The tunnel to hell, I remember thinking cynically as I had stepped on the walkway to board the 2.30pm to New York. I hate flying. 28 and still, I have not gotten over my fear of flying. At least I got my favourite seat. Smack in the middle near the front. As always, I placed my hand luggage in the overhead compartment, holding on to only my book and a bottle of water.
“Sorry,” he said. “Do you mind stepping in for a bit? I’m sitting here too, but there are people behind me waiting to get through.”
His voice was like a dream. With just a slight accent and perfect enunciation.
“Sure,” I shuffled into my seat and beamed at him. I felt like an idiot.
Perfectly tanned skin, his hair was dark brown, kept short and tidy. He wore slightly baggy jeans and a very baggy hoody. The top was clearly too big for him. With the sleeves rolled up, I could tell that he wasn’t a big guy.
“You headed to New York too?” I asked, immediately realising how silly I sounded. We are on the same flight after all.
I smiled and busied myself with my seatbelt and pillow.
“Sorry, I’m just a bit nervous,” he said.
“Oh! Don’t worry I am too. I have a fear of flying,” I giggled, trying to hide the fear in my voice.
“Fear of flying? Wow!”
I stared at his lovely face. Perfect nose.
“I have never met anyone who had a fear of flying. I’m just nervous cause I have never been to the Big Apple.”
Blushing, I looked down at my fingers and started fiddling with my seat belt again.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you even more nervous. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help you with your… umm… condition.”
“It’s ok. It’s taken me more than ten years of practice, but I can just about manage a two hour flight now.”
He smiled. His eyes seemed to twinkle.
The plane took off and I was too distracted about embarrassing myself even more to be scared. I tried reading for a bit, but it was more like holding the book to my nose and trying not to peek at him. I was relieved when the stewardess brought us some water and juice. We both took the juice.
“My name is Mary, by the way,” I said.
“Oh… hi Mary. I’m Yakob.”
We smiled. I thought I saw him blush.
“Umm, so why are you headed to New York?” he asked.
“Oh, I was actually visiting my parents. New York is home, if you can believe it.”
“That must be so cool. Living in the big city.”
He seemed to drift off into his own thoughts then. It was then that I saw him patting his chest, as if he had a passport or money pouch underneath. I must have been staring as he caught my eye-line and looked down at his hand, quickly retrieving it.
“What about you?” I blurted. I was desperate to keep the conversation going.
“I’m visiting some friends.”
“College mates? First trip alone?” I asked.
He laughed then. It was a genuine hearty laugh, which brought a big smile to my face.
“Do I really look that young?”
Before I could say anything, he stopped me.
“Don’t answer that,” he grinned. “I am 32 and left college more than ten years ago.”
“I’m so sorry. You must get that all the time though… right?”
“Yeah, and don’t worry. I am used to it.”
“Well, since you told me your age, I guess it is only good manners to tell you mine. I’m 28.”
“Well, hello Mary who is 28 years old. It is very nice to meet you,” he said as he stuck out a hand to shake mine.
We shook hands and started laughing at the ridiculous situation we got ourselves into.
The next hour was pure bliss. We chatted like old friends about everything under the sun. I don’t know why, but I found Yakob so easy to talk to and I guess the feeling was mutual, for he was telling me about his very conservative parents from the Middle East. They seemed like suffocating parents, but then again, whose parents aren’t?
We will shortly be making our descent…
I can’t remember what we were talking about at that exact moment, but Yakob stopped in mid-sentence and froze. He looked like he had just seen a ghost. I couldn’t get him to tell me what was wrong. He stood up abruptly and went straight to the toilet. I guessed that he was feeling ill.
I started to get up after him but my fear kicked in as I became painfully aware of the plane engines rumbling. Suddenly, everything started spinning and the last thing I heard were gasps from the people sitting around me, as everything blurred into one black patch which shrunk into a dot and disappeared into whiteness.
I could still hear, but I couldn’t move nor speak, nor see.
“Mary! Mary!” it was Yakob.
I felt a surge of warmth through my body, relieved to know that he was fine.
“Come on, Mary. Can you hear me?”
I wanted to say yes, but I couldn’t. There was a lot of movement around me and I heard someone say that he was a doctor and to let him through. I felt the arms around me change. The floor sounded like it was opening up. There was a loud screech which I realised later was the landing gear engaging. I heard a deep voice saying my name and suddenly a smell hit me, and my eyes opened with a jerk. Smelling salts. I frantically looked around and found Yakob crouched by my feet, with his hands in his face.
I wanted to grab his hand, but still weak, I just stroked him instead. He looked up at me. He looked confused at first, but then a smile slowly spread across his face. The doctor moved away and let Yakob come around to me.
Surprisingly, we had landed.
I hugged Yakob and started crying openly. Relieved. It was then that I started realising that the other passengers were staring at us and a few of them were even clapping. Thoroughly embarrassed, we both sat back in our seats holding hands and quietly absorbing the situation whilst the other passengers piled out of the plane.
“I am really sorry,” he said.
“What for? I was the one who fainted,” I chuckled nervously.
“I will tell you one day, but right now, I just want to say thank you.”
Confused, I just smiled and held his hands tighter.
Yakob came to stay with me that day and it is now five years later and he still has not left. It took him more than a year before he would tell me the truth, which I have fully forgiven him for. When he was patting his chest on the flight that day, he was actually checking for a small explosive device.