Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Gatwick South

Without even thinking to check my phone, I set off early for the forty minute drive to the airport, anxious to be there before they land. It's not until I park the car and walk into the terminal building, that I see the message saying they're delayed.

I sit and watch the arrivals board, seeing the details of their flight slowly inching to the top as the minutes tick by. Other planes land and there's a constant trail of people emerging from the baggage reclaim hall; you can tell straight away who's expecting to be met, they pause for a moment, looking around for a friendly face or a familiar name on a sign. You can tell who's pretending they fly all the time and don't need to be met - they determinedly don't look around, just march through, quickly heading to the car parks and onward transport. The unlucky few look lost and lonely, standing there hoping that someone will show them where to go.

Time passes.

When we were young, and air travel was still something of a novelty, my Dad would sometimes take us to watch the planes. I've never quite forgotten my surprise at how huge the planes were when you got up close; I've never got past wondering what strange sort of magic could lift a gigantic metal beast into the air then bring it safely back to ground again without smashing it to smithereens.

I was twelve when I got on a plane for the first time; heading for a holiday in Bulgaria with my family. It was the last time my sisters and I would go on holiday with both parents, though I didn't know that then.  I don't remember anything of the flight; my memories of the holiday are little more than snapshots, captured quickly without much thought, momentary images that have somehow stayed.

In one, I'm wearing a cotton sun-dress, small bright flowers on a white background, a ruched elastic bodice, thin straps tied on my shoulders. The photo, taken from behind, catches me at the moment when the wind lifted the skirt of my dress, revealing nothing but the skinniest legs imaginable. I hated that picture so much, squirmed with embarrassment every time someone looked at it. In another, I'm wearing blue and yellow sandals with cork wedge heels. I'd insisted on buying them for our big holiday, never mind that they were impossible to walk in and went with nothing else. I wonder now at the defiance in those shoes and my pride in the looks they elicited from other holiday makers; so at odds with my shyness over the picture of my legs. Perhaps that's what it's like when you're twelve; nothing is consistent.

There's a picture of us all on a balcony, dark wooden balustrades marking out the area where we ate breakfast every day; yoghurt and berries, cheeses and hams, so different from the Rice Krispies and Weetabix I was used to at home, so exotic as it seemed to me then. I think there was an abundance of water melons, like huge green bowling balls, or split into slices that we'd spit the pips from. I think I remember ice-cream, chocolate and strawberry flavoured, cold watery crystals. But that couldn't have been breakfast, could it? Another memory from another holiday perhaps.

I think of all the other times I've been here at Gatwick, waiting for my children to return; from trips to their Dad in Ireland, from their first grown-up holidays abroad, from the summers spent working in Greece. I think about how I'm always so determined to see them first, as if not noticing their arrival, looking the wrong way, reading a book, would somehow be a betrayal, a sign I hadn't missed them. Today my determination pays off and I spot them before they see me. I don't know which of them to kiss or hug first, I resist the urge to throw my arms round both of them at once, careful not to over-react, or embarrass them too much.

As we turn and head for the short-stay car park, I think about how I've always loved airports; the huge shiny planes, the lure of far-off places, the excited faces of people setting off on new adventures. Today  though, I realise that what I particularly love about airports is not the idea of going away, it's the certainty of people coming home.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Just a coffee

For once, the traffic flows smoothly, and I get there far earlier than I’d expected.

So, with half an hour to kill, I park the car and head for the canal, taking the path past the gasometer and along by the hut where the sea cadets meet. I'm not sure I know what a sea cadet is, nor why they'd want to meet in a hut by the gasometer; it seems an awfully long way from the sea.

I side-step a cyclist, who’s pedalling head-down fast towards me, just before I shout out indignantly, I realise that I've strayed onto his designated half of the path. With a quick “sorry” I step back to my side of the lines and follow the route into the centre of town. Then, just like all the other people who find themselves too early for a meeting, I head for the nearest coffee shop.

I hadn't expected it to be quite this busy – it's not just time-whittlers like me, or workers grabbing a take-away on their journey into the office, there are people sitting down with breakfast and the papers, reading a book, glaring at the hard surface of a kindle while they sip at their coffee, or bite into jam-spread croissants. I wonder whether these people have jobs to get to, whether this is a regular stop on their way, or if this is the start of a different sort of day altogether – a prelude maybe to strolling round the shops, a pause to gather their thoughts before a big interview or a dreaded appointment, maybe even a venue for a secret assignation.

As I sit with my coffee, a woman comes in with a young child in a pushchair. What brings them out this early when they could be snuggled up at home? Perhaps this is a regular ritual before nursery, some time together before Mum goes to work. I think back, to when Megan was still at play-school;  I'd just started working in a Chartered Accountants' office, four mornings a week, five minutes from home. The time would fly past as I typed and filed, added up time-sheets and made cups of tea. I'd finish a few minutes before lunch and dash across the square to collect her. Even now, I can almost feel her small hand in mine, tugging at my arm as we’d head for home, saying “hot sossidge roll Mummy?” Then I’d nod and smile and we’d go to the bakers; it was never the healthiest lunch, but always the loveliest ritual.

Now, sitting in Starbucks, I wonder what it would be like to go somewhere for breakfast on a weekday. I know there’s nothing at all to stop me, I could do it any day if I really wanted to. But I don't. Instead, when I set off for work, my only thought is to get there as fast as I can. Everything else is just a distraction - the motorway congestion, the stop-start jams caused by school drop-offs,  I mark the journey in miles and minutes, calculating and re-calculating what time I'll arrive, what I'll do first when I get there. 

Thoughts of work send me reaching instinctively for my phone, and when I flip open the cover I realise it's almost time for my meeting, so I pull on my coat, tighten my scarf and sling my bag over my shoulder. I know that the day will still fly past; lost in a blur of meetings and decisions, e-mails and reports, I know it won't seem any time at all until I'm back in the car and heading for home. But as I manoeuvre my way past the pushchair and out of the coffee shop, I think I'd give almost anything to know my working day would end with a little girl holding my hand asking for a "hot sossidge roll." 

Monday, 8 October 2012

A writing table

“This….” he says, stabbing the smooth oak surface with a firm forefinger, “…is a writing table.”

I shift a little uncomfortably on my rickety wooden chair, the chair that didn't come with the table but was moved here from the kitchen a few days ago, to sit alongside our newest piece of furniture.

Then I look down at the table top. Already it’s cluttered with the sort of things that conspire to fill any empty surface in our house. To my right, there’s a spiral bound notepad, the page half-covered with barely-legible writing. In the middle of it a wine stain forms a small but perfect ring of red fading to brown, the imprint of one of the tiny wineglasses that Philip loves so much. Beside that there’s another brown ring, this one made of Murano glass; bought years ago in Venice, worn to work today, but discarded now for irritating me as it tapped against the table.

Further back, half hidden by a plastic folder of papers from work, there’s a blue drinks coaster, the bright yellow sunflowers on its surface shine out at me, unblemished by red wine, usurped by a notepad, unused.

To my left there’s another open notebook, the pen lying on top of it is cracked and broken, placed there this morning after I’d trodden on it in the half-dark. Behind it there’s a pile of unread books, a DVD I haven’t yet watched, a CD of fairy tales that came free with the weekend papers. On top of all those, a pink satin make-up bag, whose zip won’t quite close, another pen (not broken), and my car keys.

The centre of the table is just big enough for my laptop, the laptop I should be using, on my new writing table, to write.

Instead, for the last hour or so, I've been browsing through Facebook,  laughing at twitter, basking in the warmth of some very kind blog comments and worst of all, playing game after game of solitaire.

It’s dark outside and when I look up at the window, I see my reflection glaring back. I've always wanted a writing table, not the dining table with a different hat on, but a proper place to write; somewhere to sit and capture the thoughts and words that pile up throughout the day. 

As I stare at my reflection, I can almost see it mouthing Philip’s words…

“This…. Is A Writing Table.”

So I nod back at it, sit a little straighter in my chair and begin to type.

Friday, 5 October 2012

The orchestra plays on - a poem

I wake to hear the orchestra is tuning,

The notes ring disconnected through my mind,

Fragments of a tune I can’t remember,

A melody I knew, but left behind.

A double bass begins between my shoulders;

The rage of age, that surges up my spine,

plucks and pulls at sinews, twists and ties them.

Jarring sounds I cannot quite define.

Joining in, the beat of the percussion,

Insistent tapping just behind my knee,

The rhythmic knock that hides a quieter clicking;

A hip that is no longer dancing free

The choir is getting louder, asking questions,

Shouting down the soothing call of sleep,

Insistent, as it builds to a crescendo;

Roaring past, the years I cannot keep.