Margaret lifts her wrist into the beam of the reading spot so she can check the time again. Only the big hand has moved much, still only six hours into the flight. The lights have been dimmed but she’s not sleepy. Tired, weary, fed-up, but not sleepy. The stewardess she was watching earlier walks slowly down the aisle towards her, offering cold water to the passengers on either side. Margaret knows they are flight attendants these days, but she can’t stop thinking of how she once yearned to be a stewardess for BOAC or Pan-Am. They seemed so smart and glamorous, full of confidence and international mystery. She knows now that it’s not really like that – just glorified waitressing and toilet cleaning – but these girls, these Singapore Airlines girls with their tiny waists and their figure hugging sarong kebayas still carry that elegant dream, the promise of a better, cleaner life, off somewhere else.
This flight attendant never smiles. She has a lovely symmetrical face with full lips and clear dark eyes, curtained by turned-under hair, almost the way Cilla used to wear it years ago, but black and silky. It is clearly lacquered in place, because it moves almost as one when she bends, Her lips turn very slightly up to show the passengers that she is not unfriendly or grumpy, but her eyes give nothing away, she wears no expression as she goes about her service. She is like a smooth, beautiful robot, working efficiently and decorously. Responsive in action, private in thought. But not quite. Margaret has watched this girl a lot, whenever she has been in view, and has seen only one hint of emotion, when she was clearing the lunch trays back onto the service trolley. The man that traps Margaret, the one she will have to ask to stand so she can get out to the toilet, had heaped the detritus of his meal high onto his little tray, careless of the rearranging that the attendant would have to do before sliding it into the narrow slot on the trolley. As she bent to pick it up he raised one hand to stop her while he blew his noise noisily and luxuriantly into his napkin before placing it, glistening, on top of the heap. Margaret saw the slight recoil and the wave of disgust that crossed her otherwise expressionless face before she took the tray and turned away.
It’s no good. Margaret knows she will have to go to the poky little toilet and empty her bladder if she is to have any chance of dozing off. The horrible man has his headphones on and is watching a film, so she has to wave at him and motion her request. He looks at her with hostility before making a performance out of pausing his movie, unplugging from the socket, unbuckling his seat belt, finding homes for his book, his glasses and various other possessions and eventually levering himself out into the aisle so Margaret can squeeze out too. She finds she is standing at the back of the toilet queue once she turns, because the toilets are on either side of the aisle behind this row. She waits.
Later Margaret stands by the big lever on the bulky exit door, not wanting to return to her seat yet. Standing up for a while feels good, even though she has to keep indicating that she is not in the queue for the toilets now. In the centre at the back of the plane is a curtained area where the crew organise the food trolleys, mix drinks and chat between tasks. She watches them come and go, hoping they are not going to ask her to sit down. She sees her beautiful pokerfaced attendant pull the curtain aside and start picking out ice for a tray of drinks. A male attendant walks up behind the girl and fondles her buttock, stroking his hand round it’s smooth curve. The girl turns round sharply, dropping her ice tongs and glaring at him, outraged. Margaret feels angry for her too. The male crew member is not repentant. He makes a kissy mouth and reaches his hand up to stroke her face. The girl tries to slap him away, but he grabs her hand and reaches towards her breasts with his left. This is too much for Margaret. Five quick strides and she seizes his arm and pulls him to face her. He has to look down to see who has grabbed him.
‘You should be ashamed of yourself!’ she says in a raised and angry voice, ‘This young lady should to be able to do her job without being molested by the likes of you!’
The steward looks a little embarrassed, but straightens to re-assert his authority, ‘I”m sorry Madam, but this area is for crew only. Please return to your seat.’
‘I will not! Not until you tell me your name and I have reported your behaviour to the Captain.’ Margaret is not sure whether it is the Captain she should tell, or even if she can get access to him, but she is not going to back down now. ‘Bring me someone in authority to speak to, or I will go and find them myself!’
The girl attendant, with just a flicker of fiery amusement in her eye, takes over, ‘My colleague will fetch the crew leader from Business Class for you to speak to while I clear up here.’ She indicates the ice and tongs on the floor. ‘Or shall I go, Mister Mandel?’
He hesitates for a second, then decides to quit the scene.
Ten minutes later Margaret is back in her seat. Her unpleasant neighbour has just gone to join the toilet queue, so she slipped in. She has seen the crew leader, making a formal complaint and giving her name and her son’s address in Australia, so they can get back to her within three days. She has promised to contact the newspapers if she does not hear from them. Margaret is surprised when the young female attendant slips into the seat beside her.
‘I want to thank you for what you have done, Misses Graham.’
‘No need, dear. I can’t bear to see men bullying pretty girls like that. I never could. Any girls. Has he done it before?’
‘Yes, but not so much.’ Her English is good, but with an accent, and Margaret has to watch her red lips to catch some of the words. ‘He has been warned twice for these things, so this may finish him, I think.’
‘Well, I’m glad, er.., what is your name, dear?’
‘Minita – they call me Min.’ She looks at Margaret and her face softens, becomes more tender, ‘it is one of the bad things about this job – there are so many bad things.’ She shakes her smooth, shiny head.
‘Really Min? I wanted to be one, you know, when I was younger. A flight attendant. You look so… well, glamorous, high-flying.’
‘I thought so too, and I loved it at first, Misses Graham. Travelling to different cities and countries, the admiring looks, the money and the fun with the crew, everything.’
‘Call me Margaret, dear. So what happened?’
‘I grew up, I think, and the excitement gradually dried up. I got tired of trying to keep up with the others, you know, and now I have a boyfriend I hardly ever see, and a car I can’t afford that I hardly ever drive. My legs ache, my feet are getting bad and I never know where I am when I wake up. I feel lost, Margaret. Lost and trapped at the same time. I hate it.’
‘Why don’t you stop then? Get a job in Singapore?’
‘I can’t afford to. My credit card payments won’t go away and I can’t get a job that pays enough without working up to a senior position. I can’t take the time to do that – I struggle to make the payments and survive now. They cut our allowances as well as our hours since the slowdown. Fewer planes with more passengers. I just have to keep on. On and on.’
‘Oh dear, Min. That sounds horrible. What did you spend all the money on?’
‘Fashion things. Top label bags from duty free, designer shoes, clothes. I was trying to impress, to keep up with the life, you know?’
‘I understand. Things you can’t sell to get the money back?’
‘I would get so little, it is not worth doing. I just have to keep working, keep flying.’
‘That seems so awful, Min. Condemned to a job you no longer enjoy. I wish I could help.’
‘You have helped, Margaret, you have. You have made this flight very good for me, and now I will do something for you.’
Margaret looks up and sees the unpleasant man, her neighbour, standing in the aisle, wanting his seat.
Min stands up, stepping briskly into the aisle, forcing him back towards the toilets, ‘I’m sorry sir, but this seat is unsafe. I have been testing it and the seat back will not stay up correctly. I’m afraid you will have to move, sir. I will find you a seat elsewhere, please gather you things.’
The man protests and grumbles, but Min insists and leads him away. Margaret smiles then spreads her possessions onto the vacant seat and finds her pillow and blanket. She thinks she might be able to doze off for a while, kill a few hours.