Tarmac Orphan

Twelve inches is a long way in travel. The world may be getting smaller, but when you’re standing at A, desperate to get to B, and only twelve inches separates you from your destination, B might as well be on the moon.

The weird thing is: you wait all your life for a man in uniform with a powerful weapon to turn up, and then three come along together.

The details of my European trip were eclipsed somewhat by the problems I had getting out of France and the subsequent problems I had getting back into the US. I feel as if I lived 48 hours as a sort of Tarmac orphan, passport at the ready but unable to go anywhere.

My crime? A heavy suitcase packed with books and a couple of bags of loose change.

Nothing about me, I am sure, indicated that I was going to be Semtex catch of the week, as I arrived at the Eurostar Customs. I was loaded up because each time I returned to the US, I ludicrously felt that I had to take a huge chunk of my home library – now somewhat diminished, with the sale of my house and the remainder lurking in storage. I suppose it was my comfort blanket.

I’ve been told by Eurostar that women travelling alone are targeted because they tend to be the biggest drug traffickers, but apart from smuggling in a box of Oxo vegetarian stock cubes last time I returned to the US, my activities in this area are rather limited.

Personally, I blame the Alsation. I am quite at ease with small dogs, but when a very large one starts leaping around when your stuff is coming through on the conveyor belt, it can be a bit unnerving.

My terror was that it was going to eat my MacBook Air laptop, without my having had chance to back up the book and screenplay I am writing, so I was not really paying attention to the Customs man when he asked: “What’s in your case?”

As I had, in total, five bags, I couldn’t remember what was in the specific case to which he referred, so I said: “Things”. Wrong answer! “What things?” “Er, books, clothes . . . “ (and can’t you get that damned dog’s nose away from my computer).

Now, in my Linguaphone French language learning course, the Customs man – le douanier – is rather a nice chap. There is a family travelling together and he takes a shine to the daughter, Valerie. “Le douanier,” it says, “Il admire Valerie” (translation: he wouldn’t mind giving her one, there and then, over the conveyor belt).

I’ve always thought it was a bit sexist, but whatever it was that old Valerie had, I wished I now had it; but “Le douanier . . . Il deteste Jaci” was clearer much nearer the mark.

He told me to lift my case and put it on a table that seemed like double my body height. Not only was it too heavy to lift, I have a longstanding shoulder injury that would have made it impossible to do so anyway, and I told him so.

“You don’t lift it, you don’t travel,” he insisted. I asked for help. “I’m not going to do it,” he said, and would not budge on the matter. I started to cry. “There is no point in crying, you are not going anywhere.” So, we were stuck: me, case, man with gun.

Eventually, a tiny female member of staff, even smaller than me, came over to lift the case, and I was almost on my way. The officer opened it, took out Dr Raj Persaud’s book, The Motivated Mind, threw it back, and told me I could go.

Maybe he thought that I was so motivated, it was not beyond the realms of possibility that I could grab his gun, shoot the lot of them, and still have time to eat the entire supply of croissants in the Frequent Traveller lounge.

I thought that would be an end to my day of Customs hell, but there was more to come when I reached the US some hours later. Although I have an I Visa that allows me to come and go freely, man number two with gun was having none of it.

They always ask you why you are entering the US, and they do so with such an air of “You so much as sniff our air without asking permission” that I am trembling so much, the paramedics almost have to be called in.

I was sent to another line, where man number three with gun awaited me. He wanted to see everything – and I mean everything – in both cases. Why were my cases so heavy? (There’s a dead Alsation in one of them; why do you think?). Why was I carrying so much loose change?

Was I carrying any food? Er, no. There were a couple of boxes of herbal tea for various digestive conditions that I thought best to keep to myself. Not that I would need them, as my bowels were now well and truly working without recourse to outside assistance.

But it was the books that really interested him. He too alighted upon The Motivated Mind, with Dr Raj Persaud’s picture on the cover. Now, Raj is a very handsome man, and someone I used to work with in TV, but suddenly he had the look of an accomplice about him. He is also of a non-white persuasion, which was something that had not even occurred to me before. Clearly, very dodgy indeed.

The official moved on to Save the Cat, Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book that is my Bible and that I carry everywhere while I am writing my movie. There is a very good picture of a cat clinging to a rope on the cover, the premise being that early in a movie, your hero should do something – such as saving a cat – that endears him or her to the audience.

But suddenly the cat didn’t look so clingy. In fact, it looked rather pained, as if someone had been trying to string it up two minutes before and it was in its last dying throes.

“If you want to write a movie it’s the best book,” I ventured. “It really is and most people do want to write one here don’t they and that’s why I came here and . . . “ Breathless, hopeless . . . If you’re in a hole, stop digging, but as if my spade were not doing an efficient enough job, I had brought in a JCB to help dig myself in still deeper.

Now, not only did I have a motivated mind, I tortured small animals. Quite clearly, it was going to be a small step from thereon in before I exercised my newly acquired killing skills on humans.

“Passport,” said my interrogator, and went off to a computer. All I could think of was the Little Britain sketch Computer Says No, as I awaited my fate. Had I done or said anything in the States that might warrant my not being allowed back in? I really didn’t think so. Apart from being born small and Welsh, of course, but it was only the English who ever had a problem with that.

Richard Curtis, the brilliant brain behind Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, had been on my flight, and he sailed through Customs. We had spent a brief time chatting on the plane, when I recalled a course he tutored many years ago, when he told me that all his movies were about the same thing: How do you find the right person to love?

Luckily for him, we had to return to our seats at the point where I had started to tell him that life wasn’t like the movies, that men suck, life sucks, Customs officials suck.

The last words he said to me as he left the plane were: “I’m sure you’ll find love eventually” (though you have to be honest: Love, Eventually as a movie title, as opposed to the movie he made – Love, Actually – doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

So, when I descended from the plane, I was dreaming of happy ever afters and Hugh Grant meeting me at the airport with a bunch of roses. Then the men with guns captured me. Like I said, Richard: life ain’t like the movies.

I finally arrived safely back in the US, but for several days could remember very little of my European trip. I did, however, recall visiting a friend’s house in Paris and walking up the Champs Elysees, where I saw an old man holding a very small penis, urinating beside a tree. I confess to knowing the size because I stopped briefly, just to remind myself what a penis looked like (we were talking a couple of years here, give or take a magazine or two).

It didn’t do much for me, I’m afraid. Twelve inches may be a long way in travel, but even a man with a gun couldn’t get me to hang around for two of his own.

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