I went to Shetland this week, first taking a train to Aberdeen and then an overnight ferry out to the islands. It was a grand adventure.
I’d originally decided to rough it on the ferry by sleeping not in a cabin or even one of the poorly reviewed “sleeping pods,” essentially a reclining Marty Crane-style barcalounger with blinkers, but in one of the standard airline-style seats. In the end, I crumpled and paid a little extra for a sleeping pod. It took away my twin concerns of how I’d charge my phone (because the pods have built-in USB chargers) and that I might end up sitting with a drunken Shinty team who wanted to party all night long in plastic Viking helmets. That’s the kind of luck I have when travelling sometimes.
In the end there were no party people, but I was happy to have made the minor upgrade nonetheless. Those roughing it in the standard seats didn’t look wholly uncomfortable but they were certainly crammed together and they were at the mercy of the sunrise. No place for vampires. Conversely, the sleeping pod room had dipped lights and was practically silent. There was hardly anyone in the room, which suited me just fine.
One thing struck me as potentially imperfect, however, and it was that the pod chairs came in twos. There had been an assumption in the design process that most people would travel with a partner. A solo traveller, I felt glad that the room was so empty and that I wouldn’t have to sleep next to a stranger. The armrest dividing the two recliners was slight. It would be practically like sharing a bed with them. How could anyone cope with that?
Maybe you’d get lucky and end up with a good-looking partner and you could lie there feeling titillated. I can’t speak for everyone but this would make me feel like a terrible creep and I wouldn’t like it at all. But wouldn’t that be better than being paired with a snoring, farting walrus of a travelling salesman? Or an angry mohawked punk rocker who liked to play with knives? I’m actually not sure which scenario would be worse.
These were the thoughts that went through my mind, stopping me from sleeping, for much of the crossing. I spent my two Shetland days in a near-shamanic state, dream-walking through columns of ancient stone.
On the return journey, I boarded the ferry and once again went straight to my sleeping pod. This time, my pod was in a slightly different sort of room. The lights were not dipped and one bulkhead was lined with bright, sunny windows.
Hmm, I thought. Okay. I can handle this. So long as I’m not given a neighbour, that is! Even as the thought took shape, I knew in my heart I’d be given a neighbour. This ferry seemed busier than the last one; I’d queued for slightly longer while boarding. Urgh. As well as my terror of having to essentially sleep with a stranger to secure cheap passage back to Aberdeen, mine was a window seat which meant I’d have to bother them whenever I wanted the toilet or simply to exercise my freedom by going for a walk around the deck.
The neighbour came up and said, “have I understood properly that this is Seat 10?”
“Yes,” I said.
“I think we’re going to be neighbours.”
He seemed friendly and almost apologetic, but there was something offputtingly zany about him too. He wore an ironical smile and a pair of patched, multi-coloured trousers like something a trainee juggler might wear. He was perhaps 20 and reminded me of the Little Prince. I couldn’t sleep next to the Little Prince. I just couldn’t. Not tonight, not ever. I’d feel like a nonce. Maybe it would turn me into one. Aren’t you one? said something evil in my brain. NO I AM NOT said another bit of my brain. It’s difficult being insane.
“Oh that’s just perfect,” I said, unable to hide my distaste.
The lad looked crestfallen. I hadn’t meant to be unfriendly but the lack of sleep had clearly made me incapable of disguising my thoughts. Obviously, few people would really want a neighbour in these situations but there was something in the way I’d said “Oh that’s just perfect” that sounded personal, that I’d judged him by his age or possibly his trousers and I might not have rejected someone else.
“Let’s see how things go,” I said, trying to sound more friendly, “and one of us can move later if there are still spare seats. Then we’ll both have plenty of room.”
“It looks like a busy crossing,” he said. Did he want to sleep next to me? Why? I’m almost 40 and I hadn’t showered in three days if you didn’t count the rain shower I’d endured at the Broch of Clickimin. My beard and hair were long and Jesussy and I looked like someone who’d been on a vision quest, which I sort of had.
He left his rucksack on the seat next to mine and went out to the bar. I spotted him later when I went for a walk, reading a magazine with his headphones in and still wearing that same ironical smile. We avoided each other’s gaze.
When I saw an attendant, I asked if I could switch to another sleeping pod room and he asked why. “The, um, Little Prince,” I said, gesturing toward the bar with my thumb as if he’d immediately see my position.
“I’m sorry?” said the attendant and, trying a different tack, I explained that the window seat made me feel claustrophobic.
“The window seat makes you feel claustrophobic?” he asked, presumably contemplating the wide, even desirable, vistas across the sea.
I explained that I prefer the aisle and that was that. He said I should come back and ask again in half an hour when the Captain had emailed the full manifest and he’d know where to reseat me. I enjoyed this minor insight into how the ferry was organised.
I went back to my sleeping pod with the intention of waiting out the half-hour for the Captain to send his email and then fell asleep at the window while watching our gentle passage through the sea.
When I woke briefly in the night and looked around in mild disorientation, I saw that the Little Prince had silently collected his rucksack while I drooled unconsciously at the window. I felt terrible.