As we all know Christmas is the time when magic happens, angels appear, baby Jesus comes, Santa Claus flies across the sky, Scrooge becomes a good man, life is a wonderful, and 44th street hosts miracles.
Unfortunately the older we grow the less likely we are to expect miracles to happen in our lives over Christmas and New Year. Which is why when I arrived at Malpensa airport on the 2nd of January and found out my British Airways flight to London was delayed exactly one hour and 45 minutes, meaning I’d be landing at Heathrow in the middle of the night with no public transport back home available, I released a string of swearing words who made the overmade-up, robotic BA check in assistant stare at me with great disapproval.
BA is a truly crap airline on short haul flights. It’s ALWAYS late. It’s probably because it still operates in an old fashioned way – no munchkin-like flight assistants ready to turn into superfast cleaners as soon as the plane lands, preparing it in 15 minutes for its next cruise like on Easyjet or Ryanair; no plane-swapping between Milan, Barcelona, Prague and Casablanca so that if one flight is late there’s always another arriving from somewhere else ready to load passengers – it seems to accumulate delays even in the quietest times of the year. On the first working day of the new year, with bad weather conditions over London, its flights just stand no chance. And whilst in the past the neverending waiting was sweetened by free refreshments and a high quality on-flight service, now unless the delay is officially two hours you get nothing (we boarded 1h and 55 minutes later than due and waited half an hour on the runaway) and on board the stewards would only offer rancid orange juice and a stale packet of curry flavoured crisps…
Heathrow is also the worst airport in London when it comes to connections into town. Yes, it has the tube, pity it stops working at midnight, which is ludicrous in itself considered the amount of flights arriving after 11pm.
So here I am, at 1.30am, outside Terminal 5, desperately looking for a way to get back to North London. Using the internet on my Iphone I find out there’s a ridiculous night bus running every 20 minutes that can get me to Piccadilly (after going to Harrow, Hammersmith, Kensington and possibly the moon…) The old A1 bus that used to connect the airport to Euston station has apparently been suppressed in 2004… There’s a National Express coach to Victoria leaving every half an hour, pity it goes from Terminal 3, and I’ll have to wait for an airport shuttle to get there… Of course I can get a taxi, which will cost me twice the price of the plane…
Have I mentioned that there’s no Oyster card recharger next to the night bus bay and no cash machine dispenser either? Well, now I have.
Having decided against opening a mortgage to return home on a taxi, I stand at the bus station with my ludicrously heavy suitcase containing, among a pile of clothes and three pairs of boots, a huge slice of Parmesan and a coffee machine for six. Looking forward to my London by night tour that will take me to Piccadilly in about half a day, I look at the business types jumping on black cabs, the happy families walking to the parking lot to get their car and the lucky people who have friends, relatives or boyfriends with cars. I don’t drive and neither does my boyfriend. It’s not a cold night, and my flowery woolen hat makes me sweat. The strong wind that delayed the flight is still blowing from the ocean. Welcome back, I say to myself.
I’m counting the coins in my wallet to see whether I have the right change for the bus fare (God forbid you try to get on a bus in London without an Oyster card or the exact change), when I hear a presence next to me. I look up and see a girl, hippie looking and curly haired like me but slightly younger. She has a pale complexion and blond hair. She’s only carrying a shopping bag and a rucksack. Like me she has a flowery hat. Like me she doesn’t look like somebody who’s going to spend 120 pounds to jump on a black cab.
“Where are you trying to get to?” she asks.
I’m a Londoner, and therefore I have developed an instinctive mistrust for strangers talking to me. Especially in the middle of the night. Especially whilst I’m counting my money. However she has a very unthreatening smile and a very sweet voice, so I answer.
“North London,” I said, keeping vague.
“I’m going to Tufnell Park,” she says. “I have a cab to pick me up from the departure parking lot. I can give you a lift.”
My sudden enthusiasm is such for a second a forget my suspicions
“Oh wow, I’m going to Archway!” I say. “It’s such an incredible coincidence!”
The moment I say this though, my brain starts going. How is it possible? I mumble to myself. Of all the places this girl could be going to in London, she happens to live just next to me? Is it a scam? How does she know I’m not waiting for somebody to pick me up? Is she going to take me up to the departures parking lot, steal all my belongings and disappear? Is the taxi driver a psychopath who kills women and she his ruthless partner?
The girl’s phone rings and she starts speaking in a weird language I can’t recognise.
Great, I think. She’s telling her Bulgarian, Armenian or similar accomplice she’s found a victim…
“It’s my mum,” the girl says, smiling. “She rang the taxi for me, it’s a minicab firm, it’ll be cheaper and we can share. Forty pounds? Apparently he’s already at departures.”
I look at the girl again: her shopping bag is from one of Milan’s department stores, the rucksack is full of books and a badge on her lapel reads “peace”. If this is a con they went through lots of trouble to make it realistic. I follow her.
At departures everything is quiet and desert. Finally a car pulls up: “Amber?” the driver asks.
“Yes!” the girl says. “And do you mind driving this girl up to Archway after dropping me?”
The driver, who’s probably been in London for exactly 36 hours, looks at me puzzled.
“What’s your postcode?” he asks.
Great, I think. Now they’ll know where I live so they can burgle my flat after killing me.
I give him my postcode, he carefully writes it into his GPS system.
“Wow! It’s only 0.8 miles further!” he says beaming. “Not a problem, not a problem, let’s go.”
We set off. Amber’s phone rings again. She speaks in that strange language again.
“I told my mum we’ve set off,” she explains. “She’s Turkish.”
I nod. The girl seems to be smiling at every sentence she proffers, as if arriving in the middle of the night the other end of London after waiting forever at Malpensa was just another nice thing to do to celebrate new year.
“And what do you do in Archway?” she asks.
“I’m an actress.” As usual, as soon as I pronounced these words I regret it. “Actress”… It sounds so pompous. So pretentious. I know that now the next question will be where can I see you? Are you in a theatre company? Have you done some TV recently? I should have said I’m a translator as I often do, or a teacher. Simple. Reliable. No questions involved.
“Cool,” she says, smiling again. “I’m a drama teacher. I use theatre in workshops with disable children and refugees. I run my own company.”
Now this is beginning to feel spooky. I meet a girl who kind of looks like my blonder younger version, who’s just been to Milan, who’s wearing a hat like mine, who lives in my neighbourhood and who is also an actress, only a more “ethic” one.
Amber tells me how she’s been travelling the world running theatre workshops to help children with learning disablities and asylum seekers. She’s just spent three months in Turkey, then she went to Germany and was in Milan just for a couple of days to visit friends. She’s off again to the Middle East in a couple of weeks. There’s a strange sense of peace coming from her, as if this word wasn’t just a badge on her lapel. She doesn’t ask me my name. When I tell her I also have a theatre company, she says she likes its name: Legalaliens.
“Do you work with refugees too?” she asks.
“Sometimes,” I lie, feeling terrible. Perhaps we should, I think. Perhaps we could start doing workshops with disabled children too…
At Tufnell Park the driver stops to let Amber off.
“Hold on a sec,” she says. “I’m going in to get the cash from my mum.”
Ten seconds later she comes out with 30 pounds.
“Here,” she says, placing the notes in my hand.
“But it’s too much,” I say. “We were supposed to share!”
“No worries,” she smiles. “Goodnight.”
Amber grabs her rucksack and disappears round the corner. The driver starts the car again and after exactly one minute I’m home, safe and sound and having spent only £10, much less than for a Heathrow Express ticket.
As I walk through the door, I’m happy. Good people still exist. Curly haired girls who would take you home safely in the middle of a January night. Has somebody “sent” me Amber the angelic girl? I don’t know. But for the first time in 12 hours, I’m smiling too.
HAPPY NEW YEAR