Monday, 3 October 2016

Return Journey

Friday 30th September. The flight is 20 minutes late, but that doesn't matter. We'll probably make that up in the air. I have to be in a pub in Guildford sometime before 9.30 if I'm going to eat tonight, but there are hours and hours of contingency.

   I lean my head back against the seat. Easyjet seats are not the comfiest, but that doesn't bother me. I can sleep through anything.

   I'm half-asleep, but I can feel and hear the engines powering up, and the plane start to move. Then suddenly, I'm aware that someone is shouting.

   'Hostess! Hostess!'

   I open my eyes. There's a grey-haired man, perhaps early sixties, two rows in front of me. He's on his feet and shouting.

   'Hostess! Hostess!'

   I'm still sleepy, and can't work out what on earth he means.

   'Air Hostess! Air Hostess!'

   Oh bloody hell. Somebody must have been taken ill. I can't really make out what's going on but there's a grey haired lady to his left, and someone with dark curly hair to his right.

   He's still shouting. 'Air Hostess! Air Hostess!'

   'Press the button,' someone shouts.

   Nobody knows what's happening. I don't know if his wife's been taken ill or if he thinks he's having a heart attack or something similar; but I'm wide awake now.

   The guy to his right speaks, 'Are you all right?'
 
   'No I'm not all right.'

   One of the air crew comes running. I feel the engines powering down, and the plane coming to a standstill. She doesn't even get the chance to speak.

   He points to his neighbour. 'He's got Muslim photographs on his phone! He's got Muslim photographs on his phone!'

    The words are like a punch in the face. I've read about this happening. I never imagined I would actually experience it. The other passengers, to be fair, are brilliant. Nobody is panicking. Nobody is shouting, screaming or getting hysterical. The only emotion I can sense is of mild curiosity.

   The accused is genuinely bemused. He shows his phone to the hostess. 'It's my family back in Brazil', he says.
 
   I can't let this go. I really, really can't let this go. 'It's not a crime for Muslims to take photographs', I say.
 
   I don't know I've been heard or not, but the shouting man has realised he's losing the argument and changes tack. 'Anyway, he shouldn't be using it, ' he says.

   His neighbour is still trying to be civil. 'No, it's allowed. It's in flight-safe, look.' He proffers the phone to the air hostess.

   Words are exchanged, sotto voce. The air crew go back to their positions. We've missed our slot now, and wait on the runway for another twenty minutes.

   'I'm sorry,' says the shouting man. He's calmed down. He sounds embarrassed. Or do I just hope that he sounds embarrassed? He attempts a jocular tone. 'Better to be safe than sorry, I always say.'  The subtext is a hopeful My goodness me, this has all been a pretty pickle hasn't it?  Still, no hard feelings, eh?

   His neighbour is extremely polite, but restrained. Yes, it's okay. No, I am not going to be your friend. Twenty excruciating minutes pass, and then - once we're in the air - he gets moved to a seat up front. 'Better to be safe than sorry, eh?', says his neighbour repeats, hopefully, in the hope of jollying things along. I don't know who he's saying it to.

   It's a short flight, not much more than ninety minutes. I can normally sleep through anything, but I can't get back to sleep again. As we disembark, the wronged party is talking to the air crew. They've been absolutely fantastic. They've defused a potentially very nasty situation, and looked after him well.

   I give the crew a smile, and step it out a bit. I catch up with him. I'm sorry, I say.

   He looks confused for a moment.

   I'm sorry, I repeat. I'm so sorry about what happened back there.
 
   He gives a thin smile. Thanks, he says. You think people would know better by now. You remember the bombs in 2005?

   I nod.

   The Brazilian electrician? The one who was shot?

   De Menezes? Yes, I remember.

   He nods. It's sad, he says, just so sad. People just think the worst.

   I can't think of the right words. I'm sorry, I repeat. Are you on your way home?

   Yes, he says. He's been here for over ten years.

   I wish him a safe onward journey and we take our leave of each other.  I make my way through immigration. There is no queue at all. I swipe my passport and walk through to baggage collection. Thirty minutes later, and I'm on my way to Guildford. I have a glass of M&S red wine on my knee, as I think. The shouting man on the flight had been on holiday in Venice, the meeting point between East and West for over five hundred years. And then, and then....'He's got a Muslim photograph...he's got a Muslim photograph...'.

   I take a drink of my wine and try to concentrate on my book. But the voices in my head are impossible to drown out. 'He's got a Muslim photograph...'.  How often is this happening? And what is happening to us?