My wife and I are at the airport of a European capital city. It’s late on a Friday evening, the last flight of the day. The carrier is well-known to us all, loved for its efficiency and frequency of service.
We begin to assemble in a line, sharing tired smiles, shifting from foot to foot.
But something is wrong. At first we do not see it, we apprehend it by its noise. From somewhere in the departure lounge a high-pitched moaning sound is starting to bounce off the walls. A child. A screaming child.
We shift from foot to foot some more, exchanging more wan smiles. ‘Been there, done that, got the T-shirt!’ a woman says to us. ‘Hope I’m not next to them on the plane!’ says a man.
The screaming is getting worse. I see them up ahead, on tiptoe. The child, a boy, is leaning back, rigid, perpendicular to the floor, in his mother’s arms. Her mother and the boy’s older sister are standing close by, watching in helpless silence.
He is howling, wordlessly. Sound is pouring from him in waves, his face blotchy with tears and snot.
Now there are nervous glances from everyone in the queue.
As we inch forward, the plane we are about to board comes into view, through the windows of the lounge. Before long we stand waiting in a much smaller space between the boarding desk and the pier to the jet.
If anything the howling has got worse. The mother is comforting her bawling child, but every attempt she makes is rebuffed with his rigid, deliberate wriggling. She puts him on the floor for a moment and the screaming abates. But the boy is crawling away from her, leaving her no choice but to pick him up again.
In desperation she hands him to her mother. The howling is worse now, feeding on itself, enveloping the whole room.
I look around at the other passengers. No one is even exchanging nervous glances now, let alone snide commentary. No one is looking anywhere. Or rather, we are looking anywhere but at the mother and her raging child. Even the mother stares into the middle distance, her face fixed with fury and embarrassment, lest she should catch anyone’s eye.
Mercifully, we begin to board the plane.
The plane is almost full when we see them, the boy now peaceful in his mother’s arms, talking quietly but excitedly about the things he can see on the plane. Just as we notice that the row in front of us is empty, the family dive into it, our jokes coming back to haunt us.
My wife and I exchange glances. She gives me a wink. ‘It was meant to be,’ she says, ‘baby whisperer.’ This is her code for the enjoyment she gets from watching me running through my repertoire of nursery rhymes, gurning, peek-a-boo games and lullabies in situations such as these. I have used them in supermarkets, waiting rooms, children’s parties and trains, but never a plane.
In the event, I need none of them. The boy sits happily on his seat looking out of the window, pointing at the runway: ‘Look mummy, a castle!’ he says. He behaves beautifully for the rest of the journey. He eats a small meal, drinks his drink and chats merrily away to his mother, her face now thawing.
As the cabin crew announces the start of our descent, the boy jams his face into the gap between the seats in front of us. He pulls a face, then smiles. We ask him if he likes watching the lights. He nods, gravely, then goes back to the window. ‘I think it’s been raining,’ he announces.
The remainder of the journey passes without incident.
I am relieved rather than pleased that my lullabies were not called into action. I was confident in their balming ability. I believe poetry can do that. But I can’t forget the looks, or rather the non-looks, of my fellow passengers. In emergencies there is always a lullaby. But to make them we need to look.