Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Running to the Tiger

I met a friend I hadn't seen since he moved to Beijing last year, and dallied too long over pizza in a restaurant at IFC, watching the rain pelt against the window. My friend, an old hand at last minute sprints to the airport, told me it would all be fine, but as we walked to the railway station I could feel little palpitations of fear clenching in my chest.

With a proper airline you just need to be at the airport 45 minutes before departure, having checked in beforehand at the central station. Because I'd booked with Tiger I couldn't do that; I had to check in at the airport, and that would have to happen no more than 45 minutes before departure. The train leaves every ten minutes. The train takes 24 minutes. I caught the 7:40 departure. Check in closed at 8:05.

Every minute became more exquisite torture; I took up my seat, a minute before the train left. The doors beeped, the doors closed ... The doors opened again so a straggler could catch this train rather than the next one. Silently, I cursed hiim, and then we were off.

We stopped at Kowloon for interminable minutes. I checked the clock on my phone - still only 7:40. I looked at the station clock. 7:45. A woman wandered the platform, her face devoid of worry or hurry. The train remained in the station. At 7:50 we began to move again, but it felt as if the driver knew I was going to be late and wanted not just to prolong, but to accentuate the agony. We sped up. We slowed down. I watched the blue lights indicating our progress, willing them to light up. They remained dark.

We slowed down, crawled into Tsing Yi. Another wait. 7:55. And then off we went again, each previously unnoticed diminishment of our speed another bolt of terror to my brain. The man on the seat in front of me was shaving. Shaving with an electric razor, which I suppose was more sensible than shaving with a cut-throat and foam, but on the train on the way to the airport? Was he running terribly late or terribly early? Was this just some extra-special torture laid on to make things extra-specially torturous?

Everyone looked with bemused hatred at the man shaving himself. I could only see their faces and the back of his head. Was he carving obscene shapes in his facial hair? Did he think the Customs officials wouldn't mind? Or was that what his passport looked like?

8:02. Trundling slowly to the terminal. I took my bag and stood at the door of the carriage, like some rube from the sticks who thinks the train may fail to stop and he'll have to jump. I peered back at the shaver: an appallingly ugly man wearing shorts, shoes with no socks. Perhaps if he'd kept some hair on his face he would have looked better, perhaps not. I couldn't look at the time any more.

? O'clock. I leapt from the train like a salmon seeking its mating grounds, hurdled a baggage trolley, sprinted to the check-in area. The ramp down to the terminal from the railway station doesn't a uniform gradient: I kept feeling the ground float away underneath me, then rush back up. I must have looked like a member of the Ministry of Funny Walks' running club. I saw the miserable pink of the Tiger check in staff's uniforms (what did I just say about salmon?) and threw myself towards it. Nobody else checking in. Wordlessly, I handed my passport over.

8:06 by her watch. She checked me in without the slightest remark about my lassitude, pointed out the way to the security checkpoint, and I was on my way. I just had a phalanx of Mongolian tourists who'd apparently never transited through an airport before between me and my plane.

Between me and seat 30C; yes, after inexplicably being given seat 1A on the way out, on the way back they put me right at the very back of the plane, next to a noisy air conditioning unit (not just a whine, but a loud grinding sound that revs up and down like a learner driver failing to get out of first gear, as if I wanted to be reminded of getting my tooth drilled sans anaesthesia) and the toilet, in a seat that won't recline. As they're still adding more human cargo to the cabin now, at 8:45, I assume we're not going to take off on time, which would be bad enough if we weren't scheduled to land just before 1 in the morning.

I love air travel. If we don't get hit by lightning and the plane carries on not smelling of piss, I will be kind of satisfied. Call it a draw, even.


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