The man beside me on the plane took off his shoes and socks to cut his toenails
Michael Harding: I kept telling myself it was funny, although I had sporadic urges to open the emergency door and shove him and his toenails into space
“He woke up half way to Riga and took off his shoes, sniffed his socks, then bared his feet; it was like being in a movie with Charlie Chaplin”
I used to love Doctor Who when I was a child. He lived in a telephone kiosk; it was bigger on the inside than on the outside; and when he was inside he could travel through time and space.
Which is not unlike a monastery. When I step inside it, there is nothing quite the same as on the outside. And in poetic terms, I can flit from one end of eternity to the other without the botheration of ordinary life. Which is why I headed for Belarus at the end of August; I wanted a break from ordinary things.
The first leg of the journey was a three-hour flight to Riga in an aisle seat with place to stretch my legs, for which I had paid extra money. I closed my eyes and rejoiced because there was even a spare seat between me and the man at the window.
He was whispering into his phone as the stewards steered the final passengers to their seats. But his voice grew gradually louder and more bitter.
Before the plane even moved onto the runway he melted down like a nuclear power station. He dug into the person on the phone with all the colours and venom of a rabid dog.
“What are you saying now?” he hissed. “You dirty liar! You’re a hypocrite! It’s funny you talking about me cheating when it was you going to your brother behind me back and him trying to fix you up with all sorts of men.”
I felt I was in a Martin McDonagh play. As they say in Cavan, he was fit to be tied. And I was thinking maybe in fact he should be tied, before we lifted off.
What might happen if he wants a Pepsi when the trolley comes round and they only have Coke? He’d lose possession of himself entirely, I was thinking. And if he did pull the emergency hatch which was next to his window seat, I’d be the first one sucked out the door and into an episode of Doctor Who.
On he went at the poor creature on the other end of the line, sneering at her, and calling her crude names that wouldn’t be fit for print even in a Martin MacDonagh script.
As the plane careered down the runway he closed the phone and by the time we were above the clouds he had loosened his seatbelt, pushed his seat back into the nose of someone behind him, and closed his eyes. I prayed he might fall fast asleep.
But no such luck. He woke up half way to Riga and took off his shoes, sniffed his socks, then bared his feet; it was like being in a movie with Charlie Chaplin.
He got a scissors from his pocket and started cutting his toenails. Which is something I had never before experienced at 30,000 feet. I kept telling myself it was funny, although I had sporadic urges to open the emergency door myself, and shove him and his toenails into space. When he was finished he returned his dainty little toes to their socks, and then to their boots, and went back asleep.
Other than that it was a pleasant flight, and from Riga to Minsk it was pure bliss flying through the clouds.
I have two friends in Minsk. One is a married woman who works in a hospital and is a very practical person. The other is a dreaming woman, like a character out of a Dostoyevsky novel.
Both of them were waiting for me when I emerged from the airport building and they drove me through the rain as far as the monastery door and then bade me farewell.
“We hope you have a happy time reflecting on life,” the Dostoyevsky woman said, and the practical woman gave me an old Nokia phone with her number and said to call her if I had any difficulties.
But just as in an episode of Doctor Who, it is impossible to explain what happened next. Except that I disappeared for a week, in through the big wooden doors of the monastery.
It was like crossing the threshold of the universe, into some mystical cosmos of childhood where everything was good and beautiful and smelled of incense.
And then in the blink of an eye the week was over, and I was on the street again, staring at a taxi that would take me back to the airport, and hoping there would be no one on the plane with smelly feet.