Charnay woke with a start, and with the uneasy feeling that some greyish, hooded creature had just brushed past her. The plane was warm, and many of her fellow passengers were still asleep. But the man in the window seat was snoring loudly, a thick, rasping sound that soared upwards, then fell away in a hiss like a tiny balloon. Through her irritation, she made a note of the noise. It reminded her of somebody. Could she remember everyone she’d ever slept with, just by the way they’d snored? Like an audio ID parade? She could try to list them that way, in her head. It might calm her down till they got to Jo’burg.
“Michelle, Michelle, ’skuustog.” Her neighbour on the aisle side – Pieter? – was touching her shoulder. “Excuse me, sorry about this, hey.”
She’d lied to him that she was Michelle, an exchange student coming home from six months at a São Paulo language school.
She slid a hand under the aircraft blanket onto the hard globe of her stomach and left it there. Don’t use the toilet. And stay cool.
Pieter was speaking again.
“You talk in your sleep, Michelle, did you know that?”
Middle-aged, with brandy on his breath. He’d said he was a doctor, but he didn’t look the type. He looked like a good old boykie, the pick-up-truck-driving, Klippies-and-Coke-drinking sort who hung around the bars of Vanderbijlpark, dreaming of undressing girls like her in some failed motel at the end of the night. Telling racist jokes in a cloud of cigarette smoke. One of those types who – depending on the audience – could also switch on a spiel about the evils of apartheid and the bad old days. How they’d had no clue what was being kept from them, how they’d been so much in the dark. Nowadays, everyone appreciated the value of a good cover story.
Pieter’s fleshy fingers were squeezing the mermaid tattoo on his forearm, kneading it rhythmically. The sleeve of his blazer was crumpled; Charnay could see how strained the cheap material was across the shoulders, and how his jeans bit into his thighs. A lace trailed from the shoe cocked on his knee. She wondered uneasily why this badly wrapped parcel of a man was so tense, why he hadn’t tilted his seat back to sleep. She needed to calm down. But he was checking her out, his small, sharp eyes unblinking.
“Ja, you were getting woes, helluva angry. You sounded like you were calling somebody some very bad names.”
“Sorry to keep you from sleeping, er, Pieter.”
Charnay stroked her stomach gingerly. Jirre, man. She needed the bathroom.
“And you haven’t eaten the whole flight. A young lady in your condition, with a baby on the way?”
His voice was soft, persistent. Fokall to do with you, my condition.
Now Pieter was taking the TAP in-flight magazine out of its pocket and holding it up theatrically to the overhead light. “Eu penso que voce é muito estúpido,” he said, slowly, as if he was reading her a bedtime story. “Voce compreende uma palavra que eu estou dizendo?” Then he turned to her as if he had just remembered something. “Ja, and you also sounded so sad, Michelle. A nice blonde girlie like you, on her way home from language college. Now tell me, Michelle, what have you got to cry about?”