Nothing beats the feeling of landing back in Ireland
On my half-hour commute from Liverpool, there’s a delight in floating above the clouds
James Patterson: ‘Even if I’m only doing the half-hour commute from Liverpool to Dublin, there’s a delight in floating above the clouds.’
The thing I love most about airports is the feeling of being stuck slightly out of time. Airports have always seemed a bit outdated to me, with their linoleum floors and photochromic windows, their retractable barriers and airline-branded luggage tags. Everything feels so manual, so interactive.
As I write this in Liverpool Airport, I’m surrounded by the sort of 1980s decadence that wouldn’t go amiss in an episode of Dynasty: Estée Lauder perfume stands, Johnny Walker gift boxes, Ralph Lauren summer yacht-wear, giant bars of Toblerone. At the other end of the departure lounge, 1950s jazz is being pumped toward a queue of boarders who are squabbling about bag size and finishing their drinks. There’s a Starbucks nearby and an airport bar called The Kissing Gate, filled with men of a certain age slumped over brass rails and tables, or chipboard counters veneered in faux-mahogany and teak.
The runway looks like it could be from a projected reel of Casablanca, if not for the baggage handlers in colourful fluorescent jackets. From inside I can almost hear the patter of hostesses disembarking the Ryanair craft nearest the window, cracking wise with “Mac” as he unspools a nozzle from the BP lorry, or laughing about the passenger who ordered the ham-and-cheese “poonannie”.
It’s hard to pinpoint where this airport romanticism comes from. Even the ballache of going through security appeals to my desire to be more prepared than everyone else; I’ll have my boots removed and my belt unbuckled, my laptop taken out of its bag and my phone transferred to the inside pocket of my jacket so I don’t have to linger once I’m handed my plastic tray. Everyone else looks miserable and beleaguered. I feel like George Clooney in Up in the Air: “All the things you probably hate about travelling - the recycled air, the artificial lighting, the juice dispensers and cheap sushi - are warm reminders that I’m home.”
Perhaps it has something to do with the communal loneliness that one experiences in an airport. Everywhere I look, people are consumed by where they’ve come from or where they’re going to, and it leaves them looking as though they might not actually be here at all; sulking over pints or coffee cups, rifling through bags in a bid to feel active, browsing bestsellers in the perma-bright WH Smith.
Back in my Liverpool flat, I’d never allow myself to feel this sort of loneliness lest it consume me. I never become excited for too long about the dispatches received from home because, unless I’m actually going home, they feel wasteful and sad; stark reminders that the majority of those I know and love are there, while I’m stuck here working crap jobs and struggling to pay the rent.
You can see some of that in the other faces at the airport, and it can be comforting to experience this kind of loneliness together. We are like temporary ghosts in a well-designed purgatory. We exchange knowing glances and nods of the head, and sometimes pleasantries: Are you going back home? Will you bring some of that good weather back with you?
Because that’s ultimately what sustains our elation. The already familiar feeling - though we’re still ten-deep from the attendant at the desk checking ID - that we’ll be home soon relaxing, or spending money in an exotic climate with a chilled bottle of white wine and a pot of mussels for the table. Each flight seems new, a fresh start, and as I finger the spine on my well-worn Irish passport, preparing it to open the second I reach the flight desk, I already feel I’ve touched down on terra firma. I already know what I’m going to have for dinner.
When I was younger on a plane, I used to imagine stepping outside and off the wing, to walk on top of the clouds like icy tundra. There were more shapes to be made above the clouds than below them - icebergs, weather stations, distant ships, research outposts - and for someone like me with a dreamy interest in the unexplored, I imagined myself as a Marco Polo figure traversing these airy landscapes. The sun would sink low in the sky until it had turned a smooth orange, the plane would tilt to one side so the interior filled with ambient light. Often I’d document what I imagined was going on outside in an A5 legal pad.
Not much has changed since. Even if I’m only doing the half-hour commute from Liverpool to Dublin, there’s a delight in floating above the clouds, knowing that for the next short while I’ll be in suspended animation, with plastic beakers and flavourless gins, microwaveable panini and vacuum-packed tubes of Pringles.
These are the things about a flight that elicit a peacefulness in me. It’s as if being above everybody, in the literal sense, can reveal new vantages from which I can view my life objectively.
Of course, there are times when flying can be extremely frustrating. If you’ve ever had a flight cancelled, or been stuck in an airport for more than, say, seven hours, you’ll know how the bland kitsch, overpriced food and distant chattering over the intercom becomes infuriating.
I recently took a flight from Manchester to Shannon. I had to get my dog to the minder’s house at 7.30am with no car, then get the bus into Liverpool city centre to make the 9am National Express to Manchester Airport, then negotiate through three terminals before I found my way to security, where there was a massive line snaking back towards check-in.
It was a hot day. Dozens of bodies lurched back and forth in an effort to get to the front, and all I could smell was the sickly-sweet combination of sunblock, cider, stale cigarette smoke, BO, a whisper of soap, a half-eaten sandwich which somebody had left in their bag.
The staff looked bored and uninterested, herding us along and making wry comments about their slow, uncooperative charges. Tuts, swearing, the sound of a toddler screaming, stressed parents using buggies as battering rams to get to fast-check, old people, couples kissing, deflated looking stag parties perspiring through matching polo shirts. If hell was eternal, this queue felt like the closest approximation of it.
Now though, I’m touching down on the tarmac at Dublin airport, flying home again to fill my camel hump with a monthly dose of TLC from my family and friends. It’s evening, my favourite time to fly, and I can feel the wheels of the plane being deployed beneath me, the aircraft drawing closer to the ground, our movement toward the runway, the terminal, the hangar, Arrivals. There is a change of mood and pockets of the craft have broken into laughter.
Call it collective relief, call it renewed optimism, call it coming home. Whatever it is about landing here, things just feel different.
All being well, in 15 minutes I’ll step off the plane into a chilly late summer evening in Dublin. It’ll come as a relief to feel the recirculated air, the fart-smell and BO get blown away by the cold. I’ll observe the flashing red lights on the air-traffic-control tower, breathe in the diesel and salt-water saturated smells, deploy the handle on the wheelie bag borrowed from my girlfriend, and make my way to Arrivals, where my dad will be waiting to greet me with a hug.
We’ll take an interminably long time figuring out where he’s parked his car. We’ll pay for our time and leave, stopping for a McFlurry at the drive-in McDonald’s, or possibly waiting until the big petrol station on the M1 back to Newry. It will feel like the warm settling in of a good dream.
When I wake again days later, filled with the comforts of home, I’ll be back where I started; back here at the airport.