Close Encounters of the Human Kind
Humans are like islands. Some of us exist in large archipelagos and others are lone dots.
Regardless of where we are located, some days we feel grand like the stunning Na Pali Coastline of Kauai; and others more like a desolate, windswept islet off the coast of Scotland. It's days like this that we most need to hear news from other islands, whether we know it or not.
Most of the time I think of myself as a sunny Caribbean Island – somewhere off the main tourist trail, but still connected and accessible.
But sometimes, I want to be a small isolated place where no one else visits…
It was during one of those days that I was waiting for a plane in a don’t talk to me, I am not one of you moods, getting some last minute work done on my laptop.
Truthfully I was using it more as a device to repel anyone who might have wanted to strike up a conversation.
I was also feeling nervous. Flights do that to me. I used to find turbulence fun like a rollercoaster, now it terrifies me. Not sure what the turning point was. Maybe it was that bus accident in Africa? Perhaps I’ve become a transport control freak – only comfortable if I’m driving.
I asked the pilot if I could fly the plane, but he said no.
I didn’t really. I just popped that in because I thought it would be funny. Was it funny?
I resisted the temptation to buy a crappy airport coffee that I knew would be both a disappointment and fuel my anxiety, and continued with my focussed attempt to avoid the world whilst staring purposely at my computer screen.
It didn’t work. Clearly I still had something of the Caribbean about me.
A smiley silver-haired fellow sat down beside me. How did he penetrate my personal space force field? I’ll have to get that looked at.
“Those things are a curse aren’t they.” He indicated to my laptop.
I smiled politely – really it was more a case of the corners of my mouth being raised by an invisible pulley system.
“Just getting some last minute work done.” I feigned extreme concentration.
He didn’t get the hint and proceeded to ask me the standard where are you going and where are you from questions.
I answered as economically as I could, without wanting to seem outright rude.
He was a nice old fella, and had he gotten me on another day I would have poured him a piña colada and been all ears. But today the bar was closed and I was looking forward to some anonymous solitude on the plane.
As I boarded and walked up the aisle, trying not to thump anyone in the head with my bag, I scanned the seat numbers until I found mine. There was a man sitting in the middle seat.
Fuck, I thought. No spare seat.
As boarding concluded and there was still no one sitting on the window I mentally cursed and wondered why the hell he didn’t go and sit there and give us both some space.
Then he turned to me and asked if I would like the window seat.
“No thanks, I prefer the aisle. Thank you anyway, you take it.” I suggested hopefully.
“You’ve seen one cloud you’ve seen them all.” He replied good-naturedly.
I once again engaged my miniature pulley system and made the maneuvers of a smile, still feeling miffed that my desired personal space requirements were not to be satisfied.
He was fussing around a bit, I could tell he was going to be a Mr Have-A-Chat.
But the damage was done. He’d broken the ice and try as I might to remain cranky I was already beginning to melt.
Before I knew it, the boat had sailed on my anti-social mood, contact had been made, and I was drawn into conversation despite myself.
He was on his way to see his thirty-something daughter who had just broken up with her partner and needed help moving out.
“You’re a good Dad. It’s moments like those that a girl needs her Dad.”
He blew off the compliment saying she’d left it too long, and this was what she got for being Miss Independence for so long.
It’s the sort of thing my Dad might have said, so I knew there was some fatherly pride and a puffed out chest under there, despite the standard dad comment.
Early in, turbulence of take-off behind us, the conversation was at cruise altitude and I was along for the ride.
I can’t help myself. I’ll hole up in a little stone cottage on that isolated Scottish island I mentioned earlier, feeling that I want to be alone… Then someone will arrive in a little boat and offer to tell me a story and my resolve flies out the chimney as I fling open the door, sit down, put my elbows on the table, rest my chin in my hands and wait for the story.
Then I become so enraptured that I ask questions that turn the pages pretty quickly from the preamble and intro to the guts of the thing; the action, the mystery, the magic.
I knew about all the members of his family before we even crossed the border.
Then I asked him about his accent. It was English and he was still annoyed with his father for moving them all to Australia. He’d longed to go back. But then years later when eventually he did, it wasn’t quite what he imagined.
Did that make him feel kind of countryless I wondered?
No, despite living most of his life in Australia he was clearly still an Englishman at heart. He was proud of all his family members who had been to war, and wistful that he hadn’t served.
I found this curious since my thoughts on war are so very different, but it was fascinating to hear another opinion that was simple, heartfelt and free from evangelical soapdish-iness.
He had a novel in his lap so our talk turned to books.
He’d been a bricklayer most of his life and hadn’t picked up a book until his retirement. Since then he’d become a voracious reader.
“Have you read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?” He wanted to know.
It seemed funny to hear those words from a skinny seventy-something, white-haired fellow with the remnants of an English accent.
I enjoy reading fiction, but this is exactly why I love a good conversation. The character development is unpredictable and delightfully surprising.
He was also a big fan of poetry and had given all of his grandchildren books of it.
Growing up his Irish mother, who was a big lover of poetry had often said to him; “Be a man, my son.”
He hadn’t understood the significance of those words at the time, but years after her death he discovered it was the last line of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem – If, and that it was her advice to him on how to live a good life.
Just for a moment now I’d like to put his story aside to tell you a little bit more about me, your narrator...
I am that person at the dinner table who asks the questions everyone else wants to ask but doesn't.
I’ve been told, “Gosh I’m glad you asked that, I was dying to know.”
Maybe now you’re thinking I’m an insensitive busy body. Maybe I am. But genuine curiosity, not nosiness is what fuels it.
And I like to think I’m sensitive enough to know when a question is and isn’t appropriate. I may not be a highly sensitive empath but I’m not a complete buffoon either.
I can tell when someone wants to say more, but needs permission to say it. Almost always they’ll continue happily to tell me very intimate things about themselves and their lives.
And I think this is when true human contact is made. Before that it’s just smoke and mirrors. I always feel very grateful when someone trusts me enough to get real with me.
I like to think I inherited this ability from my grandma - Dot, who once struck up a conversation with an intimidating looking goth on a tram. I cringed as Dot complimented her make-up. I was expecting her to give Dot a cranky stare. But instead the girl's ghostly white face with kohl-rimmed eyes blossomed into a smile.
I’d flagged a comment from earlier in the conversation. He’d mentioned that his wife had grown sick of him.
I suspected they’d gone their separate ways but he hadn’t mentioned it outright.
I hesitated asking him. Was that going too far? Was that me being nosey?
I started to ask him once and then a voice in my head said, No Leonie, mind your own business.
But it was there, hovering.
So, I asked.
He didn’t skip a beat. He told me all about his wife divorcing him, seeming delighted I’d asked and given him permission to keep on talking.
They were in their 60s when they parted ways. He calmly told me she’d always been an independent sort who possibly hadn’t altogether ever enjoyed being a wife or mother. She’d been 16 when they married.
“She’d always wanted to continue her education, but had been too busy looking after me and the kids. When she left, she went back to school and eventually became a University lecturer. She was really happy doing that until she had to retire. Now she’s gotten sick and isn’t looking after herself.”
Up until this point I hadn’t detected any bitterness from him. In fact he had sounded concerned about her current state of health, so it made me smile when I asked if he wished they were still together and he politely answered:
“You know, I hope this doesn’t sound too unkind, but I feel that she made her bed now she can lie in it.”
The plane started to get bumpy and there was a pause in the conversation as I focussed on my nervousness.
I mentioned it, and he launched in to facts and figures on airplane safety and that I shouldn’t worry. It was sweet. I think he was feeling fatherly.
He continued chattering away, filling the space, trying to distract me.
He told me about a girl he’d gone out with before marrying. This girl had been a bit older than him and was already earning a qualified accountant’s salary, whereas he was still in the middle of an apprenticeship, earning a pittance.
They stuck it out for a few years, but when she bought a block of land it was the end.
He explained that back then men were expected to be the protector and the breadwinner.
He seemed to be justifying it to himself.
I asked if she was the one that got away.
He laughed and said that she might have been.
“You should look her up.” I suggested.
He laughed again, this time nervously like a schoolboy.
“Anyway, what do you do?” He enquired, clearly wanting to divert attention.
“I write.” I smiled.
His eyes lit up.
“Would you tell me your name so that if ever I see one of your books I’ll be able to say, that’s the girl from the plane?”
He put out his hand and introduced himself as Keith. I told him mine and we shook.
“Well Keith, you’re not getting any younger, are you going to die wondering?”
He looked at me seriously and said, “You know you’re right.”
Well here you go Keith, it’s not a novel, but it’s something. You may never read this, and I may never know whether you got back in touch with your lost love, but that’s life isn’t it – islands in the stream… ah ha.
Leonie Orton is a writer, editor and marcomms consultant. She'll create communication mediums in the shape of words, graphics and webs for your business, connecting you with the people who need you. When she's not head down with this, she's teaching yoga, creating floral artworks, running a Harvest Swap and adoring two spirited sons... Get in touch by email, facebook or subscribe to her weekly blog.