Calvino had planned to write a third section to The Castle of Crossed Destinies (amazon.co.uk, allconsuming) called the The Motel, where travellers would meet and tell stories via comics strips torn from abandoned newspapers:
I thought of complementing the Tavern and the Castle with a similar frame, The Motel of Crossed Destinies. Some people who have survived a mysterious catastrophe find refuge in a half-destroyed motel, where only a scorched newspaper page is left, the comics page. The survivors, who have become dumb in their fright, tell their stories by pointing to the drawings, but without following the order of each strip, moving from one strip to another in vertical or diagonal rows.
But in the end he abandoned it, and moved on to other projects. We'd love to have read The Motel (or a version of it written by Alan Moore or Warren Ellis, who has recently been looking for public domain comics for a similar project of palimpsestuous re-configuration: "It occurred to me last night that comics mash-ups might be possible, and it'd be easiest to try that with public domain works. Taking two complete pieces and somehow stitching them together...").
But in the meantime, let's imagine a different work, The Airport of Crossed Destinies, in which travellers arrive at an airport during a snowstorm or after a catastrophic event, to find that there will be no further inward or outbound transport temporarily - so they try to make sense of what's happening and how long they'll be waiting.
They've travelled there by car or bus via the motorways and roads, by train or tube, by plane, and are surprised to find that the terminal has become a terminus, here at the quiet limit of the world. The passengers won't leave the airport, either because the weather/situation outside discourages it, or because the electric doors to the terminals are locked, or have failed, penning them inside. In either case, there's little cause for alarm: the airport is a city, and provides for all needs, maintaining its own water and sewer systems, central heating and air conditioning plant, and has an on-airport crash and fire rescue station.
Possibly it's an airport in a country foreign to them all, so they lack a shared language with which to talk with other people. Perhaps some of them awake there: jet-, timezone- and purpose-lagged business executives, unclear how they got there or where they should go next. They try to use the wider set of signs, warnings, instructions and symbols inside the terminal to construct meaningful and plausible stories about what might be happening. They'll attempt to broaden the wordless dialogue to explain who they are, where they've come from, and where they're going to, when their connecting flight has been reprovisioned. On the concourse, electronic indicator boards will be read, directional signs will be followed, fingers will tap at the ideo locators on wall-mounted maps, and jab at fold-out terminal diagrams and leaflets describing which items must not be carried on board. But these documents will be immediately trumped by other passengers brandishing boarding cards and passports - an ever-shifting hierarchy of documentation is already in force. Like "Sir, Alfred", Merhan Karimi Nasseri, they'll rely on identity papers that sometimes mismatch the official records, and communicate in signs that are half-remembered and gestures that seem perpetually misunderstood - and both are constantly re-interpreted.
Out on the runway, through the sound-proofed glass, the planes can occasionally be seen shuttling in between the enigmatic runway approach area holding signs and taxiway markings. The letters and numbers on these signs will be used as a convenient lexicon for communication as the passengers construct their stories from the information environment surrounding them. The telescoping transit snakes tether Airbuses and 777s to the terminal buildings, though the aircraft doors remain sealed, and the Lego airport tractors with oversized wheels wait, ready to deploy their torque.
It's not clear whether the airport has been abandoned by its staff. The automatic and inaudible announcements for flights that are delayed or cancelled, for missing persons and lost children overlap and go in and out of phase over the PA, just as they would if operations were running normally, and are mis-heard by the passengers - business as usual.
The Airport of Crossed Destinies is more diffuse, more disconnected than the castle or tavern or motel. The travellers aren’t a small band thrown together, trying to tell their stories to the rest of the group in turn. They shuffle past each other in the wide corridors, connecting only briefly, or glimpsing others merely at a distance. The Airport has become a new kind of discontinuous city, whose population, hitherto measured by annual passenger throughputs, remains entirely transient, purposeful and, for the most part, happy. For the passengers all destinations are theoretically open, their lightness of baggage mandated by the system.
The airport infrastructure develops an ecology of flows: of passengers, transactions, and behaviour. As years pass, the idiom of travel, of security, safety and tax-free commerce, will become an archaic language they no longer understand, replaced by words they know, even when the new words make no sense. A corrupt text, whose airport codes have become mutable cryptonyms - HKG, LHR, LAX, THX...
The passengers (as they'll still be calling themselves) will evolve their own in-airport customs, re-framing the indicator boards -with their broken pixels and flickering illumination- as holy writ from the Control Tower (Delayed, Delayed, Go to Gate 52, Delayed), or setting up camp to guard the hand-baggage X-Ray machines and the truth-telling images they produce. Where steady crossovers between flows occur, places will emerge: other groups will colonise the taxi-ranks and the articulated transport buses, or establish barter-cultures in what remains of the Duty Free hall. Banks of seating will be highly valued, and offered as dowry in marriage contracts between the Departures and Passport Control tribes. And some will become archaeologists of decay, reading the cracks in the concrete pillars and rust-stained pipework for evidence of their imagined pre-history.
From time to time, nomads from other terminals will visit, dragging wheeled bags in a line at an unhurried but efficient pace, like desert caravans. These itinerant groups have a different terminal culture and will bring different stories - they've adapted new rituals, having told and re-told and handed down divergent origin stories. There are some people (once a sports team? a cohort of conference attendees?) from the unfinished T5 who divine special significance from temporary signage systems, a cult of diversion. Their sensitivity to the serif and to the fading pantone, to the small variances in the hand-written signs, and to the use of the corroded staple or the wooden signpost as a substrate far surpasses that of their ancestors.
We'd follow this airport story through its paces, from episode to episode, from gate to gate, as it gradually loops around in a commodius vicus of recirculation, folding in on itself, until it gets to precisely here, the already-written and already-Ballardian Invisible Airports by Brian Boyer, which is on page 16 of this month's in-flight magazine, so do read it (and his writing on Terminality: one, two, three) whilst you ignore the safety demonstration.