‘A twenty-four degree summer’s day,’ the pilot said as they descended. It was dawn and the drifts of cloud flushed pink like new rose petals. Incredibly, wildflowers were pushing up beside the runway. They looked so cheerfully at home in the pall of jet exhaust that Sam was put in mind of what people always said, how green it was in England. The other thing people said was that it had history, by which they usually meant ruins, blue plaques and tourist spots. But here was T5, which was the opposite, brand new. Built before the crunch, it was a steel and glass colossus. He’d read of it at the time, a book extract in The Age. The author, who was a sort of pop philosopher, had waxed lyrical on the building – how its surface footprint was the biggest in all of Britain, how it had so and so many miles of conveyor belts, how it was truly a monument of our modern age, our answer to the original great colossus, the statue of Helios on a pedestal at Rhodes.
Stepping into the aisle, Sam zipped his leather jacket to trap his body odour. Holding the travel wallet that Ursula had given him, he walked up a jet bridge plastered with ads for Citibank. Inside the terminal, he joined the long line for non-EU arrivals. This snaked about barriers; the travellers moved like sheep through pens. Long-haul passengers like him, the unwashed denizens of former colonies. He heard African inflections, lilting Caribbean voices and two New Yorkers talking of inflight omelettes. An hour on he reached the counter and a young-looking official whose mottled, pinkish skin suggested a shaving irritation. The guy took Sam’s passport, checked the screen before him and then glanced up to ask, ‘Were you recently denied a UK work visa, sir?’
‘That’s right. In February.’ The man looked doubtful so he added, ‘But I haven’t come to work. I’m visiting my brother.’
‘You’ll need an interview.’
Sam blinked. He felt like playing pedant and telling the man, ‘I think you mean to say you need to interview me.’ Or: ‘How is this different to an interview?’ But, keeping quiet, he followed the guy to a side door. It bore no sign to say what it was and opened onto a corridor that was just as nondescript. ‘How long will this take?’
The guy shrugged, becoming guarded. ‘Till the start of business, when somebody clocks on who can do your interview.’ He showed Sam to a small room with no external windows, just the square porthole in the door. Asked to sit, Sam did so, then set out his documents as if for a client meeting – itinerary, boarding stub, printed map of Oxford. Next to these, the travel wallet, which was made of fine-grained leather. This was typical of Ursula, who had always had exacting standards. It was only remarkable that she hadn’t left him sooner, that she had kept on believing in his law-school self, the winner of course prizes, the favoured recipient of multiple plum job offers.
The official sat opposite with a form, ticking boxes down the side. He ticked one box beside the words, ‘I am detaining you’ then another to indicate he was holding Sam’s passport. Sam looked on in disbelief. It all seemed ridiculous. He now wished he had not refused the brackish in-flight sludge that had been offered to him as coffee. And he wished that he had slept – but he could never sleep on planes. In transit he’d snatched a nap in Singapore airport, lying down in the covered slide of the jungle gym. He had been woken by a toddler colliding with his head, a moment that had caused confusion for them both and a profound mortification for the kid’s Japanese dad.
‘Sign here, please,’ said the official. His gaze flicked to the travel wallet and he tacked on a ‘Sir’. He asked for Sam’s mobile phone. ‘I’d better call my brother first.’ ‘Your case officer will do that.’ After waiting pointedly for Sam’s signature, he took the form and left, pulling the door shut with a click.
Sam straightened his papers and checked his watch. It was half past seven. He had no books or magazines to read and pass the time; he’d spent the flight watching films and playing a tank combat game. Now, with the pen the man had left, he wrote the time of his detention on the back of his boarding stub. Beneath that he made two marks, one for each six-minute unit he had spent in the room. At work he’d disliked time recording – carving up his days, dismembering them, he felt – but now he held to the habit as to a line of a defence. Suppressing indignation, he sat and waited and, at each six minutes, made a new tally mark. At last someone came in, a woman this time. She wore the same uniform of navy sweater and white shirt and her brown hair in a bun.
‘Mr Khan,’ she said brightly. She set about putting questions, such as why had he applied for a work visa, and why was he now entering the country as a tourist? Sam answered her frankly; he was too tired to be embarrassed. He spoke of how he’d been desperate to get out of his job and how, in the new year, he’d thought of leaving Melbourne. He’d applied to work in the UK as well as for jobs in Sydney. Rejections trickled back, including for the visa. There the ground for refusal was his failure to prove his bank balance; his printout electronic statement, a photocopy, was not acceptable as proof. He might have reapplied but in the meantime things had changed. His firm offered a round of voluntary redundancies and Sam accepted one. The payout meant he could take time out before he had to start job-hunting. He could visit his brother, who was doing a doctorate at Oxford.
‘It does look suspicious, though,’ the woman responded. ‘As if you intend to work covertly.’
‘Covertly?’ He laughed weakly. ‘That’s not how lawyers get hired.’
‘You could get a different job.’
‘Pulling pints behind a bar for what, six pounds an hour?’
‘Plenty do. You don’t want a job?’
‘I just need time to think.’ Sam almost laughed again. He had uttered the same words to his dad two weeks before. That was at the dinner table in his parents’ house. South Asian migrants’ sons were not supposed to give up their jobs, and his dad had alternately shouted and looked mortally wounded, before slouching off to watch the late news by himself.
The woman now outlined what she called ‘next steps’ – first, she would call Taj to confirm what Mr Khan had said, then she would make a recommendation to her superior. When she had gone, he tallied units and shifted uncomfortably. The seams of his jeans chafed and he was sweating in his jacket. He should have worn a blazer, something preppy and middle class. Fatigue settled like a mantle; his chin jerked as he fought sleep.
One o’clock brought movement. A stocky man entered with a tray. Hoping for release, Sam was handed a wrapped sandwich.
‘Egg and lettuce.’
‘No, I mean, what’s it for?’
‘For? It’s to eat.’ The man’s accent was regional, from somewhere deep in the northern dales. Sam, unable to pick the county, suddenly felt foreign. He had imagined he knew England; he had read its old cases and knew the history of Westminster. He had seen photos of his parents in their stint as Londoners: his dad in Cuban boots, his mum in flowing palazzo pants. His Gujarat-born grandmother knew the words to Empire songs like ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. Having been freed by widowhood to be politically incorrect, she liked to sit in her front room and play Elgar recordings.
‘You’ve been here five and a half hours, which means you get a meal.’
‘I know how long it’s been!’ He thrust ten pounds at the man. ‘I don’t want a free lunch.’
The northerner looked affronted. ‘I can’t take that from yer.’
‘Give it to your manager. I’m not here for a handout.’
The guy took the tenner, a petty victory. As the man went out again, Sam got a glimpse of the room across from his. An African woman and her kids lay on the carpet in a tangle of limbs and clothes spread like blankets. Chastened, he sat up straight. He would not lie down or nod off. To make sure of it, he peeled the wrapping from his sandwich and, taking miniscule bites, chewed it into oblivion. Meanwhile, he wondered at the holdup. Had Taj not answered his phone? He could throttle his little brother. He had been waiting for nine hours. This became ten hours, then eleven. It was almost the close of business. Would they keep him here overnight? His tally lines darkened, scoring the paper stub, almost going through to the table.
At ten minutes to six, a different man entered. ‘Mr Khan, will you please sign here?’ He smiled and smoothed his comb-over. Sam read the sheet twice then signed. ‘We’ve had instructions, you understand.’ The man handed Sam’s passport back and opened the door. ‘With unemployment as it is, we can’t have everyone pouring in. We were about to deport you when we reached your brother.’
So Taj had finally emerged from the library or wherever. He had spoken with the assurance that belongs to a Rhodes scholar and made the bureaucrats believe what Sam had said all day – that he hadn’t come to Blighty to pull beers in a pub, that he would hardly look for work amidst the layoffs in London, and that in fact he did not have to, not with the payout from his firm, which was enough to keep him going until he found something new.
Disgorged into the twilight, Sam found the coach he wanted. As they left one motorway for another, an old man in a flat cap turned around to him and, pointing at a field where dozens of birds were taking flight in a great rippling wave, said, ‘Would you look a’ the birds on tha’?’ Sam, feeling empty, gave a noncommittal nod. When his phone rang – it was Taj – he let it go through to voicemail. Soon a message buzzed. Hey, are you alright? Cannot believe they made you wait. Out-fucking-rageous.
Sam tapped a reply. See you in an hour. Shutting his eyes, he slept till the Thornhill Park-and-Ride, where half the passengers got off. As the bus entered the city centre, Sam stared at the old stone buildings, which, with their gargoyles and castellations and massive oak doors, looked like they’d been built to keep outsiders out. He disembarked at the last stop, a uniquely drab bus station, and from there trudged to his brother’s with the aid of his printed map. When he knocked, the door opened and there stood his brother. Taj hugged and laughed, saying, ‘Shit, you reek!’
It was a relief to go inside, to let Taj show him around with a tour guide’s commentary. ‘That’s Carly’s room, she’s cool, coxes for St Catz. This is David’s, he’s hardly here, screwing a girl who lives in Cowley. This is me. Don’t mind the mess. How is Ursula?’
‘Here’s your towel, man. Catch.’
In the privacy of the bathroom, Sam showered for an age. Lathering the soap, he felt his chafed groin sting. When he turned off the flow, he heard Taj say through the door, ‘I knew it had be a mistake. I mean, it’s you, for fuck’s sake. Where were they even thinking, bailing up a lawyer?’
‘An unemployed lawyer.’ Sam inspected his reddened balls.
‘That’s your problem there. Always so defeatist.’
Fuck. What did Taj think, that you could shout your way out like in an American TV drama? Threaten to sue them all if they didn’t turn you loose, argue a God-given right to an entry visa? People were bailed up at airports all over, not just in Britain but in the States, and at home too for that matter. Try telling that to Taj, who was so sanguine in his views, so annoyingly assured, he’d never be persuaded.
The next day, Sam tried sightseeing. His brother had heaped him with suggestions: ‘There’s the Ashmolean and the Bod. You could gatecrash some lectures. Technically you’re meant to be a uni member, but turn up in a tweed jacket and no one’s going to stop you.’
‘A tweed jacket?’
‘There’s a look. You should see my students. Nineteen year olds who iron. Crazy, I know.’ He brought up a lecture list on his screen. ‘See, there’s some on classics, you could brush up on your old major. Or take my bike out for a spin. People say there are Roman ruins in the countryside, fallen-down villas and stuff, just sitting in the fields.’
Actually, Sam knew little about the Romans, just the broad brush-strokes they gave you in first year courses. He had studied the Greeks, writing a thesis on Thucydides, Book Two of the History. But the difference was lost on Taj, who promptly launched into a story about some play he’d seen—‘It was Greek, I’m pretty sure’—put on by students at a college. It was laughably bad, he said. ‘All the wailing. And the plot! It’s just families going mental, and basically everyone is doomed.’
Taking Taj’s suggestion, Sam went out the next day, but his excursion to a museum failed miserably. Caught in a downpour, he had to plod back in wet jeans, a walk that inflamed his rash and caused an exquisite agony. The day after, he couldn’t walk further than the kitchen without turning back in pain. With Taj at the library and the others out of the house, he kept his own company in his brother’s untidy room. He rang Ursula’s number twice and hung up when he got voicemail. Flicking through his passport, he was dismayed to see one page had been stamped ‘ENTRY DENIED’. Someone at immigration had crossed out the stamp in biro, adding the date and a signature, but this only made it look like Sam had crossed it out himself. Fucking hell, he thought. This was going to cause problems. When he traveled on from England, whenever he went through immigration, he would be bailed up and asked to explain the stamp. He imagined the skeptical officials, the difficult exchanges, the same thing playing out over and over. In frustration he threw the passport, which missed his suitcase and hit the floor. Retrieving it, he smoothed the corner and put it in a side pocket.
Taj was out all that day, tutoring or at the library. Though outwardly easygoing, Sam’s brother was hardworking, a fact he hid so as to seem effortlessly bright. Privately, he recorded his work time like a lawyer. He had told Sam about his system: he worked in twenty-five minute bursts and carefully noted each increment he completed. The system had been devised by an Italian guy named Cirillo, and the twenty-five-minute unit was called a ‘pomodoro’ after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer Cirillo used as a student. Thus Taj would refer to ‘knocking out pomodori’, this said with a certain swagger if he’d had a productive day, though more often he felt he hadn’t done enough.
While Taj was out, Sam drank tea and spent long hours online, trawling through chat forums and listings on eBay. He also researched his rash, trying to self-diagnose. The worst patch, beneath his balls, was hard to inspect, but his research turned up a cream he was pretty sure would help. He texted Taj to ask if he’d pick it up from Boots. Sure thing, came the reply, but his brother came home that night with a totally different product.
‘That’s not it.’
‘I asked the girl—’
‘I bet.’ Sam tossed the tube in the wastebasket.
‘Hey, what’re you doing? You’re acting fucking weird. You come all this way to hang out in my room? What is it you’re even doing, spending all day online?’
‘Nothing. Just forget it.’
The next day, Sam’s rash still hurt. He looked again at his passport and the unsightly crossed-out stamp. He kept thinking about Heathrow and his day in that small room. He pictured the table, the square window, the thicket of tally marks. He also pictured the officials and felt his anger flare, an anger that he’d suppressed or maybe just deferred. But then he also recalled the man who’d brought the sandwiches, and anger gave way to puzzlement. The guy was so unlike your standard export-version English, the ones who propped up bars at St Kilda in the summer and the affable expats you came across at work.
That night, to placate his brother, Sam went out for a drink. He rode to the pub on Taj’s bike; this was preferable to walking. In the quaint, back-lane pub, he found Taj sitting among friends and loudly regaling them with his older brother’s brush with immigration. When Sam joined them at the table, they turned to him with shuttered eyes, like he must have done something wrong. Trying to explain, he mentioned the issue with his photocopied statement and what he had been told about rising unemployment, but he could see the detail bored them, they had already lost interest. As they moved onto a new topic—an ebullient debate about the economist Polanyi and whether his theories had predicted the present sub-prime crisis – Sam glowered in silence and emptied his pint. He drank another pint in quick succession then a whisky double, after which he made a moved. By now Taj was in full flight – ‘Of course I’m not anti-state as such,’ he was insisting to the table – but he looked up as Sam left.
‘Where are you going?’ He came out after him, grabbed his arm. ‘Seriously, wait!’
‘Get off me,’ Sam said. His own vehemence surprised him. So did the force he used in shoving Taj away and wrenching himself free. As he stumbled and fell on the damp cobblestones, he saw his brother’s face go slack with shock and hurt. When Sam got to his feet Taj had already gone and he was faced with a group of girls in Ugg boots and short skirts. One called in a piping voice, ‘Oh, are you alright?’ Smarting and embarrassed, Sam waved them off with an ‘All good’. He flagged a cab back to the house and went to make tea in the kitchen. He was startled when someone came in; he thought no one was home. It was the housemate from upstairs, a girl in a grey hoodie. ‘Sam, isn’t it? Your brother told me what happened, at the airport when you came.’
‘Did he,’ said Sam, displeased.
‘Yep.’ She opened the fridge. ‘You know, my step-dad in the States?’ Her rising inflection made this sound like a question. ‘He lives in Minnesota. Flies a lot for work. Like, he flies a lot. Interstate mainly. He’s a politics professor, goes to speak all over—’ Still unsteady, Sam tried to follow. He noticed the motto on her hoodie: ‘Nova et Vetera,’ new and old. ‘…but he has the exact same name as some guy on the no-fly list. So when he flies someplace, often he’ll be held there for hours. Kept at the airport and just made to wait. It’s happened so much now we know what it is when he doesn’t show.’
‘That’s awful.’ He studied her more closely – Carla, or was it Carly? She seemed so all-American, so wholesome and corn-fed. ‘I know, right?’ She grabbed an apple and a Sainsbury’s salad tub. ‘Then we’ll call them up, my mom will or I will. At first they’ll refuse to say that they’ve got him there. We say, we know you’ve got him. He’s not the guy on your list, which actually you know because you’ve figured it out before.’
Sam shook his head, appalled. He felt more sober now. As he poured hot water on his teabag, it occurred to him that this girl, this Carla or Carly, did not straightaway assume he had done something wrong. All the others had – Taj’s friends, even Taj. He had blamed him for being passive, for not arguing his way out. Or charming everyone as he, Taj, might have done.
Sam felt a warm prickling in his throat. With something like gratitude, he looked at Carly/Carla. Then her eyes narrowed and she said, ‘Is that my tea you’re drinking?’ He glanced down at the teabag, which bobbed there in plain view. It was – he couldn’t hide it – the last from the box. And the girl sighed heavily, took her snack and kicked the fridge door shut.
He rose early to get a start, leaving without a word to Taj. The bike wheeled easily on the path, cutting through the dew. He was wearing the new jacket, which felt snug across his shoulders. He had ordered it online after much research and comparison of fabrics with names like Barleycorn and Overchecked Herringbone. Why this had come to seem so crucial he could not have said; it was usually Ursula who cared about this stuff.
He rode on out of town in the milky morning light. Cycling easily, without chafing his rash. A few times he had to stop to check his printed map, which had the coordinates he’d pulled from an online forum. He took a few dappled lanes through storybook countryside, seeing improbably fat bees, even a fleeing squirrel. As he rode he recalled a dream he’d had the night before. He had been in another airport, in some dusty unknown country, and a uniformed man was leafing through the pages of his passport. Pausing at the crossed-out stamp, he fixed Sam with his large brown eyes. His expression was knowing, but he pretended ignorance. Holding the passport in one hand and a visa sticker in the other, he asked Sam, ‘What is this?’ Sam’s dream-self somehow knew what was being asked of him. Casually slipping a banknote between the pages of the passport, he slid it back and said, ‘It’s nothing.’ ‘I thought so,’ came the reply. The banknote disappeared and the man pasted the sticker down, completely covering the stamp so that it too disappeared and might never have existed.
This had all seemed so real, he had not realised he was dreaming. Of course he should have, he reflected. His real-life self was not that bold, he could never act that coolly. The bravest thing he had ever done was to take his redundancy. What was the line from Thucydides? Of everything he’d read in the library that year, the quotation appealed to him, stayed with him, and he still liked it now. But the bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory as well as danger, and yet go out to meet it.
Reaching a ditch beyond a rise, he dropped the bike in the long grass. He jumped the fence nervously, caught his sleeve on a barb and swore. Jogging on to a clutch of sheds where the air had a whiff of rot, he found a bumper compost heap under an open-sided shelter.
‘Wow,’ he said aloud, kneeling to clear a patch. Beneath the putrid mess he could see a mosaic, densely patterned in reds and browns, which was all that remained of a Roman villa. He scooped at the compost with his hands, uncovering more tiles. So much for heritage protection – or was that a new-world thing? Still, the rot was kind of fitting. Roman Britannia lay in ruins; things had their day and faded. Scooping more of the compost clear, Sam thought again of Heathrow and its shimmering terminal. He thought of the question the philosopher had posed – what do we signal by such buildings, the great monuments of our age? Whatever the answer, as Sam now thought, it was only temporary, much as any civilisation was only temporary.
From far off, through the swarming heat, came the sound of a dog’s bark. The farmer’s voice trailed after it, old and peevish-sounding. Glancing down at his smeared hands, Sam guessed how he appeared. Sweaty. Swarthy-looking. His mail-order tweed jacket lying soiled on the muck, no good to him now, and what had he been thinking? His tee shirt reeked of sweat. He suddenly realised it was the one he’d worn in transit and the day he’d been detained. Though it had been through the wash it still had the odour of that day, holding onto it like something not to be expunged.
The dog’s bark was sharp and close. ‘Hello?’ Alarm cracked the old man’s voice, breaking the word in two. ‘Hello-o? Who’s that? Who’s there?’
Sam dragged his palms across his jeans. Something was balled up in his pocket. A handkerchief, he thought. But as he pulled it out the thing crumbled like lint. It was the stub of his boarding pass – or what remained of it. He let it disintegrate, let it drop as pale crumbs on the compost heap. Then, ducking under a beam, he stepped out of the shelter and into the open. The dog was barreling at him now, a snapping terrier. Fending it off, he called, ‘It’s me.’ And raising his hands he said, ‘I came to see the ruins.’
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