It was a very emotional farewell, and I found myself fighting back tears when I left Richard on Wednesday night, and mum on Thursday morning, but had to drive myself back to the airport, so I thought it best to save the real sobbing for a time when I was not in charge of a vehicle. The traffic was horrendous, and I sat for nearly 90 minutes, bumper to bumper, before leaving the motorway at Junction 14. The instructions that I had been given to return the car were fairly accurate. I took the first left, went straight over the roundabout, and then sat at the traffic lights, signalling right. A van pulled up beside me and I motioned to the driver that I would like to illicit his help. I was, indeed, on the right road, but when I said I was looking for the Hilton hotel, he said that I was going the wrong way. He suggested I turn around and head back in the opposite direction, and started to give instructions. Taking a deep breath, I decided to go with my instincts, and ignore his advice. The directions I had been given by the android from the car hire centre, had been good up until now, with all the road numbers on my self-made map, appearing on the road signs, so I could only conclude that the driver of the van was unfamiliar with the additional Hilton on the Coln-by-pass. He was not! However, all was not lost, as the hotel was actually the Sheraton, and it stood tall on the left side of the road, about a mile from the traffic lights. The petrol station was on the other side of the road, directly opposite, and the break in the median was not far enough along to allow access. I assumed there would be another opportunity to u-turn as I drove slowly, with confidence waining. Eventually, I saw a set of traffic lights and surged ahead with a new found buoyancy, ready to turn the car in the opposite direction. The police vehicle sitting at the junction halted me in my tracks, and I knew I would have to make a right turn and hope that the road would veer round to allow me back onto the by-pass.
Entering the airport perimeter, I realised that it was not going to be quite as simple to return to the by-pass as I had hoped. I followed the road round, aware that time was of the essence, and my fears regarding the disappearance of my seat, (only my seat,) on the plane, and the inability to check in online was going to be catastrophic, were all perfectly logical! I stopped the car, and metaphorically slapped my face, with a wet towel! I had to pull myself together, before the pieces were swept away and scattered to the four corners of the earth! The road did, indeed, bear round to the right, in a roundabout formation, and I followed the circle, then cut in front of a very irate driver, at the wheel of a bus, (I could not say whether he was irate before I veered in front of him,) so that I could turn left, on to the by-pass. It was a structured, calculated risk, rather than a dangerous one!
The petrol station was open, and I filled up the little car, not wishing to argue with the powers that be at the car hire office, that I was returning the vehicle with the same amount in the tank, as there was when I collected it. I paid, and then attempted to leave the small shop that housed the cashier. The door was stuck fast. I could not open it, and another customer who had just filled his vehicle, could not get in. Everything inside me screamed to stand upright, as I wanted to sit on the floor and howl at the top of my voice. All my emotions rose like the steam trapped in the funnel of a train, and I was ready to blow! Unsure of where the voice came, I listened, and noticed the small catch that someone had managed to set to 'lock'. I twisted the small metal bar, and the door miraculously opened. Rather than being scorned for my meltdown, I was hailed a hero! Confidence once again abounding, I got into the car and headed out.
The small break in the road, that was just a little too far down on the way up, was just a little to far up on the way down! I would have to drive down and make a u-turn, again! The first set of traffic lights were visible quite quickly, along with the triangle underneath, with a red border, and the letter 'U', with a large black line diagonally drawn, to indicate that turning round on this road was not allowed! The metaphorical wet towel started to make its way to my face, and hovered, threateningly, as my will to live diminished by the second. 'I think I can, I think I can', said the Little Engine inside me. 'You know you can, you know you can', said the metaphorical wet towel. 'I'm going to miss my flight, I'm going to miss my flight', said my sub-conscious, which never appears to be on my side! Once again, I was forced on to a road that had no break, and was headed towards Timbuktu, (or perhaps the Hilton Hotel,) rather than back to the car hire office. Thank goodness for roundabouts! I have never really missed them whilst living in the USA, but I have never been more grateful for the circle in the middle of the road, that allowed me to return, yet again, to the by-pass that will remain forever in the map of my mind!
I pulled into the facility, and was greeted by a rather rotund, jolly man. I wished him a 'good morning', in a very bright fashion, and he responded in kind. His attitude was far different from the representative I had encountered the previous week. I made a mental note to suggest that 'Trevor' take lessons from this gentleman, and I waited for the inspection of the vehicle to conclude. It went on forever. A fine tooth comb would not have been fine enough! Short of checking the undercarriage for signs of dust, the examination was incredibly stringent. Finally, after scrutinising the seats, and checking the door compartments, the car was given a clean bill of health, and I was advised that I would not be penalised for any damage. I was handed the clipboard holding the form for me to sign, and noticed that the 'inspector' had already signed his name. 'Trevor'. Perhaps there were two, but I did not think it was relevant, due to his graciously ignoring the tiny mark on the boot, to bring up the subject of the previously discourteous experience I had encountered! I pulled my two suitcases up the ramp to the office, was told that I could not have a receipt as the computers were down, slid the same suitcases back down the ramp, and waited for the courtesy bus to return me to the terminal.
Miraculously, my seat was still available, the airport had not been relocated, and an asteroid was still just a figment of my imagination. My cases were slightly underweight, and my boarding pass was printed. I was advised that I would have to 'check-in' for my next flight once I was in the Canadian airport, and I would have to clear US customs in Toronto. The very pleasant lady directed me to the departure area, and suggested I visit the Maple Leaf lounge when I got there!
Terminal 2 at Heathrow has been completely revamped, and I headed for the lounge, rather impressed with the surroundings. The breakfast was not as bountiful as in the United Airlines lounge at Terminal 4, but I feasted on the pleasant fare that they offered. My laptops were dead, and I attempted to use the computers in the 'Business Centre', but they would not connect to the Internet. I chose to try the I-pad's that were on the other wall. Sitting next to me, and watching my crude attempts at accessing anything on the little square tablet, was a child of less than high-school age. Amused by my ignorance, she continued to watch as I got more and more frustrated. Her game was not as interesting as this person next to her, going from one machine to another, trying to get back to the first page, so that she could 'start again'. I left the area, trying not to look completely humiliated, and went back into the 'Business Centre', to hide! Amazingly enough, the tables under the computers, had two sets of power outlets. I plugged in my two machines, and set up my office. To all those around me, I may have looked rather professional. With two computers in front of me, I went from one to the other to access data, attempting to look as if I were high falutin' when in truth, I couldn't really be bothered to wait for one to boot up, and the other to decide whether it wanted to open two pages, or just stick with the one! I played for about 30 minutes, had a glass of water, and some salad from the recently added 'lunch' section of the cafe, then packed up my kit and headed for the gate. It was at the gate that I noticed the 'United' lounge. As the plane was slightly delayed, I chose to visit, in the hope that they would allow me access to the new lounge, despite my travelling with a partnering airline. The lady behind the desk was more than willing to oblige, and actually asked me for my feed back. Being far more calm and collected, as the only thing left to panic about was the flight, (and the ensuing flights, and negotiating the customs area in Toronto, and......,) I felt equipped to take the task in hand. I was rather disappointed that I had not visited this lounge first, as the breakfast area contained all my favourites, but I knew lunch awaited on the plane, and I had an upgrade! Compared to this lounge, the 'Maple Leaf' looked a little bit tired, despite being brand new! 'Our bar is the longest in the airport', she stated proudly. 'At least until Mr Branson finds out', she snickered. I returned to the lower level and boarded the plane.
Air Canada certainly have the edge in their Business Class. I had a lovely pod to myself, as instead of the seating being three sets of two, the configuration was one on each side by the windows, and two in the middle, separated by a partition. I received a menu, selected my choice, called mum and Richard, to let them know that I was now officially a 'Princess', and settled back to watch a film.
The loud noise that appeared to be someone collapsing in the bathroom, was someone collapsing in the bathroom. I turned around to the sound of a cabin crew member asking, 'What can we do to help', and the sight of a pair of aged, fluid-filled legs protruding across the gangway. It took four able bodied crew members to lift the rather frail looking lady, and take her to her seat. I waited for an announcement asking for medical personnel, but it did not happen. The plane started to taxi along to the runway, and the crew members took their seat. As we started to take off, one steward came running down the aisle, and slid into his chair, just as we left the ground. Once the wheels had folded into the undercarriage, an announcement came over the loudspeaker, asking if anyone could speak a specific language. It appeared a young boy, who did not have his own seat, but was on his mother's lap, would not stay seated, and neither understood, (or would not understand) that his was inappropriate. The crew member took his seat, to comply with airline law, and suggested that if anything untoward happened to the child, he could not be held responsible, as they had not adhered to instructions (which had been pointed out, quite clearly, in picture form). I sympathised at his dilemma!
The flight was uneventful. I was fed the most amazing meal, eating my 'rack of lamb' with gusto, almost relieved that breakfast was not as scrumptious as it could have been. Eric, the steward assigned to my seat, was incredibly attentive. He produced a perfect 'one third champagne, two thirds cranberry juice', and was almost disappointed when I refused a glass of port with my cheese! I explained that I do not cope very well with alcohol, and he said he promised he would not tell anyone if I had another drink. I explained that he would not have to tell anyone, as it would be rather obvious, and the young child on his mother's lap, and the old lady in the bathroom, would be chicken feed compared to me with a drink or two inside me! He laughed heartily, and promised to continue to offer! I watched three films, a couple of TV series, and slept a while, before we landed in the land of the Maple Leaf.
I proceeded to follow the crowd and when we arrived at Passport Control, the official pointed us in the right direction. 'Canadian Citizens to the right; Visitors to the left; In transit to the USA to gate F'. It was all very clear. I entered 'Gate F', and directly inside the door was the United Airlines desk. Unfortunately, so were four young men who were not satisfied with their ticketed seat, and were demanding compensation. It appears they had been on 'stand-by', accepted the flight to Toronto, and were scheduled to fly to Los Angeles, but needed to be in Ontario. I suspected from their conversation, that they had taken what was 'on offer' just to get out of London, but then complained that they were not where they needed to be. The young lady at the desk was trying to explain that she could not give them an upgrade just because they were not where they wanted to be, but they insisted they had been put on the wrong plane. Undeterred by their efforts to 'pull the wool over her eyes', she turned to me, and asked if I was in need of a boarding pass, to which I replied in the affirmative. She suggested to the young men that she be allowed to deal with my needs before theirs, as I had obviously been put on the right flight, and needed to proceed. The reluctantly stood back, and plotted their next step.
I thought the next process was incredibly efficient, despite being rather slow. I scanned my boarding pass in Section 1, walked through to Section 2, and waited for my name to appear on the board, before going to Section 3. Many in Section 2 found this to be intolerable, and complained between themselves. Once in Section 3, we were lined up to wait for an available Immigration Officer, and were now 'officially' in the USA, within the confines of the Toronto Airport. There was no discrepancy between Citizens, residents, and visitors, and the Citizens were rather obviously peeved. I waited in line, as those for earlier flights were filtered through much more quickly. This, to me, seemed to be far more preferable than having to go through Canadian Immigration and customs, and then go through US Immigration and customs, at Houston. Eventually, I was directed to a very cheerful chap, who asked the usual questions as to why I had left the United States, and when I told him it was to meet my brand new grandson, he almost melted! He stamped my passport and customs form, and directed me through, welcoming me home! Unsure as to where I was supposed to exit, I asked an official if I was meant to follow the group of men that had entered into an enclosed area. He asked if I was with them, and I replied that I was on my own. 'Well, come through here', he said politely, taking my customs form, and after a quick glance, ushered me into the security section. It appeared that the chocolate, candy, Ribena and ten coca-cola bottles (with names on the labels) that Samantha had so kindly had delivered to my mother's for me to bring home, were not contraband. I was not randomly selected to have my bags searched, and was now on my way, again, without having to reclaim my luggage. I was grateful that the gentlemen to whom I spoke before leaving the USA sixteen days earlier, told me to make sure that my luggage was checked all the way to Austin, at Heathrow!
I spent about forty five minutes in the Toronto Maple Leaf lounge. After such a large meal, and snack on the main flight, I was surprised at how hungry I felt. The food on offer was rather splendid, and I found some very enticing tomato soup. I stood in the short line, and watched as the three people before me ladled it into a bowl. The three after me, watched in amazement, as I ladled mine into a cup, and I could feel the temptation within them to imitate my actions. The Englishwoman Abroad, who lives in Austin, Texas, had brought a new trend to Canada. Whatever next!
My flight was slightly delayed, but landed in Houston a few minutes early. We parked at the gate, and I de-planed then headed for yet another lounge. Having been up for around 21 hours, I was feeling rather punchy and was not completely aware of my surroundings. A young lady tried to avoid bumping into me several times, but each way she moved, I moved, and contact was unavoidable, to the amusement of the staff. I hid myself away, with a cup of hot chocolate and a banana, and rang Samantha. I was back in Texas, and all was well! The Thursday night football match was playing on the television, cheers of support, and groans of disappointment came from the other occupants, and I knew I was home.
'A great summer drink', was the response from the stewardess, as I ordered my Baileys on the rocks, and she brought me a second shortly after take-off. The twenty eight minute flight was just enough time to take a power-nap, and I felt quite refreshed when I walked along the path at Austin Airport, and spotted Dana at the top of the stairs. I jumped enthusiastically into his arms, and for the moment, the emotions of leaving my family, mother, child and grandchild, together with my sister, and remainder of my English family, transcended into the joy of being reunited with my husband. We drove home after collecting my bags, and I fell into bed exactly 24 hours after I had risen, 5,000 miles away.
I went with Samantha and Edward to the Airport on Friday, and drove her car back to the office. There was an immense sense of pride and satisfaction, as dropping my daugher and her husband off for their flight to England, to see my son and his son, then driving my daugher's car back to the office. It was almost like a sign of success. Long may it last!
Back to the drudgery of 'real life', I count my blessings. I have, today, enjoyed breakfast with Dana, sat by the pool for a while, and enjoyed the remainder of the weekend. What did my neighbours do to welcome me back? Well, that is ..... another story!