No Direction Home
A long way from home, Duncan found himself somewhere quite unexpected.
Issue #26, Monday 26 June 2023
No Direction Home
Duncan Masters had a migraine on the flight. The worst ever, with flashing zig-zags all across his right eye, and a raging pain in his head. One of the benefits of flying business class, though, was that it was easy to get prompt attention. A flight steward brought him a couple of pills. He swallowed them down and eventually the pain began to recede and his vision clear. He was able to drift off into what turned out to be a surprisingly deep sleep, though in normal circumstances he was rarely able to sleep on international flights.
He woke to find that the steward was tapping him on the shoulder and indicating that he needed to put on his seat belt. Duncan felt the sinking feeling that indicated the aircraft was now on descent. Blinking, still very drowsy and confused, he sat up and complied. He must have been really out to it. Perhaps it was some after-effect of his migraine? Or the pills he had taken? He shook his head, but that did nothing except give him a momentary stab of pain in his left temple.
The aircraft touched down safely, and a moment later the pilot made an announcement. But Duncan couldn’t understand what she was saying. He frowned. The pilot must be speaking in some foreign language, and he’d missed the English version somehow. Perhaps he had dropped off again into a micro-sleep? He shrugged. It didn’t matter.
After the plane had taxied to the gate, the usual bustle followed as everyone gathered their belongings and trooped off the plane. Duncan checked that he had his passport and the customs and entry forms, which thankfully he had filled in earlier on the flight. He wasn’t sure that he’d be able to concentrate on them now.
Then he was in the long queue waiting to pass through border control procedures. Duncan idly looked around. There was something odd, which at first he couldn’t put his finger on. Then it came to him. He couldn’t see any signs in English. None at all. That was puzzling.
He was, of course, in a foreign country. In…in…where had he been heading? Impatient with himself, he forced himself to think. Europe. He was going to Europe, on business. He seemed to spend his life travelling to meetings or conferences. Where was it today? Italy, wasn’t that where the conference was being held? But as he looked at the signs, trying to make sense of them, he was certain that none of them were in Italian. He knew at least a smattering of that language, but the signs here weren’t even written in a script he could understand. He could see shapes which must be letters on the signs, and knew that they must spell out something, but the shapes didn’t connect in his mind with any sounds, let alone any meaning.
Then it came to him. Of course! For some reason, while he had been deeply asleep, the plane must have been forced to divert to another airport. Perhaps there had been an engine problem, or there had been an ash-cloud from some newly erupted volcano. Anyway, the plane had been forced to turn aside and land at an unplanned destination. Somewhere with its own language and its own way of writing. He felt reassured. There might be an annoying wait for another flight to Italy, but that was all. The airline would look after him, maybe put him up in a hotel if he had to wait for a long while.
He reached the immigration counter and handed over his passport and other papers. The middle-aged lady behind the counter looked them over, checked his face against the photograph in the passport, examined the forms. She pointed to one of the forms and asked him a question, which he didn’t understand. She must be speaking in the language of this country, wherever it was. Duncan had a moment of panic, but decided simply to nod and hope. He smiled. A smile always defuses suspicion, doesn’t it? In any case, it seemed to satisfy the official. She nodded in return and stamped the form and the passport, and Duncan went on. He felt very uncomfortable, though. He didn’t even know where he was. That was an odd feeling.
What now? Well, he’d have to sort things out with the airline and see how long it would take to get another flight. He looked about, and finally recognized the logo of the airline over a service counter. As he went towards it, however, he started to become uneasy. He could recognize the symbol and the colors of the logo—it was impossible that he was mistaken about that. But the words underneath, and the sign on the counter in front of the attendant were written in the same incomprehensible script that he now saw everywhere.
There was another puzzle as he joined the queue. It was so short—there were only two people in front of him. But why weren’t there dozens of passengers from the diverted plane queuing here to find out what the airline was going to do about re-booking them onto connecting flights? Perhaps…maybe…no, he must have missed an important announcement while he had been asleep. The pilot would have explained why they were being diverted and must surely have directed the passengers to go to a particular location once they disembarked. He had missed the instructions, that was all. A pity they hadn’t been repeated. Still, the airline staff here would soon set him right.
He reached the counter. The customer service representative, a plump middle-aged woman, smiled and greeted him. He didn’t understand the words, but her intent was obvious.
He launched into his account of how the plane had been diverted (although surely they knew that well enough by now?), and showed her his boarding pass. The woman frowned and asked him a question. But not in English.
“I don’t understand,” Duncan said. “Can’t you speak English?”
The woman’s frown deepened, and she said something else which Duncan didn’t fathom.
Now, normally Duncan was a placid sort of person, able to cope easily with minor irritations, unlike some people he knew, who would start yelling and making demands if their pizza delivery arrived a minute late or was missing a topping. But this was all very annoying, and he was feeling more and more anxious. He started to become more animated.
“Why don’t you speak English?” he demanded. “How can you work for an American airline and not speak English, for God’s sake? Isn’t there anyone here who can talk to me?”
The woman flushed at his angry tone, and she shook her head slightly before turning to a man standing not far away, obviously her supervisor. He approached and spoke to Duncan. But it was still in that maddening foreign language.
“Damn it, this is ridiculous!” Duncan said in a loud voice, thumping his fist down on the counter. “Get a translator, then. Someone—anyone—who can understand plain English.”
The man’s eyes narrowed and he said something in a placating tone. He handed the boarding pass back to Duncan and shook his head.
Now Duncan was really angry. “For Christ’s sake, I need to get to Italy. Italy! Italia! Rome! Roma! Capische?” He realized belatedly that he had begun to shout, but he couldn’t stop himself. “Your damn airline brought me to the wrong place. It’s your responsibility to fix it, to get me where I’m going. I swear I’m going to sue the airline and sue you personally if I don’t get some help soon. Find someone who can understand me!” And he mimicked a mouth opening and closing with his hand.
The supervisor made calming motions with his hands and then pressed a button on the woman’s console. Using simple signs, he indicated to Duncan that he should sit down on a bank of chairs opposite the counter.
Grumbling, Duncan did as he was bid. He tried to regain his composure. His doctor had been warning him recently about his blood pressure. All of this nonsense wouldn’t be helping that, not one little bit.
There was something seriously wrong here. All of these signs in a script he couldn’t read. All of these people speaking some incomprehensible gobbledygook. It was all wrong, wrong, wrong. He felt so alien, so out of place. There was a kind of continuous prickle of wrongness all over his skin. He shivered, tried to breathe slowly and steadily.
A minute later, though, and his blood pressure must have shot up alarmingly again. Two burly security guards came up to the counter, and the supervisor pointed at Duncan. The men turned towards him, and one drew out a taser.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Duncan leapt to his feet, and abandoning his carry-on bag, ran for his life.
The guards shouted and raced after him, but panic drove him to run faster still.
A trolley piled high with luggage trundled in front of Duncan, but he dodged behind it, and shoved at the orange-uniformed man pushing the trolley so that he stumbled and fell over with a cry.
Hidden by the piled luggage, and briefly out of sight of the pursuing guards, Duncan dodged around a corner. There were shops everywhere here, selling handbags and jewelry, duty-free alcohol, cameras and so on. He hurried through a camera shop and then into a bookstore. He moved quickly behind a rack of magazines, then picked one up and held it in front of his face. After a moment, he risked a peek over the top of the magazine and saw the two guards run by, not looking in his direction.
Duncan waited for some time, letting his breathing and heart rate settle back to a normal pace. After all, what had he done wrong? Nothing, really, except lose his temper. That had been a mistake.
What should he do now? It was clear that he wasn’t going to get any sense out of the airline staff here at the airport. He spent a little time enjoying thinking about the furious letter that he would write to the airline once he got back home from here. Wherever here was. He glanced at the magazine he was holding in front of him. Though he was pretending to read it, it was incomprehensible, as were all of the others in the rack he was standing behind. Not one of them was readable, all were in that bizarre foreign language.
About five minutes later, still hiding behind the magazine, he glimpsed the baffled guards heading back towards the airline counter. He abandoned his thoughts of going back there for his carry-on bag. There was nothing in it which he couldn’t easily replace. He needed to get out of the terminal, get into the city. There was sure to be an American consulate there. He’d find that, and they would help him.
Avoiding going anywhere near the airline counter, he found his way to the baggage collection area, following a series of standard universal icons which were impossible to mistake. He grabbed his suitcase, by now the only item still circulating on the loop, and headed for the exit, also indicated by a familiar icon. He waited patiently in the queue for a taxi.
The driver popped the trunk and threw Duncan’s bag in. Then he climbed back into the driver’s seat and said something, a question. Duncan didn’t understand a word, but it was obvious he was being asked where he wanted to go. For a moment he was baffled. How could he direct the driver without knowing his language?
But it was daylight, and in the distance, Duncan could see the skyscrapers of a modern city. He simply pointed. “There!” he said, and the driver shrugged and started off.
It was quite a long ride, and on the way Duncan was looking out at every building. Not a single sign bore any words he understood, not even on the billboards for familiar brands like Coca-Cola, though he recognised the logo easily enough. This was a strange country. Again, that shiver and unease, that feeling of being out of place, an utter alien.
The taxi reached what was clearly the central business district of the foreign city. Foreign, but judging by the dress and coloring of the majority of the people on the street, it was a Western society, or one heavily influenced by it. Yet what such society used a written script which he couldn’t pronounce, let alone read? Duncan racked his brains, but couldn’t think of any such place.
The driver was asking him another question. Judging by his annoyed expression, he must have been asking for some time. “Oh, here, here,” Duncan said, and pointed to the nearby sidewalk. He would get out and walk, ask everyone he met if they could direct him to the American consulate. It might take a while, but he would get there.
First, though, he had to pay the driver, who now had his hand out and was looking suspiciously at Duncan. “How much?” Duncan asked. He’d be damned if he would give the man a tip. The driver tapped the display on his meter. Duncan looked at the brightly-lit red LEDs. He couldn’t understand what they were showing. That gave him pause. Surely everywhere used standard Arabic numerals, which looked like…which looked like…he frowned. His head hurt. A common LED display like that shouldn’t be showing numbers he couldn’t understand. It didn’t make any sense.
The driver was becoming impatient, and angry. He shouted at Duncan. Desperate, Duncan pulled out his wallet. He didn’t want to risk any problem with his credit cards, so he pulled out a bunch of notes and started handing them to the man. American banknotes. US dollars were acceptable almost everywhere, weren’t they? At any rate, there was no problem. The driver’s angry expression vanished, and he took three notes—two Jacksons and one Grant—before refusing the rest. Did that include a tip? Who could tell?
Then, as Duncan started to put the money back into his wallet, he stopped. He looked hard at the notes. Really hard. He recognized the engravings of the Presidents. He had two Benjamin Franklins, three Ulysses S. Grants, two Lincolns and a handful of Washingtons. But every single word on the notes was incomprehensible. The figures in the corners were surely numbers. What numbers, though? Duncan found that he didn’t know.
The taxi driver was becoming impatient again, and Duncan stumbled out. The driver popped the boot and brusquely handed Duncan his case, spat what sounded like a curse, and then drove off with a squeal of tires.
Duncan stood on the sidewalk, glancing down at the money and then back up at his surroundings.
With a sinking, sickening feeling, he pulled out a couple of his credit cards. The logos were familiar, and he knew the cards were his own—he recognized that scratch across the corner of his Amex card. But the words…he couldn’t read any of the words, nor recognize the digits.
There was something wrong, all right. But for the first time Duncan realized that what was wrong was him.
He stopped the first person who came by, who shrugged him off with an oath. Then the next, and the next. “Help me,” he pleaded.
No one understood.
© Copyright David R. Grigg. All rights reserved.
Image generated by Wombo AI.
About this story
This was written on commission for an anthology called The Art of Losing, edited by Daniel Scott White, and published in 2015.
I’m no longer sure where the idea came from: just a meditation on various kinds of loss, I suppose.
See you next time!