Earbuds in. Speed walking to Grant Lazlo’s ‘Heard It Through The Grapevine’. A corridor, a left fork, a moving walkway, a rack of free newspapers — from which I extracted an Evening Standard without stopping — and here, sooner than I’d imagined, was Gate 52. It was a quarter past five in the evening. The Gatwick to Nice easyJet flight was scheduled to take off at 17.40. Looking through the plate-glass windows, I could see that all vestiges of snow had disappeared from the runways, which were dry and lit by evening sunshine.
The cross-country journey to Gatwick last Wednesday had begun at 9 a.m. in a blizzard in Devon. The taxi driver — pressed shirt and tie, Remainer convictions of evangelical proportions — was breezily confident we’d make it through the country lanes to the railway station without a problem, which we did. The train from Plymouth left on the dot and arrived at Paddington half a minute early.
I spent the three pleasant hours in between staring out of the window at a deserted, frozen countryside waiting for Aslan’s return.
The Bakerloo line was subject to ‘severe delays’ but my arrival on the southbound platform coincided with the rolling thunder of an approaching train. At Victoria, snowfall somewhere south of London had put the Gatwick Express rail service into
a turmoil and the platform noticeboards were ominously blank. However a passing train driver confidentially advised me that ‘the red one over there is probably going soon’. So I went and sat in it, the only passenger on a train 200 yards long. The doors closed almost immediately and the train moved off, albeit at a cautious walking pace.
Gatwick, miraculously, was snow-free. Aeroplanes were landing and other aeroplanes were taking off. In spite of the apocalyptic travel and weather warnings on my phone throughout the day, I’d done it. The thought of being catapulted above the capital’s freezing chaos, then swinging southwards and stepping out two hours later among the Emperor palms and black Mercedes taxis of Aéroport Nice Côte d’Azur was an attractive one. I celebrated it with a scoop at the bar.
The young easyJet woman at gate 52 had not yet begun to check passports and boarding passes. A queue formed. Grant Lazlo’s ‘Heard It Through The Grapevine’ gave way to His Royal Highness Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. Mr Perry was having a party and planning the guest list. The World Bank was going to be there. I scrutinised the faces in the queue. They expressed a mixture of relief and exhaustion, presumably as mine did. I extracted my passport and got my boarding pass up on my phone. Seat 23E. A middle seat again. No matter. It was a short flight. When the trolley came around I’d have a Bombay and Fever-Tree and be thankful. Now the easyJet woman was speaking on the phone. Usually there were two members of staff checking passes. Maybe she was reminding the other one that it was time she was here.
Another minute passed. Come on! I thought. Then she called for attention and addressed the queue. She had a piece of paper in her hand and referred to it. Calling for Speedy Boarders and those with young children, no doubt, I imagined. Bloody Speedy Boarders and their complacent faces, I thought, pushing themselves to the front and being curtseyed to.
But no. Judging by the horrified faces in the queue, she had not been calling for Speedy Boarders. It must have been something else. What could she have been saying? Prompted by a cruel, insane or nationalist whim, had she perhaps read out Max Mosley’s 1961 by-election campaign leaflet for his Union Movement candidate word for word?
Then, as Mr Perry urged his party guests to bring plenty of weed, everyone suddenly surged past the desk without having to show anything, and many of us sank down into the fixed rows of extra-hard seats reserved for those passengers who aren’t Speedy Boarders. Many, I sensed, were sitting down to help them absorb a shock. I unpicked the earbuds from my lugholes, turned to the woman sitting next to me and asked her what was going on. ‘Cancelled,’ she said brightly. ‘Bad weather over France.’ ‘Come far?’ I asked her. ‘Only Chichester,’ she said. A Frenchman was giving vent to a torrent of his language’s limited range of obscenities, aimed at no one in particular. The easyJet woman was explaining and being listened to with interest and politeness. I screwed my earbuds back into my earholes.
Then we were shepherded along more corridors, then through immigration and before long I was back outside in the chaotic toilet that is Gatwick airport railway station. The lady announcer was telling passengers about one cancelled train after another. ‘This is due’ — then a pause, as though she was consulting a list of excuses — ‘to snow’.