Hong Kong to London: the second leg of my epic thirty-hour odyssey to the other side of the world. It is a busy flight, but not full. The Northern Irish girl beside me is flying home because her aunt – forty-five years old like me – had a brain haemorrhage a couple of days ago. The girl herself is travelling with a stress fracture in her hip and is already in huge discomfort, a cabin crew member having sent her flying as she boarded. I count my blessings.
When the seat belt sign goes off, the girl moves to stretch out along the empty back row of the plane. I settle into my two-seat domain. I am near the back of the plane and there’s extra room between my seat and the window too. On a thirteen-hour flight, all the additional space is luxury.
As soon as the plane levels out I setup my factory line: a stack of blank Christmas cards and envelopes, mobile phone for the addresses, a decent pen (ballpoint, not fountain to avoid altitude leaks), Christmas music on the Walkman streaming through my noise-cancelling headphones. My fluffy socks keep my feet warm and the window blinds are pulled to keep off the glare.
Valentino the steward approaches. He knows me by name, probably because I am a Gold frequent flyer. He offers me a fast-track card to get me through the UK border formalities more quickly. A strong gin and tonic materialises beside my Christmas card factory line, perfecting the scene. Later, I give the fast-track card to the girl from Northern Ireland. She only has an hour to transit from Terminal 3 to Terminal 1: she needs it more than I.
I get scribbling, the addresses on the envelopes occasionally falling victim to turbulence. I wonder will Fiona notice the writing on her envelope and wonder why I had a six-year-old help me.
The Alzheimer’s Association cards are green and sparkly. By the time I am finished, my comfortable matt-black travelling outfit is sprinkled with glitter. How festive.
Chris Rea sings “Driving Home for Christmas”. It always reminds me of going home for Christmas back in the eighties, driving from my home in Leicestershire to Birmingham Airport to catch my flight to Dublin. It always involved sitting in a traffic jam on the M42: top to toe on tailbacks. I had red lights all around. This morning -evening? I am not sure what time zone I am in – I have tired faces all around. My fellow travellers aren’t driving home for Christmas, and neither am I. But I am looking forward to putting up the tree in the house where I grew up; late afternoon on Grafton Street with the Christmas street lights starting to twinkle; the huge tree outside Trinity College and another outside the GPO; drinks and dinner with old friends.
After thirteen hours we circle London a couple of times, the city laid out beneath us like a glistening prize. The Thames snakes along, adorned left and right by familiar sights: the London Eye, the Houses of Parliament. Newer landmarks are emerging too like the huge Olympic stadium out near Hackney, and the Shard on the south side of Tower Bridge which looks like it might usurp the Gherkin’s place in my heart as my favourite London building.
Heathrow is painless enough. I sail through the formalities even without my fast-track card. The London accents and multi-hued faces make me feel like I am home again. I miss London.
Two security people work the scanner. An open suitcase is going through on the conveyor belt. An item falls out and the female security guard casually picks it up and throws it back into the case as it slides by. “Ew”, says her colleague, looking at me for support. “You just touched his underpants!”
In Terminal 1 WH Smiths and Harrods look just Christmassy enough, Smiths with bright stars on hanging banners and 50% off signs everywhere, Harrods with entirely more classy decorations and the Portmeirion China Christmas collection out front in pride of place. I pick up a few items in the Tax Free store, realising how sleep-deprived I feel when I open my mouth to say something coherent to the Clinique lady, and fail. I sit in the main concourse listening to flights being called in English, French and German before capitulating and fleeing to a fake alehouse for a pot of tea and a scone.
On the one-hour BMI flight I doze, waking just in time to see the coastline of Leinster lit up in the twilight. Even in the darkness I know this stretch of coastline well enough to recognise major landmarks, and I can tell we make our approach over Malahide where my sister lives. Finally, after almost thirty hours of travelling without moving, I touch down in the city of my birth.
Annette is waiting for me at Arrivals, as always, and she leads me to the bar where I sip a hot cup of tea with sugar to help combat the jet lag. It is good to be home.
I pick up the hire car and head south on the M50. Almost there. I stop at the local chip shop (chipper in Dublinese). I stand waiting for my food – smoked cod and chips, of course, with a side of curry sauce. I am surrounded by family history. My father, grandmother, aunt, uncle and many more relatives and neighbours are buried in the graveyard to one side of where I stand. My parents used to drive over for a Saturday night drink in the pub on the other side of me. My mother grew up half a mile down the road, in a white-washed cottage with no running water. My cousin now lives in the more modern house that was built there when the cottages were torn down in the fifties. I took piano lessons just down the street, next to the school where my mother worked for almost forty years.
I stop the hire car outside the house where I grew up. My mother stands in the doorway, ready to greet me. We have not seen each other for almost eighteen months. The door is opened wide in welcome, and she pulls me to her in a welcoming hug as soon as I pull the heavy suitcase into the hallway.
I am Home.
Over the next ten days, Mum and I will squeeze in a festive visit to Newbridge Silverware and Avoca Handweavers to drink tea, eat home-made cake and (in my case) buy more jewellery. Annette and I will kick the Christmas spirit off at Taste of Christmas on Saturday night. We will cut and sample Mum’s Christmas cake and pudding on Sunday after Mass, and my cousin and I will re-enact the ancient Donoghue family tradition of critiquing the baked goods in the annual comparative study: “Oh, your pudding is nicer than mine this year Maggie.” “No, Molly, I think mine’s a bit dry…”And Ashling and Connor will help me give the credit card a workout, Christmas shopping in the city I know so well.
Christmas FM -All Christmas Radio – will start broadcasting on Tuesday and then the festive season will have really begun.
Happy Holidays, everyone.