Norman Foster comes to me: “I’m sorry,” he moans pitifully, shaking the cuffs of his shirt as if he was Marley’s ghost and they were silken chains. “Sorry…?” I gag on mucous sleep. “What the hell for?”
“Stansted,” the architect wails. “I never should’ve designed it that way. True, it looked good on the back of the envelope — and elegant once my team had put it on the Cad system, but I now realise that it’s a monstrous wedge of a building, a static plane crash of a structure, forever ramming a humungous divot out of the living, beating heart of old England! Aaaargh! Euurgh! Oh woe is little me!”
“For Christ’s sake, man, get a grip on yourself!” I grab him by the padded lapels of his tunic-style jacket and several of his propelling pencils pierce my skin. “It’s just a bloody airport.”
He throws me back on to the pillows: “Nothing is just a bloody airport!” he cries. “And if I’d never built it, you wouldn’t find yourself in this dreadful situation, with … with … them … out there.” He gestures wildly to the window.
Pushing the Baron of Thames Bank aside, I rise and stalk across the room. Drawing up the blinds I see them: hundreds upon thousands of avocets, distinctive, black-and-white wading birds with long curved beaks. Except that they aren’t wading on the muddy foreshore of Essex, they’re roosting on the concrete walkways of the flats opposite my house, row upon row of them, burbling with a sinister intent.
“They’ve come for you,” Foster bleats, his snowy manicured hand on my bare arm. “They’ve come for you, because of what you said on the Today programme …”
And then I wake to find that it was all a dream — the birds, that is Lordling Norm’ is lying, bollock-naked across the bed, clearly replete after a night of feverish lovemaking. I tell him about the disturbing in-take to my filmic life, The Birds.
“Yes, well,” he says sympathetically, propping himself up one elbow. “You have to admit it was a mistake to say on national radio that the third London airport should’ve been sited in the Thames estuary because there were only a load of birds out there.”
And, of course, it was, but then it was 6.50am on a Saturday, and I was sitting in the weird confines of a BBC sound van outside my house, having just listened to Chris Mole, the MP for Ipswich, burble on (although the only bird he bears a resemblance to is the dodo) about an expanded Stansted airport being “a driver of economic activity”, enabling “hi-tech businesses to compete globally”. In such circumstances I could, perhaps, be forgiven — although probably not by an avocet.
It had turned into a weirder day still. I pedalled the fold-away bike across and over the river. London Bridge was closed for the Mayoral Thames Festival, and, weaving across three lanes in blinding sunlight, it seemed as if the neutron bomb had dropped, leaving only the gleaming buildings. There were people at Liverpool Street station, but they were only bronze statues of children fleeing Nazi persecution.
On the train I shared a carriage with the new Kindertransport: young Poles on their way back to Krakow after a hard week doing house conversions in West Ealing. At Stansted, I unfolded the bike and pedalled up ramps of Babylonian massivity and into the terminal, where I squatted in a little hut and did a shit. There’s nothing more calculated to diminish the pretensions of High Modernism than taking a train to an international air hub, crapping there, then cycling away.
Of course, I was nearly killed on the approach roads, but I made it the three miles to Hatfield Forest, where I spent a happy couple of hours in the company of the honest burghers of the Stop Stansted Expansion Campaign, on their annual beating of the threatened bounds of this millennium-old managed woodland. Deer flashed through the covets, there was coppicing and pollarding aplenty, and the occasional easyJet burbling overhead seemed as inoffensive — if not as monochromatic — as an avocet.
At the end of the morning, I found myself in conversation with Ade, the National Trust’s man on the spot. He told me that during the last big foot and mouth crisis, the forest was closed and the resident deer herd massively proliferated: “There were so many, and they grew so bold, that you’d see hundreds sunning themselves in clearings.” It was with this image of a pandemic-induced, Chernobyl-style singularity that I pedalled away across country. As ever, mistaking my Ordnance Survey map for the territory, I failed to factor-in the ghastly new four-lane A120, and ended up lugging the bike up its autogeddon berm.
Back at Stansted, Norman was waiting for me. He was still sorry — but what good are regrets?