Leaving Madrid was emotional.
I don’t normally get emotional. I feel human emotions, and have read that book “Emotional Intelligence”, so I know my stuff, but I don’t tend to get overwhelmed by my emotions and so it comes as a shock when I lose control … but then it’s not every day you drag your daughter from the loving embrace of her friends and boyfriend and take her to University.
For the past 18 years I have sacrificed almost everything I’ve got in order to try to provide sufficient predictable income that I can give my two daughters a good education and a decent crack at life.
That’s 18 long years of having little cash and – more importantly – little time or energy. I don’t begrudge them any of it, what’s life about if not to leave a positive legacy, ideally in the form of happy well-balanced non-racist decent human beings who, if one is lucky, like decent music and support Leeds United.
Almost nothing about fatherhood is what I imagined it would be.
I did very little of what I had hoped to do with my kids. We’ve never been camping or sailing, we’ve been to a few concerts, but I never got to take them backstage to hobnob with rock stars, and I’d hardly call it the rock’n’roll way of life I’d dreamed of sharing with them. We’ve been to one book-signing – one! – and my daughters are more glued to TikTok and Instagram than the lonely stack of unread books I bought them.
I never understood just how overwhelming having a busy job would be; just how much energy and anxiety is expended on trying to succeed at work and remain employed. There’s so little left once the work and the commute and the chores are done.
I did what I could. I used to read Winnie the Pooh every night to my eldest (the same story, it had to be) and she has no memory of it. What was the point of it all, you may ask, if she doesn’t remember a thing?
The point was never the story, the point was the relationship.
The point was this, now … the point was today. The point was her taking a step into adulthood and achieving her dream of studying in Edinburgh.
It may have felt more like a nightmare than a dream at that moment, but eventually she tore herself away and followed me into T4, tears in her eyes, Covid mask on her face.
We got through the airport easily, although flights to the UK usually go via the Satellite bit of Terminal 4 because of the need to pass through passport control, so there’s the hassle of an underground train ride to negotiate. Even with that time-consuming obstacle in the way, I had left enough flexibility for lunch before getting on the plane to London, and so despite being annoyingly laden with too much hand luggage, the plan was working out.
If you know Heathrow’s Terminal 5, you will understand the frustration of having to land at the C Satellite, get the train to the Terminal 5 proper, do the passport control and Covid documents thing – having to wait even longer while some members of the Paralympic team were shooed through as priority (“national heroes” the sign said, which is as it may be, but … you know … we had a connecting flight to catch …) and other with tighter connecting flights were pulled forward “Glasgow! Glasgow!” they shouted as we were bumped backwards again … then “Newcastle …” … “that’s close enough,” I thought, “we can fly there and then stop off in Northumberland along the way …” … we got through, rushed as best we could through Security, and then notice that the departure gate for our connecting flight to Edinburgh is on Satellite B and the flight is “Boarding”
It’s not just that getting out to the Satellites adds quite a few minutes to the time it takes, it’s that you have no control over that time. You have to descend to the depths of the airport and wait for a shuttle train. If the train doesn’t come, dancing anxiously from foot to foot doesn’t make it come any quicker. You have to just wait. The train arrives, and they do a security check … no amount of sweating and swearing will make them scan the train any faster, you have to just wait. The doors open and you can rush onboard all you like, but the train still waits the same amount of time before the doors swoosh closed again and it sets off. The stressed lady (TSL) behind us – then in front of us – didn’t see it like that. She sprinted to the lift, unaware that the back doors opened to let you out at the station level, and so lost a second turning round. TSL ran to the train, exuding that stress you get when things are out of your control … well, I didn’t blame her for feeling anxious, we felt the same. Our flight had been showing “A Gates” until the last minute when it jumped to “B” and immediately flashing as “Boarding” … the difference is that I know that “boarding” is a lie, and they were not going to fly off without us for the sake of a couple of minutes, and so we didn’t worry about it. We accessed our inner zen and decided to get there when we got there. TSL had no zen, she ran and sweated and waited until the train arrived, then ran onboard and waited, then she willed the train to move faster while Station B crawled closer and closer … the doors opened and she then ran to the escalators then dashed through the terminal to the gate, joining the back of a long queue for the Edinburgh flight.
We were on the same plane.
Edinburgh Airport is not a great gateway to such a lovely city.
The awkward and tatty corridors feel old and tired. They seem to loom in on us as we make our way inside. It feels like we’ve been delivered to a functional industrial building that didn’t see the value in internal design. We got through passport control, then waited for our baggage, the lengthy wait not improving my mood. I huffed and puffed about the poor design and shoddy processes that meant we had to wait for a very long time in a room not designed for luggage collection, or waiting, or comfort, or humans.
It was drizzling as we left the terminal, trolley laden with three big suitcases and three chunky hand luggage bags. My thick coat had felt like a burden up until this point, but now I was glad of it. The taxis at Edinburgh Airport are not where you’d expect them to be, or at least not where I expected them to be. I had imagined that they’d be lined up in front of the terminal like is every other airport, but instead we had to walk through the drizzle for a few hundred yards to a very long queue of people waiting next to a large empty space (LES).
The LES turned out to be the place where taxis would wait if – hypothetically speaking – there were any actual fucking taxis.
Eventually one drove up to the barrier and into the LES, spun around, and picked up the people at the front of the queue. We inched forward, slowly closing the social-distance gap between us so we felt more progress had been made than there actually had been.
A few minutes later another arrived … same thing … and we all inched forward.
A couple of minutes later we spied two orange for-hire lights in the distance and watched as they got closer, paused at what looked like a junction or a roundabout – it was too dark for us to see – each time raising the possibility that they might turn off in a different direction. They didn’t, they buzzed up to the barrier, dropped some people off, turned around and we all inched forward again.
We counted the people ahead of us and surmising a two-minute gap between taxis it meant we’d be shivering in this wintry drizzle for another 24 minutes.
In the end it was quicker than that, but by the time we got to our hotel, they had stopped doing food and we were left disappointingly picking at pot noodles they sold in their “market”. My dream of a cold beer and a decent dinner was left in tatters; beer doesn’t really go with pot noodle.
The hotel was also being used by the Scottish national football team preparing for their upcoming game against Austria, and so I spent most of the time trying to spot Liam Cooper. I didn’t have a plan for what to do once I’d seen him – should I ask for a selfie? I am a middle-aged man, should I really be getting fanboy selfies with footballers? By the time he walked past my lunch table the next day, head down, focused on his phone, I just nodded to my daughter, “that’s Liam Cooper, captain of Leeds United” I said, expecting her to be impressed, and with my dignity/cowardice (delete as applicable) winning the day, I didn’t do anything other than smile at this close brush with greatness.
I will skip over most the next two days of helping her unpack and setting her up with food and kitchen equipment. It involved a lot of time trying to find the right pans in Ikea and trying to get an Uber back to the University – as I had spotted the previous evening at the airport (see above), Edinburgh has a severe shortage of drivers, partly a result of Brexit and partly a result of the Covid pandemic forcing many self-employed taxi and Uber drivers out of business.
My last day there was beautiful. The sun shone and we went into Edinburgh to walk around and had breakfast in Caffe Nero with a lovely view of the castle across Princes Street. Edinburgh is anyway a lovely city, but in that warm Autumn sunshine, it was spectacular.
I was so excited, I bought a new tweed cap to make up for my favourite Brixton Busker’s Cap being lost and discontinued, so I can’t order another (I still maintain it is in the house somewhere):
I am nervous about wearing a flat cap as it seems like a slightly showy fashion statement. A baseball cap – and the Busker’s Cap is a similar design – feels less statement-y, and so easier to wear without feeling like you’re drawing attention to yourself. I had thought about it for a while, sighing that other people were allowed to wear hats without people making a song and dance about it, so it seems a bit unfair that I can’t, when I realised that the only person stopping me getting a hat was me.
So I bought it.
I kissed goodbye to my daughter and realising that I’d left things a bit late to get a bus back into town, I called a taxi … now, I may have mentioned that getting a taxi in Edinburgh is not as easy as you might imagine, and so this was a slightly stressful process. I tried but gave up on Uber, eventually managing to get a taxi and arriving at Waverley Station with sufficient time to purchase a chicken and mushroom pasty from The Pasty Shop before boarding the train to York.
The sun was still shining as the train left the station and made its way east toward the coast. I quietly munched at my pasty, surprised how delicious it was. Soon we could see the sea, and I excitedly stared out the window, drinking in the gorgeous view. We passed Berwick, so I knew we’d crossed the border into England and I gazed upon the beauty of Northumberland, its gorgeous coast of big sandy beaches and dunes is a recognised Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and is one of my favourite places in the UK. As a kid we always spent our summers here, and I remember the idyllic long hot sunny days on the wide sandy beach at Beadnell, playing in the lagoon that formed when the tide went out. It’s probably not a true reflection of those weeks spent in our friends’ caravan, I have probably blocked out the rain and boredom of being stuck in the caravan with no toilet and no TV, but that’s the beauty of the human memory, it makes it up as it goes along.
At Newcastle a girl got on and sat behind me. She was on the phone, with the other party on loud speaker, making the entire conversation available to the whole carriage. It turned out that some of the guys they worked with were trying to shag them and they were OK with that up to a point, but not sure if Paul liked her really or not, and, if so why was he still with Caitlin and why did he say that thing that he said and do that thing that he did … I lost interest around this point and returned to my book.
I got off the train at York, surprised by the tropical temperature as I lumbered along the platform with my suitcase. It was lovely to feel such gorgeous summery heat and I regretted I was going to have to get on another train and not take advantage of it; chances to enjoy such things are rare in the UK and must be exploited to the maximum and as such I felt an innate urge to put a sausage on a barbecue. Instead I found my train, the cheap one to Leeds that goes the back way via Harrogate because I was getting off at Horsforth. Another pleasant surprise was that the local trains had been upgraded from the decades-old converted diesel buses that used to struggle up and down this line (investment in transport per head varies widely in the UK, with London hoovering up most of the cash leaving the north – especially this side of the Pennines – largely neglected, so new trains were a nice surprise).
After a few days in Leeds seeing family, catching up with friends, and eating proper fish and chips, I started the journey home, a less idyllic experience than my lovely train ride down from Edinburgh.
It began at Horsforth Station, a few Leeds United fans already on their way to go to see the game against Liverpool:
I had to change at Leeds’s unpleasant barn of a station. It’s not terrible, it’s just that it was thrown up after being bombed during the Second World War and although it has been expanded and refurbished since, these have been licks of paint on a dysfunctional base … the typical approach to investment in this part of the world. It’s in an awkward spot, built on viaducts over the river with City Square and the Queens Hotel restricting expansion to the north and the canal and river closing it in to the south. This means there is no easy solution without spending millions, and until that happens (won’t happen), we’re left with sticking colourful signs on old grey walls to brighten the place up:
Despite the grim surroundings, the place buzzed with excited football fans, but it was not a game I was looking forward to. Leeds United, like Leeds City Station, are suffering from years of under-investment (although in the case of the football team they are self-inflicted wounds from the careless over-investment in the late 1990s and early 2000s) and teams like Liverpool operate on a different financial level entirely. I don’t begrudge Liverpool this success, they are a great club with a great following, but it would be nice if, when they rebuild Leeds City Station (this won’t happen), they could rebuild the Premier League too, in a way that protects the good stuff, gives the fans more control, and stops the money-fueled drift toward clubs becoming the playthings of fickle billionaires (this won’t happen).
I had a bit of time, so bought another chicken and mushroom pasty to try to recreate the experience from the Edinburgh train a few days earlier, and unsure at which bit of the very long platform the fairly short train was going to stop at, I assumed the crowd contained wisdom, and hung around close to its centre of gravity.
I had a reserved seat in First Class for the short trip to Manchester Airport, because it had been cheaper than regular class (an occasional anomaly the system throws up) and so was keen to get on board and settle in to that little drop of luxury. It will probably be disappointing, I had told myself. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it, it’s just that expectations for top tier train travel are set by things like the Orient Express and although it’s not fair to compare that European flagship service with this little TransPennine workhorse, those romantic stars of the railway world set a bar for what we mean by “First Class” and anything less feels fake and superficial.
The train pulled up and whizzed past me, meaning I had to peg it up the platform and get on at the nearest door to avoid being left behind when the doors beeped closed and the train lumbered away. I squirmed through the carriage, apologising on repeat as my suitcase banged into ankles along the aisle. Eventually I stumbled out of Steerage and found the exquisite relief of First Class.
There was someone in my seat.
“Excuse me, I’m sorry but I think you’re in my seat?”
“There are two First Class carriages, you might be in the other one?”
So I continued through the train but it ended here, I was at the front … except I wasn’t, there were another three carriages attached to the front but no way to get from this set of three to the other until the train stopped.
I went back in to First Class and grabbed an empty seat, frustrated that this tiny slice of cheap luxury wasn’t the relaxing indulgence I’d hoped it would be. At Dewsbury, I jumped off and ran along the platform to the forward carriages and, again navigating the aisle with my bulky suitcase, I found the correct First Class carriage and settled down; it was actually very nice and comfortable.
The train goes directly to Manchester Airport, a rare example of joined-up infrastructure in the north (last mention of it, I promise), although Terminal 1 barely seemed to have changed since I was there in 1983 when my family went on our first ever overseas holiday to Tenerife; the first time I’d ever been on a plane. I returned to the same airport, same terminal, ten years later to begin my Spain adventure as an excited graduate leaving home and hitting the road, determined to try to live an interesting life (see here). It not only looked unchanged in the three decades since those days, given the length of the queue to get through Security, I wouldn’t have been surprised if some of the same people were still waiting.
The line was so long and slow that I watched the entire first half of the Leeds United – Liverpool game on my phone as we slowly zig-zagged our way along through that airless crowded space, every single step forward met with a bump in my back from the bag of the person behind me. Despite this happening a hundred or more times, its owner never learnt that there was a person in front of them and adjust accordingly … I would have thought the light bouncing off me and into their eyes would have been sufficient information to clock that there was a human in front of them, but sadly not.
By the time I got to the front I was not in the best of moods.
My mood was darkened by the poor planning and lazy processes that meant they only had three security posts open, and one was reserved for Fast Track passengers and people with young children, so only two for the rest of us; and then further darkened by the blank and unapologetic staff who did not recognise the humanity of the passengers they carelessly shepherded through their thoughtless queues as if we were nothing but obedient units to be processed.
I got through, or so I thought … but the arch beeped just as I stepped out, presumably a random check rather than a response to any metal objects.
“Take your shoes off please sir” the blank Security Guard said without a trace of emotion. If he felt any empathy for the discomfort his airport had inflicted on us, he chose to hide it under a million layers of nonchalance.
“You must be joking!” I heard myself say, wondering why I was saying it. I perfectly understood it was a random check and entirely within their standard protocols.
“Take your shoes off please sir” he repeated, toning down the empathy still further.
“Why me? It is unbelievable …” I surprised myself by saying.
“My only concern is your safety,” he answered. This wasn’t convincing, he appeared only concerned with following protocols, which is a proxy for “safety” but not quite the same thing. I remember being stopped in Orly airport for having toothpaste in my bag, a half-empty tube that would have been over 100ml had it been full. The staff were practically high-fiving each other at their catch, swanning around like a bunch of Jack Bauers having bravely undermined a terrorist plot by stopping a weary passenger travelling with a half-empty tube of toothpaste.
I took my shoes off and handed them to the impassive Security Guard, “There you go, my super dangerous shoes”.
“Have you never heard of the shoe bomber?” another said to me, and of course I had, and also knew that it was a standard and reasonable request, but I was so far gone, stuck in the corner I had painted myself into … so I did what any unreasonable idiot would do, I changed the subject: “Have you ever heard of customer care? Of running an airport security function? I was an hour in that queue!”
Maybe it’s a staff shortage issue, maybe linked to Brexit, maybe something else, I don’t know, but it’s not just the weary passengers that suffer, flights can get delayed and the airport suffers too. Not only will I think twice before using Manchester Airport again, but the idea I’d had of enjoying a relaxing drink and maybe a small bite to eat were gone, there was no time for that. I rushed past the bars and shops I would have gladly given some money to and zoomed straight to the gate where the flight was fake-boarding.
We waited in the gate’s holding pen until real boarding happened, and I tuned back in to the game to see what was going on, just in time to see Jürgen Klopp’s rule-breaking temper tantrum on the Elland Road pitch, screaming in the referee’s face, demanding Struijk be sent off because Elliott had been badly injured following Struijk’s brilliant tackle. I lost a lot of respect for Klopp that day, watching him throwing his weight around, bullying the referee and swearing at the crowd. How silly for a grown man to be having temper tantrums in public, I thought, shaking my head in disbelief!
I arrived in Madrid, immediately frustrated at seeing we’d docked at the A gates of Terminal 1, meaning we had an awkward walk back into the Terminal proper. The flight had been fine, with amusement provided by the couple sat in the other two seats of my row of three. At some point he said to her that someone had blocked her on Instagram. She seemed understandably unhappy about this but he was in no mood for her to be anything other than bright and breezy at all times, “don’t have a go at me” he said, in the sort of self-righteous voice that made him sound ridiculously insensitive, “I’m just the messenger”
“I’m not, I’m just saying I don’t understand why …”
“Not my fault, don’t have a go at me!” his lack of empathy made me think he should submit his CV to the security team at Manchester Airport, he’d fit right in.
“I’m not, I’m just …”
“You’re in a mood now, not my fault …”
I regretted not having a television comedy show because he’d make a hilariously unreasonable boyfriend character, desperately clinging to the power in the relationship.
I smiled as I remembered this, doing quiet impressions of him under my breath, perfecting the character, but as I walked and walked, worrying that I might miss my last train home, I felt my frustration grow. I was first out of the A section and into the Terminal, but having a British passport I am now directed in the “everyone else” queue and not allowed to use the electronic gates for the EU line. The zigzag had been set up in anticipation of a horde of thousands, snaking its lengthy way back and forth, making the twenty yards between me and the police waiting at the border inspection point into a journey at least ten times that long. I was exhausted by the time, had no desire to take this unnecessary diversion, but equally unsure I could duck easily under the barriers to shorten the distance – my body is not what it was – and so I walked one zig, ducked under the next, then the next, then unhooked the separation and sneaked through, then the next, but I didn’t put it back properly and it snapped open. I continued toward the desk, passport, residency permit and Covid QR code in hand, but the policeman pointed to tell me to put it back, and so I did so … and as I turned back, another policeman came over:
“Do you speak Spanish?”
“Those barriers are there for a reason”
“Well, I don’t know what reason, there’s no one here”
“Not at the moment, but there will be soon”
I doubted this, it seemed unlikely that hundreds of people would suddenly arrive, but I didn’t see the value in arguing about it. He thought I’d disrespected their authority (which was true, I had) and I thought they had disrespected the passengers by making us unnecessarily walk a lengthy zigzag (also true).
I stepped forward and presented my documents.
“Take your cap off”
I fumbled in my bag to get the residency certificate out, and reached to remove my new tweed flat cap.
“Take your cap off,” he repeated
I did so.
“Are you resident here?”
He stamped my passport and threw it back to me.
“Can I ask why you put the stamp in the passport, does it mean anything?”
“Yes, you have one year limit”
“But I have permanent residency”
He had had enough of me by this point, which to be honest, so had I, and he barked: “You should never question a policeman when he is working”
This was red rag to a bull. I have no time for the petty powerful, and certainly no respect for anyone who believes they are above the law or above being challenged … but I also had a last train to catch, so I cut my losses.
“I need to know, if you put a stamp in my passport, it means something, it creates an obligation on me, I need to understand that so I can obey it”
“I told you”
I smiled, put my cap back on and I walked into the country.