The man next to me on the plane was so tall he couldn’t fit in his seat. His elbows jutted out over the armrests and his knees were jammed against the seat in front, so that the person in it glanced around in irritation every time he moved. The man twisted, trying to cross and uncross his legs, and inadvertently kicked the person to his right.
‘Sorry,’ he said.
He sat motionless for a few minutes, breathing deeply through his nostrils with his hands clenched in his lap, but before long he became restless and tried to move his legs again so that the whole bank of seats in front of him was jolted back and forth. Finally I asked him if he wanted to change seats, since mine was on the aisle, and he accepted with alacrity, as if I had offered him a business opportunity.
‘Usually I travel in executive class,’ he explained, while we got up and changed places. ‘There’s a lot more legroom.’
He stretched out into the aisle and his head fell against the back of the seat in relief.
‘Thank you very much,’ he said.
The plane began to move slowly out over the tarmac. My neighbour gave a contented sigh and appeared almost instantly to fall asleep. An air hostess came up the aisle and stopped at his legs.
‘Sir?’ she said. ‘Sir?’
He jerked awake and folded himself awkwardly back into the narrow space in front so that she could pass. The plane paused for a few minutes and then lurched forward and then paused again. Through the window a queue of planes could be seen ahead, waiting their turn. The man’s head began to nod and soon his legs were splayed once more across the aisle. The air hostess returned.
‘Sir?’ she said. ‘We need to keep the aisle clear for take-off.’
He sat up. ‘Sorry,’ he said.
She moved away and gradually his head began to nod again. Outside a haze stood over the flat grey landscape so that it seemed to merge with the overcast sky in horizontal bands of such subtle variation that it almost resembled the sea. In the seats in front a woman and a man were talking. It’s so sad, the woman said, and the man grunted in reply. It’s just really sad, she repeated. There was a pounding of footsteps up the carpeted aisle and the air hostess reappeared. She put her hand on my neighbour’s shoulder and shook it.
‘I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to keep your legs out of the way,’ she said.
‘I’m sorry,’ the man said. ‘I can’t seem to stay awake.’
‘I’m going to have to ask that you do,’ she said.
‘I didn’t actually get to bed last night,’ he said.
‘I’m afraid that’s not my problem,’ she said. ‘You’re putting other passengers at risk by obstructing the aisle.’
He rubbed his face and rearranged himself in his chair. He took out his phone and checked it and put it back in his pocket. She waited, watching him. Finally, as though satisfied that he had genuinely obeyed her, she went away. He shook his head and made a gesture of incomprehension, as though to an unseen audience. He was somewhere in his forties, with a face that was both handsome and unexceptional, and his tall frame was clad with the clean, well-pressed neutrality of a businessman’s weekend attire. He wore a heavy silver watch on his wrist and new-looking leather shoes on his feet; he exuded an air of anonymous and slightly provisional manliness, like a soldier in uniform. By now the plane had made its halting progress up the queue and was slowly turning in a wide arc towards the runway. The haze had turned to rain and droplets ran down the window pane.
The man looked out with an exhausted stare at the gleaming tarmac. The clamour of the engines was rising around us and the plane finally surged forward, then rose tipping and rattling through layers of thick wadded cloud. For a while the dull green network of fields beneath us with its block-like houses and huddled groups of trees returned to sight through sporadic rents in the grey before it closed over them. The man emitted another deep sigh and in a few minutes had gone back to sleep, his head lolling forward over his chest. The cabin lights flickered on and the sounds of activity began. Before long the air hostess was at our row, where the sleeping man had once more stretched his legs out into the aisle.
‘Sir?’ she said. ‘Excuse me? Sir?’
He lifted his head and looked around himself, bewildered. When he saw the air hostess standing there with her trolley he slowly and effortfully withdrew his legs so that she could pass. She watched with pursed lips, her eyebrows arched.
‘Thank you,’ she said, with barely concealed sarcasm.
‘It’s not my fault,’ he said to her.
Her painted eyes fell on him momentarily. Their expression was cold.
‘I’m just trying to do my job,’ she said.
‘I realise that,’ he said. ‘But it’s not my fault that the seats are too close together.’
There was a pause in which the two of them looked at one another.
‘You’ll have to take that up with the airline,’ she said.
‘I’m taking it up with you,’ he said.
She folded her arms and lifted her chin.
‘Most of the time I travel business,’ he said, ‘so it isn’t usually a problem.’
‘We don’t offer business class on this flight,’ she said. ‘But there are plenty of other carriers who do.’
‘So your suggestion is that I fly with someone else,’ he said.
‘That’s right,’ she said.
‘Brilliant,’ he said. ‘Thank you very much.’
He gave a sour bark of laughter at her departing back. For a while he continued to smile self-consciously, like someone who has mistakenly wandered out onstage, and then, apparently to disguise his feelings of exposure, he turned to me and asked the reason for my trip to Europe.
I said I was a writer and was on my way to speak at a literary festival.
Immediately his face assumed an expression of polite interest.
‘My wife’s a big reader,’ he said. ‘She belongs to one of those book clubs.’
A silence fell.
‘What kind of thing do you write?’ he said, after a while.
I said it was hard to explain and he nodded his head. He drummed his fingers on his thighs and tapped a disjointed rhythm with his shoes on the carpeted floor. He shook his head from side to side and rubbed his fingers vigorously over his scalp.
‘If I don’t talk,’ he said finally, ‘I’ll just go to sleep again.’
He said it pragmatically, as though he was used to solving problems at the expense of personal feeling, but when I turned to look at him I was surprised to see a pleading expression on his face. His eyes were red-rimmed with yellow whites and his neatly cut hair stood on end where he had rubbed it.
‘Apparently they lower the oxygen levels in the cabin before take-off to make people sleepy,’ he said, ‘so they shouldn’t really complain when it works. I have a friend who flies these things,’ he added. ‘He was the one who told me that.’
The strange thing about this friend, the man went on, was that despite his profession he was a fanatical environmentalist. He drove a tiny electric car and ran his household entirely on solar panels and windmills. ‘When he comes to our place for dinner,’ he said, ‘you’ll find him out by the recycling bins while everyone else is four sheets to the wind, sorting the food packaging and the empties. His idea of a holiday,’ he said, ‘is carrying all his own gear up a Welsh mountainside and sitting in a tent in the rain for two weeks talking to the sheep.’
Yet this same man regularly donned a uniform and climbed into the cockpit of a fifty-ton smoke-spewing machine and flew a cabin-load of drunken holidaymakers to the Canary Islands. It was hard to think of a worse route to fly, yet his friend had flown it for years. He worked for a budget airline that practised the most brutal economies, and apparently the passengers behaved like zoo animals. He took them out white and he brought them back orange, and despite earning less than anyone else in their circle of friends, he gave half his income to charity.
‘The thing is,’ he said perplexedly, ‘he’s just a really nice guy. I’ve known him for years, and it’s almost like the worse things are, the nicer he becomes. He told me once,’ he said, ‘that in the cockpit they have a screen where they can watch what’s going on in the cabin. He said that at first he couldn’t stand looking at it because it was so depressing seeing the way these people conducted themselves. But after a while he started to become sort of obsessed with it. He’s watched hundreds of hours of it. It’s a bit like meditation, he says. Even so,’ he said, ‘I wouldn’t be able to stand working in that world. The first thing I did when I retired was cut up my frequent flyer’s card. I swore I’d never get on one of these things again.’
I said he seemed very young to be retired.
‘I kept a spreadsheet on my desktop called “Freedom”,’ he said, with a sideways grin. ‘It was basically just columns of figures that had to add up to a certain number, and when they did I could leave.’
He had been the director of a global management company, he said, a job that involved being constantly away from home. For example, it wasn’t unusual for him to visit Asia, North America and Australia all in the space of two weeks. He had once flown to South Africa for a meeting and flown back again as soon as the meeting was over. Several times, he and his wife had worked out where the halfway point was between their two locations and then met there for a holiday. Once, when the company’s Australasian branch had gone into meltdown and he’d had to stay over there to sort it out, he hadn’t seen his children for three months. He’d started work at eighteen and now he was forty-six, and he hoped he would have enough time to live the whole of his working life in reverse. He had a house in the Cotswolds he’d barely set foot in and a whole garage full of bikes and skis and sporting equipment he’d never had time to use; he had friends and family he’d spent the past two decades mostly saying hello and goodbye to, since he was usually either going away and had to prepare and go to bed early, or coming back exhausted. He had read somewhere about a medieval method of punishment that involved incarcerating the prisoner in a space specially designed to prevent him from being able to fully extend his limbs in any direction, and though just thinking about it made him break out in a sweat, it pretty much summed up the way he had lived.
I asked him whether his release from that prison had lived up to the title of his spreadsheet.
‘It’s funny you should say that,’ he said. ‘Since I left work I find that I’m constantly getting into arguments with people. My family complain that now I’m at home all the time, I’m trying to control them. They haven’t actually said,’ he added, ‘that they wish we could go back to how things were. But I know they’re thinking it.’
He couldn’t believe, for example, how late they slept in the morning. All those years that he’d left the house before dawn, the thought of their slumbering forms in the darkness had often made him feel purposeful and protective. If he’d realised how idle they were he might not have seen it the same way. Sometimes he had to wait until lunchtime for them to get up: he had started going into their rooms and opening the curtains, as his father used to do every morning when he was growing up, and was astonished by the hostility this action elicited. He had tried to schedule their mealtimes – they all, he had discovered, ate different foods at different times of day – and to institute an exercise routine, and was trying hard to believe that the full-scale revolt these measures provoked was proof of their necessity.
‘I spend a lot of time talking to the cleaner,’ he said. ‘She turns up at eight. She says she’s been dealing with these issues for years.’
He recounted all this with an abashed and easy confidentiality that made it clear he spoke for the purposes of entertainment rather than to arouse consternation. A deprecating smile played around his mouth, showing an even row of strong white teeth. He had grown more animated while he spoke, and his desperate, wild-eyed demeanour had softened into the genial mask of the raconteur. I had the impression that these were stories he had told before and liked to tell, as though he had discovered the power and pleasure of reliving events with their sting removed. The skill, I saw, lay in skirting close enough to what appeared to be the truth without allowing what you actually felt about it to regain its power over you.
I asked him how, given his oath, he had come to find himself on an aeroplane again.
He smiled again somewhat shamefacedly and ran a hand through his fine brown hair.
‘My daughter’s playing in a music festival over there,’ he said. ‘She plays for her school orchestra. The – ah – oboe.’
He had been supposed to fly out with his wife and children yesterday but their dog had been taken ill and he’d had to let them go on without him. It might sound ridiculous, but the dog was probably the most important member of their family. He’d had to sit up with him all night and then drive straight to the airport.
‘To be honest I shouldn’t have been behind the wheel of a car,’ he said in a low voice, leaning his elbow on the armrest between us. ‘I could hardly see straight. I kept passing these signs by the road with the same words on them over and over again and I started to think they’d been put there for me. You know the ones I mean – they’re everywhere. It took me ages to work out what they were. I did wonder,’ he said, with his abashed smile, ‘if I was actually going mad. I couldn’t understand who had chosen them, or why. They seemed to be addressing me personally. Obviously,’ he said, ‘I read the news, but I’ve got a bit behind since leaving work.’
I said it was true that the question of whether to leave or remain was one we usually asked ourselves in private, to the extent that it could almost be said to constitute the innermost core of self-determination. If you were unfamiliar with the political situation in our country, you might think you were witnessing not the machinations of a democracy but the final surrender of personal consciousness into the public domain.
‘The funny thing is,’ the man said, ‘it felt as if I’d been asking myself that question for as long as I could remember.’
I asked him what had happened to the dog.
For a moment he looked confused, as though he couldn’t remember which dog I was talking about. Then he furrowed his brow and pouted and blew out a great sigh.
‘It’s a bit of a long story,’ he said.
The dog – his name was Pilot – was actually quite old, he said, though you wouldn’t have thought it to look at him. He and his wife got Pilot shortly after they were married. They had bought their house in the countryside, he said, and it was an ideal place to have a dog. Pilot was a small puppy, but even then he had the most enormous paws: they knew the breed could get very large, but nothing had prepared them for the extraordinary size to which Pilot eventually grew. Every time they thought he couldn’t get any bigger, he did: sometimes it was almost funny to see how disproportionately small he made everything around him look, their house and their car and even one another.
‘I’m unusually tall,’ he said, ‘and sometimes you get sick of being taller than everyone else. But when I stood next to Pilot, I felt normal.’
His wife was pregnant with their first child and so Pilot became his own project: he didn’t travel as much for work in those days, and for several months he spent most of his free time training Pilot, walking in the hills with him and forming his character. He never spoiled him or gave in to him; he exercised him unfailingly and rewarded him sparingly, and when, as a young dog, Pilot chased a herd of sheep, he beat him with a severity and with a confidence that surprised even himself. Most of all, he was careful how he behaved in front of Pilot, for all the world as if the dog were human, and indeed by the time he reached maturity Pilot possessed an unusual intelligence, as well as a ferocious bark and a giant, muscular body. He treated the family with a sensitivity and consideration that other people found frankly uncanny, though over time they themselves had become used to it. For instance, when their son was seriously ill with pneumonia last year, Pilot had sat outside his room day and night and automatically came to get them if the child called for anything. He was attuned to and even mirrored their daughter’s periodic episodes of depression, which sometimes they had only become aware of because Pilot had grown morose and withdrawn. Yet if a stranger came to the house he would transform himself into a guard dog of the utmost vigilance and ruthlessness. People who didn’t know him were terrified of him, and rightly, because he would have killed them without hesitation if they had presented any threat to the members of the household.
It was when Pilot was three or four years old, the man went on, that he got his major career break and began to be away from home for extended periods of time, and he felt able to leave, knowing that the family would be safe in his absences. Sometimes, he said, when he was away, he would think of the dog and feel almost closer to him than to any other living thing. So he couldn’t have left him in his own hour of need, despite the fact that his daughter was to be the main soloist at the concert and had been practising for weeks. The performance was part of an international festival and there would be a large audience: it was a fantastic opportunity. Yet Betsy didn’t want to let Pilot out of her sight. He had the devil’s own job getting her to go: it was as if she didn’t trust him to look after his own dog.
I asked what piece she was playing and he ruffled his hair again.
‘I’m not actually sure,’ he said. ‘Her mother would know, obviously.’
He hadn’t really realised his daughter was so good at playing the oboe, he added. She had started taking lessons when she was six or seven and frankly it had always sounded pretty awful, to the extent that he had had to ask her to do it in her room. The squeaking noise set his teeth on edge, particularly when he’d come off a long flight. Often he could still hear the reedy, insinuating sound behind her closed door and if he was trying to sleep off his jet lag it was actually quite annoying. He had wondered once or twice whether she did it to persecute him, but apparently she practised just as much when he wasn’t there. Occasionally he had gone so far as to suggest that it might be healthier for her to practise less and do other things more, but this opinion had been met with much the same scorn as his attempts to impose discipline on the family timetable. And to be honest, when asked what he thought she ought to be doing with her time, all he could think of were the kinds of things he’d done at her age – socialising and watching television – that he somehow considered more normal. As far as he was concerned, hardly anything about Betsy was normal. For example, she suffered from insomnia: what average fourteen-year-old can’t sleep? Instead of eating dinner, she would stand by the kitchen cupboards lifting handfuls of dry cereal to her mouth straight from the box. She never went outside and, since her mother drove her everywhere, rarely walked. He had been told that when he wasn’t there she walked Pilot every day, but since he never witnessed it he found it difficult to believe. It had got to the point where he’d started to wonder how she was ever going to leave home, and whether they might have to keep her there forever, like some kind of failed experiment.
Then one evening Betsy was playing in a school concert and he went along with his wife, and with every expectation of being secretly bored sat jammed into a small chair in the auditorium amidst the other parents. The lights came up and in front of the orchestra on the stage stood a girl he took a long time to recognise as Betsy. She seemed much older, for a start; and there was something else, perhaps the fact that she didn’t appear to need him or to reproach him with the problem of her existence, that was startlingly relieving. Once he accepted that it was her, what he felt was the most terrible, ominous fear. He was absolutely certain she would embarrass herself and he clutched his wife’s hand, believing she felt the same way. The conductor arrived – a man he immediately prepared himself to dislike, dressed in black jeans and a black polo-neck sweater – and the orchestra began to play, and at a certain point Betsy started playing too. What he noticed was how closely Betsy watched this conductor and responded to his slightest sign, nodding her head and lifting the instrument to her lips, her large eyes unblinking. Of such a silent feat of intimacy and obedience he had not thought his daughter capable, he who couldn’t persuade her to eat her cereal from a bowl. Only after some minutes did he connect the eerie, snaking sound with her more literally: he had sat in enough audiences to know that this one was charmed, spellbound, and only then was he able to really listen. What he heard drew water from his eyes in such quantities that people began to glance round at him in their seats. Afterwards Betsy claimed she could see him weeping from the stage because of his height. She said it had been embarrassing.
I asked him why he thought he had cried, and his mouth tugged unexpectedly downwards in the corners so that he tried to hide it with his large hand.
‘To be honest,’ he said, ‘I suppose I’d always worried there was something wrong with her.’
I said it seemed to me people often found it easier to entertain that idea about their children than about themselves, and he looked at me as though he were momentarily considering that theory before firmly shaking his head.
This is an extract from Kudos by Rachel Cusk, forthcoming from Faber & Faber.