The Portuguese call it saudade: a longing for something so indefinite as to be indefinable. [For] the way things were, people already dead, those who left …
– Anthony De Sa
Dunedin, New Zealand
The security line snakes around the retractable belt barriers, stretching to the entrance of the Relay shop next door. As I approach the bag check, I ignore the sign about removing boots. In my opinion, All Stars don’t equate to boots. A security officer glances at my feet, asks me to raise my trouser bottoms so he can see my ankles. If we were Victorians, not only would this be considered an erotic gesture, but it would be bordering on the pornographic. Yes, the All Stars must come off, he says, so I bend over and fumble with my laces, put them on a tray. I wait nervously for the signal from the guard on the other side of the X-ray machine to walk through. I’ve never carried any of the top ten items discovered at international airport X-rays: fireworks, machetes, cleavers, antique pistols, even a chainsaw, but I am the kind to set off alarms – in libraries, even though I’ve issued the books; printers seize up and hiss in my presence; fridges take umbrage if I expose their innards to the elements longer than their fascistic internal clocks dictate. It always surprises me when I pass through airport security unscathed. After all, you and me – we’re the kind who look guilty without having done anything wrong. We expect to be searched. They might find something on us that we didn’t even know we had on our person.
The lush expanse of the Taieri Plains has disappeared – the fog’s cool white mantle effacing the paddocks and hills, the sky. I take a seat in the cramped waiting lounge and look up at the departures’ screen. My flight has been pushed forward again. I do a quick mental calculation, add another hour for unforeseen delays, and reckon I can still make it.
You were always fascinated by people, would strike up a conversation with a stranger without hesitation. I prefer to people-watch, although it’s harder these days when you can’t see faces. The eyes yes, but without the nose and mouth I wonder about the missing pieces, how they all fit together? What kind of smile does the dark searching eyes of the young woman sitting opposite me have, or the middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair scrolling his mobile, does he have five o’clock shadow, or is he clean shaven?
Two elderly couples sit next to me laughing and joking. I may be wrong, but they don’t look like they’re in a hurry, but then I remember the old men and women of my childhood who would barge to the front of a bus queue, armed with razor-sharp elbows and enormous umbrellas, desperate to be on their way.
You should respect your elders, I hear you say.
The lights go out in the departure lounge, and the conveyor belt in the nearby security area ceases its rhythmical whirring. For a few minutes we sit in the dim natural light, the sun straining to break through the fog. We look around at each other – a question hanging in the air – are we going to have to evacuate? An alarm sounds and then stops, then starts up again. A few minutes later, the lights flicker on again and there’s a wave of relieved chuckles and sighs through the lounge. When I next look up at the departures’ screen, my flight has been delayed another 45 minutes. If I make my afternoon connection, it’ll be tight. It’s already been two years, five months and several hours since I’ve seen you. What’s another day? If there are no more delays, I can still make it. This is my mantra –
I can still make it.
Flight time: 1 hour 50 mins Distance: 1,062 km
Dunedin to Auckland
The air steward apologises for the long delay, promises the captain will put his ‘foot on the pedal’ and knock a half-hour off the flight time.
I can’t help but look at the elaborate tattoos on the passenger next to me. If I tilt my head, I might be able to discern which cartoon character she’s inked on her calf, or what one of the scripts on her thigh reads.
It’s rude to stare, I hear you say, but then curious as ever, you ask:
How do they do it at all?
Well, they inject ink into the skin using a hand-held machine with needles that pierce the skin repeatedly. Or something along those lines.
God almighty, that sounds painful. You wouldn’t get one yourself, would you?
Apart from my low pain threshold, I baulk at the idea of anything permanent. Even a two-year contract seems like a forever and amen to me. It’s part of the reason I never married. Having said that, I admire the commitment to etch a Betty Boo or a Donald Duck on your forearm or shoulder blade for all time.
Speaking of marriage …
I’m sorry I mentioned it.
An hour and fifty minutes my foot, you say, and I agree. They can’t open the rear door, and I’m sitting down the back. If I didn’t guess it before, I now know it’s going to be one of those days.
You can still make it.
I overhear a passenger saying she has an international connection, and the air steward asks people to move aside. I push out onto the aisle and tag along, excusing myself an octave or two higher than usual. I want to say: ‘Coming through, coming through, I have a flight to catch,’ but resist.
It makes little difference. The bags take an age to arrive on the carousel.
The clock is ticking now.
I hear it blaring.
After collecting my bag, I run for the bus to the international terminal.
Check-in will be closing soon.
I just make it.
According to the Transport Security Administration, there are various behavioural cues airport security agents use to identify potential security risks:
- Exaggerated yawning TICK
- Excessive coughing or throat clearing
- Wearing improper attire
- Whistling on approach to screening area
- Gazing down; no, or little eye contact
- Exaggerated grooming gestures, and/or wringing hands together
- Pale skin from recent beard shaving
- Flushed face TICK
- Giving non-answers or being uncooperative, and/or trembling of voice or body
- Excessive perspiration TICK
With three checklist breaches, I’m not only body scanned, but my bag is tested for explosives and drugs.
Yes, I hear you.
We’re the kind to look guilty even when …
I am alone here in my own mind. There is no map and there is no road. It is one of a kind just as yours is.
– Anne Sexton
Flight time: 10 hours 55 minutes Distance: 8,721 kilometres
Auckland to Kuala Lumpur
Did you hear that?
I heard it. Well, I think I did.
With the cabin ‘prepared for take-off’, there’s the sound of barking. First a few barks, and then a pause, and then more barks. Heads turn. Is there some child with one of those audio books, pressing the button repeatedly? Will we hear a cat, a pig, a cow next? But no, it’s definitely a dog, a real dog in the hold, and as the plane taxis out of the gate, the barking intensifies, the poor animal becoming more panicked and aggravated. Why isn’t he/she sedated? It’s a 10-hour plus journey. When the plane’s engines thunder during take-off, the dog’s bark is drowned out. For a while all I can think of is that dog inside the plane’s belly, quaking in fear and no one to comfort it.
It’s how you often felt throughout your life. Alone and afraid?
Are you comparing me to a dog?
You loved dogs.
I did. It’s true.
I’ve never forgotten you telling me that when your mother died when you were 10, on the morning of her funeral your grandmother told you to stop crying, said that she was dead now and there was nothing for it. Imagine, she said that about her own daughter.
Times were different. Times were hard. She had to be hard.
But did she though?
Do we have to be hard?
I watch the flight’s trajectory on my monitor – the miniature plane hovering over our current position in the world, a red line tracking our course between the departure airport and our destination. For the first several hours, we skirt along the edge of eastern Australia. Over two thousand kilometres inland lie Northern Territory deserts like the Tanami and Gibson, where to meander or get lost would mean certain death. I can’t help thinking of all the places I’ll never visit, and yes, I know it wouldn’t have bothered you in the least. You never understood my restlessness, my nagging hunger for novelty and movement, for meandering; how I marvel at this plane travelling at over 900 kilometres per hour, which apart from the odd jolt of turbulence, feels strangely stationary.
There’s one free seat next to me, so enough room to manoeuvre to the right and stretch my legs a little. After dinner when the cabin lights are dimmed, I nod off and sleep erratically. When I wake up, I go through the film selection and can’t help thinking of a concept I heard about a few years ago – the paradox of choice – the observation that having many options to choose from, rather than making people happy and ensuring they get what they want, can cause them stress and problematic decision-making. In plain English, the more choice you have, the more difficult it is to choose, which you could also call a first-world problem. And of course it is. I recognise how privileged I am to travel, to be able to choose a film inside a flying metal tube when on this night so many millions in the world below me are unable to, will never be able to.
I always told you how lucky we were.
Somewhere over the Banda Sea, near Indonesia, I start watching the TV series Mare of Easttown. You would have disapproved of the gratuitous murder scenes, preferring good, clean, wholesome whodunnits like Murder, She Wrote and Miss Marple. But I think you’d have liked the small-town setting and the main character, Mare Sheehan: smart, hard-working, no-nonsense. Easttown, the kind of town that could be any town in the world, where, like Mare, a mother lives in, or a sibling or ex-husband lives down the street. The kind of place I grew up in and couldn’t wait to escape. A community where everyone looks out for each other – also known as: where everyone knows everyone’s business. A place where people leave and swear they’ll never return to but do, which makes me wonder do most of us ever really deviate from our inherited maps, from that two-road scenario Robert Frost taunts us with? Before he’d decided on his final draft, did he have another verse in there? One where the traveller returns to those two roads several times, so really, they never choose at all, but just keep going up and down, over and over, back and forth? If such a verse ever existed and he’d included it, I don’t think we’d remember the poem half as well.
At the start of the flight, they announced the cabin air would be filtered every two to three minutes. I look around at my fellow passengers. Some, like me, are fully masked, others with just their mouths covered, many with no mask at all. Earlier, an air steward pulled down hers every time she offered beef or chicken. I’m wearing one of those KN95s that apparently capture 95 percent of tiny 0.3-micron particles in the air. Although it fits neatly over my mouth and nose, the loops are a little tight around my ears, and the bridge of my nose is numb from hours wearing it. My mouth is dry, my lips burn. Not because of my mask. It’s been like this since the first lockdown in 2020. At first I thought the condition was life threatening, that I could have mouth cancer (my 30-a-day habit in my 20s finally coming back to haunt me), so I went to see an oral specialist who confirmed my Google search – burning mouth syndrome (BMS). Often triggered by allergies, hormonal changes or vitamin deficiency, mine is the annoying kind – idiopathic, which is what medical experts declare when they can’t identify a cause. In one study I read, it suggested BMS could be sparked by a traumatic psychological event.
The perfect combination then: lockdown anxiety and grief.
I thought the BMS would abate but it’s still there, and like some things I haven’t been able to change in the last two or so years, I’ve learned to live with it.
Perhaps one day I’ll wake up and it won’t be there anymore, just like you were there my whole life and then you weren’t.
We’ll Meet Again
Flight Time: 7 hours 15 minutes Distance: 5,528 km
Kuala Lumpur to Dubai
We descend into the smog of Kuala Lumpur just after midnight/04.30 NZT. An hour and a half here to allow passengers to disembark and a crew change-over. Anyone flying on to Dubai must remain on the plane.
Within twenty minutes of landing, there’s the bustle of cleaners scrubbing toilets and vacuuming aisles, catering staff loading galleys with the next journey’s meals. There’s a couple of medical emergencies, which delays the take-off for an hour. On the speakers, the old WWII classic by Verna Lynn on loop – ‘We’ll meet again’, and then the poor dog in the hold starts up again. I can’t believe it has to endure another flight, but just like before, as soon as we take to the air it grows silent.
What would you say if I told you I slept next to three strange men, that we were all masked sleeping beauties, that we pressed up against each other as we slept fitfully? That in the minutes our air was filtered, we may have exchanged a fleeting breath, and wondrously, a fragment of a dream. Perhaps our secrets drifted through the cabin and somehow escaped into the night sky.
I watch another film called After Love, about a woman who marries an older Muslim man and becomes a convert herself. After he dies suddenly, she discovers he has a second, secret lover in France. I expect this to send his wife into a rage, but she calmly organises her ferry to Calais where the woman lives. When she arrives at the French woman’s door, she is in the process of moving out of her flat and mistakes the wife for a cleaner from the removal’s company. She says nothing to refute her.
I know what you’d be thinking –
What’s wrong with her? Why doesn’t she say something?
I wonder the same thing myself. Is she so grief-stricken as to be rendered dumb? Even when she discovers her husband also has a teenage son, she says nothing.
But then again, not everyone is like us.
Not everyone reacts the same way to loss.
Some of us are frozen.
Some of us burn.
By the time we arrive in Dubai we’ve missed our gate slot and land an hour late. Weary security guards glance indifferently at the X-ray cameras while chatting to their colleagues. My hand luggage passes through without inspection, my boots draw no attention. I don’t set off any alarms.
I find my boarding gate and sit next to a young man who gives his plane ticket a puzzled look. ‘Casablanca’, it reads. Just a few minutes earlier, I passed a cluster of men in thobes and taqiyah huddling outside this gate. Unoriginally, I wondered if any of them had seen the film Casablanca. Is this why the young man is headed there? Is he aware he’s sitting at the wrong boarding gate? Has he heard Humphrey Bogart’s famous line – ‘Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow but soon and for the rest of his life?’
I watch the line of travellers hand their tickets to the steward and pass downstairs to another gate, the milky-white legs of my countrymen in shorts, the intricate braids of an African woman, the tired, knowing eyes of an old woman in a sari.
I marvel how airports converge us under one roof, with all our differences, our prejudices and assumptions, all our suppressed angst. All of us temporarily contained (if not at times strained) under a high-ceilinged glass building in the middle of a desert nation.
And what do my fellow passengers make of me – a middle-aged woman, with her hair greying, dressed in loose tracksuit bottoms and a navy top, wearing All Stars? My face masked, my tongue and lips burning, my ribs aching. What ailments and sorrows do they conceal? Here in this place, on this morning. None of us wanting to wait too long, eager to be on our way. To be elsewhere
Flight Time: 7 hours 55 mins Distance 5,926 km
Dubai to Dublin
I say hello to the mother, but when she doesn’t respond I suspect English may not be her first language. One of her three children, a girl, sits next to me. She’s about seven years old and dressed in pink, with the worst mushroom haircut I’ve ever seen. It reminds me of the time my partner cut our son’s hair when he was two-and-a-half and he looked like Friar Tuck for weeks.
Crazy about kids, you would have loved her.
A formidable presence, she sits upright in her seat, her legs akimbo, her small feet in black trainers. There’s a slight tussle for the arm-rest which she wins unconsciously, so engrossed is she in Encanto. An hour or so later, I think she starts talking about watching another cartoon, the only word I recognise in the quick volley of words. She has a lovely movement to her head, rolling it from side to side when she expresses herself. Later, her mother, who was initially shy, warms up a little as I help her daughter put on her pink, fur-lined coat. We watch amused as she flamboyantly smears tomato sauce all over her white bread roll, eating it as though it were a Parisian pain au chocolat.
By the time she throws up as we come into our final descent, I have mercifully swapped places with her mother. I hand out sick bags in quick succession and try not to throw up myself at the sound. When it’s all out, the girl sits back again and nonchalantly continues watching a cartoon.
Beneath us, a patchwork of green paddocks, a scattering of tiny islands. Grey and green, green and grey, a ripple of two colours streaming through an intermittent caravan of white cloud. The wind picks up as we come closer to landing.
Two years, five months and four days to get back to you.
Tears come to my eyes as the plane hits the tarmac.
You can never go home again, but the truth is you can never leave home, so it’s all right.
– Maya Angelou
Last time I rushed back to you. This time, there’s no urgency. The phone on the bedside table lies silent, goading me to pick it up and call you, to hear you ask some variety of:
Are you tired?
Did you get any sleep at all?
Isn’t it a hell of a journey?
From the fourth-floor window, there’s a view of the hotel carpark and a motorway. I can see planes glide closer to the nearby airport.
I fill the bathtub with hot water, not as hot as you used to bathe my sister and me when we were small, the water so hot our legs turned pink when we got in.
I lie back and let all the hours of travel, all the short interactions, wash away – the pent-up anxiety of getting stopped, the delays, the possibility of unforeseen calamities.
One night here, and then tomorrow I’ll be back, walking around my childhood home as is my custom.
I’ll open your bedroom door and stand there for a while, waiting.
The roads have changed little in the decades since my sister and I used to sit in the back of the car as children – narrow and winding, with old ivy-covered farmhouses dotted here and there, cows and horses chewing grass in the paddocks.
Old stone walls line the roads – stones once held in calloused hands, hands that measured the shape of each stone before slotting it into just the right place.
Ancient fields careful with their secrets,
oaks and whitethorns and birch
sighing in the spring breeze.
We drive past my grandmother’s house – she’s been dead now almost thirty years – the Morning Star stream where my father learned to swim, the roads he walked to school as a child. This is our county and not yours, where we were brought back to after we were born. First, to a dilapidated cottage my father inherited from an uncle – cold, damp, and rat-infested, and then into a house in the village, your favourite house, surrounded by other young mothers and children. The same house you returned to in your mind more and more in your last days.
The air is warm, the car windows open. Just as my sister pulls into the church carpark it starts to rain.
I’ve been talking to you in my head these last two years, five months and four days, telling you stories about what I’ve seen and heard. You’ve even come to me in dreams, but now that I’m finally here I can’t think of what to say.
A clamour of rooks fills the air,
the rain sweeps through the graveyard like a scythe.