“I am this close to putting you on the next plane back home,” the customs officer bores his intimidating stare into mine, “so, be careful.”
My cheeks flush and my eyes sting. I can feel all the glances of the impatient line behind me prickling on the back of my neck. They are angry. This border control officer is angry. I’m angry. It’s been 45 minutes.
Naive and stubborn enough to believe I could book an exit ticket upon arrival should my one way ticket in be a problem, I now stood before this scary man trembling and sure this airport would be all of London I would see after such a long journey. Apparently it’s the “intent” that matters here, so booking an exit ticket now was worthless to this miserable man.
Whenever I am approaching the front of custom lines, I have a habit of scanning the men and women behind the counters, watching their interactions with their current advancers – how fast they are, how many questions they ask, their smiles, their eyes … do they laugh? Are they dead inside? – Picking out the one I want to approach and then holding my breath in hopes my spot in line will fall to them. In my mind, for whatever reason, this always works. I almost always get the one I want and I have never had a problem.
That December morning at Heathrow airport, the line was uncharacteristically short and still scanning, unable to choose, the woman in her British blues directing traffic motioned me down to the last man on the right. A very tall man by the looks of it (or at least with a very long torso) sat broad and straight, high above the rest of us. His navy blue uniform was perfectly placed and in pristine condition. An older man with a rather unpleasant pale complexion, thin lips that lay pressed in a straight line and thinning grey hair had just stamped the previous woman’s passport and sent her through with no smiles and no hassle. He looked bored and I felt confident approaching his cold exterior, that I’d be the one to warm his day and his heart.
“Hello,” I sang in my most cheerful voice, flashing him a genuine smile and sparkling eyes.
“Passport,” he responded robotically without looking down at me.
My chin barely reaching above the counter, I handed him my passport and entry card with a second attempt, “how are you today?” He took it in silence so I waited without another word, wondering how he got so many wrinkles if he had lived a life without smiles or laughter.
“Where is your return ticket?” He looked at me now. Dark grey eyes murky like muddy stones.
I knew this was coming. “I haven’t booked one yet, sir, because I’m …” I started
“Why?” His interruption was flat and curt and I ignored the fact that had he let me finish, he wouldn’t have needed to ask. He held my eyes with an eerie gaze.
“I am not sure where I am going next. I’m a travel writer, you see, and …”
“What are you talking about?” He asked incredulously, letting his face push back in disapproving expression.
Taking a deeper breath, again ignoring his unnecessary and rude interruption, I tried again, forcing the same light and confident voice, “I am attending a travel writing conference here and hoping that one of the magazines will send me somewhere afterwards to do a story for them.”
His lips snarled in condescending disgust as he sat back in his seat, crossed his arms and looked at me with one eyebrow raised. Now my blood was starting to boil. “What are you talking about?” He asked again, “You can’t do that.”
My mouth opened but my voice hesitated and it closed again as he spoke.
“When is the conference?” He questioned
“January 16-17,” I answered matter-of-factly.
“Why are you here so early?”
“I am visiting friends.”
“Who? Where do they work? Where did you meet them?” He looked at me now.
“I met them in Portugal in June while traveling. I don’t know where all of them work,” I answered honestly.
“How long were you with them in Portugal?”
“And you flew all the way here on a one way ticket to visit these people you’ve known for 5 days …?” He asked skeptically.
“Yes. But I’ve been in contact with them since and one of them visited me in Thailand,” I didn’t know why this was so hard to believe.
“So you’re a world traveler? Aren’t you going to go anywhere else in England then? Scotland? Ireland?” He pressed in a mocking tone.
“Well, yes, I’d like to.”
“Well, are you?” He pushed
“Yes, Ireland probably.”
“Which part?” He asked with his nose a little closer to my face than it had been before. I scrunched my own reflexively as if his gnarled down turned snout would pierce my own, bolting down like a carnival ax.
“South…” I guessed immediately, mentally trying to remember which part of Ireland belonged to the UK, less he trip me up this far in the game.
“So you came all this way with no plans and no return ticket to stay," he scanned the address I had written on my entry card, "in BARNET?!” He heaved out air in one of those mock condescending sighs and I felt my shaky fists clench.
“Um, yes, but…” The violent shaking of his head had disrupted my thoughts and now I was literally stuttering.
“Nothing you are saying makes sense. You are contradicting yourself around every corner,” He closed my passport and sat back in his chair looking down at me. I felt the lump enlarge in my throat and I tried to swallow it. He was getting loud now and I knew every one waiting behind me could hear. “So which one is the truth then?” He snarled, “You came for the friends or for the conference?”
“Both,” I croaked.
He shook his head again and this time I knew I was physically wilting. “You are not helping yourself like this. Just tell the truth,” his stern voice was laced with a resentment that I was not equipped to combat.
I was telling the truth. And now that it was out loud to a border official, it did sound ridiculous. I had made no plans because I would go anywhere and do anything. Literally. But he was trying to trap me around every corner and I was not helping myself, tripping over everything he threw at me and inserting possibilities as answers to appease him in any way I could.
“You don’t get it,” he said, “how do I know you aren’t trying to get in here and work illegally?”
“I can book a return ticket now if that helps,” I was forcing calmness into every tone of my voice.
“Nope. Doesn’t matter. That does nothing. Your intent has already been shown. You’ll just rip it up as soon as I let you in,” His head was shaking on a swivel now.
“Ok,” I nodded, seeing now that the only way I was crossing this border was agreeing with him every next step of the way.
“It’s not ok!” He was yelling now.
“I didn’t mean …” My cheeks were crimson and flames were lapping up the back of my neck.
“You Australians and Americans think you can just waltz in here and do whatever you want," He accused.
“I don’t …”
“Don’t interrupt me!” He shouted, enunciating each word slowly and forcefully for everyone to hear.
Pinpricks were shooting up my lower spine; I knew the crowd behind me was watching. “Ok,” I bowed my head in defeat, submission, and respect, anything to cooperate with this man.
“It is not ok!!” His voice climbing as he leaned forward glaring down at my misty eyes.
I felt panic rising in my throat like stomach bile, “I only mean that I understand.”
“You obviously don’t,” he waved my passport in my face and let it fall to the desk before sitting back into his seat and crossing his arms.
I bit my lip hard to stop the “ok” from escaping my mouth. Clearly there was a language barrier here.
He took a deep breath, opened my passport again and looking over it, said, “Well, you’re going to have to tell me more because I can’t let you in on this.” Again, 'ok' was the natural response that rose but I suppressed it. “Tell me more about this conference. You are networking? Let me see your business card,” he held out his hand.
“I … I don’t have business cards for this,” I stuttered, “but I have one from the winery I worked at in the states.”
His eyes rolled into the back of his head and he threw up his hands. “Do you know what you’re doing in any capacity? Is this a joke? How do you expect anyone to notice or remember you? Or for me to remotely believe this?” His open palm upwards as he waved his hand in front of me like he was serving a dish in disbelief of what stood before him.
“I’m working on something. And I’m just starting out. I’ve traveled around the whole world for the past 7 months and I’m a good writer. I need to go to this conference,” My voice regaining power with my right foot firmly planted into the ceramic tiled floor, I looked up at him with the most self-assured eyes I could muster.
“How do you know you’re any good? You’re clearly not a good traveler. I don’t know how you made it into these other countries,” He thumbed through my passport again, huffing a sort of exasperated laugh with each page.
“I never had any problems in those countries,” I responded coldly.
"You said you're a blogger. Do you get paid?" He interrogated further.
"No. But sometimes I write in exchange for accommodation," I answered truthfully.
“Then how do you know you’re even any good?"
“Well, I have a lot of followers in countries all over the world,” I muttered.
“So you have no job, no income, you work for yourself on this blog and are hoping to network at this conference … without business cards,” he added with a light chuckle that I refused to acknowledge.
“Yes,” I answered looking him directly in the eyes.
“So you’ll be blogging while you are here then?”
“Yes,” we seemed to be getting somewhere.
“Do you have a visa?” He asked without looking at me this time.
My brow furrowed in confusion as I shifted on my feet, “ No, because I’m not working here.”
“You just said you were. You work for yourself on this blog and you’ll be blogging here. You need a work visa for that.” His eyes flickering between me and the computer.
“But it’s not a company. I don’t get paid. I don’t pay myself,” I could feel the frustration leaking out and drenching every word.
“Doesn’t matter. You are trying to further your career in our country. That’s illegal work,” He looked down again at my passport, shaking his head.
I knew he was lying now. “But I’m just writing,” I pressed.
“For followers or whatever you say justifies your blog. That’s work. I can’t let you in,” he closed my passport and stopped taking notes.
“So, I can’t write here?” The teenage attitude was multiplying, “It’s illegal to keep a journal? Is that what you’re saying?” I was furious and nothing could hide it now.
“You better be careful,” he dangled his power in front of me, “you factitious young girl, I am this close to sending you back to where you came from,” one large palm on the desk in front of my chin, he hunched down towards me pinching a tiny space between his thumb and forefinger of his right hand, “The next plane out of here.”
“I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be … I just don’t understand,” I pleaded with gritted teeth willing the tears on the verge back from their ledge.
Twenty more minutes and ten idle threats later, I was entering London with a begrudging mark on my passport warning of deportation or banishment should I step out of line or over stay my welcome.
“Thank you. Thank you,” I smiled and bowed my head as I walked over the yellow line.
“Maybe you should write about THIS in your blog,” he scoffed, rolling his eyes and turning to whisper to the officer approaching this problem situation.
“Oh, I will,” I promised. Clutching my passport with shaking hands and weak knees, I stepped into the royal country, knowing now that there had to be something bigger that had brought me here.