It is shortly after 9am when we arrive at Heathrow. Terminal One is swarming. Though there has been no fresh snowfall overnight, what snow remained on the ground has hardened to ice. Around a third of flights show delays.
We make for the BMI check-in desks. They loom in the distance when we hit the queue. A vast collection of human beings, laden with luggage, snakes around the floor. We join the back. Everyone else, from their black skin and loose, colourful outfits, seems African. We step out of the queue and scan to the front. This is not a check-in queue. It leads to a single set of scales. By the scales what looks like an entire family is on its knees. They sift through bags, boxes and suitcases, transferring items from one place to another. Only when they have passed this lo-fi inspection are these passengers waved forward, to join another queue for the check-in desk. Their flight is bound for Sierra Leone.
Beyond the scales, a second group is massed within a sealed-off area, a long rectangle marked out with the metal posts and extendable cordon beloved of airports. Here, again, is a certain consistency of appearance: most of the men wear kippah skullcaps. Their flight is bound for Tel Aviv; so severe is its delay that BMI is not yet willing to check them in. Newly arrived travellers march up to an unsmiling official in blue uniform at the edge of the enclosure. “Tel Aviv?” says a tense-looking man, also wearing a kippah. He is staring directly at the sealed-off area. “Where do I queue for Tel Aviv?”. “Where do you think?” I hear someone mutter.
We are waved through to the automated check-in computers. I scan my passport, key in codes, then scan my visa. “Error: invalid visa,” replies the computer. My heart sinks. I know that my right to travel to Saudi Arabia is tenuous at best, that I am doing so under muddy pretences, though not malicious ones. I call over another blue-uniformed official. “You’ll have to join that queue then,” she says, gesturing to a mercifully short line.
The shortness of the line proves false reassurance. It is short, but it does not move. It is feeding a single check-in desk, at which four young Arabic men in designer tracksuits are arguing with the clerk.
To our left, Sierra Leone-bound travellers who have progressed from the luggage scales are inching towards check-in. They lean on trolleys, or perch on taped-up cardboard boxes.
Behind me is a rotund bearded man who I surmise will be on our flight; with him, a woman in a black gown and headscarf. “This is ridiculous,” he says. “We are not even moving.” We all smile and shake our heads.
In front of us is a fair-haired, fair-skinned family. Two young children loll and tug at their parents’ clothes. Their father loses patience and crosses to the one of the blue-uniformed officials. When he raises his voice in complaint, I discern an Irish accent. I never discover where is bound, but his complaint works. Nodding as if she has been commanded by a superior, the official diverts our queue to a different desk.
“Finally,” says the man behind me.
The visa problem turns out to be computer error. When I look back, ticket in hand, on the way to security, I see that several Tel Aviv-bound passengers have stepped out of the enclosure and are vigorously arguing with officials. I do not stay long enough to see whether their lot improves. The queue to the Sierra Leone luggage scales stretches around a corner, out of sight.