Monday, 6 October 2008

One small island to another

A bit of semi-creative writing from Belfast International Airport to Stansted:

He sits in the airport departure lounge, senses gouged by over bright strip lights, children's chatter and the pungent aroma of nearby monster munch. The darkness outside is held back by the reflections of pinball machines' flashing lights and the glow from fast food convenience stands. His head hurts, but only slightly. His eyes ache mildly. His stomach feels hollow, though just twenty minutes before he had felt ill from overeating. Nothing is wrong, really. Four words that fully sum up the extent of his despair more than purple prose ever could. Nothing is wrong. Nothing to complain about, no real reasons for sadness. In fact, in a way, he feels quite happy. And yet... The empty feeling won't quite go away, the aloof disconnection from the surrounding world, a quiet desire to escape. And yet to desire escape is to feel trapped, and he doesn't feel trapped in anything he hasn't constructed for himself, his own small neuroses and confusions that add pressure to a blessed life. He doesn't want saving, he isn't lacking anything he really wants, but he doesn't really want anything. To define your own goals when they have always been set for you is a learning step, and at the moment, he has no goals.

His fingers start tapping, his mind racing through options in a cycle. Who am I? Who do I want to be? Who can I be? He refuses to be trapped by these thoughts again, let himself wind down without an answer. He must decide. He must choose a path, and pursue it to a logical conclusion.

So who does he want to be in twenty years?

He lets his mind wander to the first thought, and declares himself a forty year old photographer. He sees the advantages. He sees his images in magazines, newspapers, on books. He hears the acclaim of those who respect his work. He feels the pride of an expressed vision recognised by an adoring critic. What's wrong with this picture? He can see the acclaim but not the work. In fact, he recognises something in himself now. He enjoys taking photographs but does not have the respect for the work that he wants from others. He doesn't admire the effort, in fact he thinks it should be easy. Even if it isn't, it's too simple. He doesn't want the acclaim. He wants to be something more worthwhile.

He sees an author now, tap-tap-tapping on a keyboard with a wife and children in an adjacent room. He finishes his chapter, wanders in to the kitchen to take a swig of milk, helps his daughter with her maths homework. That night he attends a party given for a friend of his, and tells an eminent politician they do not understand the human impact of their own policy. Returning home, his conversation has angered and inspired him and, sipping on the leftovers of last nights wine and lighting up a cigarette, he starts a new short story. Or a play. Or a film. It doesn't matter at this stage, the idea just has to get out there. Two hours later he looks up. He hasn't realised how long he's been writing for, and he looks over the pages that have appeared on his screen. His trance-like state has left him calm. When he wakes up in the morning he'll turn it into a treatment and send it to his agent, then get back to work on his novel. Now it's time to sleep

but he knows it'll be a peaceful life. Looking up, he notices it's his turn to board, but this vision has made him calm. He takes his seat at the front of the plane, lingering on the threshold to let the last of the cool night air and the fresh wetness of Ireland soothe his unwashed face, blinking his heavy eyes in the dark of the cabin at take-off. He doesn't let up now, he feels like he's getting somewhere, maybe.

The lights come on around him lending a harsh overexposed aspect to the fixed-false smiles on the over-made-up, over-medicated stewardesses. She turns away, but from the side he notices the break in her smile, the hardness of her look as she shows her back to her customers. He crosses air-stewardess off a mental check-list and turns to his next considered profession.

He sits across a table from a pin-stripe suit and a briefcase, and tries to remember why he got into politics. Suit's going through budget figures, restrictions, health and safety. Nothing gets done, he twiddles his pen between his fingers and tries to pretend he's listening. This is the downside of being a cabinet minister, but he knows in an hour or two he'll be done with meetings in his plush Westminster office, dark wooden furnishings lending an academic air to an already austere collection of literature and non-fiction. Attractive as his surroundings are, it is the meeting he has organised with a distraught constituent that he's really looking forward to. It may take place in a dingy pub where his suit and tie will draw attention soon enough to his wallet and mobile phone, the precise matter may be trivial to the point of being a waste of his time, but he will feel helpful. He will regain his sense that what he's doing, in however minor a way, is making things better, incrementally, salving the world's problems one oversized house extension at a time. Tonight, afterwards, he will attend a fund-raiser for a prominent cancer charity and pledge his commitment to increasing funding for the important fight against this disease. Next week, on the arrival of a foreign dignitary, he will conduct meetings to put pressure on the country's incipient dictatorship to release political prisoners and remove curbs on freedom of speech. In his infrequent periods of inactivity, or frequent periods of travel, he will re-read Chomsky, Pilger and Klein, or there future equivalents, and form judgements based on opinion pieces (never news reports) from a range of sources and newspapers. He will act for his beliefs, for his party, for his country, and for the common good of humanity, and he will stand tall when asked to go against what is right – because he knows the good he does is only worth it if it does not come out of a contract of doing bad. He...

He runs out of fresh things to say, but he gets excited rereading his own ideas and hopes. As the plane begins to descend and he is forced to hibernate his laptop, he stares out the window at orange pinpricks of light over London and wonders if the last two options are mutually exclusive. Why can't he be a politician and a writer? Why can't his politician have a wife and family? Why doesn't he see plaudits for himself in anything but photography? He considers making amendments when the plane lands, but he feels he must stay true to the goal he has set himself. When he hits the ground he starts running to get out of the terminal and onto the bus, to keep going and keep thinking. As he goes, his ipod blares in his ears and Santogold makes him pause for thought: Got no need for fancy things, all the attention that it brings.

He takes his seat on the bus, eyeing the seat in front suspiciously. Is it reclined? (Am I sitting in the wrong seat, could I get more seat-bang for my seat-buck?) Deciding it isn't, and that the blonde who occupies it is just attractive enough not to offend by moving anyway, he reconsiders the line he has stuck in his head (Santogold's still blaring at this point, but he doesn't pay attention to it). He was won over by the idea of not wanting fancy things, but hadn't considered the second part, the attention part. He doesn't care about not getting attention. If anything, he craves it, craves to be the best and to win. So he ignores that bit and asks himself whether he needs fancy things, or just wants them. And if wanting something, and being able to have it, is justification enough to take it.

So he thinks about Venezuela, an adjunct to the political career path he is setting out for himself, and tries to work out the feasibility of pitching up and asking for a job in the government. The idea excites him but smacks of colonial arrogance, so he imagines again learning Spanish, studying Latin America, possibly leaving London forever and never coming back. The images from John Pilger's documentary, The War on Democracy, flash through his mind – mansions and barrios – and the questions that present themselves start to veer into the realm of where he would live, and whether he'd be robbed in the first month. He clears his thoughts.

He is fat. Really quite fat. Not obscenely so, but enough to merit a ticking off under the conservatives 'blame fat people' campaign (and they hope the nanny state will die with Labour). The reason he's quite so plump is immediately obvious, the rich plate of desert that sits in front of him on a pristine white tablecloth. He sips a rich red wine and starts to make a pompous observation to his younger, female companion. He tells her that to run a successful restaurant Рlet alone a high-end chain Рyou really need to care about the quality of your food. He can tell she isn't listening, isn't really falling for it, is really thinking about the paps outside and the exposure it will give her modelling career, and whether she'll really have to sleep with him for him to introduce her to his fashionable client̬le, but he doesn't care because he knows she will sleep with him Рthey all do Рand anyway this qualifying isn't for her benefit anyway. He listens to himself talk, approving the self-congratulatory tone and the flavour of his restaurant's signature dish, rich in his mouth from a flatulent burp. He stretches a venal hand to envelop her malnourished fingers, and suggests they leave. No need to wait for the bill in his own restaurant, and he wants to make sure they get decent press coverage (that'll show his ex-wife) before the paps flash round the corner to stalk reality TV stars snogging last year's Vanity Fair cover queen at the latest 'latest thing' nightclub, which subsists on those too stupid or not famous enough to avoid paying the exorbitant cover charge and drinks prices.

He shudders and smiles at the thought, confident that whoever this character is – and he can't help admitting there's something delicious about his caricature – it won't be him. Possibly an acquaintance, possibly an enemy, possibly the ex-husband of an equally parodic (but far thinner) older woman he'll have a temporary affair with, but certainly not him.

He feels alive, sharp, warm, passionate and almost teary eyed. This exercise is teaching him one thing, as he takes quick glances at the bitter, or gormless, or impassive, or downright bored faces that pepper the seats around him. Sometimes it doesn't matter what you write, whether you write it for yourself or for everyone to see, or if you write it for publication. Just writing is enough to give him energy, to excite him, to make him open his mind to new ideas, and he feels like maybe, just maybe, he's answered his question.

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