As people started to move from their seats despite the fact we had been specifically told not to undo our seatbelts until the sign had been turned off I grabbed the US Customs form we were supposed to have filled in during the flight. I had been too engrossed in my mammoth film session to even consider the red tape and bureaucracy of it all. I managed to get the first couple right, I knew my name and date of birth, but beyond that I started to struggle. They wanted to know the specific address we were heading to and when we would leave. I thought to myself calm down mate, we just got here. Harvey gave me his form to copy so as long as I didn’t accidentally copy his passport details down I was sorted. We were due to spend our first night at a lodge in Grand Canyon National Park and that was what Harvey had put down on his form. I copied his details word-for-word before realising we didn’t have the same date of birth, he was five years younger than me and also infinitely cooler. I managed to remember that America, for reasons unknown, put all their dates in the format month, day, year and checked everything I had put down. I wanted to make sure it was right. Despite the fact we had taken off at eleven in the morning and flown for over ten hours it was only two pm local time. I struggled with the maths of it all in my head as Harvey handed me my bag from the overhead shelf and I carefully piled everything back into it.
We arched our way out into the aisle and I slowly managed to shake off the dead feeling in the bottom half of my body. I’d only got up once in the course of the flight and felt twinges like it had gone to sleep. I felt rested but confused and disorientated, like waking with a hangover. Maybe this was the jetlag.
Nobody had anything to say to each other as we followed the row of heads through white corridors and out into a hall covered in a snake of rope to help us non-American citizens queue more effectively. Overhead were a lot of warnings about having your passport ready for inspection and not taking photographs in the hall. Every two minutes a video would flash up featuring Carrot Topp detailing how it wasn’t a good idea to decide to “have a laugh” when it came to entering these United States. I took heed of the ad, I was going to be a good boy.
As if the videos weren’t enough, a stern looking guard in uniform patrolled the front of the queue and yelled at anyone who had taken their phone out prematurely.
‘Sir, no pictures in here.’
‘You, in the sunglasses, cell phones away until you’re through security.’
‘Have your passports ready for inspection.’
This meant taking them out of protective cases. Security hate protective cases which is funny because they literally sit in one, behind glass, judging. I watched as Melanie and Harvey were asked to step forward into a queue for a particular desk. There were outlines of footprints painted on the floor to indicate exactly where they were allowed to stand while waiting to be invited up to the desk. Customs didn’t want them to stand too close together apparently in cas e that was the moment they chose to launch an attack on US soil. Behind me, Dr James and Teni were worrying about where Dr Amy had got to. They were sure she had been right behind them as they were coming off the plane but now she was nowhere to be seen. Teni was trying to count everyone through to make sure there were no stragglers.
‘Sir, you can join queue 17.’
As they had said sir, I assumed they were addressing someone else. Someone who must have somehow been ahead of me in the queue. Maybe an adult. It turned out they were talking to me.
‘Sir, number seventeen, hablo English?!’
I stepped into a queue and started to sweat. I tried to look like I hadn’t done anything wrong because I hadn’t. The bloated couples in front of me, clearly on their way to Vegas in their clichéd trilby and sunglasses, their too high heels and palm tree shirts were having their fingerprints scanned. It seemed a bit unnecessary. From what I had seen on the news, Americans had been committing crimes against fellow Americans with no mention of us non-US citizens being involved. Regardless of all the gun crime and the rape they may have committed against each other I was certainly not going to make a joke or try to be funny or give them any reason to take me to a tiny room and test the capabilities of my frame with a cavity search.
I looked up and the solemn man with the wonky moustache but straight glasses signalled to me with two fingers. I hoped he was at least going to buy me a drink first.
‘Ello’ I said, attempting to be more English than ever before and coming out somewhere along the way to Van Dyke cockney.
‘Passport please… sir.’
I put my passport down on the desk between the pair of us. Everything around him was square to the desk itself. It had a place. The pens were in a row at the side of the keyboard. The monitor was facing the back wall. His hands were poised on the edge, perfectly manicured fingers ready to judge me. In the midst of all the depraved and purposeful contours of his universe was my misaligned and grubby passport, eight years into its ten year life, stamped in Africa, South America and soon, the United States of America. He swung it around and looked hard at the picture. A young, shaggy-headed version of me looked up at him with stoned, puffy eyes.
‘Hmmmm’ he said. The sweat on my brow stopped rolling like his vision was based on movement. ‘You’ve had a haircut.’
‘That was 2008 mate, I’ve had a few.’
The hallway was windowless. I could have been anywhere. All I knew is I was alone and if I didn’t do something about it I was going to be stuck there for a long time. People walking in the opposite direction glared at me. I felt scrutinised and studied the floor. At the end of the long hallway there was a glint of light like a door had briefly been opened into another world before being shut again.
I wasn’t about to feel the long arm of the law. I had simply lost the rest of the group.
What happened after I made the terrible blunder of attempting to be funny on my way into America is the man with the wonky moustache and straight sunglasses looked me dead in the eyes before glaring hard at my passport picture.
‘Place your thumb on the panel.’ Shocked, I did so. ‘Spread the fingers of your right hand on the grid’ he added. I did as I was told, placing my four fingers across a Logan’s Run looking pad attached to the front of his desk. ‘Repeat the same with your other hand.’ I repeated the same with the other hand. ‘Look into the camera. I tried to look distant and aloof with a wry grin, like I knew I was going to be trouble. When they flashed that mug shot up in the Fox News update showing in my mind I wanted Americans sat around their television sets to declare me a nasty piece of work with adorable dimples just based on that know-it-all smugness.
‘Welcome to the United States’ he said and banged his stamp in and around my passport a bit to make it look official. I fought the law and I won. I hurried through to baggage claim and waited while everyone else in the group managed to find their bags. I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth and freshen up. My mouth felt dry and gummy, again like waking with a hangover. I checked my reflection over and pulled at the sleepy black circles underneath my eyes. I tried not to think about the time back home but knew it had to be bedtime. I wanted a Horlicks. I needed to keep on trucking and assimilate the new time zone as quickly as possible to get full enjoyment from the trip. When I came back out, everyone except Dr James had gone through. He had his bag but was still waiting for Dr Amy who hadn’t come through security. She seemed to have disappeared. He was understandably concerned for her for two obvious reasons. The first is that anyone who is whisked away upon landing from a flight is either a celebrity or in trouble. The second is that he didn’t want to deal with our whining and first world problems on his own for a week, which was understandable. My bag finally came through. I was able to recognise it from the rainbow tag that remained tied to the top from the group flight to Peru a year before. Aside from that it was a non-descript black backpack. I took it down from the conveyer belt and slowly tried to wheel it through. The problem is, and always has been, that the bag is shorter than my legs. It doesn’t have an extendable handle so I’m constantly having to slouch to pull it and it is constantly having to flip over and embarrass me. We’re like C3PO and R2D2 but not in a galaxy far, far away.
‘Sir, can I see your passport?’ asked a guard at the side of the walkway. He had a gun and a walkie-talkie so I respected his request. He looked it over and I managed to hold my tongue.
‘You got anything on you?’ he asked.
Oh shit, here we go again.
‘You got any on you?’
He raised his head indicating towards me. I couldn’t work out what I was supposed to do.
‘You got any coffee, like on your shirt.’
I looked down at the stupid upside-down logo on my t-shirt. I JUST WANT TO DRINK COFFEE, CREATE STUFF AND SLEEP.
‘Oh, haha, no. I don’t, sorry.’
‘There’s a lot of you coming through here for that Grand Canyon Lodge. Where are y’all going?’
Y’all, y’all, he actually said y’all. I was in America after all.
‘We, good sir, are off to trek the Canyon for charity.’ Again, the sentence was jumbled together with chimneysweep cockney thrown in for good measure.
‘Well, have a great day.
Have a great day, have a great day. He actually said have a great day. That confirmed it.
I gave a bit of a curtsy and broke on through to the other side.