The wheels flirted with the runway a few times before that jagged bump that fills everyone with apprehension. I always take the wing since tall, strong, young guys travelling alone can talk their way into an exit seat check-in. Especially if they’re willing to smile.
“That was rough,” the odd lady sat next to me said to nobody so everyone could hear.
I watched the wing shake with tension, then that moment of relief when the brakes grip.
The cabin crew had expressionless faces, and I wondered what it must be like to work above the clouds.
“Well, I guess we’re here,” the odd lady commentated.
“I guess we are,” I replied, which she ignored.
The weather in Manchester is rarely welcoming. Specks of rain gathered on my cabin window. The time in Manchester is 8:42am, and the weather, as you can see, cold and wet, with a temperature outside of six degrees Celsius, that’s 42 degrees Fahrenheit.
There was a rush when the seatbelt sign flicked off, but I didn’t move. It didn’t matter how fast you got your bag down. Experience taught me that. What mattered was how fast you could walk the vacuous, antiseptic smelling corridors to immigration.
Airports make you feel guilty. I concoct scenarios in my head as I’m stood in the queue; scenarios where I’m hauled off to rooms to explain myself.
Where I’m apprehended by burly security folk.
“Hello, sir,” the immigration officer smiled. They rarely smile.
“Please stand back a pace for the photo.”
I stood back, arms folded behind me, like a schoolyear photograph. The officer next door asked mine a question. A brief moment of distraction left me lingering. Something to do with the printing machine. My officer exited his booth and walked round to help, and I was left wondering if they were looking at pictures of me on the screen – all the things I’ve never done.
“Sorry for the delay,” he smiled, returning to his seat. The stamp came down and the glass gateway opened. Relief.
My case came quickly. I spotted it on the conveyor belt from a distance, my old skull and crossbones bandana tied around the handle.
“It’s a myth, you know.”
“Sorry?” I said, turning to face the old man leaning on his trolley.
“Manchester. It’s a myth. It’s not the wettest city here like everyone thinks.”
I smiled, nodded, then walked round to claim my case. There was a fragile label stuck on it because of my ukulele. My pulling weapon, as I’d tell my mates on our email syndicate. No need for chat up lines when you can play the little conjurer and sing along. Wow, that’s so cool. Two hours later, hearts pounding in cosy beach alcoves just far enough away from the music, with only the moon bearing witness.
“You look so well!” my Mum lied, throwing her arms around me.
“I’m tired,” I smiled. “Where’s Dad?”
“In the car.”
The smell of bakery, and coffee, and sharp, pungent shit from the nearby toilets decorated the air. Mum grimaced but would never comment on anything so crude.
“Hungry?” she asked.
“I was,” I laughed, and that was enough.
We walked under the sheltered walkway, the restful sound of gentle rain pattering the plastic. Mum kept turning to check I was really there.
“Typical Manchester,” she laughed.
“Not necessarily so,” I began, then stopped.
Rain. Glorious rain. I like to make love in the rain, Miranda said, caressing my nipple with her forefinger under my baggy Jim Morrison vest. Her blazing red, voluminous curls danced as she flicked her head side to side, reeling me in through thick, gluey inebriation. I’m Dutch, she said, snaking her finger deeper into my weakness. Ok, I managed, smitten by stars.
The last stop, Ko pha-ngan, was mental. Thailand was mental. The whole of Asia had been mental. I was glad I’d finally been and ticked the Full Moon Party off my bucket list, but even gladder it was over. My skin was still dry, and my eyes swollen from sleep deprivation. I was ten pounds lighter, and I could see it in my cheeks.
There’s no rain here, I mouthed at Miranda, and we fucked like two nations at war.
“It’s so expensive to park in here!” Mum said, searching the bowels of her handbag for change.
“I can’t help you,” I grinned, waving a Thai note and noticing the eight pound fee on the ticket machine.
“We were a little early,” she grimaced.
Dad was conservative as ever. We exchanged an awkward half-hug. He looked older to me, especially round the eyes. Slower too, with veins protruding on his temples. Four years is a long time.
“Here’s a chewing gum,” he said, his hand shaking.
England looked so small to me now. The buildings, the scope, the roads. Even the motorways seemed narrow and claustrophobic, especially the M6. I never liked that motorway. We jutted off onto the B roads, and I overlooked the fields running into the horizon like a sloppy oil painting.
“My eyes feel strange,” I said.
“How was the flight?” Mum asked.
“Same as ever.” Nobody really knew what that meant.
Mum wouldn’t fly. Dad had to drive down to Southampton so they could hop on cruises if they wanted to go abroad. She point blank refused. I’m not riding a sardine can with wings, she liked to say, chuckling. Cars and bears and alcohol kill more, I’d say.
“I don’t know how you do it,” she muttered, shaking her head.
We reached home in under an hour, and my Sister was sat waiting with Sadie the boxer dog, who recognised me instantly. Her little bum wiggled uncontrollably, and she licked me over and over, her ears flat with joy at my returning, recognisable scent. Her nose and eyes were grey too. That son-of-a-bitch-colour gets everyone, I thought.
“So skinny!” my Sister laughed, pressing a gift at me after pulling me in tight. I unwrapped it, Sadie pulling at the rogue ends like a madwoman. Tom Petty – An American Treasure. Nice.
“He died while you were away.”
“Sad,” I agreed, leafing through the booklet.
Nan was in the kitchen, banging and crashing the pots, not realising we’d arrived.
“She’s cooking hot-pot,” Mum smiled. “Deaf as a doornail.”
“Don’t frighten her,” Dad said, stripping off his layers.
Mum shouted her and she came in, beaming. She was heavier, but looked better for it. Her cheeks were flushed and she looked healthy. Eighty-six years old.
“Oh, my boy!”
Nan cried a little, which started Mum off.
The hot-pot was a treat, and Nan never stopped smiling. My Sister stayed to eat too, and I told them stories about Cambodian temples, and the Indian kids I played cricket with in the streets; the Sri Lankan monsoon I got caught in, the cherry blossom in Japan (Nan sighed longingly), and the orangutans swinging in the trees of Borneo.
“You’ve had quite the trip,” Dad said, though he didn’t look up.
“Geoff,” mum said. He frowned.
I told the story of the Indonesian jungle boy who reminded me of Mowgli – our guide through the wilderness – and how he sobbed when I left him with my rucksack full of English books. Wuthering Heights, Don Quixote, Lolita, Journey To The End Of Night. He’d never seen books like it, and stroked them with his dirty palms. Thank you, friend, he’d said with his red, gloopy eyes, and I cried too.
“They’ve taken the postbox from the top of our road,” Nan grumbled. “This country’s getting bloody worse!”
Everyone laughed, and somewhere through the window I saw old Bill next door walking up his path with the weekend race review tucked under his arm, like he always did.
Paul Robert Mullen is a poet, musician and sociable loner from Southport, near Liverpool, U.K. He is a keen traveller, having lived and worked in China and Australia, and has scaled the entirety of Asia. He has three published poetry collections: curse this blue raincoat (2017), testimony (2018), and 35 (2018). He also enjoys Leonard Cohen, bass guitar riffs, porridge, paperback books with broken spines, and all things minimalist. He tweets here.