THE DREAMLINER: Terry Finch
As a non-scientist and a non-engineer, it seems impossible to me that such a large chunk of steel could stay airborne. Of course it’s the engines – and lots and lots of fuel! And the skill of the pilots. And the design of the plane. Still, as I sit in the window seat of Row 30 on my red-eye United Airlines Dreamliner from San Francisco to Sydney, I think about my vulnerability …
A feeling of panic begins to rise … and a feeling of utter loneliness, in spite of the fact there are some 285 other passengers on the plane, two sitting uncomfortably close: a man and his mother.
There’s an eerie darkness inside and outside the plane and a deathly silence – except for the drone of the engines – because the cabin lights are off and most passengers are sleeping. This only serves to exacerbate my feelings of loneliness. In that moment, although I am not alone, it feels like it and in a nano-second, I go from feeling slightly uncomfortable because I have been stuck in my seat for over five hours, to feeling agitated. My breath becomes shallow and I struggle with wave after wave of rising heat. I rip off my scarf and unzip my pullover, all the while trying not to disturb those next to me.
Claustrophobia begins to overwhelm me. I forget what I learnt about breathing my way through feelings of discomfort and fear. Instead, I try to analyse my way out. I begin to think about the facts; that I have over nine hours left; that in ‘the unlikely event of an emergency’ the life jackets and oxygen masks and escape exits won’t make a scrap of difference. As comedian Ricky Gervais said, if you get to the point of having to actually put into action what is explained in the safety demonstration, you’re basically fucked! We’re a long way up and we’re flying over the Pacific Ocean. Even if by some miracle we managed to get safely out of the plane and onto the water, I wouldn’t survive its icy temperature. Such are my feelings and thoughts …
Unexpectedly, I am jolted out of my head space when the sleeping passengers next to me come to life and exit their seats for a toilet break. It is an answer to prayer; respite. Grabbing the opportunity to move out of my seat, I hastily unbuckle my seatbelt and untangle and unplug my headphones. I register and give thanks for the glorious freedom to stand and flee my dark, cramped, confining and lonely space, and head down past rows of sleeping passengers in various states of discomfort. The aisle seems narrower than usual as I carefully step over discarded pillows and blankets, until I reach the rear: the toilets, the stewards’ sleeping pods, and some stewards chatting in the brightly-lit galley. The light is blinding after the cabin’s darkness, but I welcome its harshness: it is strangely comforting.
There, tucked in a corner near one of the toilets and out of the way of everyone, I spend the next 2.5 hours walking on the spot and doing the occasional ankle rotation and stretch. After about 20 minutes the male seated next to me in Row 30 approaches me and asks if I’m returning to my seat. I tell him that I will return later, but for now I need to stand and stretch as my legs, bottom and back are sore. He is not happy and explains that it will be most inconvenient for his 72 year-old mother to be disturbed when I return. He asks if I can find another seat. I tell him that it looks to me like there are no spare seats, but suggest he talk to a steward. He is less than impressed with my response, but asks the steward who advises that in fact, there are no spare seats. When I hear this, I offer to swap seats with his mother, but he declines and returns to his seat.
Now I am feeling annoyed – as well as uncomfortable, tired, and alone. My thoughts about the man are less than noble: I judge him to be arrogant, ungrateful and unreasonable. I am even less inclined to return to my seat, and the thought of the remaining hours stuck on the plane, next to a potentially hostile passenger, threatens to overwhelm me. But somehow, I manage. I have little choice. “Besides,”I tell myself, “it’s a small price to pay for such a wonderful holiday. Toughen up, princess. This too shall pass.”
From time to time, I am joined by others for a short while, but mostly I am there alone and in silence. I am less than a metre from the stewards but they do not include me in their conversation. In fact, they seem oblivious to my presence, except the one time when I am enjoying an animated and lengthy conversation with a female passenger from New York, a steward asks us to lower our voices. It seems unnecessarily harsh. “It isn’t that you are loud,” she says, “it’s just that your voices are travelling up the plane and people are trying to sleep.” As if I needed reminding that people were sleeping. It was hard to be heard over the noise of the plane which seemed much louder in the rear of the plane, but I complied.
Eventually, the discomfort, both physical and emotional, subsides and I grow tired. I welcome the feeling of heaviness, hoping that my body might at last surrender to sleep. I wait for an opportunity and return to my seat when the other passengers in Row 30 exit for another break. The next six hours I spend dozing, reading, watching movies, listening to music and getting up and down with those next to me.
Not a word is exchanged between us, the entire journey, except towards the end when breakfast is served. I offer the man my muffin and in my offer and his acceptance, we effect a truce. It seems all is forgiven and forgotten. He returns the favour by getting down my backpack from the overhead lockers when we land in Sydney. A good ending after a shaky beginning. We human beings … sometimes it takes us a while to sort out our differences … (We departed San Francisco at 11pm Friday evening and landed in Sydney at 7am on Sunday). (Eventually) Peace on earth to people of good will …
Sometime later, I see the man and his mother in the taxi queue, but well behind me. Funny how some people come into your life … then go. I guess it’s what happens in between that matters …
It feels good to be back on Australian soil. I had just witnessed a spectacular sunrise over Sydney Heads … It was the perfect framing for the Opera House – an awesome sight that gave me goosebumps. My negative thoughts and feelings give way to excitement and anticipation. I am home. All will be well. And it is.
© Terry Finch 2021