‘There’s no need to wipe down your tray table,’ screeched Heidi, chief steward of the ‘amazing team you have looking after you today’.
‘Because for your safety today,’ she went on, ‘the aircraft is deep-cleaned between flights by specialists.’ Which brought to mind the chain gang of depressed women that one sometimes sees filing aboard during a stopover to gather rubbish and flick a duster around. I wondered whether they had been inspired or lashed into devoting their lowly paid attention and energies to the tray-table catch, for instance, or to the overhead ventilation nozzle or to the locker handles. Just as, earlier, I had also wondered how many hundreds of fingers had grasped those gray plastic trays circulating in the security check area since they were last disinfected.
I had hoped, imagined even, that when we filed aboard and took our seats in the plane cabin, we would find the middle seats unoccupied and the passengers evenly distanced over the remaining space. But here we were, packed in as usual like tinned anchovies and the usual intellectually precocious little girl was kicking the back of my seat. I determined to live life to the full over the next few days until I couldn’t smell anything.
It’s not the dying so much as the ‘long’ COVID that I feared. The long, lost months of hallucinations, nightmares, memory loss, confusion and fatigue. I have these mildly at the best of times and I couldn’t face them becoming full blown. I looked around at the masked, inscrutable upper faces of the Marseille-bound British passengers around me and wondered how they had calculated the risk of catching COVID on a cheap flight, perhaps from a symptom-free superspreader, perhaps that guy over there yawning nonchalantly in seat 11A. Were the under-thirties calculating that they were too young, too slender or too beautiful to suffer overmuch from a hefty dose? Were the over-thirties perhaps telling themselves that COVID-19 was all in the mind, like believing in ghosts, or yet another blasted government trick to curtail the precious little that’s left of our liberty? (A.J.P. Taylor kicks off his entertaining English History 1914-1945 with this arresting sentence: ‘Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the English state, beyond the post office and the policeman.’)
And what about we overweight over-sixties? That guy over there who just asked for a seatbelt extender, for example. Was he thinking to himself, oh well, it’s been fun, and if I die, I die? Whatever the risk calculation behind each individual decision to sit in a full airplane for an hour and three-quarters at the beginning of a COVID pandemic second wave, it did seem to me that most of us were sitting bolt-upright, looking neither right nor left, hardly breathing, and consciously refraining from unnecessary speech or movement.
Our amazing team stood at intervals in the aisle and showed us how to put on and inflate our life belts and evacuate the plane via the emergency exits should it have to make an emergency landing on water. Compared to a month in intensive care on a ventilator it looked like a piece of cake, fun even. Then the plane was up in the air, level again and pointing south, and Heidi’s fingernails-scraping-a-blackboard voice filled the cabin once more with news that was refreshingly unrelated to pandemics or air disasters. Snacks, light refreshments and alcoholic beverages, she said, would be available shortly from the contact card-only trolley service. The chap I was wedged against turned his head slightly towards mine, coughed, sneezed his mask awry, mumbled an apology. I looked out of the window at the Isle of Wight and thought about dying.
Delusive hope springs eternal, however, and in bright sunshine over Paris I made an orderly mental retreat to a new intellectual position and set about shoring it up with any old material that came to hand. I was a fool. Hadn’t COVID done its worst in the spring? Wasn’t this so-called second wave a chimera based on a huge increase in testing with more accurate testing kits? If Heidi and her amazing team were worried about catching COVID, would they be quite so perky? I was sitting in row 13. Wasn’t 3, at any rate, my lucky number? And from here it was a quick and easy step to convincing myself that in reality the chance of catching COVID, let alone of dying from it, were about the same as that of being murdered in my bed by identical twins. And from here it was another easy step to stop Heidi and her trolley when they came past and ask her pleasantly for her strongest gin and tonic and a KitKat.