Airports are one of the curses of the age we live in. It’s not the flying that’s the headache, it’s the airports. Start by standing in a queue for a bored clerk or worse, a machine, then another where your hand baggage is turned upside down, then three or more queues before you even get to see an aircraft – and that’s on top of the odyssey of getting to an airport to start with.
The endless queues, the terrible shops full of overpriced junk and the heart-stoppingly expensive eateries and bars in the departure lounges are where a bored traveller with an incurable people-watching habit can let the imagination wander. These places provide a showcase of characters plucked from their normal lives and dropped into this unnatural air-conditioned false reality with piped music, fast food and shops full of nothing nobody ever really needs, although that’s obviously a sweeping statement and doesn’t apply to the bookshops that are a necessity to any civilised traveller.
That couple over there, the middle-aged couple giggling like teenagers. They’re both wearing rings but that’s never his wife, and he sure as hell isn’t her husband. So what’s the story? Did they murder someone before making a quick getaway to head for a new life on another continent? Is that nondescript bag full of wads of cash in used notes? Or is it something mundane? Probably. But it’s the stuff of stories.
And at what age does it become acceptable to wear socks with sandals? Would that man wear that hat anywhere but on holiday? Which of those stag party guys is the lucky bridegroom and will he survive the drunken weekend in Prague intact?
That distinguished-looking gentleman with the piercing deepset eyes, the sweptback grey hair, the pencil moustache and downing a neat whisky at the bar, is he the disowned heir to a southern fortune returning home for the first time since leaving to join the marines thirty years ago? Or is he just an insurance clerk on his way to Tunisia to spend a few afternoons in the sun and his mornings exploring Roman remains? It doesn’t matter. Either way it works.
Good grief, young lady, those trousers. Should shorts like that even be legal? On the other hand, should showing that much leg be legal? Should those legs even be allowed out without a public warning attached to them?
That sulky young guy with the pouting girl at his side, what were they arguing about, and how come she seems to have won whatever they were squabbling over?
The huge gentleman with the ebony skin and the infectious laugh, deep as a well and smooth as honey, that rumbles across the departure lounge, what language is that he’s speaking into his mobile phone and what’s the joke, or is he just naturally cheerful?
Surely that pretty blonde bending down to look through her bag knows that a miniscule tracery of thong is on display high above those low-slung jeans? And does she know that behind her a pair of Estonian businessmen on their way to Lisbon are thoroughly enjoying the sight, laughing and making appreciative hourglass gestures with their hands?
How come that little feller you wouldn’t otherwise notice has a mouthful of gold teeth that only show when he smiles?
How about the majestic African ladies in their bright blue and green robes reminiscent of schooners under full sail, where are they going? Home to where? Or going shopping in Paris?
The young man in the dhoti and the badly-wrapped turban asleep under a blanket next the stairs, his sandals neatly placed by his head, what’s he dreaming about? And who’s the elderly man next to him with the lined face and the nose straight out of Kipling? His father? An elder brother or an uncle?
Arrivals can be interesting as well. The pair in identical suits and haircuts over there at the back. The shades hide their eyes and they never smile. Are they twins? They look like they could be. Are they waiting for someone who would rather not be met? A quick look at their shoes, and they don’t look like they could be from the police and they’re too obvious to be spooks of any kind. More than likely they’re just taxi drivers who like to look like gangsters, killing time until their fares come through the gate.
The three thickset guys with the bald heads and the tattooed arms, where are they coming from? Aberdeen after a spell on an oil rig? Or a religious conference in Riga? Or stopping over on their way to join a ship? Or are they returning from a gay pride get-together in Amsterdam?
The girl clutching a bunch of flowers and teetering on her heels at the arrivals gate, the one with the look of expectation and the blissful smile on her face, is she wearing anything under that buttoned-up-to-the neck trench coat? And what happens when whoever she’s waiting for so eagerly doesn’t get off the flight? Or arrives with someone else on his (or her) arm?
Screwing up people’s lives, even imaginary ones, can be a fantastic jumping off point into something new. There’s a story behind every single one, undoubtedly nothing like whatever the hapless novelist dreams up, and probably more interesting and exciting than anything we can come up with – as truth is invariably more strange than fiction.
Sometimes it’s nothing more than a face in a crowd, never to be seen again, or a mannerism picked up in passing, or fragment of conversation that can set off a train of thought and a string of new ideas. People-watching and letting your imagination run away with you is one of the prime tools in the fiction writer’s armoury. Even a fleeting glimpse of real life can be the spark that sets off some whole string of new ideas. So next time you’re waiting for a flight and there’s someone in the corner staring into the middle distance, be careful and take care not to stand out from the crowd. It might be a crime writer on the lookout for characters.
Departure lounge, Heathrow Terminal 5 and Wetherspoons, Aberdeen airport