Day 2.3 – buying books in Airport World
Welcome to Travels With Greg, the slow dribble that passes for a memoir of my six-week documentary shoot through Europe in Autumn 2004. In our last installment, sleep deprivation prompted a senseless overseas call. Join me as I buy some books. Yessss. If you’re new to the site, please visit the Table of Contents.
The embarrassing and pointless overseas phone call to my boss seemed to clear the fatigue toxins from my brain. As soon as I put the phone back in its cradle, clarity began to seep in once more, until I had a few lucid pools to splash through. My sense of the space lost its nightmarish blur as details began to solidify: the wasted faces of other travelers, a tangy American accent complaining to no particular person about the service ethic in British airports, the soft lozenges of light thrown down from windows admitting an English sunrise.
Instead of dwelling on the fact that I’d woken up the producer to tell her that the customs agent had a big nose, I decided to kill a bit of time by taking in the sights and sounds of Heathrow International Airport, Terminal 4.
Like most departure areas in Airport World, Terminal 4 is not designed with comfort in mind for the average traveler. Rows of hard plastic chairs face off against each other in the centre of traffic areas, where people pass back and forth in an agitated current. The overall effect is to make you feel as if you’re marooned on a fortuitous outcrop poking up from a deep and dangerous river. No one wants to sit in these seats.
Fortunately for the traveler, the walls have been liberally lined with stores. An airport franchise must be among the wettest dreams of retailers – hordes of sleep-deprived or otherwise disoriented people caught in that in-between zone, where dimly understood laws hem in movement, but nothing proscribes the exercise of one’s wallet, every hour of the day. Rents must be exorbitant.
Greg was easy to spot. He is one of the few people I know who can rest at ease in airport departure lounges, his hands folded in his lap and his eyes scanning the upper walls. His body, which is too big to meet those chairs comfortably, seems to mould itself without complaint to the chair’s shape. It as if he turns some inner dial to the end of the range and settles on that frequency, all silence, until the boarding call comes. It also helps that Greg is incredibly cheap and will not spend a cent of his own money – unless a pint of beer is involved, which I sense is quietly frowned upon in his household.
I waved as I passed him on the way to a WH Smith, which was part of my plan. Apart from a copy of William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, I hadn’t packed any books. We were pushing the weight limit with our checked and carry-on baggage, so I’d decided beforehand to buy my reading material along the way. As I finished a novel, I would leave it in my hotel room for the next guests, whether they were fluent in English or not. This is my genius mind at work.
The store had a special on fiction – 3 paperbacks for 18 pounds – so I scanned and scanned. Mostly I just pulled out novel after novel to look at the different cover art. More than anything else, the unexpected illustrations on book covers told me that I had traveled overseas, that I was really here for six weeks, and that, short of a nervous breakdown, my entire path for those weeks was laid out in a neat black binder. I picked Perdido Street Station for its reassuring bulk, Middlesex for its alternate cover, and Yellow Dog, out of a (deeply misplaced) loyalty to Martin Amis.
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