Each time you move home there is the determination that this time you will sort out all that junk. Of course it is the very last thing on your long list of things to do and usually hurriedly addressed as the removal truck zero's in on your current location, only leaving enough time to pass it all from drawer, shelf and cupboard to plastic packing crate. You satisfy your conscience that you will sort out the junk when you get to your final destination. This of course is the last thing on you long list of things to do at your new abode and results in only shifting through this plastic crate with tired limbs for necessities which get passed to drawer, shelf and cupboard before stashing the remainder in a convenient cupboard; only returning for a rummage when some important item cannot be found anywhere else. Occasionally during one of these rummaging sessions you may suddenly find a forgotten item sat in the palm of your hand that brings memories flooding back.
This is how I came to be staring at the key, a thick and weighty version of the classic English Chubb except the rounded end was an angled square which was attached via a short chain to a dangling flat blue triangular key fob. Printed on the fob in white indented letters was the address in Utah it should be returned to in the event it was ever lost and then found. It should not really have been in my possession at all, but I kept it as a memento for a sequence of events that took place in April of 2005.
In the spring of 2005 I found myself sitting in the aisle seat of a Boeing 747 looking out over two empty seats and through a small window at the uninviting English countryside. My journey that morning through Sussex had been plagued by frost and a cold fog that lingered in the thick air above the rolling downs, a massive kaleidoscope of lush greens and dark browns. The chill of that spring month had contributed in part to the heavy cold that now sat oppressively in my head and which in roughly three days, experience told me would manifest as a bad chest infection. My carry on bag contained a months supply of tissues, various over the counter remedies for flu, a collection of audio books and some music, the later more to drown out the cacophony of annoying humans and doubtless precocious girl child that would plonk herself with a deep sigh into the seat just the other side of the aisle.
Utah is the fairly sizeable chunk of mostly barren real estate that sits left central of America. It is one vast mountain range to the right of the west coast and about ten hours drive north of Las Vegas. Getting there from the UK requires a plane change at any one of the major airports of this land, you hope somewhere on the east coast and then a four hour hop into Salt Lake City. My ultimate destination: Provo is then a 50 minute hike down the interstate for which you need to pay attention otherwise you will miss it. On this occasion the first stop on this journey was to be Atlanta. It was literally the weekend after the new photo and finger printing protocols were adopted by US Immigration.
Fortunately my immediate companions for this journey were a prim twenty something American couple that had no desire to carry home some pestilence from the old world, so they kept a safe distance and conversation was thankfully limited to requests to squeeze past. On the other side of the aisle instead of child was a huge black geezer, and we are talking muscles, wearing the baggiest trousers I have ever seen, who spent most of the journey bopping his head and clicking his fingers to tunes that passed into his ears through gigantic headphones, not one decibel of which I heard. Through the hours that followed my eyes were often drawn from the printed words in hand to his restless form that contained so much in its meticulous construction; from gleaming studs at ear, carefully groomed skin and hair, gentle perfume that further enticed; through jacket, watch, rings and white tight t-shirt. At every move some eye catching reflective surface was revealed, drawing you in, his presence magnificent and demanding attention although I guessed for him not particularly mine or that of my gender. On one occasion my inquisitive glance was rewarded by a decadently salacious wink, I smiled back sheepishly before returning to my tissues and book.
Just over eight hours after banking out over Ireland we touched down in Atlanta and in procession all shuffled off the plane through a series of corridors and into the high ceilinged echo of the immigration centre, all the while with a pack of tissues held tightly at the ready, my breathing courtesy of the altitude and air conditioning had taken on a vadar like wheeze. The ever winding queues put me in mind of the scenes you get in movies of people trying to escape a war torn country, accept of course that we were all, of our own free will trying to get into this one.
Having wound to the mid way point of this snaking line of humanity a short Hispanic male dressed in US immigration uniform suddenly appeared bustling at my side. He had been working the line but I really hadn't paid much mind. On his darkly smart shirt was pinned a star bigger than my fist. He looked pretty impressive, if availed of the short persons malady of trying to appear bigger than he really was.
“Hello” I replied looking back down at his tanned, young round, pockmarked face.
“I am Alonzo from US Immigration and I am checking to make sure you have the correct documentation.”
I handed him my passport and the bit of paper you fill in that displays you're name, passport number and declares that you're not a terrorist or thinking about undertaking such activities.
“Sir! Do you know the address of your residency in the United States?”
“Yes Provo, Utah”
“No Sir, I mean the street address of your accommodation?”
“urrrggh no? Do I need this?”
“But I don't have it?”
“Ok Sir, then can you make one up?”
“Can you make up an address?”
“Urrmn yes I guess so”
“OK Sir, thank you. Have a good day”
I begged a pen off a fellow victim, noticing that stretching away in front nearly all the people recently visited by Alonzo were busy looking vacant into the air or busy scribbling, I did the same, making up an address that roughly equated to my known understanding of American street numbering: I think it had a whole bunch of numbers and contained the word 'boulevard'.
30 minutes later I was standing at a booth. The seriously unfunny immigration official was looking at me with resigned 'you must be kidding eyes', he was waiting for an answer.
“I am sorry, I just made it up”
“Why did you do this sir?”
“That guy over there in the uniform told me to?”
“I am sorry Sir, we need your accommodation address. Please proceed to the station at the back of the hall and locate the address.”
He pushed back my documents and looked past me, before hardly having time to scoop them up I was corralled by an oversized human in dark uniform who directed me towards the back of the hall, a good part of a thousand eyes followed me, conjuring stories in their own minds of my crime. For my part I sneezed heartily into my tissue using all that could be mustered through nasal passages and lungs, which I have to say was considerable and very impressive, giving most people around me cause to take a step back.
At the entrance there was a single and ancient PC at the head of a very long and straggly queue, eventually I took my turn and googled the address of my companies head office before returning to the human snake. Half way back along the queue Alonzo in his dark shirt and spangly star popped back up. By this time the cold and frustration was seeping into my psyche, drowning out all mechanism for humour or even irony, my nose was sore and my chest ached. The need to commit a violent act towards Alonzo bubbled like lava at the crest of a volcano but he had a gun and looked like his life mission was to find someone that would give him a reason to draw. I answered his repeated questions:
He walked on by.
As I approached the booth I decided that if I got knocked back this time I would request or do anything I could to facilitate being deported from this god forsaken place. Of course it is at this moment, as I teeter on the edge of lunacy everyone starts smiling sweetly and I am ejected post finger print and photo into 'no mans land'. It is here, in this age after September 2001 that you must collect your baggage before proceeding to queue and check in your bags once more and then queue to go through the intensive homeland security procedure.
Forty minutes later I thread my belt back through my jeans, next I retrieve my shoes and re-lace these and then re-add the layers of clothing that had been removed in an attempt to stop a flat palm size piece of plastic going crazy whenever it passed over my knee's. Somehow removing the laces from my shoes did this. The getting dressed again process was hindered by trying to juggle tissues, breath and not snot over shoes or shirt or the person urging me on from behind. Significantly my tissue stash was dwindling.
Having spent nearly two hours getting from plane onto official American territory I found after a cursory glance at the flight information that my internal flight to Salt Lake was now boarding, of course the gate could be anywhere between 5 and 20 minutes away, I didn't really need to guess which. Twenty minutes later I got off the tram and kind of hobbled at pace with bags and coat bouncing and flapping about me, towards the gate, stirring up all sorts of mayhem in my chest. There was nobody to be seen until I got to the gate where a neat little hat atop a pretty face and perfectly white teeth checked my credentials and ushered me onwards. As it turned out I was far from being the last person to get on the flight: we spent over an hour, that's more than sixty minutes after the scheduled take off waiting for 5 well dressed locals that seemed completely oblivious to the murderous rage that during this time had come to simmer beneath my ruddy, wheezing exterior.
During the flight I ran out of tissues and resorted to stealing napkins from the trolley. These though hardly covered both nostrils. Swigging another dose of my night nurse, which took me four times over the daily limit I somehow managed to fall asleep.
I awoke as we were landing having missed the one thing I had been looking forward to: the slow angled descent down into the wide flat valley that was courted on both sides by the great snow capped mountains that make this a very popular destination for all that love to frolic with board and ski. My nose now seemed cemented with god knows what and my lungs felt like they had been sandpapered clean, but I was breathing and would not need to consider stealing tissues in the short to medium term.
Security in Salt Lake city was cursory, trusting that those already in the country were a safe bet. After retrieving my bags without pain or hassle I found a seat and waited on my lift. It was Saturday, 20:00hrs local time, 03:00hrs in the UK Sunday morning. I had closed the front door behind me in Sussex twenty two hours earlier.
There is something unreal about being in America, or so it seems to this English born and bred male. In the past this has manifested through several holiday trips to the east coast and to various destinations within. It is movie world, an often relentlessly hot dry place where everything is man made and designed to make the passage of man as uncomplicated as possible. Sitting in this arrivals lounge in heartland USA, which I knew at least was not hot and dry, somehow seemed even further removed from reality. Sat beside me while I waited was an octagonal glass panelled display that rose ten foot into the air, on which shelves were adorned beneath a sign that indicated these were items that had been confiscated and therefore generally not allowed in hand baggage, including; fireworks, a handgun, a grenade, flares, garotting wire, an assortment of very fearsome knifes and a square wallet sized shape of putty that was distinguished by a little printed icon of fire stabbed into its surface, of an explosion I assumed. There was a certain calmness about the bustle that flowed through all spaces and around objects, a patience and surface politeness that manifested in the main as smiles and clothing that spoke of conformity and not standing out, it stood out because of this very imagery. People made way, bags were hoisted from tracks of conveyors and handed to their owners by strangers, mostly perfectly white smiles beamed at anyone in proximity and all in all, it unnerved me: Salt Lake city is of course the home of the Mormon.
Company policy at that time, as it remains to this day was for no car hire if you were travelling by yourself and I was going through a relatively compliant phase, so my lift arrived. Amanda was on secondment to the Provo office and someone I knew quite well from working in the UK, had socialised with in larger groups and probably had two or maybe three meaningful conversations with in a period of roughly eighteen months. I saw her weaving through the bustle of the arrivals lounge and stood readying the assortment of bags sat at my feet, she walked over to me, smiled and burst into tears.
The cause for this display of emotion, I quickly learned was the now ex- boyfriend living in Australia, the tears apparently a consequence of their sudden separation at the hands of a text he sent her after two weeks of silence. I had vague recollections of him from his visit the Christmas before just after they had got together. He had been proudly paraded and notable in my memory for the fact he was a couple inches shy of seven foot and probably the hairiest man I had ever set eyes on.
After tears were wiped away but threatening a teary relapse at any given moment we got back to her car, threw in my bags and then undertook a random journey of Salt Lakes suburbs under the pretence of finding a restaurant, which of course was an opportunity to give me the full story. In ordinary circumstances I probably would not have been the chosen conduit for this tale of tragedy and un-requainted love but Amanda was a long way from home and I was the only familiar face. I did what I have slowly grown to understand as the correct manner for conducting oneself in such situations: listen carefully, ask insightful questions and be sympathetic without ever attempting to offer advice. Occasionally being navigated through tear impaired vision by an emotional female in a two ton lump of fuel propelled metal unnerved me. After almost an hour of this without sign of food I guided her to the decision we should eat in Provo, which we did fifty minutes later where we were only accosted by two young Mormons that had recently served mission duties in London.
My condo was one of several owned by my employer and stood at the right of a very short cul-de-sac, Amanda was a few doors further around. These were all white painted wood on the outside, giving the street a turn of the century look but with a modern brick construct on the inside. Each condo housed two or three people with their own rooms and a communal living area which contained a kitchenette. Each bedroom was en suite with a shower, TV, telephone and possessed a very large bed. All were spotless. We retrieved the blue fobbed key from security and ten minutes later, having assured myself that Amanda would not be discovered the next morning frothing at the mouth with porcelain skin, pills and departing letter in respective hands; I swigged back a couple of flu pills with a slurp of night nurse, dispensed with all my clothes save for blue y-fronted pants: an uncharacteristic oversight, and crawling into bed fell asleep to the sound of the rail crossing bell tolling in the distance to the endless passing rumble of a cargo train.
At 4AM I awoke feverish, dizzy, drenched in sweat and hardly able to breath, the room was hotter than a sauna. Flicking on the bedside light I stumbled up and across the room, searching for the heat control which was eventually found by the door set at 32 Celsius – hotter than a Spanish siesta at the height of summer. It was immediately pulled back to 21. Sleep though refused to reach back out for me and after a period of wriggling about I gave up and decided to make myself a drink. Swinging both feet onto the floor I plodded into the living area, hearing, but not registering the soft resonant clunk of the door closing behind me. Having already learned that the condo was mine for the week and with the blinds firmly closed, I had no reservation in padding about wearing nothing but my blue y-fronted pants.
Slouched on the sofa, coffee was consumed black and extra sweet while flicking through endless TV channels that somehow, despite every forth purporting to be a vendor of news, did not contain one item related to the ongoing 'war on terror'; which was surprising to me as the breaking news that morning as I had dressed in Sussex, had been of casualties to US personnel at the hands of some Islamic insurgency. I settled on skipping through the sports channels which were full of the American Football draft, before pressing the red button. With the digital display on the video telling me it was just after 6AM I plodded back to my room. I got as far as the door.
The knob was round and a golden colour, the door a fairly sturdy construction painted glossy white with a Georgian panelled inlay. It had been over two years since I had last visited Provo and through the fog of cold and weariness had completely forgotten that room doors automatically locked when they closed.
After moments of cursing with indescribable anguish and frustration I sat back down in my blue y-fronted pants and considered my options. All my paraphernalia had been deposited in the room, which included the blue fobbed room key. Beside the phone in my room sat a brown plastic plaque, which in large white letters listed numbers for security and the concierge - a mile down the road. I tried desperately to dredge an image of the numbers from my memory, but couldn't recall anything other than 3 and 7, and these were hopeful guesses at best. There was a phone in the living area with a printed list of useful numbers but cunningly, security and the concierge were not on that list. Not one of the numbers seemed to consider anyone would lock themselves out of their room. I called building maintenance which just rang out before diverting to some random voicemail system, onto which I recorded my name, condo number and a plaintive message detailing my problem, which was a process I completed for any vaguely suitable number short of the local police. In between these calls I foraged about looking for possible spare keys in cupboards and repeatedly tried the door to see if by some miracle it would open or had somehow failed to close properly. No chance.
My dilemma was needing to get into my room but I was not particularly in any hurry to be rescued wearing just blue y-fronted pants. Although an incredibly small cross section of females have found wrapping themselves around this cuddly torso some kind of nirvana, a recent poll of the girlfriend's children, aged 8 and 11, had unanimously revealed the movie star they considered I bore the greatest resemblance to was Winnie the Pooh, so I generally favour keeping my nakedness to myself. A thorough search of the whole condo revealed the only item that might aid my modesty was a grubby door mat.
The digital display now told me it was 7:10AM, Sunday morning, the beginning of a busy day for Mormons of which I desperately hoped whoever was responsible for checking voicemail was not, although in this part of Americana someone not being a Mormon was very long odds indeed. Faced with the alternative of having to somehow get Amanda to find a spare key and the trauma of living this whole thing down over the remaining years of my servitude to this company, I hoped and waited.
At 7:53AM the temperature in the living area was fast falling for some reason and I couldn't find the control panel anywhere - two days later I would find it downstairs by the front door. Covered in goosebumps and still clouded by my thick cold and heavy chest the events of the day finally caught up with me; the journey itself, US immigration, Alonzo, homeland security, waiting for shop happy locals to get on planes, the surreal world that was Utah and the unexpected trauma of Amanda's love life, the absolute frustration of my situation, my hatred of self locking doors. I snapped - the red mist descended, a switch in the back of my mind fused and the anger bubbled over, lava crested the lip of the volcano and I entered full on eruption mode. With my lips pursed and a set look of absolute determination in my posture, I pushed myself up off the sofa and walked back to the door, gave the knob one last chance to redeem itself, which it did not, and took two steps back while angling my fairly broad left shoulder at roughly the area just above the door lock. Conjuring images of Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon my entire mass propelled itself with the greatest velocity I could muster in two steps. There was an almighty crack of protesting wood as I bounced off the door. After a quick check to make sure none of the cracks came from bones and with increased resolution took the two steps back again and once more hurtled my blue panted torso at the door, which gave out an even louder crack, decimating the frame where the lock had been and flying open beneath the force, coming off one of its hinges in the process. The momentum had taken me stumbling into the room, without breaking stride I turned and stepped back, letting the door know in no uncertain terms who was boss while shuffling it into some semblance of being closed. Turning off the lights I then jumped straight into bed, letting the adrenalin disperse while regulating my breathing, quickly falling into a deep sleep.
The next five days passed without much further ado, or I suppose without much of any equal or greater significance occurring. A call to Amanda later that Sunday found her to be alive and well but not in need of human company, for which I was very grateful. It did seem she was well enough, despite calling in sick for the next four days, to need her hire car each day for shopping - therapy I assumed. Even the smallest American towns are designed with transportation by vehicle in mind and not much thought is ever given to your poor, chest infected pedestrian. As it was, for these four days my wind buffeted form trailed the two miles along the highway to and from the office either side of a days training - the matter of which is of little consequence.
On the Thursday, having succumbed to some rather clever TV advertising I decided to brave the arduous journey to the local mall in order to hunt down the local radio shack. The mall sat on the other side of the highway, on a slight rise like an American version of the medieval Church, surrounded by lush carefully designed grass, proud, looming down omnipresent over the town. The eight lanes of the highway that needed traversing to reach this place of worship came in at just under 100 yards of tarmac, that stretched off in all directions, generally it seemed crossings are only found at junctions. This meant five minutes of waiting for the green walk sign and then 15 seconds with which to bipedal 100 yards with haste to an audience of impatient revving monster trucks. Slightly traumatised but intact despite my chests ongoing dramatics I subsequently trawled around the mall, ate noodles and purchased a number of seldom used gadgets that now get religiously transported much as the blue fobbed key. I also brought a few t-shirts from JC Penney's mostly out of nostalgia for a movie called 'Roadhouse'.
Primarily the week was notable for the written conversation I had with the dwarf like Hispanic house maid that cleaned the condos with a religious passion. The first note I received sat on the kitchen counter on Monday after I returned home: “This is very bad, why you do this? Can you not call security and have them make door open?”
I immediately turned over the sheet of paper and replied after drawing a big arrow that I took time to colour in: “I was locked out and the number for security was in the room!”
I took the trouble of removing the brown plaque from my room and placed it on the kitchen surface alongside the paper so the arrow pointed at the sign.
On Tuesday night I returned to find the plaque returned to its rightful place in my room, the following message sat on the kitchen counter: “Why you not call security? Makes big trouble and much cost for company.”
At this point I admit my 'big ignorant white man' pangs momentarily got the better of me. I of course carried some guilt for my actions but lined up against everything that had proceeded the act and the predicament of the moment, it seemed almost justified. To be honest the more time I spent doing the daily chest infected pilgrimage alongside a highway of behemoth trucks and lorries, and spent each night land locked to the condo for lack of car, the less I really gave a damn. I guess the company needed the $200 saved on car hire to fund the fleet of private executive jets, but I digress. I turned over the paper and wrote for the final time: “I could not get into my room. I could not see the security number. I left a message for maintenance but no one called back. It was Sunday morning!!!”
On Wednesday I returned to the following;
“Very bad, you not ring security and now company have pay $160 for new door.”
I never bothered to reply to that last and nothing more appeared on the kitchenette. It did seem though that my correspondent was curious to see what this bad man looked like, and it was that as I opened the front door on Friday morning I stood looking down at a child sized middle aged woman that may or may not have genetically originated from South America. Her fierce eyes were dark righteous flames that bore into mine, that looked me up and down slowly before imperiously performing some clucking noise by pushing her tongue off the roof of her mouth. Dismissing me she turned to wheel her rattling trolley of detergents, cloth and packaged soaps along the path to a condo that deserved her devoted attention. My return flight was scheduled for the next day, Saturday afternoon and I was really looking forward to it.
Feeling suitably recovered from her weeks ordeal, Amanda arrived on my doorstep Friday night, pale but pristinely dressed. An hour later after two packed restaurants and several complex parking manoeuvers we found ourselves in an Italian, my only requisite being that they sold alcohol – a rarity in Provo. I spent three hours between Bruschetta, Valpolicella and Cannelloni repeating that time honoured process of listening carefully, making insightful comments and never, under any circumstances offering advice. At the end of the evening we confirmed a midday pickup for my 2:30PM flight.
Saturday dawned, long before I woke, but I did – to the sound of my phone vibrating across the dark polished wood of the bedside cabinet. As is the usual course of events for this male, the day started very slowly, gradually building to a frenzy as the allotted time for departure grew near, completing the final run through and tossing anything I had missed in to the suitcase as Amanda rang the bell. Everything was dumped into the back of the car and we headed off down the highway towards the interstate that would take us back north into Salt Lake.
For all the frustrations of my time here there was absolutely no denying the wondrous beauty of the geography, I presume shaped over time by volcano and passing ice ages. Provo itself is built upon the hard rock basin of a twelve mile wide valley that seems pool table flat, the town itself part of a long man made sprawl constructed at the foot of the sheltering, high sloping mountains sat at the east side of the valley, the westerly reaches of the town constrained by the blue mirrored Utah Lake that covers the other half of the basin to the foot of the westerly range of rock. Moving northwards the urban spread crawls alongside the lake, eventually leaving it behind, suburbia and industry merging to saturate the whole basin, occasionally retreating as the mountains weave inwards but always wending towards Salt Lake City. Roadside signs are the only indication that you have actually passed from one town to another along the way. Standing in Provo town square, just off Center St you can turn 360 degrees and see high reaching snow capped mountains in all directions. Seldom have I seen cloud, which means the departing sunlight passes from the layered deep purple and orange skies of the west across the basin and sets, climbing golden up the snow crested peaks, morphing to a dusky red upon the luminous summit long after natural light has been chased from the town and man's street lighting has flickered to illumination, attempting to wash away the dark. It is no wonder that men living at the feet of these rocky ranges feel closer to their gods, you get a sense that some designing hand must have been responsible in constructing something so breathtaking.
So it was, as Saturday morning passed to afternoon we pulled onto the I15 and with the lake glistening to the left and the sentinel mountains tripping along each side we headed towards Salt Lake, via a large shopping mall chosen for its apparent wide range of sporting footwear. Amanda had promised a girlfriend she would acquire them and had presumptuously assumed I would be delighted to carry them home for her - I typically have enough trouble getting me and my own home, let alone anyone else's.
The lack of lifts into work each morning due to her ailing heart and her desire to hold onto the car for the purposes of shopping, had I have to say, left me feeling rather uncharitable. As I waited on her return, sitting in the car outside the mall, I deliberated on the best juncture to inform her that I had enough to be carrying home and would be making my journey sans trainers. My considered conclusion was that this was best left until we arrived at the airport and I had at least one foot on solid concrete.
At just after 1:30PM I stood with both feet on the pavement with my bags spread out around me, the rear of her car disappearing into the horizon. We had come to an amicable conclusion, I would travel with trainers but sans box and wrapping. If trainers did not then fit or were not liked then it was up to them to sort out the rest. With the white, pink frilly trimmed trainers squashed forcibly into my compact case I turned, picked up, hoisted and dragged my bags into the terminal.
The terminal was surprisingly empty, especially for a Saturday afternoon. An old guy sat on a mini tractor-like floor polisher, hovering over a particularly stubborn stain, several people loitered around ticket machines, there was a short queue at the information desk. I made my way to the check-in which was deserted save for a solitary female behind a counter. Considering myself lucky at not having to jostle with similarly impatient humans I made my way to the counter, handing her my tickets and passport while hoisting my compact suitcase onto the escalator beside her desk.
She watched me with considered eyes through each movement. I placed my hands atop the station and effected my most charming smile: “Good afternoon.”
“Good day to you Sir, how may I help?”
“I would like to check-in please,” at which she raised her carefully constructed eyebrows, her curly dyed red hair rising an equal distance.
“Well let's look see what we have here,” there was a pause, her eyes flicked back up at mine, which were returned with a continuation of my effected smile.
“I wondered whether I might get an aisle seat if I may,” she continued flipping through my documentation, tapping a sequence of keystrokes into her computer before reaching a conclusion.
“I am afraid this flight took off fifteen minutes ago.”
“Ohh,” pausing to collect my thoughts, “why?”
“Well Sir, it was scheduled to leave at 12:30 but was delayed by 45 minutes. Look here it says on your ticket,” holding my e-ticket up and using her pen to point at the departure time, ”see, departure 12:30.”
There was no denying this. Printed in black on white on my battered and creased e-ticket was indeed the scheduled departure time of 12:30”
“What does this mean,” I said a little dazed, trying to fathom what act of oblivious stupidity had led me to this point.
“Well Sir, it means of course you have missed your flight and will miss your connection to the UK. I could try and book you on something else?”
I nodded in the affirmative, still tracking back through my mind as to how I came to think my flight left at 2:30PM. Moments of key tapping passed, her studious gaze avoiding mine, I knew exactly what was going through her head and it wasn't connecting flights – John you moron!
She came back to me with a solution: “Well I can fly you into JFK where you will need to cab over to LaGuardia?”
This sounded hopeful: “When?”
She read from the screen: “The JFK flight leaves at 19:25 and your connection from LaGuardia at 06:15 tomorrow, local time,” this sounded a little torturous; six more hours here then a midnight taxi across New York and more hours waiting for the connection. I did some rough time zone calculations and guestimated that would land me in the UK sometime Sunday evening.
“What would be the next flight I can get from here,” whatever must have been going through her head she kept it all to her self, not even her eyes or facial expression gave her thoughts away.
“Lets see shall we,” she returned to her keyboard.
It might be a surprise to you but inconvenience to my own self was not the primary quandary. I had plenty of books, had a wallet full of dollars and credit cards aplenty. Apart from getting a sore bum from plastic airport seats I really wasn't hugely concerned. My concern was however the girlfriend.
Anna was anticipating my return with some enthusiasm, we had had a fairly substantive argument the night before I left the UK and she was very keen to welcome me back into the fold, I have to say I didn't share her enthusiasm.
Anna had a certain way about her, she was privately educated, cultured within financial constraints, extremely successful in her career while simultaneously performing an admirable job of raising two children almost single handed. Her dead father was still referred to affectionately as 'Daddy' and she still used 'Mummy' when talking to her mother directly – basically she was a bit 'posh'.
By necessity as much as anything else, she lived her life by micro managing the smallest detail, directing those within her control with decisive effectiveness. There in lay our problem. As the detail in this sorry tale has borne witness, I am a bit of an enigma. At the outset of our relationship I guess my laid back attitude, wit and haphazard approach to life was as refreshing for Anna, as her wit and almost inexhaustible ability to control, was for me. Ultimately though I didn't like working to a three month preplanned schedule as much as she didn't like waking up on any given morning not knowing what she had planned by the hour for the next 96 hours. As such, having endured the initial glow of the relationship we were embarking on the slow realisation that we were just not suited, were both probably at the same stage of realisation but for her, this simply represented another opportunity to excel.
For my part I had a huge affection for her, was hopelessly enchanted by her kids but was beginning to yearn for the luxury of spontaneity. In the meantime we were busy banging our heads together trying to work it all out. In Anna's mind we would start resolving our issues with a nice cosy Sunday night in – upon my return - a meal, Norah Jones and a bottle of red wine. Not entirely unappealing in itself but after the week I had endured, as much as I cared for her, and I truly admired her, I was looking forward to a bit of easy solitude and not our claustrophobic relationship. Missing my flight then, was an unexpected opportunity that I was keen to take advantage of, even if it was one created at my own stupidity
“7:25 tomorrow morning sir, ” her voice brought me back to the present.
“There is a flight leaving tomorrow morning at 7:25, connecting onwards from Atlanta at 13:00 local time,“ she paused looking at the screen, “gets you into Heathrow for 23:05 local time.”
It took me milliseconds to come to a decision: there was no way I would be able to see Anna landing at that time - she needed her beauty sleep in preparation for the day of children and work ahead. For my part I needed to be in Berkshire, where I lived, sometime during Sunday night for work on Monday morning.
“That's great, can I do that then... how much do I have to pay?”
She looked up at me smiling: “There is no charge Sir.”
Suddenly relieved at the prospect of not doing the Sussex run and in some part having that decision made for me, I would have hugged her if I didn't think a watchful guard would have shot me for my troubles. A whole day and night off the radar stretched ahead. There was of course some explaining to be done to Anna, which my subconscious was already working on, but for the meantime I felt unburdened in a way it felt, I hadn't in a long time.
With bags hanging off me or trailing behind I walked back through the terminal thinking on my next action, probably a hotel should be my first port of call. A quick check of my immediate surroundings revealed I was standing about three feet from a large unmanned stand draped in a vivid blue. In large yellow letters just above head height a sign declared 'Hotel Reservations', beneath which were an assortment of colourful pictures that showed off every hotel that had subscribed to this service, in glorious detail. Sat on the blue covered desk beneath these pictures was a classic Bell phone, albeit coloured blue with no dial. Beside the phone a white sheet of laminated paper declared in large black letters: ''Just pick up the handset'.
I did as instructed: “Hi and good day to you, my name is Edwardo and you're through to the Hilton Salt Lake City, Utah's premier meeting and recreation destination. How may I help you?”
The Hilton sounded as good as any, but those long introductions really annoyed me: “Hello, is that the Hilton Hotel?”
“Yes Sir, you're through to the Hilton Hotel, Salt Lake City. How may I help?”
“I am looking for a double room for tonight only”
“That's one night, checking in today and departing tomorrow morning, please wait Sir while I confirm,” slight pause.
“Yes that's fine, how would you like to pay?”
By now I had my credit card at the ready: “Visa”
Ten minutes later I was being loaded into a mini bus by an ancient, moustachioed, shades wearing driver that looked like a relic from the Godfather. Another twenty minutes and I was wandering through humid, labyrinthine corridors looking for my room.
Forty minutes after picking up the phone I sat palms down behind a large, green leather inlaid writing desk, very carefully working out the details of the story I would tell Anna. It goes without saying the truth was not an option – it would be interpreted as a classic symptom for my lack of commitment. Granted I could have been organised enough to catch the flight, but I guess if deeply besotted it might have occurred to me to check the flight times sometime before checking in. A discussion on commitment was one I was keen to avoid, especially as it generally led onto the one about 'love'.
'Daddy' had been a commercial pilot and Anna was possessed of relentless research skills, she would double check every detail, so I needed to keep the 'facts' as simple and as close to the truth as possible.
I rang her home number in the hope she would be out and I could leave a quick cursory message in summary. I had considered the text option but this would have been an obvious indication of my elusiveness.
The line connected and rang out three times. Slightly breathless: “Hello Anna speaking.”
“Hi Anna, it's me...”
“Darling, where are you? Shouldn't you be in the air by now?” She obviously had a better grasp of my flight times than I did.
“Urrmnn...,” suddenly nervous, “there has been a problem...”
“What do you mean?” Some of the verve leaving her voice. After leaving school Anna had spent four years in London studying drama, which served her well.
“It seems that there has been a problem with the plane, there is a technical fault and it has been delayed...”
“Well how long for?”
“Long enough for me to miss the connecting flight out of Atlanta I am afraid.”
“Well what about getting you out via another route, what about New York?” She was building momentum, her considerable intellect starting to wind towards full speed.
“I wouldn't get there till midnight and the next flight isn't till tomorrow morning,” there was a very brief pause.
“But darling, that won't get you into London before eight, you wouldn't get here till.. till almost ten, if at all...” Her voice trailed off, a sudden thought occurring to her, smelling a rat: a Winnie the Pooh shaped rat, how convenient. My hand tightened around the handset, knuckles white. Showtime.
“What kind of technical fault, did they say?” I could hear her moving, knew she was pulling the chair upto her desk, was reaching down to turn on the computer. In minutes she would be connected to Salt Lake airport's website. I was gambling it would be basic, it had been when I checked it a few weeks ago, listing scheduled flights but not real time information. She had all my flight numbers, had hand copied them down from the e-ticket herself, my hope was that she was not inclined to call the airport directly.
“No, they didn't say. I guess they avoid having your average punter sitting in a plane knowing that during pre-flight checks the engine choked on a loose washer...” Wandering through the airport that afternoon I had spotted several delayed flights on the information screens. Most were due to weather, one listed the reason as technical. I could hear her typing on the keyboard.
“There is no point me hiking across the States to fly out of New York to save an hour or two, I'll be knackered... the next flight to Atlanta isn't till tomorrow morning. I am going to catch that, it connects onward to London at 13:00...”
“Right,” the warmth in her voice now swapped out for a hard chill, “and I suppose that gets in at midnight, so I am not going to see you then am I.”
“It's not looking likely Anna, am really sorry, but what can I do!” Silence. Typing on keyboard had ceased. My heart felt heavy, I felt her defeat.
“I really need to see you Johnie... we have a lot to talk about. We need the time together.” If the relationship was going to work, that was probably true, but talking with Anna meant being talked at with little opportunity for feedback. She was a women used to getting her way and was more than a little perplexed by her boyfriend's inability to conform as required.
“I know, I know, why don't I drive over on Thursday night and work from yours on Friday?”
“But that's next week Johnie, I won't have seen you for almost two weeks!” When we first met, probably the second thing she said to me in that confident manner of hers was that she didn't want an emotional relationship and that she only had a couple days each week to spare, which had sounded very appealing to me. Her tune had changed about one month into the relationship. The tone of her voice though was upsetting, I knew she really did need to see me, but the runes had already been cast and sadly, I really couldn't face seeing her straight off the plane.
“Look Anna, I am really sorry, there is not much I can do. I will call you Monday night.”
She still had one card left up her sleeve: “Gemma and Jack are going to be so disappointed, they thought you would be here before they went to bed.” The card was an ace, and struck a blow right to my heart. I had hit it off with her children immediately and had been emotionally sucked into their world as much as I had Anna's.
“I am really sorry Anna, there is nothing I can do. I will ring you Monday and will be there Thursday... OK”
“Ok... bye,” the phone disconnected.
I had tears in my eyes - oh how we struggle in relationships for want of knowing what a good one is!
During the later part of the conversation it had suddenly occurred to me just how I had come to think with certainty that my flight had been scheduled for 2:30PM. A quick check confirmed - I had entered the details erroneously into the calender of my mobile phone, thereafter trusting that which my phone told me. Life really is like a box of chocolates.
Check-in at the Hilton had included a pass to the executive lounge. This contained a number of blood red leather sofas neatly set around a large brick walled fireplace. A small bar sat just to the left. Careful consideration and a nice little two seater was located, away and sideways to the main area. The next nine hours were spent in the company of my own, a never ending glass of Coors and the intriguing prose of Melvyn Bragg in his 'The Adventure of English' – an apparently true biography of the English language containing more plot twists and dark Catholic deeds than a Dan Brown blockbuster.
Eventually, just one hour into Sunday I tottered back to my room and seven hours after that found myself in the aisle seat of a Boeing 747, homeland security safely negotiated with little more than cursory wave past.
I had originally been seated in the centre section but had been approached by a bra-less mother in a tight partially buttoned shirt. In a plaintive home counties English accent she leaned towards me and enquired whether I would mind swapping, as a member of her family had been located in an aisle seat a row forward. It would be helpful in managing their children if they could all sit together. The deal was made and I moved my stuff and headed towards my new seat, which happened to be occupied by her well groomed husband - I guess he would have been sent in if the person causing seating upset had been female.
The couple had three children, the oldest of which lowered herself with a deep sigh into the seat on the other side of the aisle. I would guess she was about nine or ten with blonde hair clipped back behind her ears that hung straight down just above her restless shoulders. As I now occupied the seat vacated by her father my status seemed to have been elevated to family friend, therefore entitling her to all sorts of benefits. These included attempting to share my headphones once she ascertained my music choice was acceptable and requesting aid in colouring in the drawing pack provided by the airline. Her crowning moment of glory was to be had while standing in the aisle next to me with a small concerned hand on my armrest. We were at the critical moment of 'Seabiscuit' - at the top of her voice, as all other noise faded “Why are you crying?”
The doorbell rang, bringing me back to the present. I traced my thumb across the solid lines of the key, the blue fob dangling from my palm. Anna and I had continued banging heads for another nine months which culminated in January 2006 with my moving to Sussex. This last act was supposed to salve all her insecurities, it just made things worse and we separated, ironically, just weeks after I moved there.
Four months later in April of 2006 I met Prideesh at a book club and it seemed from almost the first instant – 'oh you're the one', a feeling of absolute certainty that you will only know, if you have ever experienced it. I moved back to Berkshire in July of 2006.
I first realised I still had the key during that night of freedom in the Hilton Hotel, it was tucked into a pocket of my computer bag next to Melvyn Bragg's book. It would have been a simple task to have reception post it back to the address on the fob, but had kept it as a keepsake for everything that had happened, not just for the journey, or even the door - it just seemed symbolic for a moment in time. As I opened the door to Prideesh's smiling face I let the key slide into my pocket, I would sit it in the corner cabinet of my study, alongside this life's other mementos.
Submission: 19 February 2007