‘Prodigal, what were your wanderings about?
The smoke of homecoming, the smoke of departure.’
I think the thing that I love most about airports is the feeling, always, of being stuck slightly out of time. I don’t mean “stuck” in the sense of time standing still, or in the world outside ceasing to be relevant. Rather, airports have always seemed just that bit outdated to me – with their linoleum floors and photochromic windows, their retractable barriers and airline-branded luggage tags. Everything feels so manual, so interactive; and in a world now so increasingly enamoured of filtered technologies and digital communication, it can sometimes be a relief to experience life without context. To celebrate “The Airport” in all its homogenous glory.
Case in point: as I write this I’m surrounded by the sort of 1980’s decadence that wouldn’t go amiss in an episode of ‘Dynasty’: Estée Lauder perfume stands, Johnny Walker gift boxes, Ralph Lauren summer yacht-wear, giant bars of Toblerone. Whilst at the other end of the departure lounge – and from a source seeming at once to emanate from everywhere and nowhere – a selection of 1950’s jazz is being pumped toward a queue of boarders who are squabbling about bag-size and finishing their drinks. There’s a Starbucks nearby and an airport bar called ‘The Kissing Gate’. The bar is filled with men of a certain age who seem perpetually slumped over brass rails and tables, over chipboard counters veneered in faux-mahogany and teak, and off to their left a group of teenagers are pooling their change and playing on fruit machines.
Out on the runway looks like it could be from a projected reel of Casablanca, if not for the baggage handlers in colourful fluorescent jackets or the Easyjet logo emblazoned on an otherwise monochrome background. From inside I can almost hear the cynical noir-ish patter of the hostesses disembarking the Ryanair craft nearest the window – cracking wise with “Mac” as he unspools a nozzle from the BP lorry, or laughing about the passenger who ordered the ham-and-cheese “poonannie”.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where this sense of airport romanticism comes from. Even the ballache of going through security appeals to my sense of preparedness over everyone; where I’ll have my boots removed and my belt unbuckled, my laptop taken out of its bag and my phone transferred to the inside pocket of my jacket so that I don’t have to linger once I’m handed my plastic tray. Everyone else looks miserable and beleaguered. I feel like George Clooney in Up in the Air: “All the things you probably hate about travelling – the recycled air, the artificial lighting, the juice dispensers and cheap sushi – are warm reminders that I’m home.”
Perhaps it has something to do with the sense of communal loneliness that one experiences in an airport. Everywhere I look people are consumed by where they’ve come from or where they’re going to, and this leaves them looking as though they might not actually be here at all; sulking over pints or coffee cups, rifling through bags in a bid to feel active, browsing through bestsellers in the perma-bright WH Smith.
Back in my Liverpool flat, I’d never allow myself to feel this sort of loneliness lest it consume me. I never become excited for too long about the dispatches received from home because, unless I’m actually going home, they feel wasteful and sad; stark reminders that the majority of those I know and love are there, whilst I’m stuck here working shit jobs and struggling to pay the rent.
You can see some of that in the faces of other people in the airport and it can be comforting, I think, to experience this kind of loneliness together. The people here are like temporary ghosts in a well-designed purgatory. We exchange knowing glances and nods of the head, sometimes even exchanging pleasantries about how much penance we have left before our flight: Are you going back home? Will you bring some of that good weather back with you?
Because that’s ultimately what sustains our elation. The already familiar feeling – though we’re still only ten-deep from the attendant at the desk checking ID – that we’ll be home soon relaxing, or spending money in an exotic climate with a chilled bottle of Wolfblas and a pot of mussels for the table. Each flight seems new, a fresh start, and as I finger the spine on my own well-worn Irish passport – preparing it to open the second I reach the flight desk – I already feel like I’ve touched down on terra firma. I already know what I’m going to have for dinner.
Back when I was younger and on a plane, I used to imagine myself stepping outside and off the wing so that I could get down to the clouds and walk on top of them like icy tundra. There were more shapes, it seemed, to be made above the clouds than below them – icebergs, weather stations, distant ships, research outposts – and for someone like me with a dreamy interest in the unexplored, I liked to think of myself as a Marco Polo figure traversing these airy landscapes and coming to rest only when I’d reached the far horizon. At times like these the sun would sink low in the sky until it had turned a smooth orange, the plane would tilt to one side so that the interior filled with ambient light, and often I’d be armed with an A5 legal pad so that I could document what I imagined was going on outside.
Not much has changed in this regard. Even if I’m only doing the half-hour commute from Liverpool to Dublin, there’s a delight in floating above the clouds and knowing that for the next short while I’ll be in suspended animation – with plastic beakers and flavourless gins, microwaveable paninis and vacuum-packed tubes of Pringles.
These are the things about a flight that elicit a kind of peacefulness in me. It’s almost as if being above everybody, in the literal sense, can reveal new vantages from which I can view my life objectively, and these small comforts – delivered to my tray table to make me forget that I’m thousands of feet off the ground – are the mechanisms by which I can achieve this objectivity without being spooked by the surrealness of flying.
Because flying enacts a sort of rebirth every time we experience it. There’s something about being on a plane and mentally staving off the inevitability of disaster that can make a person focussed and sometimes even relaxed.
Of course, there are times when flying – and in particular, flight preparation – can be extremely frustrating. If you’ve ever had a flight cancelled for example, or been stuck in an airport for more than, say, seven hours, you’ll know that the surrounding combination of bland kitsch, overpriced food and distant chattering over the intercom can become infuriating.
Within the space of a month I had to negotiate two of these sorts of flying experiences to two different destinations within the British Isles. The first was a flight from Manchester to Shannon in the West of Ireland, which – having never experienced the joy of having to find my way through Manchester Airport’s labyrinthine structure before – I found to be an absolute nightmare.
First was the issue of getting my dog to the minder’s house at 7:30 in the morning with no car. Then getting the bus into Liverpool city centre with enough time to make the 9:00 National Express to Manchester Airport. Then the arrival there and negotiating not one, not two, but three terminals before I found my way to Security where there was a massive line snaking back towards Check-In.
It was a phenomenally hot day and there was no air in the terminal, and with dozens of bodies lurching back and forth in an effort to get to the front, all I could smell was the sickly-sweet combination of hundreds of people in preparation for flight: sunblock, cider, stale cigarette smoke, B.O., a whisper of soap, a half-eaten sandwich that somebody left in their bag.
Dublin Airport. Image: Getty.
Then there were the staff, who looked bored and uninterested, herding us along and making wry barely audible comments about their slow, uncooperative charges. Tuts, swearing, the sound of a toddler screaming, stressed parents using their double-buggies as battering rams to get through to Fast-Check, old people, couples kissing, deflated looking stag parties perspiring through their matching polo shirts. It was almost as if everyone here was a deliberate prop sent to aggravate my frustration.
If hell was eternal, then this queue felt like the closest approximation of it. No amount of preparedness or romanticism in that scenario could’ve made me forgive George Clooney’s lie in Up in the Air. This wasn’t easy, this was having every item of luggage that I’d brought swabbed because I’d forgotten to remove a half-drunk bottle of Lucozade from my bag. This was having to remove my shoes and being dried out from that Bacon Double Cheese that I’d eaten on the bus.
The second bad experience came about two weeks after the first. I’d been at home in Ireland catching up with my brother – who also lives abroad – and was due to fly back to Liverpool after a weekend of family activity. I was still hungover as I dragged myself onto the bus from Newry to Aldergrove, checked in through security, buy myself a copy of The Irish News, then wait for another hour until my flight to Liverpool was called.
So I waited. And waited. And waited. Until ten minutes had finally passed since my original boarding time, and I got up to check the board again and I saw what nobody ever expects to see during such times. That big red blip in a sea of pixelated green. My 16:30 flight from Belfast International to Liverpool had been cancelled because of “staff shortages”, and I now had to spend another five hours in the airport before Easyjet could arrange for me to get on another flight.
Now it’s July, and I’m touching down again on the tarmac at Dublin airport – flying home, as I often do, to fill my camel-hump with its monthly dose of TLC from my family and friends. Where I’m from in Newry is about halfway between Belfast and Dublin, and depending on the affordability of each flight, my flying home to either is often interchangeable.
It’s evening – which is my favourite time to fly – and I can almost feel the wheels of the plane being deployed beneath me; the aircraft drawing closer to the ground, and our movement toward the runway, the terminal, the hangar, Arrivals. There is now a palpable change of mood in the air and certain pockets of the craft have broken out into laughter.
Call it collective relief, call it renewed optimism, call it coming home. Whatever it is about landing here things just feel different, and for the hundred or so other Irish voices surrounding me on the plane, there is a lightness and joviality among us which feels akin to a pressure cooker’s lid being lifted off.
All being well, in roughly fifteen minutes I’ll step off the plane into an unusually icy July evening in Dublin. It’ll come as a relief to feel the recirculated air, the fart-smell and B.O. get blown away by the cold. I’ll take a moment for the flashing red lights on the air-traffic-control tower, breathe in the diesel and salt-water saturated air, deploy the handle on the wheelie bag that I’ve borrowed from my girlfriend, and make my way to Arrivals where my dad will be waiting to greet me with a hug.
We’ll take an interminably long time trying to figure out where he’s parked, then we’ll pay for our time at short-stay and leave, possibly stopping for a McFlurry at the drive-in McDonald’s across from the airport Radisson, possibly waiting until we get to an Apple Green on the M1 going home. All of this will feel like the warm settling in of a good dream, and all of the home comforts I receive over the next few days will be bookended by periods spent lingering at the airport.
When I wake from this dream again it’ll be days later and I’ll be back to where I started. When I come back to reality I’ll be back here at the airport.