Then begins the never-ending trudge to the immigration area – and very long it is too. I vaguely remember willing myself to keep going – it can’t be much further, surely – my memory of this bit is very hazy, but I do remember being astonished to find that there was no queue when I reached the immigration desk.
In the old days of the seventies the queues were a mile long. Maybe that’s an advantage of the early arrival.
I’ll store that bit of info away for next time.
I only hope I can find the file containing this valuable bit of info next time I decide to visit the UK. Age is very unkind.
The immigration officer is wearing a turban and a wonderfully bright smile considering the time of day. In no time at all he checks my details and welcomes me to England as he waves me through.
So – straight through immigration and off to the baggage collection area – but it’s worth all the trudging when I see trolleys !! and stagger towards one and plonk my stuff on it.
As I’m struggling to remove the backpack I look up to see my port coming round on the baggage carousel. It might be worth noting here that where I come from we always used the word ‘port’ rather than ‘suitcase’. I feel pretentious when I say suitcase so ‘port’ it is. For those who don’t know, it comes from portmanteau – an obviously French word meaning bag for carrying clothing.
So… in disbelief I’m watching my port come round and worry that it might be a long time before I see it again so I MUST fetch it NOW. The hordes will arrive any minute……surely.
Where is everybody? I’ve just fought my way off a plane with 300 passengers and I can only see 7 of them and there are 4 ports on the carousel, one of which is mine. I guess the tiredness was involved but I was momentarily stunned to think that I was a hair’s breadth from being in London at one of the busiest airports in the world and I could only see 7 people – where were they all?
I’d imagined a great shoving match at the baggage collection, much fighting for trolleys and luggage – but – 7 people and 4 ports. Where was everybody? After asking myself this question 84 times I managed to pull myself together and, with the backpack half-on and half-off I stumbled over to the carousel, literally fell over on to my port, scrambled up and skull-dragged it onto the floor.
Still, where is everybody?
OH, SHUT-UP MARY AND GET MOVING!!
Ok, Ok. Got all my luggage on the trolley. At last I breathe a sigh of relief. My arms are becoming a little shorter as they start to ease back into their sockets.
But further torment is in store – it’s time for Customs – dreaded Customs. I’ve always had a fear of the Customs lanes and the people who staff them.
It’s the same if I’m pulled over by the police in Australia for a random breath test, or RBT, for example. Now, a very relevant piece of information I should give you here is that I don’t drink alcohol so here’s an interesting fact.
If, when I’m asked ‘Have you consumed any alcohol in the past 4 hours, Madam?’, the police went by the look of guilt on my face then I’d be thrown in jail forthwith.
Fortunately they decide to go by the readout on the thingy I’ve just breathed into which assures them I’ve not had a drink all year.
But why can’t I show THAT on my face. Why can’t I look at the nice policeman with a look that says ‘Good evening officer, you’ll be happy to know that I’ve not drunk any alcohol at all this week’ rather than with one that says ‘O God you’ve caught me at it again’.
In spite of the fact that I don’t make a habit of trying to pull a swiftie on the customs department I always feel like an arch criminal as I walk down whichever lane I’ve chosen.
This time in the Nothing to Declare lane at Heathrow is no exception and I walk through what appears to be a preliminary area before coming to the business end where I will have to stand and be counted and tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help me God.
I am nonchalantly looking about to see who is going to accost me and accuse me of having marijuana or worse secreted about my person. Schapelle Corby’s story is uppermost in my mind at this point!
I don’t see a single living soul. Not one.
It must be around the corner I think to myself – trust officialdom to prolong the agony.
And before I know it I’m around the corner and face to face with cheery folk holding up signs with ‘Smith’ and ‘Patel’ and ‘Neil’ on them –and of course the coffee shop.
I prop, frozen with fear, momentarily confused. What have I done??!! The hair stands up on the back of my neck as I realize – I’ve missed customs altogether! They’ll think I’m a crook!
As I stand rooted to the spot, berating myself for my stupidity, I wait for the yelling to start and for cries of ‘Stop that woman with the long arms!’ to ring out – and I pray they won’t use guns.
After all it’s a long time since I’ve been in the UK and if the shows on telly are anything to go by it’s quite possible that these days the security people might shoot first and ask questions later.
Through a fog of tiredness and fear I notice that the cheery folk holding up signs are smiling at me; people with pink faces as though they’ve not long come inside from the cold…… Mums and Dads, kids, all looking happy and carefree, waiting for a loved one.
Slowly it dawns on me that the empty room I just went through must have been the ‘Nothing to Declare’ section – all done with cameras perhaps? Or mirrors? Or else everyone was asleep. Seems a bit casual to me but who am I to argue?
No one is chasing me and shouting out for me to be arrested.
Nobody wants to search me or my luggage.
I’m home free! I’m here at last in wonderful England – a place I loved when I lived here for 13 years in the 70’s and 80’s – a place I feared I’d never get to see again – a place that brings me to tears when I see it back home on Top Gear, The Vicar of Dibley, AbFab, Only Fools and Horses, Time Team, The Bill to name a few.
And a place where I have a number of much-loved friends whom I’ve come to visit after an astonishingly long absence of 21 years – a place I love dearly.
I take a moment to gather my thoughts and take a few deep breaths – it’s not as though there’s anyone I’m holding up.
WHERE ARE THEY ALL – those people on the plane? What’s happened to them? It’s as though the earth has swallowed them up. One minute I’m being jostled and tripped up by 300 passengers getting off the plane; next minute – nobody.
WHERE ARE THEY?
I never did see another person come out at the same time as I did. Maybe I was just lucky.
As I wheeled my trolley out into that cold English morning – having donned my heavy warm coat – I marvelled at the fact that 20 minutes after the plane stopped on the runway I was out on the street at Heathrow. I had allowed an hour and a half for all of this palaver so my bus to the car hire firm would not be here till after 7am.
I know what I’ll do.
I’ll check out which is my bus stop and go back to the coffee shop and have a piping hot cappuccino and a yummy toasted sandwich.