The Day I Disappointed the Queen by Apple Gidley
I am a fortunate woman, and at times, an opinionated one. I have criss-crossed the world since aged one month. Not surprisingly, those earliest experiences of flying to Nigeria are non-existent in my memory bank. I do remember my first global circumnavigation - Singapore Perth Sydney Fiji Tahiti Acapulco Mexico City San Juan Beef Island Antigua London Rome Columbo Singapore. It was a lot of flying, and though owning my own blue passport and the corresponding blue BOAC Jet Club book I was not responsible for their safe keeping.
Then I was.
Travelling solo from age ten to and from Malaysia and Australia, then from Papua New Guinea, in the name of education, I became adept at negotiating both immigration and customs. I knew the value of that regal blue passport. My mother had told me I was to be extra careful because it belonged to Her Majesty, The Queen. It, and she, would guarantee me, and all those whose privilege it was to carry one, safe passage.
The preciousness of that blue book was ingrained in my psyche. Though as I reached the ripening age of fifteen, I became less diligent at getting the captain to sign the other - the by then defunct BOAC book. British Airways now ruled the stratosphere. To my almost-adult mind it was so juvenile. And yet, here I am today, at sixty, looking up that very book to confirm the aforementioned flight path.
Fast forward many years and I became a guardian to those who held the now plum-coloured passport that declared membership of the European Union. It did still have the lion and unicorn holding the crown aloft. It did not though have the same feel. That somehow irrevocable belief that entry would be given upon its proffering. There were an increasing number of citizens from an increasing number of countries to whom the burgundy book was issued.
However I took my guardianship seriously. I was living in a small despotic country tucked into the fold of every atlas - Equatorial Guinea in West Africa. I was Her Britannic Majesty’s Honorary Consul reporting to the British Ambassador in Cameroon.
One of my roles was to ensure every British subject was registered. Should civil mayhem erupt I would know who was who, and who was where. It was also my job to reclaim said burgundy passports should an over-zealous government official confiscate one. I used the very words my mother taught me. In poor Spanish, I would remind the man behind the scarred desk under a fan rotating so slowly flies could still land on it, that the passport in question did not belong to Mr John Smith. It belonged to The Queen. Her name always spoken in capitals.
Another role was to ensure DBNs - Distressed British Nationals - who for whatever reason imprisoned, were at the very least not being harmed and preferably, if the infraction was trumped up or minor, were released forthwith. More often than not release was relatively straightforward. More often than not it was suggested, either by me or the authorities, that the detainee might like to leave the country sooner rather than later. With his plum passport.
A passport, whatever the colour, is a thing of beauty when faced with detention. It is not advisable to allow it to go through a wash cycle, or be taken for a swim no matter how inviting the cobalt waters. Nor indeed should it be lost. Something that happened with alarming regularity to people who did not have the benefit of the same parental warning.
I was, during those Equatorial Guinea years, frequently travelling back to England due to my mother’s failing health. She lived deep in the Somerset countryside. I would leave Pitney at 2 am, allowing plenty of wiggle room for my drive to London Heathrow, in time for the red-eye flight to Zurich, from where I would board the plane to Malabo.
This particular trip, having returned the hire car, and taken the shuttle bus to the terminal, I was delighted to find a darkened, secluded bench on which to stretch for an hour or so. Wrapping my computer case around the luggage trolley then my wrist and, ever mindful of my passport, tucked my handbag under my head and promptly feel asleep.
Thump. My head bounced. Through the fug of disturbed slumber came the realization, ‘I’ve been robbed’. Galvanized, I untangled myself from the rest of my luggage, leapt over a rail and ran through the automatic doors in time to see red tail lights disappearing into the warren that is Heathrow.
My passport. My ticket. My wallet. My phone. All neatly bundled into one receptacle - a cornucopia of possibilities for the light-fingered.
The men-in-blue were wonderful, offering succour and tea, though bourbon would have been preferred.
“Do you know your passport number, Mrs Gidley?”
“How about your husband’s phone number?”
Answering a consistent ‘no’ I could however confirm my sister’s address.
“Oh, that’s grand,” said the sweet, ruddy-faced copper, as if he’d won the jackpot. “We’ll have a panda car stop around and get her okay to pay for a taxi.”
The police graciously handed me into a hansom cab, assuring the driver I was good for the fare. All I had to do was beg the Foreign Office for approval of an expedited passport and obtain a new visa.
That was the day I learnt it doesn’t matter what colour one’s passport. The only way around entry into Equatorial Guinea, unless one was American, was with a large slice of humble pie. (US citizens not requiring visas due to the deal made between a US oil company and the Equato-Guinean government.)
Later that evening, sipping bourbon at my sister’s kitchen table, I telephoned my mother who despite being vague about current events, either familial or global, commiserated with the words, “Oh sweetie, The Queen will be so disappointed.”