Monday 31 October 2011

Coming home


I am standing in front of the Thai Airways check-in area. Wearing my Asia To Go yellow string nylon baseball cap. Honestly. My worst fears coming to fruition. What is Mike thinking of? He’s meant to be an upmarket tour operator. Ah. There’s the first of my ladies. She’s wearing a blue and white checked shirt, beige slacks and a jaunty neckerchief. Along with her Asia To Go cap.

‘Hello, I’m Eliza,’ I smile, holding out my hand and hoping she can’t see through the make-up to my red, tear-worn eyes, which are now prickling and smarting from overuse.

‘Miss Chick,’ she says, briefly making contact with her limp, clammy little hand.

‘Should I call you…?’

‘Miss Chick,’ she repeats firmly.

I am saved by three more arrivals, a jolly, booming one and a pair of wizened little ones. As I’m greeting them, I notice Miss Chick is squeezing anti-bacterial gel on her palms. Yellow baseball hats keep bobbing up through the crowds until I count in all nine of my flock. Eight women of a certain age (an age that starts at least a decade above mine) and one man, who seems quite genial if paunchy and reeking slightly of BO. We're meeting the other three members of our party at the hotel tomorrow evening - two more women flying direct from America to Saigon and a British bloke who's doing some charity work in Vietnam.  

I lead my group round the maze that leads to the check-in counter and stand by as Miss Chick checks in, followed by the wizened pair, twittering and fluttering like little sparrows, holding up their ziplocked travel toiletries to double-check they’ll be allowed through security with them. The booming woman, who turns out to be the Dowager Countess, reaches the counter and slaps down a much-thumbed and visa’d passport. She turns and winks at me. I smile, but my chest band is tightening. How can I do this to Dusty?

Right. They’re all checked in. Just me now. Oh Dusty. My heart has never felt so heavy. This is it. I heave my suitcase on to the scales. 24kg. Bit over. And it’s not going to leave much room for outfits from Hoi An. But what can you do when you have to pack for smart hotels and mountain walks and beaches and typhoons and freezing fog and monsoon rains and sweltering sun and air conditioning?

‘Passport?’ the woman is saying.

I riffle through my money belt. I glance over at the group. They are all looking at me. I do some more urgent riffling, then make a show of checking every pocket of my jacket, my handbag and my trolley dolly hand luggage.

‘I can’t find it,’ I say. ‘It’s gone.’

‘I’m afraid I can’t issue a boarding pass without seeing your passport,’ says the check-in woman.

‘I think I’ve left it at home,’ I say in a stricken voice. ‘I’m going to miss the flight if I go back. But I’m going to have to. Can I change my ticket and travel on tomorrow’s flight?’

She points me in the direction of Customer Services. I lug my case back off the scales and wheel over to the group. The wizened pair are clucking nervously.

‘Problem?’ asks Steve, the genial paunchy chap, asserting himself as spokesman for the group.

‘I definitely had my passport when I left this morning,’ I assure them. ‘I’m just going to go through all my things somewhere quieter. Give me your mobile number, Steve. I’ll call or text you as soon as I find it, or …’ I tail off. ‘Anyway, you all go through to security. Steve, could you take charge until I catch up with you?’

‘Right you are,’ he says in his down-to-earth northern accent. I sense he is relishing his new position of authority.

‘Make sure you all stay together,’ I call as my brood of yellow ducklings waddles off uncertainly, quacking to each other.

Right. Customer Services. I weave through the crowds, running over a few toes. Gabble my story and, incredibly, they issue a new ticket. More weaving to Excess Baggage. Dump my oversized case. Google: National Express. Is there a bus to Candlebury at this hour? Oh my God! Last bus, 8.30. I might just make it. I race through the terminal with trolley dolly in tow and hurl myself at the bus with minutes to spare.

As we pull out of the terminal, I go through my money belt once more. Yes, there's my passport. Heart still pumping, I call Dan.

‘I’m coming home!’

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