A Christmas Carol, Byers Choice, Dickens, Heathrow, Kansas City, London, Mid Continent Public Library, Newark, Samsonite, UAL, United Airlines, USA Tour
Saturday 9 November 2019 saw the start of a new Christmas season and at 7 am the first act of a well rehearsed system fell into place. A black Mercedes taxi was waiting for me in the thick fog of the early morning and soon my bags were loaded and I was on my way to the airport.
I had a new travelling companion this year, for you may remember that my old suitcase split at the seams during my trip in September. After much research and a couple of false starts (cases ordered and returned for the reason that I couldn’t fit my walking cane diagonally in them – the sole criteria which an auditioning case must fulfil), I ended up with a petrol blue Samsonite model, which seems sturdier yet lighter than my old one.
I had packed during the days preceding and was somewhat worried that the case came in so underweight, leading me to panic that I had left something of vital importance out, but I had checked and re-checked and all seemed to be present and correct.
On Friday morning I had received a confirmatory email from United Airlines inviting me to check in so I had dutifully logged onto their website to do just that. Now, I like to have a window seat when I fly and there are two reasons for this – one I love to see the view and possibly comment on what I see in these posts (although on a transatlantic flight of over seven hours that pleasure is confined to a few minutes at the start and a few at the end). The other reason is that I feel much safer and more secure if I can see the ground as the plane touches down, I hate the thought that I might not be ready for the impact – it is a silly thing, but a few years ago I was flying to join a cruise ship and was sat in a seat next to the main door and from which I had no view at all. As we came into land I experienced what can only be described as a mild panic attack, and became quite scared. I am a well travelled man and have had plenty of experiences of bad landings as well as good ones, but even today there is just something about seeing the ground that reassures me.
So, it was with some dismay that I discovered that United Airlines now do not offer a window seat as part of the standard fare anymore, for that privilege you have to pay an extra $99 to upgrade to an ‘Economy Plus’ seat. Was my mental wellbeing worth $99? No, not on this occasion, especially as I was booked into a central aisle seat from where I was sure I would have some glimpse of the ground.
My taxi took me towards Heathrow and directly into the most amazing sunrise, the great golden disk was softly diffused by the fog and it seemed to be huge in the sky, the bottom tip barely touching the horizon.
As regular readers will know I have been tentatively working on a book, and as I sat in the back of the taxi I read what I had written so far, making mental corrections as I went. It was a strange feeling for in one section of my account Charles Dickens is sat in a railway compartment and I had written: .’Perhaps Dickens took the manuscript of Our Mutual Friend from his pocket to study and read over once more, mentally correcting a certain passage and losing himself in his work.’ And here was I doing exactly the same thing.
The traffic on an early Saturday morning was not heavy and I made it to the airport in good time where the check-in procedure was equally swift.
Even the lines in the security hall moved quickly and I was delighted to discover that I had time for breakfast before making the 15 minute walk to my gate. I found a restaurant and ordered scrambled egg and smokes salmon with a fresh orange juice and coffee to wash it down with, it was delicious.
There was a different feel about Heathrow on a weekend and it seemed a happier, more positive place that I have often found it. There seemed to be more people going on holidays, or pleasure trips. There were more smiles and less grumpy, impatient people with extremely important business to attend to, needing everyone else to be out of the way.
Having finished my breakfast I made my way to the gate where the preliminary boarding process was just beginning and I didn’t have long to wait until my group was called and I shuffled up the rather narrow aisle of a 767 and found my seat (from where I did have a view to comfort me!)
We were slightly late departing for the cold morning had necessitated a de-icing spray but soon the little collection of strangers was being propelled into the sky and away from England.
The flight passed as flights do these days, smoothly and efficiently. I watched The Favourite, with Olivia Colman. It is a discordant film, nasty, difficult and slightly Hogarthian in its direction, but it is superb and the performances by the three female leads are wonderful.
Lunch was served and I opted for a rather nice chicken curry, but I noticed that the United Airlines cuts had extended to no pudding on the plate (perhaps that would have been included in the extra $99!) They even teased me by supplying a plastic spoon with the knife and fork, which seemed a bit mean. I don’t know why, but I kept that spoon when the main course was cleared away and was made to feel ashamed at my unworthy thoughts towards United when soon afterwards a little tub of Belgian Truffle Ice Cream was served. Everyone around me had to eat theirs with the a little plastic spatula which was concealed in the lid of the tub, but I, for whatever reason, had kept my spoon. I felt superior and smug about that.
More films (a re-watch of Bohemian Rhapsody which was just as exciting on the second view, and rather oddly Little Shop of Horrors) passed the time, and I also read some of The Invisible Woman, the book by Claire Tomalin about Dickens’ relationship with Ellen Ternan. It is a superbly researched book but as always whenever I read it I felt a huge sadness over the way Charles treated my great great grandmother, Catherine. I was fortunate enough to meet Claire at a literary festival a few years ago and she said much the same, that is made her feel sad to record such awful actions of a man she otherwise greatly admired and revered.
The movies and the book helped me across the southern tip of Greenland and the northern wastes of Canada before a warm croissant was served (‘turkey and cheese or just cheese?’ I was tempted to ask for turkey and cheese but without the turkey please, but that would have just been facetious.
We began our slow descent into Newark airport and I caught a glimpse of the magnificent Manhattan skyline bathed in a golden fall sunlight before we touched down and taxied to our gate.
The line in the immigration hall was long, a 50 minute wait so the helpful video screen informed me, and I settled down to reading more about Ellen and Charles as I shuffled forward. Many people in the queue were staring to panic about missed connections and indeed I was due to board a plane to Kansas City, but I have learned over the years that it is better not to look at a watch or a clock in these situations for that only leads to a sense of panic which doesn’t do any good at all: the line is never going to move faster and the officers will not allow you to leap to the front, so there is no point getting heated about the whole situation.
Eventually I was cheerfully waved on my way by an agent and I picked up my suitcase to clear customs before re-checking it for my onward flight, where the baggage handler looked at his schedule and said ‘Kanas City, 3.30? You need to hurry!’ Now I could panic and get heated. Of course my flight was due to depart from a different terminal so I ran to the skytrain and trundled round to where I needed to be, then I had to clear security again – shoes, belt, watch, jacket off. Stand in the tardis-like thing with my hands up. Clear. Shoes, belt, watch, jacket back on again and run through the terminal to gate C84, which seemed to be halfway to Missouri. Sure enough the gate was deserted when I arrived but fortunately the door was still open and I managed to get on board with a few minutes to spare before it was firmly and finally closed.
The flight was over two hours and this time I entertained myself by listening to the opening chapters of ‘Northern Lights’ the first of the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy by Philip Pulman.
Coffee was served and for a snack I could choose a bag of peanuts, a Biscoff cookie or a Stoopwafel wafer. I selected the latter.
As well as listening to my audio book I also played a little Backgammon on my phone, desperately trying to beat the computer 11 – 0 and endeavour in which I was eventually successful, just as the wheels were touching down at Kansas City airport.
Kansas City is a familiar airport to me as I have been coming here for many years and I was soon waiting at baggage claim for my nice new case to appear, which it didn’t. I became rather nervous for as I had only just got on the flight, surely my bag would have been one of the last on, therefore one of the first off? In my mind I began imagining a show tomorrow with no top hot or cane (I always travel with a costume and shoes in my carry on case, so it wouldn’t be a complete disaster).
At last however my case appeared and I revisited my illogical thinking: yes my bag would have been first off the aeroplane, which meant it would also be first onto the cart and therefore the last off again the when the bags were loaded onto the carousel.
Having taken a shuttle bus to the car rental facility I was able to choose my steed for the next week, a white Kia Optima and in no time I was making the drive to my Missouri home, the Hampton Inn at Liberty. Having checked in I decided to get a bite to eat straight away only to discover that my usual restaurant, The Longhorn Steakhouse near to the hotel was packed, and it was then I realised that it was 7.30 on a Saturday night: food was not going to be easy to come by. I drove around to other restaurants only to find the same large crowds all waiting for a table to become free. Eventually I ended up at the Corner Café a homely place in the mould of the Cracker Barrel chain of restaurants, but much less corporate and with a more local feel to it. I enjoyed a beef pot roast with mashed potatoes and green beans, all washed down with a large glass of Sprite.
It was 8.15 when I returned to the hotel although my body and head was still somewhere in the early hours of Sunday morning. I unpacked my costumes and hung them up and then went straight to bed.
I am delighted to be back and especially to be among my dear friends in the Kansas City area and to be working again with Kimberly and her team at he Mid Continent Public Library branches, but there is a slight feeling of sadness and emptiness about this year’s trip, because I am not performing in Pigeon Forge this year which has become the traditional starting point for my recent tours.
My commitments at home just didn’t allow for me to travel any earlier this year and therefore I couldn’t make the trip to the beautiful Smoky Mountains. To Kristy, Dwight, Debbi, Art, Gary and his Corvette and all of my other friends there I can only say that I hope to be back in 2020!