I heard the last and final call for flight 6114 to Nice while shuffling forward in the unexpectedly long queue for security. My chances of catching it now looked slim. They looked slimmer still when my bag was nudged into the line of those needing to be searched, and I despaired at my rotten luck. Eventually, my bag was placed on the metal search table and I presented myself as the owner. Across the table, I faced two women, both aged about 60. One was in command, the other subordinate. The commanding one had a smoker’s face with a touch of the eldritch about it that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Richard Dadd fairy painting.
It was immediately clear, however, that this woman dealt only in material realities and that she took no prisoners. If I had told her that the last call for my flight had been broadcast ten minutes earlier, and any further delay would scupper me, I would have got short shrift. She had a job to do and she took that job seriously. I am not, though, someone who despises people who take their low-paid job seriously. For five years I was a dustman. I walked like a dustman, talked like a dustman and was proud to be a dustman. ‘I’m not taking that,’ I used to say, officiously, to selected liberty takers. One can be serious about one’s job or one can be un-serious. It’s a choice. And although, inwardly, I was doing my nut about a pointless delay, this woman’s utter seriousness about her job was so impressive that it made me pause and speculate about it. Had her decision to treat her job with the utmost seriousness been taken whimsically to begin with, then become an ingrained habit? Or had she, in her later years, through poverty, decided to turn a disillusionment with life, and a cynical disposition, to pecuniary advantage? Or was it perhaps all an effortless act and in private she was actually amusing and fun? Whatever lay behind her decision to take her job as seriously as this, I was respectfully cheering her on. But my anxiety about missing my flight made it two cheers rather than three.
Her uncompromising nature hadn’t yet openly revealed itself, but it was written right there, all over that hard old face, in spite of the regulation cant of ‘would you mind opening your bag for me, sir?’. It was there in the way she didn’t bother to look me in the eye when she said it. I was just one of a thousand other feather-brained British holidaymakers with no ideological intent apart from a spot of duty-free shopping and the occupation of a designated cheap seat on an orange aeroplane. The crooked timber of humanity held no interest for her. Not during working hours.
The woman beside her was new and she was learning on the job. In marked contrast to her chief, this woman had a meek, quiet and uncertain spirit. The public display of my personal belongings ran contrary to her sense of decency and she was reluctant to pry among them with her fingers, which trembled noticeably.
‘Go on then,’ said her supervisor, hard as nails. Screwing her courage to the sticking place, her pupil reached in and extracted a sealed, foil-wrapped packet. ‘Be not righteous over much,’ saith the good book. So I said, ‘Teabags. Lapsang Souchong.’
Unsure as to whether she should take my word for it or investigate further, she squeezed and massaged the foil packet with her fingertips until her chief impatiently motioned her to lay the bloody teabags aside and continue.
Item by item, my belongings were taken out and inspected. Pants. Socks. Toothpaste-encrusted electric toothbrush. Egg fried rice. A lady’s summer dress. Nicotine patches. Tatty paperback novel. Harmonica case. This last aroused the old fairy fella’s interest and she commanded her pupil to open it, which unfortunately proved beyond the poor woman’s capability. For a moment I thought her nerve was about to give way. My timely offer to assist was accepted and I opened the case and took out the harmonica. ‘Key of C,’ I said, giving it a double toot then a slide up the scale and back to prove it.
Each and every item in my bag was removed, inspected and, if it opened, opened. ‘Did something show up on the scanner?’ I said. ‘No. It’s a random search,’ said the chief, coldly. Privileged by this concession of an acknowledgment of my human existence, I was emboldened to add, ‘I think I might have missed my plane because of it.’ ‘Sorry,’ burst out her trainee, now on the verge of tears owing to the strain of it all. ‘Don’t you dare say sorry,’ said her chief, angrily, through clenched dentures. ‘Not ever.’