It reeked of sleep. Somnopolis. It reeked of insomniac worry and disquiet, and thwarted escape. Because we are all poets or babies in the middle of the night, struggling with being.
— Martin Amis, London Fields
Because with a suddenness, you are at the airport. There are many avenues to reach this place, just as there are caresses forgotten in your memories of great loves. There was the 4am intersection in which you caught a glimpse of death. There was the cat-eyed toddler who studied your suitcase with naked interest. There were white bridges and yellow tunnels, hills with leafless trees reaching for the clouds.
But these were not Somnopolis. The poetry of the airport glows under the domed roof – departure, terminal, passport, security – a lexicon of otherness and you with a ticket. The stone-faced stewardesses, the rain-glazed runway, prides of bull-necked airport cops, glistening valleys of duty free goods – these are the suburbs of Somnopolis; these demarcate the approach to that dreaming capitol. It is my intention with the notes that follow to illuminate some of the strange quarters of this secret metropolis.
The Lightness of the Waiting Lounge
We all have everyday luggage. Not just our keys, wallet and phone – we wheel around our culture and our language as if they were backpacks full of curios and unwashed jeans. This is why sitting at the airport cafe in Phnom Penh I understand the French couple twisted over their coffee and carry-ons. Somnopolis makes real a weight you have felt all your life and unburdens you from it at entry. We watch them, Lara and I, these twenty-somethings ancient with fatigue. They bicker over their taped trunks, throwing shirts and twisted thongs into a provided garbage bag, shells-and-stones-heavy with warm memories tossed aside as they squeeze their luggage under the twenty kilo limit. They are elegantly dressed – their jeans well cut and their accessories in mute, matching colours – but their shoulders are hunched with despair. They make it through. I think I will never see them again but in the food court I spy them, watch as they drift at hands length but without touching, tender faces turned to each pictorial menu in turn. Hungry. Broke. Zombified.
Lara complains about the cost of her panini, the muzac, how low the air conditioning is and I agree with her in a far-off way. Our clothes and books are squashed against our ankles as we eat. We work together taking turns to break down or cheer the other up. Here in the departure lounge, we are wilfully and painlessly delayed by our lack of baggage. It’s all there in that French couple staring at a silent TV sipping their black coffee, waiting out their weightlessness.
Which Airport is This Again?
It was in Kuala Lumpur that it struck me – the approach to the airport, the method of transportation, even the gates outside betoken the land you are in. But within the food court, looking towards arrivals, there is a simulacrum of airports. I look at my tuna salad sandwich and the plastic triangle casing and think, where am I? Where am I going? I look over to Lara and she is not as lost as I, pointing out a man unceremoniously driving a cherry picker through the crowd, stopping to change some light bulbs in a departures/arrivals sign.
Completely broke, we crawl through security and scan the duty free shops, window shopping the hustle like penniless kids at a carnival. We come across a store that prices candy by weight – sour gummy worms, raspberry clouds, jelly coke bottles. Lara and I pace up and down the frosted displays picking from the sampler trays, circulating into the dried fruit and herbal jelly section, trying the dried rose sap, the ginger flavoured dates, the pickled squid arms. At last we weigh a woefully small amount of sweets and Lara heads to the counter. I am left alone with my thoughts.
“Sorry that took so long. The guy in front of me was taking forever. I think he was arguing about the price at first, and then about his card.”
“It’s like he had nothing better to do than argue, you know? You didn’t notice?”
“No. I was just standing here. Eating candy.”
Lara had most of the jubes to herself. I was full.
A World Lost to the Earth’s Dimension
Above the world and through a porthole the red wing-tip dipping as a bubble in a level gauge. The clouds iridescent below mapping undreamt of lands – of a forest whose tops are freshly crowned with snow, sloping down to frozen rivers; of fire, fine finger-like tendrils of ash thrown over the earth; of river deltas choked with alluvial mud, broad fans mixing into the dark blue deeps below; of dunes of purest white sand in endless coruscations reaching to a horizon shielded by alabaster peaks. The clearest sensation of passing above a bright map below.
Fury Like a Line of Distant Mountains
Lara is stopped for a search at security, all illusions of privacy dismissed as her bag and pills and tampons are inspected by bear-pawed employees. I watch a young Korean woman lose her shit entirely at the carry-on counter. Toting a massive army-green gym sack she is waving her arms back and forth as her long-haired friends try to calm her. They speak in soothing tones, place their manicured hands on her arms and cheeks, implore in broken English with the massive security guard who stands behind. I have no idea what she is saying but it is clear she has been pushed beyond the edge. Her friends try to take her arms, hold her shoulders down but they are flung up like banners above a crowd of fingers. I don’t bother to hide my interest like the family climbing the escalator who keep their curious toddler in front of them. This Korean girl is as close to a criminal as this world gets – she raises her voice, she starts a panic, she speaks out against the calm malevolence of our wardens. A second security guard comes to join the first, shrugging his shoulders at the other in an impassive semaphore.
“Doesn’t look like she’s getting that on,” Lara says beside me.
“Look at the size of it though. Unless she was preparing to stow herself in the overhead locker instead, I don’t see how she thought she could get it onboard.”
“Maybe she could climb inside it, like a sleeping bag.”
“What, and sit on the seat like that policeman from Noddy? Mr Glob?”
The security guard approaches us, I flash him my ticket and he takes one look at my backpack and waves me along. We watch the scene sinking below as we rise toward departure.
That Quote From Pynchon
Earthbound, we are limited to our Horizon, which sometimes is to be measured but in inches. We are bound withal to Time, and the amounts of it spent getting from one end of a journey to another. Yet aloft, in Map-space, origins, destinations, any Termini, hardly seem to matter – one can apprehend all at once the entire plexity of possible journeys, set as one is above Distance, above Time itself.
— Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon
Daniel East is a Sydney-based writer, with work appearing in Cordite, Mascara, Voiceworks, Red River Review, Verity La, PAN Magazine and cutthroat. He also features in the current print/audio edition Going Down Swinging No. 33.
Feature photo used under Creative Commons from Lars Ploughmann