At 11:00 BST Continental flight CO111 left the airstrip at Heathrow, taking me with it to a new country and a new way of life.
At around 20:35 EDT, after an entire afternoon sitting in Montreal, more time spent sitting just outside the terminal the plane at which the plane would later dock and many hours flying across oceans and countryside, I finally made it into US customs and immigration where the local port authority would decide whether or not to let me live in the same country as my wife.
In actuality the choice had already been made weeks beforehand. After months of paperwork tag and two trips to London–one to a private medical facility, another to the US embassy–it had already been determined that I would be allowed to live in the United States of America. I wouldn’t have booked a flight out there if it hadn’t.
But there was always doubt in my mind. For the most part things had proceeded too smoothly; there had to be a spanner in the works and with so few machinaries still to pass through, the spanner had to come here, in immigration itself. I’d be bounced, I was sure of it. Perhaps there was a form we’d neglected to fill out, or they’d lost our case file, or the documents mailed to me in an envelope reading DO NOT OPEN would be too crammed to accept. I’d heard the papers contained within needed to be pristine and the envelope had arrived dog-eared–if my move would fall anywhere it would be here, at this final hurdle.
The airport was eerily quiet. I’m not sure I’ve ever flown in under cover of night before. Outside vehicles shovelled snow into dirty piles and flights of grounded aeroplanes stood like clay sentries guarding the airport’s tombstone silence.
The plane had been half-empty on the flight out. It had been so deserted, before we took off, between the luggage loaded and the seats taken it was balanced. The flight staff asked if I’d be willing to move to a premium row in the centre to help balance it out–it was worrying knowing the positioning of a single 160lb man made all the difference to its calibration.
Now, at night, we moved like shadows along moving walkways now motionless at the day’s end, some hurrying to shake off the whole miserable trip, others needing to reach the customer service booth for answers as to what the hell they were going to do now they’d missed their connecting flights. We poured into customs and immigration in a fast-moving trickle and were assigned to multiple kiosks to hasten the process–the staff manning them looked just as weary as we did.
I’d taken my DO NOT OPEN envelope with me on the plane, still wrapped in its plastic packing along with the medical details taken at Knightsbridge Doctors and other papers too important to pack in my luggage: birth certificate, police certificate, marriage certificate. I held it like a baby, hoping my attention to it now would balance out the inattention shown to it in transit. The line moved sluggishly until finally it was my turn through the gate.
The woman in the booth took my passport, flicked to the page displaying my visa and asked for the package. I removed it from its protective casing and handed it to her. She then asked if I had a blue paper and my heart sank–I hadn’t even heard of this ‘blue paper’ much less had one on me.
“Go over to the cubby,” she said, pointing in front of her, “and fill one out.”
I couldn’t see any ‘cubby’, probably because at this point my vision had started blurring. After asking her where I was supposed to be going a couple times I finally found my way to a table at which were blue customs forms I was very familiar with, that I’d already filled one out and had in my bag. Sorting through the cubbies underneath to find one in the right language I decided to fill out another just in case she wanted more than one. I really wasn’t thinking straight.
I took it back and she looked at it to see what I was bringing into the country.
“Confectionery?” she said, dubiously. “Like, sugar?” I’d listed thirty dollars worth of confectionary on the form. Baker that I am, even I would think importing thirty dollars of sugar would be excessive.
“Sweets,” I said, then realising where I was: “I mean candy. And biscuits–cookies!”
“Follow me downstairs, please,” said the woman.
We took a shortcut through other kiosks manned by equally bored staff and took an elevator down to baggage claim. Here she handed my papers to a short man in an impressive uniform who asked me to take a seat.
Like an idiot I sat opposite him in what I thought of as ‘the interrogation chair’.
“Take a seat over there, sir,” he said, pointing to row of chairs that looked like modest audience seating for a play. Blushing, I made my way to it and sat down.
There were a handful of other people waiting here, watching a couple of men in a booth in front them–a guard and a tourist–talk about the meats he’d packed into his luggage and the legality of bringing foreign jerky into the country. Another guard beside the two stared alternately at his computer and into space, not doing much of anything at so late an hour.
The short man passed him my envelope and passport, the two glanced at me for a second, then he slowly started working.
While I waited another guard approached the man sitting two rows in front of me and asked which countries he’d visited prior to coming to the US.
“Many places,” said the man, in a thick European accent. The guard asked which ones. “Italy,” he said. “Spain. Portugal. Poland. Greece.”
“Okay, okay,” said the guard, before passing him his passport and sending him off to see someone else.
Then it was my turn.
I was called to the booth and asked to sign a sheet of paper. Most of the paper was obscured by another sheet which had windows cut into it to obscure whatever the hell it was I was signing. In the first window I wrote my signature, in the second I left an ink fingerprint.
“That’s it,” said the man behind the counter, handing my passport back. ”Exit over there, please.”
The short man let me back out through a sliding doorway. I collected my luggage from the now empty baggage claim where it had been set helpfully to one side, then passed through customs, where, my blue sheet already signed by the woman upstairs, the guard let me through with only six words.
“Okay. Welcome to the United States.”
Clumsily dragging two suitcases behind me, with my carry-on luggage constantly slipping from my shoulder and my passport and other documents threatening to slip from the hand holding them I negotiated the ramp to the arrivals lounge. A couple on the ramp next to me contended with even more luggage all stacked on a trolley, which moved at an angle, hit a bump and knocked their cases everywhere. I stalled to lend a hand but the man thanked me and waved me on. “It’s all right,” he said. “You go on.”
The arrivals lounge was filled with people roosting on the stairs, squatting on the floor, holding signs and craning their necks looking for passengers who wouldn’t be coming, on flights that never arrived. Overwhelmed by their noise I walked in a daze until I heard one voice calling my name.
Sat with her back against a pillar, my wife, looking so beautiful it hurt to look at her.
“You made it!” she said, still sitting. “I had to sit. I stood for three hours in high heels and my feet hurt.”
I helped her to her sore feet; we hugged and kissed and pushed through the thronging crowds to freedom.
“You were lucky,” she said as we walked to the car park. “Yours was the last flight of the day. Everything afterward was cancelled. My feet still hurt.”
And that was how it all went down. I’m here now, a stranger in a strange land, currently residing in a strange house with two strange dogs who’ll eat my fingertips like sausages if the mood strikes them.
And I’m okay with that, I’m fine, because I’m here now, with her. There’s no place I’d rather be.