I was in a really bad place last weekend. Not mentally – I was in an airport Starbucks slumped against a wall. It was not until we’d sat in the departure hall for many hours, our two small children seeing in midnight as the rooms slowly filled with hundreds of humans and their thousands of iPads before I realized, with a thrill, that I was inside a news story.
It’s a very particular kind of sweet-and-sour excitement, is it, when you look up from your own personal catastrophe and realize you’re part of something bigger? The dullest, most irritating moments of your life are suddenly polished to a high shine and spotlit beautifully. Stories that, from your mouth would have had friends politely smothering yawns after 30 seconds become whole newspaper spreads, with expert quotes, and panoramic pictures, and someone explaining earnestly how they wee-ed in a cup.
I’m not talking major tragedies here, I’m talking your common domestic shitteries that disturb Britain’s plodding peace to the extent that it makes the papers. I’m talking about the times, say, when you turn on the car radio and learn that you’re sitting in a traffic jam “the length of Wales”, or your little town is experiencing the hottest day in 100 years, or you find yourself at the very end of an NHS waiting list for your ear, or you can no longer afford pasta because of something to do with wheat. So it came to be that my family and I, returning from our first holiday in three years, found ourselves among the thousands of Britons stuck at an airport due to “travel chaos” from worker shortages.
We’d had a lovely holiday, though by that point we did have to keep reminding ourselves of the fact. Despite having swum in the sea that very morning, by 1am I was hazy on whether I had been anywhere else, ever, beyond this bank of plastic seats. I was born here many hours ago, and here is where I grew up, on the tiled floor by gate 5a, and here is where we ate our meals of cereal bars and Chupa Chups, and here is where we tended to each other’s illnesses and minor deaths. Despite the new chill of being among a maskless crowd, everybody was surprisingly well behaved. Even when it was announced that all Manchester flights were canceled, and our seat neighbors (who’d been waiting for seven hours) started to gather their bags, rather than anger or panic, there was a resigned serenity, all very “oh well” . I was impressed.
You always think (I always think) that a holiday will be about cleansing your mind of worries and nonsense, an idea amplified by lockdowns in a house with a bolshie little family mentally bruised after too much TV. Not only would my mind be reset, refreshed, but my entire family dynamic, too – no more petty rows about teeth, or whinging about who took whose felt tip – we would see the sea, and smell the heat and then a great calm would fall upon us. I forgot, of course, that wherever we go, there we are. In the airport trying to shush the baby, I read a quote from Quentin Crisp. “You have to know who you are, who you think you are, who your neighbors think you are,” he said, in all his fabulous wisdom. “What are you in reality? You must not pass into a dream, but accept your limitations and then express them in your life, in your behavior, your identity. You must talk the truth about yourself. Otherwise, life is just a waste of time, isn’t it? ” Well, yes. And who I am, it turned out, was a person who finds calmness not on the stones of a Greek beach in June, nor in the sea, but slumped against a wall in an airport Starbucks.
I was not the only one. Everywhere, people smiled their grim little smiles, and budged up to make room, and kept their voices down as toddlers slept in starfish shapes across jumpers on the floor. There was a polite crowd around the phone-charging hub, but it had the feel of a group of fans waiting for Kylie rather than the expected scrum. When we finally arrived back in the UK at 4am, wheeling our bodies through passport control, we found a quiet queue of hundreds of holidaymakers on the other side waiting to check in, lined up along the length of the airport in an area intended for Ukrainian refugees. “Welcome!” the sign said awkwardly, to a pink-cowboy-hatted hen party.
Our arrivals weaved our way through those departing with duty-free apologies, some jealousy. It was partly exhaustion, yes, but there was also some gentle brand of humanness to the airport peace – a teenage boy popping to WH Smith to get a drink for an elderly woman who saved his space, did I want to sit down with the baby they’d make some room, everyone tiptoeing around a man snoring very loudly by a cash dispenser. As we stepped into the chilly dawn I felt that thrill again – we’d gone on holiday, but come back news. I saw a photographer standing by Marks & Spencer documenting the gentle chaos, and, shifting the sleeping baby to my shoulder, waved at him as if the queen.
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