The terminal feels bigger on the night shift, the shops dark and shuttered, the jumbo jets stood down and nosing at the windows. My shoes squeak on the vinyl as I do my rounds. Gates G and H and some of the main hub: a forecourt of cafes, the giant chessboard, a bank of mechanical massage chairs, and a watch shop. On the wall of the shop is a—I wouldn’t call it a clock—a giant watch. An advert for a sports car plays on the screen beside it. It looks like the wheels are spinning backwards.
They shut down the travellators at midnight so it takes me a while to get anywhere. Management offered me one of those segway things, but I refused. I want to hear the sound of my shoes on the vinyl. The guard on the patch next door drives a six-seater buggy that in busier times is used to transport the elderly and infirm. Sometimes I see him, from the border between my patch and his, speeding off into the distance. I have a radio and he has a radio, but we rarely use them.
Everything closes at midnight, except the express cafe, where they sell bean-to-cup coffee and a table of best-sellers. Astrid works the cafe. I know she’s called Astrid because of her name badge. No one gave me a name badge so I guess Astrid knows me as that security guy. Tonight, she gives me a free coffee, or forgets to ask me to pay. Sometimes she asks me to pay. While the coffee machine is doing its business, she stares at the empty departure boards. The coffee is laser-hot so I take up her offer of a lid. Then I say thank you and she says okay, bye now.
The giant chessboard lies across from the mechanical massage chairs. The board is always either laid out ready for a game or a total mess. My dad taught me chess when I was young. Some nights, I make a move on the giant chessboard, and once, someone, I don’t know who, made a move back. We had a game for a while until I returned and the pieces hadn’t moved. They must have left for a better place. We were heading for a stalemate anyway. My dad was cautious and I am too.
The mechanical massage chairs are the worst part of my job. People sleep in them and I have to kick them out. For a short while, maybe up to a minute—maybe for the whole night, or longer—they totally hate me. When they complain, I point at the sign, which can’t be argued with. It reads 2 minutes = 2 pounds. Later, I’ll find them sleeping on some benches, or even, with a rucksack for a pillow, on the vinyl floor.
Sure enough, there’s a man in the mechanical massage chairs tonight. He’s dressed like a businessman, but scruffy, his shirt undone and his tie pulled to a peanut. Mr Tanaka, according to his briefcase. I’ve never seen him before, which might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised—there are regulars. That African businessman in the brightly coloured clothes who I reckon has a happy family life. And that Scandinavian woman who always gets me thinking of swimming in cold, clear water. But Mr Tanaka, he’s new. I clap a couple of times and he doesn’t wake up, then I nudge his foot and he does. I point at the sign. He doesn’t speak English, but he gets it. He stands up, slumping a little, his briefcase heavy. He looks me in the eye, until I look away, then back again. Or maybe we both look away, both look back. I guess I feel sorry for him, so I direct him to a secret spot by gate G34 where there are some beanbags and a functioning light switch. He walks off, his shoes carried in his hand, his socks quiet on the vinyl.
At the bottom of pier H is a window overlooking the airport. It marks the end of my patrol, before I have to retrace my steps back to the main hub. Sometimes, I stop to watch the tarmac. Stairs driving this way and that. Empty luggage trains snaking about. The window faces east, and if you time it right, you can see the sunrise. For a few days a year, the rising sun shoots straight down the corridor and sets the whole place on fire. In winter, my shift starts and ends in the dark. This is where I’m standing when I see Mr Tanaka’s wandering reflection behind me. He didn’t understand my directions. He looks exhausted. I still feel sorry for him, so I take him to the secret spot by gate G34. We pass the ten-minute walk in silence. Probably he thought he was in trouble, because when we get to the beanbags, he looks relieved. He waits for me to go before he lies down. I stop around the corner, until I hear the shush of beans in the bag, then I move on.
A flight comes in, delayed by six hours. Inflatable neck pillows and comfortable cotton trousers. You would think so many shoes would make music of the vinyl, but it gets lost in all the movement of bodies. The passengers try not to catch my eye because they suspect I am customs, or an informant for customs. For the most part, I try not to catch theirs. They wash through the terminal and it becomes dead-quiet again. I loop back towards the coffee kiosk, where Astrid is reading a bestseller through a narrow opening so as not to bend the spine. The coffee is free again. She asks if I’ve seen the other guy and it occurs to me that she might mean me. She thinks I’m two different people. I say I’ve seen him around, he’s doing alright. She nods, but she’s staring at that car advert. She tells me they rarely show you someone in the cars in these adverts—that’s so you can place yourself in the car. The car drives a gentle bend over a clear blue sea, and Astrid lets out a small sigh. Watching the advert, maybe I get it, just for a second, but I don’t know. I put a lid on the coffee and tell her I’m going to check on Mr Tanaka.
I often think about the people I see in the terminal. That African businessman has three daughters and splits his time between Lagos and Hammersmith, selling rolls of amazing fabric, I reckon. And that Scandinavian woman lives happily alone in a wood cabin on a lake, painting landscapes, or working remotely for an IT company, I can’t decide. Mr Tanaka, I think, is in trouble. He doesn’t like his job and he’s lonely. He’s working and travelling at all the wrong hours, and he can’t see a way out. He’s a zombie, walking big circles around the globe, and smaller circles around the terminal. Before I get to the secret spot by gate G34, I decide I’ll give my coffee to Mr Tanaka, if he wants it. But he’s not there. The beanbag has exploded. It looks like a murder scene. Of course, it’s not a murder scene. With all the scanners, this is one of the safest places on earth. I’m not sure why they need a security guard. I get down on my hands and knees and shovel the beans back into the bag.
At the quietest times, in the quietest spots—around 2am by gate H21—when the departure boards have emptied and are yet to fill up with tomorrow’s flights, I feel like the world has ended and no one has told me. Sometimes, I imagine how I would survive. Luxury chocolates and little perfumed fires. I would take up smoking, starting with the best cigars. Then I wonder, what if someone else was stuck here with me. Astrid, probably. Maybe, with enough time, we would strike up a proper friendship. Or maybe not. Let’s face it, we wouldn’t. We would live at separate ends of the terminal, and all we would know of each other is the distant squeak of our shoes on the vinyl.
Mr Tanaka is back in a massage chair. I have to kick him out. He looks tired and confused. I offer him some coffee, which confuses him some more. I drink it myself. The coffee is bad here. My radio crackles but it’s nothing. I twiddle some dials, and when I look up, Mr Tanaka is standing by the chessboard. I stand beside him and we look at the board together. Then I get an idea. Game? I say. Game? He doesn’t understand until I move one of the pieces. He makes a joyful, hooting noise, then plays a return move. We’re careful to begin with, a stalemate emerging, then Mr Tanaka makes a mistake, then another mistake, and I realise he’s crying.
I sit him down on a normal chair. He won’t stop talking, or crying, and I don’t understand a thing he is saying. Only, maybe I do. Because I’m pretty sure he’s talking about his troubles. How he lives in a dark, rented room under a flight path, which is unpleasant but convenient. Convenience is important because he’s constantly travelling to the airport and his hours are abnormal. A lot of the time, he’s alone in an airport and that’s why he’s alone at home too. He could change his life but he’s cautious by nature. Being alone is what he knows so he sticks with it. Playing chess, he told me, reminds him of playing with his dad, which makes him want a family. And what do you know, before long, I’m sort of crying too.
After a while, we both stop. The quietness of the terminal comes back. Not so much dead-quiet now, a different kind of quiet. I can’t describe it. Private quiet. I don’t know. It’s getting lighter outside. I tell Mr Tanaka I’ll get us some coffee then make my way back to the express cafe. Astrid isn’t there. She’s left a handwritten sign on a page torn from a bestseller. She’s quit. I help myself to coffee and leave some change. There’s movement in the distance, across the border of my patch. A six-seater buggy speeding about. Someone whooping on the back. It sounds like Astrid.
Maybe, if the world ends, I won’t be stuck here with Astrid but with Mr Tanaka. That would be okay. That would be alright, actually.
When I get back, he’s sleeping in a massage chair again. He looks almost peaceful. I jangle the change in my pocket. I’ve got enough. The chair whirrs into action, kneading his neck, his back. His chest rises and falls. Big, deep breaths. The chair comes to a stop, and he wakes a little. A small, sleepy frown, and I’m frowning too. I put more money in the slot, and his frown fades away. The terminal is still, apart from the mechanical chair, and, yes, I can hear them now: Mr Tanaka’s deep, peaceful breaths.
From here, I can see the end of the gates and that window overlooking the tarmac. A postage stamp at this distance, but lightening. The sun is rising. Warm light spreads through the terminal. Long shadows on the chess set. It’s that time of year, where the sun hits that perfect height to shine straight down the corridor. The terminal is bright, almost holy-looking, and standing there, for a moment or two, maybe less than a moment, the floor is no longer vinyl, but slabs of rose-pink gold.
© Nicholas Petty
[This piece was selected by Sara Crowley. Read Nicholas’ interview]