Tim Dowling Plus Bim Adewunmi
I can do selfless at passport control, but flippant? Never
Heathrow airport, some months ago: my wife, my middle son and I arrive back from holiday. At passport control they both go through the t It’s only electronic after I gates, turn the while corner I follow that signs I see the for queue non-EU is arrivals. enormous, I w winding back on itself a dozen times.
Fifteen minutes after joining the queue, I have yet to reach the fififi first turn. After 20 minutes I ring my wife.
“You should go home,” I say. “I’ll be at least another hour.” “Really?” she says. “I feel a bit shifty leaving you.” “There’s no point in you waiting,” I say. I can hear her turning away from the phone to speak to the middle one.
“Dad’s saying we should just go,” she says.
“They’re giving out free water,” I say.
“Your son has rather gracelessly accepted your offer,” my wife says. I had not counted on this.
“It’s fine,” I say. It feels like the most selfless thing I have ever done, which is itself shaming.
“If you’re sure,” she says. “He’s already heading for the exit.”
“I’ll see you when I see you,” I say. Once I’m committed, the depth of my selflessness increases with every extra minute of waiting. After an hour, I’m keen to do at least two so that my sacrifice is sufficiently noteworthy. I turn down a free water. I want to be here when they start handing out blankets. I want to be here when the parliamentary under-secretary for tourism stands on a chair and apologises through a megaphone.
At the hour and 10 minute mark, extra staff are brought in; 10 minutes after that, I’m on my way. In terms of hardship it’s not what I hoped for, but it’s not nothing.
Heathrow airport, one week ago: my wife and I are returning from a trip to France. Rounding the corner into the same arrivals hall, I see a queue double the size of the one I endured in August. My heart sinks.
“I guess I’ll see you tomorrow,”
I say, selflessly.
“Hang on,” my wife says. She approaches the nearest border official.
“Excuse me,” she says. “My husband is American.”
“How awful for you,” the woman says. “I know,” my wife says. “But we are travelling together, and that queue…”
“It was worse an hour ago,” the official says.
“I don’t know what the rules are,” my wife says. “But you can see he’s old and fractious.” They both turn
to appraise me, and I try to look pained.
“Follow me,” the official says. She leads us to a sign that says FAMILIES and lifts the rope. We enter a short queue full of wired toddlers from many lands.
“Sometimes it’s good being married to someone like me,” my wife says, bouncing a baby on her hip while its mother attends to her other child.
“Yes, no,” I say. “I mean, hats off.” “Christ, I’d forgotten how heavy they are,” she says. The baby stares at her in perfect perplexity.
I’m worried we don’t qualify for this queue. I recall a time when, short of a pound coin at the supermarket, I took a free trolley designed to accommodate infant twins, and was sarcastically accused of misplacing my babies by the woman behind me at the till.
“It’s OK,” I said at the time. “They usually find their way back to the car.” I know better than to risk flippancy at passport control.
Fortunately, by the time our turn comes, the official who lifted the rope for us is on duty behind the desk.
“You again,” she says.
“This is what I call service,” my wife says. They laugh. The official flips through my passport in search of the stamp granting me leave to enter.
“Are you intending to apply for UK citizenship?” she says.
“This could be the year,” I say.
“This could be the year,” she says, as if weighing my answer for potential flippancy.
“He’s got to pass the test,” my wife says. “I’m not sure I could past the test!”
“I know I couldn’t!” the official says. “I’ve seen the questions!”
I don’t say anything, but I think: I could definitely pass the test