The journeys we make

There are certain places that do wonders for introspection. No matter how bad a day I am having, I find pharmacies strangely soothing, more so pharmacies with 'sitting doctors'.

The minute I find myself seated there amid a cluster of strangers, patiently waiting my turn, reaching for a tatty, dog-eared five or 10-year-old germ-ridden Woman's Own, with lots of torn-out pages, imagining all the DNA deposits it has picked up over the years and debating whether I should do the unthinkable and even dare flip through, I slowly start to relax.

It's the oddest thing really. It happens each and every time. I am not quite sure what it is - whether it's something to do with the neat, carefully and perfectly lined-up rows of aspirin, antiperspirants, shampoos, baby bottles and pacifiers which makes me feel strangely safe, or perhaps it's the 'health, life and death' factor - the realisation that there are four or five other people waiting to see a doctor: an expectant rather anxious mother, another worried looking lady also headed for the gynaecologist, a little boy or girl who clearly is unwell, a frail elderly looking man... and you, with your own reasons and rhyme.

And then those posters they hang up about vaccination reminders, HIV viruses, and more recently, swine flu, the importance of hand washing... somehow the combination never fails to anchor me.

And sometimes we need that kind of time-out, to just sit back without having a choice. You see, we never really allow ourselves the privilege of having nothing to do but wait.

If we encounter a big queue at the butcher's we walk away and postpone the visit and it's the same with the queue at the supermarket, the newsagent. We're always dashing around madly, saying we have no time to wait. And the scary part is that most of us don't. Which is why certain places which leave you no choice but to wait, can be slightly therapeutic... even magical.

Like airports, for instance. Much as I dislike the hoohah and hassle that comes with the territory, I have always found airports strangely uplifting in their bleakness.

You're all alone with only your thoughts and your hand luggage for company, which you nowadays have to lug for miles before reaching your departure lounge. No matter how much time you have, you never allow yourself the luxury of lingering until you have checked yourself through every last bit of immigration and metal detection and followed all the alphabet signs to your terminal.

And then when you finally do arrive there, you find there's absolutely nothing to do. You realise that in your zeal to get to the finish line you've also checked yourself out of any window shopping possibilities.

You somehow imagined that all the shopping outlets, watering holes and eateries you saw along the way were just a preamble, an hors d'oeuvre, and that you shouldn't be waylaid because the best was yet to come.

Instead, you are faced with nothing but a sea of metal chairs and an unattended and still closed desk. So you decide to get comfortable (well as comfortable as you can on an metal airport chair) and you wonder whether you can somehow apply what has just happened once again to your own life... the mad rush to get to the finish line at the expense of everything else.

You look around you and there are throngs of people you have never seen before and will never see again... all those lives intermingling in the departure lounge - people coming, people going... it's always fascinated me.

Christmas time sort of reminds me of the finish line inasmuch as it marks the end of yet another year. And in a certain sense I think we all attach a certain amount of importance to this time of the year - even those of us who don't buy into the religious part of it or who claim to hate it and even dread it.

It's a time when we all allow ourselves a breather. We feel we owe it to ourselves to commit to a certain amount of reflection and soul searching. It's the only time of the year when we really create this window of opportunity. We find ourselves going through the years' events mentally, as one would a filing cabinet, and we promise ourselves that next year we will make things better and won't make the same mistakes we seem bent on perpetuating.

We'll work less and play more or play less and work more, spend more time with our children, learn to breathe in and count to 10.

Basically, we resolve to change this, that and the other, and then as soon as we see the new year in and the January dust settles, we invariably revert to type. It's odd.

At Christmas time we let our guard down. We're a little bit softer, less pointed and edgy, if you like, more generous in spirit with ourselves and each other... and then as quickly as the feeling comes, so too does it go. Come January and down come the shutters. The rat race begins again. It's back to work, to old habits, to Old Kent Road...

I always try to match the piece I write around Christmas with the time of the year. It's the only time I am ever deliberately topical, if you like,7 because I really believe that Christmas is an important time, if only because it enables, and to a certain extent, encourages each of us to carry out his own private journey.

It's a journey we all need to take at least once a year... and I believe we all do, in different ways. Whether it's sitting at home surrounded by boxes hanging up the Christmas decorations with our children, or going through photo albums, old family projector films or watching Christmas films on TV, listening to Christmas carols, wrapping presents, spending more time with our families... or visiting the less fortunate, giving to charity, going to church... somehow we feel we need to give something of ourselves back, whether it's gifts, time or money.

We reminisce. We recall old friends, old habits, old times and sometimes we need to do just that. Merry Christmas to you and yours.

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