Alone Down South

“Would you like anything to drink sir?” the air hostess asked.

He shook his head, smiled, then tapped the bottle of Evian in his lap.

“No thank you.”

She was bleach-blonde, wrinkling slightly, and middle-aged, and he watched as she shuffled the cart of peanuts and fruit and drinks down the gangway, leaving him alone again, sat by the window on an empty flight to Atlanta. He scanned the cabin, dull and dark, like an autumn evening, summered only slightly by the odd window, which like his own was half-open, filtering yellow afternoon sun over his legs and into the aisle. By his reckoning, the plane was less than a quarter full. Travellers were spread around the plane, their legs hanging over armrests, reading and resting in seats they had not booked, retreating to the corners of the cabin that seemed most quiet.

Most were asleep. But he had stayed where he was, seat 33 A, awake, because no matter how hard he tried, how tightly he shut his eyes, how fatigued his body felt, he could never drift during a flight, even now, when the big Boeing 747 was so empty and there were so few distractions. He glanced around again, wondering why in the middle of American summer, so few Brits had packed their suitcases and jammed in taxis to Heathrow to escape the country’s rain and wind and seasonal uncertainty. But then he remembered that it was Friday afternoon. Most were working, or at least pretending to, and so it was only those like himself, living somewhat unconventional lives, who would find themselves travelling at such strange periods of the year.

For a few months now he had been a freelancer, a trade as unsteady as the seasons. And yet, there was no doubt that it suited him: the unusual hours, the lack of routine, the changing nature of the work from week to week, the freedom — when he so chose it — to sit with his laptop in bed, or upright at the dining table, or in an office. It gave him the constant upheaval and change he felt individuals like himself needed if they were ever to remain sane, functional and decent human beings.

The lifestyle, unstable as it was, had been enjoyable, at least in the start: contracts were steady, work interesting, the money good and he was enjoying a certain degree of travel, even if only within the country, appreciating it so much so that one afternoon when sat on the train between jobs, he remembered thinking that it was the type of life he would wish to lead forever.

But recently, in the last few weeks, he had reached a layover, an impasse, waiting for new briefs to arrive and old invoices to be paid, as a new reality slowly set in, that things would not always be so simple, that this honeymoon period of fast work and faster cash may be coming to a close. And now, as his circumstances changed, and money dripped in less frequently, he now began to realise why so many chose to avoid freelancing and instead work a steady job.

He had thought about returning to full employment, even half-heartedly applied for a few roles, but seemed to know that deep within, for the foreseeable future at least, a working life with no promises of tomorrow would have to be something he endured. Then the trip to Atlanta arrived, springing into his inbox late one evening. “A trip to the Red Bull Culture Clash,” was how it had been described to him, a three-day, all expenses paid affair, where his only responsibility would be a day where he was tasked with interviewing a musician and then writing about his experience. The rest of the time was his own.

So now here he was on a flight to the American south, sat on an empty plane, somewhere over desert planes and mountain ranges, watching the horizon roll out into an expanse of dust and sand, feeling proud of his present, and behind it all, somewhat uncertain about the immediate future.

The flight landed in early evening and he reached the hotel by night fall. The mood of the town was buried deep under darkness. He slept well, recovering the hours he had lost on the plane. Then in the morning, feeling refreshed and well-rested, he could see the place for what it was: a five-star facility, in the south of the city, not far from downtown, a diamond among rubble. In his first foray from the hotel he saw men with arms as brittle as toothpicks, strung out in string-vests, sleeping rough in Bank building doorways and on shiny city steps, running down cars at stoplights to beg for change.

It was a scene that disturbed him, but seemed not to bother anybody else passing by and walking the roads. At first he was unsure if the epidemic of street-sleepers was in fact any worse than London, and if waking up day after day to the same city back home had somehow numbed him to those who had no place to call home. But then later that afternoon, when riding in the backseat of an Uber, he passed under a highway and saw rows of tents and cardboard boxes pitched under a flyover, a community unlike anything he had seen in the UK.

The driver seemed not to notice, lost in her own personal world of road and concrete, maybe a husband and some children, bills and taxes. We’re all not that different he thought. Perhaps if he were back home, roaming around London, and not in a strange country, stranded with no mobile data or Wi-Fi, then maybe he would be lost in his phone or his laptop or some other device, not instead vacantly staring from car windows and into the faces of strangers he passed on the street.

It was why he had grown to love travelling and short breaks, no matter how brief. It was a rare chance to live in isolation; away from work and family and friends, and emails and Twitter and Facebook. Out in Atlanta, where the summer was dry and the city slow, there was nothing or nobody for him to respond to, he needn’t even speak for three days if he so pleased.

And that’s what he did. He sat and ate pizza in the sun, watched the sunrise from the pool, bought gifts for those he cared about back home, picking up scarves and mugs and white chocolate. He wandered the streets, sweat dripping under a severe sun, his shirt slowly soaking through, a podcast in his ears, admiring the buildings and the people and the brilliant sunshine. He stalked soul food, and when he found it, sat and ate his plate slowly. Because he had no place to be, no obligations to fulfil. He could be himself with no distraction.

“You from Atlanta?” the cab driver said, turning to him.

“Nah.”

“Didn’t think so,” she said, moving through traffic “you look like you’re from out of town.”

Perhaps she could see it in his eyes, as she glanced in the rear mirror, the odd sight of a face temporarily living without worry.

“I’m from London, here on work.”

“Oh, boy,” she said, coming to rest at a traffic light. “And they’ve flown you all the way out here? You must be doing nice for yourself.”

“Okay, I guess,” he said, and then he asked, “you’re from Atlanta?”

“Nah not me, Miami. I moved down here after I got married. Back in the day I was getting in a lot of trouble down there.”

She smiled, watching the light filter from red to amber to green. Then she pressed down on the gas again.

“If you’re single then that’s the place to be, but when you’re married like me, you move right up here to Atlanta.”

It was another strange perk about this city, the confessional cab drivers, ready to bare so much to people and passengers they knew so little about, reeling off tales about kids and husbands and past lives and careers.

Maybe it was something he would learn — to be more open. Maybe he would take it back to England with him, stuffed in a suitcase with the scarves and the mugs and his worn t-shirts.

“I don’t see my sons much anymore,” she went on. “I’m not too beat up about it, they’re grown now.”

“Oh yeah?”

“That sort of thing happens when they get older and go off to college…they kind of forget about you, get jobs and girlfriends you know…live lives of their own.”

“Must be tough still.”

“Depends on the day,” she said. “I hope you still call your Mum.”

He nodded somewhat vaguely, not yet willing to open up to strangers. The driver said little for the rest of the journey, just played her jazz and beat her hand on the steering wheel, tapping and drumming as they went from suburbs to city, the beanstalk skyscrapers blossoming from the flat, grassy outskirts like concrete flowers. And so, for the first time in as long as he could remember, he had silence. Sitting in a cab sailing towards nowhere, he could finally hear himself think.