We were asked to write a story about travel. There were no other hints or suggestions so again, it was quite a challenge.
My wife is about to fly to Australia to visit her mum and she was busy arranging tickets and packing her suitcase and worrying about all the things you worry about when planning a trip on an aeroplane. That knocked around inside my head for a while and I began to wonder about what it might be like to have no worries about that kind of thing. What if you really could just "...sit back and enjoy the flight" as the in-flight announcement usually has it. Then one thing led to another and it wasn't long before I had the story of Martin Van Buren...
If travel broadens the mind, reflected Martin Van Buren to himself, then my mind must be about ten thousand miles across by now. Funny, but I don't feel any the wiser for it. He was sitting in the dubious comfort of an airport lounge helping himself to free food and drink while he waited for his flight to be called. If this is Thursday, he mused, which I'm almost certain that it is, then I think I must be in Berlin. He checked his boarding pass yes, he was in Berlin waiting for a flight to London.
His flight was called and he made his way to the gate. There was the usual hold up while unsophisticated passengers who were overburdened with inappropriate luggage blocked the aisle as they struggled to fit their over-stuffed and oddly shaped parcels into the overhead lockers. But eventually Martin, who had no carry-on bags, managed to reach his seat. He plucked the in-flight magazine from the seat pocket in front of him and settled down for a boring read on what he hoped would be an equally boring flight. Martin was not a fan of exciting flights. He'd experienced far too many of them in the past. These days boredom and stultifying routine were all he asked for.
The plane taxied away from the gate and the flight attendants gave the usual safety briefing. Martin paid no attention. He'd heard it so many times that the words were engraved on his soul. Then the plane accelerated down the runway and lifted itself gently into the waiting sky. The flight attendants scurried quickly round the cabin serving coffee and tea. As usual, they ignored Martin completely. He left them to their own devices and read his magazine. The magazine was even more dull than he'd expected it to be. He approved of that clearly the editor was unusually talented at commissioning articles of pointless tedium.
The flight was a short one and Martin had barely finished his magazine before they landed in London. As he left the plane, he checked his boarding pass. It seemed that the next leg of his journey would take him to Los Angeles where there was a connecting flight to Auckland on the far side of the world. He'd never actually been able to catch the boarding pass in the act of updating itself. No matter how long or how fixedly he stared at it, it always changed his flight details when he wasn't looking. These days he didn't bother about it, and he just went wherever it told him to go.
Because the London to Los Angeles flight was travelling into American territory, all the passengers had to go through the silly rigmarole that lulled Americans into a false sense of security. Passports and travel documents were scrutinised closely, and all the passengers were x-rayed and sometimes physically searched. Martin had no travel documents. He'd never been issued with a passport and visas were a complete mystery to him. He wandered casually along with everybody else. The security thugs ignored him completely and he passed through their check points without any fuss or bother.
The flight to Los Angeles would last for many hours and Martin knew that he would need more than an in flight magazine to sustain him. So he spent a happy few minutes browsing through the airport bookshop. Eventually he settled on a nice, fat fantasy novel, full of dark lords, ambiguous elves, wizards with pointy hats, enchanted swords that never needed sharpening and scurrying, heroic clichés on a quest to save the world. He could have just taken the book and left, but while he didn't mind walking past petty officials, he always felt a little pang of conscience about defrauding legitimate businesses so he took his book up to the counter and tried very hard to attract the attention of the lady behind the counter. Eventually, by dint of much throat clearing, finger tapping and bouncing of the book on the counter (fat fantasy novels are particularly useful for that) he finally managed to get her to recognise that he wanted to buy the book.
"That'll be £15, please" she said.
Martin took a £20 note from his wallet and gave it to her. She seemed rather surprised to be given actual money. "I've not seen one of these for ages," she said, holding it up to the light. "Most people use a plastic card these days."
Martin didn't have a plastic card — he'd never been able to hold anybody's attention for long enough to apply for one. But actual cash money was no problem at all. He just took it when he needed it, though he was always careful to take it from places that nobody would condemn him for using. The wallets of traffic wardens and the pockets of pickpockets for example...
The lady behind the counter put his £20 note in the till. She didn't give him any change and she didn't offer to put the book in a bag for him. Clearly he'd drifted away from her consciousness again. Slightly annoyed, but not at all surprised, Martin picked up his book and made his way to the first class lounge. He didn't have a first class seat — his boarding pass was always very parsimonious when it allocated him a seat — but that didn't matter of course.
The flight wound its weary way through the sky, engines thrumming as it ate up the miles to Los Angeles. Martin lost himself in his novel. Occasionally, as a flight attendant wheeled a trolley past him, he helped himself to food and drink. And then the moment he'd been half expecting arrived. The man sitting next to him finally noticed he was there. Spending many hours in close proximity to him seemed to reveal rather more of him to other people than was normally the case.
"Good book?" asked the man in a broad American accent.
Martin groaned inwardly. Americans were the worst travelling companions. They seemed actually to enjoy speaking to total strangers and often it was quite impossible to shut them up. Martin much preferred the very reserved British who generally refused to talk to anybody they hadn't been properly introduced to.
"Yes," he said. "It's really quite exciting."
"Gee," said the man, "that's an interesting accent you've got. Where are you from?"
"Holland," said Martin. "I was born in Amsterdam."
Martin could almost see the wheels turning in the American's skull. Oh no, he thought. Please — not again. I've heard what you are about to say far too many times... But his prayers were in vain.
"Holland," said the predictable American. "So you're a Dutchman and you're on an airplane. That must make you the Flying Dutchman!" He collapsed into snorts of happy laughter.
"Yes," said Martin through gritted teeth. "That's exactly who I am."