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As Time Goes By: All The Difference

Eileen Perrin tells of ripe language in a British immigration queue.

Alan was something in Fleet Street. He had been married to Elaine for ten years and taking her to the Italian lakes for a two-week celebratory holiday should have been a great success.

(Now, I was told this story some years ago by my husband, when he was still at work, producing magazines for Reed International.)

Alan told him that during the last three days in Italy their young son Edward had been taken ill with influenza and admitted to the local hospital, and they had missed their flight home.

After Edward had been discharged by the doctors and declared fit to travel Alan asked for a return flight to UK. The holiday rep. tried to be as helpful as she knew how. Alan had to get back for an important conference arranged before he went off for their trip, and insisting with as much charm as he could muster, the girl finally offered them a flight as far as Paris.
Well, it was on the way home, he thought, and accepted.

At Charles de Gaulle airport, there was a strike of air traffic controllers, which meant they had to wait for several hours in a crowded lounge. Wondering if his boy would suffer and annoyed that his patient wife was being subjected to this miserable end to their near-perfect holiday, came the point when she asked for a handkerchief to wipe Edward’s hot flushed face and Alan lost his concentration. It was at that moment his briefcase disappeared.

A desperate search around their seats and a plea for help to the Airport Police ended in disillusion and the realisation that their passports and tickets had gone for good.

Having been told the only flight going out to Heathrow was with Air India, they were glad to be offered places, and were able to purchase replacement tickets with the money they had between them. Bussed out to the plane waiting on the tarmac after refuelling, they were helped to board and shortly afterwards the plane took off for London and home.

In the air Alan realised all the passengers were Asian. No alcoholic drinks were to be had on Air India planes. On landing he could see they were gently taxi-ing into a high-fenced secure zone before stopping. Shepherded down the steps and across into a bare hangar-like reception area, he discovered that they had arrived in England with a plane-load of immigrants, already formed into a long queue leading up to the Immigration Officer’s desk.

Alan spoke to a nearby official, saying they were nothing to do with the others. They were English. They had no passports; they had been stolen but he had been told he would have to apply to the Home Office when he got back to London.
But, he said, they certainly had no need to queue.

He was told to go and wait over there; they would be attended to all in good time. The family wearily took seats right across the other side, away from the line of immigrants. Elaine looked pale and tired, anxious for the boy, who now was asking for something to eat.

They waited like this for nearly two hours. Then, Alan could take no more. Red-faced, he almost ran to the top table and confronted them, letting go a string of invective, giving them a highly-coloured piece of his mind. A policeman came forward and firmly led him by the arm, back to his wife and child. Comforting and commiserating, he said they did not usually have such a hold-up and told Alan they would definitely be seen within a few moments more.

Sure enough a uniformed figure could be seen approaching from the door behind the desk. Stopping in front of the weary travellers, he asked them quietly why they didn’t just go home.

Alan’s face was a picture.

“What,” he asked, “if we can go now, why couldn’t we go through before?”

The officer apologised, telling them they were short-staffed and they might have had to wait for some time longer.
Alan angrily spat out “So, what made you decide we could go now?”

The official smiled saying, “Well, anyone who has command of a string of that sort of vitriolic language must be English. Now, why don’t you just go home?”


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