Nobody noticed him at first. He was secretively brought on to the plane via the back door, after we had all found our seats and jammed our hand luggage into whatever overhead locker space was available.
We’d caught an early morning flight from Paris to Amsterdam – the sort of irksome short leg of a long trip that economy-class travellers find themselves booking online to save that extra twenty bucks. Now we were waiting for takeoff on the haul to Dubai.
I was flying home to Oz after attending the first day’s play of the Lord’s test match in June and then travelling around England for a few weeks with my wife. We’d stopped in Paris long enough for me to be pick-pocketed in an Arab market near the Barbès-Rochechouart metro and to meet up for reunion drinks with a darling old friend from Sydney.
Crammed uncomfortably into cargo class, I flicked through the in-flight entertainment guide, planning my movie marathon, checking out the vegetarian meals that we’d be force-fed at whatever ungodly hours and trying not to think too much about the arse-breaking journey that awaited us before we arrived in Brisbane. The red-eyed drive to Goonengerry was still a lost day away – or was it a gained day? … Then I became aware of a disturbance in the last row.
‘No, man! No, no!’
A 6.35am departure for an international flight can fray anybody’s nerves. Negotiating the star chamber of passport control, where for some reason I always feel like Richard Kimble standing in front of Lieutenant Gerard, and being frisked by airport security before you’ve even had time for a croissant and café au lait is no way to start the day. But there was something in the tone of the plaintiff’s voice that suggested he was involved in more than just a petty dispute over who had the aisle and who the window.
‘Please man, why are you doing this to me?’
I turned to see two burly young white guys grappling with a tall skinny black man in a colourless frayed T-shirt. He might have been 20, but he might as easily have been 40. Poverty hollows the face, alienation drains it of hope, despair nourishes only fear in its countenance – ageing is not just about the passage of years.
Except for their bulging biceps, the younger guys would on any suburban Sunday have passed for a pair of shiny Seventh-Day Adventists. Glass-eyed and tattless, with blond crewcuts, they wore short-sleeved, freshly ironed shirts and skinny dark ties. Their jaws were clenched tight and you could see that they were flexing every muscle to keep the wiry African under control.
It was also obvious that they felt no enmity towards the black man. They were simply doing their job, but doing it as though on a stage, self-conscious in the knowledge that they were being closely watched by an impatient audience that was getting increasingly pissed off with the delay’s disruption of their agendas. The boys’ focus was intense, their detachment as cold as ice – as cold as ‘it’s nothing personal’ always is. To the black man, however, it was real personal.
We all have our own unimpeachable views on refugees. A tide of homeless humanity has engulfed Europe but merely lapped at the shores of the wide brown land, notwithstanding the pathetic hysteria it has provoked from our Aussie Aussie Aussie champions of the fair go.
I’m neither more nor less sanctimonious than any of my friends – which is to say that I regard the ‘stop the boats’ faction as morally bankrupt at best, racist at worst. Although, if anything, my heart hardened towards the Other after that grub in Paris mugged me. I’m no saint.
Also, like most of my friends, I’ve never done anything that might remotely contribute to solving the problem – other than to ‘like’ a Facebook page that denounces the policies of those who are elected to deal with it. It’s so easy to feel good about yourself online.
‘Come on, man. Please don’t do this to me… Please, man.’
By now everybody in the rear section of the plane was rubbernecking the drama. The crewcuts went about their task unanimated, deaf to the black man’s exhortations. ‘The banality of evil’ came to mind, but surely it was an ordeal for the boys, too. I felt no anger towards them, and I am less inclined to now, after the horror of November 13.
‘He is being returned to the Sudan.’
The Dutch flight attendant noticed that my wife had been reduced to tears. I might have said that she presented the serene and soothing smile of Nurse Ratchett – but that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? Judging people, reducing them to stereotypes. She was as powerless as the black man. As powerless as the white boys.
‘We deal with them regularly,’ she added, ‘but usually they go quietly. We’re not permitted to sedate them. I’m so sorry for the disturbance. Can I offer you a complimentary drink?’
Before we took off, the black man’s ankles and wrists were manackled.
‘Don’t send me back, man. It’s my life. Please man… I want my freedom.’
Shortly before our descent to Dubai, I made a trip to the loo. Returning to my seat, I couldn’t help but glance down to the black man in the back row. He’d not slept a wink, I was sure of it. He looked straight at me. His eyes were uncomprehending, fearful.
I have no idea where he’ll be spending his Christmas –or even if he is still alive.
I’d never heard a man cry for his freedom.
Peace on Earth.