“Hmm … you need to see an optometrist. Potentially it’s more serious than just an eye infection.”
This was not in the game plan of my last day in the UK for four months.
“OK! Thank you!”
I smiled and left my local chemist with a cheery outlook, as she was just doing her job. My pending flight 4,000 miles away in just a few hours was neither her responsibility nor her concern.
I took Rusty back home, as I needed to seek medical help and as it was a hot day (in time my judgment concerning outdoor temperatures would change somewhat drastically) I did not want him cooking in my VW.
The nearby optometrist was as helpful as possible, given that he was not running a clinic and I was on a serious time constraint by now.
“Do you take anything for your hay fever?” he asked.
“I took some cetrizine last night but that was so I could have a curry. And then my eye started hurting.”
“Good grief! What sort of curry was this that you had to take medication and it gave you a bad eye?!”
I realised how much like a mad woman I sounded until I explained about my ‘spontaneous urticaria’. No, I still sounded mad.
“How long will you be away?”
“Oh – probably best not to wait till you get back then.”
And this lovely optometrist gave me some free medicated wipes and a recommendation for curry and off I went to the airport.
It was as Singing Sister approached Heathrow that I remembered about the four memory sticks containing years of resources, which I knew were sitting atop the piano at home.
The last month had been a month of goodbyes and my final ones were that day. To the children in the morning… the dog in the afternoon and to my mother and sister in the evening at the airport. I got through it by detaching myself. I couldn’t fully embrace my feelings or I don’t imagine I would have boarded the plane. So potentially, I had far stronger emotions than those attached to my memory sticks abounding within me; but as I had shut those down, I became preoccupied with those four little sticks which were in the wrong place. More of those later …
Any emotions whirling around my psyche would have been shoved into a metaphorical abyss at customs however, as soon as I began dealing with staff.
“This is the first time I see this,” accused the immaculate lady at ‘bag drop’ with her exotic accent, as she waved my temporary visa in what I considered to be a rather cavalier manner, given that it was a Very Important Piece Of Paper. Then she spoke to her colleague, still waving my Very Important Piece of Paper around and even crumpling it slightly in her perfectly manicured (yet strangely large) hand. My concern dissipated when I considered the worst outcome: that I would not be allowed to board the plane. As I was having doubts of a grave nature, this would have felt like a blessing at the time.
“Take it,” she proffered the now crumpled document and gave me a new one to accompany the crumpled one, concerning potential collection of luggage in Dubai en route to Oman.
“You stop at Dubai,” she instructed, “but your luggage will go straight through.” This made no sense to me, as the new document stated that I would have to collect my luggage en route. But I chose to ignore it. As I chose to ignore her concern over my visa.
Next stop security …I had ensured that there were no liquids lurking in my hand luggage and I had removed all electronic devices. For once, I was spared the brutal frisking procedure and I sailed through, confident that I could collect my bag and continue on my way. But no. I was told to wait to one side, which I did for around 5 minutes until I was told, despite standing exactly where I had been placed, that I should move away to protect the privacy of those whose bags were being searched. I still did not have my bag and presumed a search was imminent, but others seemed to have priority. Eventually the man at security who had asked me to move, approached me whilst carrying my bag. I moved towards him, thinking (wrongly) that I might be reunited with my bag but instead he beckoned me to follow him and passed me on to the biggest man I have ever seen, wearing the most purple suit I have ever seen. He took me to yet a third man, who was dwarfed by the giant purple man, but he made up for his lack of inches in self-importance. In a taciturn manner he emptied my bag whilst fixing his gaze on me, by way of intimidation. Silently, he drew my attention to a screen which showed the offending articles. There, on the screen, was the negative of one of those tiny tins of Vaseline. Oops. Guilty as charged … Caught smuggling a gram of lipsalve. But that was not all …
‘Snow globe,’ he accused.
And there was a tiny tiny snow globe on the screen, a memento of Brighton from a friend, packed at the last minute.
He stared at me.
I stared back, feeling the mirth rising up from my chest to my mouth.
Rarely have I been subject to melodrama of such extremes, by one who managed to contain his laughter.
After I repacked my gaudy ‘CabinMax’ rucksack, having turned down Self-Important Taciturn Man’s offer to repack it for me, I walked away for a few seconds, then swiftly glanced back, expecting to see Self-Important Taciturn Man and the Purple Giant convulsing with laughter, clinging onto each other helplessly.
I guess it was a quiet day at Airport Security.
The flight, I am glad to report, was uneventful. I ate, slept, watched a movie, was asked by an airline stewardess to stop lolling sleepily into the aisle, witnessed an argument between a family in front and the airline staff over meals (‘she is model’ were the most spoken words of the argument, by a middle-aged lady about her daughter and her weird eating habits) and disembarked at Dubai. Remembering the confusion over baggage collection, I asked an airline stewardess if I would have to collect my luggage at Dubai. She laughed and replied that I would not – there would be no time anyway. I re-embarked for the transfer to Oman and finally arrived at my destination and wearily followed the herd of passengers into Muscat airport.
‘Collection of Pre-Paid Visas’ said a sign.
I was struck by the lack of popularity for this particular offering at the airport, but paid the kiosk a visit anyway. There was a lady on her mobile phone, a long way behind the desk – she was almost in a back room in fact – but I awaited her attention nonetheless. Briefly, I looked away, as the view of the partition and the distant lady were both becoming tedious. As I turned back, she swiftly looked back down at her phone, clearly not keen for me to realise that my presence had been acknowledged.
‘Excuse me,’ I called.
‘Excuse me,’ I repeated my plea, ‘I need to collect my visa.’
She waved me away with her hand and returned to her phone. ‘Crush Candy’ must have reached a crucial stage.
I visibly grumped as I left, the emotion of leaving my home city and all that it contained which was all that I held dear, deciding to present itself and course through every vessel in my body. I had been angry but now I was distressed and wanted to go home. I had a strong suspicion that this was just the first time I would feel a sudden urge to sob and sob until I had no sobs left and in time my suspicion would be proved right.
A man in a security uniform stopped me and enquired as to the problem.
‘She won’t give me my visa!’ I replied, a little louder than intended.
‘Ma’am – you need to go over there,’ he gestured towards a sign which read ‘All Other Visas’ and I explained that mine was pre-paid.
‘They are all the same,’ he smiled … and he was right. My mood relaxed but Candy Crush Lady had caused me a considerable amount of distress and I was still feeling this as I queued.
There was a young man ahead of me in the queue who evidently did not know how to silence his phone. In the 15 minutes we stood far too close together in that queue, the number of times his phone pinged must have reached triple figures. He spoke to his presumed girlfriend in that time too. And when a woman on the other side of a barrier began gesturing frantically to him and I realised that she was responsible for the plethora of pings, I wanted to do terrible things to that iPhone 6.
But all too soon the next instalment awaited me at Baggage Reclaim. I waited. And waited … and waited. Nothing. Eventually, as I began to feel human again, I noticed a baggage inquiry desk. The gentleman who dealt with me had a poor grasp of English but I remembered about the chit of paper that the lady with the strangely large hands at Heathrow had given me. Apparently this gave me access to my luggage and he smiled gratefully and assured me that he would ‘get bag’. But he didn’t ‘get bag’ and his face was as forlorn as I was, when he returned empty-handed.
‘At Dubai,’ he said and followed it up with, ‘come back later.’
That brink on which I wobbled was becoming more and more unsteady as I felt myself falling, catatonically into every negative emotion imaginable.
The man with the poor English was replaced by a more fluent gentleman who assured me that my bag would be delivered to me that night. All I had to do was tell him where I lived.
‘I don’t know,’ I said.
‘Ok. I take your number and I call you when it arrives.’
My phone had already told me that it would charge me big, fat sums of money for calls and texts so I wasn’t keen.
‘I’ll call you later,’ I offered, hoping that i could borrow a phone from someone later, ‘by then I’ll know where I live.’
And I wandered off, slightly aimlessly, wanting to cry which made my infected eye hurt, wondering if I would see my luggage or my memory sticks again.
I walked through Customs and quite honestly, was clueless as to what I would find. I knew the face of the man (the headteacher) who interviewed me and … that was it. I doubted that he would be the person to meet me. Would it just be me? Would there be other teachers arriving simultaneously? I noticed a man wearing a dishdasha – well, there were many men wearing dishdashas – but this man stood out. I didn’t really know why he stood out, but later on I would realise that it was because he was clean-shaven, whereas – it would seem – many Omani men are not and also, his eyes were lighter than most. I was surprised to hear the words ‘Miss Lisa’ being spoken by this light-eyed clean-shaven man and noticed a card he was holding on which was written the name of the school. I was also surprised to see that he held out his hand and we had been warned that most Omanis of the opposite gender would not shake our hands. But he offered, so I accepted. His hands were soft.
‘You are the last,’ he stated, with a smile and a sense of inner peace.
I explained about my luggage and he was sorry to hear about the situation but reassured me that all would be well. I apologised for my tardiness and secretly came to realise that at no point during my mammoth journey, had I considered what would happen when I arrived in Muscat. I had not given any thought to the people meeting me – I could not have contacted them anyway – but it did not occur to me that I should look out for someone as I walked through Customs. I had a vague recollection of an email that mentioned meeting at a cafe; which is where I spotted a gathering of people with the headteacher in the midst of it all.
‘We thought you’d changed your mind!’ greeted the head and I laughed and explained about my luggage, but kept the thought that I had changed my mind to myself.
He devoted a considerable amount of time and effort to the luggage situation, the outcome of which was that he would bring me back to the airport that evening to collect it. He then devoted yet more time and effort towards my phone situation, explaining that I needed to buy a SIM card at the airport to avoid the big, fat charges from O2. This was proceeding well, until it transpired that I hadn’t unlocked my phone.
‘Argh! I told you do that – I put it in an email!’ he exclaimed.
It was true. He had. The truth was, I hadn’t really understood, so I had paid O2 a visit, explained about my pending job and asked what I should do to prepare for going abroad, regarding my phone.
‘Nothing really,’ the pallid, bored-looking man in O2 had said, just before yawning.
‘It will be really expensive to use your phone abroad,’ he had continued, ‘so I would buy a new phone out there, if I were you.’
And that had been the extent of O2’s advice to me.
A minibus arrived and took all of us new arrivals to our apartment block. There was Omani coffee on the bus and a delectable sweet dessert called halwa. This went some way towards lifting my spirits away from my new problems concerning luggage and phones, although I panicked when it occurred to me that the head had said he would call me to arrange the journey to the airport to retrieve my luggage, but he had no way of contacting me! There had been an offer to go to a supermarket a little later, so I decided to ensure I took this offer, so that I would see him to tell him this.
However, the gentleman with the serene aura arrived to take us shopping instead: I explained my predicament and he told me not to worry. But I did worry – I felt it was the serenity talking and the practical side may not have been aware of the necessity of being proactive.
But he was right – I need not have worried – the head arrived later on and indeed, my luggage had arrived from Dubai. I had to jump through several metaphorical hoops in order to be allowed to retrieve my own luggage (funny how one is not required to jump through any hoops – metaphorical or otherwise – when one collects one’s luggage straight off the plane) but the outcome was a happy reunion with my luggage. As the head dropped me home, I reflected on the help I had received from him and others that day and felt slightly in awe. Emotionally, I was fragile at that time and plans were going awry but I was not having to face problems alone. I thanked him and tried to impart my appreciation of being scooped up from disasters but I’m not sure I succeeded.
Back at my new apartment (which, by the way, was of a generous size and newly-decorated), I unpacked, at last …
If you have ever experienced the feeling of reaching the last few items of a container, whether it is a suitcase or some other vessel and then gradually realised that something is missing, you will sympathise with my heart-stopping, chilling, nauseous feeling. An important bag of jewellery was missing. For the first time that day I cried. I had wanted to on numerous occasions, but had not. There was nothing else for which to stay composed now though; my streaky face would not be seen by anyone. It’s at Heathrow I thought. Self-Important Taciturn Man is responsible for this.
Then I decided to call home. I knew that O2 would gain big, fat sums of money from me but it was worth the sacrifice, I felt. I felt right; I had left the bag at home. It should have been with me, but at least it wasn’t languishing in a grey tray at security in Heathrow.
Ok … there were problems but they were getting solved. Sleep was needed … and so sleep was had.