Thursday, 24 January 2013

Coming home.

After passing out drunk as the plane taxied in Bangkok, I didn't wake until the plane jolted to a touchdown on the tarmac in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei, and it must have been mid morning. This was the first of three flights, and three hours completed of a 30 hour journey home. I'd flown in the opposite direction to Europe, but this was the cheapest ticket I could find a week before I wanted to fly, and at only £227 it was a fair bit cheaper than anything else on the websites. Not many people knew I was coming back. Most of my friends in London knew, they know almost everything. One or two people in Peterborough knew. My family I kept it from. I wanted to surprise them if I could. They knew I would be back soon as my money was gone, but I'd told them I wasn't flying back until the 24th, so I'd bought myself a week of time.

I was in between drunk and hungover when I left the plane for a ten hour wait in Brunei's airport. I recognised my surroundings as I'd been here in 2001 on a family holiday. I think that trip was one of the sparks that lit my desire for travel, so it was fitting that I should be passing through at the end of my journey I'd been waiting 10 years to take. I had a mild headache but I was still drunk enough to not really give a shit, so I wandered through the small waiting area and flung myself on a bench, where I must've slept for a couple of hours before deciding I needed a coffee. I had a £20 note in my wallet, which had been refused by everyone in Bangkok to be exchanged on account that it had some stains in the corner of the note. Some money had gone mouldy in my bag when my bag got wet on a Chinese bus. I didn't check on my secret stash very often, so it was in a foul state when I did discover it's condition, and my emergency pounds and dollars took a fair bit of drying and cleaning to get them semi presentable. The woman in Brunei exchanged my money without fuss, and I hauled myself up the stairs to the cafe for a black coffee, egg bagel and bottle of water. I didn't sleep anymore in the airport, but hopped around on the search for accessible wifi and electricity sockets. The ten hours didn't drag and it was soon time to board a flight for Dubai.

I was sober boarding this flight. You can't buy alcohol in Brunei anyhow, not that I would've wanted any, but reality was laid out in front of me in plain, undistorted sight, and it was horrifying. Sat on the plane in a grey, flat dusk, I was pushed back in my seat as the plane raced along the runway, I realised that coming home was the hardest thing I had done on all of my trip. Leaving home wasn't easy. There were things to untie and untangle, things to arrange and postpone, things to think through, but emotionally it was pretty easy. The travel part was easy. You buy a ticket, take the journey, and repeat, until I got to where I wanted to go. Thinking back I can't recall a genuine stressful or scary moment on the road. Sure there are challenges, but they are usually accompanied by adrenaline and excitement rather than worry and dread. When I was travelling, I would be at my most happy when I was literally travelling, I didn't know where I was going, as long as I was going. I was content to be idle, to absorb and gaze, to think and excrete, to chit-chat and encounter. I had nothing to do but to simply be. At home you have everything to do and you have to be someone, be something. Someone people expect things from, and you have to deliver. There were a million things racing through my head, I struggled to decipher my own thoughts through the blizzard in my mind. I was both looking forwards and backwards, and finding it almost incomprehensible to get a handle on the bowl of wriggling maggots my headspace was. I hadn't felt an emotion like this since university ended, and I cried that day in 2006 when I left London, knowing it was all over, and I was close to tears again 30,000 feet over India. I pulled my blanket over my head in case I did cry. I didn't; but I could've howled like the toddler three rows back, or wailed like the infant four rows in front. Would people have tutted at me under their breath like they do with children? Instead I turned my head towards the window and watched orange cities pour like lava fields across the oily black earth as the plane descended into Dubai. 

I struck up a conversation with an English girl about my age as we departed the plane as we had the same bag, I was looking for a distraction and it worked. I only had 30 minutes or so in Dubai to wait, and I boarded the same plane and took the same seat I had just exited, as the Boeing continued on its way to London having refuelled and exchanged some passengers. The food wasn't great on the flight. Normally I enjoy flight food, it's stimulation of some kind, but I didn't have much of  an appetite. I fell asleep before the end of everything I started to watch, and managed a few hours shut eye, before the flight screeched onto the runway of a graveyard grey England at 6.40am Friday 18th January, 2013. 

I was still in shorts and t-shirt, my mind was still abroad, and so I dressed accordingly. Coming through the arrivals gate I looked out of the corner of my eye to see if anyone was waiting for me. I didn't expect there to be anyone, but just in case someone had made an incredible effort, I didn't want it to be a waste for them if I sailed right by onto the Piccadilly Line. There was no one waiting. I was relieved. I bought a bottle of drink for a shocking price, there's no bartering in WH Smith at Heathrow. 

This was the longest I'd been away from the UK, I was a week shy of seven months abroad. My first observations of England were this. It was expensive, it was multicultural, and it was cold. People were tall. I was now short again after 6 months of being amongst the taller ones. Men were different. They weren't lounging on motorcycles or street corners, they were serious. Serious men. Business men. Groomed, but still dying. Sniffling men. Everybody was quiet. Conversations were hushed if they happened at all. I sat with cold air around my bare legs as I waited for the train to depart Terminal 4 towards central London along the Piccadilly Line, a line I'd ridden hundreds of times before. 

On the tube everyone was quiet. It was silence apart from the splutters of coughs, the hum of the electrified rail line, then the familiar female voice announcing to 'please keep away from the doors', before the beep-beep-beep-beep of the closing doors, and we're rattling in to London as the carriage lights blink wearily and the blue-grey light of winter seeps over the earth as if the ground were tissue soaking up cold water. Rows of breathless chimneys stretched out like tombstones in the suburbs and the yellow glow from offices spilt their tricking light and cast shadows across still empty and frosty carparks. 

The train slurred to halts at stations who's names were familiar but still foreign enough that I maybe only knew them from a book or conjured them in a dream. But no, this is London and station after station the Piccadilly Line winds into more familiar and more terrifying territory. The eyes got sadder the further in we went. This journey became a funeral procession, everyone mourning my own loss of travel and idle freedom. The train became busy. People with hollow eyes and double coats shuffled on board, they huddled together with sad arms folded like snakes, floating from the platform onto the carriage in silence, accepting their fate, and once again the beep-beep-beep-beep of the doors before the gentle and breathy growl of steel wheel on rail like the train was cheyne stoking. 

I changed trains at Green Park and boarded the Victoria Line to Highbury and Islington, before taking the overground line to Haggerston, in East London where my friends live. As I waited for the overground train, the last train before I was reunited with familiarity, it started to snow. Cocooned people gave me odd looks as I stood there, with glum face and tired eyes, bushy beard and grubby shorts, as an icy wind whipped white flakes around my face. I was home but I felt lost. Perhaps everyone else did too. 

1 comment:

  1. Well-written. Your description reminds me of my own impressions when I returned from an 8-month trip to Asia in 2001.