The thing about travelling alone on a plane, is that whilst we can chose our own seat, we cannot chose who takes the seat next to us. Last week I ventured on three planes between Copenhagen, Oslo and Helsinki. I carefully selected aisle seats in each case, and as near as possible to the front of the plane to protect my rather fragile flight claustrophobia. However, other aspects of my emotional sanity were less controllable. In the lottery of seat allocation, I unfortunately drew Mr Snore, Mr Sniff and Mr Swell. Three very annoying blokes on a plane.
I’m not sure under what other circumstances I would have to tolerate a man snoring next to me. Maybe if I woke up in some bizarre Morecambe and Wise sleeping arrangement. I haven’t slept within hearing distance of another grown man since I went camping with my dad. And I didn’t really sleep then. His snores could raise the tent pegs. Perhaps it was the memory of that childhood trauma which made this rasping animal-like noise so intolerable. It wasn’t particularly loud. But it could penetrate all other sounds. There is something special in the acoustics which enables the ear to pick it out through a crowd like the screeching scraping of a knife on a plate. My irritation grew exponentially with every nasal snort.
I could hardly dig him in the ribs like an exasperated wife. Nor could I wait for him to roll over – he was sat bolt upright in his window seat with his belt securely fastened, as requested. Surely he would be woken by his own horrible soundtrack? If not, would not some semi-conscious sense of embarrassment cause him to cease? But no, he continued blissfully unaware of the psychological damage he was causing. He snored in peace whilst I grimaced and sighed and took several deep breaths of my own.
What annoyed me most was that I was tired and his very sleeping was keeping me awake. How infuriatingly inconsiderate, selfish and rude of him. I had got up to let him into the seat next to me. So he should have had the good grace to let me to fall asleep first.
I hoped against hope that the drone of the plane would submerge the cacophony of the snoring. But no. It is a unique noise which can penetrate brick walls and seek out and destroy your sanity with less ruth than the most ruthless assassin. Only crying babies have perfected anything nearly as effective, and at least that has something approaching a justifiable motive. Snoring has no motive, no purpose and no respite. Only when we had actually landed did he nonchalantly open his eyes, unaware of the mental anguish he had caused. He smiled unwittingly at me. “excuse me” he asked politely as he grabbed his case from the overhead lockers.
Mr Snore’s only saving grace was that he had not tortured me deliberately and he had been marginally less annoying as my travel companion on the outward trip. Mr Sniffy the sniffer sniffed at insufferable 35 second intervals all the sniffing way from Olso to Helsinki. He showed no desire to blow his nose, or even to perform one of those enormous deep-cleaning hoover-up snorting super-sniffs, which at least keep your airways clear for a few minutes. I’d have been perfectly happy if he had wiped his nose on his sleeve. By the end of the flight (105 mins = 167 sniffs) I would gladly have offered him my own sleeve and favourite jumper for any amount of respite. I would even have welcomed the reversed action blow through affected nostril, as perfected by premiership footballers (although the woman with the big hair in the seat in front might have been less pleased, if she had ever found out).
Like the snoring, the worst thing about the sniffing is the anticipation. You cannot enjoy the silence in between, because every fibre in your body is anticipating the very breaking of it. You count the tortuous seconds of respite like a woman in labour waiting for the next contraction. Both the sniff and the snore are equally infuriating and penetrating. But at least Mr Snorer was unconscious. Mr Sniff was conscious and either oblivious to the impact of his actions, or ignorant to the mental devastation he was causing. Or maybe he was doing it on purpose. My occasional sideward glances in his direction seemed to make no impression. Wiping my own nose unnecessarily on the in-flight serviette caused not a ripple of realization. Sniff pause sniff sniff pause.
Mr Swell, my neighbor on the final leg of my Nordic tour, was a different case. He was a very big guy. He could hardly help that – although a few less in-flight muffins might have helped him swell a little less. Now, airplane seats come in a standard size and do not always accommodate the larger posterior. I once sat behind a guy whose seat, unable to support his weight, resigned itself to sagging to the extent that it touched my knees. It was like he was sat on me. He was an American.
I could forgive Mr Swell’s swollen size. What irritated me was that he also seemed to think he had two large balloons between his thighs which meant he had to keep his legs ridiculously wide apart. In doing so, his left leg invaded the small amount of my space which I had paid quite a lot of money for. With his primeval display of masculinity, he was not only looking rather daft, he was violating my territory creating collateral damage to my wellbeing.
His arm too was taking over more than his fair share of the arm-rest. This two inches of precious plastic is like the demilitarized zone between two countries. There is a slightly awkward protocol of whose arm gets to rest there. Some fellow passengers show no desire to rest their arms at all. They are busy using them for book-holding, phone-tapping or coffee drinking. In other cases the aisle-seat occupant is content to lean on the aisle-seat arm and the window-seat occupant is content to lean against the window. Thus the middle arm rests are left vacant avoiding any potential awkwardness or conflict. One can, of course, happily share a communal arm rest by the precise positioning of the opposing arms, without any actual touching.
Mr Swell, however, spreading his considerable mass across in the middle seat of three had no such social anxieties or niceties. He simply flopped his fat arms over both arm rests and beyond and left them there.
There he was comfortably positioned with his limbs encroaching on both sides – consciously or unconsciously careless of the discomfort of his adjacent passengers. I had sat quietly seething through Mr Snore and Mr Sniff’s inconsideration. This further most blatant invasion of my personal space and sanity required a proportionate response.
I don’t make a habit of touching feet and calves with the guy in the next seat, but needs must. I inched my right leg to the right. Surely he would realise the extent of his anti-social behavior. If not, as he was clearly so obsessed with asserting his inflated sense of masculinity, he would be recoil in horror – affronted by the little guy to his left getting tactile with him.
I edged my calf against his – firmly and decisively. I tried to do so causally, unconsciously and accidentally. Nothing happened. It was if his size-twelve feet were glued to the floor. He obviously had no feeling, no senses, no awareness. Or maybe he just felt that he owned the place and could do as he liked. After all he was bigger than me.
And so I retreated, defeated. I crossed my legs and seethed. I told myself that it didn’t matter, that he didn’t mean to annoy me, that a few millimeters were inconsequential, that his arms were in more need of rest than my own. Besides, one more journey and I would be heading home.
But when the in-flight coffee was poured it was all I could do not to accidentally knock it off the edge of my seat-back tray all over his over-inflated self-importance.