Tag Archives: Heathrow

The beating bag

28th January 2013.  Flight VS026 from JFK to Heathrow.  We sit silently, buckled and ready to take-off.  It’s taking too long.  Something’s delaying us.  Brett, a well-groomed male air steward, approaches the man seated in front of me.

Brett:  Excuse me, Mr O’Brien?

Mr O’Brien (presumably):  Yes?

Brett:  There’s a slight problem with your luggage.  Would you mind coming with me?

He rises and his face is anxious; a natural response when questioned by airline staff.  I make a comment to the man next to me about how nerve wracking it is to have your luggage searched – even though you know you’re innocent.

He nods and I hear his clear New Zealand accent “Oh yeah, it’s awful.  I had it happen to me in Peru years ago”.   I adopt an expression encouraging him to continue.

A half-smile flickers across his face as he shakes his head “Nah, I won’t bore you with it.”

Oh go on” I persist.  “It’ll kill a few minutes of the hours ahead”.

He looks directly at me, sizing me up.  Some inexplicable deliberation takes place before he speaks “Alright … as you’re a fellow antipodean, albeit Australian”.

I smile and turn my body towards him to give him my full attention.  Here is his story.

“The beating bag”

It was 2006 and I was returning from my honeymoon with my now ex-wife.  We’re checked-in and ready to board our return flight to the US.  A security man approaches the boarding queue and taps three of us – myself and two other men – indicating for us to follow him.  I leave my wife in the queue.

In silence, we’re led through security doors and down stairs, then down further stairs and through a maze of passages.  After what seems like ages, we enter a highly industrial area.  We’re surrounded by conveyor belts of luggage and humming machinery.  The South American heat is stifling and the smell of body odour overwhelming.   We’re in the underbelly of the airport.

In the centre of the room are three heavily armed and uniformed military men, each pointing a massive gun at three individual pieces of luggage; one of them mine.  I was already nervous, but I’m now shitting myself.   Has someone put drugs in my bag?!  My wife’s migraine medication is in that bag, and I’m not sure that it’s legal in countries outside the US.  Am I about to be imprisoned?!

Nobody speaks English.  One of the intensely solemn armed men has the palm of his hand on my bag and says something to me in Spanish.  One of the other two passengers speaks a little English and tries to help me.

Fellow passenger (pointing to my bag):  Is beating.


Fellow passengerSi, beating.

They want me to feel my “beating” bag, so I do – with a gun aimed at me.  With sudden heart-sinking horror, my emotions shift from fear to embarrassment.  The bag isn’t beating, it’s vibrating.  My face glows red, drawing more suspicion to me as I realise that the buzzing item is my wife’s vibrator [at this point in the man’s story I blurt out a loud laugh, drawing unwanted attention from our fellow passengers].

In desperation and zero Spanish I try to suggest that we open our bags in separate rooms so I don’t have to do this in front of such a big audience.

I tell my semi-English-speaking-fellow-traveller what’s in the bag and he instantly smiles, containing a laugh.  I can’t believe this is happening.

They refuse my request to open the bag in a more private environment and, with the giant gun pointed at me, I kneel to the floor and open my bag.  Everyone is quietly watching as I rummage around.  The vibrator is a plug-in one and I’m hoping to locate the main power source so I can switch it off.  Yes! I did it!  I triumphantly, but slowly, pull out the power supply – NOT the vibrator and say “This is it.  It’s switched off – nothing harmful”.   I’m so relieved to not have to pull out the actual vibrator.

With disaster averted, I’m allowed to return to the departure gates.  My wife’s furious and shouts out “What took you so long?! ” I shout back across the crowded departure lounge “IT WAS YOUR BLOODY VIBRATOR!  IT WENT OFF IN THE LUGGAGE!!

She’s mortified.

Mr New Zealand’s finished his story. “So that’s it.  I wouldn’t believe it if it hadn’t happened to me and all I can say is if you’ve got any ‘personal’ devices in your luggage, I hope you’ve removed the batteries!”

I laugh (non-committedly ….) and move on to the next obvious conversation; how and why did Mrs New Zealand become Mrs Ex-New Zealand.  The next seven hours pass quickly – for me at least.


I’m beginning to realise that I’m a “flight-talker”.  When you’re seated next to me on a long-haul flight there might be an awful moment when you realise you won’t be watching any movies …

The Hurricane

7:15am, Monday 29th October, 2012.   JFK airport is deserted.  Only 200 people wander around, passing through security checks at record speed.  We are the ONLY flight to depart today.  Hurricane Sandy will be in NY within hours.  I’m leaving another country to unprecedented natural disaster.  Five hours after I left New Zealand in 2011 a state of emergency was declared as it experienced its worst floods in fifty years.  Six hours after I left Fiji in 2012, a landslide hit my resort – 74 evacuation centres were set up and 8 people were killed.  The day I departed the UK in 2010 for a Christmas visit to Australia, England was hit by the worst snowfall in over forty years – Heathrow flights were grounded for days.  Twenty-four hours after that trip to Australia, my hometown was flooded and a locust plague was followed by a snake plague.   My arrival in Australia late in 2011 was marked by a mini cyclone, fires that destroyed thirty homes, a mouse plague and a fatal white shark attack.   I can’t work out if travelling with me will keep you safe or put you directly in line to encounter God’s wrath.   If my life was a movie, there’d be many scenes with me walking away unscathed, leaving an apocalyptic blaze behind me.

Upon hearing my boarding call, I get on Flight VS026.  I walk down the aisle and see a white-haired man in his mid-seventies in the seat next to mine.  He rises to let me take my window seat.  Once I’m seated and buckled in, he turns to me and holds out his hand for me to shake.

Him (with a strong NY accent):  Hi, I’m Robert.  We’re lucky we made this flight, aren’t we?

Me (shaking his hand):  Simone. It’s amazing.  I honestly never thought I’d be flying out today.

Him:  No, God’s on our side for sure.  And I’m pleased to have a lovely young lady sitting next to me.

Me (smiling):  Well I’m not sure I can be described as young any more.  And I’m not sure I’ve ever been lovely.  But thanks.

Him:  Oh everyone looks young to me now.  But you are lovely – a wide smile and big blue eyes.  You brighten up the plane.  Tell me, do you mind chatting for the flight?  I know some people hate it, but I’d quite like some conversation.  Of course if you want to read or watch the TV, that’s okay too.

What can I say?  I’m tired, but he’s a kind man and I think I want to talk to a stranger for a bit too.  Anonymous conversation can be cathartic.

For the next few hours I hear his story.  He’s a  76-year-old retired architect, proud of his work and proud of his family.  He has two children from his first marriage.  After a painful decline, his wife died of cancer three years ago.

I keep listening, occasionally agreeing and encouraging.

Him:  I’m lonely now and I don’t get to talk to many people for long.  My daughter phones every week, and my son about once a month … but that’s about it.  I miss Angie.  We married late so never had children together, but I loved her so much.  It’s hard now.

Suddenly my eyes well up.  

Him:  Oh, I’m sorry!  I didn’t mean to upset you with my grief.  How long have you been married?

Me (quickly pulling myself together and smiling):  I’m not married … that hasn’t happened for me yet.

Him:  Make it happen.  Love, and being with the person you love are the only things worth being here for.  You both become better people for it.

Me (smiling):  I know.  That’s exactly how I see it. 

Him:  I’ve been trying to work out if you’re sad to be leaving New York or sad to be going to London?

Me (laughing):  I’m happy to be avoiding a hurricane. 

Him (laughing kind-heartedly too):  You’re a clever one, avoiding my question.  I think you’ve got your own little hurricane going on inside you at the moment.  I’m old enough to see it.  And your eyes are very telling.  I think your eyes could kill a man, but right now they show you’re troubled.  But I won’t ask any more. 

There’s an awkward moment as we shift to a neutral conversational topic.  But we manage and enjoy the rest of the flight by covering light-hearted subjects.  He’s a gentle, intelligent and interesting man.

At Heathrow we say goodbye.  To my surprise he hugs me and says, “Have a good life, Simone”.  I smile.  The only time those exact words have been said to me were by another 76-year-old.  My babysitter, Jillian.   I am having a good life, and I’m trying to make it even better.

The calm before the storm

Thursday 25 October, 2012.  Central Park, New York.  It’s 20 degrees and the sun is shining.  After walking for three hours I climb some rocks and sit down.  I’ve deliberately left my iPhone at the apartment I’m staying in so I can enjoy the day without electronic intrusion – no texts, no emails, and the music I hear isn’t pumping synthesized bass, but live from the buskers.  My red handbag contains only a camera, my purse, a bottle of water, a pen and a notepad.  I open it and pull out the pen and pad.  I’m going to write the old-fashioned way.  I’ll fill the crisp pages with blog entries, stories, letters … anything that comes to mind.

Josefin the Viking!

After two hours my hand aches and I put down my pen.   As I emerge from my writing trance, I realise that I’m having the best day I can remember having in my adult life.  It’s made better by the fact that I know it’s the best day.  Usually I recognise the good times retrospectively, but I’m in one right now and I feel it.

The next few days are filled to the brim with experiences and events.  In different ways I’m looking forward to all of them – including a work dinner tonight.  I’m visiting my Swedish friend and I smile at the memory of seeing her this morning in her Halloween costume – she was born to dress as a Viking, complete with horned helmet and blonde plaits.  I mentally run through my weekend schedule and savour the feeling of anticipation.

I don’t know that my body will become a vessel for wine during the approaching 72 hours and I’ll suffer the consequences.  I don’t know that I’m soon to get so lost that it takes me two hours to return home.  I don’t know that my father’s in hospital.  I don’t know that I’ll wake tomorrow with a stye on my left eye so large that I look like I’ve been punched.  I don’t know that Hurricane Sandy will wreak so much havoc.  I don’t know any of these things.  All I know is that I’m very excited about the good experiences and encounters heading my way.

I hear people near me and look up to see a dark-haired girl of about five standing directly on my right side.  As her parents catch up to her she speaks.

My feet in the Central Park leaves

Girl: What’s your name?

Me (smiling openly): Simone.  What’s yours?

Girl: Rebecca.  Thimone’s a funny name.

Me (laughing):  And Rebecca’s a nice name.

Her parents must be a bit embarrassed by her comment because her father joins our conversation.

Him: Rebecca, there’s a song about a girl called Simone.  (He starts singing) “Oh Simone, my heart is aching …”

Me (surprised that I’ve never heard these lyrics): Is that a real song?!

Him: Of course! It’s as old as the hills.  “Simone” by Boz Scaggs.

Me:  Well I’ve just learnt something new!

We chat briefly about where I’m from (they’re New York born and bred) and they head on their way.  I enjoyed the fleeting interaction and I’m left to my peaceful, flawless day.

The bright yellow leaves lie still at my feet.  Things are calm, things are perfect.  But there’s a storm coming …


Tuesday morning, Heathrow, Terminal 3.  I’ve boarded my Boeing 747, Flight CX252 to Hong Kong and am walking to my seat.  The public sector strikes scheduled for Wednesday mean I’m flying a day early – I can blame them for many things, but not my hangover.  Thankfully my throbbing head can relax as my excessive organisation has me fully prepared; I checked in 48 hours ago, chose the perfect seats (aisle for the first leg, window for the second) and, through Cathay Pacific’s website, selected the movies I’ll be watching (Horrible Bosses, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, Midnight in Paris and Mr Popper’s Penguins).  I’m the only person I know who runs out of time to do all the things they need to do on a long haul flight.    

 I approach my seat and take a (hopefully unnoticeable) intake of breath at the attractive, olive-skinned man in the seat next to mine.  We smile hello to each other and I attempt to put my hand luggage in the overhead compartment.  He jumps up and grabs my bag.

MAN: Let me get that for you (I hear an accent – Dutch?).

I thank him, and we seat and buckle ourselves.   

MAN:  So you’re going to Hong Kong?

ME:  For just a few hours – I’m heading to Australia from there.

Polite conversation reveals that he’s German, a dentist, plays the piano, and is an avid motorcyclist.  I’ve a history of owning scooters (which prompts mild, good-natured mocking on his part), his name is Wolfgang (which prompts immense, good-natured mocking on mine).  He’s on his way to Australia for a friend’s wedding which leads us to indicate that we’re both single, and a distinctly flirtatious atmosphere develops.

After we’re fed, the lights are switched off.  We draw up our blankets and lower our seats.  I wait for about half an hour, my body tense, before pretending to fall asleep.  My heart pounds as I feel the back of his left hand lightly brush against my outer right thigh and settle there.  Gradually, I feel his hand move more firmly against my leg and gently stroke it (you’ll have to take my word for it when I say this wasn’t creepy).  The excitement is intense.

Inch by inch, I slowly drop my head to his shoulder, my mouth slightly open (attractiveness had to be sacrificed for authenticity … I’m not saying I’m proud of my actions!).  After twenty minutes in this position, a child kicks my seat so I take my opportunity to “wake”.  Trying to look dazed, I sit up and lift my head from Wolfgang’s shoulder.

ME:  God, I’m sorry!

MAN:  It’s okay … I liked it.

ME (my heart jumping at the recognition of our intimacy. I smile):  Well I just hope I didn’t dribble on you.   

MAN: Not at all – I was really enjoying it.

I laugh and we both watch our individual movies before landing.  Wolfgang asks for my email address (he’s getting a different connecting flight), but I don’t intend to see him again – we had our moment on the flight and it’s best to recognise these for what they are.  One friend had a mile high-esque experience with an Italian man and made the mistake of meeting him for dinner – she maintains it was the second worst date of her life.  Another friend (male) had a mile high experience (no “esque” about it) on a flight to America and ended up being punched by the woman’s husband, a US soldier.  It’s often best to walk away while you’re enjoying yourself and I’m choosing to take my brief moment of titillation.

I board the second leg from Hong Kong to Melbourne and see a middle-aged Chinese woman in the seat next to me.  This flight will have a very different vibe to the last one.  I smile at her and open my book.  When we take off I’ll put my headphones on; Mr Popper’s Penguins awaits.