The flight was interminable.
The seats were good, then food was superb; it was the company that didn’t so much agree with him. For a one month old the boy had lungs, he had to admit that much. Flight officials had quibbled about allowing such a young child to fly halfway around the world, but Karl’s eminent company stature meant that he was afforded liberties of this nature. His initial plan had been to offload the infant to passing airhostesses whenever there was an issue; alas, he was soon discovering that all they were trained to do was make a lot of garbled noises that annoyed Karl almost as much as the sound of his own baby crying – that still sounded strange, his own baby; he was only 30 years’ old, for Christ’s sake – even then the wretched infant didn’t stop crying.
He felt ashamed, understanding what it’s like from the perspective of other passengers when a baby onboard a flight screams for the duration; he had been one of those passengers. There were moments of peace, moments where the baby fell silent; in these moments Karl tried to catch two or three winks of sleep. The problem with that, he was so excited by the fact that the baby had stopped making noise and so anticipative about when it might start again, that of course he couldn’t sleep. So other than those few moments of quietude, the journey thus far was bedlam. He spotted a young stewardess who he’d hitherto not seen, making her way unsteadily along the aisle, and waved her down. “Excuse me, Miss,” he whispered, his voice hoarse from pleading with the child, “please help me.”
“OK sir, what seems to be the problem?” she responded with all the enthusiasm of a trainee whose spirit has yet to be crushed by The Man.
Karl looked at her as if she was slow, turned to his wailing baby then back to her, and uttered in quiet disbelief, “Really?”
“OK sir, is that your baby?” the stewardess asked with an exemplary display of inflexion over the last syllable that most Kiwi girls do so well.
“Yes,” said Karl, still in a disbelieving tone, “it is.”
“OK sir, do you want some help?”
“Yes please,” he whispered, running a tormented hand through his hair, “just make it be silent, please.”
“OK sir,” the girl said, leaning over and caressing the baby’s dome, “how about I see what I can do.” With that she slipped in beside Karl taking the spare seat between him and the child. The stewardess then unbuckled the baby’s seatbelt, removed him from his seat and started bouncing him gently on her lap. Karl had to admit, she appeared to know what she was doing.
“Oh, you’re so special, aren’t you, who’s a little cutie pie…” she murmured to the baby, then turning to the father, asked, “…What’s its name?”
“Oh sorry,” said Karl “I called him Kahn, after his mother.”
“Oh, how cute, little Kahn, little baby Kahn – does Kahn want his bottle?’
“No,” said Karl with a hint of irritation, “he’s just had it, he should be fine.”
“Oh right, um, it’s probably his ears then – are your ears popping, little baby Kahn?”
“Just to clarify” – glancing sideways to read the girl’s nametag, sarcasm oozing from every orifice – “Bethany, he doesn’t actually speak yet, so if you’re hoping for some sort of response…”
“Oh no, that’s fine,” Bethany chirruped, undeterred, “we’re still getting our points across, aren’t we, little baby Kahn?” To Karl’s further distaste the girl then started emitting some sort of low-pitched gurgling sounds while jiggling the baby on her lap; for the first time the father heard the sound of his son’s laughter. He looked over to see the girl playing childish games with the delighted boy. “Oh, what a cute little birthmark,” he heard her gush.
Karl had no knowledge of a birthmark.
The airhostess continued eliciting all manner of sounds from the infant and two minutes after that Kahn was asleep. Karl was in awe. “Wow. You’re brilliant.”
“I’m a woman,” said Bethany matter-of-factly, placing Kahn back in his seat.
“Even for a woman, I think you’re brilliant – do you have kids, Bethany?”
“Ah, no, I don’t,” she replied somewhat uncomfortably, turning back to Karl and looking for an opening to stand and leave, “I am only 21, sir.”
“Oh,” said Karl, keen show his appreciation to the girl while making up for the way he’d treated her so callously, “well, you’re clearly a natural – do you want kids, Bethany?”
“Um, yes, I do, sir … very much…” her voice trailed off as she looked down at her feet and shifted uncomfortably in the seat next to Karl.
“Well,” he said, turning to inspect her features more closely, “pretty girl like you, I’m surprised there’s any issue at all.” For the next few awkward seconds, without the baby’s wailing, all that could be heard across the plane was the impenetrable audio of background chatter mingled with the occasional cough.
“Oh, well,” Bethany abruptly stood, “look, sir, I can’t just sit here chatting all day, I really have to go and help other passengers with -”
“But I thought you were still helping me, you know, with Kahn,” he said, cutting her off.
She hesitated for a moment, thinking of airline rules, regulations, policies, etiquette and such, before saying, “Oh, OK then,” and reluctantly resuming her seat.
“Tell me about yourself, Bethany.”
Severe turbulence took hold of the plane for the next minute or so, causing unrest among passengers but not, thankfully, waking the sleeping child in the seat over from them.
“Ah, what did you want to know, sir?”
“You can cut the ‘sir’ crap for start,” Karl ordered with a grin, “we’re chatting.”
“Oh, OK, but I thought I was helping with -”
“You are,” he said with a chuckle, “let’s just say you’re helping me with the untimely death of my wife.”
Bethany swung to face Karl. Her face was agape. Karl wore the impassive expression of a seasoned salesman. Eventually recovering Bethany managed to choke out the words, “What? … Your wife is dead?”
“Yes,” said Karl Solemnly, “she died giving birth to her son.”
“Oh, that’s terrible,” she said with genuine emotion, something Karl guessed was seldom seen in her line of work, “so … Can I ask … What happened?”
“You can,” he waited until Bethany had become suitably uncomfortable before continuing. “She went into labour, the baby breached, apparently there were further complications – as if passing a backwards baby isn’t complicated enough – causing her to suffer horrendous blood loss, also unimaginable pain – for which she refused to accept any kind of assistance – pain meds or in fact any drugs at all – against her native country’s custom, she reckoned – until it killed her.”
The airhostess to Karl’s right was clearly aghast that anybody should speak so candidly on the topic of their wife’s death, which, judging by the baby’s age, was a decidedly recent death. They sat in silence for what felt to Bethany like a lifetime worth of personal discomfort, until finally she broke the stalemate.
“…So, your wife -”
“Ah, no, your wife … What was her name?”
Confusion came at Bethany from all sides, slapping her across the face, telling her how stupid she was; assuring her that she wasn’t good enough. “No,” she tried again, her voice rising, cracking; her face now burning from the embarrassment, “your wife.”
“Bethany, as I said, my wife’s name was Kahn.”
“What?” confusion, embarrassment, bewilderment, misunderstanding, bemusement, all of Bethany’s greatest foes joined forces to deliver one almighty slap to her self confidence. She felt tears forming at the corners of her eyes. She knew her mascara was running. The forefinger of her left hand confirmed this. Again she made to stand up and move out. “I’m sorry, sir,” she mumbled as she laboriously shuffled past Karl’s long legs.
“What’s the matter?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” she said again, “I didn’t understand.”
“Bethany,” Karl said softly, “not understanding is not something to be sorry for, I probably wasn’t making myself clear anyway. Now sit down.”
She sat down.
“As I mentioned, Bethany, I called my son Kahn, after my late wife. Do you understand that?”
“Yes, I’m sorry, sir, I just, I get confused -”
“Bethany,” he looked at the forlorn stewardess with her pretty face all made up and her blonde hair done so nicely with her blue dress looking so chic, “stop being so sorry.”
“I’ll ignore that. You are a beautiful young woman. You should not be sorry for anything that you do, that is the pretty girl’s prerogative. Understand?”
“I think so … All except that last word.”
“Prerogative, or understand?”
“No,” Bethany laughed, “I’m pretty sure even I understand what understand means.”
“Your prerogative is your right. You are a beautiful young woman. As a beautiful young woman, it is your right to live a life free from restraint, oppression, or ever having to say you’re sorry.”
She laughed again, “Thank you sir, you’ve made me feel a lot better. It was just so confusing because I didn’t remember that you’d said you’d named your baby after your dead wife and then I wanted to ask about your wife and you kept saying ‘Kahn’ but I knew that was your baby’s name and I thought Kahn was only a boy’s name anyway…”
It was Karl’s turn to laugh, “I see how you might have been confused, and I’m sorry for confusing you, because you’re right, Khan is typically a boy’s name. In fact my late wife was christened Khanum, which is the female alternative to the male version, Kahn, which means, commander, or leader. But once she reached New Zealand she shortened it to just, Khan, for simplicity, hence, my son’s name. Khan.”
“Thank you, sir,” Bethany said triumphantly, “I understand, as is my perogative.”
“I’m glad,” said Karl, “but I know it’s selfish of me to have kept you so long, so I‘ll let you get back to it.”
“Oh, alright,” she said, standing up, “but can I just ask you one more question?”
“You most certainly can, Bethany,” he cheered, “after all, without questions, we would be a very dull people.”
“Oh, OK … Well, I’m just wondering, why you’d be taking your baby to such a horrible place as North Korea?”
“It can’t be that ‘horrible’, surely?”
“Well, I’m not trying to put you off, but I hear it’s pretty awful…”
“It can’t be that bad, Bethany, after all, that awfully horrible place produced my darling wife.”
“Oh, gosh, I’m sorry, I -”
“Bethany, what did we just say?” Karl jokingly admonished.
“Oh, no, it’s just, I didn’t know.”
“I know you didn’t know, therefore, you don’t have to be sorry.”
“Oh, OK, thanks,” she whispered before sliding back into isle.
As she walked away to assist another passenger Karl smiled and remembered how he’d performed similar esteem-building techniques on his wife; such a diffident and downtrodden young woman she had been.
Another round of turbulence struck the plane, not as bad as the first, but bad enough to wake a sleeping child. Karl turned his gaze to the right, antipathy dripping from his features as he focused now on the child’s tiny uvula, vibrating uncontrollably as so many vociferous sound waves accosted the air around it.
“Don’t worry Kahn, almost home now,” he whispered to himself.