We smiled at the woman as we took our seat beside her. She smiled back. “Hi,” she said, “Jean.” We introduced ourselves, Tom more engagingly than me. I was worried about getting too friendly with her – she was looking at us in that way people who want to talk to you do, nodding, catching our eyes, commenting on things we were wearing, how long we'd all been waiting to board. To be honest, I was also worried about her talking during take-off when I needed all my concentration to keep the plane in the air with the tightness of my buttocks and my light, nervous, empty-stomach belching. She was older, a good-looking seventy-five maybe, with a thick grey bob, white and beige clothes and a little gold jewellery.
"What are you going to Berlin for?"
"We used to live there," said Tom.
She nodded. "Oh OK."
"And you?" said Tom.
"Group," she said without elaborating.
"And you're from New York?" Tom said.
"Brooklyn," she said. "St. Albans now."
We finished unpacking days worth of entertainment into the backseat pocket for the eight-hour trip – books, iPods, newspapers. Tom buckled up and I sat with my buckle open, proving to myself that I didn't need to buckle up straight away, hoping that this would show fate, God, my subconscious that I liked flying and that this would translate into a joyful flight filled with hours of heavy, comfortable sleep. I tried to imagine being bumped awake by the plane's tyres bouncing lightly on the ground as it landed.
"You boys are from?"
"Oh," she said. She thought for a second and with little to say about these two destinations that we probably didn't already know she added, "My son travels a lot."
We nodded. I'd hoped she might say something about Oxford; that I might be able to evoke the city for a few seconds. I had a sense, from American chat shows, that all Americans loved English accents, but Jean didn't seem too bothered, nor did the woman in the post-office who couldn't understand what I meant my "stamps" or the man at the hot-dog stand who inconceivably mistook "hot-dog" for "bottle of water". The fact that Americans understood my German boyfriend more than me seemed to be shitting all over the sense of our "special relationship" that I'd brought over with me from the other side of the Atlantic.
"Does your son travel for business?" I asked, not wanting to look like the silent miserable one, which, in the context of a plane flight, I was. I tried to sound especially English, so that she would feel she was getting the real deal.
"Used to be," she said. "Used to travel a lot. Then he got into cocaine and we just lost him," she said. "We just lost him."
I nodded, frowning with concern, and buckled up.
"Oh dear," said Tom.
"Well," she said, "I have eight of them. I did my best. Sometimes you get a rotten apple and you just have to cut it off."
A large woman with short expensively dyed hair leaned onto the seat in front of us and said, "Hey Jean!"
"Marcia!" she said, smiling.
"Got yourself some company?"
"Got myself some boys."
Marcia laughed and Jean laughed and we laughed with them. "See you on the other side," Marcia said and moved away down the aisle.
Jean's laughter faded away. She leaned in, still smiling, and said, "That one, she's been trying to nickel and dime me the whole trip."
Tom laughed nervously. "Quite," I said. An answer Hugh Grant might have given, but which I wouldn't dream of using in front of anyone at home.
Jean looked out of the window. The plane's engines began to whirr and the air-conditioning died away. I looked up at the little plastic nozzle as if it had been my final source of comfort. I tightened my seat belt.
"Don't like flying, huh?" said Jean.
"Not really," I said.
The plane had begun to taxi.
"Well, you gotta go sometime," she said and laughed. "It's gonna get you somehow!"
Ben Fergusson is a writer, editor and translator based in London. His stories have been published in the UK and internationally and his novel, 'The Spring of Kasper Meier', has recently been taken on by a major London literary agency. www.benfergusson.com