I knew I wasn’t over it when a tear cascaded out of my right eye in the depth of the night as we flew over the Algerian mountains towards home. Resisting what felt like a pathetic and unwarranted silent cry on an airplane would have been much easier than letting the tears of shame and confusion flow.
A little boy in a cheesy American film I found in the in-flight entertainment package of a South African Airways flight had said something that made me cry: “When given the choice to be right or to be kind, always choose to be kind.”
Being kind had been so much harder, knowing the price I had paid.
A week before, I was on another SAA flight going to Frankfurt from Johannesburg. It was an evening flight full of Germans and South Africans. I sat next to a man who had been separated from his brother, whom he resembled in quite a remarkable way. The brother sat in the row in front of us and I could tell they wanted to sit together. I offered to move so that they could sit next to each other. Unfortunately, the small television screen on my new seat was not working. I was not too bothered though; it would give me a chance to read.
I don’t sleep well on planes. I find the experience of trying to sleep sitting upright humiliating, although I am not above it, obviously. Before I knew it, I fell asleep to the sound of three Germans having a conversation. A few hours later, I woke up. It was just past 2am and the entire plane was dark, people sleeping as if they were in their beds.
I couldn’t go back to sleep and, with not much to do, I switched on the overhead light and began to write in my journal. A few minutes into my writing, the person behind me tapped me on the shoulder. “Excuse me, the lady behind me has a baby and asks that you switch your light off because it is waking her baby up.”
A few seconds passed as I thought about how to respond to this request. “Unfortunately, I can no longer sleep. If my TV was working I would watch that but it is not, I’m sorry,” I said.
The mother’s response was immediate and shouted from her seat. “My baby is up because of your light. I can’t believe how selfish you are being. Can you imagine having a 20-month-old child alone who can’t sleep?”.
A German man in the seat opposite to mine woke up and irritatingly asked the woman to speak softer. Her response was to get up with her baby, who did not cry for longer than a minute, and come and stand next to me. “Fine, I’m just gonna stand here and put her to sleep next to you so you can know what it’s like when your baby can’t sleep”. I looked at her and said: “Okay, enjoy yourself.”
She was enraged that I did not bite her bait. She stormed back to her seat and proceeded to abuse me, loudly repeating: “You’re so fucking selfish!” in the manner of somebody who was uncontrollably desperate. Nobody intervened.
I was too shocked to say anything back. My head was ready to shower her with my own expletives. I was hot with rage and equally burning with an irritating empathy for her child. As soon as she kept quiet, I started to shake. It would be strange if I got up and did the same thing to her. I wouldn’t be myself. I would be like her. I stayed with my light on trying to decide what I was going to do.
I rang the bell and called the stewardess. “What is your policy on passengers abusing other passengers?”, I asked her. She asked what had happened and I told her. She assured me that I had every right to switch my light on, that is why it is there and that she would handle it. The night turned into day and we greeted it among the clouds. The lights on the plane came on and they started to serve breakfast.
I decided to write the mother a letter. I titled it “Dear stressed-out mother of the world’s first baby to cry on a plane”. It was the most sarcastic line in a letter that a friend would later say was me letting her get away with it. Among other things, I told her that, had she asked in an unentitled way, I might have considered her request and instead of admonishing her in her language, I simply told her that her words had really hurt and humiliated me.
I waited a while before giving it to her. My heart was beating hard as I stood up, took a deep breath and walked over to her chair. She wore a red top and had natural blonde hair in a ponytail. Her baby was asleep in the chair next to her. I stood over her for about five seconds and, even though she saw me, she looked straight ahead at her television, which was off. I placed the note in her lap and walked away.
Breakfast came and went and we began to descend. As the stewards were readying the flight for landing, the one I had spoken to came to me and squatted next to my chair. “I spoke to the lady at 60C and told her that her behaviour is unacceptable.” This next part she said loudly enough for everyone to hear. “She apologises profusely for her behaviour and if she was not holding her baby, she would come and say this to you. She says she is deeply sorry.”
I felt like the stewardess was doing her job, handling two upset customers rather than relaying a real message. She lumped this apology together with an apology from her side for the broken television. I told her not to worry about the televisions and in isiZulu I told her that I didn’t care for the woman’s apology. “She was able to carry her baby over here to shout at me but she can’t do the same to apologise.”
We disembarked and the first place I headed to as we entered Frankfurt airport was the restroom. We were many women in there, some in a queue to the toilet, some brushing their teeth and washing their faces in the sink. As I walked out of the toilets, the winds of resentment presented my angry compatriot so that she could not enter the restroom without passing me. I stood in front of her and she refused to look at me as she marched into the restroom, her baby playfully mimicking her determined gait.