Updated: Sep 13, 2021
I was walking in a leafy southern suburb of London when a scene devolved in front of me in almost perfect silence. A cyclist attired in skin-tight fluorescent clothing collided into a parked car, going over the bonnet and crumpling into the windshield. It was like a Chaplin movie; a comedy or a tragedy, depending on your role in or perspective of the scene. I realised it had not unravelled in silence but instead, my music had finished and my noise-cancelling headphones were actually now functioning like mufflers. I slipped them off, revealing the noise of traffic and the faint moans of the now-standing cyclist, nursing his arm, and the concerned quick-fire questions of a stranger closer to him. The cars in the small but busy road continued in their journeys, unsurprisingly unconcerned or unaware of what had just happened.
I was on my way to meet Dan, a friend I hadn’t seen for months, not since my return from Manchester. He had recently gotten married, in Essex of all places, and after a short honeymoon in Mexico had returned to London and to his city job in advertising. I had not a big role in his wedding, only as a guest, as an onlooker, which had made me initially sad but suited me on the day, for I had gotten drunk, having gone alone and therefore being the only single one out of our friendship group, and had to excuse myself embarrassingly early.
It was just coming up to spring, a season that suited living in London better than the grey swathes of winter. The early morning light was crisp, and it seemed to sharpen the green of the street’s foliage, the sky a pale blue that stretched uninterrupted. I kept walking down the road, now listening to the incessant traffic noise of London, something even the poshest suburbs could not price out. For every artisanal bakery, for every specialist espresso bar, there were trucks delivering them supplies, maintenance men working on the winter-cracked roads, waste removal trucks making their pickups. I watched a man lean against his delivery van and light a cigarette. He held his eyes shut as he took the first drag and for a second, I didn’t think he would ever open them again, but he did and exhaled the smoke in a thin dense stream.
I got to the café we had agreed to meet at, which was minimalist in décor: pale wood benches and stools, with overhanging greenery, walls adorned with unobtrusive prints of contemporary abstract art. In an open booth along the far wall, I saw Dan seated, looking into a mug of what I assumed was coffee on the table in front of him. The steam from his mug played with the lines of his face, making him almost mirage-like. I went to the counter and ordered an expensive oat milk mocha from the younger-than-me barista, whose serious, knowing, warm demeanour was a new style of hospitality emerging in London’s hipster businesses. I took my order number, seventeen, and joined Dan. We hugged tightly as we said hello; he was one of my rare male friends who actually hugged you when you embraced, rather than the typical male-to-male half contact. Dan was actually drinking green tea, the water an off-white colour, appealing only in its steaming warmth. He looked good as he started to speak about his honeymoon. His ginger hair was thickly coifed to his right, and his skin was slightly tanned, noticeable only from close proximity, both literally and relationship-wise.
‘And how’s Matty?’ I asked after the barista had delivered my coffee. Matty was his now-wife, and he smiled and spoke excitedly about the house they had just found in between Watford and London, and he showed me a picture of it. It was the kind of new-build typical of the commuter belt of London, the sort of building complex I particularly disliked for their lack of character and dull coherence. I smiled as he scrolled through the glossy professional pictures.
The barista barely looked up as we left. Dan lamely put up his hand to say goodbye but quickly put it down once it wasn’t acknowledged. We were now walking along the same road I had walked from, Dan tightly wrapped up, his thick scarf fluttering behind him in the slightly kicked-up wind.
‘And how are you with everything?’ he finally asked, a question that had been drifting between us since I sat down. He was the second friend I saw after the worst of my time before; I still remember his grave look and hug, the cigar he had curiously brought me as a gift, and the vegan burgers we had, tucked into a dirty corner of a busy inner-London Leon. My inability to talk about anything since then had relinquished itself a little, but there was still a flickering barrier between us, imposed by me.
‘I’m better,’ I said after a moment, looking at him to show it was true. He half-smiled and pulled his flagging scarf tighter.
‘You look better,’ he said as we turned into one of the small, leafy parks typical of this part of London, lined with tall, overly expensive Victorian–period housing. ‘You’ve put on weight,’ he continued. It was true—the months back at my mother’s house, plus a trip to my father’s in France, had fattened me up again after months of not eating properly. I wore the weight, in my mind, badly; my chin losing its definition and my average height exaggerating the weight gain around my waist.
He took out a cigarette and offered me one. I shook my head and waited for Dan to light his, which he struggled to do in the kicked-up wind paired with his cheap lighter. We sat down on a park bench and watched people drift by; most of them on their phones, talking and laughing with someone on the other end or scrolling, digesting some sort of information, personal or other, through their screen. I was just as hooked on my phone. My brain was now rewired to experience little hits of happiness at the sight of notifications, and no matter my attempts, I had yet been able to wean myself off my phone, crucial as it is to living today.
‘Have you seen what’s happening?’ Dan asked and took out his phone to show the running story on The Guardian. There was the header picture of the aftermath of a bomb, which was, in fact, a slideshow of pictures: the next a picture of a flag hoisted into the air; the next was of a woman holding a child, both crying; the next was of a white journalist standing awkwardly at the site. I looked away and Dan paused and then clicked his screen off. I had skimmed the reports about what was happening but hadn’t delved fully into what was happening. To be able to lightly read or to simply ignore the news was a choice privilege afforded, and one, to my shame, I sometimes exercised, especially in the past year.
We said our goodbyes around lunchtime after Dan had checked his phone one too many times for it not to be some sort of sign of eagerness to get somewhere else. I sat back down on the bench as I watched him go; slightly taller than me, far slimmer, with an assured step that developed more and more since he had met Matty well over two years ago. I sat on the bench for a while longer and let the world around me pass me by. People on their lunch breaks or on their bikes or walking their dogs went past, hurried in their own lives, indifferent but not cold towards me, as I let the wind sting my face. I knew the day was stretching overhead and wondered where to walk to next.
I touched down in Paris almost exactly two hours after we were meant to arrive. The plane was full of French people complaining about the delay. My seat neighbour was a small, pokey woman who had kept solemnly quiet throughout the turbulent forty-five-minute journey from Manchester.
As we disembarked, I walked behind her. She was now reunited with a friend who had been sitting away from her, and I heard her tell her friend about me. ‘He kept sighing,’ she said in hushed Parisian French. ‘I wonder why?’ she continued as we made our way down the clanking walkway into the airport.
Because of the delay, I had to walk to another terminal to collect my baggage. The connected walkway was an old multi-coloured hallway, dominated by the moving human conveyor belt in the middle.
‘Maybe he was ill?’ her friend answered her as they walked further from me. The other woman’s answer was too faint to be made out over the clatter of footsteps.
At the same time as our bags were coming, so were bags from a plane from Tokyo. As its passengers waited, I noticed they were all wearing masks—mostly surgical–style ones—and were standing in small, distanced clumps. My fellow passengers had moved to the far side of the baggage belt and were side-eyeing those passengers, mostly Asian, who were waiting for their bags.
As I waited alone, the knot in my stomach was tightening, then loosening, with each passing bag that looked like mine but wasn’t. The dread that moved through me, bubbling through my stomach like bad food, had built and spread in the ever-stretching delay. Knowing that my father had waited two hours already for me to arrive—and was still waiting—was enough to make me feel like an errant child again.
I didn’t really want to shine a light on everything, especially here, waiting in this airy, dimly lit baggage reclaim hall in this chaotic airport. The room was large and contained a number of conveyor belts, marked only by large neon letters. As I waited at B, I looked down the hall. The different conveyor belts almost looked like one long track, seeming as if you were to miss your bag, it would have to travel all the way down the room, along all the conveyors, in front of all the hungry and tired travellers and their seeking hands, before making the long journey back to you. I’m sure it was not, that there was a sophisticated system behind the wall that separated us from the airport mechanisms, but I found myself twitching towards and glaring at every passing bag even if it was a colour, unlike mine.
All the important things were in my hand luggage, and this gave me some calmness as I waited. In it was my medication—a strong antidepressant that curiously increases suicidal ideation before reducing it—and my phone, passport, and wallet. When I prepared for this trip—my first to France in almost five years—I didn’t know what to pack, how many clothes to take, whether I could do laundry at my father’s.
My baggage finally came, and the knot tightened as I picked it up and began to make my way to the exit, tightening until I couldn’t walk. At that point, I wanted to cry. I wasn’t sure whether it was for myself, for the woman I had sat next to, for the surgically masked passengers of the other flight, for the way we had treated them by keeping our distance, or whether it was for everything and something else, something lost floating in the space above us.
I stood in the middle of the exit, holding my hand luggage and small suitcase and felt the crowds of people shift around me as they exited—some quickly dragging their suitcases and some strolling arm-in-arm with loved ones. The exit doors—big sliding doors that opened to a crowd of waiting people—took on almost a cinematic quality. It felt like some sort of played-out scene in which you are romantically reunited with someone, or you find a long-lost member of family in a tear-jerking scene of feel-goodness. The colours within the opened door, the noises of chatter and movement, sounded staged, as if they projected or played from a speaker that intermittently cut out. But neither of these were true, and this wasn’t a film, and l knew I had to step into the heat and colour of the scene ahead.
After a moment or longer, I dragged my feet and left the baggage hall and entered to the bright lights of the main terminal room. I scanned the crowd, pressed up against barriers that marked the travellers from the locals. I caught sight of my father’s face; his face neutral as he looked down at his phone. I walked up and he noticed me, and a smile came over him. He gave me a large hug and the customary double-cheek kiss.
As we walked to his car parked in one of the underground carparks, I explained to him the delay and why I was so late, but he didn’t seem bothered. It was the first time I had come to France since I was twenty-one and it felt almost lifeless coming through the airport instead of the Gare du Nord, which was always bustling with shouts and arguments and the horns of cars and people asking for cigarettes. To step out of the cool of the station into the heat of Paris, its sun-baked pavements and narrow crooked streets lined with buildings that seemed to loom overhead, felt like coming home. Instead, it was dark now—it being early evening in February—and as we left the airport it was straight onto the motorway out of Paris, I realised that I had both missed and grown apart from it. It was a city that doubly felt like home and strange to me with every visit; the more I got to know the city, the less I felt like I actually knew it, and that I was a mere tourist parading around as a local, despite it being my birthplace.
‘You’re quiet,’ he said to me after a time driving. The car, which was originally my late Papie’s, was an old beat-up Renault that struggled to go over sixty. Towards the end of his life, where he stubbornly insisted he could still drive despite his right eye being almost entirely closed because of the tumour, he had dinged and dented the car more times than any family member cared to count. I felt the vibrations underfoot of the car straining to speed up and felt strangely reassured.
‘I’m just tired,’ I said after a while. I had seen my father straight after the worst of my episode —he had come to England suddenly and taken care of me whilst I had been unable to get out of bed and everything had been foggy—and I felt strangely embarrassed. He had seen me cry, perhaps for the first time since I was a boy, and as he drove, I looked down at my hands, sweaty and clasped together on my lap.
He started talking about his new home with his partner, a woman whom I had never met despite them having been together for over four years now. We turned off the motorway onto a small main road towards the town where he lived. One of his partner’s daughters, who was slightly younger than me, was also there, and this added a new dimension to my worry. As he spoke in his quick French, I spent half the time listening and the other staring out of the window. As we drove a white flash suddenly lit up the car and he swore.
‘Was that us?’ he asked.
‘I don’t think so,’ I lied before I could really catch myself from doing it. ‘There was a car going the opposite direction,’ I continued, despite myself. This was my fault, I told myself. If I hadn’t come, he wouldn’t have been flashed, he wouldn’t receive a fine later, and with that, a feeling of dread washed over me.
But to my surprise he kept on talking about everyday stuff—his garden, my grandma, her new flat, his potential new job—and the wave of dread eased a little as he eased the car back into fifth and the lights of the road blurred overhead.