Given the choice of sitting next to a hijacker on a long flight, or a small child in the under-five age bracket, most people would take the hijacker every time. They would also mostly agree that infants are at the peak of their prowess for causing unalleviated excitement and high drama as they reach the critical age of two-and-a-half. Until that age they can usually be bribed or otherwise distracted into harmless gurgling, or even sleep, with relatively little parental cunning, and after that age most infants start to show at least a glimmer of response to parental directives.
At two-and-a-half however, they have all the character traits of the worlds' most successful dictators; ruthless determination, no scruples of any kind, the need for the unswerving loyalty and dedication of their subjects, and a complete and utter disregard for the sensibilities of the rest of the human race. They also have built-in surveillance attributes which would have saved many a fallen dictator; an owl-like ability to swivel their heads through almost a full circle and the stamina to stay awake almost indefinitely.
The tale which I will now relate took place on a transatlantic flight. Only two of the passengers need any detailed introduction. The first is a young (thirty-something) woman who was sitting in an aisle seat and travelling alone. She looked as if she had walked out of the pages of the fashion magazine she was reading, or perhaps pretending to read. She had long blonde hair and wore an expensive white silk blouse, highlighted with eye-catching earrings and a matching brooch. Her face was the kind that could launch a thousand Exocets, a latter- day Helen of Troy. Young red-blooded male passengers (and in fact male passengers of any age and with blood of any colour) would make obviously unnecessary sorties along the aisle past her seat for a closer look, and when on one occasion she rose to retrieve something from the overhead luggage rack, there was almost a collision as several passengers in adjacent seats sprang up to offer assistance.
I never did discover her name - let us call her Miss Mirage; unfortunately she had an egocentric personality which belied her looks. She used the call-button several times to ask for coffee, or nail polish remover or other trivia when it was obvious that the flight attendants were run off their feet with a full complement of passengers. No one that I know would even think of pressing the call-button unless the seat had caught fire or they saw an engine fall off or something equally urgent. Miss Mirage also seemed to regard the four toilets as her personal powder rooms, any one of which was likely to be commandeered for up to twenty minutes at a time for complete facial renovation and hair styling, following the taking of any nourishment or snoozing for even a few minutes. Meanwhile mothers of small children with urgent business had to make do with a twenty-five percent reduction in facilities.
The other passenger, but for whom there would be no tale to tell, was sitting across the aisle from me, and a few seats further on from Miss Mirage. One seat further over was this passenger's Mother. The passenger in question was almost certainly exactly two-and-a-half years old give or take a few days, and rejoiced in the improbable name of Maximillian.
I knew trouble was brewing shortly after take off when his Mother, with infinite circumspection, began a process of rocking him gently and slowly into a horizontal position. At this point he had his thumb in his mouth and his mind in neutral and things might have stayed that way but for his Mother's unnecessary and ill-timed intervention. She had succeeded in bringing him down to an angle of almost forty-five degrees when his built-in alarm was triggered. The eyes which had started to glaze over and slowly close, now snapped into red- alert surveillance mode, along with the rest of his psyche. He sat bolt upright, removed his thumb from storage and then assessed his situation and formulated a strategy with a speed and panache which Gengis Khan himself would have envied.
The opening gambit was to stand on the seat and get in a few minutes worth of aerobics, improvising with any equipment which looked remotely suitable. The table, stored in its "upright position" was an obvious choice and Maximillian took about five milliseconds to un-store it with his incredibly powerful fingers and use it as if pumping water from a deep well, slamming it up to the seat and then down again with undiminishing power and effect. His Mother, after pleas from the unfortunate passenger in the seat to which the table was attached, finally lowered the boom and restrained Maximillian forcibly from any further pursuit of his workout activities. She foolishly tempted him with delectable morsels of food and even a bottle, (probably containing a sedative mixed with something that he liked). He rejected such crude blandishments with the contempt that they deserved and in the best traditions of military strategy, demonstrated once again that the best form of defence is attack.
The attack came in the form of ear-splitting screams delivered at three second intervals. The power was enough to shatter a wine glass at fifty paces and completely shut out the noise of the three powerful jet engines. I wondered how it was that this infant apparently knew everything that major opera stars took years of training and practice to learn. Singers always exhort their students to remember that the mouth and teeth can be used as a resonant cavity to project sound in the right way and that the diaphragm is what makes it all work. Watching Maximillian in action, one could see that he'd got the whole complicated business down pat, all he needed now was a lesson or two in harmony.
Even he could not keep this up indefinitely and soon there were welcome signs that he was running out of steam. The over-stressed vocal chords could now only manage a duck-like honking noise and he realised that he had lost control of the situation. Not for long however; the flight attendants were coming around with snacks, so Maximillian decided it was time to do his trip-up-the-stewardess-with-the-tray trick. In seconds he was running up and down the aisles looking for a suitable victim, it didn't take long, suddenly there was a muffled scream as a lady passenger got her snack in her lap and her husband got the tray it had been on. The attendant apologised profusely to the couple, frog-marched Maximillian back to his seat and asked his Mother through clenched teeth if she would be so kind as to keep him strapped in until further notice.
The snack consisted in part of a very large and incredibly sticky bun filled with fresh raspberries, the stickiness being due to the extra heavy coating of soft chocolate icing which covered it. By this time Maximillian's Mother was understandably exhausted and emotionally drained from his evenings' work thus far and having got him tethered to his seat with a snack in front of him, decided she could safely put her head back for a few minutes. That was a tactical error because Maximillian was now in sole charge of not one but two of the aforementioned buns. He was mildly hungry by this time after wreaking so much havoc for so long and devoured about half of one of the buns with noisome satisfaction. What he really enjoyed however was the stickiness on the outside and the bright red (and very indelible) stuff on the inside. He dissected the remains of both buns and it wasn't long before he had converted himself into what can only be described as a human glue-stick.
At this point his Mother awoke, alerted by a maternal sixth sense that his lordship must be up to no good if he had been so quiet and undemanding for more than ten consecutive minutes. How right she was, the child that had been hers had been stolen away and replaced by a small grinning chocolate-coated primate with bright red hands. She grabbed him round the waist with both hands and holding him at arms length like a live lobster, headed for the washroom. Maximillian was predictably un-amused by having his pleasures so rudely curtailed and thrashed around furiously. His flailing red hands managed to pollinate the elegant coiffure of an elderly American lady whose white hair was tinged with blue, leaving her with a truly patriotic red, white and blue colour scheme. As Mother and beast approached the seat occupied by Miss Mirage, Maximillian saw the brooch and with uncanny timing lunged and broke free of his Mother's grasp. Miss Mirage then suddenly found herself clutching the chocolate-coated primate to her bosom.
Maximillian was far too young to enjoy his predicament and immediately attempted to climb out of it. He seemed to have the same encyclopoedic knowledge of mountaineering as he did of opera singing, because he grabbed hold of a lock of Miss Mirage's hair and used it to pull himself up, planting one foot in her cleavage to get a toe hold. Within seconds her elegant and expensive appearance was a disaster. The shining platinum blonde hair was now two-tone blonde and brown with red highlights, and the blouse, now missing a couple of buttons, was probably beyond cleaning. The poor girl fled screaming to the washroom to make temporary repairs, followed finally by Maximillian and his Mother.
Sometime later after Maximillian and Miss Mirage had been as it were, "de-iced", and things were back to normal, it was once again time for drinks. Incredibly Maximillian was provided with a full glass of chocolate milk on his table. Why the airline did not have steel finger-proof cartons with sealed-in straws is an abiding mystery, because what we now had was a terrorist on the loose - with a chocolate milk bomb. All passengers within hurling distance shrank back into the innermost recesses of their seats, pale with fright, as Maximillian stood up in his seat, lurched unsteadily and grabbed the glass firmly with both of his chunky little hands. He glared balefully at each passenger in turn in his immediate vicinity as if trying to decide which one had annoyed him the most. Meanwhile he took a swig from the glass to keep his strength up for the olympian glass-cus throwing act which seemed sure to follow. For Maximillian, drinking was a rather inefficient process, as he laboured under the delusion that in order to drink anything the glass had to be horizontal. This meant that his entire face up to his eyes was immersed in chocolate milk, with two spillways starting under his ears and escaping somewhere down the back of his neck.
As we watched in petrified fascination, what we saw through the bottom of the glass was a mini-alligator partly submerged in a river of chocolate milk with only its eyes showing. Then the miracle happened, he emerged from the glass with a chocolate milk beard, licking his chops in satisfaction, and after a short pause for a few resounding burps, he got down to some serious drinking. Within about fifteen seconds it had all disappeared; fifty percent where it was supposed to go, and the rest somewhere down the back of his neck. There was a spontaneous burst of applause from all those who had been under threat, which prompted a rather bewildered Captain to come on the intercom and point out that although the flight had been very smooth, we hadn't actually landed yet, but would be doing so in a few minutes, so would we please fasten our seat belts etc., etc. Seat belts indeed, who needed them now that the terror of the skies had been tamed.