Everyone knows the dangers of starting a conversation on a long-haul flight. I once outed a sleeping brain surgeon when a passenger had a mini-stroke. I’ll never forget the look he gave me as he knelt down next to the victim; if he hadn’t given me his life story first, he’d have been free to relax all the way.
I’ve made friendships and felt bereft when the new friend reached into the overhead luggage rack and walked off without so much as a nod. I’ve worn earplugs with no music in them for eight hours, just to stop people talking to me.
I felt more inclined towards the man in the black fedora who glided in to the end of the line at JFK and was put next to me in a double seat on the night flight to London.
We sussed each other’s plans out early, before committing. He would sleep, he said. I would watch crap TV all night: I was already twirling my earphones to make this point, and recommending some of the listings. I was serious about my crap TV. He was serious about sleep. But we both knew we’d have a good run before then.
The plane was grounded for two hours while a team of men in high-vis jackets worked on a broken toilet, leaving the plane to source a spare part, and returning again to fit it.
My companion’s TV screen was broken, too. It showed a black-and-white pattern like a Bridget Riley painting. Later, 30,000 feet in the air, it became clear that his entire seat was in a state of malfunction. The emergency call light was jammed – a different stewardess came up every few minutes to ask what was wrong. They kept offering to move him, but after the fifth request we were both intimating that we weren’t that bothered about him having another seat.
He was a creative type. He quickly fashioned a cover for the call light from a complimentary sponge earplug: it hung down from the overhead bin like a tiny teat. He used his sick bag and some duct tape to obscure the reading light in preparation for sleep.
He was very patient. He didn’t mind about his broken TV screen. I began a computerised golf game on mine, and occasionally he would prod it to pot a ball or show me how to make a spin. It was like we were playing a game together but not quite.
We spoke long after the plane took off, for about four hours. He drank whiskey and I drank red wine. Then he put his fedora over his face like Indiana Jones and slept.
Two hours later his hand slapped my TV screen hard, pawing at it, as though trying to turn it off. I decided he was dreaming about being in bed with a laptop on his chest.
Then he threw his arms around my neck and drew me towards him, giving me a big wet kiss. He pulled again, and another, harder kiss occurred.
“Woah,” I said, as though to a horse. “Woah there” – but very quietly, because I didn’t want to wake him. He would be so embarrassed.
Unbreathing, I detached his arm from my shoulders.
His hand dropped on to my thigh. I slid out of my seat for a moment. Mustn’t wake him!
After that, we sat in a strange bubble to London – him with his eyes closed and me watching my crap TV shows.
He was a bit quiet in the morning. What did he know? I was extremely chipper, to show him that nothing strange had happened in the night.
When we landed, I felt the old confusing long-haul loyalty. Wasn’t it natural for us to walk to passport control together? But he didn’t catch up in the corridor.
We saw each other at the baggage carousel, smiled, and off he went in his hat.
In a state of high jet lag, I told three friends.
“Yeah, right!” said each one. “It was a ruse. He wasn’t really asleep. It’s the oldest trick in the book. You’ve never been ‘sleep-groped’ before?”
I was unfamiliar with the practice. And later that day I thought about the politics of sleep-groping. It seemed to me to be a flawed idea. Even if you wanted to reciprocate you wouldn’t, as you’d be taking advantage of someone who might be unconscious. You’d be groping the groper.
This article appears in the 29 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition