I stood at the back of a small queue. I do not have a patient nature but I was relaxed. I am convinced that I was not in a nervous state.
The two people, who waited ahead of me, said nothing. They wore business clothes and were overweight. I imagined them as reliable employees, which is how I think of myself. Although I knew the time, I looked at my watch. I have a routine. I always wait until the journey is halfway complete. By then the aeroplane stewards have left the front of the aeroplane and are at the back beginning to clear the free coffee they have supplied to their passengers. Although I rarely discuss the subject, I realise that some passengers organise their visits according to whether there is a queue or not. I rely on the time. Some will visit merely when they think it is appropriate. Me, I prefer a routine.
A queue was unusual for such a short trip. I was flying to London for a business meeting. I could have taken the train but my business meeting was taking place in a plush hotel near Heathrow. The extra expense of the flight had been approved by Finance Section.
Ahead of me the small queue disappeared. Nobody else joined me at the front of the aeroplane. The standing area at the front of the aeroplane was still free of people when I exited and returned to my seat.
A man was sitting in my seat. He wore a business suit similar to mine. He read the Economist.
‘That’s my magazine,’ I said.
‘I beg your pardon,’ said the man in my seat.
‘You’re reading my magazine.’
‘I hardly think so.’
The man spoke with a polite Scottish accent as I also do which made sense because this was the Edinburgh to London flight. He was probably about the same age. I wondered if he worked in insurance like me. The man looked affluent and rewarded.
‘You’re sitting in my seat,’ I said.
‘I hardly think so.’
I looked up at the numbers by the luggage compartments.
‘Row 8, seat C,’ I said.
I always think it should be the other way around, Row H seat 3. This is a thought that I have never shared with anyone.
‘I know the number of the seat,’ said the man in my seat.
At the far end of the cabin aisle the two stewards put rubbish in a bag. The female steward stopped to talk to a passenger. I was unable to make her see me. The male steward stopped working and looked out of a window. At least I think he was looking. He did not notice me.
‘Where were you sitting before?’ I said.
‘Before what?’ said the man in my seat.
‘Before I went the loo.’ I said.
I did not want to say toilet to a stranger.
‘I was sitting here,’ said the man in my seat.
‘What, from the beginning?’ I said.
‘The whole time.’
He pointed at the passengers across the aisle. I could have looked but I did not because I was unwilling to involve others. The situation between him and me was embarrassing, and I felt that it had to be contained. My coyness is more than easily induced discomfort. I feel a responsibility to maintain polite order.
‘I think you should leave,’ said the man in my seat. ‘Find yourself somewhere else like a good chap.’
The cheek, I thought.
‘You must have a ticket with the seat number,’ he said.
‘I certainly do have,’ I said.
‘Well, then, find the seat where you are supposed to be sitting and sit there.’
‘You are reading my magazine, and my briefcase is in the luggage compartment.’
‘You can leave the briefcase there. I don’t mind. Anything to make progress.’
The cheek, I thought.
The stewards at the back of the aeroplane had made some progress down the aisle but to attract their attention I would have either had to shout or done something silly like wave my arms.
‘I take it you have a ticket,’ said the man in my seat.
‘Certainly I have a ticket, and it has the number Row 8 seat C,’ I said. ‘I also have a magazine which you happen to be reading.’
‘Perhaps you would do me the favour of showing me your ticket,’ he said.
I said nothing. I thought the man was impudent.
‘Most of us keep our tickets in our wallets,’ said the man in my seat.
The two of us waited for the other to do something. This was a very awkward moment, much more uncomfortable than standing in a queue with a stranger. Neither of us wanted to make the first move.
‘I think you should show me your ticket,’ I said.
‘I am the one in the seat,’ he said.
‘No, you’re the one in my seat.’
The man in my seat said nothing.
‘You’re also reading my magazine,’ I said.
‘You’re being ridiculous,’ he said. ‘If there has been a misunderstanding, the easiest is for you to go sit somewhere else and not make a scene.’
‘I am not making a scene. The plane is also full. Every seat is occupied.’
The man stayed in my seat but he stretched his neck so he could see the other passengers.
‘So it is,’ he said.
The phrase, I am not making a scene, made me wary of what might happen next. So far the man had spoken in measured tones. We shared the same polite Scottish accents and, no doubt, backgrounds.
‘I will take out my ticket if you do the same,’ I said.
‘This is childish,’ he said.
‘Of course not.’
The man in my seat folded the Economist, sorry, my Economist. He had a superior grin.
I took my wallet out of my jacket pocket and showed him my ticket. We each kept hold of our tickets but we rested them on the tray on the back of the seat in front. We stared at the two tickets together.
‘I don’t believe it,’ I said.
Like me, the man in my seat was genuinely shocked at what he had seen.
‘We shouldn’t have the same numbers,’ I said.
‘Just look,’ said the man in my seat.
‘Row 8 seat C,’ I said.
‘No, look at the names.’
My ticket had the name Donald Ross, which, of course, is my name. His ticket, though, also bore the name Donald Ross. I looked up the aisle. The stewards clearing half emptied coffee cups would have to be told.
‘They’ve made an obvious mistake,’ I said. ‘They have issued my ticket twice and given you the duplicate.’
‘You don’t understand,’ said the man sitting in my seat. ‘My name is also Donald Ross.’
I suspected that this other Donald and me were objects of curiosity. I stood back from the seat to look at the other passengers and to possibly placate them. What I saw shocked me. They were not the same people that I had passed on the way to the toilet. These passengers all looked the same. Every seat was occupied by a man that looked like this other Donald Ross. The sight of so many identical faces made me feel a terror, which I could not explain. I wanted the plane to land quickly.
The Donald Ross sitting in my seat looked at the other passengers with the same astonishment that I had. In fact, now we no longer were opposed or in conflict, I was surprised how we resembled each other, which meant that we, too, looked like everybody else on the plane.
This is terrible, I thought. Fortunately, the female steward who was aware that there was something amiss walked towards me.
‘What is happening?’ I said.
‘We all look the same,’ said the Donald Ross in my seat.
‘Is that all?’ said the female steward. ‘There’s no need to panic, sir. You all look and sound the same to us anyway.’
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I really enjoyed this story which stays with you and which I will remember next time I fly. I’ll make sure that I don’t leave my seat at any time during the flight!