Travel Tales is a collection of tongue-in-cheek short travel stories based on actual events, as humorously recalled by the author.
Never fall into a deep slumber on a flight. Some years ago I flew long-haul to a scheduled event and fell asleep during the flight. I wish I had not.
Several nights beforehand I slept poorly so I was already very tired. This was compounded by travelling overnight to the airport and upon arrival I was exhausted. After boarding I slumped thankfully into my seat, flopped against the window and immediately fell into a deep sleep.
I was distantly aware of activity—someone sliding into the seat next to me, the waft of aviation fuel, a heavy door banging, the roar of engines and being thrust back into my seat at take-off. No matter. I was in a heavy slumber catching up on some much-needed sleep.
Now, have you ever started to wake from a heavy sleep to realise your brain has not quite yet caught up with the rest of your body? It’s as if your body is in automatic mode but your brain is struggling to clear the fog (I’ve written about another temporary asynchrony of mind and body elsewhere that also caused me problems).
Anyway, I was fast asleep dreaming I was in some lovely place and my wife was speaking to me in her silky, dreamy voice. She suddenly looked sharply at me and called me, ‘Sir’. In my dream I thought this was slightly odd. Then her face contorted terribly and she barked the word ‘Sir’ at me repeatedly. I awoke with a start to see three people staring at me, two seated in the row and a stewardess standing in the aisle.
‘SIR’, I said do you want some LUNCH?’ she barked (in a voice that was neither silky nor dreamy). She thrust a meal tray across the row. It was evident the question was rhetorical, so I took it, mumbled my thanks and she moved on to the next row, where I hoped no one else was about to have their lovely dream unpleasantly interrupted.
I lowered the table and set down the tray with its four or five miniature food containers and wondered why my lovely sleep had to be so abruptly disturbed by a rather unappetising meal clearly portioned for a four-year-old.
I removed the lid of the ‘salad’. A wilted lettuce leaf and a solitary cherry tomato looked miserably back up at me. Next to the salad was an incongruously large sachet of salad dressing. Tiny text indicated the flavour of dressing it contained but I was too tired to look.
I tore at the little nick on the side of the sachet, aimed it down at the miniature salad clearly designed for dolls and squeezed. Nothing happened so I made the tear larger and tried again. Still nothing.
Now, you must understand I was still in that no-man’s land between deep slumber and wakefulness. Only a few seconds had passed since waking up. Again, I fiddled at the wrapper, aimed down at the salad and grunted with approval as I could feel the sachet emptying. But there was still no dressing on my salad.
Most awake and alert people realise that if a sachet feels like it is emptying but you cannot see where the sauce is going, clearly there is a technical issue at play and one should stop squeezing immediately to avert disaster.
However, at that moment I was neither awake nor alert and kept squeezing the large sachet of dressing, increasingly nonplussed by how I still couldn’t see any of its contents. When the sachet was completely empty (it held quite a lot of dressing) I could not for the life of me figure out where it had gone.
I examined the sachet closely but it was clearly empty. Yet my salad has been spared a bath of dressing. I looked all around the tray but no, no salad dressing anywhere. I even examined the back of the chair in front of me, the window and also for good measure the ceiling air vent above me. With foreboding I looked down at my lap, but thankfully no dressing there either. It was a complete mystery.
Still not quite fully awake I was vaguely aware that rapidly bobbing my head about in various directions was probably attracting some curious attention from my neighbour. I looked surreptitiously sideways and saw a middle-aged lady talking with her male companion. They seemed oblivious to the befuddled Englishman next to them (this would change imminently).
With relief I returned to my search for the mysteriously missing salad dressing. As I did so I glanced down and noticed that a patch of thick, oily pink liquid sat incongruously upon a dark, expensive-looking skirt. It wasn’t a small patch. In fact, it was a series of splashes—some quite large, others much larger—stretching from her knee up to her seatbelt.
As reality dawned, two thoughts jostled for dominance in my mind. The first was, ‘Why would the airline provide such a large sachet for such a small salad?’ The second was, ‘Oh, so it was Thousand Island Dressing that was printed on the side of the sachet’.
I had this forlorn hope that somehow she might not notice, forlorn because her entire upper leg was covered in salad dressing and about six hours flight time still remained. She would have had to be the most unobservant person in the world for me to get away with it that long.
Actually she did notice, and quickly. It could have been any one of several factors that gave the game away: a skirt that felt distinctly heavier, the sensation of oily salad dressing seeping through the fabric, or perhaps it was me staring down intently at her leg.
There was this momentary hope that I might pull off looking as surprised as she clearly was, perhaps looking about me wildly for the villain who had sprayed this kind-looking lady with salad dressing. Alas, still in my hand was an empty (and quite large) sachet which chose that particularly moment to exude a solitary drop of Thousand Island dressing. To add insult to injury it fell on her skirt, joining its many colleague already residing there.
Worse, in my befuddled brain I continued to stare with fascination at what I had done yet no words of deep regret or apology came to my assistance. I just stared.
By now her companion had noticed something was amiss, perhaps wondering with some asperity why I was staring at his companion’s leg. However, upon leaning over he too became fascinated with the site he beheld. And that moment will live with me for eternity, all three of us looking down at her skirt, then to the empty sachet in my hand, then both of them at me with a look of growing consternation.
Eventually, my mind woke up with a snap. ‘I’m so sorry’, I blurted. Yet by the look on her face that was clearly insufficient. Effusive apologies tumbled over one other and I was about to help with a napkin before hastily stopping myself from seriously complicating matters.
Gradually both their faces softened as my genuine horror became evident. They graciously accepted my apology. I insisted (somewhat pathetically) that they send me a cleaning bill and they equally insisted there was absolutely no need.
They were very kind—if still somewhat unamused by my behavior—and we chatted for a little after the offending salad dressing had been carefully wiped away. As we all settled down I was very careful not to fall asleep again, pinching my leg viciously when drifting off. The remaining five or six hours lasted an eternity.
We landed and the aircraft doors finally opened. My neighbours bid me goodbye and as is my custom I was one of the last passengers to disembark. At the busy baggage hall the carousel screeched painfully and passengers were retrieving their battered suitcases.
Standing and waiting for mine I became aware of a couple to the left and looked over. What made them stand out was that, unlike everyone else craning their neck and scanning the carousel impatiently, the couple were looking down intently at the woman’s skirt, which was dark, expensive-looking and, as she stretched it out, covered in a particularly large, dark, oily stain that stretched north of her knee for some distance.
She looked up sharply at her companion, her face livid and thunderous.
I turned away quickly. Thankfully my suitcase chose that moment to make its appearance which I grabbed hurriedly and walked quickly away to Customs, promising myself I would never again fall asleep during a flight.
All images in this post courtesy of Pexels