Jack had the most popular name in the country, said the newspaper in front of him. He imagined an army of little Jacks, then thought about an army of big Jacks. Jacks and Toms and Dicks and Harries. Jack grimaced. Whoever had read the paper before him hadn’t folded it up properly, and it didn’t feel right without the proper creases. Jack’s shirt-tail had rolled up like a scroll at the small of his back, so he stood up to tuck it back in.
All around him were properly tucked and folded people. Even the fat man sitting in the opposite row of seats had his little triangle legs somehow crossed, looking like the delicate ends of a French pastry. Jack sat back down and took a sip of his weak tea from inside its plastic cup. As the tasteless hot water trickled down his throat, he returned his eyes to the view outside the large blue windows. Flat land, tarmac clouds. Early morning planes scattered like seagulls. Landing strips, Jack still called them. Runways seemed too much.
When the announcement came through, Jack almost leapt from his chair. The usual Public Address fuzz, followed by Jack’s flight number. He looked nervously around at the others, some cocking their head slightly, others still engrossed in books and conversations. Had he heard it wrong? No, there it was again. A call for passengers with children or those with special needs. Jack had never quite understood what that meant. Did that mean a wheelchair, a missing limb? Such a sliding scale, really, when you thought about it.
He walked over to the service desk, where a young lady in a red coat stood wearing a headphone. Jack assumed it was she who had made the announcement.
‘This announcement,’ Jack pointed vaguely to the sky. ‘These special needs. What exactly are they?’
The young lady brought out a wide smile. ‘Well sir, sometimes those with mobility problems or—’ her smile widened slightly more as she searched for a word, ‘—or those who need special attention, it’s nice to get them settled in a bit earlier, to save any discomfort.’
‘Discomfort, yes.’ Jack nodded, although he was really no clearer. He reached into his top pocket. ‘Do I need to go on earlier?’ he asked, producing his boarding pass and seniors card. ‘I thought I might have to, as I’m walking a bit slower than I used to.’
The young lady nodded. ‘Certainly sir. If you’d like to go and see Katie at the boarding check, she’ll be happy to sort you out.’
What a strange choice of words, thought Jack. Sort you out. ‘I don’t want to waste anyone’s time,’ said Jack, ‘that’s all. I called the airport yesterday, but they couldn’t really tell me how early I was supposed to get here, or—’
‘Katie will be happy to help you out,’ said the young woman, thrusting an open palm past Jack’s face like a swimmer, ‘just to your left there.’
Jack followed her hand and saw another young lady in a red jacket standing at a podium. A small queue of people had assembled in front of her. A man with a baby in a holster around his neck was first in line. ‘Thank you,’ said Jack, walking away.
It was going to be a long, long flight.