Airports always make me feel like the world is a very small place. I’ve spent enough time in them to know that each one is different, and has its own strategy for comfort: don’t eat anything except the bran muffins from Jomo Kenyatta. The benches at Dubai International were designed by a demon who hates sleep - you’re better off finding a soft-looking bit of floor. Do not bother trying to make jokes with the staff at Dulles; they are immune.
But all airports, no matter how different, are also fundamentally the same. Connecting places. Places that exist outside of time. Places that make the world smaller.
The one I’m in now is the Departures hall of Heathrow Terminal Three. It is 5:17 in the morning, and I have been awake since 2:50 am, and I am in that state of being so tired that it feels like enlightenment. I can read the deep meaning of the arrangement of red plastic chairs. The neat little signs warning me to “Keep a safe distance from others” feel like tablets presenting immense wisdom. Maybe it's the tired-drunkenness talking, but any distance feels safe. I am suffused with love for all humanity.
Said humanity: a Business Guy wearing a business suit, at 5:17 in the morning, businessly reading a business paper. A pair of lesbian moms playing peek-a-boo with their baby using their face-masks. A woman tenderly rubbing into the hollow of her shoulder, her arm in a sling. Six people wearing matching blue sports jerseys. Their physiques are not typical sportsplaying physiques, so I assume they’re fans. There’s one other woman sitting a few rows from me, wearing a pink fluffy Elmo-fur coat, eyeing the roller door in front of the Pret with the same hopeful eyes as me. They’re all gorgeous. I love them all. We’re all this together.
I would slice off my left leg in exchange for a single cup of coffee.
A man walks past us wearing full PPE, the whole white hazmat suit and booties. He’s dragging a beat-up wheelie bag. He stops and checks the information board, so he must be a passenger. He looks like he’s of East-Asian descent. People from East Asia used to be the only ones routinely travelling in face-masks. I wonder if they’ll stay a step ahead of the rest of us, now travelling in full isolation bubbles. The rest of us will scoff, until a few years from now when we realise they were right all along.
A hopeful light has switched on inside the Pret. Pink-coat woman and I both sit up straighter. It’s now 5:25. There’s no notice about what time the Pret opens. But oh god, we might just be lucky. The only other shops open at this time are those strange Duty Free counters, bathed in sci-fi white light and plastic white shelves crammed with any luxury item you might want, as long as what you want is overpriced perfume or watches or make-up kits. Nothing caffeinated, not even coffee-flavoured chocolate eclairs. I checked.
God is speaking. Her reassuring voice fills the hall. “Try to avoid physical contact. Try to avoid unnecessary contact. Try to keep your distance. You must wear your face mask. Your mask must cover your nose and mouth.”
I nod. Then I realise that I’m nodding, and stop.
The logistics of international air travel are miraculous. But that’s why it all fell apart so quickly, isn’t it? The world’s full of these holes, now. Airports. Portals between one place and another. Cracks that places that people and time and viruses slip through.
The sports team walk get up and walk past me. I glance up at their jerseys. Small embroidered writing on the right breast announces that they are part of a tug-of-war team. Athletes, after all. See! Humanity: gorgeous.
I’m dutifully sipping at my water-bottle, reapplying nipple cream to my lips to prepare them for the dry air of the cabin. Amazing how familiar all this is, although it’s my first flight in two years. My last flight was the one that brought me to England, when I thought I’d be able to pop back for quick visits all the time. That was the whole reason we chose England. “Don’t worry Mom, England’s just an overnight flight away.” The person who said that used to be me, before Red Lists and FFP2s, before Fit-to-Fly PCR tests, before the world briefly became too big, and home was an impossible place to go.
I’m so ready for the world to be small again.
The Pret! The Pret opened!
Wishing you all a giant caffeinated beverage,
Eagle-eyed readers (i.e. anyone who follows my Instagram) will guess that this was actually written a couple of weeks ago, while I was almost hallucinating from tiredness in the departures lounge at Heathrow Airport. I've now spent the past few weeks actually being in South Africa! With my friends and family! I am happy beyond words. Sorry things have been so quiet around here recently - we'll resume regularly scheduled emails in a couple of weeks. Thank you for your patience. I hope all of you can go squeeze the people you love!