AT FIRST she had seemed so charming. Could she remove her jacket to aide a man struggling to fit his case in the overhead locker? Was there anything I needed placed in the locker? (She was in the aisle seat, while I was in the middle and a man listening to headphones sat by the window).
She was slender, wore black and had dark straight hair that she clasped and pulled back from time to time. She also, I noted, liked to place her knees and feet so they rested against the seat in front. Odd, and slightly off-putting, but hardly a crime. She just seemed more comfortable that way.
We reached cruising altitude on our way from Lisbon to London. After working for a while on my laptop, I closed my eyes for a rest.
That’s when I noticed it: the sniffing.
Perhaps I simply had not registered the sound before, but every few seconds or so my neighbour-in-black sniffed. They were curious little sniffs and seemed almost pointless in being so small and so regular.
They got on my nerves. I tried to ignore the irritating sound and, in doing so, became all the more fixated by it. Why did she not simply blow her nose? Should I offer a tissue? Would that be rude? I decided against saying anything and began simply to count the gaps between the sniffs. The usual interval was a count to six or seven. The longest about 30. This period of sniffing, interspersed with little coughs, lasted a very long time.
Finally it came to an end, upon which my neighbour began to chew a piece of gum. I know this, even though I had my eyes closed, as every few seconds I heard a little pop of bubblegum. The little sniffs and coughs had been replaced by little pops. The timing was almost identical. Again I became fixated. I considered asking her to stop but I did not want a row. Anyway, what real crime is it to sniff, cough or pop?
After some time, the popping spell ran its course, and the sniffs and coughs resumed. I began to count the intervals once again (they were no different) wondering if my neighbour in black was about to set some kind of world record for little sniffs and coughs between Lisbon and London. I became aware too, around this time, that her hands had started to fidget.
She had begun peeling skin from the edge of her fingernails, systematically moving from one digit to the next. Once she had removed the skin, she proceeded to flick the bits on the floor ahead.
On the plus side, at the height of this performance, she ceased sniffing and coughing altogether. Making the most of it, I closed my eyes enjoying the peace of this finger peeling phase, trying to shut out the image from my mind.
This worked for a while. Upon re-opening my eyes, however, I could see she had moved to her right hand and begun flicking skin by my feet.
Letting this new development sink in, I again decided to “do nothing” as there was not much longer for the flight to go.
The sniffing, coughing and gum-popping continued after she finished with her nails. I was now counting down the time to landing: 20 minutes to go.
It was a long 20 minutes. She kept going all the way to the terminal, whereupon she leapt up, barged down the aisle, elbowing others reaching for bags, and after a few yards turned, looked squarely at me and smirked. Then she pushed onwards.
On the floor by her seat lay a pile of debris: little bits of finger skin.
Not a great flight. Not such a charming neighbour-in-black.