The gleam flooded through the squint of my eyes, as scrambles of sentience pieced together in my head. Hard metal, feasibly cushioned by leather paddings, was crushing my bones – but nowhere numbed more than my left knee, fixedly bent parallel to the contour line of an armrest. The back of my head ached too, having rested against the harder objects within my rucksack, my makeshift pillow.
Sluggishly I sat up. Then, struck by a sudden glimmer of orientation, I remembered where I was: Heathrow Terminal 5, lounging uneasily on a bench in forlorn pursuit of sleep. I checked the time: half past four, yet before dawn, merely passed out for two hours and barely nearing elapse of the twelve-hour mark of my 24 hours in the airport.
What the heck are you doing to yourself, Dylan?
Interpret it however you may: I’d misread my plane ticket and mixed up the dates, or I’d booked the flight on a date deviating from the original plan; either way I arrived at the airport 24 hours too early – either way I appeared stupid.
Then, on the way back to the Underground station, an epiphany: instead of returning home – I only live an hour away – and consuming boredom and self-mockery for the next day, perhaps I should create something interesting out of my blunder? Instead of a reprise of the beginning of my journey, how about a journey that had begun the moment I stepped through the threshold, no turning back until the voyage has been completed?
What about experiencing 24 hours in Heathrow?
Thus the inadvertent, intentional decision – and hereby challenge – was made.
Unnerved by the monstrosity of my spontaneity, I towed myself to the nearest pub and ordered a pint of Dutch courage.
The glitter of twilight infrastructure
By the time I stepped out of the pub, vibrance of the sunset palette had been smeared all over the landside of the terminal. The warmth of colours diminished just as the building became increasingly deserted, until the haunting hue would creep behind the crisscrossing window frames as they descended, vanishing upon the floor level.
Then, abrupt flickers: the floodlights came on and enshrouded the scene with electric blue; it zapped me, as the scenery I’d grown used to, static yet transitional, changed its face in an explosive instant.
Hence one of my first realisations, even appreciation of an irony: my normal chivvied air-faring self and the stationary transit points are so out of synch that no wonder, regardless of their – sometimes – sheer beauty, I’ve always failed to appreciate airports. They were never part of the journey, ever the process of reaching or returning from such.
I may pause for moments and admire, but I’ve never slowed down my pace enough.
Night had truly fallen when the lights were dimmed and the hallways became deadened. It was then when stone, glass and steel, shone upon with dizzying arrays of artificial lights, stood out as animated characters in the inanimate part of my tale.
Fellowship in waiting
When staying overnight at an airport, one requires bag buddies.
Northern English in accent, bespectacled, weary yet not exhausted of friendliness: it’s a shame that was all I learned of the girl I’d burdened with watching over my belongings in between cigarette breaks and scurries to the toilet – all I could do in return was reciprocating the favour. I watched her as she slumped on the bench, eloping from the tardiness of time’s flow through the small screen perched on her lap, headphones glued to the ears except upon my sporadic requests.
Often have I felt guilt in disrupting her; our brief exchanges of dialogues were amicable, enthused at best – but, like I would before the shift in mentality and renewed purpose of my stay, she seemed to want to be left alone, to attempt making time past faster in solitude.
She belonged to the first type of people I met in Heathrow that night: means to an end, sorely awaiting the final drop of languishment.
Then, amidst passengers seeking seclusion and sleep – I even witnessed someone clambering into a body-length bag, roosting in what I can only liken to a coffin made of fabric – I encountered the second kind.
I met Ben. Or, rather, I was greeted by him.
We conversed when I settled on a bench next to his, when he came back from investigating the opening hours of Marks and Spencers, when he walked by my spot of slumber. I learned much about the American chap and his stories; he heard mine.
He was flying on standby to Barcelona when didn’t manage to get on the evening flight, opted instead to spend the night in Heathrow and fly in the early morning.
The impression I had of him was a voyager on a continual trip. For Ben, the process of waiting wasn’t necessarily the twilight period, the nowhere-ness subtracted from the overall journey, the anticipation overlooking the less eventful present – rather, the wait makes an integral part of the overall experience.
I really admire that. After all, that was the one side of my travel mentality I’d been wanting to reconnect with. The same element I’d previously neglected and only discovered when I hitchhiked for the first time.
At the first glimpse of dawn, we parted ways. I slipped back into my drowsy, introverted self, processing the encounter and speculating just what the new day may bring.
Roll camera, start rambling
So what exactly did I do for twelve, idle hours apart from taking photos of nocturnal architecture, chatting with strangers and chain-smoking?
Simple: clowning in front of my camera producing video diaries – and struggling to edit them.
Despite my lack of experience, I prevailed; here are two diary entries I produced during the nighttime segment of the challenge: