The Merstham Writers group challenged people to write about a place where they lost something. All the names have been changed, but this is a real story that actually happened.
I spent the summer of 2012 in the arrivals hall in Gatwick airport’s South Terminal. I watched the flow and ebb of humanity. So many people, back from their holidays still in shorts and t-shirts into the dreary English rain. Others returning home from seeing loved ones, or coming in their own holidays, or for the Olympics. I met many of the Jamaican athletes when the Kingston flight came in, and the Georgians too when they connected from Berlin.
Afternoons were quiet. There was an empty hour in the terminal just after lunch. I often sat on my high chair looking out at rows of tensa barriers. Their seatbelt edges sagging where the springs had snagged. Half-filled boarding cards with errors scrunched up decorated the floor. Everything was white, or painted white. Huge pillars held the ceiling up, with dark blue signs telling people to get ready, and not to use their phones or cameras.
A red line on the floor showed those waiting where to stop. Behind the desks a thicker blue line denoted the UK border. Officially we were all in limbo every time we crossed it. In between the lines I sat, or sometimes stood, at a high desk with a reinforced glass screen. Set into the desk was a terminal, passport scanner, and the all important ink pad so that my precious rubber stamp could admit, or refuse entry. On the passenger side of the desk there was a fingerprint reader.
On the left of the line as I looked out at the expanse of the arrivals hall were the electronic gates. They lined the side of the hall, perpendicular to the desks where real people waited to welcome visitors and residents alike. There were over a dozen of each, and the hall was big enough for thousands of people. When it was busy three or four flights arrived within minutes of each other. We’d have Canadians from YYZ, Americans from JFK and MIA, Jamaicans from KIN, French from CDG, Italians and Albanians from MXP, and all sorts of South Americans via MAD.
The one I remember most vividly was a young woman from St Lucia. Let’s call her Diana. Diana was so excited to be coming to Britain. She’d turned 17 the previous week, and this was her birthday present. Diana was looking forward to seeing Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square and being in Britain. Her enthusiasm for being here was infectious, her smile so wide, and her young face exuded happiness through a wide smile and bright eyes. There was no doubt that she was genuinely pleased to be here and looking forward to her holiday.
All I needed was to confirm with the adult that was meeting her that they were here, at 17 Diana still fell under our duty of care for minors. The story was simple. She’d met a woman on the computer. The woman was really friendly, and had come to St Lucia in holiday the previous summer. Diana had met Eva in person and shown her round St Lucia. Now she was coming to Britain to see the sights. Diana said that Eva had paid for the ticket and sent it for her birthday. She gave me the phone number and address of Eva without hesitation. So I told Diana that just needed to make sure Eva was here to collect her, and to take a seat while I called her.
Out I went to the back office to make the call. I thought it was a bit unusual, but even in the few weeks I’d been her I’d learnt that people are less usual than you’d think.
Eva answered the phone quickly. From the background noise she was in a moving car.
‘Are you expecting anyone today?’ I asked.
‘Yes, I’m just on my way to collect Diana from the airport.’
‘Can you tell me how you know Diana?’ I made notes as Eva spoke.
‘My boyfriend’s in the army with her brother. he asked if I could look after her.’
This was a new angle. Diana hadn’t mentioned either a brother or the army.
‘So what regiment is your boyfriend in?’
‘He’s in Afghan. With the army.’
‘Yes, which regiment?’
There’s a pause, and I hear a man in the background asking Eva what’s going on.
‘I’m not sure.’
‘Do you know what rank he is?’
Another exchange in the background. The man sounds annoyed.
‘I think he’s a gunner.’
‘Do you write to him?’
‘I send him parcels and we speak on the phone.’
If she’s sending him parcels the full address is his number, rank, name and regiment plus the BFPO number. Very strange that she doesn’t know this.
‘Have you met Diana before?’
‘No, this is the first time. Is there a problem?’
The story is just too different from Diana’s. I decide to stop this and get some advice.
‘I need to make sure under 18s are being met, there are all sorts of bad people out there. Thanks for your help.’
When I’ve hung up I go into the control room and have a chat with Joe, he’s the duty chief officer today. An ex Concorde steward before he joined the border force. He’s seen it all before. He agrees with my assessment that it isn’t right. So I introduce Diana to Mel, a specialist in trafficking. After a long chat with Mel, Diana leaves the terminal and is collected by Eva.
The following day Diana returns to the airport with her suitcase. She comes alone, and asks if we can arrange for her to go back home.