Flying across continents, he carries the night with him. Travels within it as though it were an element. Stays clear of the searchlight of the sun. In the endlessness of his dark, landscapes are irrelevant, his only lodestar is the tiny pinch of light winking slyly back at him from the wingtip of his plane. The wing itself seems so contrived, so rigidly formal, slicing through the horizon like a paper knife, seperating the inky blue of the sky from the haze of the earth.
The earth broods. That is what he has learnt today. When no one is looking the earth is mournful, almost melancholy. Hiding behind masks of ice that conceal the raw ground of its feelings. It is we humans who try to cheer the earth up, amuse it with our twinkling lights, our tiny witticisms of townships, our belly laughs of cities. And the earth is generous to us, permitting itself to be bemused the way even the most dour faced philosopher will spare a thin smile for a boasting child. But for all its sympathy with us the earth remains unmoved, ready to plunge back into its stoic silences the minute our back is turned.
In his headphones, the sound of Floyd singing Wish You Were Here. So you think you can tell Heaven from Hell. Echoed into the empty sky, the words seem like a challenge, a prophecy - the question piercing something deep inside him. Perhaps there is no Heaven but this, he thinks, perhaps God is nothing but a name we give to the sky's profounder desolation, unmatched by anything on Earth. Remember Babel, building his high tower in the hope of becoming God? Perhaps God is not dead, only rent-controlled.
How I wish, how I wish you were here. He mouths the words to himself, thinking of those he has left behind. How I wish. But where is here, exactly? Where in this unmappable blankness of his life would he want this other to be? Isn't it in fact precisely this sense of place that he seeks from the other, so that the real meaning of the song is not that you want the loved one to be where you are, in your here, but rather you yourself want to be in the place that they represent - you wish they were a 'here', a 'now'? We're just two lost souls living in a fishbowl, year after year. He looks up and finds that the passengers around are staring at him. He must have sung that out loud. He smiles sheepishly at them, turns back to the window.
What is he doing here, anyway, trapped in this cocoon of an airbus, wrapped in a thousand leagues of freezing air? Airbus. What a name, what a restless marriage of opposites. He feels trapped, constrained. He fingers the buckle of his seatbelt, checks his watch, tries to figure out how long it will be before the breakfast service. Everyone's asleep, the whole cabin plunged into a crypt like darkness. The only other reading light belongs to that girl in the embroidered salwar-kurta he noticed at the airport, who's sitting all the way across the plane at the window seat opposite his own. She's gorgeous. Straight, brown, short-cut hair, skin a delicate opal. The whole scene (the dark cabin, the two spotlights trained on him and her) reminds him vaguely of a scene in an Almodovar film; or of Eliot: "Four wax candles in the darkened room / Four rings of light upon the ceiling overhead/ An atmosphere of Juliet's tomb / Prepared for all the things to be said, or left unsaid". In his younger days he might have tried to strike up a conversation with her, engineered a meeting by the lavatory, exchanged a few pleasantries. By now he knows that this would be a waste of time. He goes back to his book.
It occurs to him that every book is a journey too. You strap yourself in, prepare yourself - this will take a while. You stare through each page as though through a window, watching these landscapes you desire but can never touch unfold under your careful gaze. The book both constrains you and sets you free, fixes you to your place, but takes you across time and memory to destinations you never imagined possible. By the time it ends, you will have arrived at a new understanding, a new perspective on yourself. The world will look different, but also strangely familiar. You will struggle to adjust to the lag that comes from being returned so suddenly to your own time, your own reality. Travelling and reading, the two things everyone puts on their CV, both merely ways to enter into other worlds, escape yourself.
Somewhere in his thoughts an imaginary line is crossed, the one that divides night from day, today from tomorrow, sleep from waking. In his dream he sees a bowl of clear, still water, a bowl of the most delicate porcelain, so meek, so precious. Only he knows that the bowl is dangerous, because it has sold its fragility to the other side, and so become an apparatus of awesome power. Even a child holding it in its hands would have enough strength to flatten a city. He is not allowed to tell this secret to anyone, for to do so would cause the bowl to crack and send the waters of destruction flooding through the world. He watches in frustration as people admire the bowl, finger it, drop rose petals in it. Are they all blind? he wonders. Can't they see that the bowl has no shadow? He watches in horror as a young woman picks the bowl up in her hands (fortunately her hand is steady and the water does not ripple or spill) walks over and offers it to him. He tries to warn her with gestures, tries to wave her back, but she is insistent, so insistent...
He wakes to find that the air-hostess is handing him a form. He takes it. Stares for a while at the blandness of it, its insistence on facts - names, numbers, dates - all the details that fail to capture him, trapped in their lonely little cells, stranded behind the barred windows of their tiny boxes. Like a crossword puzzle without clues. Nothing quick or cryptic about this. He thinks about this for a while, then pulls out a pen and writes his name in the first space provided. Is not surprised to find that it doesn't fit.