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  • Writer's pictureLindy Hughes Pfeil

Planes, trains and bumper stickers

I once saw a bumper sticker that said, “There is magic in the unexpected.” Or something like that. It was long ago. The ‘80s. Before social media. When the only way of regurgitating wisdom was on the back of a car.

I don’t recall the car’s make, or even its colour. Nor do I remember the driver. But it seemed a pretty good way of travelling through life. Optimistic. Flexible. Rolling with the punches. I admired the sentiment. Agreed with it.

Until I got stranded at an airport during a global pandemic.

I was on my way back to Canada, after spending six weeks in South Africa with my mum. She had gone into cardiac arrest during what should have been a routine medical procedure. But of course, there has been very little that has been routine since COVID began.

I had completed the first leg of my journey, from Gqebergha, in the Eastern Cape to Oliver Tambo International in Johannesburg. I had two negative COVID tests in hand, my ArriveCAN certificate, the reference number for my three-day mandatory hotel quarantine, and just in case, my AstraZeneca vaccination record. I was prepared. All I needed was a book from the airport bookstore to keep me occupied for the next two flights. And some liquorice.

Two hours after arriving at the check-in desk, it opened. The man behind the counter took my passport and, without even opening it, told me that I would not be allowed to board the plane. The Dutch authorities had apparently banned all Canadians, South Africans and Americans from entering the Netherlands. Even though the flight was still scheduled. And even though my transit time in Amsterdam would be only 55 minutes.

“It still says I can check in on my app,” I whimpered, showing him my iPhone.

“I don’t know why it says that.” Not helpful.

“What will happen if you just let me on the plane?” I whispered. This was Africa after all. I knew, from being there all those weeks, that stopping at a stop street is optional, red traffic lights are purely ornamental and rules, in general, are simply suggestions. So it was worth a try.

“We will get fined.” Oh.

Realising I was not going to board this flight, I asked “How do I get home, then?”

Four days later, via Paris, was the only option. Four days!

“Where will I stay?” I hyperventilated.

“I don’t know,” he said, looking over my shoulder, at the growing queue.

“Can I sleep in the airport?”

Apparently not.

I collapsed on the floor, in a little heap. Right there in the middle of International Departures at O.R. Tambo. I. Just. Sat.

I had not been to Johannesburg in decades. I had been warned to never take an Uber in the city. To hide all valuables when in public. And to Be Vigilant At All Times. It was 9:30 at night.

There was no magic in this kind of unexpected. Stupid bumper sticker.

Sitting cross-legged, still on the floor, between my little red suitcase and my bright pink backpack, I did what one does in emergencies – started scrolling through Facebook.

I clicked on Friends. And found Brenda (with a B, she was at the top of my list).

Brenda and I attended the same Catholic high school. We were not close friends. She was good at sport and therefore, cool. I was not good at sport, and also just sort of weird. We had last seen each other 40 years ago and had not spoken since, except for connecting on the odd occasion on Facebook.

My plan (if it could be called that) was to ask Brenda where a good (i.e. safe) place would be to stay. And how I could get there in one piece. I started texting her my garbled message and then I saw the little purple phone icon. I pressed it and suddenly I heard Brenda on the other side. Technology! She sounded exactly the same as when she was 17. She was at pottery class.

“I’m coming to get you,” she said.

She cleaned up her pottery station, hopped in her car, sped along the highway, at night, in Johannesburg, to collect me – someone she had not seen since 1981. And right there the magic began.

I spent the next four days with her. We stopped talking only long enough to dunk rusks in our coffee.

After last seeing each other 40 years earlier, Brenda and I discovered we wore the same shoes, and had similarly appalling eating habits.

The day before my flight to Paris, on her way to a meeting, Brenda dropped me outside our old high school. I wanted to go to church. Old habits are hard to kill.

The high walls and electric fence around the church and the school befuddled me for a moment. I walked by the gates three times before spotting the little buzzer. A guard appeared. He opened the gate for me only once I’d assured him that I really only wanted to pray. Now, of course, I wish I had asked him what the other options were. But then, I was so excited just to be allowed in.

There was no one in the church. No holy water. No choir. No nuns. No priest. No communion line-up. Just me and Mary and the fantastic stained glass window behind Jesus on the cross. And just like that, I was 17 again. Despite the creaky knees.

My "old" church in Rosebank.

And I missed this place. That time. Those girls.

We are scattered far and wide. Many of us had not been in touch since graduating from high school. We have loved. Lost. Some have married. Given birth. Divorced. Emigrated. Made new friends. Homes in new countries. Some of us have died.

But there is something unbreakable in the bonds formed at high school. When you are filled with hopes and dreams. Invincibility. Before real life gets its hands on you.

When I finally got back to Canada, we met on Zoom, and started getting to know each other all over again. Sharing stories. We joined in from Australia. Europe. The U.K. Canada. The U.S. South Africa. Despite the time difference. The years. The out-of-touchedness.

And just this past week, Brenda sent me a photo of her new grandson. I almost feel as though I know him.

And all because of a cancelled flight.

Magic in the unexpected indeed.

First published in the July 2021 edition of the Beacon newspaper.


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