It is 7.39am. I am sitting in San Francisco Airport waiting for a shuttle to Atlanta. I have just tipped my breakfast fruit salad over my lap, I have left my nightdress in the last hotel room, and the barista has just drawn an image that looks unnervingly like ladyparts in my Latte Mocha.
It’s that part of the tour.
I’m on Day 13. I have completed 8 flights and have four to go. All pretence of being an efficient traveller is now out of the window. My ‘unpacking’ at each stop consists of pulling each item out of my now tangled case and examining at a window for stains and creases (also, occasionally, sniffing) to see whether it could pass muster in front of an audience.
Whereas at the beginning of the tour I stride out purposefully at every city to see the sights, soak up what atmosphere I can, take pictures and blog, now I fall asleep, open mouthed and fully clothed on whatever hotel bed I land in, just about remembering to set an alarm so that I can wake up in time to stick with my schedule. Occasionally I fall asleep on my media escort.
My stories are becoming garbled. My small talk is non-existent.
Thank goodness for the audiences. Because no matter how tired you are, when you stand in front of a room full of smiling people, the adrenaline kicks in and you are suddenly more awake than you have ever been (so awake, in fact, that you will then stay awake until the small hours, your brain humming like a handheld fan). Readers have been so uniformly excellent on this tour that I suspect I have invited half of the West Coast to come and stay at my house at some point. It may be a busy Autumn.
So, I think. Home stretch. One day of flying, one more day of talking. Easy, right?
ONE FLIGHT LATER.
So having flown the four and a bit hours to Atlanta, I finally boarded the last flight of the day – to Nashville. I was tired, hungry, but looking forward to Nashville (country music! schlocky TV shows!), and grateful that this flight was a short one.
I found my seat – the middle of a row of three (groan). And to my left a heavily tattooed man sat with legs akimbo across my seat. A woman sat down in the 3rd seat and looked like she was praying. Great, I thought inwardly. It’s going to be one of those flights.
Well, it was. But not in the way I’d expected. The plane taxied, readied itself for take-off, and just as it started up the runway I was diverted by the sound of shouting. I looked behind me and a few rows back two women were having a fierce argument, almost coming to blows, while three stewardesses hurried to try and break it up. As it escalated, the stewardess ran to the captain to ask whether to abort the take off. But he must have decided that it was too late, because within seconds we were in the air.
I am a much less nervous flyer than I used to be. I had managed to tune out the fact that even as I was in the air earlier that day a Malaysian passenger jet had been shot out of the sky. But there is nothing like the sound of a fight going on behind you to ratchet up the tension on a rapidly ascending plane. Heads swivelled anxiously. People stood up. Beside me, a woman who was trying to get to see her grandchild in hospital before his heart failed again, told me repeatedly the women were making her really anxious. There was a moment where I felt the familiar panic rising in me, and thought I cannot do this.
And this is where Mr Tattoo (actually a software executive called Steve) stepped in, charming, distracting, reassuring. We joked about the situation we were in. We flicked through the Skymall catalogue, pointing at waterproof jackets for dogs. We showed each other pictures of our children (hurray for iphones) and before we knew it, the plane was preparing to land. (The instigator of the fight had by now been moved – to a seat right behind us – and was STILL arguing “I don’t need to be spoken to like that by no stewardess!” Steve: “I think she might have a new friend, in police form, waiting for her at the gate.”)
So I arrived in Nashville a little frazzled, but having been reminded never to judge someone by first appearances, and grateful for one of those random encounters that actually makes the world a slightly better place.
Thank you, Steve. Also: your daughter is really cute.