April has always been the month when we’re likely to be overseas or just coming home from a trip. Except not last year. Or this year, for that matter. Or, we firmly expect, next year, either. We all know why – that dratted pandemic. So, stuck at home as we are, it has been… interesting… reading through Facebook’s ‘memories’ every day – the platform curates posts of what I posted on this date in previous years. It’s as if I’d written a diary and it has brought back a few memories.
Like the time we went to Europe in 2010 to launch my very first published book, To Die a Dry Death. As it happened, the most important event at that time was not my book (gasp), it was the eruption of Mount Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland. (Don’t ask me how you pronounce it.) The volcano emitted tonnes of ash which percolated across most of Europe and shut down all air travel into and out of Europe for around six days.
Of course, the disruption to air traffic wasn’t the only thing happening. Pete and I picked up a lovely dose of norovirus, probably at the transit hotel in Taipei, on our journey to London. We apologised profusely to the people we inadvertently infected. It’s a nasty, if short-lived, illness and highly contagious.
We stayed in a serviced apartment at Maidenhead on the outskirts of London above a shopping centre with a Sainsbury’s. We could get cheap food there – a two course, pre-packed meal AND a bottle of wine for ten quid. Good food and an absolute bargain (unlike some of the gastro-pubs.) We hired a car so we could do some sightseeing, visiting London’s inner city, Welwyn where Peter grew up, Oxford to visit friends, and Winchester just because. Along the motorways around London there were signs saying ‘Heathrow airport closed’. I tried to get a picture but my camera back then couldn’t pick up the words. Heathrow is one of the busiest airports in the world and European airspace is always criss-crossed with contrails. It’s rare to see a clear sky over London – but on this trip, a contrail was a marvellous rarity. In fact, as the days passed, we were hoping to see a few.
We left the car in the car park for trips to London, catching a train instead – much less stressful. Usually, but not every time. We went to Goldsboro’s, a London bookshop, as part of the book launch, which was lots of fun. It was marvellous to come face-to-face with a number of writer-friends I’d met online. It’s actually a very comfortable experience because you already know them before you say hello. After the event in the early evening we went to Paddington station to head back to our apartment. Our train was delayed. And delayed some more. Nobody could tell us anything. Then the station people must have twigged that there were a lot of disgruntled commuters milling around, so they broadcast announcements. I don’t know if anybody else understood a word. I certainly didn’t. Apparently signal faults delayed southbound London trains. When they finally rolled into the station there was an unseemly rush to crowd into the carriages. We were happy to finally make it to our digs in the early hours of the morning.
We continued with the tourist stuff, enjoying some wonderful spring weather, but always with an eye on the news and that bloody volcano with the unpronounceable name. But karma didn’t want us getting complacent. Just for shits and giggles we got stuck in a lift for seventy-five minutes. We were only going up one floor, from our apartment to the carpark. When I say giggles… I’m a bit claustrophobic so it wasn’t actually much fun. But we played ‘I spy’. And talked to about seven different people at the control centre that you ring when you get stuck in a lift. We rang them once, then every ten minutes or so, somebody would ring us back. We got to explain to each one that yes, we were stuck in the lift. And no, we were NOT in that building in London Road. And no, we had no f***ing idea which core we were in. We also talked to a policeman who came to our door and asked if we were stuck in the lift but there wasn’t much he could do. A fellow FINALLY turned up, having found the right building, and got us out. The lift had stuck with the floor about thirty centimetres below where it should have been. Just as well I’d been to the toilet before we went out.
The days slipped by. We were due to fly home on the 22nd April. As the day of departure came closer, with no resolution of the crisis in sight, tensions built. Thousands of flights had been cancelled all over the world. Passengers booked on flights that didn’t take off were shunted back to the end of the queue for the next available flight – which meant any seats left over after the passengers with bookings were catered for. Some airlines told people to buy new tickets and ask for compensation later. The airlines were losing millions every day and clamoured to be allowed to resume flying. Many passengers resorted to finding other ways to travel, like Heikki Hietala, our friend from Finland who was also involved in the book launch. He had to get back to Helsinki for work, so he slipped across the channel and went cross-country, using hire cars, trains, and ferries to get home. It wasn’t easy or comfortable, but Heikki made it home in around sixty-two hours, a bit different from a four-hour flight. Here’s his account of what he went through. We, of course, didn’t have that option – at least, not if we wanted to get home in less than a few months. So, we crossed our fingers and waited.
Finally, the CEO of KLM had had enough. He sent up a 737, with himself on board, as a test flight. Out for the day in London on the 21st we saw two con trails in the air (several hours apart) – huge excitement. I even took a picture. It would appear they were KLM aircraft, which had permission to fly over Sussex. Lufthansa and BA also sent up test flights. Yet Heathrow remained closed. British Airways forced the issue. The airline sent up twenty-six long haul flights heading for Heathrow. The airport had to open.
It looked like we were going home.
But it wasn’t plain sailing. Nobody without a ticket was allowed to even enter Heathrow’s terminals. Airline desks were set up outside and tickets were checked before we could get in and line up for boarding passes. Then we sat with all the other passengers on our flight in a lounge, all of us watching the clock as our departure time came… and went. Fortunately, it was just a delay. We boarded and to our everlasting relief, took off.
You probably noticed I didn’t include photos for this trip. That’s because karma hadn’t quite finished with us. In the eleven years since 2010 I’ve changed computers a few times, most memorably, when I gave up on the Mac experiment and went back over to the dark side. I reckon I lost a folder during the conversion process. So you’ve missed out on pictures of me doing readings from my book, me sitting on the floor in the lift, con trails over London, spring among the spires of Oxford and other delights. All I have is our visit to Welwyn and to Winchester.
Oh well. Here’s one of the crypt at Winchester Cathedral.