Learning to Fly

I am in a hard city of grey stone and blue glass, a damp chill to the air and a swirl of exhaust fumes. There is a permanent background rumble of activity. Every 30 seconds an aeroplane flies past from left to right, in the opposite direction to the scudding clouds, their tailfins emblazoned with national logos: Varig, Qantas, British Airways, Air New Zealand, Singapore, Finnair. A cargo of hundreds of people, each one a world in themselves, with colleagues and husbands and wives and kids, lovers and brothers and distant friends. And you are not among them.

I picture our last flight together. A snowbound Europe unfurling beneath us, so close we can see the tracks of the roads, and along them nose twin yellow beams of light as cars feel their way through a sodium powder. The towns that glittered like strands of flung jewellery, fallen at random on a dark velvet cushion. The blackness of the sea, the blackness of the desert. Are those fires beneath us? A nomadic encampment? Gas platforms whose solitary flares pinprick the night? Turkmenistan. Now Iran. I never knew it was so large. Snow has dusted the mountains behind Tehran, and behind us the world falls into shadow. We are heading for the darkness creeping across the face of the earth, a small fluorescent bubble of light held in suspension above everything, hanging motionless just below an icy firmament of stars. I feel your small hand reach for me under the blanket. Down there is Kabul: I can see the neighbourhoods, some brightly lit, then the lights petering out as the houses climb into the hills. I press my nose to the scratched plexiglass and remember the white hot track of a Sam 7 a lifetime ago against a dun backdrop of bushland, rising, rising, veering, falling away, and how we jinked left and almost turned upside down to avoid it, and the low monotonous swearing of the Ukrainian pilot who had been doing this for far too long and ended up on the route nobody wanted. When we finally landed no-one could get up from their seats and the laughter was bright and forced and slightly hysterical. I watched the rhythmic thrumming tremor in my hand the next day and forced it to stop. Then it started again. I won’t tell you that one, but you feel my grip tighten and look at me. I smile thinly and am rewarded with a faceful of vanilla-scented hair as you rest your head on my shoulder. I want to protect you. I want to weep with tenderness for you.

The antiseptic chill of an air-conditioned shopping mall populated by Oriental soldiers with machine guns. I do not look at them. We are separated by our nationalities and I feel a flush of anger. Who are they to decree you, stand this side, you, over there? To try and take you away from me because of a quirk of fate, history, geography. I see your small form swallowed up in a chaotic crowd and you shoot me a brave smile as we go through. My turn. He barely looks up. Flicks through my passport. It’s a sorry catalogue of misadventure. That smudged stamp that looks like a meteorite heading towards you on the page? That cost me $200 and aged me 10 years. The children with guns at a roadblock who looked at it upside down and walked off with it, and only gave it back in exchange for my sunglasses. 5.75 prescription; hope you get one hell of a headache, kidogo. Stop thinking like this. He’s watching you. Holiday. Yes. By car. Marketing consultant. Ah, many companies – I am freelance. No, my first time here, very much looking forward to seeing your country. He’s a sceptical sod and I don’t blame him. Sighs deeply, then picks up the stamp and whacks it down between Angkor Wat and a Hammer and Sickle. There’s irony.

I sit on my battered backpack in a cloud of synthetic scent from a duty free shop, beneath a poster of an English footballer in his underwear. Giggling women in abayas walk past. Where are you? I have a clear view 180 degrees, there is a pillar wide enough for two about three metres away, over there a soldier, those shiny glass windows on the second floor are one-way only. We are all stars in this reality TV show. That African woman on her own with three suitcases is going to get taken apart. Passing backpacker in brand new sandals shoots me a dirty look. Yeah, alright sunshine. You should’ve been there when tanks rolled up and they shelled the old town. What was it called? Dadadaab? Dabaabat? Something like that. Until you have, don’t fucking look at me. What’s this? Old couple standing in front of me. Yes I speak French. Changing money? Over there: the guy with the stall. Yes he’s legit. I’m English. Well merci, you are too kind. Have a great holiday. You too.

I see you and I get that funny tightening in my throat. You are cross. You’ve been delayed, interrogated, pawed, discriminated against, and you need a cigarette. Me too hun. Let’s get out of here. Then, although I can see you are tired, you smile at me and say: “Come on soldier, on your feet.” You got that from me, and it breaks my heart.

Golden sunlight split into bars across the floor, the sigh of the sea, the cry of the birds. There’s a man singing outside, an exotic refrain which is all quartertones and minor notes, and it’s magical. You lie with an arm across me, a cascade of black hair spilling over the pillow, softly respiring. I watch you sleeping, my eyes moving over your body slowly, pausing here, backtracking there. There are parts of my life that flash before me uninvited, like a snapshot I didn’t want to take, fixed forever in an image branded before my eyes. Well now I am imprinting every part of you on my memory, so that I know in years to come I will be able to conjure this moment again, drowsy with longing, basking in warmth, your scent on my hands and my face and my heart. I can’t believe we made it.