Pecking Order


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Pecking Order

The crick in my neck was to be expected. In my latter years, sleeping anywhere but in my meticulously fashioned bed, with its pillows just so, resulted in me waking with pain. It was more than a little annoying, but there was little I could do about it.

On this day, the bing-bong of the airport PA system woke me, and immediately, even before I’d felt the pain, my hand went to the back of my neck and began to rub. I hadn’t been asleep long, so the discomfort was nowhere near as bad as it could have been.

“The flight has been delayed,” the airport spokeswoman announced, the sound bouncing off the high ceiling and odd angles of the terminal building.

A disgruntled noise arose from the two-hundred or so passengers who were sat, stood, and led around me. One particularly annoying man said loudly, “But my battery’s about to run out.”

It garnered no response and was quickly swallowed by the shuffling and adjusting of everyone else.

“We will be handing out complementary biscuits and orange juice,” the woman’s voice continued. “We appreciate your patience.”

Of course, whether they appreciated it or not was impossible to tell. The airline’s staff stares seemed fixed just over the heads of their aching passengers, and their smiles, as far as I could tell, were painted on, as if they wore masks.

“It’s been two hours,” the man with the low battery said. This made me think he either used his phone a lot, or he needed to buy a better brand next time.

He looked around to try and catch someone’s eye, to find a fellow passenger who’d back him up, but no-one was looking his way. No-one but me.

“What do they think they’re playing at?” he asked me. I gave him a brief smile. “I was supposed to be in Norwich by now.”

I nodded slightly but was confused by this. There was no-way this man had expected to get to Norwich on this flight by now, two-hour delay or not. Unless he was expecting to jump out of the plane as we flew near it, and soar down on a colourful umbrella, as I’d seen happen on a girl’s computer screen who sat a row in front of me.

I shrugged at him, but suspect he saw the lack of empathy in my actions, for he looked back down at his telephone without another word.

I wanted to stretch my legs but was afraid I might lose my seat. I didn’t need to wee. That was something.

From the left, two airline staff walked in carrying boxes of biscuits. No fancy stuff here. They walked round the gate and handed them to each of us, careful not to give two lots to anyone. No sooner had they exited, then more staff appeared with the orange juice. I got the feeling they may have had to do this before.

When the man bent and offered me the juice carton, I placed my hand around his forearm and said, “Can you tell me what the delay is?”

The man’s stare went to my arm, as if I’d been the first person he’d had physical contact with in a few weeks. I wasn’t going to let go, however.

“They’ve not told us,” he said. “Now, if you’d...”

I smiled at him. “I don’t believe you. Can you tell me the truth?”

The man’s eyes betrayed his anger, but I gripped his arm firmly, and I was the customer, after all.

“There’s been...” he started. “There’s been an issue on the plane.”

“What kind of issue?” I asked, unfazed at his lack of detail.

“Electrical. There’s an engineer looking into it. They’re hoping an upgrade to the software will fix it.”

I released the man’s arm, and he pulled away momentarily.

“Thank you, Andrew,” I said to him, after reading his name on his badge.

Andrew wanted to say something to me, I could tell. Andrew wanted to shout at me, but knew he couldn’t. It was a little helter-skelter of anger he was whizzing down with no easy way of releasing.

He walked past me, keeping his eyes on my arms, ready to bat them away should I reach for him a second time.


Twenty-seven minutes later, the bing-bong went again. I wasn’t asleep this time.

“We will now begin boarding,” the woman said. “Would people in the Excelsior seats please come to the front.”

I watched as aging white-men with pinched faces, and expensive hand-luggage made their way to the front. They flashed their boarding passes and pretended the flight staff didn’t exist. Not for the first time the thought struck me that life was just one bizarre pecking order.

I watched as they moved through the air-bridge and onto the aircraft, out of sight. The girl watching the games pressed a button on her tablet and the screen went dark, just like that. From everything on, to blankness in less than a second. Her brain firing on all cylinders, to dullness. She put the tablet in her rucksack, as her mother ran her hand through the girl’s hair.

They called out the next weirdly named group, and they went through the rigmarole of getting onto the plane. Then the next, and the next. I was in the last group. And that’s okay.

“Would you like me to help you?” came a man’s voice from over my shoulder. I shook my head.

“I’ll be fine,” I said. “You go on.”

I didn’t turn around, but I heard him move away. I stood and looked around. It was mainly just me, now. The flight staff waited patiently, not looking at me, hardly acknowledging each other.

A young woman, I guessed she was new, appeared in front of me, clutching tags and eagerly looking for my luggage. I waited a moment and saw her frown.

“Do you have any hand luggage?” she asked.

I shook my head again.

“Nothing for me,” I said. “I’ve always travelled light.”

The bing-bong went one last time.

“Would the remaining passenger please board the plane.”

They didn’t like to use my name. They didn’t like to admit I even existed. I looked over toward them and watched as the airline staff took her hand off the intercom button.

I closed my eyes.

“The last remaining passenger will take her sweet time,” came my voice over the same speakers. As I mentioned, my eyes were shut, but I expect I made them jump. They don’t like it when I do it. I heard the young woman let out a small yelp.

I opened my eyes.

“Did you do that?” she whispered.

“They won’t like you talking to me,” I replied, opening my eyes. “They get funny about it.”

“Funny about it?”

I smiled and held up my arms in a gesture that hopefully conveyed she should stop asking questions.

“I’m sure they’ll tell you all about us, in time.” I touched her hand. “Now, forget all about me.”

A glazed expression quickly passed over the woman’s eyes, and then was gone.

“Do you have any hand luggage?” she asked me. I shook my head and began to move towards the boarding pass stewards. Might as well go through the routine.

I walked up to them but didn’t even bother to show any pieces of paper. In return, they didn’t seem to care.

“Witch,” I heard one of them mutter under her breath. I stopped, turned and squinted at the man who’d said it. He brought his arms up to cover his face. I’m not sure why.

“The truth is,” I said to him, “You either fly safely with me, or take your chances without. I don’t need you.”

He lowered his arms whilst I waited.

“Sorry,” he mumbled.

“Sorry is a word you don’t know the meaning of,” I replied, and continued into the plane.


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