Life People Travel

The girl in seat 4C

Paul Bateman
Written by Paul Bateman

A journey begins. A journey ends. A journey begins again…

Iflew from Manchester to Munich last week, a two-hour flight over England, the North Sea, the Netherlands and Germany. I booked myself a window seat; I always do.

I love the world from 30,000 feet: the strange and singular topography of an aerial perspective; the landscape unfurling below like a vast Picasso canvas.

I boarded my flight armed with a pile of English newspapers. The news they carried was awfully bleak: terrorism; racial discord; Brexit angst; a post-election shit-fight; and swathes of angry, bitter prose from columnists left and right.

England is a country in all sorts of pain. The whole nation seems bewildered, bruised and bereft. I’m yet to meet the person who sees a better future. To read about it is to feel depressed.

I was among the first to board the flight. I took my place in seat 4A, one of three seats in the row. A Chinese woman sat next to me.

Seat 4C – the aisle seat – remained unoccupied until the last passengers climbed aboard. One of them was a young girl with fair hair, who radiated warmth and energy. As she approached her seat, she smiled at me and nodded.

The gesture was so confident and direct that I assumed she had mistaken me for someone else.

She took her seat and smiled again. I smiled in return, but we never spoke. The woman between us fell asleep.

I turned back to the window as the plane rushed down the runway and hurled itself into the sky. We climbed above farms and fields, and crossed the sea to mainland Europe.

We were 15 minutes from our destination, when the girl in seat 4C leaned forward and caught my gaze. She was desperate to speak. So I said: “All good?”

She drew a sharp and sudden breath, then burst into a fabulous and frenetic tale. Her words took off like fireworks. Her accent was German, but I never caught her name.

She was returning to Bavaria after nine months of travel. When the wheels hit the tarmac, her voyage would be over. The thought of it overwhelmed her. She wanted someone – anyone – to register the moment with her.

Her travels had taken her to Indonesia, New Zealand, the USA and England. She was 19 years old. She had travelled alone.

Along the way, she had overcome every sort of fear and doubt. And now, with the finish line in sight, there were tears in her eyes.

She had arranged for a friend to collect her at Munich airport. Her parents were unaware that she was coming home. Her plan was to surprise them.

“And you?” she asked me. “What brings you to Germany?”

I told her that when I was 19, I met a German girl in Ireland – a fellow backpacker.

I told her that almost three decades later, that girl and I are still good friends – that from time to time, she visits my wife and me in Melbourne, or I visit her and her family at their home in Regensburg.

I told the young girl that I was travelling now to meet my friend once more.

I explained how we would walk along the Danube River or sit in the shade of a garden, swapping memories and telling tales, while sipping beer from tall, heavy glasses.

The young girl told me stories about the people she had met in the previous nine months. I told her she was lucky: that among those people, she might have met a friend for life.

I told her that so long as she has friends like that, the journey never ends: that it changes shape with time and age, but also grows deeper and more real.

The young girl leaned back in her seat. She fell silent and looked calm.

I felt a weight lift from my shoulders, as though the shadows cast by the English press had risen to the roof and dissolved in some new light.

Soon after that, the plane touched down and we went our separate ways: me to my friend and her family; the girl to her friend and the future.

About the author

Paul Bateman

Paul Bateman

I'm a writer from Melbourne, Australia. I write about life as I find it. In doing so, I hope to offer something real. I write, too, about wine at adrinkinthought.com.au

7 Comments

  • Now, that’s a story. Stories within stories. And imagine how many more there may have been had the two of you started talking earlier than 15 minutes before landing. But the little time left for conversation meant that you condensed so much so well. (As you’ve done in the story itself. Onamatapoiea?)

    Besides (literally), the presence of the sleeping Chinese woman in 4B may have inhibited extensive conversation.

    • Vin, Thanks so much! The story and the flight meant a lot to me: whenever I meet earnest young people, heading out into the world, I think ‘there’s hope for us yet.’ I hope you’re travelling okay – and thanks so much for your feedback! Cheers mate. Paul.

  • Thank you Paul, once again you have provided something lovely, heartwarming and helpful for a returned traveller. I have had an odd week. In the past 10 days I have reunited with 2 sets of different women that I travelled with 25 years ago in Italy and Turkey. It is the first time we have met up since. We had profound friendships with each other at the time as we traversed internal and external terrain completely foreign to us. We drew deeply on each other at that time but lost touch as I never arrived back ‘home’ to Australia. Over the past few years we have found each other through social media and finally this week it happened that both appointments occured face to face. It was like no time had passed at all, we slotted back in where we had left off, caught up on the present, and then began anew. For all of us those times together were still precious and seminal in our development and what came next. It was no accident that we developed relationships back then. Our essential parts and our souls still resonate. Even after marriages, children, careers – the development from young explorers to fully blown adults. I was struck with your words above as it has truly proved the case for me. That because I have these friendships, the journey never ends, and for us travellers that is a precious gift.

    • Bronte, I’m so glad the story meant so much to you – and I’m so glad your own recent experiences confirm for you the essence and the strength of friendships formed while travelling. Thanks so much for letting me know. And safe travels (at home and away)! x Paul

  • No doubt about it Paul – the 18 year old traveller in you remains alive & well & awash with wonderful experiences & memories! Every ready to don that proverbial back pack, the brand-new Akubra (soon lost/stolen/purloined!!). Then, with diary in hand & penned poised, recording the adventures of an erstwhile young man. Now instead, with laptop open & keys tapping out tales of new travels & travellers! No need when travelling these days to queue up & cram into (broken) phone boxes to reach out to home from far flung places! How could I forget that truncated long distance phone call from Glasgow – abruptly ended by the appearance of the local ‘Bovver Boys’ who wanted to use the box, so threw you out while we listened in! We were all so near and yet so far…so frightening, so frustrating! (Bastards! That was my boy! He was homesick & talking to his mother!) Yes Paul, for you ‘the journey never ends: it changes shape with time and age, but also grows deeper and more real.’ And now you have lovely Shirley to share it all with……the best travelling companion of them all! Love Mum xx

    • Great note! Many thanks! And all true: the journey continues, albeit in a new way. Thanks for sharing it, too. x Paul

  • I am belatedly reading this story Paul, but so glad I did. What a beautiful capture of a moment and with it, the incidental openness you show in your question “All good?” Thank you for the tenderness warmth and humanity brought to us in these spare and generous words.

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