Friday, 15 December 2017

Flying Home for Christmas - A Short Story

(source: pinterest)

We all have at least one journey that went horribly wrong and that only seemed funny in hindsight - if at all. Well, here is mine from quite a few years ago. Recommended listening: Driving Home for Christmas - Chris Rea

'Twas December 18th, a Friday. The last day of classes and only 6 days until Christmas Eve with my family in Austria. It was to be the day my friend visited for the weekend before we parted on Monday morning, each to fly to our respective families. Little did I know it was also the Friday that would change my attitude to winter travel forever.

First, my friend cancelled. The flu had struck her down at the last moment and since she did not want to travel and I did not want to catch her bug, we deemed it safer to stay in our respective homes.

It was a long weekend, in which all I could think of was the plane I would be sitting in just after 10 am on Monday morning.

MONDAY, 21st December

The day arrives with a gentle dusting of snow. A different friend, let's call him Bob, with a shiny car all his own, picks me up just after 7 to brave the streets. I grew up in Austria. Snow is something we potentially deal with from late September until May. The few flakes covering the roads of Aberdeen would barely warrant a forecast to that effect, let alone weather warnings. However, this is Britain, where snow seems to take people by surprise every year. Naturally, drivers panic. However, Bob's expertise at navigating traffic, and my obsession with being Early (TM) when it comes to flights, mean we make it to the airport with plenty of time to spare.

Check in, security, browsing the book store. The usual airport amusements before patience starts to run low and feet start to itch to get moving. There is a sign above my gate. It goes from on-time to delayed for 20 minutes. Then to delayed for an hour. Two hours. My stress level rises with every minute added to my departure time.


I can practically feel my heart sink into my stomach. Delays are common, but cancellations are new to me. Slowly, the crowd around me rises to their feet, the frequent fliers leading the group towards an illuminated exit sign. I take my place among the grumbling passengers, my heart racing rather more than I would like. I send a text to mum, "Flight cancelled. Not sure what happens next. Will keep you posted," and take my place in the queue.

And there I remain. Minutes turn into hours, morning into afternoon and one by one I watch flights leave the country or being cancelled. The line behind me gets longer. Grumblers turn into complainers, well-behaved children into screaming toddlers. Their frustrated parents take turns walking them up and down the line.

"Do not leave your luggage unattended," a helpful noise declares from the tannoy, but desperate situations call for desperate measures and more than once those 56cm by 45cm by 25cm of personal belongings and invaluable Christmas presents are left in the care of a stranger to nip to the bathroom. Six and a half hours later, with the queue still feeling like it has barely moved, some airport attendee finally takes pity on us weight shifters, bag sitters, and on the floor collapsers by walking up and down the line with a box of Roses. Great. A fingernail sized bit of chocolate will make all my worries go away. 5 stars to Aberdeen airport, where they will give you chocolates if you wait long enough.

My flight was supposed to leave at 10 in the morning. Some time after 3 in the afternoon I find myself in the lobby of the airport hotel with a number ticket in my hand. The airport has been getting too crowded and people were carted off to more comfortable locations. I have barely made my dent in one of those lobby chairs that are more armrest than chair before my number is called and I am shuttled back to the airport.

"No, there are no planes to Amsterdam tonight," the disgruntled looking attendant tells me once I reach her desk.
"Maybe I can go via Paris?" I offer. "Or Frankfurt? Or even...?"
I must be the six hundredth person that day to offer her desperate alternatives, but she patiently shakes her head.
"There are no planes tonight," she repeats, "but I can get you a seat on the same plane you were supposed to be on today for tomorrow morning."
"Yes!" I exclaim, hobbling from one foot to the other while her printer huffs and sighs. I snatch the new ticket from her hand and dash to the exit with barely a word of thanks.

I'm a student. I have no money. I find a bus that takes me into the vicinity of my home. And then another. I arrive in a freezing cold flat at 6:30 pm. I had turned off the water to save the pipes from freezing. I had emptied the fridge because I was going to be gone for more than two weeks. I switch the water and the heating back on and collapse on the sofa. There is nothing I can do about the fridge. Thank you, airport attendee, for that fingernail sized bit of chocolate. It will have to do for today.

I send a text to mum: "Will come home tomorrow."
I send another to Bob: "Will you please pick me up at the same time again tomorrow and take me back to the airport?"
I look out of my window. It has been snowing all day. It's beautiful. I love snow, but as I admire the thick flakes as they float to the ground, there is a hole in my stomach that is quickly filling with dread for lack of anything else.

TUESDAY, 22nd December

 I am up at 6 am. Technically, I have been awake since 4 and had taken a brief look at the world at 2. I hadn't gone to bed until after midnight because I kept watching the snow. I'm torn. It's so pretty. I love it so much. But I need to get to the airport today. As I munch on a dry piece of toast I find in the freezer I listen to the radio.
"If it's not absolutely necessary to go out today," the reporter urges people, "do not leave your home."
I love Scotland. It is my home and the place where I intend to spend the rest of my life, but pull yourself together, people! It's snow! And not even that much of it. Some 10 cm maybe. I remember dreaming of snow days as a child. You heard of snow days on TV, but did Austria ever get them? No. The roads were ploughed by 7 am at the very latest. I remember wading through hip-deep snow to get to school for 8. Did I get a snow day? No. But here snow ploughs seem to have been victims of budget cuts, because, after all, this is Scotland. It never snows here. I relay all this to the reporter with more than a generous portion of sarcasm. Sarcasm is really the only thing I have generous portions left of. Besides, I have a dire need to be at the airport so I will definitely leave my home, warnings be damned.

It's almost 8 when Bob finally picks me up. Traffic was a nightmare. He could not make it any sooner. I tell him it's fine, while inside I'm screaming. I am going to miss another plane! But I can see that traffic really is bad. The streets have not been cleared and every car on the road is more skidding than driving. We barely make it a kilometre from my flat, when I get a phone call from mum. "Go back home. Amsterdam airport is closed. I'll arrange something from here."

9 am. An hour until my imaginary plane will take me off this island and to the land of family; and here I am, back in my flat, once again switching on the heating and the water, and this time forced to make a trip to the grocery store for some essentials. Bob leaves apologetically. He will not be able to take me to the airport again. His mum arrived last night from the continent and he wants to spend time with her. I understand, I assure him, but secretly wish I had been one of those lucky few making the jump across the North Sea the day before.

I spend the day looking at snow and watching Christmas movies, while quickly losing the last of the holiday spirit that had remained to me. Busses are no longer driving. Neither are taxis. Throughout the day I update mum on my progress, while she tells me that she has booked me a new flight, now getting into Switzerland - where she is to pick me up - via Copenhagen leaving late on Wednesday afternoon.

As the day wears on and the news remind me to stay home and that even public transport has given up, I set myself a new mission: annoy the taxi companies until one of them agrees to get me to the airport. After my initial attempts at lunchtime fail to get more than a "we're not driving today and will not drive tomorrow" I resume to call every company I know at least every hour. By 7 pm every hour turns into every 30 minutes. Never mind the phone bill. I will get to spend Christmas with my family and if I have to row the whole island closer to the continent. By 8:30 pm, after many a tearful call to mum because "they won't let me off this bloody island!" - how quickly sentiments change when you are desperate to be somewhere else! - some poor operator finally takes pity on me. Yes, the taxis will likely be driving tomorrow, assuming the weather doesn't get worse. I take it.
"I need to be at the airport for lunchtime," I tell him. It's a lie. My plane doesn't leave until some time before 6 pm, but at this point I am no longer taking chances.
"We will get you there," he assures me and with my sigh of relief I instantly lose about 45 kg.

WEDNESDAY, 23rd December

It's still dark outside when I stand in front of the bathroom mirror. The day of reckoning. I will do this. I will fly home. I have 36 hours until Christmas Eve and though I will arrive late at night, the annual tradition of mum and I putting up the Christmas tree will still happen.
My reflection has dark rings under her eyes. She has not slept all night and has instead stared out the window, loving the snow and hoping for it to go away at the same time. She doesn't look ready, but I sure am. Three hours later I have emptied my fridge for a second time, and switched off the water and heating for a third. Notwithstanding the promises made the previous evening I call the taxi company to find out that they are, indeed, back in service.

After a very slow drive I arrive at the airport at lunchtime on the dot. I'm not allowed to check in yet, so I plant my butt on a chair outside WHSmith from where I do not intend to move until said butt is put on a plane.

I have been reading for three hours, when a yellow vested security guard taps me on the shoulder.
"Is this your suitcase?" she asks, pointing at an unfamiliar black box on wheels.
I shake my head. Never seen it in my life. Never seen the person supposed to be attached to it either. I was reading. I get lost in my own little world. I'm sorry.
The security guard steps away and mumbles in her radio. A click and a voice, but the answer is lost in static. My head is bent over the page, but my eyes are scrutinising every person walking past. Someone better claim that luggage! I swear by all that I hold dear that I will not move from this seat. If you have to evacuate the building and send in the bomb squat, you rest assured that I will be sitting right here watching them work. And they better be fast, because there is a plane at six that I will be on come hell or high water.

A man in his 40s plops down on the seat beside me. The security guard materialises at his shoulder.
"Is this your suitcase?" she asks more accusatory than curious.
"It is," the man confirms, "I was just in WHSmith to get some reading material for..."
"Sir, you are lucky I did not have the building evacuated, because you left your luggage unattended. If you had not shown up in the next 5 minutes..."

My knuckles turn white as I cling to my book, glaring at the same page I had been staring at for the past few minutes. With the miscreant duly dealt with the security guard wanders off. The man beside me appears to have shrunk since his return from the shop. I shoot him a look that makes him shrink further. That's right, buddy. Leave your luggage unattended again and I will find you and I will kill you. Well, I'm no Liam Neeson, and this is not exactly the Christmas spirit, but I am going to remember that face and that suitcase and point every member of security towards them.

Still staring daggers at the man, I pick up my own luggage. Time to get ready. Check in, security, browsing the book store. I have a sense of déjà vu, but while I'm waiting at the gate, too restless to read, the sign goes from on time to boarding and with a sigh of relief I take my place in the queue. I send mum the obligatory "finally getting on a plane!" text and take my seat.

And there I sit, headphones on but not hearing the music that comes out of them. The plane and runway are being de-iced for our safety, we are being told. I have an hour to get my connection in Copenhagen and it has been thirty minutes already. I grab a flight attendant and show her my ticket. Will I make the connection? Of course, I will. She needs to be on a plane leaving Copenhagen at eight. Mine does not leave until 8:30. Everything is going to be fine.

I lean back, but I cannot relax. Time is trickling by. I don't know how much time passes before we finally get the all clear and take off.

I'm in the sky. I'm off the island! I will reach countries that can handle snow! I will be home in time for Christmas.

But there is a nagging doubt in my gut. That delay has been significant. I call the flight attendant again, who once more assures me that everything is going to be fine. I lean back in my seat, but I cannot relax.

We arrive in Copenhagen with an hour's delay. I rush out of the plane and slam my ticket onto the first helpdesk I see. This is the plane that will take me home tonight. Where is it and how can I get there?

"I'm sorry, miss," the attendant tells me, "but this plane is already boarding. You will not make it in time."
"Stop the plane!" I demand. Desperate times call for desperate measures and planes have been delayed for less.
He gives me an incredulous look. "I cannot do that, miss."
"You don't understand," I plead. "I need to be on this plane. I've been meant to be home since Monday."
He understands, but there is nothing he can do. "Even if you were to make it, your luggage never would. There is a flight tomorrow morning at 6 am going to Zürich via Frankfurt that I can book you on."
I want something direct. I want something tonight. But short of some random city in Turkey there is nothing. I have only thirty minutes to change planes in Frankfurt. That's half an hour less than I had in Copenhagen, where I am quietly talking to an airport attendant while my last hopes of Christmas drift into oblivion. My helplessness must have shown on my face, for he offers me a free overnight stay in a hotel, along with a voucher for dinner and breakfast and an emergency toiletries kit. My checked in luggage will go straight on the plane tomorrow morning.

I shuffle away from his desk to collapse on a chair and make another tearful call to mum. I'm not going to make it. For the first time she will have to put up the tree by herself. I can't stop crying and I can't bring myself to leave the airport. A concerned security guard taps on my shoulder: "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," I snap and then apologise. I just want to be at home. I haven't slept in three days and right now I'm not even sure which country I am in.

Eventually I get a taxi to the hotel that has been assigned to me. I could still get dinner, but I have lost my appetite. My bedroom is on the 23rd floor. I have never been up this high. The view is amazing and if I were less heartbroken and hopeless I would savour it and snap a shot. As it is, I just stumble into the bathroom and take the longest, hottest bath in the most luxurious tub I have ever seen, before slipping into my oversized emergency kit t-shirt, brushing my teeth with a brush that is not mine and sinking into the most amazing bed. Tonight, I shall sleep.

Until an hour later a friend texts me. "How's Austria?"
"I tell you about Austria. Austria is far away, that's what it is!"

THURSDAY, 24th December

 It's ridiculously early o' clock. Too early for breakfast, but the receptionist gets me a cup of tea while I wait for the taxi to take me back to the airport. I have not slept since the text and the determination of the previous day has turned into a numb, gloopy mess, not much different from my face, which rivals the white walls of my surroundings.

I am the first person at the gate, making my way past the poor people who did not get the cosy hotel room and instead slept in various positions of discomfort on the airport floor.

Delay on the previous day aside, things run surprisingly smoothly in Copenhagen airport, but once I find myself on the plane, I grab the first flight attendant I see and hold out my connection ticket from Frankfurt. Of course, I will make it, she assures me, and no amount of me telling her that "the other one" said so too last night would convince her otherwise. She does, however, let me sit in the first row of second class seats to make sure I get off the plane quickly.

The plane takes off and I count the seconds until touch down. I have been to Frankfurt airport before and I consider it a rather huge place if you need to get from A to B in under thirty minutes. The plane touches down, the seatbelt signs ping off and I'm out the door the moment they open. I rush down the stairs, ready for a wild dash to the Zürich bound plane - only to see a shuttle bus waiting for me.

I get on the bus and turn into the Grinch as people shuffle and push past me. No, I cannot move. No, the place beside the door is mine. I know it's Christmas, but I will get onto my connecting plane and in order to do that I need to be beside the door.

After what feels like hours the bus finally chugs along to the gate. The doors open, and much like on the plane I shoot out like a bullet from a pistol. I run along hallways, down many stairs - nearly taking a nun with me in my overzealous overtaking efforts - and along more endless hallways. My bladder's timing is immaculate as always and I promise it a toilet break as soon as we are on the plane to Zürich. I reach the gate, puffing and wheezing like an ancient steam engine. My legs wobble as I finally slow down and slam my ticket on the desk, unable to get out a word. The airport attendant looks at me with a confused, horrified expression.

"Did I," I gasp, "make it?"
She smiles. "2 minutes to spare."

I grab my ticket and stumble into the nearest Ladies.

Half an hour later I am soaring above the clouds on my way to Zürich. And as my body finally relaxes from the ordeals of the last few days and drifts into sleep, a thought flashes through my mind. "I bet my luggage won't make it." **

~The End~

** The luggage arrived three days later in the dead of night.

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