To London and back
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - August 11, 2018 - 12:00am

I haven’t been to London in 25 years. The last time I was there was in 1993, when I landed at Heathrow on my way to Hawthornden Castle in Lasswade, Scotland, on an international writing fellowship. I had lived for a year and a half in Scotland, from 1989 to the early 1990s, but in some explicable way, the moment I landed in Heathrow, I seem to have returned to a world  both familiar and strange. The avuncular immigration officer asked me what would I do in the UK, and I must have answered in a breathless rush, for he asked, in the fluid accents of North London, “Oh, I see that you have lived in Scotland before.”

It must be the rrrsss and the rise and fall of words that reminded him of thistles and castles, of the Orkneys and the Firth of Forthat. But a month and a half ago, when I landed again Heathrow after a quarter of a century, the world seem to have changed. For once, there were more people of immigrant stock working at Heathrow, from the Caribbean to the Indian subcontinent. The immigration officer was a kindly lady who, when she saw me, asked: “So sonny, what will you study at Nottingham?”

My jaw fell. I had just travelled for something like 16 hours, happy with the wide seats at Emirates Airways but unhappy with the bawling babies around me on the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Dubai. When we finally got off the plane, I knew briefly what the temperature in Dubai was like, the kind of heat that seems to flay the skin, before the Emirates people led us to the bus that travelled for miles before it reached the hall for passengers in transit.

At the Dubai airport I stood behind an Egyptian lady whose blonde hair was swept up and coiled in a chignon, wearing her diamonds and pearls at one o clock in the morning. She was asking the airline personnel how to transfer planes to her final destination. She got her answers briskly, it was my turn to ask something, and pretty soon we were in the cavernous airport terminal at Dubai, with its duty-free stations that could rival that of a giant mall. I saw the Egyptian lady again, but now she looked so distressed, and she was being comforted by an airport personnel speaking English with a Filipino accent.

“Oh, please do not cry anymore, Madam, I will show you the way to your gate. I will even write it and make a drawing for you to follow,” he said to her, his gentle accent reminding me of vistas filled with ripening rice grains, the wash of moonlight on wooden houses asleep at night.

“No write,” the woman with the diamonds answered, in broken syllables.

And the Filipino said to her, “It is all right, Madam, I will not write the directions anymore. I will just bring you there, right to your gate. Please do not cry anymore.”

I was just listening but felt a warmth rise to my cheeks and eyes, so very proud, remembering with a chill that on my first day in New York in December of 1989, in the middle of the worst snow storm to hit the city, my Air New Zealand plane had just landed at JFK and there were no signs and so I asked an airport personnel for directions only to given this answer: “Don’t ask me. I’m already off from work.” Ya lah.

But not in the Dubai airport peopled mostly by Filipinos, from waiters to cashiers to sales clerks. I talked to several of them, since my layover would be for four hours, and I noted how cheerful they were, their lips curved in a real smile, quick with their helpful answers.

And so when the kindly immigration officer originally from India but now transplanted to London asked me what would I study at Nottingham, I just smiled and answered I am no longer studying but already teaching at the university. She took a quick look at the computer in front of her, and it was her turn to smile, for I am sure my personal files in the computer blinking in front of her told her that indeed, I studied there, but almost 30 years ago.

I stayed for three days and two nights in the house of my cousin which was conveniently near Heathrow. I met my uncle and my aunt, who have a house of their own courtesy of the British government, and I thought my uncle (my mother’s brother) would burst into tears when he saw me. My mother seemed to have been the kindest amongst her siblings, for after her death almost a decade ago, my uncles and aunts would burst into tears, whether I was talking to them on the phone or visiting them in the UK or the US, when they began talking about my mother, who played the piano so well and whose voice was a pure and solid soprano piercing the air like a laser of light.

I took the train to London every day, the train rattling on its old tracks, and visited the old places of memory. Before I entered the National Arts Gallery I walked around at the square in front of it, gazed at the statues of admirals and lords, touched the back of the stone lion guarding the square. A long queue snaked in front of the gallery and I joined them, entered the gallery for free, and stayed there for hours. I soaked in the images of the centuries – the Monets and Manets with their impressions still fresh after the centuries, the impish cones that were Picasso’s human figures, and stopped, as I did 25 years ago, in front of the works of Van Gogh.

Then and now, Van Gogh never fails to take my breath away. In his paintings, with their impastos and swirls so thick on the canvas you could feel they pulse, like nerves alive in the air, stars are not the brilliant constellations in the sky but they are wounds, and sunflowers are not just mere daubs of colours but circular petals of fire, aflame in the mind’s eye.

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