It’s a week ago and I’m systematically removing everything from my trouser pockets into my outer jacket, which I then dump in one of those rectangular basins along with my laptop. The man at Aldergrove gestures, I walk through a door-frame thing and of course: Ping! Guess who’s left his mobile phone in his pocket. I pass phone to attendant woman, walk through once more, no ping. But now there’s a man who tells me to put my arms out from my sides. He goes about his frisking work with such thoroughness and, um, intimacy, I smile and say this is as good as a body massage. “Show me the soles of your shoes” he tells me, unamused.
Then it’s the luggage’s turn. A nice man lifts out all of my case’s contents and begins to run what looks like a bit of plastic around every nook and cranny of my case, my camera, my flash unit, my everything. “What are you doing there?” I ask, using my friendliest voice. “Well this is to check for any trace of drugs or explosives”. I think of saying it’s OK, the cocaine and semtex are in the second and third drawer respectively under the picture of the Sacred Heart in the kitchen at home, but decide not to. I’ve a flight to catch. The nice man takes his little plastic/swab thing to a machine. Moments later he’s back, this time with a less nice man who’s overweight and looks as if his face and bald head have been left out in the sun too long.
The over-weight red-head does the plastic/swab thing again - case, camera, flash unit- and goes back to the machine and feeds in his bit of plastic. When it comes out he frowns, starts removing bits of the machine, wiping them and replacing them. Eventually he comes back to me.
“We’ve run this three times and the machine still isn’t happy. Sir”. I’m thinking of mentioning that I’m not too happy myself, but there isn’t time, because now a fourth man has arrived and asked me if I’d mind coming over here for a moment.
This man has got a seriously big machine. It’s like a tardis or something - circular, transparent, and when I step inside it I have to put my feet on the two footmarks on the floor and my hands in the air as though a gun was pointed at me, although the man instructing me never mentions the word “gun”. The door closes, the machine does a swoosh and I’m out again. I’ve been full-body scanned. But not so full-body scanned that there isn’t need for a fifth man to frisk me, this time only as far as the waist. (No Virginia, I don’t know why he stopped at my waist.) Then the fifth man asks me to loosen my belt, something I’ve never had a man ask me do before. He sort of tugs at the buckle and then at the strap-end bit. Finally, disappointed, he passes me back to his red-head friend.
Except my unfriendly part is starting to surface. I tell red-head that our flight gate closes in ten minutes and we’ve been at this searching lark for at least twenty minutes now. “Well, sir, our machine isn’t happy”. "And I can tell you now it'll find no traces of drugs or explosives in my suitcase". "That would be a matter of opinion, sir" red-head tells me.
I'm sort of shouting, I tell him it’s nothing to do with opinion, it’ a matter of fact. Two facts, in fact. Fact One, I’m going to be late for my flight if I’m held much longer and Fact Two, there are no traces of drugs or explosives in my case. “The machine is not looking for drugs or explosives” the red-head says, going a bit redder. “But the other man earlier told me it was”. “Well you were told incorrectly, sir”.
So now I’ m beginning to feel like a character in a Kafka story: a faulty machine is looking for God knows what in my case and possessions, and the clock is ticking down to zero. Maybe seeing that I’m about to leave teeth-grinding and move on to the screaming-and-sobbing stage, red-head turns me over to a sixth man, his superior, and goes back to polishing bits of his machine.
The superior smiles and tells me it’s OK, he’s rung up the flight gate and they’ll give us an extra ten minutes before they close. Anyway they’re done with me now ( I suspect they’ve just given up) and all that remains is for me to cram all my stuff back in the case, test the bag zipper to maximum, refasten my belt, take a deep breath and start running towards the gate. “All right now, sir? Happy enough?” he calls after me.
I want to shout so many things over my shoulder. Like what is enough, what is happiness, are the guys at the body scan at this minute using my full-body image as a dart-board and laughing until tears come when they hit the bull’s-eye. And I wonder whether they’ve given me this going-over simply because they don't like me or because they’ve bought these nice big machines that can photograph your body with no clothes on and detect cocaine or semtex or Thing X, and when you buy something you have to be seen to use it.
Feeling like a wrung-out dishrag in a mad, mad world I fall into my plane seat. You wouldn’t think it’d be so hard to move from one part of our United Kingdom to another.