It was six o’clock on a Monday morning and I had been up and out of bed for around eighty minutes, which when added to a week of nights that had been merely peppered with incidents of sleep meant that I was feeling a lot like a wet bath towel. I could hear the rain falling onto the already sodden tarmac outside, and even though the streets were almost entirely deserted, I was still forced to confront one of my worst fears – a pedestrian carrying an umbrella. I never really understood where my fear of umbrellas had come from. Usually it follows that these things are the result of some childhood trauma, the way that an entire generation of people developed a phobia of sharks after the 1975 movie Jaws, or how my own difficulty with talking to girls came after many red-faced rejections. But umbrellas were different from great white sharks and women. There was never an incident with a spoke to speak of. It didn’t seem reasonable that whenever I saw a person approaching me with a rain-splattered umbrella held over their head I would have this uneasiness in the pit of my stomach that one of the sharp metal spokes was going to spear me in the eye, having already broken through the lens of my glasses.
As the bus was leaving a dark and wet Oban, I was feeling tired and miserable, and I wasn’t really sure why I was sitting there. Two nights before, I had read from my notebook at The Rockfield Centre, and while the performance itself didn’t seem that bad, there were only around sixteen people there to hear it. The numbers would have made for a great dinner party, but not so much an open mic event. While it was a nice feeling that the small number had been swelled by the late arrival of some of my best friends who had made a spur of the moment decision to come along, the experience didn’t do much to alleviate my recent feelings of loneliness and of there not being anyone I could talk to who would understand me, which had resulted in my decision ten days previously to book a solo trip to Budapest.
In the Ryanair non-priority boarding line at Edinburgh Airport I found myself involved in a discussion with an older Scottish couple, involuntarily, as a conversation in a queue usually is. The older man looked like Santa Claus, bearded and with a jolly belly, and sounded like Robbie Coltrane. Our flight had been delayed by approximately thirty minutes, although there was no indication of this anywhere around the airport. John wasn’t upset about the wait to board the flight, although he reasoned in a passive aggressive manner that it would only be fair to those passengers who had the potential to become annoyed that some announcement should have been made as to why we were still waiting at the gate. “If you’re standing on the platform at Milngavie and the non-existent train you are waiting for isn’t going to turn up, they at least have the decency to tell you.”
John and his wife were on their way to Budapest to join a fourteen night river cruise. This would not be the couple’s first excursion on a cruise ship, and he regailed me with the story of a previous holiday where an Australian radio personality of modest fame was due on board to perform a DJ set for the holidaying guests. The tale went that because this presenter had encouraged so many elderly Australians to join the cruise, his cabin was rewarded to him for free. The first night of sailing departed without any live music, and the following morning the expansive breakfast lounge was buzzing with hushed speculation. According to John, no-one from the crew on board the ship was allowed to confirm it, but the Australian disc jockey had died of natural causes. As the tall, booming, Father Christmas-like figure reasoned, of five thousand passengers on any given cruise ship, it is likely due to the demographics of the guests that at least one of them would perish each week.
Upon hearing this story, moments before we were about to board our flight to Budapest, where John and his wife were going to join a cruise on the Danube, I found myself worrying that I could inadvertently have become the last person John would ever talk to. All he wanted was to pass the time whilst waiting to board his plane by talking to a stranger about which cities have the best hop on sightseeing bus tours, and the whole time I was hoping that he would turn to his left and tell it to his wife instead. And now he might be the one in five thousand who dies in a tiny cabin on the river.
To make matters worse, the gentleman’s parting words as we were opening up our passports and slowly advancing forward in the line were to say: “I hope you find yourself sitting next to the person you’re looking for.” As though he wasn’t Santa Claus at all, but rather he was a wise old wizard who could tell just from the shape of me that I was a single occupant seeking company. As it turned out, I was in the middle seat of the emergency exit row, in between a man who minutes after take-off had disembarked his feet from his brown loafers and ordered a hot chocolate and two Cadbury’s Dairy Milk bars, and a senior woman who was on a golfing holiday and had in her hand a copy of the Daily Mail. He wasn’t even going to get his final wish, though it was difficult to reason that I would have deserved to benefit from it anyway.
Three hours later our flight arrived at Ferenc Liszt International Airport. It was thirteen hours after I had left Oban, although with the addition of a Central European hour it was technically fourteen hours. I saw John and his wife in the line at passport control and was relieved that he had at least survived the flight. Although it wasn’t yet eight o’clock at night it was dark, which was earlier than it had been falling dark back home. Whilst waiting for the bus into the city a light rain was falling from the sky, caressing the lens of my glasses and dripping down my face. I huddled inside a shelter, away from the weather and the threat of any oncoming umbrellas.