At Gatwick airport, after an hour and 15 minutes in a snaking queue system apparently purposely designed to infect as many as possible with Covid-19, and our three bladders inflated like party balloons, we finally presented ourselves before an available passport control officer.
Early fifties, hatless, bald and recruited from the working class, he was the first English person on English soil I’d spoken to for 18 months. I formed the impression of a man who liked a drink. ‘And these two are?’ he said. ‘My grandsons,’ I said, looking at them besottedly in spite of us having lived together in insupportable heat for a week. ‘And you’ve come from where?’ he said. A trick question, surely, the answer to which I had to ponder for a second or two. ‘Nice,’ I said.
Nice airport had been a trial. In the departure lounge Grandad had noticed that he had suffered another brain failure while filling out the boarding pass details. I’d given the eldest grandson his father’s Christian name. I blamed it on a combination of heat and chemotherapy. Above all, perhaps Ron Kray’s psychiatrist’s description of his patient as ‘a simple man of low intelligence poorly in touch with the outside world’ applied to me also.
I calculated that it might be possible to fork out to change the boarding pass name at the gate should the error be seized on by an official. Which appeared likely when this tall, intelligent-looking bloke appeared in the queue and started checking documentation in a Gestapo-like manner. But God answers prayer. He was about to check ours when his phone rang and he was called away on an urgent matter and he loped off at speed. To be arrested and summarily executed, I speculated to the lads, having been exposed as a double agent by an anonymous tip-off.
Whereas this man had been carefully matching boarding pass identities with passport information, the woman at the desk, when we reached her, was comparing only faces with passport photos. And at a crucial moment, when whipping off my mask, my spectacles flew ten feet and my holiday hat fell off when I rushed to retrieve them. The distraction made her laugh and she waved us through indulgently as though we were an ingenuous comic troupe. If she had looked back and seen the old man dazed with delight and celebrating with arms aloft as he headed to the air bridge, this impression would have been reinforced.
But our luck ran out at Gatwick airport when we turned a corner to be confronted by a sort of Nuremberg rally being held in a stifling passport checking hall. The snaking ‘adults with children under 12’ line was longest and slowest. At each turn in the claustrophobic snake we passed signs telling us to ‘stay safe’ and to ‘maintain social distancing’. Also posters of sunflowers in bloom, the symbol of the Hidden Disabilities charity, which the posters claimed was the passport control officers’ best-loved.
One imagined a PR company meeting in which the bright sparks were told to come up with some little flick of the totalitarian whip to remind the lumpenproletariat in holiday mood to forget any ideas it might be entertaining about human dignity or the power of crowds. Ideas that might lead to passengers taking the law into their own hands and surging gaily through the gaps between the passport control booths at the far end and heading straight for the nearest UK toilet. Border guards. Sunflowers. Brilliant.
There were grumblers in the queue but the rest of us treated the ordeal as an exercise in British stoicism. The woman in front of us walked slowly backwards holding an iPad showing cartoons to keep her three little ones from revolting. Surprisingly, it worked. Her careworn face is still imprinted in my memory.
‘Did you learn any French words?’ the passport control guy, in a sunflower mood perhaps, asked the boys. My proud look at my grandsons gave them their cue. ‘Couilles,’ they chorused. ‘Coo-ee?’ he said. ‘What’s that mean then?’ ‘Bollocks,’ they said. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Nice. Anything else?’ ‘Conneries,’ they said. The passport officer braced himself humorously. ‘Is that a rude word too?’ ‘It means bollocks in the nonsense sense,’ I confided apologetically.
He slid our passports one by one into his scanner and returned them. Noticing that I was clutching a sheaf of vaccination certificates, negative Covid test certificates and a two-page Passenger Locator form, and anxious that some detail or other might prove to be a stumbling block, he put my mind at ease. ‘I don’t need to see any of that load of conneries,’ he said. ‘I’ve got it all here on my screen.’ ‘How I love England,’ I burst out, in spite of myself.
And with that we passed through and went urgently in search of the nearest toilet.