My back aches, my feet are destroyed, I'm £500 down and stuck in a place I don't want to be. I've never missed a flight before. It's quite an experience.
I don't know what it is about the British rail system. The ancient trains. The constant engineering works. The delays. The dysfunctional "privatised" system. The rude staff. The breakdowns. The extortionate ticket prices.
I suppose I do know, really. It's just fucking shit.
I've always had a bit of a problem with the British rail system because I am unwavering in my naivety. I approach situations assuming that, logic and reason dutifully applied, they will work as you would expect them to.
Today, on a trip from the UK to Austria, my train to the airport was inexplicably delayed and subsequently terminated half way between London Liverpool Street and Stansted Airport.
We'd left adequate time to get to the airport, my girlfriend Evi and I. We didn't think to factor in a delay, a termination, a transfer to another train, another delay, another change at another station and another delay, before finally finally arriving at our destination. The airport. Stupid, really.
But this series of events did lead to an interesting experience in observing human nature. One which I'd like to share with you.
Despite all indications from my iPhone that we had no hope in hell, we arrived at the airport 15 minutes prior to our flight departure. The Stansted Airport live departures website was still showing our flight status as "Gate Open". There was hope.
The train conductor helped us, explaining the process for getting a refund on our train tickets - should we miss the flight. He let us off the train before everyone else, pointing out the fastest way to get up into the main terminal.
We sprinted, possessions askew, through the terminal to security. Could we jump the queue? We asked the man there to provide assistance to disabled passengers. We couldn't. But he could take us directly to the fast-track security area, where we could pay £5 each to get to the front of the line. Lead on.
Breathless we arrived at the fast-track desk, "Do you… take… cards?" I panted. "Certainly!" said the lady behind the desk, her eyes growing wide at the departure time, now a mere 12 minutes away, printed on our boarding passes. "But I'm not going to - you've got to run, go now." - she ushered us through the fast track and wished us luck.
Shoes off, bags on, jacket off, tray, next tray, laptop - check, liquids - check, anything in your pockets? No.
Fuck. iPhone in my pocket.
"I'm going to have to search you."
I'm never one to say no to a good groping by another man, normally. But this situation called for haste and his stroking efforts, while gratefully received, were not getting the job done.
"Please hurry, I'm going to miss my plane, here - look at my boarding pass."
"OK, everything seems to be in order."
Stomp back into shoes, grab bags, run.
Run Forest the-fuck run.
"Excuse me! Coming through! 5 minutes to plane!"
We hurled down Stansted corridors to Gate 49, the furthest possible gate from the main terminal. Excellent.
Down an escalator, up an escalator, round a corner, up some stairs, another corridor, legs giving up, breathing becoming rapid…
"Last call for flight FR1903 to Linz departing from gate 49."There's still hope, I can see the gate! Where's Evi? She's somewhere. She'll catch up. Focus.
I screeched to a halt at Gate 49. In the distance, I'd seen the last passenger walk through the door to the plane perhaps 20 seconds prior to my undignified and out-of-breath arrival.
"Please… plane… must…"
I stammered, boarding card and passport thrust out in front of me to the gate attendant, Susan.
"Sorry, this flight is closed."
Imagine a bored-looking Jo Brand. That's what Susan looked and sounded like. In fact she might actually have been Jo Brand, in witness protection. Or undercover. Or something.
"Ok, but I just saw the other people go through the door - so I'm only a few seconds behind them, and I'd love to join my fellow passengers in celebrating another on-time flight by RyanAir. Did you know, that RyanAir was voted both the cheapest and the most consistently on-time airline in 2012? They even play a trumpet on the plane every time you land on time."
She ignored me, typing away on the computer at the desk. Evi arrived, equally out of breath.
"Hello, please let us on the plane - we're so sorry we're a little bit late. I have to work tomorrow, I need to be back in Austria."
"Sorry, this flight is closed."
I looked out the window. There was our plane, sitting outside the terminal. It didn't look very closed to me. The stairs were still attached to the plane, both front and rear, the doors were open. The cargo doors were also open, and in fact the ground staff had only just started loading the checked baggage into the undercarriage of the plane.
"But the plane is right there - we're right here - and, you're going to love this next part: we have tickets to be inside it."
"Sorry, that's not how it works."
"How does it work?"
"The gate closed at 11:30 - it's now 11:55 - the flight leaves at 12:00."
"But I saw the other passengers boarding the plane at 11:54?"
"The flight is closed. You're not getting on it. Those are the rules."
"Do you know Jo Brand?"
She finally looked up from the computer. She'd closed the flight and marked boarding as complete while she was standing there talking to us.
She picked up the 60 or so boarding card stubs of the other passengers, and walked off.
We sat there for a while. Catching out breath. Swearing. The plane sat there, just out of reach beyond the perfectly polished glass of the terminal exterior... for another 16 minutes.
A few minutes after it eventually pulled away, Evi turned to me.
"You know, it's funny" she said, "every single person today went out of their way to help us. They didn't have to, but they did anyway. Except for the last person."
She was right.
The conductor on the train didn't have to help us, but he went out of his way to give us information and to let us get off as fast as possible. The man assisting at the disabled-passenger security line didn't have to help us, but he went out of his way to take us to a place that could get us through as quickly as possible. The lady at the fast-track desk should have charged us money, but she didn't, she let us through. The many passengers who we barged past on our frantic dash to the gate didn't have to move - but they recognised the anguished sounds of distress from a fellow human being and obliged us with quick passage.
Then there was Susan.
Susan something. She wouldn't tell me her last name. Just that she's the only Susan in all of RyanAir. Susan just stared at us blankly with an expression and tone that communicated - very clearly, to her credit - "I really don't give a shit."
And now. We're sitting in a shitty airport hotel. £500 of expenses down the drain. I'm not sure if my travel insurance will cover it.
In the grand scheme of things, it's not a huge deal, but it's made me think about two things.
First, how often do we take moments of compassion from others completely for granted? Almost everyone in this little story did something remarkable that deserves to be appreciated.
Second, how often am I the "Susan" in someone else's life?
It wasn't your fault that we were late, Susan. You didn't do anything wrong. You did your job. To the letter. I just hope that everyone who you ask for help is as strict and unwavering in their stance as you. You deserve to receive just as much as you give.
Which leads me to my final conclusion:
Perhaps I also don't give enough. Perhaps none of us do.
Subscribe to John O'Nolan
Get the latest posts delivered right to your inbox