(first published in Spelk Fiction, March 30th 2020)
In the snaking queue for passport inspection at Heathrow, I watched the Asian family gathered around the neighbouring passport booth to my left: the tired, sullen children, the downcast mother, the desperate, gesticulating father. I knew how they felt. These days, I sail through passport control and customs without a care or hindrance. I recently retired as Head of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of West Yorkshire: I’m a respectable, even august figure — my colleagues used to refer to me behind my back as “Earth Leader”. But I wasn’t always so self-evidently respectable, and British Border Controls weren’t always so straightforward.
Fifty years ago, I was hitchhiking back from Venice and had just caught the Ostend-Dover ferry with minutes to spare. I’d stayed too long in Venice, mesmerised by the play of light on water and on old stones. I was out of money, dog-tired, and travel-worn. I carried a bedroll, wrapped around a canvas kitbag. I was called over by a customs officer, fresh-faced — no older than myself. Age was perhaps the only thing we had in common.
There were a number of questions about where I’d been, what my purpose was, and where I was going. All the time, he was eyeing my bedroll. Eventually, inevitably, he asked to see inside my bedroll. First, he shook out my sleeping bag: nothing. Then he opened up my kitbag, spreading my dirty underwear, socks and shirts across the bench. At the very bottom of the kitbag was a white enamel cup. And inside the cup was some crumpled brown paper.
The officer’s detached, professional persona peeled away. Was this to be his very first drugs bust? He eagerly ripped open the paper — nothing. He smelt it — nothing. He held it out to me, puzzled:
“What’s the paper for?”
I knew that only an honest answer would suffice: “It’s to wipe my arse.”