“But madam, don’t you want any meal?”
I looked up at him, my eyes brimming with tears.
* * *
The tears of a wronged child.
I was nine years old, sitting at a tiny desk in Year Four Ochre. I was just goofing around with Alex Bunton, a sweet nappy-haired boy, at whom I had directed a pair of scissors, opening the blades in what was – to my young and imaginative mind – the perfect recreation of a crocodile.
Out of nowhere, like a tornado on a bright summer’s day, the portly figure of Mrs. Thompson materialised by my side, her voice raised in a teacher’s controlled rage.
“Don’t let me ever see you playing with scissors again, Jay!”
It was like an ice-cold shower on a body still warm from the bed. Like a dagger slicing through an innocently throbbing heart. I had never, ever been reprimanded in class before. Not in my life. I was a model student, diligent and enthusiastic, loving school and adored by teachers, of whom no one ever so much as raised an eyebrow at me. (Well, except for my piano teacher, who screamed her head off at my incompetence at all our private lessons, but she was Russian and emotional and she wasn’t a class teacher so she didn’t count, anyway.)
Not only was I shocked and humiliated. Worse, I felt betrayed.
Because I knew very well that one shouldn’t play with scissors. And I certainly wasn’t playing with scissors! Those things were nowhere near sweet Alex’s face, and in any case, I knew exactly what I was doing and was in full control of the situation.
My tiny nine-year-old chest constricted with pain and an angry heat swept over me. My eyes began to sting, and I realised that I was on the verge of very real – and very embarrassing – tears. Taking the only dignified escape route I could think of, I began pulling off my jumper over my head, hiding my face in it for as long as it took to compose myself, pretending to fumble with it. I emerged much calmed, though rather flushed from the effort and the lack of air inside the jumper, to the somewhat puzzled-looking face of Mrs. Thompson.
(Dear Mrs. Thompson, if you’re reading this, please know that you did the rightest thing. You were concerned about a situation in your class that could have escalated and you needed to prevent similar occurrences in the future. I stand by your actions, 100%. I was a tad sensitive as a child – goodness knows I still am – and you were a fine teacher of whom I have very fond memories. Also, you were the first Gwyneth I ever knew, which for me was a bit like knowing Rapunzel. This was probably because I confused Gwyneth with Guinevere, but I digress.)
* * *
Fast-forward some twenty-five years, and I was overcome with the same feeling. A terrible injustice, a woeful wrong had been done to an innocent soul.
I had logged in at the airline’s website, found my booking, and altered my meal preferences well before my scheduled flight. Being the only person in the world to love aeroplane food, and in-flight meals being a rare a they are nowadays (we’re talking plebe class here), I took great pleasure in choosing among the variety of vegetarian options, and was immensely looking forward to devouring it up in the clouds.
And then, when the food trolley finally pulled up and I still hadn’t been brought my special tray, and when I was told, upon being given given a choice between beef, chicken, and fish and asking whether there was a vegetarian option, that there wasn’t, and handed a half-empty tray with just the compact salad and miniature dessert and a cold bun accompanied by butter and melty cheese, something just broke in me. I loved these trays, delighting in their practicality and efficiency – encompassing all the components of a meal, the main dish piping hot in its aluminium package – and now I was deprived of that joy!
I sipped on my apple juice, jealously eyeing the man next to me, who was wolfing down his beef on rice with satisfied slurping noises, when another flight attendant noticed my empty-ish tray (no doubt alerted by my aura of intense dejection).
Trying to sound cheerfully nonchalant, I shrugged my shoulders and answered his question.
“You don’t have anything that’s vegetarian,” I said, my voice just a half a tone too shrill.
He processed the answer. “I see. You requested a vegetarian meal, yes.” He seemed to know. He nodded, lifted a finger, and exited stage left.
I stared out of the window, sulking. The increased trouble was that I was actually really hungry. Since breakfast, I had been surviving on one (1) pain au chocolat and bottles of water, not having had any time to purchase so much as a bag of crisps during my layover. Resigning to my fate, I picked up the miniature salad and began nibbling at it halfheartedly. It was the crushed hopes that were most crushing.
“Excuse me. Madam, excuse me.”
An outstretched hand, a small porcelain plate bearing cooked rice, steamed vegetables, and fried cheese balls, procured from behind the magic curtain of Business Class. A kind smile. I almost cried for real this time. (Kindness in the face of obstacles always does that to me.)
Mortified by the knowledge that my emotional state over such a trifling matter must have been apparent, I accepted the plate and smiled in spite of my shame. It wasn’t perfect, and I was still hungry, but I was mollified.
That night, I made sure to write the politest, kindest complaint email. Because come on.