The flight from London to Sydney is a long one for a restless and impatient young man – such as I was when I first experienced it. To have to sit for so long felt like a restraint, a constraint and a waste of precious time. The person next to me, a very old, very small lady, appeared to have no such problem. I was amazed that she barely ever moved, ate almost nothing and did not initiate any conversation. I recalled this when I took a coach trip to Scotland last week. My intention was to get away from my routines for a few days and to relish the hours of sitting (time to read), the degree of regimentation (time to think) and the possibility of meeting interesting people (something to write about).
The coach seats were pre-allocated and mine was next to a very old, very small lady who smiled at me in welcome but said nothing until I spoke to her. We had a polite exchange - the sort you would expect of two strangers who are going to have to get along together in enforced proximity for several hours. Her name was Pauline and, like the lady on the plane, she had a remarkable propensity for sitting still. She was, however, open to conversation and, fairly soon, had outlined her circumstances: she lived alone, her husband having died some ten years previously; she had moved to a flat near her son’s home and now she was at leisure to do as she pleased. She had taken five such trips as this in the past year. She didn’t ask about my situation.
We drank coffee together at the first stop and talked about our preferred blends. Back on the coach, where there were plenty of empty seats, I could see I had a choice: to resume my seat next to Pauline, thereby allowing no respite from each other’s company, or to suggest a separation which acknowledged the fact that we were, after all, strangers, no longer obliged to sit together. I took the latter course but with a compromise: I excused myself, saying I would like to stretch out in the seats across the aisle - not far enough away to cause offence but close enough to maintain occasional eye contact – and suggested we meet again at the lunch-time stop. This arrangement served well enough to bond our mini-relationship so that, when dinner was served at our destination hotel, we gravitated to the same table where we met fellow travellers (and previously established couple) Barbara and Jim. For the second time that day I was involved with the polite introductions and tentative conversations which are critical to the development – or otherwise – of relationships.
Over the next few days, at the bar, in the restaurant or on the coach, we made incremental progress in getting to know each other. Conversations moved beyond Q & A sessions and shifted towards those exchanges of views and feelings which underpin the foundations of friendships. But Pauline did not join in this process: declaring “I don’t let things bother me these days” she would ignore any conceptual talk preferring, if she could, to recount the events of her past. The nearest she got to anything happening in the present-day were examples from her son’s life – as if he were living vicariously for her. The past history of an 84 year-old is very likely to be interesting but unless its recounting bears upon the present it soon loses its allure. So, as Barbara, Jim and I grew closer, Pauline refused to engage, as if to say “I won’t be here long, so I shan’t bother making an effort”.
Yet Pauline did have plans for the future: she had booked at least two more holidays for later in the year. Was she being adventurous, I wondered, or was she simply moving from one waiting room to another?