It’s been a weird sort of day. Long and weird. It started, more or less, in immigration detention, and has kept weird since.
Yesterday (depending on your time zone) I drove to Adelaide, got on a plane, flew to Singapore, spent five hours more-or-less in a swimming pool, got on another plane and flew to London. The end of this was me being disgorged onto an unsuspecting Heathrow at a time alleged to be 5:35 before the M, though personally I doubt the evidence for such a time existing. After a blessedly short wait in a queue, I reached the Border Force officer (apparently Border Agency is so very 2013) who would decide if I was the sort of person who should be let loose on a green and pleasant land.
You never know what to expect with such people. Sometimes they wave you through with a smile and a nod, other times they want the history of your life and ancestry unto the fourth generation. I have often suspected that it depends mostly on how near they are to the end of a shift.
This time I am particularly nervous. Last time I left the UK, my relations with the immigration authorities were decidedly ambiguous. Not to put too fine a point on it, they were trying to get rid of me. I suppose, in a way, they succeeded. How they might feel about my return, even for two weeks, was therefore uncertain, even if they have changed their name in the meantime.
“So you’re staying for two weeks?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“What’s the reason for your visit to the UK?”
“Part business, part pleasure. Visiting a client, catching up with friends.”
“Okay.” That wasn’t too bad. He puts my passport in his scanner. “Hmmm.” His brow furrows. Uh-oh.
“Have you lived here before?”
“Yes. I was here for about six years.” He starts flicking through my (brand new) passport.
“Where’s your visa?”
“It was in my old passport, which has expired.” And which the Border Agency never quite got around to returning.
“Did you apply for indefinite leave to remain in the UK?”
“Yes, but it was refused.”
“Did you leave within the visa expiry?”
“But within the appeals process?”
“Was the appeal rejected?”
“No, it was allowed, but I decided to leave anyway before that came through.”
I don’t like the sound of that Hmmm.
“I’m going to have to detain you under section 2 of the immigration act.” Possibly he mentioned a paragraph too, my memory’s a bit hazy on this point. That sounds bad.
“It’s nothing to worry about.” I have my doubts about that, too. At this point I have a slightly bizarre picture of being shipped to a camp on a Pacific Island, held for several years and then deported. I’m only staying for two weeks, it’d be quicker and cheaper just to let me in. I’m aware that such things happen in the world, of course, but my ideas about the world include a pretty firm idea that it they don’t happen to me. Because, when you get right down to it, I’m white, and immigration detention centres aren’t for Our Sort of People.
“I’ll have to confiscate your passport, too.” A bad sign, methinks. “If you’d like to just follow me?” No, I wouldn’t like, but what choice do I have?
Don’t worry, folks. This is the nice, white-people’s version of immigration detention. As it turns out, “detention” is about a dozen seats roped off from the queue of people waiting. He gives me a receipt for my passport, then disappears with it, but comes back ten minutes later with an explanation I didn’t really catch. As near as I could make out, whoever was doing the paperwork related to my case basically pushed it all to one side when I left, creating the impression in their records that I hadn’t actually left the country and had over-stayed my visa by quite a stretch. A bit of a problem when here I am trying to enter the country again. He’s very helpfully fixed their records so that next time I try to enter the country it won’t happen again. I’m free to go, my passport returned with a shiny new stamp in it.
Since then, I’ve been staying awake and trying to shake a feeling that something is badly wrong. Staying awake is absolutely key to beating jet-lag, but is easier said than done. When they turf you out of the airport at 6:30 AM, on the back of four hours of patchy sleep, you think, How hard can it be? I feel great! By about midday, your body is starting to say, Hey-ho, time for bed, what? By the late afternoon, your limbs feel like they are made of lead and every step is an effort. By bed-time, you’re walking into door frames and forgetting in which order you take your pants and trousers off, and also possibly when it is socially acceptable to do so.
The key to staying awake is to stay active. It’s often tempting to see if alcohol will help. After all, you’ve nothing else to do, no car you can drive anyway, and the well-known time-compressing effects of alcohol could be beneficial. But it can’t be done. Any drink at all, up to around six minutes before you intend to go to bed, will end your effort to stay awake. I demonstrated this ably the first time I came to the UK, by falling asleep on a table in the Bayswater Arms Hotel, on the strength of most of a pint of ale. The staff, all Australian ex-pats, kindly woke me up and gave me a shove in the direction of my hotel.
Caffeine can be helpful, but can also wreak its own particular revenge when it does come time to sleep. No, the key is activity. In my case today, coffee with friends in Bath, an excellent midday all-day breakfast at the Wine Bar in the Keynsham high street and a haircut (I have yet to find a barber within 80 miles of where we live in Australia) got me through to about half past two. Then I found myself at a loose end, and there is nothing more fatal to the staying-awake project. First you’ll sit down. Then you’ll rest your head back on the seat. Just for a minute. Then you snore.
So, I said jokingly to my wonderful hosts, “I’m going to go and see if Bristol is still there.” This got a laugh, but as I got off the train at Temple Meads station, I realised that I really was there to see if Bristol is still there. And the reason I’ve felt all day that something is very wrong is that it is still all there. So far I can personally confirm that Heathrow Airport, Paddington station, the Great Western Railway, Bath, Keynsham and Bristol are all still there, as of various points in the day, and this has come as something of a shock to me.
It’s an extraordinarily self-centred view of the world, but I expected them all to be largely gone, or at least changed much for the worse. You see, my leaving England in June was a very stressful time and has resulted in a very large change to my circumstances; I expected, subconsciously, that everything and everyone within about a twenty mile radius (around two million people live in that area) would have also found it terrifically stressful and experienced a very large change for the worse.
But, not only have they got over my departure without any noticeable hiccough, they have even had the gall to go on gradually changing things without me. Keynsham train station has a pedestrian ramp (finally!) The Old Bank has changed hands, and the new management is not colour blind (it’s not painted bright pink any more) and, rumour has it, even does vaguely decent food (man was not meant to meddle in such things!) My ideas of my own importance are suitably recalibrated.
I’ve made it to quarter past six without sleeping; another couple of hours, and I can give up the battle.