I recently spent an hour at London Heathrow waiting for my husband to arrive for a fleeting visit to view his first grandchild before he boarded a flight to Asia and the Antipodes. It got me wondering about the hours I have spent in arrival halls at airports all over the world, waiting for family and friends to start their holiday, waiting for my husband to return from some trip on the other side of the globe, or in the early days from for an upcountry rig. It would be as Cilla Black used to say, ‘a lorra lorra’ hours.
Leaning over the balustrade keeping the waiting gallery from making a dash through the opening doors, I read a sign painted in blue and green on a long roll of brown packing paper, being held by two lads, maybe 11 and 14. It read, “welcome back Si and Lydia”. Standing behind them making sporadic small talk were two sets of families, eyes darting to the doors swinging open to disgorge trolleys and weary travellers all anxiously scanning the crowd for a familiar face, or a name on a placard.
A squeal erupted from one of the mothers as she spotted a girl, presumably Lydia. She rushed to the end of the barricade and wove her way through the baggage carts being pushed by a phalanx of men, women and children from the Middle East looking dazed and disoriented as they took their bearings.
Lydia, wearing long cargo shorts and layers of different length T-shirts with a tie-dyed muslin scarf tossed nonchalantly around her neck, looked mildly embarrassed at her mother’s continued squeals. She shrugged off her rucksack and dropped it by her sneaker-encased feet, succumbing to a tight embrace. She glanced over her mother’s shoulder at her travelling companion, and I assume, lover. A glance that asked “what now?”
Si meanwhile had manfully shaken hands with his father and two brothers before bussing his mother’s cheek. His shaggy starch-coloured hair gave testament to months of backpacking. His attire gave away their chosen place of travel; a red sleeveless tee, which reminded me of Onslow in Keeping Up Appearances, topped crimson and indigo-stripped baggy fisherman’s trousers. Around his neck was a leather thong holding an amulet. Thailand had without doubt been the starting point for their return journey.
The couple, maybe in their late teens, and probably returned from a gap year spent travelling, were pleased to see their parents though a little wary: how to fit back into society’s norms after a year of freedom from parental mores; how to say goodbye to a young lover after a year of constant closeness; how to yield to rules and expectations enforced by university. The two younger brothers stood a little apart gazing at Si, a near stranger and yet strangely familiar. They didn’t speak but listened as their father quizzed his prodigal son, a boy when he left and now a man.
I felt sorry about the inevitable questions that would arise from that year of freedom and as I shamelessly watched the scene unfold it reminded me of repatriates.
Overseas freedoms and the anonymity of expatriate life – an anonymity that in a way allows reinvention with each new posting – wiped out at the return to the life, maybe left many years earlier. The new reality hits in those first few moments of total disorientation in the arrivals hall.
I wondered how I would feel if I knew my travelling days were over, if I knew I’d had my moment of freedom – that brief gap year of discovery before I succumbed to the expectations of others. My global journey started over fifty years ago continues, and as I saw the man I have loved for thirty years striding towards me, I realised again how lucky I am.
There will be many more arrival halls and each one will tell stories of adventure, discovery and hope – for people returning home or those arriving for the first time – each in a way the start of a new journey.