The airline upgrade

When a first-class passenger’s neighbour gets on her nerves, she strikes an unusual “business” deal


The quail’s eggs, Helen thought as she settled into her seat in first class, were a nice touch. A darling little dish with celery salt and a smidgen of paprika mayonnaise – she hadn’t seen that before. And, of course, an old friend: the glass of champagne, beaded with condensation.

The plane was just pulling back. Around her in the neighbouring seat pods – wide, comfy, semi-enclosed – she could hear murmurs of gustatory satisfaction and the quiet rustle of the odd newspaper. Thirteen hours of dedicated me-time ahead. Helen couldn’t understand people who said that they didn’t enjoy air travel.

As she opened her first glossy, she became aware of a noise behind her. “Bm-tss-bm-tss-bm-tss…” It got louder. Abruptly, through the gap in the partition, there swung an enormous backpack, sideswiping the glass of champagne and causing it to splash into her quail’s eggs. “Hffff,” said the oblivious figure to which the backpack was attached, swinging it onto the floor before stuffing it untidily into the far corner of the adjacent pod.

Helen’s new neighbour was a lanky boy, just entering adolescence. Percussion leaking from his headphones, he made a great performance of removing a shapeless army-surplus overcoat, then a grimy hoodie and then his boatlike trainers, scattering them across the floor. Then – having fished a small array of electronic devices out of his luggage, he sprawled in his seat and set about his own dish of quail’s eggs in a manner that made Helen faintly nauseous.

Shuddering, she closed the screen across the opening in her pod. But through it there still wafted the tinny hiss of the headphones and, presently, the distinctive odour of a teenage boy’s socks. As the plane accelerated off the runway Helen felt the beginnings of a migraine.

After take-off, the bleeping sounds of some sort of videogame entered the mix, accompanied by occasional loud yelps of triumph or frustration. Helen’s mother, she remembered, had had a distinctive way of dealing with annoying children on flights. “Would you like a sweetie?” she’d say, and slip them half a Valium.

Helen put on an eye mask and tried to sleep. Bleep. Hiss. Shout. Stink. And then – God preserve us – the wretched boy was up and thundering down the aisle. Was he doing some sort of in-flight exercise? Going to the loo, fiddling in the overhead lockers, crashing clumsily into the side of her pod… She could take it no more.

“WHERE ARE YOUR PARENTS?” she hissed at him, pushing her face into his pod like a trapdoor spider.  

“What?” he said, startled, pulling off his headphones.

“Your parents, young man. I assume you have some. Where are they?”


“Er, my mum’s back in business.”

“Take me to her,” said Helen with steel in her voice. The boy led her with a sullen, open-mouthed mien back through the cabin and into an area Helen hadn’t visited since the divorce settlement. As they arrived, a woman of about Helen’s age lit up on seeing her son. Then she caught sight of Helen’s face.

“Oh, I am so sorry,” she said. “Has Joe been bothering you?” She cast a look of treacly indulgence on her son. “He does find air travel difficult with his ADHD. That’s why I upgraded him. For the added privacy… and all those extra films.”

A likely story, thought Helen. The woman had clearly upgraded her son so she wouldn’t have to sit anywhere near him herself. “I’m sorry,” she said, feeling nothing of the sort. “I’m afraid I’m very sensitive to noise and it is essential that I get some sleep on this flight.”

The woman looked uncomfortable.  

“I’m going to have to insist that we swap seats,” Helen said.

“But I –”

Helen stared at her levelly. Blushing, the woman started to fuss around, gathering her bits and pieces. Helen surveyed the cabin with discernible displeasure. But at least it was quiet.

Minutes later, Joe pulled the curtain back across the cabin divide. His mother settled into Helen’s old seat, and he, next door, into his. They smiled at each other.

“Works every time,” she said. He stowed his iPad and, pulling out his copy of Kant’s Critique of Judgment, settled down to read.


His mother summoned the flight attendant. “I don’t suppose you’ve any more of those quail’s eggs?”