I arrived at the gate, only a little bit flustered, as I still had 20 minutes before boarding my flight to Narita. It was a midweek trip, which did not appear crowded. I had an effortless journey by train to the airport, and slipped through security with ease. Everything augured well for a smooth flight. I was glad, because this was to be my last trip on behalf of my employer.
Also coming to the waiting area for the flight, at about the same time, I couldn't help but notice an urbane gentleman of about my age. I saw tucked under his arm a copy of a magazine. I recognized the cover of the current Economist, which was in my own carry-on, too. He had a trench coat draped over his left arm and a long umbrella, which I thought was an odd thing to be taking onto a flight. There was an expectant air about this man, as if he was wary of trouble with a delayed flight, and all the complications that would follow. He probably had a tight connection in Narita to some other place. Maybe Fukuoka or Osaka. He reached inside his camel hair jacket, and withdrew a pair of wire-rimmed reading glasses. These he perched on the end of his nose and glanced once more at his paper ticket. Amazing how much you can learn about someone with a few observations, I mused. He must be a traditional sort of person who carries a full-size umbrella and still uses paper tickets. He certainly looked fit. Probably plays squash on Thursday nights and Sunday mornings, I thought to myself – half smiling.
I decided I should probably look for a way to charge my phone. I had taken too many flights in the recent past, where the charging port at my seat was not functioning. I knew I would want to spend at least some of the time reading my novel on the phone, and perhaps even indulging in some music – something calming like Kitaro. I walked over to a bank of seats near a window, closer to the entrance to the jetway. The window looked out onto a dark tarmac, made forlorn by ceaseless rain. I caught a glimpse of myself reflected there: a brief sense of soft curls of brown hair and the long eyelashes that have been my great asset all these years.
There was a plug likely intended for vacuum cleaners on the pillar next to my scratchy faux-wool seat. I plugged my charger into the pillar and settled back to contemplate the passengers, waiting for their 13-hour flight.
I caught something moving near the floor. I snapped out of my daydream and saw Mr. Brolly-and-Spectacles reaching toward my foot to pick up his fallen paper ticket. As he leaned down, he glanced up at me, and said, “Pardon me. I think I will need this for the flight.” He smiled an efficient smile, which had little feeling – but I did note the traces of fine wrinkles around his eyes become lively for a brief instant.
“No worries,” I said.
Now upright, he proceeded to sit one seat away from me. “I should organize myself for the flight. I mean, it is my ritual to anticipate everything I might need for the flight and put these things in my pockets, so I don't have to keep getting up and rummaging through the overhead compartment, looking for my toothbrush or my eye mask.”
“You use an eye mask? I thought I was the only one who does that.”
“I do, and so did Cary Grant, if I recall. Well, anyway, it helps me to catch a bit of shuteye on the flight. The lights and the incessant noise make it quite difficult without an eye mask and earplugs. And it is a long way to Tokyo.”
“What takes you there?”
“Oh, I will transfer at Narita to another flight, going north to Sapporo. I have a medical conference.”
“I am also travelling for work. My employer doesn't know it, but this is the last trip I will take on their behalf.”
“Oh yes? When do you plan to let them know?”
“I will, once I return home. I work for an engineering firm, as their lead designer. I’m visiting a partner firm in Tokyo. They help to organize production of the widgets that we make in Asia.”
“That sounds like a good post. But it sounds also like you are thinking of doing something else.”
“Yes, that's true: I am planning a sabbatical.”
“Oh yes? I thought it was only academics who take sabbaticals! No one told me I might be able to take one, too. What will you do on your sabbatical?”
“Well, I have put aside some money after quite a few years of steady work with this firm. So, I'm going to take a year off work… perhaps a little bit longer, and indulge my alter ego. I mentioned I am an engineer, but I also have a passion for making my own art.”
“Is that so? How nice to have an avocation, in addition to a worthwhile vocation.” I could see he was warming to the conversation. He had a clear steady gaze, and eyes that were neither grey, nor green – but somewhere in between.
“I keep flying to Japan, and have become quite enamoured of a traditional art form. So, I have arranged for a residential course in woodblock printing in a studio just outside of Kyoto.”
“What a wonderful way to indulge your alter ego! I wish I had the freedom to take some time off like that. However, the administration in my practice would cry foul about ‘continuity of care’ for my patients, and that would be a real problem. I am a dermatologist, you see, with lots of long-term clients.”
There was a general increase in activity at the gate. I saw the agent pick up a microphone, and announce: "Passengers for flight 73 to Narita. Please be so kind as to remain in the waiting area and prepare yourselves for boarding in about 10 minutes. We anticipate some extra room this evening, so you should have plenty of space for your carry-on bags. If there is any way we can assist you in the next 10 minutes, please don't hesitate to come to the counter.”
“Well,” I said, “looks like we will be departing on time.”
“Yes, that's a relief, considering my next flight. I find Narita to be so huge. It often takes quite a while to make the connection. I fantasize about having rollerblades to get around faster.”
I laughed. “It has been a pleasure chatting with you while we wait. My name is Aurelio.” I extended a hand and shook his: his handshake was firm and warm and dry. Again, I had the impression of robust health.
“And mine is Roger. Yes, you never know whom you might meet in a situation like this… I wonder whether you have any image, perhaps on your telephone, of a woodblock print that you have produced? I would very much like to see one.”
“Of course, I do. Thank you for your interest.” I opened my phone and went to the folder where I keep some pictures. I showed him an image of some freckled Japanese school children in traditional dress. I had made it into a woodblock print.
“Very nice! You have a real talent for this. Who are the children? Are they yours?”
“Oh, no, they are children of my Japanese colleague. In fact, I will see them next week. In my checked baggage, I have a framed print for the family. When they posed for me, they were dressed for some kind of festival. My Japanese was not good enough to understand what the festival was celebrating…” I could feel the colour rising in my cheeks. I wasn't sure whether it was from admitting the shortcomings of my Japanese, or self-consciousness about my artistic work, or perhaps just the flattering attention.
“Well,” Roger said, “I do believe you will get a lot out of your residency near Kyoto… And for the record, I don’t have any children either. Nor a partner.” He sighed. “It seems that everyone these days is into fast fashion, and I would rather wear a twenty-year-old Icelandic pullover – if you take my meaning.” Now he gave me a kilowatt smile.
There was more activity near the entrance to the jet-way. People were looking impatient, queuing to calm their nerves. Roger fidgeted as though he would rather stand, but I was enjoying the conversation too much. Besides, I would spend enough time cooped up in that plane. I held my ground, and checked the charge on my phone.
“I know what you mean,” I said. “I’ve nearly given up finding Mr. Right.” There, I said it to dispel any lingering question he might have. I watched intently for the least shadow in his grey-green eyes, and saw none.
“Don’t despair, Aurelio. You never know when you might stumble upon him. I wonder whether I might give you my card…”
Just as he reached into his jacket pocket, again the agent made an announcement over the loudspeaker: “Good evening, Narita passengers. We will be boarding by zone: 1 through 6, beginning first with passengers who need any assistance. We have just a few Globetrotter Class guests this evening, who are of course welcome to board at any time.” Roger looked at me expectantly.
I took the card from Roger, and our eyes met again. “Thank you,” I said, “that means a lot to me. I will be in touch. I suppose it is time we headed to Japan!” I yanked my charger plug from the socket, and rose with my carry-on.
I saw Roger looking once again at his ticket. He said, “I am in zone 5.”
“Ah, such a pity,” I muttered, and moved toward the jet-way.
“Pity? Pity that I am in zone 5, rather than Globetrotter Class?” With a bleak smile, he said, “But that’s just a measure of my worth to this airline, not generally.”
“Of course, you’re right,” although I admit I had briefly thought otherwise. I could learn from Roger. I knew I would contact him later.