Island to Island

It’s a warm January morning and I’m heading to the airport in an old yellow diesel Mercedes taxi driven by one of my students. I spent the previous day swimming in the sea, which was the same temperature as the air. I’m bundled in the heavy winter coat and boots that were too big to pack in my carry-on bag. 


Cristiano Ronaldo Airport has an outdoor patio where you can watch planes perform the tricky bank turn and land on the island’s short runway, elongated since one unlucky TAP plane fell off the end in 1977, crashing into the beach and exploding into flames. I think of that unlucky flight every time I wait here in Departures, not so much out of fear or anxiety but simply as something dramatic that happened here once, long before my unlikely arrival.

I’m booked on a package holiday airline and I’m travelling in the wrong direction: every other passenger is going home to the English Midlands, sunburnt and in some cases already drunk. As we board the plane the flight attendant chirps, “Hope you all had a great holiday!” I grumble that I live here, then realise that it’s actually quite nice to live on a holiday island.


I’m seated in the first row, where first class would be if there was one. Beside me is a man I noticed earlier in duty-free – mid-thirties, southern European, tattoos on his arms and neck and hands, pale blue frayed jeans that remind me of Britney Spears, a plain white t-shirt that somehow looks expensive, heavy silver chains around his tanned neck. I pick up my book hoping we don’t have to chat, but almost immediately he starts talking.


He has a gentle working-class English accent, and he’s smiling and nervous despite his muscular frame. He’s already not what I judged him to be, and his soft words draw me willingly into a conversation as the flight attendants prepare us for take-off. He asks me if I like to fly. I don’t mind it, I say truthfully. I don’t like it, he says, I don’t like it at all. He’s starting to look a bit pale, so I tell him about the taxi driver I had once who told me there are tourists who visit and tourists who live here, and I am a tourist who lives here—he gives a sharp hoot in recognition, then goes back to looking nervous. He is a retornado, he says; his parents are from the island but have been living in England since the 1980s. His grandmother died last year and he is renovating her house near the airport and staying there several months out of the year, with plans to open a shop eventually. He tells me these and other pieces of his backstory in a steady flow as the plane starts to lift up off the runway and glides out over the shining sea.


As we climb into the air he keeps up a steady murmur, leaning against me with his warm shoulder and close breath, telling me everything he can think of—about his house overlooking the sea, and how nice it is in the winter compared with dull Nottingham, and how his Portuguese should be better…but that is typical of retornados, isn’t it? He keeps up a calm, humorous facade, rarely letting his confident mask slip completely. He tells me about a photo shoot and his grandmother’s knitwear, so I ask him what he does for a living and he says he’s a fashion designer. He has doubts about the viability of a high-end clothing shop on the island and I can’t bring myself to reassure him, so I agree that it might be an uphill struggle.


As we level off he starts to breathe more easily, still resting his head against me and closing his eyes. I tell him we’re cruising, and he nods with a smile, eyes still closed.This is better, he says. I look behind at the other passengers: everyone is over seventy and a similar shade of pink, and if I had to guess I’d say they all voted for Brexit. “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,” the flight attendant keeps saying, but there aren’t any children. My friend and I ask for wine and almonds. We talk in an easy rhythm: observation followed by agreement, return volley and comfortable silence. I ask him about the designer Paul Smith, who I happen to know is from Nottingham, and he gives me his judgement (too many Union Jacks) and some local gossip. I study the tattoos on his thick yet delicate hands, and he tells me their stories.


He is trying to escape his island, he says, because after decades of welcoming people like him it is now pulling up the drawbridge. His new island, our island, is just beginning to open like a flower to the outside world after a long dormancy; he hopes it will be freer and more welcoming. He is still unsure—unsure of the true meaning of the exchanges he has with the neighbors in his grandmother’s village—hence his constant shuttling between islands, unable to commit. And I hate to fly, he reminds me again. Landing is the same as take off, so I talk him through it as we drift down in the darkness—talking about how Britain doesn’t feel like an island, except when you’re at the edges—and how our island feels very much like an island everywhere you go. Even in the rare places where you can’t see the sea, like in the valley where for centuries nuns and priests hid from fierce pirates, it still feels like an island, small and self-contained and cut off and remote. But this is changing, he says hopefully, looking into my eyes.




Julian Hanna lives on the island of Madeira, where he is currently sweating through a new book called Island Fever. His latest book, The Manifesto Handbook: 95 Theses on an Incendiary Form, will be published by Zero Books in early 2020.


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