Published in the Wells Street Journal, Issue 12: Mapping the City (December 2019)
Touchdown at Stansted at 23:20 and he groans, doing the maths, figuring he won’t be on a train until 23:35 at the earliest. Likely not till 23:50, putting him into Liverpool Street at 00:35, at which point Tube services will have closed for the night. He’ll have to take one of those creepy, nauseating buses that he detests and walk the half-mile from King’s Cross to his flat on feet that ache. And the whole way he’ll be snorting like a hog because one sinus keeps dripping down the back of his nasal cavity, and he’s determined not to let the mucus reach his throat and get him sick, though it’s probably too late.
He alights, stands at the top of the mobile stairway for a moment, stunned to see a pair of idling buses rather than the roped-off path into the terminal he’s used to seeing after these short flights across the Channel. Apparently, there’s been some mix-up with air traffic control, and they’ve landed way the hell out there by the blackened model airplane that firefighters use to practise, which looks as though it has been constructed from wine-cask-sized toilet rolls. So now, because they have to bus to the terminal, he amends his schedule, adding twenty minutes to his subsequent ETAs and subtracting twenty minutes from the brief window of sleep he expects to get tonight.
The bus smells of mildew, sweat and unwashed clothes. A man beside him mutters “fucking ridiculous,” and he wants to agree, except that he’s decided he hates this man. The man is well over 200 pounds, is positioned directly in front of him, and will only hold him up further because you just know he can’t move with a purpose on those legs.
He’s furious. The full and crippling indignity of his hour-to-hour existence has finally dawned on him. He feels like a greasy rat in a baroque maze, designed by scientists hell-bent on torturing their subjects. Modern transportation and the time-obsessed mentality that comes with it have turned him and everyone around him into smelly, mindless rodents, shuffling between boxes of various form and function, engaging in the most low-down, dastardly self-centrism in order to get to wherever it is that they are going one or maybe two minutes faster than they thought they would. Like the grandmother with the tiny piercing eyes who elbows him in the groin as they’re getting off the bus so that she can pull her obese, snot-nosed grandson to the front. And the boy is not even paying attention because his eyes are locked on the game system in his hands, which is just too damn important to set down, apparently. But what’s really bothering him is not the sharp pain of this old woman’s bony elbow in his crotch, or the ripe smell of the people, or the fact that everyone, including himself, looks forward with the ashen, droopy-eyed expressions of the undead. What’s really bothering him is quite a bit harder to pin down.
Perhaps it’s the text that comes in when he finally gets service, from her, saying, “Love you,” and the knowledge that if he responds, she won’t get it until the morning, and he’ll be back in the air by then. Perhaps it’s the fatigue and the tendrils of nausea working their way up his oesophagus from the clumps of masticated ALDI sandwich, reduced for quick sale, melting in the turbulent acids of his stomach. Or perhaps it’s the realisation that in this maze in which he is just a tiny, insignificant rat, there is no THEY, no scientists who, sadistic or not, take note of what works and what doesn’t. In truth, he is both rat and scientist. In truth, he has no one to blame but himself.
Touchdown and he smiles, feeling lucky to be alive. His head bobs up from between his knees, his ears red and rosy from being nestled up against the soft pleated legs of his trousers. His ears feel warm, but it’s a good warm – a fireside, sweatered, Christmas Eve kind of warm – and he smiles even wider. He looks psychotically happy. Other people have started to notice and make no secret of their displeasure; nothing hates a good mood like a bad one. Doesn’t matter, he decides, they can suffer all they want. He’s going to smile and be happy.
He checks his watch – 23:24. Stansted Express is still running, but maybe he’ll take the regular service to Liverpool Street, so he can watch the people of the night as they get on and off the train. He can decide when he gets to the platform. Either way, he’s on his way back into London. Back to her.
As he steps out into the cold night air, perfumed with the scents of hot rubber and asphalt and jet fuel, he feels like a pigeon released from its loft. The world awaits. He can go anywhere, yet he knows exactly where he wants to go, where he needs to go. This, he thinks, this is true freedom. The sounds and smells of the airstrip speak to him of all the places he could choose to go, if he wished. But Occam’s Razor has cut all the other choices away, leaving only one, only her.
He is funnelled into one of the buses waiting on the tarmac, behind a large man in a tight T-shirt with a florid face, who leans over and says, “fucking ridiculous.” The discrepancy between the colour of this man’s face and arm skin is frankly obscene. He stifles a laugh and nods his head, agreeing with the large man, whose honesty he decides he loves.
He loves the large man because the man reminds him of all the ways in which we try our best. Maybe the man is peeved because he wants to get home to kiss his daughter goodnight and she’s already up way past her bedtime. The bus won’t move any faster than a bus can move, but by voicing his discontent, he’s speaking for the rest of them, for all of them. He’s speaking for the old woman who elbows him in the groin as she hurries her distracted grandson off the bus. Maybe she hurries because she has a grown child, sick in hospital. And now, between the countless meetings and surgeries and consultations, she has to look after her child’s child. She loves him, without question, but maybe can’t relate to him, so she lets him park himself in front of screens all day. This probably suits the grandson just fine, the screen being something of an escape from a reality that gets progressively grimmer by the minute. The look of concentration and focus on his scrunched-up, little face suggests that he might be fully immersed in his game, that he’s not thinking of sickness or hospitals or the smell of 409, all too familiar to this boy. All these things remind him of the ways in which we try our best, but it’s not the only reason why he’s happy on this particular night.
Perhaps it’s the text that comes in from her, saying, “Love you.” Just to know that someone is waiting for him, that someone cares whether he makes it home or not, even if it’s just for one night. Perhaps it’s the feeling of nausea in his throat, reminding him that he’s alive, that his body still responds negatively to the junk he can’t keep himself from putting into it. But he’s doing his best. He feels lucky and wonders who he should thank. If he’s a pigeon, should he thank his breeder for showing him the right path, for showing him what true freedom means? But no, because, in truth, he is both pigeon and breeder. In truth, he has no one to thank but himself