At 8:20 on Thursday morning I found my seat, the middle of the row near the back of the plane, sat down, and switched on my Kindle. I was reading The Examined Life, Stephen Grosz’s account of his experiences as a psychoanalyst, and I had reached the last section, ‘Leaving’, in which Grosz has taken on a new patient, a young man, who has just been diagnosed with HIV. The young man is beginning to spend all of his psychoanalysis sessions in deep, still, heavy silence, sometimes even falling asleep. I was at the part where Grosz is describing the different kinds of silences that patients sometimes bring to him – silences of refusal, or discomfort, of repression – when a tiny withered woman with a huge puffy black bag over her shoulder indicated she had the window seat beside me. I got up and helped her manoeuvre her bag into the overhead compartment, then she sat down and set about making herself comfortable; she took off her shoes, revealing papery brown feet, and arranged a blanket beneath her seat so that her feet had a resting place – her legs, in leopard-print leggings, were too short to reach the floor. She took out her own Kindle, which was in a proper zippered case, and I went back to Grosz and the young man in the therapy room. ‘Under ordinary circumstances,’ Grosz was saying, ‘I might ask a patient who has been silent for some time what they’re thinking or feeling, and once or twice I did this with Anthony. But I soon realised that my speaking was an intrusion, a disturbance.’ I stopped reading then because I couldn’t focus. I was getting a sense of slight but building pressure between the window-seat woman and myself – a sense that she was about to say something; that she wasn’t really going to read; she was just fiddling with the device while she decided where she would start with me. Sure enough:
‘If you see me popping pills or dragging on an inhaler, don’t you worry.’ She had a bright Queensland accent, with an unexpected burr, almost Scottish-sounding. ‘Bronchiectasis. Much worse than asthma. Had it for years and years, so I’ve got all these scars on my lungs. Big knotty scars. Bronchiectasis. Last time I left New Zealand I took this sickness with me, now I’m going to give the bloody thing back!’ She motioned at her tiny chest. ‘I’ve had about a hundred pneumonias and a fair few operations. It was all the mould in New Zealand. That’s why I moved away to Australia. But I’m tough. Don’t worry if you see me puffing away.’
She looked at me sideways. She had blue eyes in a small tanned face, and one of those open-mouthed smiles that made it look as though she was silently saying ‘Aaah!’ She pulled a plastic lunch container out of the front seat pocket, cracked open the lid and took out an egg sandwich, which she ate while swinging her feet and looking out the window. We were right above the wing. Outside on the tarmac an electric cart was shuttling about, a hi-vis figure at the wheel. ‘Sometimes when you’re between New Zealand and Australia,’ she said between mouthfuls, ‘if you look down you can see a rainbow circle in the sea. A glassy sort of rainbow, like a big bowl. I always get the window seat so I can see it, because it’s beautiful. But we won’t be able to see it with that darn wing there.’ I said it was a shame about the wing, and she said, ‘No, not a shame, it’s just the way it’s happened.’
She was quiet for a while, and in the meantime an elderly woman sat down in the aisle seat, to my left. She had white-blue hair and was dressed in shimmery black clothing, with bronzer on her cheekbones and scarlet lipstick. She had the look of a dulled but beautiful gemstone, which seemed obvious even as I thought it, but I couldn’t discard the impression. An opal, probably. (As I was thinking about what sort of gemstone she’d be I remembered how in Brisbane I’d thought aloud that the crows had eyes that looked like sequins. My friend James had said, ‘Maybe the eyes have evolved to look like sequins, because crows know that humans like the look of sequins.’) I helped the opal woman to adjust the direction of the tiny fan above us so that it was blowing directly into her hair, then we sat down. I was probably a frustrating barrier between the two women, making it less likely that they would talk to each other, when they might have more to say to each other – but then a middle-aged woman came down the aisle and handed the opal woman a packet of jellybeans. ‘You’ll need these for energy, Mum.’ Her mother tucked the jellybeans away and reclined her seat and put her sleeping mask on.
‘Last time I flew, I got terrible altitude sickness,’ window-seat woman whispered. ‘It was years ago. I remember lying on the floor under the seats thinking I might be dying. Suddenly the word “God” came to me. “God, God, God, God.” I felt like the word was beaming into me right down the centre, like a torch beam, filling me with the word “God”, and I thought, well, if this is dying, it’s all right.’ That must have been incredibly stressful, I said, and she jutted her chin upwards, squinting. ‘It’s how it happened, and it got me to where I needed to be.’ She looked out at the wing. ‘This is the first time I’ve flown in many, many years.’ The Scottish burr again. ‘I haven’t been able to, with my sickness. But if I make it this time, it’s a sign I’ll be able to make it to Switzerland, where my son lives. This is my test flight, you see.’ She gave the Aaaah smile again. ‘I’m meeting my sister in Wellington. First time I’ve seen her in five years. We were born in Invercargill. I had to leave because of the mould.’ Then she told me about the first time she’d been up in a plane, when she was sixteen. Her friend’s father was a pilot, and he had a small plane. They all went up together in the small plane and did acrobatics for half an hour. ‘Straight after the flight, my friend and I went off to a dance. All dressed up in our miniskirts. I was feeling so sick. My very first dance, I vomited all over my partner! He was very annoyed with me.’
We were still on the tarmac, and I was already feeling tired, because I’d had to react with surprise and delight at these stories. My energy for talking to strangers gets quickly depleted. Maybe sitting next to window-seat woman would be too much. But she was quiet now, and soon we were in the air, and Brisbane, with its pale sky and all its evenly tanned people in sunglasses and sleeveless tops, was dropping away. Window-seat woman nudged me and said, ‘Look.’ She had something in her hand. It was a white rock with corrugated, granular swirls in it, the swirls like the movements of a worm or a centipede. It looked like it could be a fossil, but I couldn’t tell of what. ‘I couldn’t resist picking this up on the beach early this morning. Nature! I don’t suppose they’ll let me through with it.’ I started to laugh. I said I didn’t think they would let her through with the rock. ‘Well, it’s here now,’ she said, and put it back in her bag with satisfaction.
I had been up since quarter to 5 because I’d had to walk to the train station, with James, who was flying back to Darwin. I closed my eyes and fell into a blank doze. When I opened them again I felt heavy and sad. I always feel a bit sad on flights between countries. I can’t help thinking about the past and the future and where I will end up. The geographical limbo seems to emphasise a limbo I feel in myself. I was staring into space, thinking about all this, when the woman said, ‘My brother’s a cross dresser,’ and I was jolted back into our little row. ‘Been doing it for ten years, and has never been happier,’ she said. ‘He’d always felt pulled in all directions as a young man – he just wasn’t ever himself. What grief. Imagine it. And when he was fifty, he met this wonderful woman who told him to just let go. Just let it out. And he started dressing like a woman, these lovely skirts, colourful shoes, and he and this woman who’d told him to do it, they ended up married. It was a real eye opener for our whole family. We all loved him but now we had to learn how to love him as a lady, too.’ I got the sense she’d told the story numerous times but that she liked to tell it because it confirmed something she’d long believed. ‘It’s an amazing way to have your whole world opened up, you know – to have your brother or son or father say, I’m Harris, but I’m also Paris.’ She prised another sandwich from her plastic container and began to eat. We were flying over the clouds now.
The opal woman took off her mask, shakily stood, and made her way towards the toilets, clasping one seat at a time in a kind of rowing motion. I stood up too, and the window-seat woman followed. Ordinarily I would’ve felt irritated, but I didn’t with this woman. She didn’t seem needy or searching with her stories, the way some fellow passengers are. She didn’t seem to expect anything from me. We queued together at the end of the aisle, while the people in the toilets took what seemed like a very long time. Window-seat woman looked at me incredulously. ‘Funny how some people take so long. Just like life, isn’t it?’ Then she looked fixedly at me and said:
‘About forty years ago my brother – not the crossdresser one, the other one – was flying over Saudi Arabia, and the plane got hijacked. It was in the days when it was easy to hijack a plane. The hijackers made the pilots land in a desert.’ The thought crossed my mind that window-seat woman must be lying, at least exaggerating. ‘They had to stay there for two days until they were rescued. My brother was fine in the end, and no one was killed. But he came back to us very much older.’ She gave a strange sad laugh. ‘And later on he ended up dying of AIDS. What a mystery.’ A toilet door finally opened and she went in while I stayed waiting in the aisle. I thought about the book I had been reading and the young man lying silently on the couch in the psychoanalyst’s office. It had taken Grosz a long time to understand that all Anthony needed was not to feel alone. He didn’t need to talk, but he wanted to fall asleep without fear, knowing that when he was gone, he stayed present and alive in the mind of another.
Back in our seats, it wasn’t long before window-seat woman spoke again, and for the next twenty minutes she told me that she’d once been a biker in the Hell’s Angels – had probably been one of New Zealand’s first female bikers – but had got in trouble with the police so had to give it up; that she’d been thrown out of numerous nightclubs as a youngster because her skirt was too short; that once she went to an auction at Lyall Bay and her young daughter had tripped over in front of her, and when she reached out to pick her up she made a particular motion that made the auctioneer think she was bidding, and she ended up buying a big oak table. She told me that it was in Lower Hutt when her real life began, because it was here that she realised she was a healer. A friend had arrived after a long flight and he had hurt his elbow lifting a heavy suitcase, so she put her hands on his elbow to comfort him. ‘I felt this strange, powerful tingling in my hands and arms, and I thought I must be getting pins and needles. After a few moments I had this strong feeling that my friend’s elbow was better now. I took my hands away, and he said, “Gosh, my elbow feels much better.” I said to myself, “I’m a healer, I’m a healer!”’ She said that many years later, she ended up with her own healing practice in Zurich. Her husband earned all the money, so she didn’t charge for her healing services.
It was possible that she was recklessly inventing. Who easier to tell an imagined life to than a stranger on a plane who you’ll likely never see again? The geography and timescale of her life was erratic – she had mentioned Invercargill, suburbs around Wellington, Paekakariki, all over Europe, all over Australia – and it was hard to figure out who she was without being able to connect her firmly to one particular place. The past seemed so vivid to her that it was also hard for me to grasp that some of the stories she was telling took place more than forty years ago. I made my mind up to not decide there and then whether she was telling the truth. I wanted to stay open for as long as I could. I was wide awake when she said, with resolve: ‘Now, I’m going to tell you about you.’ She had not expressed any particular interest in me until this point, beyond asking me how old I was and what I did for a living.
Opal woman was having a close, whispered conversation with her daughter, who had come down the aisle again holding a miniature hairbrush.
‘You love your cat,’ window-seat woman said, ‘you love your cat very much, and you love all animals,’ and then I realised that she must think she had psychic abilities, along with healing abilities. There was nothing to do but play along; I was trapped here. I told her she was right about the cat and the animals. ‘You’re very gentle,’ she went on. ‘At your core you are very gentle, though you can be spiky on the outside.’ How does one disagree? Isn’t that the basic human condition? ‘Where do you live… I’m seeing you living on the top of a hill. Steep hill. And you’re zipping about on the roads, very quick, very zippy. An explorer.’ She motioned with her hands. ‘You’re very like your mother but you think she talks too much. Your father is a bit hazy to me.’ She frowned for a while. ‘You have more of a connection with one of your brothers than the other one, perhaps.’ Then she shook her head. ‘I could go on and on, but it wouldn’t do either of us any good.’ She laughed and said: ‘I will just say, I don’t see any black marks ahead. Isn’t that great!’ She peered at me. ‘I also will just say, you need to clean your glasses.’
We spent some time in quiet. I tried to read my book again. Anthony had not died – in fact, after being told he might have two years left and that essentially he had no future, he had lived for a very long time. ‘I now think that Anthony’s silences expressed different things at different times,’ Grosz was saying. ‘Sorrow, a desire to be close to me but stay separate, and a wish to stop time.’ Anthony was still alive at the chapter’s close, and then I began a new chapter, about a woman named Alice P., who was trying to grieve for a baby she had lost but wasn’t able to.
We were ten minutes from landing when window-seat woman turned to me and said, ‘I wanted to save this till the very end. I see some big changes ahead for you. Your life is going to go like that.’ She made a zigzaggy motion with her hand. ‘Yes, you’ve spent so much time putting others first, and it’s your turn now.’ She looked at me with such kindness that I put aside, for a moment, the knowledge that this is what psychics routinely tell their charges, because this is what people want to hear. Everyone wants to feel chosen. Being told ‘it’s your turn now’ feels like being praised, or needed, or pursued. But then she said, drily: ‘I don’t suppose you’ve met the love of your life.’ I was flustered and felt a surge of annoyance. It was her knowingness, and her flippancy. I told her, ‘I’m not sure I believe in that expression “love of your life”. But I feel that maybe I have, actually, back home.’ She said, ‘Well, let’s see. You’re at the perfect age. Women come right at your age. Men never really come right.’ I got really annoyed then – maybe she would go on to ask someone else if they had found the love of their life, and that person would grow doubtful about all of their decisions and throw everything away – and turned on my Kindle and read that Grosz’s sister had been to speak to a clairvoyant when she had lost her home and all her possessions in a brush fire in California, in 2008. Grosz’s sister says that through the clairvoyant she spoke to her and Grosz’s mother, who has been dead for more than twenty years, and Grosz is surprised to find himself tearful. ‘What did Mom say?’
We were descending quickly into Wellington now and I could see the hills and buildings taking on their familiar edges. The pilot had announced that the local temperature was 12 degrees, with a strong southerly making it feel colder than that, and a shriek had gone up from all the Queenslanders on board. I finished my book, and found myself crying. Window-seat woman murmured, ‘Jerry must be missing you.’ Jerry is the name of my cat. She said, ‘Is that his name? Jerry? He’ll be glad to see you.’ I managed to say, ‘Yes, yes it is,’ even as I was shaking my head. At some point I must have said Jerry’s name to her, I must have, but as I combed carefully back through our conversation, I was sure I hadn’t.
After we landed and were waiting for the seatbelt sign to turn off, she said to me, ‘Do they still call Wellington the City of Angels? They always said that the angels help planes to get down safely to the ground.’ I said no, I was sure they had never called it that. Then I helped her to pull her bag from the overhead compartment and a few minutes later she was swallowed by the steadily moving line of passengers ahead of me.