Not everyone likes each other. That would seem to be an uncontroversial take on contemporary society. I won’t waste my word count on examples; you obviously read the newspapers. But you’d be hard pushed to countenance the existence of such a bifurcated and tribalistic society if you spent time at an airport arrivals lounge. It was something I used to enjoy as a late teenager, until the closing credits of Love, Actually ruined it for me. I’d swing by Heathrow, get a copy of Sky Magazine from Smith’s and, with vampiric delight, sit and watch the emotional fireworks play out in front of me. Sure, some were a bit muted, a bit more “indoor sparkler” than others, but the big whoppers, the whiz-bangs, the Catherine wheels that spun loose from the tree – they could really set me up in a good mood for the rest of the week. Odd, maybe, but I was.
Standing at arrivals, waiting for my family recently, having been separated from my children for the longest time since they were born, I was again struck by how happy everyone was to see each other. Not always shrieks-of-delight happy, not necessarily fall-to-the-floor-weeping, but everyone noticeably looked fuller, more rounded when their separate parts came together. A dad smirked as he fist-bumped his teenage sons, trying to disguise their pleasure as they posed for a photo. A group of friends ironically slow hand-clapped their mate as she sheepishly emerged, then gleefully pretended to ignore her as she bashed their shins with her trolley. An older woman fanned herself with a magazine, wrung her fingers and took down her mask to gulp some fresher air, before shouting into a laugh as her son and granddaughter walked out. They all did it with different signals, but all those signals said the same thing: life is better now that you’re here.
And I thought: some of you must not like each other. I mean statistically, anecdotally, historically: not all families, partners or even friends get on without significant bumps in the road. That son, what’s he going to text his wife in two days’ time, when his mum asks him to show her how WhatsApp works for the sixth time? Will this daughter burst those helium balloons in anger when the parents who have just handed them to her say she can’t go clubbing with her friends? I wondered how long it would take before I snapped at my own children, “No, you haven’t done your teeth.” Reunited, emboldened by our longed-for togetherness, would we permit ourselves instantly to test the capacities of our love for each other? Are we all predisposed, once we’ve got the thing we desire, to try to push it away?
In the depths of the last year, through two bruising spells of home schooling, the idea of six weeks alone, occasionally working, often not, in a warm, foreign country would have been too painfully delicious to even tolerate imagining. I love my partner, I love my children, but you know. Two weeks into that idyll, though, and I was a brittle husk. Something about the extent of the distance between us and the concomitant time difference made me feel as if they had left me behind, and I them.
I was forced to present a version of myself that I had forgotten about: someone who went out in the evening, who read for long, uninterrupted stretches, who thought about what he wanted to do that day. And who hated it. I began to think of the happiness I used to have exploring new places, the euphoria I’d get travelling solo in foreign countries. Why was it impossible now to recapture that? Was my happiness only permitted once our gang of four was fully assembled? Would I ever feel full again in their absence? What about when they start leaving home? Will I be halved? When are they going to come through that bloody gate?
So many people have been separated from each other for so long now. My six weeks are insignificant compared with the separation some families still endure. Public health has deeply affected the private heart. Maybe some of the reunions I witnessed were fuelled not just by love but by relief at having overcome the huge financial and bureaucratic hurdles that travel now presents. The only benefit is that these separations reveal who we are: we are the people that life has thrown us together with, through love, geography, birth, or choice. And, as much as we sometimes might not want to admit it, we need them in order to be the people we think we are. A flash of pink scurries up the ramp, shouting, “Where is he? Where is he?” followed by a baseball cap twisting left, then right, then left again. My arms involuntarily go up in the air. There they are. There I am.