I hate travelling. Sorry, that's not right. That's not right at all. What I really hate are the logistics of travelling: the leaving early for the airport; the crawling paranoia that something, anything, can go wrong at any time; the delays; the no-smoking signs glowing as much like stern reproaches as calamitous reminders of how trying to stay alive is killing me; the vulnerability that comes from being at other people's mercy; the queue for the communal toilet; the synthetic sameness of inedible airline food; the undrinkable coffee in plastic cups; in the seat alongside, the noisome child who can neither sit still nor keep silent; the bus ride on the blazing tarmac; the taxis; the anxiety that being ripped off is only a rip-off away.
Much of my annoyance with the logistics of travel, as you must have gathered by now, has the plane ride (and the getting to and from the plane ride) at its heart. But say what I will about that, plane rides have one terrific, unrivalled thing going for them: they allow me to read uninterrupted. Which is a rare, thrilling pleasure.
If only I could smoke while reading… But then, you can't have everything. In the days when I could smoke while reading on planes, I had a hell of a lot of time to myself, which meant a hell of a lot of more time to read uninterrupted. So I'll settle for the reading without the smoking without the distractions. For the moment, this will have to do. It had better.
Because these days, I am a father. I have been one for more than eight years now. So reading nowadays when our daughter is awake is a juggling act that involves focusing on the page while, at the same time, a) balancing demands, queries and entreaties; b) assimilating tremendously important bits of information that are being imparted either now or never; and c) maintaining a heightened vigilance of one's immediate environs.
I'm not complaining. This is what the deal is, and this is what we have chosen. I know that. We all know that. All I am documenting is that when I am in the cold, sealed pod of an aircraft, reading, I am struck again and again by how the nature of an experience that is central to my existence has irrevocably altered.
But even then, all it takes is a stranger's child's startled cry, or the glimpse of a tiny face in repose, and my chain of thoughts goes off. Where is she now? What is she up to? How did this (or that, or the other) go with her today?
One realises then that after one has become a parent, one isn't ever truly alone with oneself. Our children have woven themselves into the fabric of our apparent solitude. We often don't realise it, but they are there with us in what we think are our most-alone moments.
It's what parenting does to you, isn't it? Don't tell me that you haven't noticed.