The half hour train journey to Gatwick, by comparison, was painless, apart from on our pockets, and the sight of the North Downs and eastern Surrey in full summer was magnificent. However, my nerves began racing on, and before having stepped off the tarmac at Gatwick, I felt quite homesick for England’s green and pleasant lands. Although with a crowd of people I knew, my tension rose as we entered the pristine North Terminal at Gatwick from the linking monorail. I was experiencing something which still niggles me today in all large airports. I have learnt how to love flying; the views and the experience is great, even if the seats are too small, but one thing I have never got over is the lengthy process of getting from the entrance of the airport to the plane, and even worse, the gauntlets at the other end of immigration, baggage retrieval and customs. No matter how many times I have checked, I always believe that I have left my passport behind, or the ticket actually says the flight left yesterday or is to the wrong destination, that my luggage will be overweight, that I shall be bumped off the flight, that I don’t have the correct visa, that the flight will be cancelled and I shall be stranded in some far flung airport, that I go to the wrong gate and go to Java instead of Jamaica, that my hand luggage is going to exploded in a controlled way because I did not pack it properly, that my nail scissors are larger than regulation size, that the can of deodorant will be mistaken for a grenade, that all my change will fall over the ground as I try to place it into the plastic bucket next to the X-ray machine, that my money belt will be removed by an expert pocket-picker in the café even though it is wedged inside my underwear. I have never really overcome this fear because so many of the things above have actually happened at some time or other, and several others which I had never thought of. Once I am sitting in that overgrown cigar case I am happy as Larry or Bert or Sally.
I have streamlined my approach now. I always wear a shirt with a top pocket, and in there goes the boarding pass and passport and stays with me till I reach my destination. Too many times have I seen people struggle unzipping bags all over the place while holding up a massive queue of fuming passengers. I used to have all my documents in an impressive leather bound holder which I kept in the inside pocket of my jacket, but it was a tight fit and when I had to show my documents, it would stick at the lip and I had to almost rip the jacket apart to extricate it from within. I always carry a pen with me, and the ticket stub and the pen go in that shirt pocket too, now. On a long haul flight particularly, where you have to fill in the landing cards after eight hours of sleeping, I don’t want to have to scramble over three people, unload my bag and search to the bottom for something to write with. And to have the flight number on the stub is better than trying to remember it. And I know the routine now of checking in, taxes, departure gate, airport security, gate and flight. The first few times I was so confused, I was sure I was going in the wrong order. I left Zimbabwe once without paying the departure tax.
I think my problem with airports stems from the way they detach people from the act of flying until the very last moment. In small airports it does not happen but in huge hub airports and particularly both Gatwick and Heathrow terminals appear so introverted that unless you knew, you’d hardly know there were a hundred aircraft waiting outside. I am sure this is the intention and is meant to calm nervous fliers before setting off. For me it has the completely opposite effect. They try to distract me so much with normality – cafes, shops, comfy seats, music and the like, that I become worried that I have entered a huge cruise ship or a shopping centre by mistake. If I am at an airport I like to see planes and, again, I now have my routine. In Gatwick North it is easy, there is a coffee shop in the corner that looks out over the western piers and I can see the runway in the distance. Heathrow four has something similar. Heathrow 3 was always disconcerting, the hustle and bustle of this terminal in a rather cramped space made it less easy going, and the building works in 2001 served to increase the claustrophobia; there seemed to be nowhere to look out from.
I also learnt that you never follow the instructions on the TV screens, if you go to the gate an hour before the flight you are forced to sit in their holding pens like sheep waiting to be dipped for far too long. Although I never delay a flight, I always try to get there a few moments before boarding commences; there is no point in going earlier when you have seats allocated. Instead, I buy a large newspaper, sit with an enormous cappuccino where I can watch the planes landing and taking off, and read the paper from cover to cover.
This all sounds so obvious now, but to an emerging adult who had never been on a plane in his life, it was a whirl. Three things struck me enormously about the flight itself; one was how plastic and flimsy the inside of an aircraft looked; the moulded walls looked like snappable Tupperware, the seats hardly bolted in and, with their ill-fitting covers, they might have collapsed at any moment. After experiencing the momentary thrill of take off, a moment I still enjoy enormously, the second thing struck me. Clouds. I had been looking forward to seeing miles after miles of countryside and sea down to Porto, but after some fifty seconds, we rose into the thick summer haze and I never saw another thing for two hours, when we landed. Number three occurred to me as we levelled out over northern France. When I banged my foot, there were some bags, a bit of metal then thirty thousand feet of pure air. I didn’t dwell on that one for too long, and never have done since. Thinking I would enjoy the flight, I had expected to soak in every minute. With nothing to see out of the window, no in-flight entertainment on this short flight, and the exhaustion of the overnight coach ride, I fell asleep. Next thing I knew we were coming into land in Portugal.