Thirty-five minutes later I arrive back at Heathrow. I find a clock and am startled to discover that I am expected at security forthwith. I hurry to the queue and when it is my turn, I step forward. The security officer barks out that I ought to remove my laptop from the bag, place change or belts in the bin, and am I wearing high heels? I look down at myself, and then meet her eyes and laugh, “No, but wouldn’t it be funny if I were?” She has the decency to smile indulgently (no doubt she’s seen more tipplers than I wobble through the x-ray) and I head towards the gate.
I have replaced one soggy tube sock with the curiously tight British Airways flight sock when my seat row is called. I realize with a start that a single half-pint more and I might have missed my flight. I board, and am delighted to discover that I have somehow won the seat lottery. I have the window directly behind a bulkhead, which means more leg room than my tiny stature can possibly use. On the down side, the air conditioning is on and in my sopping outfit I am all shivery. I sit down and tear open the gossamer flight blanket. I can feel the pull of unconsciousness despite my frigid extremities so I put on the eyeshades and instantly slip into a frozen and fitful sleep.
Minutes later I am brought back to consciousness by the rustling of my seatmates. Using only my sense of hearing I can detect that in the aisle seat we have a little old lady who is mostly blind. She is going to South Africa to visit her son and has a jolly demeanor. In the centre seat is a man with a calm and helpful voice. Helpful Man helps Little Old Mostly Blind Lady get buckled in, and then shows her how to use the attendant call button. Moments pass; I drift. The drink cart swings by and our flight attendant asks Little Old Mostly Blind Lady and Helpful Man if they’d like a drink (she refuses; he’d like a gin and tonic). I hear pouring and then the attendant asks Helpful Man if his son would like anything. Beneath my eye shades my eyes open wide in amusement. Helpful Man enunciates clearly: “I have never met that woman in my life. “ And then, in the spirit of even more helpfulness, he states, “I am travelling alone.”
If I had a tagline it might be “Gender-jamming since 1970”. In fact, my ability to confound age- and gender-radar caused me a bit of stress leading up to this trip. The anxiety was sparked when, months ago, I rode my newly-purchased motorcycle to my friend Francis’ house. He came out on the stoop just as I was parking. Ten paces down the block a man was approaching. I dropped the kickstand and waved to Francis. The man, now five paces away, looked at me still in my helmet. He pointed. “Are you a man or a woman,” he demanded in a thick African accent. On the stoop Francis was falling over with laughter. I removed my helmet and stared at him. Again, and this time louder, the man said, “Are you a man or a woman!” I unzipped my leather jacket. The man kept walking past, turning back to stare, his eyes still seeking an answer to this essential question.
Francis, being the sensitive friend that he is, has insisted on breaking out a thickly accented “Are you a man or a woman!” every time my gender comes into question. In other words, pretty much every time we see each other. Before I left, he told me, “You’ll be getting a lot of that in Africa.” Apparently I will be getting a lot of that wherever in the world I go. Indeed, at Heathrow and in the pubs of Hammersmith, I am referred to as “mate”, “bloke”, and “sir”, and now here on the plane I am mistaken for Son of Helpful Man. Awake and freezing, I lift the eyeshades and ask the attendant for a cup of tea. Little Old Mostly Blind Lady follows suit. The attendant shrugs as if to say “What will they think of next?” and tells me it can be arranged. While he is away arranging the nearly-impossible spot of tea during the cocktail hour, I ask Helpful Man if I can borrow his flight blanket. He agrees, but I am bereft to discover that the warmth of gossamer squared is nil. The attendant returns with two cups of tea. Helpful Man assists Little Old Mostly Blind Lady when he sees that she is using the tube of sugar as a stir stick. She says, “It’s really quite chilly in here, isn’t it?” and the two of us cup our hands around the paper mugs like rubbies at a barrel fire.
When I wake up, there is an African sunrise out my window.