by NB Armstrong (April 2013)
We are slow onto the motorway out of Leicester, and slow changing drivers at Leicester Forest East. The new driver expresses his pleasure that we are late. It has allowed him longer to eat his breakfast and, I guess from his smell, to smoke an extra cigarette. The two drivers talk about corrupt colleagues claiming vouchers on buses carrying no passengers as we crawl down the M1. This is when it also becomes apparent that I am going to miss the flight.
I had made the first mistake. I hadn’t checked the ticket. I didn’t realize I was flying from terminal 4. Long haul trips to East Asia usually go from terminal 3. But this time the first leg is within Europe. So the plane departs from terminal 4. That wait at Heathrow Central Bus station while coach passengers for terminals 1 and 3 disembark and gather their luggage has got to put some extra time on the journey. That's got to mean I should have taken an earlier bus. But the driver says he can do the leg to terminal 4 in just ten minutes. I could do it, he emphasizes. But it will not be him. It will be another driver. He’s handing over the wheel to a colleague at Leicester Forest East service station on the M1. But it is on the way to Leicester, the first leg of the journey, driven by the ten minute man, that it first becomes apparent I am going to miss the flight. It eats up an entire hour from Nottingham: 6:50am to 7:50am. The flight to Amsterdam departs at 11:45.
The new driver at Leicester Forest East is early forties, with a few quickly developing elderly characteristics: deeply lined crows nests, patchy spiky receding hair, a permanent half stoop, and slow ways. He rests his hands on the wheel as he drives and spends most of the time in the slowest lane possible. His conversational gambits are unimaginative yet considered; collegiate but self serving. The driver seat of this bus, rarely changing gear or lane, following a straight repetitive path, is his ideal working environment.
At Milton Keynes Bus Station he says passengers can have five minutes to grab a cup of tea. This is because there are long hold ups between junctions 15 and 20 on the M25. We will enter the M25 near junction 20 and depart for Heathrow at junction 15. This is when it again becomes apparent that I am going to miss the flight. An elderly lady on the front seat adjacent to mine mentions something about connections and time. The stooping coach driver has a default response for such remarks: passengers are supposed to allow three hours between expected arrival time and departure. But who does that? He is now making it apparent that I am going to miss the flight.
The extra five minute wait is to allow the congestion on the M25 time to clear. Five minutes for five junctions of congestion to clear. Five minutes for what he says are one and a half hour delays. It is very hard not to panic. My cell phone goes into overdrive. My contacts tell me the next flight to Amsterdam won't be until three and there will be insufficient time upon arrival in Amsterdam to transfer onto the 5:45 to Incheon, Korea. The bus driver departs Milton Keynes exactly five minutes after he gave everyone five minutes to grab a cup of tea.
We reach the roundabout outside Milton Keynes bus station. It will steer us back onto the M1. A passenger walks the aisle to inform the driver that the woman who was sitting next to her is not on her seat. Is she in the coach toilet? Wasn’t her destination Milton Keynes? No, and no. The driver failed to do a head count or give even a cursory look to check all passengers had returned. We go back to Milton Keynes bus station. The late returner laughs and smiles her way onto the bus. She is grateful, oblivious, and young and good looking, so none of the males involved with her late return are visibly put out. I don’t doubt that she is in plenty of time for her flight.
The first flashing road signs visible on the M1 past Milton Keynes remind us that there are hour and a half delays on the M25. It takes an age to get from Milton Keynes to the junction 6a turnoff for the M25. But from the turnoff it is only one mile to junction twenty and there is little congestion. Our lateness -we are already, having only just reached the M25, past the 10:10 due arrival time at Heathrow Central Bus Station- is little to do with traffic conditions and a lot to do with a ponderous driver pursuing advanced elderly ways and a cigarette habit. So we arrive at Heathrow Central Bus Station at 11 o'clock. The flight for Amsterdam leaves at 11:45. I'm desperate. I really don’t want to add a twenty four hour delay to a twenty four hour journey. The elderly lady behind the driver makes a move to get up from her seat a fraction of a second before the gears are put into neutral.
– That's how accidents happen, says the driver. When you get up before I’ve parked.
– Could you be as quick as possible, please? I ask, hoping that a quick turnover of luggage might open up a couple of extra minutes of dashing time.
He stops walking on the last step and looks at me. He pauses before he speaks.
– How can you talk to me like that?
– I said please. I'm pushed for time. His face is red and shaking. He stops zipping up his jacket.
– Now inconvenience cost time, he says, or something approximating to that. He is insulted to the point of incoherence and in an instant the keen sense of enduring a cosmic wrong has transferred from me to him, as if the torturer himself has righteous needs and a tough job of work.
– Well, I said please, I say again levelly. The offended man disembarks.
This is when it also becomes apparent that I am going to miss the flight.
Will he resume the argument when he gets back on? I don't care. I don’t want to miss the plane but, inside this slow moving corridor on wheels, whatever happens, happens. He gets back on, rests his hands on the wheel, and we recommence the bureaucratic cruise. The journey to terminal 4 through the hangars, warehouses, and conference and tourist hotels of Hatton Cross and Heathrow, is like the transfer from one giant wing of an extensive prison grounds to another.
I charge off the bus. My case is at the very back of the undercarriage. My hands touch the driver’s as I pick it off the short term waiting pavement outside terminal 4. It is 11:10. I walk-run, reverberating with dissipating hope to the relevant airline zone inside. A man in a rumpled airport official suit slides my passport into the automatic check in machine. The passenger cannot board at this time. This is when it yet again becomes apparent that I am going to miss the flight.
The man in the crumpled suit won't walk me through the baggage check in and immigration and the gate because this is not 1977 and in 2013 a machine’s word is final. I must change my ticket. And yet my state of confusion and dissipating hope has not fully drained. I have been unable to absorb the fact that I have really missed the plane because my conscious mind knows the plane is sitting on the tarmac patiently ingesting passengers within five minutes walking distance of where I stand with only one piece of luggage; so I rush the ticket counter and ask whether I can’t still get on, isn’t there time to board, are we really going to let a machine have the last say on this urgent but human-resolvable matter? But this is where you buy tickets, and I will have to change my ticket. It is 11:15 and this is when it finally becomes apparent that I am going to miss the flight.
I swear and curse, under and over my breath, and the counter operators hear and see me swear and curse and turn their heads away. It is violence and wailing that I want to do and they know it. There is no other reasonable response. Civilized shrugging would be a cold act of fakery belying real feelings of rage. So I do a little violence; there is sharp foot, head and arm contact with the underside of the counter, though with bending down to retrieve documents at the same time it goes unnoticed. I can barely look at the eyes of the assistant duty bound to find an alternative transport solution, a “bespoke travel solution”, and dolefully address the back of his monitor. There is nothing available that day. I knew that already. I'll have to take the same route tomorrow. I knew that already. The airline charges me one hundred and fifteen pounds for changing the ticket and a twenty five pounds reissue fee, that last imposition pure corporate wound-salting. I can check in online later in the day. Later in the day I check in online. The flight has been cancelled and I have been allocated a seat on a later plane that will require me to change for the third time the final leg of the journey in South Korea.
Missing a flight is like having a piece of life taken away from you. It is a time fine, and there is a minor frightening goneness to the moment it finally happens. Do it alone and the emotions it brings on palely imitate a final instant of passing, with no loved ones watching. And the helpful obstinacy of the unmoved airport bureaucrats conjures the attitude of God. Make sure you catch an early bus.
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