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  • Writer's pictureLizzy Shannon

Adventures in First Class

The flight over was so much better than my last experience. Knowing it would take a considerable bribe to bring me back to look after him while he recovered from his second knee surgery, Dad offered to pay for a first class flight. Well, I know I said I’d never come back, but every woman has her price, and I guess I’m cheap. It cost him something like $3,500 and I enjoyed every moment.

It felt so smug and satisfying when they invited the first class passengers to board, and I rose importantly from the ‘commoners’ and walk into a world where one is cherished like… well… like my Dad cherishes his precious two Labradors. I even dressed for the occasion, wearing a sleek crumple-resistant pantsuit and carrying an ostentatiously huge and unsubtle Chanel cabochon bag. Looking at the self-important faces around me as they stowed their carry on luggage, I couldn’t help but think of that movie, View From The Top, where in training, the ‘disgruntled’ passenger banged his fists on the arms of his chair, yelling, “I want my warm nuts! I want my blanket!”

None of the passengers talk to each other unless they’re traveling together. A stern-faced blonde businesswoman occupied the seat beside me. I tried to catch her eye and said, “Good morning.”

“Excuse me?” she demanded, eyes as hard as blue ice chips.

“Good morning,” I repeated with a smile.

“Oh.” She pulled herself out of her confusion. “Must need more caffeine. Yes, hello.”  And that was that.

Warm nuts, a delicious silver-service dinner and a movie later, we approached Newark, New Jersey airport. As before I was struck at the peculiar beauty of the spread of islands below with the Statue of Liberty standing sentinel. It all looked so small from up there, even Manhattan with its blocks straining to the sky. I thought of all the crime, the hate, the homeless and hopeless in those streets and felt spoiled and privileged.

Once off the plane I was delighted to find they’d changed the system from last time. I did not have to walk miles from one terminal to the next. Not only was the gate I needed nearby, but so was the First Class Lounge. To get there I passed the public food hall and waiting areas, taking in the continuous babble of voices and overhead announcements, punctuated by the piercing shrieks of young children. The Lounge was balm after that. Trouble is, Dad has now spoiled me. How can one ever go back to that after the calm of first class travel?

I spent my time in the lounge reading, napping, and watching part of a movie on my portable DVD. With earphones in, of course! Just before they called my flight, I gathered myself together and went down to the gate. I sat beside a dark-haired woman close to my own age. Just as Continental were getting ready to board, the woman suddenly got to her feet and ran as fast as she could away from the gate and out of sight. Had she run to the bathroom? The sign pointed the opposite way. I looked down at the briefcase and carrier bag she’d left and my blood literally ran cold. With a shock I remembered growing up in Belfast and how it was drummed into us one must never approach unattended purses or bags in case they were bombs. If this were the seventies, we’d be evacuated and that left luggage would be blown up by the army in a controlled explosion with sand bags. I looked down the atrium where the woman had run, then met the eyes of the older woman on the other side of the empty chair.

“I do hope she comes back,” I said, trying to be jovial. She didn’t seem concerned.

Five minutes passed. Ten. I couldn’t just sit there and let us all be blown up. I got up and went to the desk. “I’m sorry to be a worry-wart,” I told the Asian man at the desk and proceeded to tell him what had happened.

“Just give her a minute,” he smiled reassuringly.

I sat back down and stared at the left luggage. They were about to call boarding. If that truly were a bomb it would be primed to go off any second. Everyone in the vicinity if not the whole building will die. Then I literally shook myself and was reassured about the TSA and all the safety measures for explosives they have. Of course there was nothing dangerous in that luggage.

To my utter relief the woman reappeared clutching a very large cardboard cup of coffee. “I’m so glad to see you!” I smiled as she approached.

“Oh Jesus!” she exclaimed in a very broad Northern Irish accent, and clapped a hand over her mouth. “I never thought – I’m sorry.” Hearing my accent she immediately knew what I’d feared and obviously remembered those tense years back in Northern Ireland.

We fell into one of those conversations peculiar to the Irish. Within minutes we both knew where each had grown up, what school we went to, how many family members we had, and what we did for a living. She said she was a drug sales representative, but didn’t seem to know what the American equivalent for Co-Codomol, (the painkillers Dad would be prescribed after his surgery). We exchanged e-mails and chatted pleasantly for a while about the changes back ‘home’.

I was actually embarrassed when they called for the first class passengers to board! I had to say, “That’s me,” and get up to present my boarding pass. I could almost feel her astonishment wafting after me as I walked away.

International first class is a time capsule aimed to soothe the senses. The cabin staff introduced themselves personally and whisked our coats off to be hung up. I sank into my massive seat and tried to push my purse under the seat in front. There was so much legroom I actually had to get up to do it! It turned out there were just four of us in first class that flight. The purser sounded apologetic when she told me I’d be sitting alone. “Oh good!” I grinned and asked if I could shift over to the window seat. No problem. Nothing is a problem in first class.

As we took off I saw Lady Liberty’s torch alight – so beautiful.  In the seats behind sat two men with Northern Irish accents. I gathered from their loud conversation that their company had paid for their business trip to the States for a few days. They teased Denise, the flight steward, like the men in Ireland do. It’s harmless and those of us born there know it’s supposed to be a compliment. But I could see from the American Denise’s expression that she was offended and obviously dreaded the flight ahead. When I saw her flaming cheeks as she went to fetch them a drink I leaned round and smilingly introduced myself. Then I said, “I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but that girl doesn’t understand that you’re having fun with her. She’s American and thinks you’re actually being sexually suggestive.”

They were mortified to think that and changed their approach to polite friendliness. I looked up to see that Denise had heard every word. She gave me a huge smile and for the rest of the flight nothing was too much trouble for her. I was plied with good champagne and my glass was never allowed to be empty. She insisted that I try all the courses on the menu and was disappointed when I refused any dessert. As it was I felt I was going to explode like the Monty Python man in the restaurant. So she handed me a box of chocolates and told me to take them for later.

When the flight took off and we soared upward there was a resounding crashing noise, making me freeze in terror. A box of ice had escaped and thundered its way down the aisle all the way to the back of the plane. What a racket it made, but that was the only mishap, thank God. When Denise brought me my warm nuts I asked her if she’d seen View From The Top, and she couldn’t remember until I acted out the disgruntled passenger. Laughing, she said she had it and it was her favorite movie. I guess I’m not your typical snotty first class passenger.

I did get some sleep. It wasn’t hard when you can stretch out full length and even turn on your side. To my irritation the by-now drunk Northern Irish men were talking and interrupting my sleep. Grumpily I opened the first class ‘care package’ and took out the earplugs. As my seat was fully reclined they could see what I was doing. I removed the plugs, twisted them in my ears and dismissively tossed the empty earplug container over my shoulder at them and lay back down! I know I was rude but really! They were quiet after that. I think I scared them.

I opened my eyes to see the sunrise just coming up like a narrow tangerine ribbon on the horizon. A sparkling diamond in the sky caught my attention. I recognized Venus. Never have I seen it from that height and it was so glorious and beautiful. As we flew over the coast of Ireland, the whole southeast coast looked like it was engulfed in fiery lava as the sun continued to rise.  A remarkable sight.


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