Music At The Mall (1)

The bookends to family holidays is the smoking area at Gatwick’s south terminal. It is squeezed between the road and the carpark, a thin hard-to-negotiate sliver of black-blotted pavement hemmed in on three sides by metal railings, and bolted throughout are dustbins covered in disturbed ash, jolted upwards by passing buses and hirecars; the area possessing a rainbow of various tobacco leaves burning, so blended are they even the most dedicated smoker is overwhelmed, and recoils somewhat at the unsavoury surroundings they find themselves in as they gaze upwards at the ascending aircraft. Still, the smoker cherishes their last few moments in its confines, until they surrender to a long line of no-smoking signs and situations that may test their resolve. And when, two weeks later, they emerge from the airport and rush back to it, they find that those fourteen days passed in no time at all, for the smoking area is exactly the same, as is the smell of all the tobacco leaves and the black blots upon its floor.

At the customs gate there is a lesbian couple saying good-bye, except they do not say good-bye but embrace each other silent and tightly, not moving, one body on either side of the rope; and if one turns at the right moment they are able to see the tears that run down their faces. Beside them are a Muslim family saying good-bye to their relative; the departing man smiles and kisses the weeping children on their cheek and assures them he will see them soon; he, too, embraces his brother tightly, their cheeks together.

The first thing that strikes me as I exit the airport at the other side is the Floridian heat and humidity. It is still as I remember from childhood. It rams into one’s chest, fills the lungs, weighs one down, and you almost struggle to breathe. You may take your time to become accustomed to it. I walk some distance from my brothers to a secluded spot and enjoy my first cigarette in twelve hours. A tall thin man with dreadlocks down to his coccyx approaches me—‘Lighter?’ I hold it out. ‘Thanks.’ He sits down on the kerb with his family. Bookends, I think.

Every day I walk eight to ten miles in the thirty-four-degree heat (locally ninety-three). I walk when it is not necessary. Tissues in my pocket are soaked before I am even halfway, as I wipe my brow and neck. The greatest pleasure of my day – and it is perhaps so minor – is walking two miles to another hotel with my parents for our morning coffee. The route is winding. At that hour, most of the path is shaded by plants and trees, the lizards are out sunning themselves, the heat is already too much. The hotel is quiet, by the water. There are sparrows that dart and scarper for crumbs. Wrought iron chairs wince noisily across the floor as they are pulled from beneath their table. My parents and I talk, sipping our coffees and sharing pastries. There are guests checking in, trolleys of luggage, joggers, there is a couple filming a dance next to the water, there are others in the shade, peacefully drinking their drinks and looking out as we are. Slowly the perspiration dries. Suncream stings the eyes. I do not wish to leave, but the rest of the family is waiting for us elsewhere. Blisters begin to form on my feet. Every pebble on the path is felt through the thin soles of my trainers. At times I will put my fingers to my thigh, to feel the muscles stiff & soften with every step, my eyes peeled for any sunbathing lizards that do not move in time.

At the beginning of the walk, on steps that lead up to a bridge over the carriageway, there is an overhanging tree. During the night, its white flowers fall. They lie there quite pristine in the morning, but by the evening the petals have yellowed, brown at the edges. Every morning as I cross the bridge, I appreciate the white fallen flowers. In the evening, I see that the flowers have turned in the sun and are no longer as beautiful. Even when the flowers have been swept away, strange dark shadows remain on the bleached path, the residue of something splendid. The heat here makes everything happen much faster. The flowers are born, they shine, they fall, they rot, they are gone, they are born.

I am aware that I am the loner: my middle-brother has his wife & family, my youngest-brother his girlfriend; it is only I who goes to bed alone. It is not so traumatic, but it is obvious, and I cannot help but wonder what others must think of me or say behind my back. They probably believe that it was not I who ended my recent relationship. Let them gossip! I walk alone and hum to myself – it is too hot for headphones – and I revel in the simple pleasures bestowed upon me: the weather, the colours, no labour, no worries, the taste of orange juice, the scent of blossom, the mulled boot of decaying leaves, everyone else here is on holiday and they are happy also. One human’s happiness is likely to reverberate off another. As I pass others on my path – and it is mine! – I catch snippets of their conversation. One man is talking to a woman, the slap of their rubber soles snapping off the bamboo—‘That’s why I don’t like gardening,’ he says. ‘I want to garden when feel like it. Yknow? Like, I don’t want it to be a full-time job kinda thing… I don’t wanna be gardening on my weekends, yknow? That’s too much gardening.’ Utterly inane, I think as I overtake him. Who could listen to such drivel? Another woman passes by with her two older children—‘And then, you just finish the course of injections, and they put you on this other course of pills and—’ Without my headphones I feel compelled to listen to their nonsense.

Perhaps my most unusual and surprising trait is how much I am captivated and carried along by the magic of Disney World. You may laugh! Go ahead! Laugh! but I do so love Disney World. Something about our gigantic, rented van passing beneath the welcome signs, with Mickey, Minnie and Goofy, just stirs some childhood jubilance within me that I can neither suppress nor deny. To step beyond each park’s gates, I fall into an indiscernible state of joy, walking ahead of my company, hurrying them along, plotting our route to the main attractions, slowing down for them to catch up. There is something there that calls out to my youth, yes, but it is still within my thirty-six-year-old body to be excited by a security guard or popcorn vendor saying with white teeth—‘Have a magical day.’ Each finger tapped against the thumb in repetitive cycles, in my throat without my lips moving—‘Have a magical day. Have a magical day. Have a magical day.’ Outside of Magical Kingdom there is a cluster of strangers huddled below a series of umbrellas. An old woman lazes diagonally on a mobility scooter, one leg outstretched, her thin fingers pulling a cigarette to her lips, its smoke stuck to the elevating air. She strikes up a conversation, although I do not mind in the slightest as I am in such good spirits—‘I’ve been smoking for almost sixty years,’ she tells me. ‘You’re an inspiration,’ I reply; she does not understand my sense of humour, but instead shows me where they removed a vein from her leg. Without invitation, she tells me about her life. She lives in Miami but visits Disney World five or six times a year. She loves it. Her husband saved up and brought her here for the first time in 1974. She loved it. He died in a car accident when she was thirty-four, and she never remarried. She does not like rollercoasters. She was a schoolteacher for forty years and often checks her phone as she receives belated mothers’ day wishes from former students. One of them has just told her that her own son is now graduating high school. She taught English, biology and physics but not chemistry—‘Too hard.’ ‘I heard if you can do physics, you can do chemistry,’ I told her. ‘No,’ she says sternly. She worked for the sheriff’s department for fifteen years, made her way up to homicide. She was always detached from it, she says, but the only case that stuck with her was a ten-month-old murdered by his mother. She still thinks about it, about him. She still thinks about the murdered ten-month-old when she is outside the gates of Magical Kingdom. Her name is Jenny and she will never read this.

The rest of the day I thought that I might see the slow drift of Jenny’s mobility scooter down Main St, but I did not. At half-two, Main St was cordoned off, the visitors shuffled onto the pavement, and a parade passed down the street. It was all music and dancing. My brothers stood in the shade. I stood at the kerbside as the parade passed before me, a hand upon my niece’s shoulders, gazing up and grinning at the costumed actors and pageantry. I was swept along with it. I did not fight it. There was no one watching me. I thought about Jenny’s ten-month-old.