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One of the greatest pleasures of living in France of course is that it isn't anywhere else. However Britain, England to be more precise, was the country of my birth and occasionally therefore I am obliged to return if only to visit a few old friends. Along with even fewer surviving relatives that are still prepared to talk to me. What better way of travelling from the fine and noble country of France to its long time foe in entente cordialle - England, than on a second hand aeroplane run by an Irish barrow boy? Ryanair! Well I can think of a dozen better ways and a score of them involve fine restaurants aboard the superb fleet of Brittany Ferries. However I guess I must have drawn some cruel short straw of life and therefore condemned to flying on this particular occasion!
"A seat for a tenner or two for twenty five Quid."
"Would you be bringing your own toilet paper with you now as we ran out in 1999."
A few ticket 'Add-On' costs start with such luxuries as £250 for inside seats (inside the plane that is, not against the aisle!). Any baggage that won't fit in a shoebox, £25 extra. £10 for using a credit card (for each passenger and even when paying for a First Eleven size family with a single payment! Despite the fact that no alternative method of making payment is accepted. £15 for using the Internet Booking Service. £15 for not using the Internet Booking Service. The list goes on and on and on.
And so it was that I found myself at our pleasant little local airport called Pleurtuit, situated on the outskirts of Dinard and St Malo. Or 'Plertwit' as les 'Ros Bifs' prefer to mangle the word. I was embarking upon one of my thrice yearly trips back to 'The Old Country'. These trips I make in order that I can gloat in person at the misfortunes of all the friends, inlaws and outlaws that I had abandoned to a New Labour government and their unelected ministers a decade earlier.
On the tarmac in the drizzle stood a familiar blue, white and gold liveried 'One Eleven' Airbus, with a harp for a tail. A couple of step ladders propped up against one of its engines. A pair of mechanics in smart overalls stood, one upon each ladder, peering into the gloomy depths under a raised engine nacelle. One retrieves some wiggly piece of tubing looking for all the world like something one might find round the back of my washing machine. He stared at it for a moment, looked at his silently incredulous colleague, peered back at it, raised it to his teeth and bit it, shook his head in apparent disbelief and without care or glance at where it might land, threw it over his shoulder onto the tarmac below.
I've never liked flying. I liked it even less at that moment. To be fair the only parts I really abhor are the driving through the cones (on the English side anyway) to the airport, the interminable queuing, the security checks, screaming kids, more interminable queuing, more security checks, smelly passengers that invariably have seats either side of mine, the take off, the being in the air, the gap from the back of my seat to the one in front that measures thirty centimetres less than the length from my coccyx to my knee caps. The bald head of the woman in front of me in my lap, the blocked toilets, the plastic food, the repeat of Jungle Book. Sanctimonious trolley dollies, the turbulence, the landing, the interminable queuing, the security checks, screaming kids, more interminable queuing, the baggage carousel. The underpants on the carousel that look very similar to the ones my brother bought in Skegness and stuffed in my suitcase as a joke on my (first) honeymoon (the 'Kiss Me Quick' ones). My broken suitcase that follows. More security checks, the waiting for the bus to take me to the car park that is located virtually next to the airport I took off from immediately before arriving at this one. Walking up and down the car park lanes for two and a half hours before realising I'd parked my car not in Car Park '2B' but in Car Park 'B2'. The one that planners had thoughtfully and conveniently constructed as far away to the west side of the airport as this one was distant from the east side. Just before discovering that when it is wet, the free Airport Car Park bus service increases its pickup intervals to once every Thursday week! Arranging a second mortgage on a mobile phone with a flat battery at 3:15 in the morning in order to fund the parking charges.
Apart from that I don't mind flying at all. The fact I wasted half my life doing it in a forlorn attempt to support two families never ceases to amaze me in sad retrospect.
Anyway, I digress.
The two mechanics finished their critical application of gaffer tape and shut the bonnet on the starboard engine. One of them quickly nipped over to the other side of the plane in order to confirm another matching one was bolted to the port wing. Usually located on the other side. He gave a thumbs up (may have been a thumbs down, it was difficult to tell in the downpour) to the Airport Director peering out of the window that everything was now tickety-boo. Meaning the necessary requisite report confirming that a thorough Quality Check on the Rolls Royce fuel delivery system would be on their Controller's desk within the week. Certainly within one hundred and fifty hours following the aircraft's next scheduled landing (think about it. In your own time now.).
Passengers having completed Customs checks, Security clearance and colonic irrigation thus filed through onto the apron. Pleurtuit is a nice airport. It doesn't have any of those fearsome, claustrophobic, umbilical tube thinghies that passengers are customarily squeezed through, meat grinder style, in more 'civilised' and much larger airports such as Heathrow or Little Bodmin on the Piddle ('Little Bodmin on the Piddle International' - alternate Wednesdays - after 2:30pm). Pleurtuit has steps on wheels. Like the ones you see in old American movies where an ascending handsome hero waves to his fiancée on the tarmac below as he sets off to single handidly win whichever World conflagration the rest of his countrymen are planning to turn up late for.
My place in the queue arrived. Scarcely one foot on the first step and I felt a hand on my shoulder. I'm 6' 4" and with no disrepect ever intended or implied to my countrymen, in such circumstances I generally turn instinctively with eyes slightly lowered. Expecting to meet my beckoner eye to eye.
"You have ze two bags!" Boomed the accusation. Delivered in the style of an AK47 set to fire in 'Quick Short Burst' mode.
"Er yes." I replied. Nervously as I raised my head. Raising it far enough to look straight into the grey eyes of the stewardess now facing and towering above me.
I repeat. She had grey eyes. Including even the white bits. Delightfully matching her grey uniform. Her grey hair. Her grey shoes, grey stockings and grey complexion. The thought flashed through my mind that if she was flying with us then given her ample proportions Ryanair might be forgiven on this occasion for their application on this flight of a double fuel surcharge. Her steely cold leer though quickly erased any latent thoughts I had of making jokes. Indeed I'm still in a cold sweat trying to describe this account.
"Your baggage it is illegal. You carry it contrary to Chapter nine, Article fourteen, Paragraph seven, Sub Section three of ze Warsaw Convention 1949, governing ze safe transportation of ze baggage on ze aeroplanes!" She shouted. Discreetly.
"Well I have a tight turnaround at Stansted. I've got just under thirty minutes to make the connection for my next flight on to Edinburgh." I pleaded "If I don't carry my bags onboard there is no way they'll follow me through in time."
"So! Not only you contravene ze Warsaw Convention on ze safe transportation of ze baggage on ze aeroplanes, you also disobey Warsaw Convention.. . . (just trust me at this point. A lot of references to long lost obscure, dog-eared and dusty old pages in some Polish government archive followed but you really don't want to hear them. Do you!?)
In desperation, I screamed "If your soddin' plane worked properly then it wouldn't be late and the connection wouldn't be illegal under whatever asinine Convention your countrymen trumped up!"
This seemed to have the effect of not pleasing her. I could sense what was coming. A cunning plan therefore quickly formed in my last surviving sixties Grammar School honed little grey cells (both of them). "Look. Tell you what. Why don't I take this little bag; my briefcase; and stuff it in this bigger bag; my Carry-on? That way then I'll only have ze one bag." I said. Smiling eagerly.
"Do not come ze funny with me!" Yelled l'hôtesse de sort malheureux. "I take zis bag and I place it in ze hold. You now please to give me your credit card. I return it ven ve arrive at Stansted. After it I have zviped!." She said. Grimacing eagerly.
As she spoke she grabbed my trusty old Gladstone. My bag that had accompanied me, squashed under the seats of creaking, misfiring old Dakotas skimming dangerously low over the jungles of Java. Two live suckling pigs, a cage of bantam hens and a python in a sack in the luggage net above my head. Across deserts and all but forgotten ice tundra. In countless battered DC9s battling across stormy oceans and rain forests. Half a planet or more away from my innocent, sleeping family. Into fledgling states at the very ignition of bloody popular revolution. Once even having to land at Heathrow! Oh God now I'm beginning to cry. Sorry. I'll try to continue. What I'm trying to write, upon keys now slippery with my tears, is that there was no way I was going to let this Storm Trooper part me from the crumpled and battered comfort blanket of my trusty old Gladstone Bag. I lived in it. I had a relationship with it. I slept with it. I loved it (her). I was practically married to it!
I wouldn't describe the result of the fight that followed on the tarmac at Pleurtuit that day as a draw. Not because I was afraid of hitting or getting hit by the woman either. It is difficult though hitting anything whilst trying to extricate oneself from a half Nelson arm lock. How she had managed to manipulate herself into that position I've never quite worked out. First woman too that I ever came across who wore a cricket box. Anyway, suffice to say I lost. My bag was seized and confined to the hold. I arrived at Stansted forty minutes later. I managed to sprint to my connection for Edinburgh and caught that flight.
My Gladstone bag arrived a week later. In Tierra del Fuego!
These ex Polish LOT Airline stewardesses Ryanair have managed to recruit certainly have a sense of humour!
I've finished bleeding now.
For the day anyway.