Thomas Neinsager did travel once, and hated it. Simply couldn't see the point of it. Of leaving home at all, except to do the shopping, and even that could be ordered in over the phone or via the Internet. But now he has been obliged to travel, to collect the remains of his dead sister from Canada and take them to Israel for her funeral. To pass the time, and to help him deal with all his phobias, he talks, unceasingly, to the poor unfortunate who found himself in the seat beside him on the plane. What he recounts is the tale of that previous journey, the one that turned him into a hermit and a misanthrop. Or perhaps those terms are not correct, for underneath the phobias, Thomas Neinsager believes himself to be the happiest, the most contented man alive.
In this satirical tale, Candide cultivates his garden and Zarathustra finds peace on his mountain-top, and Thomas Neinsager turns out to have been a Jasager all along.
Excerpt: From Chapter One: Journeys Outwards
In general, mystical and magical experiences inspire me to scepticism, not awe. When I watch magicians perform their amazing stunts, I look for the trickery, and smile with smug self-satisfaction when I discover it. When radio phone-ins discuss alien abductions and past-life experiences, I change channels. When newspaper headlines announce the discovery of a gene that predetermines character, or proof that extra-terrestrials wrote the Bible, I turn to the fiction reviews. So I shall simply state that the fellow who took the aisle seat adjacent to my window seat, on the long-haul flight from Toronto to Tel Aviv, was the spitting image of myself when I was his age, and that this seeming doppelganger was a perfectly explainable coincidence – I just don’t have that explanation at hand to share it with you. He was also a sceptic of such proportions, such philosophical dedication, as to make my own doubts and questionings seem amateurish; though he was also, quite probably, the only truly happy man I ever met.
This seeming coincidence is anyway irrelevant to my story, so forgive me if I don’t explore it any further. And besides, it was only a coincidence from my perspective, for he cannot possibly have known that he might turn into me in twenty years, whereas I could see plainly who I had been those twenty years before. Suffice it to say that I was sixty-two at the time, turned grey and, having become a respectable professional in my middle-age, was wearing a grey suit, a pale blue shirt and a formal tie – and yes, silk; I recognise the need to note that it was silk. My hand luggage consisted of a lap-top computer, a leather briefcase, and (an act of nostalgia I suppose for a literary career I had long ago abandoned as beyond my reach) a copy of Gide’s “Travels In The Congo”, which diaries so influenced Joseph Conrad when he was writing “Heart of Darkness”. My companion must have been in his early forties. His jet-black beard reached down his chest as far as his jet-black hair reached down his back; and yes, there was a pony-tail. His cords and T-shirt (his armpits extruded an odour that was not entirely pleasant) were of the same jet blackness. It was only later that I registered that both cords and T-shirt were of natural silk, of Peace Silk to be precise; far finer quality than my tie. His hand-luggage consisted of a guitar in a plastic case and a back-pack of the sort schoolchildren use, brimful of books as far as I could tell. The one that he removed from it as he sat down, no doubt intending to read it but never in fact opening it throughout the flight, was a novel entitled “Journeys on the Silk Road”, by an Indian writer I guessed, one Abhay Aditi. He took out a cigarette and, smiling as he did so, stated categorically:
“It’s alright, I don’t actually smoke. I’ve been trying to give up for years but haven’t managed it. I find the best way is to keep one in my mouth unlighted. It’s the oral and the digital activity I need, not the nicotine.”
Suffice it to say, he continued not to smoke this cigarette throughout the flight.
Having secured priority boarding through my executive club miles, I was already seated when the remaining passengers began to clutter up the economy class cabin. My about-to-be seat companion was standing in the aisle, sweating in a manner that suggested anxiety rather than the weather (at this time of year Toronto is temperate). The backpack was barely squeezable into the overhead compartment, and several seated passengers were watching him like falcons on the prowl, as he moved items about to make room for his own; not shoving or abusing in any way, but clearly shifting boundary-markers that others had staked out. There was a danger that the stewardess might have to intervene, and if not for this, then to quieten the passengers in the aisle behind him, who were being forced to wait until he had completed his settling in. He muttered something under his breath which I didn’t catch because I was trying to ignore him, about some people having the good fortune to get a window seat, and the lack of leg-room, and the excessive air-conditioning that would no doubt give him sinusitis. Then he stretched over me to see what view there was (I had pre-booked a seat just forward of the wing, to ensure a good one), an absurd action given that we were still on the tarmac, still hooked umbilically to the airport terminal. Then he spotted a better place for his backpack, and held up the line for several minutes more as he once again pushed other people’s belongings about in overhead compartments, while commenting audibly, to no one in particular, that everybody had a right to equal space. The stewardess, who had sensed a potential fracas even before the first hostess-bell was rung, insisted on storing the guitar safely for him, “elsewhere”; though not without a struggle on his part: clearly the guitar played a pivotal role in his life, and he clung to it like a nursing mother. As he finally elbowed and shuffled his way into the seat beside me, already making clear that we would have to fight or reach a compromise over the single arm-rest that divided us, we exchanged grunts, as strangers do who are about to sit beside each other for twelve long hours of inter-continental boredom, and who had hoped for someone prettier, and of the opposite sex.
“Half a bloody hour late already,” he complained, and I was conscious of a mild halitosis that had me reaching in my pocket for a pack of mints to offer him; but alas the new anti-terrorism laws forbad them. As he made himself uncomfortable in what was clearly for him a kind of torture cell, I looked at myself in the mirror of time for a brief second, released his seat-belt strap which I had unknowingly been sitting on, and smiled at the steward who was handing out the pre-flight boiled sweets – they were meant as an antidote to pressure-change, but they were mint, thank God; they were mint. My companion took several, then pushed his way back into the crowd of people still embarking to extract a notebook from his backpack (he was, let me explain now so that I don’t have to describe it to you every time, continuously up-and-down throughout the flight, opening the overhead locker, pulling out this book or that to find the one he wanted, stuffing the rest back in again, annoying people in the rows behind us and adjacent to us with the sort of ants-in-pants behaviour that would have had him put on medication were he still at school) and placed it, with the Indian novel, in the magazine rack on the back of the seat in front of him; then took it out again, rummaged through it as though he were seeking something in particular, failed to find it, returned it to the magazine rack, and after just a few seconds took it out again, opened it in a manner that seemed random but apparently wasn’t, read a few lines, went to the overhead locker to search for a pencil, made a jotting in the margin of the notebook, put the pencil away again, and finally returned the notebook to its library. I understood that I was meant to watch this pantomime, in order to appreciate that the person in the seat beside me was a writer, in order to be intrigued and properly respectful. Unfortunately, I wasn’t. As I have said, this young man was exactly the person I had been precisely twenty years before, the same physical appearance, the same cords and T-shirt (denim, in my case, not silk), the same anti-fashion accessories, the same idiosyncrasies, the same indifference to hygiene and good taste, the same facile self-regard, the same literary pretensions. It was precisely because I had become bored with that person (the phrase I had used to myself at the time was “narcissistic non-entity” but I have since come to recognise that this too was a literary expression, and anyway hyperbole: “person” will do) that I entered the civil service and became what I am now, a mediocre middle-rank administrator in a dull grey suit, waiting for retirement. I was bored with the man in the next seat, even before he sat down there; and worse than bored now that he had done so.
No sooner had we suffered what he called “the tedious rigmarole” and I – because it seemed imperative to counter him - “the necessity” of an emergency evacuation drill, than he, oblivious to my having my head most firmly in my book, struck up a conversation that would last until we landed: given the lengthy but unplanned stop-over in Paris because of a technical problem that took longer than expected to repair, a total of nearly eighteen hours. He shook my hand but didn’t introduce himself. Later, when he went to the washroom, I looked at the inside cover of his notebook and saw the title “A Mote In The Eye Of God, an account of a journey of successful self-discovery, by Thomas Neinsager”, though I presumed this was a pseudonym, or perhaps the name he had given to his fictional hero. If I call him Thomas in this account, it is because I have no other name to give him. Neinsager, of course, is German, though the outside of his passport, which I saw when finally we arrived, was definitely British.
Gradually I discerned, from the journey we were making and the content of his conversation, that this visit to Toronto had been forced on him. His sister had emigrated there a lifetime previously; a genuine lifetime indeed, for she had died the previous week, struck down by cancer at an early age, and he had come to take her body to be buried in the Holy Land (it was, to say the least, disquieting to realise there was a coffin in the hold). The rest of his English family had gone directly to Israel to make the funeral arrangements. But he was, he told me, a man who never travelled, a man who utterly detested travelling, and this statement, the vitriolic nature of his antipathy, was something that I probably deserved, for my own remark that provoked it was made as the plane accelerated along the runway and that momentary thrill of ecstasy swept through me as wheels and ground became divorced.
“The Icarus moment”, is what I actually mumbled, and smiled, in the certainty that my obscure allusion would be readily comprehensible to a man who wrote. He ignored me however, and so I added, and it was out before I could regret it: “Travel broadens the mind, they say. This is the moment when you can actually feel the walls expanding.”
I honestly believed I had given up pretentiousness, when I gave up my literary ambitions, twenty years before. Apparently I was wrong.
“No,” my companion replied, and his face was set most earnestly, “I can only feel my ears popping, my throat going dry, and my stomach wanting to evacuate. My one and only experience of travelling confirmed absolutely that travel narrows the mind exponentially, and the world would be a much better place if everybody stayed at home.”
I asked him why he felt that way, and his reply was as acerbic as it was instantaneous:
“Because you hope for so much, and it’s always so terribly disappointing. Or worse, because you set out in search of a touchstone, a holy grail, a golden fleece, something that will, you hope, enlighten and enrich you, maybe even explain your life. Most people never find it, and live their lives in unfulfilment. Rainbows,” he added, “exist only to torment us. To tantalise us, and thereby to torment us.”
I hoped he had finished, but after a momentary pause and a slow, deep breath, he resumed.
“I, however,” he stated, “am the exception. I found my touchstone, and took it home with me, and I have dedicated the past twenty happy years to living it, right there, at home, where it’s safest and best kept. I swore I would never make another journey, lest it damage my contentment. And now here I am, Cerberus ferrying my sister across the Styx. Forgive my nervous behaviour, this isn’t how I am in normal circumstances. But I honestly fear this second journey may destroy me.”
I had the sense that this was going to be an interesting voyage.
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