Chicago airport. 2pm. Sun in full beam of the world beneath.
Black fabric turned, like the belt of a treadmill. Bags, little suitcases, purses, clear bags, tote bags all laid, helpless under the screen of the x-ray. Each one had no choice, they would all be internally examined by the all knowing eye of technology. Even if they had nothing to hide, the process was still victimising.
I stepped forward and placed my back pack inside a white tray. The journey flung me away from the present and straight back to Primary school and that infamous food line where you were examined by the all knowing eyes of, The Dinner Ladies.
As the villains of the dining hall The Dinner Ladies were strict and single, for nobody would dare marry a Dinner Lady. They patrolled the hall like shape shifting lizards, ‘every crumb must be consumed’ was engraved in every glance and syllable they issued.
Each child was given a tray pre cut into portions. Every one ate the same. There was no choice. Except the teachers of course, they had their own plates and we suspected despite their buxom forms, The Dinner Ladies never ate. Imagine a rectangle cut in half, that was the meat portion. Then, the other half was cut again and there was a space for potatoes: lumpy, supposedly mashed and another space for vegetables; soggy sweet corn, peas and cubed carrot chunks which, contributed more to your daily water allowance than your 5 a day. A small circle at the top of the tray, like a hat, was where the pudding sat: a nothing but fluffy raspberry and vanilla frozen moose. By the time you had finished your dinner the pudding had changed into a drink.
If The Dinner Ladies caught you dumping grub undigested you would be forced to stare at the wall for the rest of lunch-time. I once in childish innocence threw a lump of mash potato behind my head. It was foolish but I was annoyed that I was wasting precious calories on something so revolting. The shrill sound that followed and a unison of gasps informed me that I had taken one of them down. As I turned from my bench trying not to laugh I saw her skirt in the air, the largest of the gang, the lumpy mash potato smeared all over her shoes. A mutiny commenced and there we were, 1994 a group of youths throwing mash potato everywhere. The Dinner Ladies were powerless it was the teachers and their detention slips that made us stop.
2014, I walked through for my own internal examination, arms up, the scan slashed back and forth. As the beep less exit gave me the all clear, a cute custom official started to talk to me while I waited for my bag.
‘You’re from England? Wow my great great grandfather was Irish’
‘That’s not England’
‘Well it’s all the same isn’t it?’
‘It isn’t the same. In voice, language, charm, currency and potato jokes. Besides, everybody loves the Irish, nobody even likes the English.’
He tried to make me laugh with his terrible English accent ‘excuse me, would you like a cup of tea?’ when suddenly I was pulled aside by a stern and urgent police officer. He was big with authority, his smile relied on his arrogant knowledge, he had broken over 300 hearts not knowing that he himself didn’t have one, and that was worse.
He was harsh and rude. I felt a red guilt flush my cheeks, like the curtains of an old Shakespearean theatre, ‘oh no’ I thought considering my flirty interaction with the cute custom official ‘he’s going to think I only spoke to him so I didn’t look suspicious, but I’m not suspicious, I’ve done nothing wrong, but it looks like I did, flirting to try and divert his attention but he spoke to me first, that doesn’t matter it will look like a ploy.…’
The stern and urgent police officer searched my bag. Pulling it apart like a wife does a dish washer. I stood close to him eager to know what the problem was, ‘Mam, can you please step back, step back Mam’ using a small white paper like device he then traced the entire contents of my bag. ‘Shit’ I thought ‘I bought that bag second hand, what if the person before me left drugs in there or there were traces of something in the hem from the previous owner.Shit, and I had some second hand t-shirts and shorts in there as well. What if there were drugs in them too? Do you need a visa to stay in an American jail?’
He found what he was looking for and alerted staff: ‘we have it’.
‘What is this Mam?’ he said holding a black box in his right hand while reaching for his handcuffs in the back of his other pocket.
Relief washed over me, I’m back in Thailand at the bottom of Erawan water fall, cool and wet.
‘A rape alarm’
‘What?’ he replied
‘It’s a rape alarm, a device which alerts people if I’m being attacked’
Victory bombarded me while disappointment flooded his eyes. Had I both given and broken his cold stone heart, at the same time?
‘Mam I am going to need to confirm that. If you could just wait here’.
I watched him walk back to the baggage checker. He tried to place it tray less on the belt and was stopped by a less official colleague, ‘it needs to go in a tray’. Frustrated, he emptied another passengers belongings out, pause less without apology he thrusted my alarm into their tray instead. He returned, the handcuffs still dusty in his back pocket.
‘Here you are mam, you’re free to go.’ He handed it over. ‘We aint never seen anything like that before, you should get some pepper spray’
‘I think pepper spray is illegal in the UK’
‘Well a gun then, that thing looks like a -’ and he didn’t say the word, he knew the rules.
‘Guns are illegal in England sir and just for the record neither of those things would get through security.’
‘Either way Mam, you best make sure that thing doesn’t go off on the plane!’
But I didn’t. As I rummaged around inside my bag mid flight, trying to find my reading glasses, my finger accidentally looped around the rope and disengaged the pin from the hole. The whole plane shook with terror and I fumbled around trying nervously to put the thing back together.
‘Sorry’ I said unable to cope with the Shakespearean curtains that had been flung across my face. ‘I’m so sorry’.
London airport. 9am. The sun is fully sealed by a cloud of rainy wreaths.