There are no stairs or escalators to take you up to Terminal 4 from the underground Heathrow Express platform. Beyond the ticket barriers are four lifts, summoned by a single button. As lift buttons go it’s a big one, about three inches square. As I advanced, finger outstretched, I thought of the tens of thousands of forefingers from all over the world that have pressed that button since people started dying in China from what my Sun newspaper graphically calls ‘snake flu’. I withdrew my finger and stood aside: let someone else risk pressing this virus capital. Two seconds later a smartly dressed woman marched up and jabbed it without compunction with a scarlet fingernail.
I stayed overnight at a hotel close to Terminal 4. On the television news: glad tidings. Deaths so far were confined to the elderly and those with a faulty immune system; people like me, in other words. I immediately went online to buy ‘pre-existing medical condition’ travel insurance. But those setting insurance rates had their eye on the ball. The minimum travel insurance rate for a single trip of seven days to the Bahamas with prostate cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes was £900.
At six o’clock the next morning I caught the free bus connecting Terminal 4 with Terminal 5. The bus was rammed with what looked like subterranean indentured or slave labour. The bus driver drove his bus as though showing us a good time with a white-knuckle fairground ride. I was trying to remain standing near the front with a group of Chinese tourists looking seasick behind their highwayman masks. At some bleak indeterminate stop in the cargo complex, the subterranean workers piled off and another cowed, tragic-looking mob piled on. The ride lasted 20 minutes. In the newspaper that day was an obituary for Syd Mead, an industrial designer who went to Hollywood to design dystopian cityscapes for science fiction films. He was the man who dreamed up the horrible futuristic city in the film Bladerunner. But his Bladerunner ‘trash chic’ fantasy city was 16th-century Venice compared with the steel and cement mess glimpsed through the opening and shutting doors of the 482 bus at six o’clock the other morning.
The capitalist emporium of Heathrow Terminal 5 at the beginning of a fatal flu pandemic was indistinguishable from any other time I’ve passed through it. Sir David Attenborough might be in a civilised panic about the hundred million tonnes of plastic circulating in the oceans, and maybe this snake flu is the long-overdue disease pandemic, but have you seen the new iPad Pro and Apple Pencil? It’s really great for digital adult colouring books. Lord Palmerston would have given his right arm for one. There were more face masks covering the lower halves of Asian faces maybe. Otherwise the working-class boys and girls supervising the security screening process were their usual personification of patient tolerance. The guy studying the monitor for suspicious objects was yawning his sleep-tousled head off.
I was flying BA. The aeroplane was old, dirty and shabby. The reclining mechanism of my seat, 34C, was broken. In seat 34B was a Chinese woman wearing a camouflage jacket and a face mask, and she had a cold. ‘You’re from China, right?’ I said. ‘I am and I am just as scared as everyone else,’ she said stoutly. The man across the aisle, her friend, was also Chinese. His forehead was resting against the seat in front. He too had a cold and he looked miserable. Gawd.
I once went out with a Chinese woman — Hong. She was training to be a general nurse, I a psychiatric one. We worked on the same psychiatric admission ward. For our first date we went to the cinema to see Alien. When the alien burst out of John Hurt’s stomach she stood up and screamed hysterically, then tried to force her fists into her mouth. I think she was from the countryside.
One Sunday a police van reversed up to the entrance to the admission ward. The driver opened the rear door. Inside a naked man was face down on the metal floor and about six furious coppers were standing on his back while holding on to the roof. The man had been incontinent of faeces. He had run amok and stabbed several of their colleagues. It must have been a Sunday because Hong and I, a couple of student nurses, were left in charge. I just stood and looked with my mouth open. But Hong leaned forward with a tissue and delicately wiped the man’s bottom. Presence of mind. Kindness. First things first. If Hong was anything to go by, I remember thinking at the time, the Chinese are a great people. But strewth how I wished I wasn’t hemmed in by them on a nine-hour plane journey. Not today.