Shit. How deep had my sleep been?! Annie’s flight was 11am, and we’d been intent on staying awake all through the night ahead of it. We’d failed, obviously – and as an extra kicker, apparently I’d been irretrievably catatonic. After everything – our three week adventure – we hadn’t even been able to say goodbye. My stomach twisted with guilt and confusion. Surely not. How?!
But I couldn’t indulge too long in self-loathing. Annie would be in the air by now, uncontactable, and I had to get myself to the airport for my 4pm flight to Liverpool. For the first time since I booked it, I opened the flight email on my phone and checked my ticket to see which terminal of Charles de Gaulle Airport I needed. My memory, however, had betrayed me: my flight was not due to leave from CDG at all, but from a place I’d never heard of: Beauvais Airport. A swift, furious Google told me the airport was located some 50km north of Paris, and the only way to get there was via a long-winded rabble of trains and buses. Excellent.
I showered, shoved my crap into my rucksack, and wrote a note to Leah thanking her for having us and apologising for our excessive revelry. I was relieved she wasn’t yet awake: it meant I wouldn’t have to face her. I humped my bag onto my back and hurried into the street, letting the door close quietly behind me. Once outside, I realised with a sigh that I’d forgotten to charge my phone overnight: I had 40% battery, and the plane tickets were on my phone.
It was probably a good thing I was still hammered, to be honest: I would have panicked far more had more than an eighth of my brain been functioning. With the thousand bewildered questions in my head balancing out as a sort of numbing static, I stumbled out into the morning sunshine, put my sunglasses on, lit my last cigarette, and slogged my way to the Metro. I couldn’t find the ticket machine, and I had to ask three separate people for directions in booze-fume pigeon French.
I took the Metro several stops, so thoroughly ruined that I began to feel quite cool and nonchalant and bedraggled; beyond caring, like a haggard, surly Bob Dylan on his twentieth consecutive week of touring. I found the bus that was supposed to ferry me to the airport, paid €20 for a ticket, and queued for 45 minutes in the summer heat with 100 other people, sweating from my eye-bags and hallucinating casually. You won’t die, I told myself. This is going to be unpleasant, but you won’t die.
The bus took ninety minutes or so, winding through the countryside, and at the airport I attempted to stop my body from shaking quite so violently by guzzling a can of Coke and eating a wrap. I felt a little dreamlike, as though there were a thin veneer between me and reality, a sort of waxy membrane, and everything felt at once meaningless and fraught with danger and ambiguity. The airport was mercifully tiny, which meant I didn’t have to navigate more than a couple of corridors and checkpoints, and then I was on the plane: to sleep, perchance to dream.
At least, that’s what I’d assumed. It turned out that my dehydrated, sleep-deprived brain didn’t feel like sleeping. Like a hateful, overtired toddler it instead remained steadfastly awake, pumping itself full of adrenaline at the slightest opportunity, despite my protests. The gentlest bank of the plane to the left or right had me gripping the arms of my seat, teeth bared, whites of my eyes flashing like a deer fighting for its life against the jaws of a crocodile. When we reached cruising altitude and the plane’s engines calmed down from their takeoff roar, I assumed they were failing and cutting out completely, and that in several moment’s time we’d be lurching into a yawning nose-dive towards the earth. I mopped sweat from my delirious brow and plugged my headphones into my ears, then immediately yanked them out again upon realised that all music was anxiety inducing, and what I really needed was some good old white noise – but there was none available, except the plane engine, and I didn’t want to listen to that because I kept thinking it was about to glug and choke and switch off. I tried to shut my eyes and get some sleep: this was worse than anything. Without my sight to reassure me to the contrary, in the blackness my brain interpreted every tiny, almost imperceptible ripple of turbulence to be a catastrophe: a wing creaking itself detached, or an errant goose flock swooping as-one into the propellers. I took deep breaths – four seconds in, hold, four seconds out – but it only calmed me as long as I kept doing it. The second I stopped, the panic came rushing back. I felt as though I might burst into tears. I wanted to scream, but I held my mouth closed for dear life – because I knew that if I started to scream, I wouldn’t be able to stop. I’d end up in one of those awful viral videos you see: stewardesses straining to shackle me down with knots of orange seatbelts, passengers booing me, overhead masks dropping down as I scream and bite and wail and thrash about in the aisle like an upturned beetle.
With eyes like arseholes and static-electricity hair, I showed my passport at customs. A holiday-making family ahead of me couldn’t speak English, and when the passport man got tired of yelling “Why are you visiting the UK” at them over and over they all got pulled aside to sit in a little cordoned-off area awaiting customs officials. In Fiji they greet arrivals with a floral-shirted band playing ukulele songs. In England we jostle you into a pig pen and give you a bollocking.
In the arrivals hall of John Lennon Airport I bought a phone charger for £20 and sat in an empty Starbucks as the sole worker swept up around me. I searched trains nearby to Leeds, and with another internal ‘Nooooo’ I discovered that, due to strike action, all trains and buses out of Liverpool were cancelled.
Feeling rather drained, I messaged Annie to update her on my own drama and ask how she was getting on – but she would still be in the air for another few hours. I was firmly shafted and there was nothing else for it: booked a night in a hostel, somewhere in the city centre.
It was raining and dark, and the streets were a blitz of white shirts and wobbly heels and vape smoke and plastic cups rolling down the street, sticky with luminous liquid. The hostel was right next to the city’s party district: I was kept up until 4am by a succession of increasingly drunk people crashing into the dorm and flopping around with wide, vacant eyes. I felt very sorry for myself.
The next morning I got up at 8am: not the full night’s sleep I’d hoped for, but it’d have to do. I bought a McDonalds breakfast and went to the train station. The train was delayed, of course, and when I eventually got to Leeds, the bus took an hour to arrive. And it was raining, naturally. Paris to Leeds: a 26-hour journey. I could have flown to Australia.
Annie had landed while I was asleep. I called her once I’d slept enough to regain my sanity. I told her of my journey; she’d endured a similarly freakish odyssey to get home.
We mourned the fact that we’d been too dumb and fucked up to be able to say goodbye properly, but my guilt was relieved by speaking to her.
“You’re my best friend,’”I told her. “Thank you for a wonderful trip. Except for the end, which was the most horrendous thing I’ve ever experienced.”
“You’re my best friend too, dude. I miss you already. Fuck, what a mess.”
“We’ll laugh about it one day,” we assured one another, a little shakily. “In the distant, distant future.”