cabin, bouncing off the sloped ceiling, permeating through the headrests, reaching every hidden nook and cranny inside the plane. Each repetition of the question was followed by a pause and finally a hesitant reply that was more a stab in the dark than an informed decision. “Lamb or chicken, Sir? And you? Lamb or chicken?” “What can I get for you, the lamb or the chicken?”
The loudest it had been yet, the question rang out once more, the ‘Sir’ at the end of it positively booming in his ear. He was about to be in the hot seat himself, and was performing cognitive somersaults in an attempt to decide, before being asked, lest he should look foolish and confused, a rabbit caught in the headlights, when his turn came. “Lamb or chicken, Sir?”
He was still only 75 to 25 in favor of the lamb when, looking up into the sparkling eyes of an attendant, he realized that he was the Sir. Him! Just a kid taking a few tentative steps into adolescence, he hadn’t been expecting a ‘Sir’ for a good few years, and was caught completely off guard, understandably so. “Oh, sorry, I was miles away,” he said, trying to cover up his faux pas, although the look of surprise and wonderment was plainly written on his face, “The lamb, please.” “Certainly Sir,” the man replied (there it was again!) with a glowing smile whose radiance was transferred into the boy’s body, instantly dispelling his embarrassment. The man’s smile, and the care he took as he slid the lamb out from the trolley and landed it smoothly on the boy’s tray table, expressed how the he understood shock; appreciating the significance of being referred to as an adult, as a peer, for once.