There was only a handful of us arriving at Bristol on flight 6114 from Nice. Oscar and I had the leisure to choose which of the four available UK Border Force officers we most liked the look of. None of them were your usual bruisers. One was a careworn, perhaps broken old man and during the brief wait in the taped corridor we speculated on the nature of the tragedy that had brought him here to this. My speculative theory was that he had impulsively married an unpresentable woman, who had turned out to be an incurable alcoholic who beat him. Oscar’s was that he had been discharged from prison as being too frail to constitute any further danger to the public.
The passenger he was presently dealing with either didn’t know that he had to fill in a Public Health Passenger Locator form or hadn’t bothered. The old lag wasn’t acerbic. He merely signalled the passenger exhaustedly towards a secluded area of the floor where several others were searching their rucksacks for something to write with.
What the compilers of the PHPL form crucially want to know is your phone number. Then someone can call you during the ensuing fortnight and ask you, on your honour, whether you are isolating yourself at your given address according to the law. A friend of a friend reports being rung up while eating in a crowded McDonald’s restaurant. In spite of the tumultuous background noise, the inquisitor accepted an assurance that he was indeed resting quietly at home without demur.
The last figure I saw in the paper was that nine people so far have been fined for breaking travel quarantine rules. In the 1985 UK Snooker Championship final Willie Thorne missed a blue on which the frame, the match and arguably his whole career pivoted. Being at home or not when the phone rang, then saying yes, I am indeed staying at my stated address — or not — seemed, to me at any rate, less pivotal. I was bringing Oscar back to England, staying a couple nights, having a depot hormone injection in my bottom, and returning to the south of France clutching the tit-for-tat and far more inquisitive French quarantine form. If I caught Covid en route, I wouldn’t know about it until I’d been back in France for a few days.
Now the old lag was fiddling with his keyboard and looking intently, then disbelievingly at his computer screen. ‘Racing results,’ I said to Oscar. ‘The 4.50 at Ayr. That’s his 10p each way Yankee gone up in smoke.’ As he pondered his screen, we were waved forward instead by two women manning the next booth along.
We stepped smartly forward. The woman sitting behind the Perspex screen was presumably new to the job because the other was ventriloquising advice and encouragement in her ear. This pair, in spite of their crow black uniforms and their teacher-pupil relationship, radiated leisurely humanity. As ten-year-old Oscar hove into sight, they seemed instantly overwhelmed by maternal love and the power relations were reversed like an electric current at the flick of a switch. Now it was these two UK Border Force officers who were the coy supplicants and Oscar and I the stern arbiters.
The trainee was too tongue-tied to speak. Prompted by her supervisor, she finally managed to say: ‘And what is your relationship to Oscar?’ Ten is a wonderful age for a boy. Covid had separated us for six months. During our holiday in France we’d closed the gap. I was sad because in around two hours’ time I would be handing him over to his mother and driving away. I pulled him close, hugged him tightly, and said: ‘He’s my grandson.’ With Oscar’s ready and loving acquiescence in this public show, to order, of mutual affection, the two female hearts guarding the UK border crumbled.
The supervisor regained her composure to issue another whispered prompt, which was then passed on to me by the trainee in a game of Chinese whispers. ‘Have you submitted a Public Health Passenger Locator form?’ she said. I showed my phone with a screenshot of the email acknowledgement and reference number. But trainee and supervisor were too busy casting ardent glances at Oscar to take any notice either of me or my screenshot.
‘So how was your holiday, Oscar?’ pleaded the supervisor. Not unused to fawning attention from smitten middle-aged ladies, Oscar fixed them with his blue eyes and answered confidently. ‘Pretty decent. Pretty decent,’ he said. The women exhaled. Now you could stick a fork in them: they were done. ‘Welcome home, darling,’ said the supervisor passionately to Oscar as she handed me back our passports. ‘You too, sir,’ she laughed. And so we passed into England feeling not only warmly welcomed but actually loved.