when I realized the man across the aisle was a terrorist
October 5, 2010
…was the stretchy gingham shift from M & S, nine years old but still a staple, a pair of strappy Aldo sandals in black patent leather and my airplane jewellery — a watch and four bracelets, gold, silver, brass — all of which has to be removed at airport security and dumped into a little tray, then pulled on again while my daughter stands there rolling her eyes.
Take-off was delayed so there was more than the usual amount of fussing and faffing about on the plane: magazines and nicotine gum jammed into the stiff pockets on the backs of the seats, cellophane ripped off blankets, hand luggage stowed, retrieved and stowed again at a more desirable angle – all of it to a chorus of buttocks shifting on cushions that, in economy, pretend to be leather but are actually a dispiriting blend of plastic and tweed. I was wrestling with the nozzle that controlled the air above my head when I noticed that the dark-haired man across the aisle seemed particularly nervous. He was sitting with his shoulders hunched and his fists clenched on his knees. There was sweat on his upper lip.
I took a closer look. He was young, Middle Eastern in aspect, well dressed (ironed khakis and a button-down shirt) and agitated. He was the image of every airline bomber in every piece of airport footage that we’d seen in the past decade. I couldn’t believe they had let him on board.
The announcement came on telling us to switch off all electronic devices, we were starting our ascent, and he — worryingly — pulled out his phone and started murmuring into it, with some urgency. It was clear that he was co-ordinating tactics with a fellow terrorist, probably someone planted up in first class.
I glanced around to see if anyone else had noticed, if they shared my alarm. His nearest neighbour, a young English woman with a severe hairdo, raised an eyebrow and went back to her book. On impulse, I leant across the aisle and said to him, ‘You know, you’re not supposed to be doing that.’
He shrugged and turned away, still whispering in an unknown language. I realized I would be the first to go, the one he took out to show the other passengers that he meant business. We were taxi-ing down the runway, picking up speed. I thought about signalling to the flight attendant, slipping her a note, but what would it say? 46C is using his BlackBerry. I believe he is a terrorist?
I decided to try another approach, to re-awaken his sense of humanity by engaging him in conversation. I leant across the aisle again – he had turned off his phone and was wiping his palms on his thighs – and said, ‘You seem nervous. Would you like something to read? I have a bunch of magazines.’ He ignored me, but I wasn’t deterred: an entire planeload of passengers, including my daughter and her friend, was at stake here. ‘Don’t you like flying?’ I persisted.
He stared at me for a few seconds, and then he said, indignantly, ‘What I don’t like is sitting on my ass and waiting until some clown decides it’s our turn to get up off the ground.’ His accent was pure New Jersey, where I grew up. ‘Do you know,’ he said, holding out his BlackBerry, ‘I’ve just had to cancel three meetings in London. Three. Meetings. I can’t believe what that’ll cost me. I’m on this flight twice a month and I’ve never had this kind of delay before. What a crap way to run an airport.’
He told me what it was he did, and what his lost meetings would be costing him in terms of money and man-hours, but I admit that at this point I was only half listening. We were above the clouds now, in clear blue sky. In the row in front of me, my daughter and her friend were leafing through the flight magazine, arguing over Duty Free. In the galley behind us I could hear the rattle of the drinks cart, and the attendants talking about jewellery. That’s my personal all clear on airplanes, my confirmation that all is well: the sound of bottles clinking, and the voices of men and women in red suits and polyester scarves, extolling the glories of a really good square-cut sapphire and the relative merits of a platinum, rather than a gold, setting.