Picture this. Eyes leaking with redness and lack of sleep. Your clothes, wrinkled and covered with child-grime from food, tiny sticky hands, and quite possibly the latest lethal hantavirus making the international rounds.
Around your swollen feet and person, like a nuclear blast radius, a hill of tissues, papers, oily blankets, small pillows, food wrappers and other detritus.
And of course the looks, the unvarnished looks of your fellow passengers. They vary greatly in mood, ranging from looks of abject pity to undimmed hatred. But they are all aimed at you, like lances in a tournament. And over all this, floats the ludicrously chirpy voice of the head crew, surreal as a voice-over for a WW2 movie: “We hope you have enjoyed your flight, and look forward to seeing you again.”
And you look down at the human octopus squirming in your arms, your otherwise sweet, sweet child, who at the moment is turning purple in his bid to outscream the plane engines. And you think: Not bloody likely.
Warning: this is a work of fiction, but other than that it’s completely true. Let’s turn the clock back, shall we?
The kids were turning a year old. We packed the usual items, which is to say, we packed everything. Diapers, boxes of food, endless bibs, thermoses of boiled water, soft toys, pacifiers, change clothes, disinfectant, wet wipes, tissues. We staggered to the airport like camels.
There was a minor hiccup with the booking. The flight was full, so we had been booked into separate seats. We would have to try our luck at the airport, or try to switch with another passenger.
But first we would have to get to the departure gate. Ours were economy class seats, but thanks to the grandparents we got to use the business class lounge. Or rather, we got to sit in it, which is different from using it. As soon as we put down the bags, it was Feeding Time. Bags were opened, bottles produced, napkins readied. And the kids bolted. Exhilarated to hysteria by the new surroundings, they slithered about the feet of other passengers, they tried to electrocute themselves on light fittings, they made an assault on the plate warmers. We lunged after them, apologising profusely left and right. We were at that stage still capable of speech. Feeding Time had become as nerve-wrecking as administering CPR.
Feeding Time ended, and I managed with my free hand to make a cup of tea. Baby #1 sat himself down on the wool carpet, smiled, and defecated noisily. Feeding Time had morphed into Changing Time. We glanced at the clock. It was time to board. We split swiftly into 2 teams, one to change Baby #1, the other to distract Baby #2. When it was all done, we had to make a run for it. I left my tea on the table, untouched.
On boarding, we found our seats separated by an iPhone attached to a young woman. She seemed perplexed at our request to swap seats. I see you, girl. You chose a front-cabin seat and you’ll feign any kind of ignorance to keep it. Mummy lost her cool. “It’s up to you,” she said tersely, “but you’ll have to sit between two screaming kids.” The woman’s eyes widened. She looked at the 2 babies happily shredding inflight magazines, and swiftly vacated her seat.
Have you ever been tempted to tie yourself to a water wheel, just to see what it’s like to half-drown? Fifteen minutes waiting with babies on a runway for take-off, that’s what it’s like. They gave us small seatbelts for the babies, but they might as well have given us flapping chickens to hold. They squirmed, they howled, they tried to take off themselves. The silent stares of the passengers behind us were like an icy wind to our backs.
Fortunately the kids quite enjoyed the take-off, and they didn’t react too badly to the changing pressure in the ears. The air crew cooed over the kids and left them small gifts – biscuits and soft toys. As the flight wore on, the gifts continued, but the crew began to leave them surreptitiously and cautiously, like offerings at a lion’s den. Shhh, don’t wake the 2-headed monster.
The kids loved the bassinets, those removable wall-hung cradles. They loved everything about them, except being inside them. They simply didn’t like lying down and behaving like babies. Exhausted and worn-out, we let them play in the rubbish tip that was mounting about our feet. They liked none of the expensive toys we had brought; none of the overdesigned, eco-friendly toys could keep them quiet for long. They began to play with the discarded plastic bags for the headphones. We adults looked at each other. We’re bad at parenting, we are the worst caregivers on earth. We kept a beady eye on the kids while they laughed and fought over the plastic bags.
The hours trickled by. I remember trying to watch a film but it was futile. I drifted in and out of consciousness, as if recovering from a car crash. There were small children everywhere, under the seats, in the aisles, hanging from the overhead storage. There was one in my coffee, I swear. I fished him out with my finger, and he gave an ear-piercing shriek. Great, I thought, now he’s high on caffeine.
All the films we watched soundlessly, because the kids had made a game out of snatching the headphones off our heads. We could only understand them from subtitles. I felt like posting subtitles on our current situation: Do not try this at home.
When we finally landed, when the kids had screamed themselves into oblivion, we emerged from the plane like refugees cast upon a foreign shore. The kids were finally asleep, drooping off their harnesses like sacks of vegetables. Not a single square inch of me felt clean. There was a constant ringing in my ears, my eyes were criss crossed with a reddish haze.
But we had survived. Most importantly, the kids had survived, even enjoyed the experience. For them, it was a tiny taste of the larger world around them. They had travelled a great distance, their first footsteps far beyond the walls of home. From henceforth, they would learn to be denizens of a wider universe. They would begin to know, and hopefully to care for, an existence that was bigger than themselves.
So in the end, given the hassles, the burdens, the nerve-wrecking experience, it was worth it. For their sake.
Alan Lau is a Kuching-based architect and musician. Due to a recent trauma, he often breaks out in a cold sweat when you mention “kids” and “flying” in the same sentence. He has sought professional help in this matter and is now enjoying near-full recovery.