‘Hi, Anne. How’re you doing?’ The deep voice of Lawrence came through the amplified earpiece when Anne picked up the receiver in her elegant, comfortable sitting room.
‘Lawrence, dear. How lovely of you to call.’ Anne was by now much more at ease with transatlantic telephone calls.
‘Now Anne, I don’t want any argument.’
‘No dear, but what am I not going to argue about?’
‘Coming to see us for a holiday. We all want to see you - David and Jennifer have heard so much about you and your project, and Elaine is as mad as fire that I didn’t bring you back with me last summer.’
‘Oh, I don’t know about that, dear. It’s an awfully long way.’
‘But not for someone as fit as you are since all that surgery. Now, I’m not taking “no” for an answer.’
‘But Lawrence, I’ve never been on an aircraft, and I don’t know how to arrange it. And won’t it cost an awful lot of money?’
‘Grrr!’ responded Lawrence. ‘Now how did I guess you would say all that, I wonder?’ The smile could be heard all the way across the Atlantic.
Anne’s pretended doubts masked her excitement at the prospect of such an adventure.
‘Anne, just you get straight onto that new laptop of yours and Google “flights to the US of A,” the way I showed you. You’ll need to enter the dates for your trip and I suggest we make it for around 1st May, say for a month. If we leave it much later it’ll be getting too hot for you. You Brits aren’t used to decent weather.’
Outraged, Anne protested at the insult to her country, but Lawrence cut in.
‘Only teasing. Why don’t you get Maggie to give you a hand?’
‘I can do it myself.’ Anne’s pride in her new-found computer skills was evident to her amused nephew.
‘Send me an e-mail when you’ve got it sorted out’ reminded Lawrence.
‘We’ll see, dear. Now, we can’t stay chatting all day. Give my love to Elaine and the children.
Three weeks later, a very excited old lady was helped down from a taxi at Heathrow by Patsy, while Malcolm Pitkin took charge of the luggage.
‘This place is so huge and so busy. I can’t think how anyone manages to find their way around it.’ grumbled Anne. ‘Why couldn’t we have flown from Birmingham. There’s a perfectly good airport there, and then we wouldn’t have had this enormous bill for the car.’
‘Now Miss Bunting, you know we’ve been through all this. There are no direct flights from Birmingham, and you would have had all the bother of a transfer flight.’ Malcolm was getting back into the car.
‘Come on then, where do we go now?’
‘You go with Patsy, and I’ll go and put the car in the multi-storey. I’ll meet you at the British Airways check-in desk.’
Malcolm is a very soothing person to have around. Anne turned to Patsy to find her pointing to a wheelchair. ‘I’m not going in that’ protested Anne. ‘What was the use of having that new hip if I can’t walk a hundred yards without a wheelchair?’
‘Well, Anne’ explained Patsy ‘It’s not because you couldn’t walk a hundred yards, but before you get to the plane you’re likely to walk about two miles. It’s so crowded in there that we might lose each other. So you see, it’s really for my convenience that Lawrence insisted we order a wheelchair for you.’
‘Oh is that so? Well that’s all right then.’ Anne subsided gracefully into the disputed wheelchair and watched as Patsy piled the luggage on top of her. Who are they kidding? But I suppose I have to do what I’m told. It was so kind of Patsy and Malcolm to help me like this.
Once inside the terminal, Anne gazed around, appalled. ‘How will you know where to go, dear?’ she asked.
‘No problem, me love. Look at all the signs.’ Patsy looked at the bundle of paperwork she had fished out of Anne’s carry-on bag. ‘Um, let’s see now. We have to get to the BA check-in desk first, to meet Malcolm and we find that by looking at that screen over there.’
They looked up at the list of departures. ‘Oh yes, BA flight 3077 to Boston, check-in at desk 38-42. Let’s be going then’ and the masterful red-haired nurse steered Anne and the luggage in the direction indicated.
Malcolm arrived just as they were about to join a long straggly queue of people shuffling towards one of the desks. ‘Now you see why we got you a wheelchair!’ said Malcolm as he grabbed the smart new suitcase from Anne’s lap. It was a full forty minutes before their turn came at the desk.
Anne was enthralled at the examination by the elegant uniformed ground hostess. Yes, she had packed everything herself. No, no-one had asked her to take anything. No, she had no sharp objects in her handbag. ‘It’s all right, dear.’ giggled Anne. I’m not a terrorist. I know you have to ask all this, but do I look likely to be carrying a bomb or a gun?’ They all laughed, but still the procedure carried on, until her passport and boarding card were handed to her and she watched her case slide backwards out of sight. ‘You won’t lose it, will you? I’ve got presents for my nephew’s children and I wouldn’t like to arrive empty-handed.’ Anne looked anxiously backwards after her case.
‘We’ll do our best, Madam.’
‘Now for the horrible bit.’ said Malcolm, starting to push.
‘What do you mean, dear?’
‘You’ll see,’ he said, as the little group started to follow signs to departures and security and the inevitable parting.
‘I wish you were coming with me. You both deserve a treat after all you’ve done for me.’
‘Don’t be daft, Anne. And don’t worry about a thing. Look! This lovely BA girl has come to look after you, right to the plane.’ Patsy and Malcolm gave Anne warm hugs and waved frantically as they made their way against the flow of people, only to disappear from sight.
Two hours before take-off is nothing like long enough to check-in your baggage and pass through security. The queue started at the top of the stairs and was a mile or more long through a maze of posts and webbing straps designed to stop travellers taking shortcuts. The shuffling, huffing, sweating humans kicked their baggage along the floor. Garbled announcements in some strange language purporting to be English told them to take off jackets, belts and shoes, to hold up any liquids in clear plastic bags and to place their cabin bags on the belt.
Anne was amused, despite the stuffy atmosphere and the grumbling from around her. Her eyes sparkled as she joked aloud. ‘They might as well have said “With your third hand you may bring cabin baggage and place on the belt of the x-ray machine, and with your fourth hand, hold up your trousers.” A ripple of laughter greeted this sally, which spread through the queue as the disgruntled travellers repeated Anne’s words to those further away.
‘Ah well,’ said Anne. ‘I suppose it’s all for our own protection really.’ Careworn faces brightened at the cheerfulness of the old lady in the wheelchair.
‘Airports are all run by Bin Laden Security Ltd now, so what can you expect,’ complained a sour-looking middle-aged businessman to his neighbour. But the majority of the crowd still wore wry smiles.
A computer screen at the end of each line showed how long remained before the various flights. For the Boston flight, Anne read that it would board in forty-five minutes. Then thirty, then twenty, then ten, then three.
‘It’s all right Madam’ said the ground hostess. ‘They won’t go without you.’
At long last, Anne was called forward for the security ceremony. Her
belongings were jumbled willy nilly onto the belt and disappeared through a curtain of rubber strips.
‘You’ll have to go through without the wheelchair, if you can manage it, but there will be another one the other side,’ reassured the kindly hostess.
‘Of course I can manage it’ said Anne and stood up straight, walking in dignified fashion straight through the security arch. Not a sound came from the electronic equipment, which had up until now been peeping away steadily as blushing travellers removed necklaces or bunches keys before trying again, apologising for delaying the other passengers.
‘And now we must hurry a bit’ explained Anne’s new chair pusher. ‘They’ve called the flight, so no time to linger in Duty Free.’
‘Why do they have all these shops here, if no-one has time to buy anything?’ asked Anne. ‘In any case, after paying those huge sums for the tickets, there can’t be many people with any money left to spend.’
‘You’d be surprised. Without the huge amount of money they make in here, the airport charges would have to be a lot higher.’
‘Well, I’ve everything I need, so let’s get that move on. I’m so glad to have this chair, I’d no idea airports were so enormous. Why, we must already have gone about a mile. Sorry about your high heels, dear. It can’t be comfortable hurrying in those shoes!’
‘Oh, you get used to it – though it’s got much worse lately with all these terror scares. On some busy days it can take two hours to get through security.’
At the idea that anything could get any busier than today, Anne fell silent
as they made rapid progress to their departure gate.
‘Wheelchair passengers board first, so we’ll soon have you on that plane.’ As they reached the lounge ,which was seething with humanity, Anne gazed round her in amazement. Seriously suited businessmen were working ferociously at their laptops or confiding confidences to their mobile phones at the tops of their voices. Harrassed mothers were trying to keep control of turbulent small children while hushing crying babies. The noise was unbelievable, not helped by a gaggle of racing small girls in pink. Their piercing screams were unnerving to Anne, who tried unsuccessfully to switch off her new hearing aid.
Thankfully they soon reached the desk, where passport and boarding card were briefly examined and then they were on their way to the ‘bus which would take them to the aircraft. Anne was surprised. ‘Are we going somewhere else to fly? I thought you could go through a tunnel straight on to the plane. I’m sure I’ve seen that in a film.’
‘It depends where you’re going,’ her helper reassured her. ‘Your plane is on the apron about five hundred metres over there. Look.’
‘Why is that called the apron?’ asked Anne
‘I haven’t the foggiest, dear. Sorry.’
Once on the ‘bus, there was more waiting while the able-bodied passengers straggled on to the tarmac and to the waiting vehicle. ‘Hurry up and wait. Hurry up and wait. That’s all it seems to be, this flying business. And here’s me thinking it was supposed to be quick!’ Anne was starting to flag, but she was still gamely keeping her end up, to the amusement of the passengers crowding around her.
One tired-looking mother grinned at Anne. ‘That’s the spirit. You tell ‘em. We need people like you around to cheer us up.’
Anne was wheeled the short distance to the plane, and her helper, Karen – by now a firm friend – called the stewards over to carry her up the steps. ‘Don’t be ridiculous’ protested Anne. ‘If I can’t walk up a few steps, it’s time to put me in my box. Are you coming with me, Karen?’
‘No dear. I stay here. But these lovely young men will look after you now! Bye-bye and have a good journey.’ By this time Anne was on her feet, and she planted a kiss on the girl’s immaculately made up cheek as she slipped a note into the pocket of the uniform jacket.
‘You’ve made all that very easy for me. I’m so grateful.’