Airport Arrivals are just the best places for me, in the unlikely scenario that I were to come face to face with an Alien and be required to explain what it is to be a human being I can think of no finer place to take them to demonstrate than the arrivals section of Heathrow Airport.
One side of the barrier and the large double doors with the Arrivals sign above in large letters a plethora of folks are waiting, a smorgasbord of skin tones and races and languages, all for a moment in time united in one common task.
There are the eager young men holding bunches of flowers that wait for lovers, the parents that wait for children, children waiting for parents or relatives from far away, taxi drivers with name placards for Smith or Weis or Adebayo hang about disinterestedly doing their everyday job, there are entire families waiting for missing members who’ve come to celebrate marriages and births, the travel companies with logos and the group names of travellers, they are all there waiting whilst on the others side of the doors the arrivals push trolleys weighed down with luggage, with foreign delicacies and purchases and gifts, or with excited children bleary eyed from hours of travel that have never met the family that wait on the other side.
The best hugs you will ever witness are there for all to see at arrivals, there are tears and smiles and laughter and squeals of excitement amongst the unending stream of human stories that flow together for a moment along one narrow corridor before going their separate ways.
For me after months away returning to Heathrow means I’m coming home, today I like the idea of slipping back into the country, un-noticed, anonymous, self-contained.
Outside the airport it’s raining, ah this is my London in August, the rain brings me a smile.
My sister has offered me a room with a sofa bed for now, it’s my intention to just spend some time back in London with my son & to take stock and figure out what to do next.
I am staying just a mile or two away from my old home, part of me wonders how I will feel being back in London now. My zodiac sign is Cancer & whilst I’ve always shied away from taking anything seriously from astrology I do if only by coincidence share certain characteristics of my star sign:
‘Chief amongst the traits of a Cancer is a need for strong family ties, deep roots, for home, they demonstrate a caring nature & can be romantic and creative’.
All of these traits are me to a tee and I have them in abundance, but then astrology goes wrong and also says that ‘A Cancer can be gossipy, uncommunicative, hypersensitive and prone to mood swings and to retreating into the Cancer shell’. This obviously bears no relation whatsoever to me.
I am happy to be back in London, its wonderful to see my son again, whilst I like every parent am potentially biased my son is genuinely a good person. Now in his early twenties I see him growing into a better man, I wonder at times how he turned out so well given the parents he had to work with. I am most conscious of all that he is now making his own way in the world and for that he needs space, what young adult needs a parent breathing down their neck all the time, telling them what they should be doing, this was his time to make his way in the world and my work for the most part with him was done and dusted. Now was my time to step into the background and only come forward when needed. Regardless of my closeness and my attachment and my love for him he had a life of his own to get on with.
In one of the countless self help books I’d consumed there was a paragraph that had stayed with me about how long it took to get over failed relationships, it suggested as a rule of thumb that it took a month to recover for each year the relationship had lasted. This somewhat daunting timescale meant that it could take me close to two years to get over mine entirely. Well I had been counting and I was now two years on – how was it going?
I spent most of August being a tourist in my own home City, having breakfast in Portobello Road my old stamping ground, then heading off to a gallery or museum, on sunny days just finding a patch of grass in a park somewhere and lying in the sun and reading a book, it’s remarkable how much of a place you can fail to notice when busy with work and everyday life, with nothing to do I had time to see London with different eyes and I liked it.
One day I cycled into town intending to go to the National Portrait Gallery. I parked & locked my bike just off Trafalgar Square then took a breather on a low wall outside the Gallery to cool off.
A bunch of tourists were sitting along the length of the wall, eating sandwiches or ice creams, or just sitting and chatting, I found myself a space.
Not long after I’ve sat down a guy comes and sits next to me, he is carrying two battered old supermarket bags, he is dishevelled and clearly homeless. His skin is black but there’s a grey dustiness to it, like its been dusted in ash, and I think for a moment that the streets have washed his colour away. I think of getting up and moving, maybe he has fleas or worse, or he is a crazy and should be given a wide berth, then I check myself, what the hell he’s just another person, what’s the worst that could happen?
We nod at each other and then he begins to talk, hello I am Victor he says.
He fidgets around in one of the carrier bags and pulls out a pack of roast chicken.
He holds up a drumstick and asks Would you like some?
No thanks I say, I’ve not long eaten, but its kind of you to offer I reply.
I think, he says pausing to take a bite, that it’s important to share, any time I have food I share it.
Somebody gave me this just up the road he adds, then waves the chicken wing in the direction of Charing Cross Road.
He has a nervous tick and the look of a person who’s suffering with some form of mental illness, I can’t help but think that he’s close to my own sons age.
I’ve am sleeping rough he says, it’s hard to get off the street, sometimes I can get a place for a night in a hostel, that’s much better. How about you do you have a home? I reflect on the question, and though living in different worlds as technically I am homeless, I reply that no, I don’t. With this I think Victor takes me for a fellow rough sleeper,
I make a mental mote to get some new clothes and maybe a haircut.
Victor talks away, his Dad he tells me was an American, his Mother a Brit, he spent his first few years in the States, but his Dad who was a Cop died, and he and his mum came back to England.
He grew up in East London and got a place at Greenwich Uni, he was studying Criminology, he wanted to follow his Dad into Policing, but in his final year one day at college he was called into the office and told that his mother had died, from a heart attack. I couldn’t keep it together he said, I lost my place at Uni and couldn’t finish the course, then the flat me and mum lived in, then I ended up here on the street and five years later I am still here.
Victor finishes the chicken and stands up. Time to go he announces. I stand up and offer my hand to him, he reaches out and shakes. I can feel the chicken fat on his fingers.
Good luck Victor I say as he walks away a carrier bag in each hand, and as he goes he calls back I hope you find a place……………..
His figure grows smaller as he crosses the square and I watch him until he is lost in the crowd. That a young man should be battered by life is sad, that he should bear it with dignity and decency despite all his challenges humbles me, and that he, with next to nothing but a little food is willing to share even that amazes me most of all.
Whilst there are people like Victor in the World it occurs to me that there is hope for us all.
As August draws to a close I begin to think about The Notting Hill Carnival, a million people a day partying for the last weekend in August and all on my doorstep. Having lived in the area for years its something that cannot be denied, you either join in and immerse yourself or escape entirely, there is no ignoring it. As this carnival approaches I don’t want to be around, it will remind me of the past and I don’t want to be reminded.
What to do? I come up with a seat of the pants plan, to do the Camino a pilgrimage route seven hundred kilometres across Spain, it had been high on my bucket list, in part fuelled by a movie, ‘The Way’ & a book, Paulo Cohelo’s The Pilgrimage.
I buy a plane ticket to Biarritz in Southern France, pack a rucksack with clothes and basics and head to Heathrow airport on the morning of the first day of carnival excited to be escaping and ready for a new adventure.