Published in Prospect Magazine and New Writing 15
Heathrow Airport is one of the few places in England you can be sure of seeing a gun. These guns are carried by policemen in short-sleeved shirts and black flak-jackets, alert for terrorists about to blow up Tie-Rack. They are unlikely to confront me directly, but if they do I shall tell them the truth. I shall state my business. I’m planning to stop at Heathrow Airport until I see someone I know.
In the busiest airport in the world this shouldn’t take long, and I expect to be home before Ally leaves for work. It is 6.43 a.m. My gaze slides between so many faces that I instantly forget everyone I don’t recognise, except for a young girl, 11 or 12, looking Lebanese and wearing a wedding dress. She has red cotton flowers dotting her black hair-band, a tight curve over her wild, swept-back hair. She is someone I do not know.
Go to the busiest place and stay there. I’m always telling Victor and Clemmy that we have to do what makes sense, and I’m now leaning expectantly against the barrier at Terminal 1 Arrivals.
Astonishingly, I wait for thirty-nine minutes and don’t see one person I know. Not one, and no-one knows me. I’m as anonymous as the drivers with their universal name-cards (some surnames I know), except the drivers are better dressed. Since the kids, whatever I wear looks like pyjamas. Coats, shirts, T-shirts, jeans, suits; like slept-in pyjamas.
The first call comes at about seven fifteen. Feeling detached and powerful, I let the phone vibrate jauntily in my pocket. There’s a second call ten minutes later. I check it’s Ally, as if expecting someone else, and then turn off the phone.
Most of the passengers arriving from Glasgow (BA1473 0700), Manchester (AA6614 0710) and Aberdeen (BD671 0720) are men, including Celtic football fans in green-and-white hooped jerseys, and tartan hats with a fluorescent shock of hair at the back. The orange hair is attached to the hat. I would normally explain this to Victor, who is five, to see him marvel at the kind of serious stuff I know. Also, he shouldn’t assume every Scot has orange hair. Not all Scottish people are the same, just like not all Daddies are the same.
Early morning arrivals can look like new-born babies, pinched, querulous. Their first instinct is to look for someone they know, even when they’re not being met. There is a man with a feather in his cap, and a man telephoning threats of violence. There is a small boy with his mother, hyped up on sugar-drinks and true-life air travel, who shouts ‘Telephone!’ every time he hears a ring-tone. He is very busy. He is very noisy.
As I say to the children, think it through. I’m standing at Terminal 1 Arrivals when I live less than 8 miles away. Few of the people I know will be arriving at this time of the morning. Of course not. They’ll be leaving, and from one of the other terminals.
Terminal 1 is not a serious terminal. It has mostly domestic flights, and therefore lacks emotional distinction. Between Leeds/Bradford and London there isn’t the difference for long-distance passion. Back from Newcastle, couples climb in the car and go where they’re going.
Along the white and yellow walkways, air-conditioned, temperature-controlled, my eye catches on pale blue turbans, and fat people. Without shading, in this bright permanent daylight, all fat faces look similar, and therefore like the fat people I know. The features are diminished, hard to make out, scrunched up by unmeant flesh. I stare hard, because I wouldn’t want to miss anybody.
At a corner table of Costa Coffee, at the entrance to Terminal 2, a posh lady in a dark skirt and sky-blue cardigan is wiping off a table with the heel of her leather glove. I knew this would happen. I finally see someone I know, and it’s not someone I want to see.
It’s Ally’s mother.
I stop dead, about 20 feet away, hoping she doesn’t notice me. I should be at home in the house she helped us buy inside Heathrow’s 63 decibel noise contour. In return for not being able to hear ourselves think, we get a discounted semi-detached and a small garden from which we can play name-that-airline. Garuda, Iberia, JAL. We put on a brave face.
The lady looks up sharply, and reaches for her bag. She adjusts to focus on me, neutral at first, then frowning. She is not Ally’s mother, though they do look alike.
I hurry on to Terminal 2 Departures, where men my age are leaving the country in confident cutting-edge trousers. I check the screens and the first city I see is Zagreb, making me think of Serbia and therefore Iana, and that is not good.
08.10 OK653 PRAGUE GATE CLOSED
08.20 LH4791 HAMBURG BOARDING
08.30 AF2671 PARIS CDG GATE OPEN
And so on. Here in Terminal 2 Departures I can expect to see, if not anyone I know now, some go-ahead contemporary from my college days. Mine was a serious University, and if I hadn’t caught glandular fever I’d have left from this very gate for the 3rd year of my Modern Languages degree. I had a job as a classroom assistant in Zaragoza, but it wasn’t to be. I stayed in bed in my childhood bedroom for two and half months, then went back to College where I met Ally, who was studying Zoology.
Five or six years ago, more like seven, eight in fact, we used to know a lot of people. They won’t have changed much, as we haven’t. An outer shell of success, perhaps, fluent in several languages and fashionably bored with travel. Here in Heathrow Terminal 2 at 8.20 on a Tuesday morning, we can both be proud of turning out more or less as we’d hoped.
‘Wonderful city, Zagreb.’
We’ll compare jobs and children, look at our watches and promise to keep in touch. Finally, as my like-minded friend turns towards passport control, I’ll touch his sleeve (or her sleeve, it could be a her, though I’m thinking it’s a him) I’ll touch the sleeve of his suit-jacket and ask whether I should sleep with Iana the Serbian teenager. Whatever the answer, I’ll then go back to the car, be home in 20 minutes no-one the wiser, and Ally will still make it to the office by 10. If she hurries.
The only flaw in this plan is that I still haven’t seen anyone I know.
It turns out that the people I falsely think I recognise are very like acquaintances I rarely see. The anxious, calculating face of Mrs Roberts, but with her it’s not so much the face I recognise as the large square glasses. There’s a jolt of indecision about a pony-tailed cousin, and then Mr Browning who marks out the soccer pitches though it can’t be him because he’s in hospital. The team had a whip-round. They call me Mum, and when I tackle more fiercely than strictly necessary, Psycho-Mum.
I linger at Terminal 2 Departures like someone saying goodbye, having said goodbye to someone I love. This is where Iana would wave off her fat and physically unfit husband, if she loved him. When they moved in, we spied on them from an upstairs window. He was so much fatter and older than her that we made them a married man with his recent au pair. Which is in fact exactly what they are.
Perhaps I’m more likely to recognise women. I more often look twice, because women at airports are an ideal type. They have no fear of leaving, or being left. I look closely for a woman I might know among the Pontypridd Ladies Hockey Club, European Tour 2005. This is both absurd and not impossible.
Hours pass by. I’m tired out by thinking, and when I should be looking at faces I’m looking at legs. The way her baggy cargo pants grab and release her buttocks, a recent arrival from Milan but also Iana, when singing to her walkman she swings along our street to the shops.
I turn on my phone and don’t open any of Ally’s text messages. It rings immediately, and forgetting I’m powerful I answer.
‘Where are you?’
She isn’t shocked, or challenging me to say something more credible. There’s a plane going over our house, and she can’t hear what I’m saying. I wait for it to pass, and in the foreground of the background, Victor and Clemmy playing, or fighting.
‘I’m at the airport.’
‘You’re supposed to be here.’
Nag nag nag.
I disconnect and worry about the car in the Terminal 1 car-park at £2 for half-an-hour. Now that I can hear myself think, I’m thinking that the short stay car-park is not a serious car-park, not if you want to hide a body in the boot. Long Stay would be a better bet. In Long Stay, you’d get a month before anyone took an interest.
Short-stay is rubbish for dead bodies, but better for sex. At every hour of the day there are people having sex in the Short-Stay car-parks at Heathrow Airport. With so many couples re-united, and true love as urgent as it is, it must be happening all the time. Though not to me, even when I met Ally off the plane from Jakarta. I was trying to fit the trolley between a concrete pillar and the side of the car when she confessed to sleeping with a guy called Tim. Tim was not Indonesian. He was from Aldershot.
I’ve never knowingly seen Tim, so Tim from five years ago isn’t one of the people I’m likely to bump into beneath the bright lights at Terminal 2 Departures. Besides, he’d be at Terminal 3, a serious international traveller like Tim. Terminal 2 is Europe only. It is not a serious terminal.
Inside Heathrow Airport I can’t hear the planes. It is the only place in the Heathrow corridor where this is true, as if everyone has arrived or will leave soundlessly, like angels. I hear myself thinking about all the people I know who have let me down by not leaving early on a Tuesday morning for glamorous European destinations. My former colleagues from the insurance office must still be stuck at their desks, like I always said they would be, when I was stuck there too, wasting my time and unable to settle while Ally moved steadily onward, getting her PhD and her first research fellowship at Reading University, her first promotion.
Our more recent grown-up friends, who have serious jobs and who therefore I half expect to be seeing any moment now, tell me that home-making is a perfectly decent occupation for a man, courageous even, yes, manly to stay at home with the kids. These friends of ours are primarily Ally’s friends. I don’t seem to know anyone anymore, and away from the children and the overhead planes, hearing myself think, I hear the thoughts of a whinger. This is not what I had been hoping to hear.
I start crying, not grimacing or sobbing, just big silent tears rolling down my cheeks. I don’t want anyone I know to see me crying, because I’m not the kind of person who cracks up at Heathrow airport some nothing Tuesday morning. I manage our house impeccably, like a business. It’s a serious job. I have spreadsheets to monitor the hoover-bag situation and colour-coded print-outs about the ethical consequences of nappies. I am not myself this morning. I don’t know who I am.
The phone rings. I connect and push it to my ear.
‘When can we expect you back?’
I won’t sob for her. I’d rather not speak.
‘I have to be somewhere. You know that.’
I press the button and put her back in my pocket. We haven’t been getting on well, Ally and I, though usually we try to talk about it. I say I sometimes feel tired and listless, and she says join the club. We make appointments with the doctor and blame the flight-path, with heavy aviation fuel dropping down upon us in a constant invisible drizzle, blighting our little garden, poisoning what’s left of our brains.
So then. If we’d been seen, it was jettisoned aviation fuel that made me sit next to Iana on Iana’s rented sofa and place my hand on her thigh, on the cotton of her khaki cargo pants, midway above the knee.
Deep breath. After a brisk walk, I have found the one place in Heathrow where no-one I know will see me crying, or feeling sorry for myself. Churches are traditionally useful for this kind of thing, and the church in the middle of Heathrow is called St George’s Chapel. I sit in a chair at the back, my hands flat between my knees, rocking backwards and forwards. This would be a good place to hide. It would also be a good place to come if you believed in a God who was able to help.
Mrs Roberts is about 60 years old and lives two doors along from us with her disabled husband. She rents out her self-contained basement to Iana and Iana’s absent, negligent, fat, middle-aged lover. One day, Iana went upstairs to tell Mrs Roberts that the washing-machine had stopped working, except her English wasn’t so good. Mrs Roberts then called me because everyone knows I have nothing better to do.
I left the kids with Mrs Roberts and went downstairs with Iana, just about making sense in a German she partly understood. I proudly showed her how to use the trip-switches in the fuse-box. She offered me a cup of tea. She was young and lonely and I, I sometimes think I’m not where I’m supposed to be. I went round more than once, always during the day while Ally was at work. I pretended to help, and then we sat side-by-side listening to the planes, not daring to hear ourselves think.
Ach. I stand up sharply and double-handed slap my own forehead.
‘Look, I’m not angry.’ She has to pause while a plane comes in. ‘I just have to know when you’ll be back.’
‘I can’t say.’
‘It’s taking longer than I expected.’
‘I thought we’d agreed about everything. You said you were happy to do it.’
‘I won’t be long. Promise.’
I’d set myself a target. I will get married and have children and live happily ever after. I will be a sensitive human being who supports his successful wife. I understand and can visualise this story, its beginning and middle, and this is the story I want other people to see me living, the man I want them to know. Then one Tuesday morning I seem to have mislaid the ending.
Could have been braver, I suddenly realise. Could have aimed higher. In fact, I should have gone straight to Terminal 3.
I get moving, stumbling, almost running, because if you start something you have to finish it. I say this to the kids. It’s one of my lines, part of my play-acting as a Dad that gets us through the days until Mummy comes home.
Terminal 3 is a serious terminal. In the same hall you get incoming from Washington and Jeddah mingling with frequent flyers on Iran Air. My daytime television knowledge of Islam is enough to warn me I’m in the presence of desperate fanatics who count their own life cheap, and within a 10-mile radius of Slough, Heathrow Terminal 3 is where history is most likely to happen.
I stand there, waiting.
When she finished her PhD, but before starting her first job, Ally went travelling for three months in Indonesia, where she met Tim from Aldershot. It was here at Terminal 3 that I saw her off, and met her when she flew back home in a sarong. Did not have sex with her, as I’d been hoping to do, in the back of the car in the Short Stay car-park.
At Terminal 3, single men who are not limousine drivers or terrorists in disguise are sex tourists. In shorts and faded polo-shirts they’re on their way to Manila and Bangkok, where dark, humid bars heave with numbered girls. If I was doing it, it would be different. It wouldn’t be so bad. I’d pick one girl and stick with her. If she was value for money, I would.
What am I thinking? I would, but I don’t. I’m not a sex tourist, I haven’t even had sex in a Heathrow car-park. There is not a body in the boot of my car. I didn’t even make it to my gap-year job in Spain. I have a wife and two children and live eight miles from Heathrow airport and I’m failing to see anyone I know.
I should wait at the entrance, or near the shops. At the bus rank, or the exit from the Piccadilly Line. So many choices, and by making the wrong one I end up stuck forever in this simple unflinching daylight. There are people I know in the airport. There must be. We just haven’t been in the right place at the same time.
Staying where I am, I think that when I graduated, I imagined a few years of exotic travel before returning rich and famous and beyond reproach. I applied to teach English in Tokyo. Ally didn’t want me to go, so Dad drove me to the airport, but at the last minute, clutching my ticket, I found I couldn’t leave. I wanted Ally. I’d cried and Dad hadn’t understood, and we’d got back in the car and driven home.
No-one seems to notice that I’m not right. 63 decibels 16 hours a day, the invisible pestilence of drifting fuel, can’t hear myself think. I have the motivation to blow this airport to kingdom come, and after five hours of wandering aimlessly, thinking, going nowhere, in this of all places I should have been arrested. To make the arrest more serious, by a policeman with a big black gun. And then when I’m cleared, everyone will know I’m innocent.
It gets harder to see individual faces. The most I see now of Heathrow’s daylight people are obvious external markers. A goatee, dark glasses, a rolling walk, a short skirt, a sombrero hat. A purple shirt and tie set. Flip-flops and cracked yellow toe-nails. A waist-coat, a hair-piece. I will be stuck here forever, living on coffee dregs and apple cores, and when I do eventually see someone I know, they don’t at first realise it’s me. I see someone I recognise, her long nose casting a shadow over her lips. As an unexpected stranger, making eye-contact, she is surprisingly attractive.
My wife Ally is pale-haired, pale-skinned, moon-faced, her hair tied back. She is 7 months pregnant and she has a small child clutching each hand, tugging her arms straight like heavy luggage. These two children are my children. My wife has her head on one side. She lets go of the kids and they run towards me, as if I’d recently arrived from a great distance. Ally holds out her arms. I recognise that gesture, her glistening eyes, her attempted grin which she bites off before it disintegrates. She is livid, but with my children clutching my legs I have at last seen someone I know.
I can therefore go home.