To the man I sat next to on the plane from Sydney, I am sorry. I am filled with regret about our interaction. Normally, when confronted with a tricky social scenario I would ask myself ‘What would Audrey Hepburn do?’ I suspect Audrey would never have allowed herself to get into some kind of weird conversational stand-off ending with her looking out the window pretending to be entranced by the clouds and the sunset (granted, they were stunning) and then putting on her headphones to flick through Foxtel channels, also stunning, if only to demonstrate how low the television medium can stoop in 24 different ways. Really, if I look into my heart, I’m mostly sorry that I started talking to you in the first place.
My journey from my Dad’s house in Nambucca Heads to my home in Melbourne involved: a flight delay in Coffs Harbour ‘due to a hailstorm in Sydney’; my nails embedding themselves into the armrest during a turbulent landing in Sydney; another delay at Sydney Airport; low blood sugar; uncharacteristic daytime wine drinking to dampen flight nerves and then my innocent question to you: ‘Are you from Melbourne or Sydney?’ If you’d known me, you’d have known that my question indicated I only had enough energy for a modicum of small talk, just enough to make our close proximity comfortable; that I was a little nervous about the fact that we were on the last flight out of Sydney, with the rest cancelled due to bad weather, and I was making a brief connection with you just in case you were the last person I spoke to in my life, or we had to lead an evacuation (as you remember, we were in the emergency exit aisle). If you’d known me, you’d know that before any flight, I look around the airport terminal and see the opening scenes of a plane disaster movie. You’d also have been able to tell from my eating Twisties that I was in a fragile and regressive mental state.
But you didn’t know me, so when you asked me ‘What do you do?’ and I said I was a writer and editor and you replied, ‘So you write and you edit other people’s work?’ and I said ‘Yes’ and you drew a series of circles in the air and said ‘So, if we have ‘Sales and Marketing’ over here and ‘Engineering’ over here, and (insert something strange) here, where would you place yourself?’ and I said ‘Well, communication, I guess’, you weren’t to know I was already thinking about pulling the emergency exit handle and leaping out into those gold-tinged clouds still clutching my Twisties packet so I could eat bright orange trash on the way to oblivion.
Instead I asked you what you did and you said you were in ‘Sales and Marketing’. That should have prepared me for the questions: ‘What’s the most controversial thing you’ve written about?’ and ‘What’s the thing that most inspires you about your job?’ All I could think was ‘Can I answer these questions in a way that will make them stop and can I do that in a whisper?’ In a normal frame of mind I would have been honest and said: ‘At the moment, my job is the furthest thing from my mind and I was just thinking how ironic it would be to have sprung the courage to talk to my father about his (hopefully, far in the future) death, only to die in a plane crash on the way back from visiting him. I’ve been imagining him wracking his brain to recall what I’d said about my funeral, only to come up with “I just don’t want a funeral director in a beige suit and a toupe.”’
I wasn’t feeling that normal, so the only way I could think to respond to you politely was to ask you what you found most inspiring about your job. But you were on to me. ‘You can’t answer my question by asking me the same question. You’re a writer. You’re meant to be able to describe, to articulate. You can’t just ask me the same question. It’s pedestrian’. At this point Audrey Hepburn was slapped aside by Bette Davis in ‘Whatever happened to Baby Jane?’ but with lower blood sugar. ‘I’m not interested in your question,’ Bette said. ‘But I thought that, as you asked it, you might be interested in it enough to answer it.’ You said ‘No, I asked you the question. I want you to answer it’. Enter three-year-old Bette. ‘I don’t think I want to.’ Smile a crooked smile. Turn away. Affect deep interest in view from window. Wonder how a conversation can go so wrong so quickly. Ponder if there’s anything I can do to get our relationship back to polite indifference. Nup, I got nuthin’. Put on earplugs. Flick through 24 channels of Twisties television. I tried to make amends by showing my concern that your TV screen wasn’t working. You said: ‘It doesn’t matter. I wear a hearing aid so I can’t use the headphones anyway’. I said ‘Oh, OK.’ This trip just isn’t going well.
Later, you bought me a drink. Maybe you had also been awash with wrongness; hadn’t eaten enough that day. Perhaps it had unsettled your social graces, sitting in the emergency exit aisle on the last plane home as the pilot tried to outrun a storm. Or you, too, had had a sudden sharp stab of mortality awareness while you were playing your mobile phone game. Maybe you were thinking ‘What if that was the last thing I said in my time on earth?’ or ‘What would Cary Grant do’? Or perhaps ‘I’m going to give that “Make Small Talk Big Talk” guy a Big Piece of my Mind.’ I’ll never know because after I thanked you for the drink I finally found something worth watching on Foxtel – funnily enough, an interview with a physicist about Dark Matter and Dark Energy – and we never spoke again.