I am one hour into an 11-hour flight and I'm feeling optimistic. Eleven hours is nothing! The first hour of an international flight is the sweet spot: the air is still breathable, you're not yet riddled with torpor. All there is to do is exist. I'm sitting next to a couple who are doing Sudoku together. I smile at them to communicate that I am a benign seatmate.
A flight attendant arrives with a tray. "Miss Young. Your special meal."
The couple look up. "It's a special meal," I hear them whisper enviously.
I smile as I eat my special meal. It's going to be a good flight.
To be good at long-haul flights you have to understand that we are all suffering together. The air inside a plane is drier than the air in most deserts – we are all desiccated husks, together. Our spines are compressed, together. Due to the lack of oxygen in our bodies, all of our emotional defences are down, together. The best way to endure a packed flight is to draw on your deepest reserves of compassion for others and for yourself. I know all this because I am reading a self-help book about compassion. The book advises opening your heart to the reality of our shared humanity, with all of its failings. That way, instead of mercilessly criticising, you will feel warmth and understanding for yourself and your fellow passengers in life.
The legs of the passenger behind me have begun to vibrate against my seat. I try to reframe the vibration as part of my journey. As family.
As the attendants wheel the rest of the meals out, I lower my book. I feel a deep appreciation for the attendants. I silently congratulate myself for feeling this feeling. I am even better at travel that I had thought. I think about a thread on Twitter recently where people shared their experiences of strangers' kindness on flights, and I fantasise about being immortalised in such a thread. If someone throws up and has no spare clothing I will give them my trousers.
The vibration continues. I turn around to see if I can understand the situation. The person's eyes are closed and their legs are vibrating of their own accord. It's some kind of malfunction.
I try to sleep. As if summoned, the elbow of the man beside me jabs my side. I reposition myself but, like a heat-seeking missile, the elbow finds me. The couple are talking about Sudoku. "It can't be this," the woman keeps saying, "so it must be this." The man jabs in agreement. Their conversation is so boring that I'm starting to panic. Finally the lights are dimmed.
The legs behind me vibrate ceaselessly into the night.
Somewhere in the darkness, a passenger is shouting wordlessly.
Sometimes you can be going along okay - but okay is not enough. You read a book and try to enlighten yourself. You look around and say, "I understand how this all works now." But what I've forgotten on this plane is that, in the past, whenever I've decided that I understand how it all works, something immediately happens to prove that I understand nothing. It's like thinking you've finally learned how to fix a puncture properly. You haven't.
I'm woken by a flight attendant. "Miss Young. Your special breakfast."
I wave it away, moaning fitfully. Time doesn't exist anymore, so neither does breakfast, let alone a special breakfast. I pick up my book and read, "Frustration at not having things exactly as we want is often accompanied by an irrational sense of isolation." I have a vision of the plane around me vanishing so it's just me in my seat, flying alone through the sky.
The passenger in front cracks their chair back, crushing my knees.
Suddenly, everything I have learned about compassion falls away, no more substantial than a thin airline blanket. "That's it!" I say.
I crane around the front seat. The force of my annoyance is such that it feels like my neck has grown freakishly long, like the chicken in George's Marvellous Medicine. I glare my most withering glare.
The person's eyes are closed. My glare withers inside my own face.
Many hours later, I wake up. Light is filling the plane. The man next to me is holding out a lolly, smiling. He has saved one for me from the lolly basket. I eat it, and feel a deep appreciation for the man.
Everyone here looks shrunken, rumpled. We are human laundry together. We have been through a lot together. Maybe some of us haven't been our best selves. Maybe some of us started out average and got worse. But we have definitely existed for 11hours, together. We have made it and we didn't learn anything.