Will the real British Airways please step forward
Walter and I were tired. We’d been trying to get to Zimbabwe for days but British Airways cancelled one flight, then another the next day. Now, after a midnight landing at Johannesburg International on the third day of our journey, it became clear that one of our bags was on the lag. “Not to worry,” said a man named Geoffrey. “Ask for me tomorrow and I’ll find it.” We allowed the man to shepherd us into the dark African night where, on BA’s account we checked into a half-decent hotel and where, on BA’s account, we slept without pajamas. The next morning, we returned to the airport to find our fixer.
No-one had ever heard of Geoffrey. Instead a gate agent patted Poppy on her head. People sucked their teeth at the thought of a lost bag. A cheerfully incompetent official led us to a grimy and unmarked door. “Go through there,” he said with confidence. We did, dutifully descending an escalator that creaked and gnashed its gears at us. At the bottom, we found an upwards escalator. We took it. It glided us back up to the official who had now lost interest in our plight. He worked so hard at pretending not to see us that we felt sorry for him, descending the escalator again and this time, spying an unmarked door we’d missed before. We went through it.
It turned out to be a one-way valve into the transit hall. Low ceilings glowered beneath dim, dirty lights. Passengers coming off international flights shuffled through the atrium like prisoners en route to the gulag. At intervals, grimy doors issued more captives into the crush. It was impossible to go back, only forward in that shuffle, shuffle, shuffle of tired people who don’t care how bad their hair looks. Passengers coagulated into a crowd that was forced into a snaking queue that went round and round a roped barrier, heading towards an X-ray machine manned by two angry security staff. It was clear that we’d be there for hours and, because we’d come through a one-way door, we couldn’t go back. Panic bubbled at the prospect of missing another flight to Zimbabwe.
Then, in the far corner of the hall, the angels sang hosannah for we saw something beautiful. It was a British Airways desk! And behind it sat a customer service representative: a woman who gleamed in the pork-pie hat and little aeroplane badges and blue and red necktie of the British Airways uniform! We waded through the crowd to reach her, relief almost bursting our hearts.
Our saviour was shrill when we got there. “I don’t know why people keep asking me stuff! You all think I’m British Airways or something.” The bow around her neck quivered crossly. “But you’re at a British Airways desk wearing a British Airways uniform,” I reasoned with the woman who looked like a middle-aged version of my old sports mistress. Our gift-wrapped lady sighed till most of the air left her body. “Ugh, they never tell me anything. What do they expect me to do?” The self-pitying whine in her voice made clear that she felt herself to be on the wrong side of history. “Just use that phone to call Menzies!” With a frustrated flap of the wrist, she indicated a receiver on the far wall. As we huffed away, she shouted to our receding backs: “It’s not my fault. Only Menzies can help.”
We dialed the number for the only man in Johannesburg who could help.
Menzies turned out to be a fax machine.
Throughout our brief yet absurd stay at Johannesburg Airport, Walter and I never did find Menzies or Geoffrey or a British Airways representative happy to own the title. Yet in a bid to catch our flight, we performed that universally distasteful crime: we jumped the queue. Luckily for us, the transit passengers were too tired to put up a fight and the security agents too angry to get any angrier.
Hours later, we arrived in Zimbabwe where we, puzzlingly, found our bag and where we, not so puzzlingly, went on to have a glorious time.