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In the long summer holidays, the boy would accompany his mother to work.
They woke early on these days, too early even for the sun. But they needed to be on the bus at five-thirty, his mother’s shift at Heathrow started at six.
It was early enough that on most days they would find seats next to each other. But sometimes, when the bus was fuller than normal, his mother would whisper to him to sit down quickly wherever he could find a seat. This had happened just a few days ago, and he found himself next to another Indian boy, around his age, maybe slightly older, or maybe he was just very tall. This other boy was sitting next to the window, dressed in a black raincoat that was dripping water everywhere. The boy squeezed in next to him.
Outside, the sky was midnight blue and the rain was falling sideways.
“Which airline does your father work for?” the other boy said pleasantly. He had at least ten BA badges pinned on to his raincoat leaving no doubt as to which airline his own father worked for.
“My mother,” the boy replied, turning his chin diagonally to the right, where his mother sat by the window next to a blonde lady.
“Oh, your mother. Well, which airline does your mother work for?”
“She cleans the toilets,” the boy replied. “So, I guess that would be all the airlines.”
After that, the badge-boy didn’t try to talk to him for the rest of the journey. One time, when they went over a particularly bumpy bump, the rainwater from his raincoat dripped onto the boy’s knee. The boy wiped it off with his hand. The other boy saw him do that but made no effort to shift in or to adjust his raincoat.
The rain, like silver dust flying against the glare of the headlights.
Above them, a massive Boeing 747 had just taken off.
The boy, nearly eight now, was small for his age, he looked younger, six or seven. He had been born, his mother told him, with a headful of beautiful dark curls, which had grown even more dark and even more beautiful with time. He had very big dark eyes, the kind you would expect to find on cartoon babies and a smile which made his teachers forgive him for almost anything.
He lived with his mother and grandmother in a little flat on top of an Indian supermarket. This had its advantages. Anytime they were short on bread or bananas, he only had to pop down the stairs and then up again with whatever his mother needed.
Sometimes, late at night when he lay down on his mattress to sleep, he would hear scurrying noises like little feet running around. Then, his grandmother who slept on a bed in the same tiny room would begin snoring again and drown it out. This was the main reason he didn’t mind her snoring so much. Also, it was a way of knowing she was still alive. But then, because they lived directly on the flight path, a plane might fly overhead and drown out his grandmother’s snoring. He came to think of it as a kind of hierarchy of noises, each one louder than the other, and on most nights wondering which one would come next was the way in which he entered his sleep.
His grandmother was his father’s mother. Nobody knew how old she was, but she was very old. She wore her woolly white hair in a single plait that dangled like a donkey’s tail all the way down the curvature of her spine. Her eyes stayed closed most of the time even when she was awake and the skin from her cheeks hung limp and loose. She had pink gums and no teeth. Sometimes when he looked at her carefully, the boy would think there was hardly any human left in her anymore.
Toilet cleaning is shift work. His mother worked the early shift. Sometimes she would work just one shift in the morning and be home in time for lunch. Sometimes she worked two shifts and left in the evenings around four. When he accompanied her on these double-shift days, they carried a packed lunch in two steel boxes, always the same lunch—flat bread layered with fresh butter and stuffed with mashed potatoes that they would eat with their hands, along with a spicy pickle made with raw mangoes in chilli and oil. Occasionally after lunch, he would ask his mother if he could get a chocolate bar from the vending machine, but usually he felt guilty even asking because of the money thing.
His mother spoke very little English, being much freer and more comfortable in her native tongue, which he referred to as their “home language.” He learnt English at school, and spoke it with the fluency of a native speaker, but his mother had been forced to leave school when she was only eleven and her vocabulary was limited to a set of fixed words and phrases, mostly those that she used frequently in her job.
“Good morning Madam,” she would say, or “Good afternoon, good evening.”
“Wait, one minute please, I clean for you.”
“Full,” accompanied by an apologetic smile, when all the cubicles were full.
“Now free,” bobbing her head and beaming.
The Americans, he learned, were the best tippers.
The Europeans also mostly tipped, his mother explained, because someone had once told her that in their own countries, you had to pay to use the toilets, even in public places like parks and train stations. But, she said, they often left the toilets dirty, with toilet paper strewn everywhere.
British people didn’t tip but at least they left the toilets clean.
The Indians, according to his mother, were the worst of the lot. They never tipped, she always had to clean up extra after them, and worst of all, more often than not they didn’t even acknowledge her existence, finding it easier to pretend like she wasn’t there at all. It was astonishing, she claimed, how they would look through her, like she was part of the wall or the door.
“I don’t want money from them,” she said, “but it would be nice just to get a little smile. It makes me very said because you see, they are our people.”
“What makes them our people?” the boy had questioned, and his mother had laughed.
“Such a complicated question for such a little boy! Run along now, go do what you love to do best, go watch the planes!”
Nose up, tail down, wings out.
So, he presses his face against the glass and watches the planes take off.
Silver birds crossing blue skies.
It is his absolute favourite thing to do.
His father died when he was four.
The house had smelled of incense for a month.
This much he remembered; the rest of that dying-part was woven together so tightly, he could no longer tell how much was memory, how much imagination.
He remembers his father though, his alive-father, and his father’s alive-love of him, that alive-part is seared into his mind and will remain even if everything else fades away. Such a big, strapping man, his father, full of life and vigour, as fierce in his love as in his wrath. He had worked on a building site, leaving very early in the morning, before the boy woke, and coming home very late at night, but when their paths crossed, her remembered his father would laugh and pick him up in his strong arms, effortlessly as if he was as light as a feather, up, up, all the way above his head, and then bring him down again. “Big boy, big boy,” he would say in his booming voice. “Big boy, big boy,” all the way up; “big boy, big boy,” all the way down. Then he would do the same thing with his mother—she was so small—carry her all the way up and bring her all the way down, only this time saying, “big girl, big girl,” and all the while his mother would cover her mouth and giggle and say, “stop it, stop it, what will people say?”
Then one day his father went to work, and never came back. At the usual time that his father returned from work, a man who was not his father had come to the door and asked to see his mother. They had spoken in hushed tones on the tiny kitchen table. Standing outside, the boy could hear the words the man was speaking, words like “safety standards, union, worker safety, negligence, insurance, compensation,” but he could not understand any of it. His mother wasn’t speaking at all, but he could hear her crying. Every now and then, the cry would become suddenly loud and piercing like a shriek, and every time this happened, the boy remembered feeling sensationally afraid.
When the man left, his mother had called him into the kitchen and explained that his father had been killed in an accident involving a crane at the construction site. Then she hugged his little body and told him not to cry, and he didn’t, but only because she was crying herself while she was telling him not to and it felt wrong to him, in those circumstances, to rebel. After that, she never once cried in front of him, but he knew that after he went to bed every night, she sat down on the kitchen floor and cried for hours. Once when he had come into the kitchen to get himself a glass of water, she started as if she had seen a ghost, but then quickly wiped her eyes and started to sing. She had a high, delicate voice, like a clarinet, and he wanted to float right into it. He had gone and sat next to her with his head on her broken-hearted lap and he must have fallen asleep at some point because he does not remember going back to the bedroom, but the next morning, when he woke up, he woke up on his own mattress on the floor.
His grandmother did not cry over her son’s death, at least not in the boy’s presence, but she stopped speaking altogether. The only word that came out of her mouth over and over again, several times a day, every day, for a whole year, was “adbhut,” which the boy understood meant strange or fantastical in their home language. He also understood, although not in these terms, that her meaning was existential, that in relation to herself, the chronology of her son’s death was peculiar. She would whisper it with her eyes closed, her thin, frail body, rocking forwards and back like it was possessed by something supernatural and hearing that word made the boy’s heart beat very fast and made him not want to look at her at all.
And then when a year passed, she stopped saying that too.
After his father died, his mother started taking him with her to the airport during the holidays. She never so much as said it, but he knew it was—at least in part—because she did not completely trust his grandmother not to do something totally crazy and she did not want him around when she did it.
Milan Athens Vienna Lisbon
Nairobi New Delhi New York Rome
Paris Tokyo San Diego Toronto
Las Vegas Lahore Moscow Madrid
Over time, the boy became somewhat of an expert cartographer.
In the beginning, he would look at the names of all these destinations on the plasma screen and ask his mother where each place was.
“How would I know,” his mother would say, her hands on her hips, “all these faraway places, how would I know where they are? Look on the map!”
When he went back to school a few weeks later, he asked one of his teachers if he could please borrow a map and she had given one to him, “it’s yours,” she had said, “you can keep it!” And so, during the next set of school holidays, he carried that paper map—carefully folded into a little square—in his pocket every day. He would read the names of cities on the screen, then try to locate them on his map. Sometimes it took a very long time, because he didn’t know which countries they belonged to, so he would have to search the whole world to find them.
Some of the places he found were so far away, all the way across the sea. Sometimes, he would put his finger on this faraway place, then connect it back to England, mapping the route with his index finger, imagining if that was the route the pilot would pick, how fast he would go, how long it would take…
By his second set of Christmas holidays, there were very few places left that he did not know the exact location of. Name a city and he would show you—in an instant—its precise coordinates on the earth.
Once he had asked his mother how he could get to Marrakech.
“That’s an odd choice,” his mother had said, raising her eyebrows, “why Marrakech?”
“I like the way it sounds,” he said, “it sounds like somewhere I want to go.”
“Well,” she said, “first you will need a passport and then you will need a ticket.”
“What is a passport?” the boy asked.
“It is a small book,” she explained, “it comes from the government of your country and it allows you to travel to other countries. Wait,” she said, “let me show you.”
She rummaged through a drawer filled with all kinds of paperwork involving the dying-part of his father and produced a small rectangular booklet in burgundy leather with gold lions and a unicorn.
“I have a passport, look,” she said, handing it to him to examine. “When your father married me and sent for me from India, my parents had one made for me, an Indian passport, then when I came here, your father had to give that away to get me this English one. I was only seventeen.”
Then she made big eyes and bobbled her head from side to side, like a dancer.
“You too will get English passport, do you know you can travel the whole world on an English passport!”
“But when, mama?” the boy asked.
“When our compensation comes through for your father, I will get one made for you,” she said, “I promise,” and just like that, in slipped the silent sorrow, sideways and under her eyes, and he did not have the heart to press further.
The other day he watches the sky do a number.
What a thunderstorm!
Flights delayed here, there and everywhere. So much hue and so much cry; no one stops to watch the sky.
It’s pure performance.
Flash! goes the lightning. Boom! Bang! goes the thunder.
The wind is high and the planes trying to land are pulled this way and that.
Amazing grace! Amazing gravity!
Michael Jackson doing the moonwalk.
Sometimes, people left things behind at the boarding gates. Mostly newspapers and food receipts, but sometimes, other stuff too, books, sunglasses, umbrellas that they had forgotten in their hurry. When the boy found these things, he would take them down to Prince in Lost & Found and Prince would take them from him and give him a big, hearty clap on the back in return. Prince was twenty-five years old and had come all the way from Accra—the boy knew exactly where that was—just to work in Lost & Found. One time, someone had left a whole bag of sweets on one of the chairs at the gate. When the boy had taken the bag to Prince, he had winked at him and said, “Why you giving me this, big man, it’s yours!”
“But…” the boy said, “it’s not mine, it was left on a chair.”
Prince looked at him with true admiration at the same time as he waved his wrist like he was swatting a fly, the combination of gestures instantly dismissing the boy’s concerns as a kind of commendable nonsense.
“Too good, too good. So honest. Jesus also was honest. But nah! He leave it, so he don’t want it.”
The boy wanted to say something then, about how that might not exactly be right, because the person may have only forgotten to take it, which didn’t mean they didn’t want it…
But then Prince said, “I’m talking about rules. Important things. With sunglasses, be different. But foodstuffs? You gimme that, amma bin it. This is how it is.”
He shrugged, grinning hugely.
“Don’t worry, be happy,” he added as a cheerful final thought.
The boy finished the entire bag in a single sitting, and then had a tummy ache which lasted the whole night, all the way until the next morning.
“Escuze! Escuze!” His mother’s voice, very loud, very agitated.
He had been doing maths problems on a chair by one of the boarding gates.
He looked up.
He noticed that everyone around him was staring and the boy felt an acute sting of embarrassment. She was standing in the middle of the corridor, arms extended out, holding something in her hands. She seemed extremely distressed, her face full of anxiety.
She noticed him then, looking at her, just as everyone else was too.
“Come here,” she said in her home language, “Fast, fast!”
The boy left all his things where they were and went up to her.
“Mama?” he said.
She handed him the thing she’d been holding. It was familiar to him, burgundy and gold, that book of dreams.
“That lady, see that lady with the yellow hair!” Gesturing and pointing down the long corridor. “Oh God, she left this in the toilet. Passport! On top of loo roll holder.”
Following her gaze, he saw what his mother saw: the blonde girl walking away from them with huge headphones on her head, wheeling a small bright red suitcase.
“Run, run, you have to give it back to her. Without it she will not be able to board the plane!” She was frantic, wringing her hands, as if somehow she would be personally responsible if such a thing were to transpire.
“You understand?” she said, nodding her own head very fast, up and down, up and down.
The boy turned away, started down the corridor.
She called after him: “If you can’t find her, if she gets lost in the crowd, you must go to the information desk. Give it to the man there.”
Still walking, the boy swung his head around and nodded.
“Hand it in, tell them the lady left it in toilet!”
The boy could see her in the distance, the person in question, the person stupid enough to do such a thing because only the free can afford to be so careless with freedom.
All around him, people moved like chaotic cars on highways, each one heading for a destination that only they knew. He weaved in and out between them. Keeping her in his line of sight. Buck in the middle, easy target for a hunter.
To his right lay the long line of the boarding gates with their rows of chairs, all upholstered in blue, every chair full, bodies spilling over, some even sitting on the floor, leaning against walls, so many people just waiting to escape this great island. Beyond the last row of chairs at the end, a wall of windows, beyond the windows, the planes, parked, being attended to by teams of humans, cleaned and stocked and readied to fly, and then in the far distance, the narrow strip of runway.
There was a plane on it now, the boy could see it, it had just begun its taxi down the runway, picking up speed, picking up power. He followed its path in his peripheral vision, its steadily quickening pace, framed by the windows—a series of moving images like an old-fashioned motion picture. Behind him at first, then side-by-side, then easily, effortlessly ahead. In his mind, he could hear the roar of the engines, full throttle, the syncopated thump of the wheels.
This thought strikes him freshly, that he knows what it sounds like, even though he will never know what it feels like.
He has nearly caught up with the woman now, she is busy in conversation with another woman. This second woman has brown hair cut like a boy. She says something and then starts to laugh, and the yellow-haired woman laughs too.
There is something complicated about this, about the sound of that laughter, loud and loose, but he cannot pinpoint exactly what. It makes him want to push her, very hard, from the back so that she falls to the floor and her luggage splays open, clothes everywhere. He hates himself for thinking such vicious thoughts and tries, like a good person, to push them away.
A final glance above his right shoulder. He cannot see the plane anymore, only sky.
Somewhere inside his brain, something wheezes heavily then cuts out like an electrical failure. Inside his shoes, he can feel his toes tingling as if he has stepped, barefoot, on something very hot. After that, numbness. Nothing. A nothingness. Disconnected from his body, disassociated from his senses, an alienation that is new and disconcerting. Around him, the world feels unreal, blurry, like everything is blanketed in a translucent fog. His own body is weightless, like things are floating around inside him, dancing to a melody he has not heard before. But there is something dangerous in that music, some disguised ugliness hidden inside its beauty. The beat changes, the floor bends. Another step could trip him up. His one foot or both his feet or his whole self.
So, he stops, dead in his tracks.
In his mind, he knows what he has to do. It is not hard. He has already done the hard bit, he has run all the way down the corridor as fast as he could and he has found the woman. There she is, right there, close enough that he can reach out and touch her. All he needs to do now is to tap her on her shoulder and hold out her passport. She would be delighted, she would squeal with joy, she would thank him profusely, and then she would take her passport and get on her plane with the woman with the short hair and she would fly away. And he? He would turn around and run down that same corridor all the way back to the Ladies toilet, where his mother would be standing, waiting for him to return.
Only, it’s not.
In a parallel version of events, the boy slips the thin booklet into the front pocket of his shorts. It slides in easily, like it belongs there, in that space. He turns around, away from the woman.
Everyone said London was sad and grey and that’s why so many Londoners were also sad and grey. But whatever anyone said about London, the boy knew that London made electrifying skies.
He had seen them all. All of London’s skies.
He had seen it starlit and starless, hazy and bright, low and high, dark and light. He had seen it turn every colour of the rainbow and sometimes, unseen and unnoticed, more than one at the same time.
He had seen it go cloudless and blue, more blue than the blue of the sea. He had seen it go heavy and overcast, a dazzling dome of silver foil. He had seen it when it was just about to storm, shrouded in iridescent green, unreal, like the underbelly of a peacock. He had seen it when the sun shone and it looked white, like nothing. He had seen it when it was dark and angry, spitting hailstones of fury.
And he had seen it—as it had just now—go scarlet so it made the inky black tarmac glow like fire.
Buenos Aires, Jakarta, Lagos, Riyadh
Atlanta, Frankfurt, Sydney, Busan
Boston, Naples, Istanbul, Khartoum
San Francisco, San Diego, San Antonio, Santa Fe
He starts to walk back. Like a baby walking for the first time, slow and unsteady, in a constant state of topple. Little by little, normal movement returns. He goes faster, walking briskly, then quickens to a sprint, feeling the object rub against his leg, front ways, then edgeways and into a beat of time. He is wholly aware that only the thin cotton lining of his shorts separates it from his skin. It fills him with the deep pleasure of illicit intimacy.
She looked so old. She was so young.
Her hair was turning grey and there were worry lines deep-creasing her forehead and on the sides of her beautiful dancing eyes.
But now, he would change all that. He could change all that. He had the power to change all that; he could not bring back his alive-father, but he could still change things for her in a way that was meaningful, that could have lasting consequences for her happiness.
For so many months now, he had watched those planes from afar, wondered what it would feel like to be inside one, and now—finally—he would know. They would go away! She had said so herself, that an English passport allowed you to travel all the world! They would pick a place from the plasma screen and they would pack a bag and go away, as if they too were people who mattered, as if there was nothing inferior about them.
For the boy, the possibilities ahead seemed so big and so overwhelming, they felt palpable, like they were happening right then, in that moment. He could feel everything. Climbing into the plane, sitting on their own two seats, flying! High, high in the sky! High above the trees and even the clouds, looking down at the city, leaving it behind, the city and all its little houses, its roads and its cars and the Indian supermarket and its rats and all their worries.
He touched his shorts to make sure it was still there, that he was not dreaming…
Children are guilty of this. The inability to understand nuance. How certain things can move around freely, belonging one moment to one person and another moment to someone else.
Money. Sweets. Umbrellas.
And how other things cannot.
Fingerprints. Passports. Destinies.
She was standing outside the door of the Ladies toilet in her steel grey uniform, the look of distress still on her face. “Did you find her?” she said, in their home language.
The boy nodded wordlessly.
“Did you give it to her?” she asked anxiously.
Her face broke out into a smile. He felt himself startled by the essential loveliness of her face. He marvelled at that, at how a smile could change someone’s whole face like that.
“Good boy!” she said in English, “Good boy!”
Then she hugged him to her body, holding him so close that he could almost feel their hearts touch, his little one and her big one from which his had come.
“I am proud of you,” she said, “really!”
Impulsively, she reached into her pocket and handed him a few coins.
“Go, go to the vending machine and buy yourself some chocolate, Kit Kat? Or Fruit and Nut?”
The boy shook his head.
“Don’t be silly. Don’t worry about the money. The Miami flight will land now, in two hours, we will make it all back.”
But still, he didn’t move.
She took his small hand then and pressed the coins into it. “Go on,” she said, “it will make me glad.”
The boy found himself stuck. He could neither stand there nor walk away. In the pocket of his shorts he felt the dull stolen weight of their freedom.
Florence Mumbai Lima Bangkok
Johannesburg New Orleans Cairo Berlin
Barcelona Casablanca Rio Biarritz
Singapore Amsterdam Houston LA
(Which one will it be?)
And now that he was in front of the machine, he found himself staring at it at length not because he could not decide what he wanted but because it took him some time to realise that the small scared child looking back at him, was him. But then he made his selection, inputting the code onto the keypad, dropping the coins into the slot, carefully, one by one.
The machine did nothing.
He banged on the glass with his fist.
It was his cue to turn around, confess all, ask for forgiveness, return what was not his to take.
But he didn’t.
He banged the thing again as hard as he could and reflected like that, it seemed almost as if he was punching himself. This time, the machine responded with a dull whirring sound. Internally, something heaved; externally, he watched the coils turn, release the item he had chosen and slowly, as if with some mighty reluctance, spit it out.
The boy bent down to retrieve the slim, rectangular bar of Fruit and Nut. He unwrapped it slowly, feeling the pleasing sense of anticipation from the crackle of the foil, that sharp, distinctive snap.
He put a single square into his mouth.
Here, the boy made a small sound. It didn’t take much. When you have so little, it doesn’t take much.
The boy felt the ceiling soar above him, the ground give way underfoot, the burst of sweetness on his tongue, so concentrated, so intense, the sensation so extreme and so beautiful and so substantially wrong that he began to cry.