The flight is busy and the last few passengers to board are searching for places to stow their hand luggage. The Asian woman in the seat next to me is in her late twenties, probably travelling on business. She’s wearing an expensive perfume which seems familiar though I can’t quite place it. I am wondering if I should talk to her when the man in the window seat shows up and we have to let him in. She settles back in the middle seat. When I try to strap myself back in I find she’s picked up the buckle of my belt by accident and we look at each other and laugh.
‘What have you been doing in Bangalore?’ I ask.
‘My office is there. It’s where I’m based.’ She has a North American accent without a trace of the English as spoken in the subcontinent. She tells me she works for a multinational company that makes clothing and that she is on her way to Thailand. She has to visit a couple of factories and meet with some other people from the company. She’s also trying to complete her thesis, which is on a laptop she has under the seat in front of her. She has a fine silver ring on the third finger of her left hand. While she’s talking she puts her passport away in her bag and I see she’s Canadian.
She asks me what I do and I tell her. Then I ask her some more about her job and she tells me about that. By this time we are in the air and climbing towards our cruising altitude. The cabin is quiet, lights still dimmed, just the gentle sound of the air conditioning and the murmur of conversations. The flight to Singapore is three and a half hours. I can’t decide whether to attempt sleep. It is nearly midnight and it hardly seems worth it. The man in the window seat has put on eye-shades and has an inflated pillow around his neck. He has slipped down in the seat with his head lolling to one side, his blanket pulled up to his chest. The woman shows no inclination to sleep so I ask her where she grew up.
She tells me her father is a medical doctor and that he went to Canada before she was born. They spent a few years in Montreal but most of the time she lived in Saskatchewan. ‘It was OK,’ she says. ‘There are things happen there, it’s not as dull as you might think.’ She tells me sometimes in the winter it would get down to minus sixty.
‘Really it was minus thirty,’ she says. ‘But the wind chill factor made it feel like minus sixty. I remember them saying on the weather forecast “human flesh will freeze in 1.4 seconds.” Things like that.’
‘I’ve never been anywhere that cold,’ I say.
‘Somehow it didn’t feel that bad,’ she says. ‘It was like a dry cold. When the sun was shining it didn’t seem that cold. It makes your skin kind of tingle. We used to play out in it. You can get seriously cold and not realise it. When you’re back indoors your face and hands ache as the blood comes back. I suppose that’s how polar explorers end up losing toes. They don’t realise how cold they are.’
‘I suppose so,’ I say. There’s a pause in the conversation and I wonder what to say next.
‘I guess you get the other extreme living in India.’
‘Bangalore is fine,’ she says, ‘though we need rain. The drought is very bad in South India right now.’
‘Yes, someone told me the other day that farmers have been committing suicide it’s so bad.’
‘Yes, for some people it is very bad.’
The lights flicker on and the seat belt signs go off. Buckles click open and a few passengers stir and head for the washrooms. The cabin crew start to busy themselves. A stewardess comes down the aisle with a tray of steaming towels. I rub the warm moist flannel over my face and neck, wiping away the grime of the day.
The woman asks me how I got into my present job and I tell her a bit about my life. At least I tell her the story which over time has fashioned itself into what I call my life. I tell it selectively, missing out the part about my marriage and the fact that I have been having an affair with another woman for over a year now. It’s not that I’m being deliberately secretive or deceitful. I just don’t know how to talk about it. When the affair started I thought I would leave my wife, but it hasn’t turned out to be that simple. I felt as though life were passing me by. I thought I wanted to be someone different. Now I’m drifting in a state of indecision which isn’t helping any of us. The whole thing is a mess.
The cabin crew are serving dinner. It’s one o’clock and hardly anyone wants to eat. The smell of cooked food mingles with the other odours in the plane, human and synthetic. I ask for a glass of red wine. My companion takes a food tray and also asks for wine.
While she unwraps her chicken korma she asks me what I do when I’m not working and I tell her about playing the saxophone and how I like to play jazz when I get the chance, which nowadays isn’t often. She tells me this is incredible because she plays the piano and also likes jazz, though she hasn’t played for nearly a year. We swap names of some of our favourite musicians.
‘I tried playing the other day,’ she says. ‘But it was hard work. You need a lot of flexibility in your fingers and you lose it if you don’t play regularly.’
‘I get out of practice too,’ I say.
She starts eating and I let her finish the meal in silence. There are a couple of fat women a few rows ahead of us and the one in the middle seat is trying to get out to go to the bathroom. They manoeuvre about, the one on the outside holding up the two trays, one stacked on top of the other. After her friend moves off she stands there holding the trays, waiting. She has on a sweatshirt and loose pants. I guess she thinks it would be too much trouble to try to sit down. Probably by the time she had got herself into the seat she’d have to get up again. When the stewardess next comes past I ask for another glass of wine.
‘When do you think you might come back to India?’
‘I don’t know,’ I say. ‘Some time in the course of next year.’
‘You should come for longer. There’s so much to see. Have you ever been to Madhurai?’ I tell her I haven’t but that I would like to.
‘And Tipoo Sultan’s palace isn’t far away.’
‘The one who had that musical tiger?’
‘Yes that’s him.’
‘I saw it once. It’s in a museum in London.’
‘His palace is just two hours south of Bangalore.’
I ask her if she can recommend any Indian writers I should read. She mentions some people I have never heard of. I talk about some of the people I have read and we discover common passions. It is getting to seem like we share a lot of interests.
‘Do you read a lot of fiction?’ she asks.
‘Some, I like to get to know the places I visit and fiction is a good way. Stories communicate more of the feel of a place.’
‘They are much easier to read. Pages of facts just send me to sleep.’
‘I like places that are off the tourist routes.’
‘You need a friend who is a local, to take you around.’
The wine and the lateness of the hour have made me drowsy, and the conversation has taken on the unreality of a dream. I feel gently cocooned, lulled by her soft voice. The lights have been dimmed again and most people are sleeping. The man in the window seat has his mouth open and is snoring gently.
‘You’ll have to let me know the next time you come to India,’ she says.
‘Yes I will,’ I say.
‘I’m supposed to be coming to England in a couple of months to be examined on the thesis. I have to finish writing it in the next few weeks. I’ll probably stay in London for a few days.’
‘That’s great,’ I say.
Some time I’m going to have to tell her about Louise and Claudia and about the chaos my personal life is in. But just at the moment it feels good being with her and I don’t want to lose that feeling. Not yet.
‘What’s your name?’ I ask turning in the seat so I am facing towards her.
‘Aisha,’ she says. She lowers her head as she says this, as though disclosing something personal, a confidence. Then she asks me my name.
She snuggles down, lying beside me with her eyes closed, her head leaning towards me. I watch her profile in the dim glow of the darkened cabin, inhaling her perfume. A few seats are lit by spotlights where people are reading. I think about my life, and how hard it is to live with other people, about how selfish we are. Aisha seems to be dozing but I have moved beyond sleep. The screen in front of me shows a map and our plane edging towards its destination. The image of the plane wobbles slightly on its pre-determined trajectory. The distance we have come is a solid line, the remaining miles a series of dashes. Then the image changes and the screen is in Chinese.
This story was first published in 2013 on www.short-stories.co.uk