Coldly damp and greyish yellow, my skin in the mirror of the cramped lavatory space seemed to me to epitomise the life I’d left behind. It had that pulpy quality that skin deprived of fresh air and daylight soon assumes, as though if touched it would come away in my fingers. Stale, dull, flacid and fragile. I stared at green eyes that stared straight back at me, darkly ringed and saying nothing.
Food, deposited in moulded trays at regulated intervals held no appeal. I forced it down for something to do. An unusual panic, claustrophobia fuelled by a lack of sleep, pecked somewhere at the back of my sanity. Daydreams of a liquid forest path swept by a cool ocean breeze mocked me. I paced up and down the narrow aisles again and again. To and from the toilet, to the tap to fill my paper cup with flat water, to stare out of a different square of window at the same endless cloudscape.
Finally the plane began to descend and I looked wearily at James in the seat next to me.
“Thank God,” he groaned, and we stared blindly out as we came in to land, too lobotomised to notice the heavy grey and pervasive damp of what was supposed to be a New Zealand summers’ day. Our plane touched down neatly and taxied to an uneventful stop just like a million planes in a thousand airports all around the world. Planes full of people arriving somewhere new for a few weeks, a few days, or simply passing on through seeing nothing more than the inside of yet another airport.
For James and me though, it was a milestone. For two years we’d talked of little else; packing up, shipping out of England for good. For my part the plan had occupied my mind far longer, ever since I’d happened upon New Zealand during a round-the-world holiday, since I’d spent two months falling madly in love with a land eleven thousand, four hundred and fourteen miles away from the place of my birth.
I wanted to have a moment. I wanted to fall from the bottom step of the plane like the Pope and kiss the ground of my new land. I wanted to speak that wonderful line from Shakespeare’s Richard the Second, ‘I weep for joy to stand upon my kingdom once again…’ I’d imagined my return, how I would feel, what I might say. But you rarely get to walk down the steps of an aircraft these days and after a total of twenty-five hours locked in a pressurized container, I felt more like a vacuum-packed ham than a Shakespearean actor. No doubt my flying companions and I smelt as ripe when the seal was released and we piled out into the relatively fresh air-conditioning of Auckland International Airport with four hundred sighs of relief.
It really was relief, too. Any sense of excitement eluded me although the emotion I hoped I’d left with my farewells at Heathrow ached in my throat. I’d thought so much about this moment and here I was. It didn’t feel real. How could it possibly be real?