Monday 12th November, 2012. 12:55
I should be somewhere over France now, preparing to descend. Instead I’m heading back into London in an almighty fug.
Missing my flight back to Limoges was nobody’s fault but my own. I recognise that completely. Forgetting how busy London can be on a Monday morning, I simply didn’t leave enough time.
I could bitch and moan of course about the fact that the gate had only just closed and the plane was sitting there on the tarmac with a full ten minutes before take-off was scheduled, so really I didn’t miss the flight at all. But I won’t. I should have been there earlier. It was my fault.
What really upset me though, was the attitude of the woman I dealt with, the member of the Ryanair groundstaff who, when I arrived out of breath and all a’fluster, was still closing up the gate. She was the one who informed me, icily, that I was too late.
While I accept that she couldn’t let me on the plane (which, obviously, she actually totally could), what I found painful was her complete lack of humanity in turning me away.
Not a single emotion, not a flicker of empathy passed over the stagnant bog of her face. There was no eye contact, no face crumpled in sympathy, not even a casual, faux sincere ‘sorry’. Rather, she made it abundantly clear that she was not sorry at all. Not even remotely.
I tried a couple of pleas, pointing out politely that the plane was still there, still sitting there a matter of 30 seconds from where I stood, but the woman was made of marble. She was the kind of woman who could watch a kitten skinned alive, maybe even a child, and not bat an eyelid.
I considered explaining that I was on my way home from a funeral, or even telling a little white lie and saying that I was on my way to a funeral and that if she didn’t let me through, I would miss it. But I knew there was no point. It would be like trying to coax sweet music from a tumour.
In fact, this was not the first time I had tried and failed to reach out to a Ryanair employee. I also tried it in Valencia a couple of years ago.
On that occasion, when things started to wrong, I remember attempting to do something cute with my face at check-in – the kind of thing Matthew Broderick managed so effortlessly in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – but it didn’t come together at all. Instead of melting helplessly, the cool green eyes of the check-in lady regarded me with nothing but contempt, her pencil-stroke eyebrows flickering distastefully. I tried another face. I tried the little lost boy in the big bad world face. My eyes said, ‘What chance did I have? My parents didn’t want me. They didn’t want me! Have mercy!’ But this face too fell on dead ears and eyes. It was time, I realised, to stop making faces. Or else there was going to be a situation.
On that occasion, I was in good time for my plane, but news of brand new check-in regulations had come as an unpleasant surprise. A bombshell, you might say. On previous Ryanair flights, it had been sufficient to merely present a flight reference number, carefully copied in ink from confirmation email to notebook. On more than one occasion a mere flash of the passport had sufficed. Now, quite suddenly, there was a stand-off.
The check-in lady coldly explained that new regulations clearly stated that passengers presenting themselves at check-in without a printout of the confirmation email would be subject to a €40 penalty charge.
‘Why?’ I said, slightly brusquely.
‘These are the new regulations,’ she repeated blandly.
‘Yeah, but it doesn’t make any sense. I’ve paid for my seat. My name is on your list – the list in front of you. My passport number is on your list and my passport is in my hand. It’s not … it’s not even a question of security. I mean, what you’re asking is completely arbitrary. You might as well just try and charge me €40 for not having a moustache.’ I did have a moustache at the time, and a full beard, so it was a poor example, and it cut no ice.
Instead I was informed with sub-zero civility that if I did not pay the €40 penalty charge, I would not be able to fly. I pulled the breaths of six men into my lungs. In my imagination, to stop myself spitting in her eye, I burrowed my tongue into her ear, making her squirm and cry out in curious pleasure.
Then I had one of my good ideas. ‘So if I had a printout, I wouldn’t have to pay the €40?’ I asked. She confirmed that this was indeed the case. I nodded, pleased.
I was sure I’d seen a bank of computers in the airport, a small space with a company selling internet access and, doubtless, printing facilities. I was about two hours early for the flight, as I usually am, so I informed the check-in lady of my intention to return with a printout. She stopped me with a shake of her hair and a horrible glare from her eyes that could freeze a piece of meat and then cook it to a crisp in seconds, and she informed me that the printout must be printed out a minimum of four hours before the flight.
I smiled indulgently for a second, almost daring to believe that the check-in lady was finally displaying a sliver of humanity, jokingly inventing a ludicrous lucre-spinning loophole. But there was no such sliver. Also, she was growing impatient with my shilly-shallying. She informed me that I would either have to pay the penalty charge or step out of the queue. Other people – other people with clean and crisply folded paper printouts, as per the new regulations – were waiting to be checked in.
‘But what difference would it make if my email was printed ten minutes ago or last week?’ I pleaded.
She repeated something about regulations. She called me ‘sir’. Every time she called me ‘sir’, it was like another door slamming shut.
‘What happens if I refuse to pay?’ I said.
‘You won’t be allowed to fly,’ she replied.
‘What happens if I can’t pay?’ I asked. ‘If I don’t have the money because I don’t have any money because I knew I wouldn’t need any money so I spent my last few pennies on soup and cigarettes?’ She continued to glare, silently. We both knew the answer but I wanted her to say it. ‘What happens if I can’t pay?’ I repeated sadly.
‘You won’t be allowed to fly,’ she said.
I couldn’t pay. I had run out of money. And this time there was no one on hand to bail me out. I’ve been bailed out many times in my life, by many different people. This makes me feel foul and repugnant, like a human-sized grub, living on the dead wood of other people’s efforts, sucking up the oxygen of their kindness, giving nothing in return.
I was in Valencia, trying to get back to the UK. I had made a valiant but extremely stupid effort to travel around the world with £400. Naturally I had failed. Then some kind-hearted people who either believed in me, or merely wanted to encourage me, had bailed me out with donations. But now that too had gone and at that moment in time in Valencia airport I knew that there was not enough money in my account to cover this ludicrous, obscene penalty charge.
‘I didn’t even know,’ I said, my voice cracking, ‘that the rules had changed.’
‘You received an email,’ she told me.
‘What if I didn’t?’ I said, clutching desperately at what may have been the final straw. ‘What if I didn’t receive it? Email goes wrong all the time. Spam filters. Firewalls. Viruses. All kinds of things.’ I had worked in the internet for a couple of years so I knew my stuff.
‘The information regarding the new regulations was in the same email as the flight reference,’ she told me.
We both looked at the flight reference, scribbled onto a page in my notebook, in my hand.
The check-in lady had blonde hair that fell over her brow like a broken wing fanning neatly off of a duck’s back. She had a wide New Yorker’s mouth that sat astride her small, soft Irish face like a one-armed wrestler, struggling to get out of that stagnant bog. She was actually Spanish, and appeared to be wearing someone else’s face entirely. Or more probably this was what her face looked like once her soul had been removed. Michael O’Leary would probably deny that all Ryanair staff members’ have their souls removed when they sign their employment contracts. Doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
I smiled. She did not return my smile. I looked at her name badge. ‘Yolanda,’ I said. This was the final straw, surely. ‘What if I were to leave the queue now, yeah? And return a little bit later on – in half an hour maybe? – with my confirmation printout? And then we could just, you know … take it from there.’ I nodded encouragingly, conspiratorially, decisively. I may even have winked.
But we had no connection. No connection at all. I wondered if it was me, if it was personal, or if she’d been trained to turn off any connection at the first sign of a squabble. This time when she informed me that I would have to pay the penalty charge or just go away, she did so with an impatient gesture to the queue that was steadily building behind me.
‘Please,’ I said. Aha. This was the final straw. Begging. ‘Please, Yolanda. Look at me, I’m a person just like you, and I’ve got to get home. I paid for my ticket. I didn’t know. Please let me fly.’ Were those tears? They may well have been. Or maybe just sweat caused by the effort to force some out. ‘Yolanda, I’ve ….’
‘Sir.’ She cut me dead and hectored me with a jerk of her chin. It was a final warning. She made a move towards the telephone on her desk. I took my card from my wallet and handed it to her. This was worse than being mugged – much worse – because apparently it was all above board.
‘Not here,’ she snapped, like a drug dealer transacting with a simpleton.
I dragged my rucksack across to the Humiliation Kiosk on the other side of the thoroughfare and to my considerable surprise and relief, my card went through and the payment was accepted. Somehow I was still afloat.
I took the receipt from my mugging to the front of the check-in queue where Yolanda checked me in without betraying even the slightest sign that she had ever seen me before. I suddenly felt consumed with anger at her lack of empathy, her lack of curiosity or care for my story. I could after all have been anyone, and anything could have been happening to me. I wanted to tell her that I was travelling home following the sudden death of both of my parents and my children. I wanted to tell her that I was her long lost brother. I wanted to grab both of her hands, look deep into her eyes and say, ‘You. Me. Same.’ But I didn’t. I just mumbled under my breath and chewed self-pitifully on my wind-chapped, unkissed lips. I wanted to get it over with. I wanted to get home. I wanted to eradicate the evil in Michael O’Leary’s soul. I wanted to win his confidence, casually confirm his moral turpitude and then set off with him on a series of bizarre adventures with undertones of magic realism before finally, O’Leary comes to understand that placing financial gain before basic human decency is not actually in his own best interests.
‘My father has died,’ I mumbled suddenly. The check-in lady paused for a second before deciding to pretend that she hadn’t actually heard me. I was grateful. Surprised and embarrassed by my words, I averted my gaze and began to focus on the checking-in process with a weird, taut intensity.
The words had come out of my mouth because a sudden charge of almost uncontrollable rage had coursed through me and had had to be derailed. The initial urge had been to just shout something provocative about bombs and terrorism and death, and my father had merely slipped out through the hole in security created by the act of suppression. Like a greased kidney.
I quite enjoy airports on the whole, when everything goes well, or as well as can be expected. Unfortunately, when things go wrong, my perspective shifts and airports become Gestapo containment camps, where every move is monitored, every right to privacy and decency infringed, every last shred of humanity destroyed and every slippery thought threatened. In this environment I become slave to the holy trinity of inappropriate airport emotions: paranoia, rage and High Security Tourette’s Syndrome.
‘I regret to inform you, Sir, that there will be a €40 pen– ’
‘Sir, did you just ….’
‘Death to the Infidel! A thousand Lockerbies upon you!’
Under the circumstances, an involuntary half-baked attempt to suggest that my father had died significantly more recently than 22 years ago, and that maybe this faux fact should exempt me from the thug-tax, didn’t seem too bad.
I bit my cheeks and ticked, bomb-like. Blood came into my mouth, tears to my eyes.
Checked-in, I took my boarding card and receipts and thanked the Ryanair check-in lady cordially because there must always be room for good manners.
I decided that before the unpleasantness of taking off my belt and opening my laptop and maybe also removing my shoes, I would go outside and smoke a cigarette, which would disgust me.
So I sat smoking on a low wall overlooking the cold, sullen roads that sped away from the airport towards Valencia, and I thought about the chimp’s tea party that my life had become.
I was fast approaching the end of my 42nd year. Forty-two was supposed to be the year when everything happened, and I’d gone out of my way to make it so. I really had tried. I had committed myself and awaited Providence. I had started to believe in that which I could not even dream. I went looking for the magic that came with the effort and the self-belief, but I came back empty-handed.
The shuffle function on my ailing iPod offered me William Shatner talking about a wet cake, and when a small pool of tears convened in my lower lids, I’m ashamed to say I clenched them deliberately onto my cheeks and sniffed loudly, thinking that someone might notice, some fellow smoker in the grey stench of the airport ashtray might notice, and care. They might come over to me, I thought. They might make a connection.
No one did.
The dream was over.
As I say, all that happened just under two years ago. Not long before France bailed me out. And now France too, is coming to an end. When I finally make it back there, I’ll start making the final arrangements to move on. And I’ll start wrestling some new dreams to the ground.
At the moment, however, on a wet motorway heading back into London, the future stretches out in front of me like a dark corridor peppered with closed doors.
I need to make some changes.
I need to sort my shit out.