The worst thing in my life happened recently: a beautiful woman sat beside me in Business Class.
Perhaps I should explain.
All my life I’ve been complaining about the way people dress on international flights. Back when air travel first began, it was glamorous: there are photographs of Elizabeth Taylor disembarking in London or New York wearing an enormous hat, wrapped in furs, looking fresh and rested, as though she’s walking down the red carpet. That’s what I thought it would be like to fly overseas: like a swanky cocktail party in the sky, where men and women in suits and gowns sip champagne and make elegant small talk.
That is not what it’s like to fly overseas.
Flying overseas in economy class means squeezing yourself into a space too small for someone half your size, pressed like a ham against an inelegant stranger who splutters and snores and breathes on you for eleven and a half hours. In a country with human rights and a constitution, the only way you can legally torture someone is if you first sell them an economy class ticket.
Only someone who hates their nice clothes would wear them in economy class. By the time you reach your destination they’re so wrinkled, mangled, and saturated with sweat and body odour – not all of it yours – it will depress you to ever see them again. The only thing to do is set fire to them.
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Economy class holds up a depressing mirror. I’ve never in my life been seated beside an attractive stranger in economy class. Look around the cabin – there aren’t any. Economy class is where the uggos and the sad cases are, which means I must be one too.
So there you sit in your horrid tracksuit pants and t-shirt, twisted like a piece of cooked spaghetti beside someone almost as gross as you are, wondering what they’re doing up there in business class where all the pretty people are.
Recently, on a couple of British Airways flights from Los Angeles to Cape Town, I had a chance to find out. When I knew I’d be flying Club World I started thinking about what I’d wear. I know not everyone in business class flies in smart-casual clothing, but if anyone was going to bring down the tone, it wouldn’t be me. I’d be be airy and cool and suave, like James Bond after a long weekend. I tried on a light cotton suit and a crisp white shirt. I liked what I saw.
It was a late flight out of LA and it had been a long day so I fell asleep the moment I boarded the flight, with deeply mixed emotions. As I stretched out on the flatbed one part of me was thinking, “I’m lying down! On an aeroplane! I’m sleeping!” And another part was thinking: “No! I’m wasting quality time in business class! Every minute I sleep is another glass of French champagne I’m not drinking!”
I slept so well I could have been molested by Donald Trump and I wouldn’t woken. I went into the Galleries Club in Terminal 3 in Heathrow, my suit still fresh and immaculate, determined to make the most of the next flight home.
I sidled around, sipping a smooth Chilean red, nodding at the others with that look I imagine rich people share when they bump into each other in country clubs: “Hi, good to see you, isn’t it good to be us?”
It is good to be them. I went for a complimentary massage in the spa then breezed over to the buffet and dished up a plate of spaghetti and Sicilian meatballs. Then I sank into a soft leather armchair that was somewhat deeper and more comfortable than I anticipated and the meatballs rolled off my plate and all down the front of my light cotton suit and crisp white shirt.
The others in the lounge were discreet and well-bred and averted their eyes politely, except the Australian couple who hooted with laughter. That’s the one thing I don’t like about the British Airways Galleries Club: they allow in Australians.
I went for a shower but you can’t shower a suit. In my carry-on luggage I only had the sweaty t-shirt and shorts I’d been wearing in the desert the day before. I couldn’t wear that, could I? But could I fly all the way home in a suit covered in pomodoro sauce ?
And so it was that I found myself sitting in Business Class in dusty shorts and grimy t-shirt, wearing a pair of shoes not designed to be worn with shorts. I looked like a Blue Bulls supporter, a small microclimate of squalor, a wretched piece of economy class somehow washed up on the wrong side of the curtain, ruining it for everyone.
Then she walked up the aisle.
She looked like the sister of that gal who married Prince William. Her hair was swept up and casually pinned; her complexion was like peaches and cream in the shade on a Sunday afternoon at Wimbledon. Her coat was the colour of an oyster shell, her silk shirt the colour of a pearl. She smelt more expensive than money. You could travel in economy class all your life and never see a human being like that.
She floated up the aisle, checking her ticket, checking the seat numbers. Then she stopped. The seats in Club World are quite far apart, but they are still next to one another. She looked at me, and slow dismay crossed her face. I knew what she was thinking: What kind of creature is this? Did I pay all this extra money to sit next to someone like that? Will I be safe?
She looked at the flight attendant, who gave her a look that said, I know. I’m sorry.
So she sat gingerly, giving me one of those pitying smiles that royals give farmers at agricultural shows when they have to pretend to admire their pumpkins. And then subtly, discreetly, with an air of implacable finality, she pressed the button on her armrest and the dividing screen silently rose between us.
Next time, I will pack two light cotton suits.
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