To the man in seat 24B, I know I look like I’m judging you. I’m trying not to. You’ve probably noticed that my nostrils are flaring. I’m sorry. They are betraying my shortcomings, not yours.
As we come to the end of this flight, I want you to know that I am not angry with you because your stomach has spent the last two hours spilling over the armrest and pressing damply against me. Everybody knows that airline seats are criminally small: your body simply has nowhere else to go.
It’s also possible that you are working hard to reduce your weight and that I’ve misunderstood your reasons for keeping a Tupperware of assorted chocolates at your feet. When the air hostess asked you to stow them overhead for takeoff, you got angry and said that you “need” them, so I’m going to assume that you were telling the truth and that you’ve just eaten your eighth Bounty for medical reasons.
I’m not even being sarcastic. These days I honestly don’t know what to think about anything. I mean, let’s take your snorting, a process of sucking snot-clusters up into your sinuses ever three minutes like some sort of Walrus of Wall Street doing lines of oysters off a glass table.
I won’t lie: the sound sickens me. Every time you go schnort-glort-blot-gulp, my stomach heaves. I really want you to stop doing it. But do I have a right to ask? What if mucus-gargling is central to your culture or your religion, and the mere fact that I’m offended is proof of my bigotry? If I ask you to stop am I trying to impose some aspect of the patriarchy on you, say, the hegemony of the handkerchief? No. It’s much safer for me to say nothing.
Your body odour, likewise, is probably not something I can judge. Our biomes are complex and beautiful things, and to ask that you pass a wet sponge over your shadier nooks now and then would be like demanding that the Amazon rain forest become less leafy. Besides, many deodorants contain dangerous chemicals, so I really can’t criticise you for rejecting the sanitary-industrial complex.
And why do we so easily assume that a shimmering aura of man-pong is the result of negligence? For all I know you actively nurture it, perhaps so that you can mark your territory with your startlingly astringent musk. And frankly I’d far rather you claimed your seat by rubbing against it than by peeing on it. So thank you for that.
Dear neighbour in seat 24B-and-some-of-24C, I hope you’re seeing that all of these responses come from a dark place inside myself, and that you are not to blame. I’m the judgmental one; a product of a society full of prejudice, who is failing to see the human behind the oyster-snorter. I am trying to reach out to you. Not literally, obviously, because I can’t move my arms, and because you’re kind of nasty. But definitely figuratively.
However, I must confess a shameful secret.
There is a limit to my empathy.
And that limit is your toes.
I’ve tried to be compassionate. I’ve reminded myself for the last two hours that I have a psychological problem with toes. It’s true. I do. That’s because, unlike most people, I can see toes for what they really are: clumsy, shriveled fingers bursting out of the ends of our feet. Big toes are mutant thumbs, blindly groping forward in an endless search for someone to play Thumb War with. Little toes are chipolatas with fragments of toenail jammed into them as macabre decoration.
I admit it. I am toeist. I harbour an irrational fear of and hatred for toes. But despite all my prejudice, I have to say that there is something nightmarishly wrong with your toes.
Is it a fungus? Have you been cursed by a witch? Your nails, man! At least, I think those are nails. Are they? The white crusty bit outlined with dried blood?
But most importantly of all, why can I see all this? For the love of God, sir, put those tiny tubes of carrion inside some socks!
I can only assume you’re used to them; that you see your toes every morning and say, sure, they’re not an oil painting but they’re part of me, and I’m pretty interesting, what with the medical chocolates and the musk, so therefore my toes are pretty interesting too. Maybe you think people look at your toes and think, “Hey, it takes all sorts to make the world go round.”
But your toes don’t make me think that. They make me think: I hope there’s a plastic tent in the arrivals hall containing an industrial-strength disinfectant spray, in which I will lie down and curl up and rock myself to sleep. Sorry guy. It’s not you, it’s…ah screw it.
First published in The Times