The hot, Tuscan wind whips across the cracked concrete of the runway, mixing with the heat of the jet engines, the heat from the sun, the stored heat from the baked ground.
We are going home.
The tired Ryanair plane crouches in front of us, scoured by hundreds of thousands of miles in the air and I know just how it feels. I’ve been awake for over thirty hours, my eyes are gritty and grainy. The previous day I’d raced our car along the drag-strip roads of Italy to Pisa, from the potholes and gravel of the backroads to the sagging skid-marked tarmac of their dubious motorways, avoiding hurtling Alpha Romeos and murderous construction trucks.
Driving in Italy is like Mad Max in a nice suit, listening to opera on the stereo whilst trying to smash your enemy into the nearest field of bellissimo sunflowers. Not for the faint hearted.
The night was spent in a sixties tenement block in an apartment that had sold itself as a delightful ‘B&B’, but was in fact a sterile apartment with beds but no breakfast, in essence a ‘B’ without the ‘&B’. We laid in the stifling heat of our family room with the windows open in the vain hope of a cool draught, listening to the sports cars hurtling, the superbikes racing, and the ambulances screaming with their all too regular payloads of smashed meat, on their way to the hospital across the road.
As the traffic died – literally – we began to settle, only to be awoken by what sounded like a traveling German Oom-pah band who barged into the apartment. They would be our neighbours for the night, occupying the next room and ensuring that there would no more sleep until dawn.
Their deep Teutonic voices rumbled like tubas and trombones throughout the apartment as they went about their thorough ablutions, and when they slept they maintained a steady triple-time rhythm of snores, farts and whistles that made me wish for cold litres of Bavarian lager to drown in.
My family lay awake like polite zombies, blinking greasily in the darkness until our phone alarms quietly chimed at 4am to tell us to get up, get dressed silently and make our way to the airport for our 7am flight.
We should have stamped our feet and chanted drinking songs of our own as we packed but we didn’t, because we are English, and we will probably die of a miserable little tumor made entirely of suppressed rage and impotent frustration.
And now, after shuffling with the yawning herd for two hours, we are here, walking towards a plane that might-or-might-not fall out of the sky through a mixture of metal fatigue, pilot error or just from a lack of will to remain airborne any longer.
Up the steps, past the grinning clown of an air hostess, jostling towards our sagging leatherette seats whilst holding our bags aloft like strange body armour, fending off the Samsonite wielded by the passengers coming from the opposite end of the plane.
My son and I are on one row, my wife and daughter behind us, to ensure both children get a window seat. We don’t fly very often so this quite the thrill for them. It is for me too, if I’m honest. There’s something I find very relaxing about flying, about hurtling into the sky, hurtling out of the sky, a brush with death that terrifies others but soothes me somehow. It’s a very strong feeling of ‘FUCK IT’.
In the aisle seat of our row I can see dark hair, balding at the crown to expose dark skin. A smallish man in a pale brown shirt. I’m not a smallish man, I’m well over six foot, and I don’t like looming over people. It somehow feels rude.
I politely say, ‘Erm…’ but the man is already out of his seat, smiling. He’s a similar age to me, I’d say, in his forties. Asian, trim moustache, dazzling smile, soft brown smiling eyes.
He looks at me, looks at my son, then quickly helps my son load his bag into the overhead compartment.
We thank him and he smiles, smiles,
We shuffle past, take our seats, slump into seats still slightly warm from the previous occupants. The dawn sun glitters into the cabin, reflected from the polished aluminium of the plane’s wing. The window glass is ice scoured, the interior cabin is sun faded yellow, like the photos in a barbers shop window.
I make sure the family phones are on airplane mode and I adopt an airplane mode of my own, preparing for a few hours in a seat that is too small for my freakishly long legs, of not pissing because I hate little toilets, of not eating because I hate eating tiny meals off a tiny tray, of not drinking because I don’t want to spill a scalding beverage on myself, on my son, on the smiling man next to me.
I go into a sort of torpor.
I shut down.
“Hello. my name is Faisal.”
I say, “Sorry?”
The smiling man is smiling at me. He is leaning forward slightly, his hand is held towards me.
He says again, “Hello, my name is Faisal.”
I take his hand, shake it. I say, “Hello Faisal. I’m Luci, this is my son.”
He shakes both of our hands.
He says, “It is a beautiful morning, isn’t it?”
I think, ‘Oh shit. I’ve got a talker.’
I say, “Yes, yes it is. Beautiful.”
In a soft, unidentifiable accent Faisal starts to tell me where he has been in Italy, what he saw, how incredible Venice was. I agree, replying vaguely, hoping my shorter responses might discourage his disconcerting friendliness.
I just want to look out of the window. I just want to slurp on a Fox’s Glacier Fruit and watch the airplane taxi along the runway before thrusting from the earth’s surface, blasting through cloud towards space and the aquatic blue of Heaven. I don’t want to talk to Faisal about his trip to Venice.
He says, “I’m going to England to visit my relatives in Pendle. Do you know Pendle?”
I say that I do, that Pendle is famous for it’s witches but that witches don’t live there anymore, not that I know of, but I realise that I am babbling slightly as I often do in these situations.
Faisal nods politely, smiling. “Some of my family live in Pendle but I live in Canada. Toronto.”
I say, “Oh? I’d love to go to Canada. Is Toronto nice?”
Faisal’s smile widens. “Oh, yes! It’s perfect. The nicest place on Earth. I cannot tell you just how beautiful it is. It isn’t hot, not like Italy is hot, but the air… It is the cleanest air on Earth. You can almost drink it. And the trees, the mountains, the rivers… It is a wonderful place. So much space, so much greenery. I love it.”
“I hear it snows a lot though.”
Faisal shrugs. “Not so much in the city, but yes, in the mountains. And when it snows, well, we ski!” He laughs a small, polite laugh.
It is nice that Faisal is talking to me, but I want it to stop. I know I sound like a miserable shit for wanting him to stop, but I do. I don’t know why he feels the need to talk to me. Why he wants to tell me about his life. His life sounds great but in two hours I’ll get off the plane and never see him again so what’s the point?
I look out of the window for a minute as the plane begins to move along the runway and Faisal fiddles with his phone.
Then he says, “This is where I live.”
I look back.
Pictures on his phone.
Pictures of him walking in the forest with other Asian men. Selfies of himself and an Asian man by a waterfall. Trees. A mountain. Blue skies. The Asian men stood by a brilliant blue river.
All very nice. Faisal’s life.
Then he says, “And this is my daughter. She is eleven.”
A picture of a girl, the same age as my son. She is at the dinner table and she is smiling the same smile as her father, a beautiful smile.
And all of a sudden I realise why Faisal is talking to me.
Faisal is an Asian man, travelling alone on a passenger jet.
He is used to being treated with suspicion and fear when he flies alone and he has learned ways to reassure people that he is not about to scream “ALLAHU AKBAR!!” and blow his shoes up, or his underpants up, or pull out a wicked looking knife and stab me up in my budget leatherette seat at thirty thousand feet.
Faisal is showing me that I have nothing to fear, that I’m not about to die a horrible death and that I’m not about to become a newspaper headline.
He is showing me that he has family to go to, that he has family waiting for him in beautiful Canada, that he has a life that he doesn’t want to end violently.
I know this sounds pretty fucking presumptuous but it isn’t. I know this. I know it from Faisal’s smile, from the way he talks quietly to me and shows me his photographs. He is saying, “I mean you no harm.”
I suddenly feel glad that I’m sat next to him.
Then the plane thrusts from the earth’s surface, blasting through cloud towards space and the aquatic blue of Heaven. I talk to Faisal about his trip to Venice, about his family and what he will do in Pendle when he arrives. We talk about hiking in the hills, he tells me about walking on glaciers and I offer him a Fox’s Glacier Fruit which he politely refuses.
Then we are quiet for a while, and we look out of the window, and we can see the earth below us, and the light goes off above us to let us know we can undo our safety belts.
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