A conversation yesterday:
Ken: So, Michelle, how’ve you been doing?
Me: Well, I’ve been having problems resettling into Singapore, and I’ve been missing London a lot.
Ken: Then whatever you do, don’t watch Love Actually.
Me: I’m watching it tomorrow.
Ken: Then watch it with someone you fancy. It’s a great date movie.
Me: I’m watching it with my mum.
Not the most promising prelude to Love Actually then.
Every time I go to the movies with my mum, I always manage to forget that apart from being witty and quirky, British romantic comedies are also fairly crude, or at least more so than their sanitized American counterparts. So there I am in the first two minutes of Love Actually, sitting in a cinema next to my mum as aging rock star Billy Mack gets the words to a song wrong for the umpteenth time and bursts out in a stream of “Oh fuck wank shit arse…” And while she isn’t quite so Puritan as to stand up and walk out or anything like that, she’d probably find it rather strange if I gave into my sudden impulse to sigh in happiness at the sound of those English terms I miss so much. “Wank”. “Arse”. And later in the film, “bollocks”.
Ken was right. The sight of London on the big screen almost physically knocked me back into my seat. The ice skating rink at Somerset House. Panoramas of the Thames. The Millennium Bridge. The Erotic Gherkin. Charing Cross Road. I could smell the winter air, feel the tug of my coat on my shoulders as I stuffed my gloved hands into its pockets, and hear the silence of London on Christmas Day.
The opening and closing scenes of the film make a big deal about how the arrival halls of Heathrow abound with love as people reunite. My first thought: my moments of highest emotion in Heathrow were always spent alone. Forget the arrival halls, every time my plane touched down on the Heathrow runway, I was already bursting with love. In the arrival halls, Russ would usually be there with a big hug and a strong arm for my bags, but the few times he wasn’t, I still walked through the airport, totally alone, giddy with happiness, straight onto the first bus for central London. When I left, forget what I went through in the departure hall saying goodbye to Russ and Alec – at least then I could cry freely. Sitting at the window of the plane as it accelerated and slanted skyward, surrounded by strangers, my face pressed against that tiny oval, and my body turned wholly away from everyone else so they didn’t see it shuddering as I tried to hold back sobs…well, let’s say that’s part of the London experience that wasn’t documented in this film. Unfortunately, it, too, came back to me vividly.
So I sat through this film, filled with scenes of the place I love, sounds of the accents I love, jokes in the humour I love. I didn’t even feel the slightest desire to rearrange Andrew Lincoln’s annoying fishlipped face the way I normally do. Conversely, my usual lust for Colin Firth was wholly overwhelmed by longing just to be walking the same London streets. (Don’t think I don’t realize how crazy this sounds, how mawkishly sentimental, how downright “unpatriotic”. I know.)
And all the time I sensed a creeping dread that at some point, this film had to end. When it did, with those scenes of the Heathrow arrival hall again, and the opening notes of God Only Knows, something triggered a perspective switch, and then only the most rigid control was keeping me from bursting into tears. Because in one week’s time, in the Changi Airport arrival hall, that will be me. That will be Alec. God only knows what I’d do without you. God only knows what I did to deserve you. I have lost London, but I still have so much.