Years ago, when I was 23 and restless, I got on a plane and tried to go to England. Tom Daley was on the same one, leaving the World Diving Championships in Shanghai with his Oscar-winning boyfriend (now husband). That’s the only reason there’s any public record of what happened on the flight.
It wasn’t my first time travelling alone, but it was my first time going somewhere of my own choosing. I had a fake-leather sleeve from kikki.K containing my passport. I had my entire skincare routine (Cetaphil cleanser and moisturiser) in small plastic bottles. I had straightened and then curled my hair the night before, which you’d think is even more ridiculous if you knew what my hair looks like.
The first leg of the flight was below average. I’d flown Emirates to Abu Dhabi as a teenager and remembered a beautiful air hostess moving through the cabin when everyone was asleep and giving me an apple and a full-size Snickers.
This time, Virgin Airways popped me in the seat right in front of the toilet. It didn’t recline; it smelled like shit. We had a five-hour stopover at Shanghai Pudong International Airport. I maintain that this is my least favourite airport to stop in, but that could be purely because of everything that came next.
On the second leg of the journey, I had a window seat in a much better spot, and we were only six or seven hours away from London. I was excited. I’d left space in my suitcase for new clothes and splurged on an iPhone 5 to take incredible photos with. I’d made lists of places I was excited to eat at.
I can never really sleep on long-haul flights — I only drift in and out, scraps of reality shredding my dreams. Plus, there were so many announcements. The cabin crew asked for a doctor, twice. Several times they told us all to stay calm. Being told over and over again that there was nothing to worry about was what kept me up.
Half the passengers on the plane were on their feet. Ahead of and behind me, heads were bobbing, hands thrown into the air like children trying to get the attention of teacher. No one had remembered to take off their neck pillow. The passengers in front of me were trying to bully the air hostess into telling the truth. She said everything was fine, then moved off to tell the people behind me to remain in their seats. I asked her for a Bloody Mary and she smiled too widely.
Behind her, an older flight attendant was running; I’ve never seen someone run on a plane before or since. Then a flight attendant emerged from a door in the middle of the plane wearing half a hazmat suit. He, at least, seemed calm. He wore orange (I think) gloves that went up to his elbows and a sort of plastic hat with a clear screen covering his face.
I remember people talking about smoke. The lady next to me asked whether we’d be given oxygen masks. I don’t know if my memories of this part of it are to be trusted, given I’d been in transit for 20 hours at that stage, but I know I did the only thing I really could and went back to sleep, wondering hazily if that door had always been there, where it led. I think I had a dream about Richard Branson.
Perhaps I was a little tipsy. I hoped that if we did have some kind of emergency landing it’d be on water, so we could slide down those blow-up slides they depict in the emergency info tucked into seat pockets. In retrospect, landing on the water would have been terrifying, and probably the worst possible outcome other than the plane crashing.
Strangely, I thought a lot about how I used to fly alone between Auckland and Christchurch after my parents separated. I was four the first time, and Mum told me to say I was five if anyone asked. She later told me that she always felt sad that I never turned back to wave goodbye.
Eventually the cabin windows were filled with enormous dark trees and hazy sunlight, as we landed smoothly, thousands of miles from our expected destination. I spent $50 on mobile data, ostensibly to tell friends and family what was happening, but used it up scrolling Facebook.
We’d landed in Irkutsk, Russia, and were grounded there for another four hours, fire engines speckling the tarmac around us. Battle-weary flight attendants walked down the rows handing out ice-blocks to cool us down after they’d had to turn off the air conditioning. I kept thinking they must have had ice-blocks in a freezer for this exact reason, to calm passengers soaked in their own sweat.
They packed us into buses and kept us there for two more hours, before we were escorted by police to a hotel. We were instructed to pick a roommate, and someone promised us we’d be leaving in the morning. I can’t remember if I still believed them.
Lowlights included but were not limited to: the mother on the bus who started screaming because her tiny baby had a fever, the ham and potato salad we were given in the dining room at the hotel, and the exhaustion that felt as if it had permanently corrupted my nerves.
Highlights included and are solely confined to: the English girl who strode through the crowd, grabbed my arm and told me we were going to share a room, and actually getting to shower and sleep in a real bed.
I can’t remember if I thought we were going to crash. There were long stretches during which I didn’t feel safe, when the tiredness fused with the impossibility of it all and what emerged was despair.
The only reason I thought about any of this was because I was alone in my mum’s house, walking to my bedroom to go to sleep, when I saw a cockroach on the edge of the door. I don’t do well with cockroaches. I don’t like anything small that scuttles, and with their big, meaty bodies, cockroaches seem to me to be the most sinister.
Usually, my partner takes care of them, gently scooping them up in a tissue and putting them outside, but I wasn’t at her house — it was just the cockroach and me. I jumped and shook my hair, certain as I always am when faced with one that there’s another on my back or my shoulder, or lurking camouflaged in my hair. I walked up and down the stairs and considered sleeping on the couch. I sat down with my phone and watched TikTok for as long as I could, keeping one eye on the cockroach. Not knowing where it was but knowing it was there was not something I could sleep with.
And then I thought about how I dozed off on a plane that may or may not have been smoking, on the other side of the world, totally alone. I thought about how the things we can’t control really might kill us if the fear of them doesn’t first, but this was a cockroach that was less than one-tenth the size of me, and if I picked it up in toilet paper and flushed it away, I would be able to sleep.
And so I did.