There’s beauty in moving along. My brain has been itching to do it for the last week or so. It’s been a long time since I spent more than a week in one place – not since New York in May – and being static feels, well, a bit odd. Packing my bags again: that feels normal. Rolling clothes up so they’re small and jamming them down in my backpack. Double-bagging my toiletries just to be on the safe side. Making sure iPod and camera batteries are charged. And I’m ready to go. And the mundane journey is beautiful.
The untended trees, bushes, and weeds along the edge of the train tracks; the sprawl of towns pushing against the tracks with semi-detached houses and apartment blocks with views of trains rumbling past every ten minutes. And I wonder who’d want to live there, who’d spend their mortgage looking over this. And I imagine that maybe a couple might spice up their sex life now and again by doing it on their kid’s faded red plastic slide in the back garden knowing that people on the 12.37 Stansted Express would be watching them.
There’s the factories and warehouses, the artificial turf football pitches sectioned in by dark green chain-link fences, and I watch them play for those few seconds that the train is passing like I always have done and will always do. And I will never see a goal being scored. I think that one day I might, but it’s never happened. It’s always some miscued shuffle by a lad who thinks he’s Zidane, letting his team down in favour of trying to show off, as a clodhopper of a defender empties him and chunters up the pitch launching a cross field pass to nobody in particular safe in the knowledge that he done that fancy cunt good and proper.
There’s a lake and I wonder how much rain it’d take to flood the train line and cause a bit of havoc for passengers heading to Stansted. There are supermarket distribution centres, where the second incomes of many local families are earned putting slices of cheese and tomato onto wholewheat bread to be packaged in shiny cardboard, driven around in lorries, loaded onto shelves, and sold to office workers at lunch. There are sheep who, if they’re not sleeping, are munching on grass. More and more munching, more and more grass. How much grass could they possibly want? Do sheep never ever think about the taste of something else? I wonder if sheep will ever evolve to the point where they have a conscious thought about one type of grass tasting better than another.
And the train stops at Harlow Town. More people get off than I expected. And I wondered why it is that you can never use the word “alighted” instead of “got off” in conversation without sounding like a twat. People I expected to be going to the airport are getting off: the girl with the backpack, and the chap with a suitcase on rollers. And there’s a guy who looks like Hideki Matsui on a bird-watching trip. (Is it really true about Matsui’s porn collection, or is that just one of those Internet rumours?) There’s a young chap with his hair styled in a way that doesn’t acknowledge that he’s got a proper job, and a suit that he still doesn’t look comfortable in. How long does it take, how long do you have to wear a suit day-in day-out before you feel – and therefore, look – comfortable in it? Two teenage girls, both in tight sleeveless tops and too-short skirts sit bored on a bench waiting for the local train; and the thought passes through my mind before my moral conscience has time to intercept.
Canned Heat isn’t appropriate listening for a train on a cloudy day in Essex. And my mind drifts to other journeys I’ve made this year. It’s these gaps, these “empty” times, the time spent between places, that seem to bring back the most memories. Like the smell of the soap that your grandparents use, the bits that feel like inconsequential nothingness are now really evocative. Watching a guy on a ladder painting the girders holding up the roof at a bus station in Rio de Janeiro somehow seems just as important as Ipanema beach. Blustering through a ticket transaction in broken Spanish, Portuguese or English and spending a hour or two sat on metal-wire seats waiting. Watching other buses come and go. Families en masse seeing off one of their son with his travel pillow and a Tweety Pie blanket under his arm. His mother not wanting that hug or kiss to be the last one before he goes off. And I’ll be smoking a cigarette and I’ll get hassled for some change or a smoke. Keeping my mouth shut and listening to middle-aged English tourists in an airport in Patagonia.
And I only realise I’ve been staring at the Independent Glass Co. logo on the toughened glass window for about ten minutes when the train pulls into Stanted Airport station and stops. And I wander around, less hassled by things than I would’ve been this time last year. I use the online check-in terminal and wonder why so many people are queued up to get their boarding pass from a human when all you have to do is swipe your passport through the machine and then saunter over and drop your bag off with the Air Berlin employee without a queue in front of her. I have a last smoke outside and watch the other people having their last pre-flight smoke or their first post-flight smoke.
And then the calm disappears when I get in the snaking queue to go through the security pantomime. He’s behind you! Presumably with a big beard and explosives strapped to his cock. And I empty myself into my rucksack. Wallet, iPod, headphones, watch, camera, Tic-Tacs, cigarettes, and lighter. I take my belt off, take my laptop out, put my shoes in a tray, and get ushered through. The machine beeps. Joy. A middle-aged man runs his hands all over me with a look on his face that says, I had a trade, got laid off, and now I’m frisking tourists, looking for stuff that none of them will ever have hidden in their baseball caps.
And I wonder when it will all end. Whether one of us will be the first to stand up and say no! Some guy will say no. Then, in my mind, I imagine an elderly woman, on her way to some corner of the world to see her daughter and her grandchildren. And she’ll see the guy saying no. And she’ll say no too. And those in the queue behind her will look a bit befuddled, but slowly, a ripple will pass along and we’ll all take our toothpaste and roll-on deodorants out of those ridiculous plastic bags, and as one we’ll stop being treated like scum just because we’ve had the temerity to want to fly somewhere. But that guy will never be me, and it’ll never be you, and it’ll never be the elderly woman: she wants to see her grandkids, so she’ll go through it all and put her shoes back on, and like me, she’ll glance at the departure board and find that her flight has not been assigned a gate number yet. So we all look at perfume, Toblerones, newspaper headlines, and ties. And we’ll sit down and eat a sandwich, and there’ll be men looking at the car on a tackily “modern” raised-stage surrounded by big signs saying WIN THIS CAR! And the men will be checking out the wheel arches, and I’ll never know what it is like to be one of those guys who knows stuff about torque and horsepower.
Over in the corner there’s a bar. It looks like it has had a makeover, but it’s the bar where, back in autumn of 2000, a bunch of Welsh football fans were getting drunk at 5am, And I was there with a few possessions in a couple of bags, moving to Berlin. It feels such a long time ago. All those flights since then between Stansted, Luton or Heathrow and Tegel or Schönefeld. But this time, right now, I’m happier than I was for most of those airport visits. I’m looking forward to knowing if going to Berlin is like going home or if it’s just nostalgia. An hour and a half later, and my passport has been checked and I’m hearing myself talking German; asking a fat, grumpy lady for a bus ticket. And I get the bus to an S-bahn station, and I take the train to Schönhauser Allee, and walk the way I would normally walk to my old flat. I don’t want to say it feels like a dream, becaus
e that really means nothing; but it is like walking around inside one of my dreams insomuch as everything looks so real, so like Berlin, so like the street and neighbourhood I left on 1st December; but it doesn’t feel like Berlin because, well, I’m on holiday here. I’m just visiting. So the daily grind isn’t resting on my shoulders. But it does feel like home. Really, it does. I walk past my old flat and feel the urge to open the door, empty the mail box, and go upstairs, drop my bags in the hall, pick up my PSP and go for a poo and some Grand Theft Auto. But it’s not my flat anymore. And I walk down the street and see that building sites are now buildings, and the cars aren’t allowed to park on the pavement anymore, and the coffee in Impala is just as good as I remembered it was. I’m in Berlin.
And in the morning, I’ll be seeing that little ginger fella with the floppy ears again. And I’m really really excited.