Image by Christine Renney
I have always embraced the anonymity being at an airport allows. I enjoy sitting amidst the rushing of others, everyone else so centred, so focused, each intent on their journey and all destinations held close. No-one wishing to share, wanting to talk. This conspiracy of silence suits me just fine and I am able to kick back and relax, despite the noise, despite the echo and the clamour.
I sit and read beneath the strip lighting and can easily lose myself in a book in spite of it all, the glint and the glare. And when I raise my head and see myself reflected in the glass I stare as if at an old grainy reel of film playing on a loop. I am the only constant amongst the forever shifting strangers.
That I visit London’s airports simply in order to sit and read is, I realise, a little odd. But I have done so intermittently for years and, just recently, much more frequently. After work I stay on the train and ride to the end of the line. Heathrow with its shimmer and noisy gleam drawing me in again and again.
I eat at one of the cafeterias but tonight I don’t settle down to read. I feel restless and, wandering aimlessly, I notice a man sitting on a high stool. He is engrossed in his newspaper and he is vaguely familiar but I am unable to place him.
I am struck by how awkward and embarrassing it would be if I were to run into someone I knew. That I needed a legitimate reason for being here, an alibi of sorts. I begin to conjure an elaborate story concerning an elderly relative whom I have promised to meet and set safely on their way. But I won’t need the bare bones of this lie, not tonight, much less the finer detail. The man cannot be more than a passing acquaintance, probably some one I have met through work.
He is wearing a suit similar to my own and even the battered briefcase at his feet is much the same. He is, I hazard, about twenty years older than me and overweight (too much snacking in places like this) and his complexion is sallow. I suspect that travel plays a major role in his life, that he is a rep. And so this ordinary and decidedly non-mysterious man has proven easy to piece together. Nevertheless, I am still intrigued and when he pushes himself up from his stool I decide not to follow but, for a spell at least, to tag along.
Soon enough the man will push through his gate and toward the departure lounge, putting the brakes on this harmless little game of mine. But in fact it seems he is heading toward the exit and I follow him through a part of the airport that I rarely visit. It is darker here and cold, a place where nobody lingers. I trudge behind him along the concourse and through the automatic doors at the end.
Stepping outside the wind slams against me, doing its best to force me back inside. But tugging at my collar I forge on. The man passes all of the shuttle stops and I suppose he is making for one of the short term car parks close to the terminal.
That I am following him now is undeniable and any pretence would be wholly futile. But then again I haven’t any reason for being here and so why not take a walk and why not alongside the barrier at the outer edge of this car park?
I reach the end of the pavement and some way ahead on the service road the man stops and turns. He motions for me to follow and this gesture is so arresting that I feel compelled to obey. But I hold still, I stay put.
He has reached the chain-link fence that divides the car park from the wasteland beyond. Grappling with it he pushes through a section where the wire has been cut and standing on the other side he watches and waits.
I still have quite a way to go but, as I move slowly toward him, there is no sense of foreboding. I could so easily just turn around and make my way back.