It followed a seven-and-a-half-hour flight across the terrain, where the last one-third of a night slowly shifted into a dazzling sunrise from above the clouds, followed by a sunny, lukewarm morning on a different continent.
The woman could particularly recall a pair of hazel eyes and coiffured, well-groomed hair of a similar shade from that morning. Fair skin in contrast to her tan. Sharp-edged nose underneath a black-coloured face covering. An approximately six-foot tall man in his white tees and beige sweatpants. A black carry-on duffle bag. A two-hour conversation and shared chuckles, that led to zero names, let alone trails of any sort.
The woman had felt uneasy for most of that Emirates flight since the temperature from the air conditioning was quite harsh, and even the combination of her spring coat and free in-flight blanket did not help much. She was also wondering why the man sitting in the window seat next to her, in his short-sleeve tees, did not bother to use his blanket nor put on an outerwear for it was absolutely freezing in the aircraft.
His head was tilted onto his left-hand side where she was sitting, and his leg sometimes took up a bit of her personal leg room. Their shoulders and knees sometimes briefly bumped into each other when they tried to find a comfortable position to rest in their own limited space. She didn’t mind much as she knew they were both equally fatigued.
Hours passed and the flight attendant passed by for the fourth or fifth time. This time, it was with the food cart, carrying assorted breakfast options.
The man was still asleep, and the steward’s multiple attempts to wake him up were barely successful.
The woman, feeling bad for the flight attendant who had been speaking into the empty air for the last three minutes, looked in the man’s direction and tapped his shoulder carefully. A few times. His face was still leaning towards her seat. He had also apparently forgotten to put on his face covering back.
The man still did not budge after those cautious taps from a stranger, until the flight attendant shook his shoulder just a tad bit more assertively.
Eventually, he woke up, only to say he would skip breakfast, and came back to his deep sleep.
But she remembered what she was thinking when she saw that face, only to brush it off immediately.
Another couple of hours passed, and the capital city had peeked through behind the hanging clouds beneath them. The iron bird that brought them from Dubai was then safely anchored at the Heathrow Airport not long after.
A queue of people started to assemble on that fully-booked flight. The woman was not in a rush, and she wanted to just sit down for a bit longer. But of course, she was blocking the man’s way out if somehow he needed to get off soon.
“Are you in a rush, or do you mind if I just chill a little longer?” She asked, casually.
“Oh, I’m good. I don’t need to get off so quickly.”
“Yeah, uhm,” he seemed to want to try to continue the conversation. “It’s funny how everyone always seemed to be so eager about taking the exit so immediately.”
“I mean it would make sense if they have a connection soon, but I guess most of the time they actually don’t.” She showed a mutual interest in keeping the dialogue going, just because.
“Yeah, do you have any other connection?”
“No, this is my destination. What about you?”
“So are you from here?”
“No, I’m actually from South Africa. I just got transferred here for my job, first time in the UK.”
“Oh wow, congratulations. That must be exciting.”
“It is. What about you?”
“I’m here just for a vacation, a revenge travel I guess.”
“Ah, that too is exciting. So where are you travelling from?”
Another passenger, an old man in perhaps his sixties, overheard their conversation from the seat in front of them and pitched in with his stories involving Indonesian cigarettes in Singapore. The three of them chatted and laughed a bit, while dozens of other passengers were busy retrieving their belongings from the overhead cabin and had formed a massively long queue.
The crowd eventually dissipated little by little. The woman stood up and began making her way out of the aircraft after grabbing her mauve Herschel backpack and black sling bag. Her second time in the city, and this time the Sun wasn’t very shy.
She noticed the man from the window seat wasn’t anywhere near her, probably trapped among the second wave of flocks of people while trying to collect his cabin luggage. She didn’t mind much and kept walking.
A couple of hundred feet of walk towards the immigration line later, the man had caught up to her. He seemed to have retained his pace so she could easily keep up with him if she wanted. She then thought to just walk up to him, asking a harmlessly curious question.
“Are you going to catch the Heathrow Express?”
“Yeah, that’s the plan. I’m staying at this Airbnb temporarily, and…” She did not recall the rest. His accent was quite unfamiliar to her ears, a rather thick yet interesting one, plus the airport was quite loud as always.
“What about you? Where are you staying for your travels?”
The conversation kept going and they were walking side-by-side now.
“What is this queue, by the way? Are we where we’re supposed to stand?”
The woman looked around.
“Oh, look, this is for the British passport holders. Don’t know why we’re here. I got distracted and I guess we thought we’d just follow each other, not realizing we got stuck in the wrong line.”
“Haha, it’s alright. I think our queue is supposed to be over there.”
A miles-long immigration control queue greeted them as large influxes of passengers kept coming. The man stood in front of the woman, both of them occasionally checking their phones after connecting to the airport’s wifi. They might’ve run out of things to converse about, but his gesture, the way he stood, and the direction of his body, almost facing the woman even though she stood behind him, might hint he didn’t want the conversation to end yet. Should I ask about something else? The woman thought.
“So, what’s the job?”
The man lifted his head, away from the phone screen. “Oh, it’s a digital media thing.” He then proceeded to tell all about his work and the company, but the woman was struggling with keeping up with his accent although she did not want to admit nor tell him. He did mention the name of the company, but she was unable to catch up. Nor was she thinking that was important to remember – at least not yet.
She could’ve sworn he said something about the company being a multinational one, obviously having branches in South Africa and the United Kingdom, employing perhaps almost – or more than – thirty-thousands people. He might have said that the London office where he was assigned to was not far from the British Museum.
The man graduated from a university in South Africa a couple of years ago, majoring in something related to marketing or digital media, or a mix of both. This was his first job and one day his boss just happened to offer him a position based in London. As an early-twenties eager to climb up the corporate ladder and see the world further, obviously he said yes immediately.
She remembered he said he had a family in Guernsey when she told him that she would visit the island on her travels. He also mentioned that his grandfather was a CEO of a mining company when she said she was working as a geologist. They joked about the nearby sign that put the words camera, phone, and weed in one sentence as if these items had a very direct relationship with one another – and she proceeded to tell the story about the insane queue of people purchasing cannabis in her neighbourhood when it was first legalized in Canada where she was living in a few years back.
There were stories involved about local “cultures,” such as a passport that took months to create and a driving license that one got without taking the test and instead paid someone for, a plan to rent a shared house with two twin girls, a plan to use the Couchsurfing platform for the entire month of travels, and everything else in-between that filled the two-hour void of otherwise tiresome immigration control line up.
Time would’ve felt excruciatingly dull and exhausting had they not exchanged those stories and occasional laughter. The woman thought it was funny that they just happened to get along very well from the start, and only had these flowing exchanges of thoughts and stories when it was due for them to part, even though they had almost eight hours of opportunities beforehand.
The man finally approached the immigration desk while the woman was still waiting for an officer to give her a sign to approach.
When she finally got her turn, and finished a few minutes after the man had presumably made his way to the luggage claim, she thought she had to do the one thing she should’ve done at least an hour ago: ask for a name. Maybe a contact.
In the hall of luggage claim, the man seemed to have collected his two pieces of luggage already, standing next to the conveyor belt, texting. She walked up to him once again.
“Hey, are you leaving now?”
The man stopped using his phone and smiled at her, “Hey, yeah, I gotta go actually. Well, it’s been very nice chatting with you and hope you enjoy your travels. And…,” He said a few things she did not recall much, and his arms suggested an invitation to hug.
They did, as she said the exact same thing about wishing all the very best for his new job. She forgot about her overdue question.
And just like that, they never uttered the question about their names. Or their emails. Or any possible way they could perhaps stay in touch. No direct identities were ever exchanged, and no trails were ever made nor followed.
London was a little cold in that early May, but it was bathed in sunlight. The cityscape behind the moving window of the taxi was delightful, but the woman kept thinking about that conscious mutual decision on letting the interaction die out before it had the chance to materialize into anything else – not that it was guaranteed at all anyway.
Why did we not mention just one more question? Out of all things we figured out about each other, why not names and future whereabouts?
We’re both new to the country, and I will be here for eleven days. We could perhaps hang out for a bit in the city at some point if we want to.
A taxi driver, an old friend on the phone, and two new friends in the city were the emotional dumpsters she needed. A long walk in endless hectares of a picturesque garden later, she came to the conclusion that the unremarkable farewell was perhaps for the better. They both needed something, someone to keep them entertained during the otherwise two-hour excruciating boredom, and they gave that to each other. They served their purposes in their intersecting lives for a brief moment, and perhaps it was never meant to stretch out beyond that.
Just like that, their allowance to coexist had to expire within the two-hour span of time.
The woman learned that she could either choose to be happy that it happened, or be sad that the story didn’t have a better epilogue nor any sequel. As much as she tried to be mindful and chose the former, she revisited the serendipitous encounter every once in a while, still.
Even if I bump into him again, I wouldn’t even recall his face thanks to the mask, she thought.
At least for the very first time, I made a temporary friend with a stranger from a flight. And what are the odds that we got on very well? It might have been a wasted chance not to follow up with a name, but it wasn’t a wasted morning at least. Not every curious case requires a sequel, and a two-hour good plot of a story was perhaps all it ever needed to be.
Sometimes, a stranger could turn into a friend at times when you needed one the most, where they helped turn an otherwise tiring occasion into not only bearable, but also a very pleasant one. And that would’ve been enough.
The woman thought about the night before that rendezvous, when she checked in online for that flight leg in the EK007 aircraft. She remembered the intuition that urged her to swap her middle seat in the middle row with the middle seat in that right-hand row. Not because it was better, since both were meant to be just equally awkward middle seats. Just out of sheer reflex, out of a subconscious trigger.
And look what that brought me. A two-hour interaction that the woman somehow still reminisced about a month after, even after her departure from the country, back to her home halfway across the globe.
I hope you’ve been enjoying London, and be well always.