I arrive at the terminal, bag in tow, and zig-zag my way through the great throng to wait my turn standing before the great portal – the computerised gateway that is the first step in the path I must travel to take my seat on the big silver bird.
The electronic sentinel talks at me, not to me. It beeps commands in a relentless, unforgiving stream of textual airline-speak, making me feel inadequate every time I type something of which it disapproves.
“Please touch screen to start”.
Where? Here? Oh look, it’s gone blank.
I’ll touch it again.
Oops, it’s gone away again and making noises. Now it’s showing some little red boxes with pictures.
“Please enter your booking reference number…. in binary or hexadecimal.”
Crap. I haven’t used digital logic since my tech college days.
I type in what I think it wants.
“Do you have any explosives? Press 1 for Yes or 2 for No”
I can’t find the box labelled “I’m a terrorist, do you really expect me to answer that?” and that’s probably a good thing. I hear they’re pretty humourless at airports these days.
Beep… beep. Yes, I have some aerosols – they’re explosive aren’t they, or is it that they just leak everywhere and make things sticky? Oh beep, fucking beep. Shit, I’ll try again.
“Do you want to change your allocated seat?”
What? I didn’t know I already had one – when did that happen?
“Press 1 for Yes or 2 for I have no idea what that means”.
Beep, beep. Baggage choices – All classes: 2 x 105cm (41in) bags or 1 x 105cm (41in) bag plus 1 x 185cm 7kg (15lb) per piece Domestic flights (73in) non rigid garment bag or 1 x 115cm (45in) bag.
What does that mean? My bags have wheels on them. Help!
Too late, it’s decided for me. It says I’ve got to pay an excess baggage charge.
That can’t be right – I only have one bag.
I’ll start again. Bing bong. No, the machine doesn’t like that.
“Press any key to continue”
I hit any key and the screen goes blank. That can’t be good.
Some lights blink and there are more pictures. It’s talking again.
Let’s see, “Select Language.”
I press 1 for English.
“What’s the Capital of Mozambique?”
I press the picture of a cannabis leaf.
Ah, that’s better – the machine’s happy.
It spits out a boarding pass. Crinkled up.
I make my way to Gate 36 dragging my wheelie bag behind me. It’s a mile away, but it seems like ten.
Another queue. People mill about, bumping into each other, waiting for the huge steel doors to open.
The public address bleats at us. It seems we can get on the plane, but only if we’re in rows 1 through 15.
People rise. I wait.
Another announcement crackles over the speakers.
“Attention Mr. George Cobblestone travelling today on flight TZ912 to Suva. Your Captain’s a bastard and has taken off without you. Sorry.”
Then it’s our turn. The PA tells us we can board now, but the rampy thing’s broken and we have to walk on the tarmac – in the rain – with our mobiles switched off lest we set fire to the man in the orange vest pouring petrol into the wings.
He puts the cap on the tank and hangs up the nozzle.
We climb the ladder, the smell of fumes strong in our noses.
A girl with plastic hair checks my pass. “It’s crinkled” she says.
I glare at her in French.
“Down the aisle on the left, Seat 35A.”
I knew that, I read it on the screen thing back in the terminal.
I reach my row.
A short man is trying to shove a huge suitcase into the overhead storage area. I think there’s a child hidden in it.
Someone pushes me from behind.
I turn and glare at a six-year old kid in a tone that says “Don’t fuck with me”.
It gets the message and slinks away, hiding behind its parent.
The short man is done. He sits.
I start to walk past and he gets up again. He’s forgotten something.
Then he sits. The thing he forgot is in his pocket.
I find my seat, and store my bag.
Settling down I try the headphones. They don’t work. The plug’s fallen off the end.
I’ll just read.
But I can’t. The fat bastard sitting next to me is taking up all the space. My book’s nudged up under my nose, and my elbow’s jammed into my groin.
We taxi. The aeroplane rumbles along the tarmac. Somewhere an old lady vomits.
We climb through the clouds and into the blue.
Something goes “Bong!”
The seatbelt light goes out. Fatman gets up and heads for the toilet.
I secretly hope he gets stuck in there.
The in-flight movie starts. Then it stops.
The Captain interrupts to tell us he’s the Captain.
Good to know.
A man in a silly looking apron comes by and serves lunch – a plastic bag full of plastic bags. Inside one there’s dry bread roll and some cheese that looks like soap.
It is soap – from the complimentary toiletries bag.
As I eat the guy in front moves his seat back, spilling my drink over the tiny plastic tray. I take what’s left and pour it into his bag which he stuck under his seat.
He deserves it. Bastard.
The PA barks a message. We’re landing.
That was quick.
There’s a weird noise and it sounds like something’s broken underneath. It’s the wheels coming down. Or flaps.
Good, we probably need those.
Whack! We hit the runway. I think the pilot’s new at this.
Instantly three hundred people stand and unload things from the overhead lockers. A bag falls out and whacks a bloke in the head. He stumbles backwards, dazed and bleeding.
Good, it’s the fat bastard who sat next to me. He deserves it.
The PA barks again. It’s the Captain. We’ve got to wait for the man with the steps.
People grumble as they stand around looking stupid.
I don’t understand why they do that.
Eventually they move forward, shuffling blindly in unison like a huge wrinkled millipede.
I wait until they’re gone. It’s easier that way.
The girl with the plastic hair thanks us for flying with them. She doesn’t mean it – she’s updating facebook as she trots out the words in a practised corporate monotone.
We climb down the stairs and walk to the terminal.
The same terminal we just left.
Great. The plane was faulty and we’re back where we started. They’re trying to fix a problem, and apparently it’s better to do that on the ground.
A man tells the crowd to wait at the departure gate. They’ll make an announcement soon.
I walk over to the car hire place.
But at least I’m first.