Between. Not here, not there, not anywhere. That’s what I feel like when I travel, especially when I travel alone, which is how it is mostly these days. In transit I am someone else; I am subtly different. I am an extension of my bags, a parcel of possibility. The responsibility for getting ‘there’ is outside of my control; safe arrival lies in the hands of others. Control is shared between an intricate chain of people who never see each other. For the times we live in, it is a small miracle when travel goes to plan. More often the plan goes wonky and a wheel might fall off, which it did for me last week at Toronto Pearson – not off the plane, off the aircraft stair ramp – and I was stuck on board, in abeyance, unable to disembark and join my connecting flight. And there was nothing I could do but to sit there. I am unborn when I travel, about to be reborn, but when you are unborn all you can do is stay in place and wait for the delivery. I’m a slightly different person in different places, and as we trundle down the runway I wonder which me will show up when we land?
The last of my flights – spread over three weeks – is the shortest. Before take-off she chants the safety script, it has the same effect on me as that of prayers when I was a child, it makes me sleepy, comforts me, lulls me into a somnambulistic trance. “…take a moment to review… in the event of landing in water… air supply will drop from the panel above… apply your own mask before… flotation device in the panel above… nearest usable exit…” I listen but nothing goes in. All I can think of as I look at the card is the superlative forward bend of the person adopting a seated brace position; she is drawn with an extremely flat back, one my Pilates teacher would be proud of.
My poetry book slides off my lap on take-off, it slips behind me. The man at my rear leans forward to say he can’t reach it, says not to forget it when we land, the bother he had the time he left his passport on board. That’s Paul Durcan gone, leaving me thirty-five minutes to exploit my window seat, enjoy five minutes of the Irish sea before we meet land, fly over zig-zag scores on the earth, heather scored for game shotting, patches of pine, high lakes, and a distant ocean-wind farm of pure white markers, so uniform and straight they look like a section of war graves planted on a calm sea.
People doze, read magazines, adjust ear pods, tap screens, mumble, rock grizzling babies. Me, I’m outside myself looking in. I’m down there looking up. I’m transported to that evening on Calton Hill, late evening. I’m with Sorley. An escaped helium balloon is floating toward us from the direction of the castle. It gains height and speed, and we turn as we watch it, we’re like speeded up footage of sunflower heads turning to follow the path of the sun. The balloon travels due east, faster and faster. We tether it to our sight, pinning it, afraid to look away, afraid we’ll lose it if we do. Smaller, smaller, it is a black dot now, a pinprick that even might not be anything, it might be my ageing eyesight dancing with me.
I am the balloon, and the balloon is me, a fleck of pepper in the sky as I travel, certain and uncertain, resigning myself to delays, challenges, mad dashes through terminals, suppressing my queue-jumping embarrassment to make the final leg of the journey. Doesn’t matter. I’m between. It’s not me being chastised, it’s the travelling me, and she’s a bit of a stranger.
Wherever I go, a day or two after my body arrives, I arrive. I am my own late luggage. I’ve been left behind, hanging out in between. There is an attraction in not being anywhere; being in the world but floating through it. It’s also good to land, for the parts of me to come to rest in one place, in one piece, as one person.