Holding Patterns by Lloyd Robson


Through slow-turning doors passengers emerge; exit the sweat of summer thunder; enter a physical confusion caused by bad air-conditioning and proximity to others. They are ugly to look at, ugly to consider. Their drying sweat clings to the air, filling nostrils with odours nature intended as intimate. Trolley tyres on hard-wearing surfaces, repetitive and unnecessary public announcements, the sesquipedalian ostentation and over-pronunciation of the business elite, the excitement of occasional fliers, the boredom of children; the vociferous noises of man and machine subject listening organs to pit and strip mining, scrape the conscious surface, degrade existing rhythms, drill friction and instability deep into the mind, poisoning its appetite.

Departure displays flip fast but all come up the same: Take-Off Delayed. The seasonal siesta of the canicular punctuated, interrupted and displaced by lightning and rain – heavy rain, a real rain, menacing film noir precipitation. The elements control the skies today and will not be wished away.

Old tourists, young tourists and the business-class mill, mull and meander; spend to quell boredom; await the reach of crepuscular rays and the return of the skies to their schedule. Until then: ham and cheese, vine tomatoes, latte and espresso; long queues, small beer; tap on the laptop or reread the paper; smoke in a designated area; watch the world go by; watch the world go nowhere.

On an uncomfortable barstool, drinking expensive cheap beer, a man invisible to others: open-necked shirt, suit trousers, worn shoes, black leather carry-on by his feet, his jacket folded on top of it, looking like every solo salary-man travelling on expenses.

He raises his glass and removes the wet napkin from beneath it. Places the glass on a dry napkin. Lays down another and places the wet napkin upon it. Takes another and wipes the bar. Takes another and places it so its edge runs parallel with the edge of the bar. Places his glass upon this one. Picks up his glass and places it again, so its circle sits perfectly central on the square of white paper. Folds all other napkins into one. Calls the barman. Hands them over. The barman considers the effort wasted, tosses them into the trash, serves another customer. Our man wipes the bar with one more napkin. Takes out of his pockets and places on the surface his boarding card, his passport, his cell-phone, his cigarettes, his lighter. He lines them up in order of size, orientated to portrait, descending left to right. He tries to line up their straight edges, equidistant and regimented, but the sides of his lighter expand with height; refuse the restrictions of parallels. He curses the designer and the waste of cold plastic. If the lighter were not the smallest item, if it had spatial influence on objects to both the left and right, it could cause unknown damage, a major ripple in his minor calm, depth-charge his order, pull the moon out of orbit and the tides into chaos, and destruction would befall the patterns of the planets and the universe would become hell-bent on harm. And he would fulfil a damaging destiny he has struggled to avoid all along, and would sacrifice himself to its bidding.

He stares at them. Stares at them. Picks them up, one by one, and returns them to their homes – cell-phone to hip-pocket left, cigarettes and lighter to hip-pocket right, as always.

He wishes he were alone; wishes his existence private. He is itching for a cigarette but loath to give up his barstool and elbow-room, so dismisses his own demands and doubts in favour of observation, the procession of information, making sense of the movement.

He is all eyes – aware of shadow and reflection, face on, peripheral, motion- blur caught in behind-the-bar mirrors; he is all ears – conversations abound and voices collide and career off furniture and flesh, concrete and steel, walls of windows and pressing secret fears.

Our man watches those who are doing nothing, for the subtle shift in reaction times and body language; listens for the demanding voice, senses those who announce silently their stories, listens for the aural warnings of people watching him. He scans the room, sends out radar beeps and waits for clues to bounce back to him.

School-kids block the self-service check-in, uncertain of what to do. A teacher impatiently explains process one more time to her privileged charges, ignorant fools. Gap-year students sleep on seats designed to prevent them from sleeping. A vehicle designed by a four-year-old travels at no more than four miles an hour yet sirens like the four-minute warning. Baggage gets damaged on a carousel, tempers get lost at the lost property office. A black Parisian shouts bitter protestations, handcuffed, escorted. A beautiful woman, an unimpeachable peach, rushes past a mother and children, the bag in her hand banging the head of a child as an exaggerated result of her natural swing. The unimpeachable peach not noticing, stopping, apologising. The child crying, the mother boiling, the mother exploding, the child screaming, her other children exploiting the chaos, the slap across the sobbing child’s face, a woman selling cosmetics, her colleague joining, both putting down their product samples and approaching two armed police officers. A discussion, the child crying, the mother shouting, the officers approaching, asking questions, the mother avoiding eye contact, flustered spluttering, the policeman’s calming gesture, the other’s half-body-turn to mutter into her radio, the child sobbing, the mother trembling, the cosmetic sellers absorbing the full extent of their power, the unimpeachable peach rushing to gasp a last cigarette before flying. Yes, he could smoke with her, but cannot risk the loss of territory.

Our invisible man orders another beer. Pays and sips the head off it, puts down the glass precisely, ignores the desire to reach for a cigarette, swivels his stool and sits, observing without purpose other than to prove he is witness to the tourists and business travellers; the meanderthals dismissing desire lines; the determined, the innocent, the intending, the self-righteous, the guilty; the bombers and the martyr-fodder; the camouflaged hoping to fly under the radar; those who await their big chance, their defining moment; those who have lost themselves; those who are far too stressed or lack self-awareness; those who are dying, or waiting to; those who need someone to remind them of their influence upon the wider world beyond the collision of atoms within their breathing shroud; those who are just enjoying themselves. Yes, he reminds himself of them – there must be those who are enjoying themselves.

The man who has sat next to him. The man who has sat next to him and is moving his arms around like the place is his. The man who has sat next to him and continues his business, loudly and expressively, into his cell-phone. The man who is getting in our invisible man’s face, either unaware of personal space or pulling presumed rank. Consider him: is he Western? Yes he is. Is he an idiot? No he is not. So he’s pulling rank, decides our man, it’s obvious – the elbow bashing his, the spilling of his drink, the absolute absence of acknowledgement let alone apology. The suggestion our invisible man should quietly reach inside his trouser pocket and remove a piano-wire garrotte and elicit a sincere apology from the blood-clogged choke of a dying example of arrogance and superiority. Suggestion? That’s mild. What other choice has he? His nibs, Mr Significant, did not spill our man’s drink by accident, he did so because he did not care to notice; because the man wiping beer from his trousers does not exist except as a pot plant taking space in Mr Significant’s environment. Mr Significant’s suit tells us this, his soulless suit, his suit worn soullessly; his striped shirt; his watch, his tacky, expensive, oversized watch; his firm shoulders; the width he creates with his legs, his spread thighs, his open crotch; his puppy-soft shoes and pink socks; his perfume; his hair style, its precision at the back of the neck and around the ears; his ruddy complexion, his suntan; his loudness, his laugh, his presence, his existence; his attention to finance fashion laid down in the pages of GQ. His existence tells us he most definitely deserves to exist, far more than the rest of us, and in doing so tells us the exact opposite, that he does not deserve to exist at all, his camouflage is too perfect, but, in believing he does, he has damned himself to this jury.

This needs to be explained to him. Our man with the beer-wet trousers thinks this needs to be explained to him and that he can be the man to do it, but so many options: to garrotte; to inject a poison or hurl a dart; to smash a glass and ram it deep into his neck; to stab in the back; to quietly inform him if he does not step outside right now…; to sharpen fingers and delve deep and hard through his ribcage, grab his heart, drag it into the sunlight, bite it chew it swallow, pour the rest in naked spirit and set it alight; a simple cigarette burn to the back of his crop to get his attention? No, our man cannot light up inside. No, he mustn’t light up at all. Let it fade, let it fade, listen to the higher voices, order a drink, go for a cigarette but do not rise, do not let the cat out the bag, do not ignite. But the number of ways his nibs could die right now, and deservedly so, right now, the number of ways.

An uncomfortable barstool. The desire to light a cigarette, ignite, inhale, blow smoke in his face. A man aware of his lack of smile but with no reason to change, attempting to cool down while stay warm in the cold currents of controlled air.

He orders a shot; inhales spirit fumes; grows increasingly aware of the increasing proximity of his neighbour’s increasing number of elbows and the size of them they are one hundred and huge without exaggeration.

“Another, if you will…”

He slides the glass across the bar in the shape of the letters n, o, w. The barman delivers. Rising to the challenge our man downs this too. He was, he thought, in a decent enough mood, but what a despicable challenge to lay at his feet; what unnecessary grief he has to field, but somebody has to do it and he after all he is a martyr to the righteous claims of those who need their personal space and the victims of body squatters, hijackers, invaders and unwanted friends believing they are accepted and allowed to touch… him. To touch him. They seek their own punishment, these people.

The prodding of elbow to humerus, the disturbance of drink, the refusal to acknowledge or apologise, the stylised details, the presumption of priority status, the nagging demands of nuisance, none of this is forgivable, and none of this will leave him be.

He holds the glass to his mouth, opens, angles his head, opens further, raises the glass a degree or three, allows the final drops to run on to his tongue at a tempo agreed by committee; wildcat fluidity beckoned by gravity and giving in, but with all the haste of the last drinker left, the guy with no home to go home to.

He opens his eyes, looks through the glass, perceives his neighbour’s head pulled into focus through a telescopic sight, fine tunes the cross-hairs, inhales, hair’s breadth, hare’s breath, squeeze gently and firmly and BAM! Maybe this is the moment right now right now perhaps this is the moment when they all disappear BAM! BAM! Mr Significant at this range disintegrates, the crying child, pause for a second to let it catch its air then just as it’s about to begin again BAM! its skull shatters and the higher register is free again BAM! the mother takes one to the heart BAM! she’s down for the count BAM! BAM! the two police officers armed and alert BAM! a smacker on the lips for the unimpeachable peach, no need for her to be killed BAM! the bartender BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! the two stinking made-up do-gooders get to bleed good all over their designer products (toutes des salopes sauf maman) and then it’s all over and finally, quietly noisily, he thinks, our invisible man thinks pays attention looks around and realises he can drink his drink and stretch for space without having to be invaded, without having to fend off invasion, just left alone to wait and think and drink in peace and quiet. Does he really have to work so hard to get such a basic requirement? Our man struggles in this antisocial social environment.

It would offer release, until the arrival of further interference. He knows there is always further interference. There would be screams. There would be screams and sobbing. There would be the infuriatingly ceaseless cries of pain and moans from the dying – well, they would cease eventually, it’s true, but in his world-view there would be so much noise and it would reverberate and escalate, each report of the gun would echo and ring between pillars and panes for ever and a day. It would become an eternal aural mausoleum as reminder of his suffering and the noise that drove him there, the interference and influence that drove him there from them, the interference from them…. It would be hell, the sounds would never stop hounding and as punishment the gods would trap him there for good.

And there would be back-up. Somebody is bound to ring for reinforcements and who’s ever heard of reinforcements not making their presence known? Reinforcements are noisy. And the media circus that comes with it. The TV cameras, the stupid questions, the public gathering, the protest marches, the calls for the death penalty, the violence, the misunderstanding, the far too many questions, the orders he could not see himself taking, the insults he could see himself taking, a cell to live in, a space so tiny yet so open to so many, a tiny little cell to call home. A controlled space actually sounds quite inviting but it would not be controlled by him, and this cell, this tiny controlled space, there’s bound to be a cellmate and if there’s a cellmate then it will end in violence and death, and it will be our man’s death and his life is all over or his cellmate’s death and our man’s life is all over but either way, either way…. And so much touching.

The simple things are no longer available, yet our man’s needs remain the same: silentiu dormiant tauri – ‘shush! the bulls are sleeping’ (before tomorrow’s big fight). It would be foolish to disturb them. It would be foolish to wake what cannot go back to sleep. It would be foolish to do anything, without considering first the consequences. So our man drinks on. Mr Significant continues, being invasive and becoming significantly more significant. Our man drinks on, and the planes remain grounded.

The unimpeachable peach walks back across his view, slower, more collected, presumably nicotine-induced. She waves in an exaggerated motion to her friends and both parties shout loudly in Italian until they are once again face to face where they continue to laugh about whatever dramas happen in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette. But the beauty is broken; her unimpeachable peachness, her inherent peacheousness, has proven to be specious. Her beauty, he thinks, was that of an exotic solo traveller; a silent loner trying not to be noticed; someone, like him perhaps, stuck between big wheels, or the sexual embodiment of a personal assertiveness that couldn’t help but shine through her camouflage, exuding like an orgasmic charge some special perspective on existence or how to experience it. Instead, she has freely dismissed everything he projected on to her and proved herself a big-mouth Italian who cares so little for the world she doesn’t even notice when she makes a child cry and is coated, let’s face it, coated in stale airport sweat. Her clutch-bag remains elegant throughout all this, an innocent instrument of influence.

Say something man, speak. But he does not. Nor does he watch the specious Italian (once known as the unimpeachable peach) any more than he lines up his sights and shoot shoot shoots, kill kill kills, silences quietens mutes. He waits for his invader to scratch his nose or to emphasise a point he desperately needs to prove and insist into his cell-phone; to move his arm just an inch, just an inch so our man can claim the zone. He does so, within instants.

Mr Significant moves his arm in a decisive decision-making gesture, enough to ensure the loosely-worn bracelet of his watch rattles and draws our attention in time to see said Mr Significant be significant into his cell-phone. Mr Significant is absorbed in his own performance. He does not notice our man expand his body size, slide his elbow into Mr Significant’s space; does not see our man wait not one iota for the emphasising arm to return to its resting place only to find the space has been taken. My elbow- room has vanished, thinks Mr Significant, my dominion diminished, another’s bones have made their home. These were not his words.

Mr Significant makes a half-turn to see who dares be there. For a second he meets eyes with a man; a man like any other man sat at an airport bar in an open-necked shirt; an inferior man, a lower income earner with matching tastes. Our man. He meets eyes with our man, if only for a second. Our man’s eyes tell his nibs his carefully co-ordinated camouflage is transparent; his eyes state in an understated manner if his nibs dare say or do anything it will result in far worse than he bargained for.

Mr Significant pauses, inserts attitude into his eyes ready for the dismissive yet aggressive turn-away, and decides to remove it at the very last instant, leaving little on show in the slither-thin eye contact remaining. Mr Significant turns his back, asks the voice on the other end of the line to repeat that last statement. He pretends to be absorbed in the call, tells himself the guy is mad or drunk or both or, in a momentary nod to compassion, one of the noble fallen lost to the trauma of habitual airport existence – he’ll be going round that carousel until he reaches retirement. Our man’s stare informed Mr Significant there was no threat, only promise. Promise of what nobody knew, least of all our solo traveller.

Our man has reclaimed his space. He can relax, celebrate. He can now be as pleasant as he likes. He has protected his territory, defended his rights, faced down a clumsy usurper, proved his power so benignity can be afforded space and peace may reign for another hour. See how politely he will treat other drinkers, see how he will allow them to be served before him, see how generous a tip he will leave, see how he will reassert his civility and counteract the animal, the devil, within. Or his antagonism will expand into confrontation and it will kick out the cur from the cradle once and for all. Which flavours the air, our man? Wait! Wait. There’s no rush, sit back down, order another drink, Mr Significant is still camouflaged by his telephone call. Let him finish, let him stew, let him be the one to decide on the outcome, let him be the one to front the cost, let him be the one to reposition his self, to crawl away with his tail between his legs, or create a stand-off.

The outlook has changed; the storm has moved on. Fingers of God descend to find the beautiful are no longer necessarily so, the ugly are still ugly, the unattractive maybe less so. The mother has been spoken to and let on her way; the child is happy again; the cosmetic sellers are proud to be citizens and proud of how well their masks held out; the police officers think the cosmetic sellers should’ve kept their own business; Mr Significant is reaching the end of his phone call and looking to get in the air as soon as possible; our man is drinking, and watching, and hearing, his senses on overload.

His flight is called, he memorises the gate. He lets it wait. He wants to see Mr Significant pick up the cost. Our man believes, in airports, expense takes the place of space, and space takes the place of place, and that that’s a theory worth drinking on. Our man does not believe those who can front the expense have a right to his space, and therefore his place, his elbow-room. If they want anything of his then there will be a cost, because there is always a cost whatever wherever whomever you’re dealing with there is always a cost to everything. Even things that don’t exist, especially things that don’t exist, they often prove the most expensive. Just ask the architect of this monstrosity.

Mr Significant gets up to leave, shovels his cell-phone and coins into whichever pockets his hands reach first. His suit doesn’t hang so well when the pockets are filled so haphazardly. The affect on his balance will build over time into risk of serious arthritic pain if he does not reappraise the placement of his accessories. These fruits, these mutations upon the body, the young and unaware shall reap. There’s no bliss in blisters, so best avoid the risk. But if that’s the kind of man he is, decides our man, I am justified in everything I thought of him.

The barman thanks Mr Significant for his custom, as he must do, yet his smile and gratitude appear sincere. The barman is blind, obviously; an idiot, impervious to character detail. Our man orders another shot, assertively; pays, dismissively; stares meteor-strikes into Mr Significant’s back, branding him with burning satellite aliases: ‘drug’s mule’, ‘sex trafficker’, ‘terrorist sympathiser’, ‘wanted by Interpol’ – transcendent signifiers for the benefit of the more sensitive and attentive immigration officials. People get what they deserve in this world. Jedem das Seine.

Having won, in his own mind, the moral battle, our man lights a cigarette just to muddy the waters and numerous do- gooders start looking for someone to do their prodding. His flight is called for a final time. He inhales and swears on the exhale, “Flawed ergonomics”. He pays for his drinks and leaves an above-average tip. The barman is under-appreciative.

Walking to the gate our man is free of restraint and remains pleasant, should anyone notice, and calm before the departure lounge lives up to its name. Even the bloody-minded refusal of the handrail to keep rhythm and pace with his feet cannot disturb him, because he does not touch it, for therein lies the way to purgatory and the flames of the inferno. Inner smile, inner smile bats away the demands of the sweaty, rubber handrail; the loose, flapping handrail; the waxy band of abhorrent aberration; the liquorice discrepancy in time and movement; the possession of the physical by diversionary devils of discord; the tourniquet of ugly syncopation; the handrail the handrail goddamn the damn handrail inner smile inner smile.

He reaches the gate. Waits. Attempts to tidy how his shirt collects under his belt. Bends to pull up and fold down his socks. Coughs into his hand. He waits within sound of the ground-crew ready to close the door behind him; to seal him in with threats and saboteurs, germs and drab stories; to bury him in a birthing cot of neural pestilence and the ceaseless ceaseless demands of humans and their repetitive patterns. Our man is not at one with his self, let alone his kind. Those who meet him, sense it.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis

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