Fluent or fraught, getting through the airport is a huge part of your journey, and all the more so if you have a disability. And assistance comes in different guises.
It’s dark, but they’re always ready for us here; a small army of hi-viz helpers swarms to greet us as, in small batches for safety, we come off the ambi-lift. A short, slender woman with shoulder length black hair gestures to me towards the zebra crossing and into the terminal; she does this without eye contact and head bowed, because I’m not her main concern; she makes sure Terry is comfortably ushered into a wheelchair. Then a tall, strongly built young man with a wide smile takes instant charge of him. He asks me do we have luggage – yes, two heavy cases – then asks to see our boarding passes again, which I can’t immediately find, so he takes his necessary photo of T’s passport instead. He has a broad, cheerful face, outgoing, competent, and now takes me under his wing too, welcoming us, cheering us up, jollying us along after a tiring flight. As he scans the documents, and does what he needs to do, I look up and see the last passengers being taken off, and am struck by the slight, sallow woman who had gestured wordlessly to me before. She is standing opposite me, now bent to assist another passenger in a wheelchair. This woman looks to be in her late forties. Her posture, but also the expression on her lean face, is typical of religious art in the medieval or early renaissance period; or perhaps, an ancient icon from an Orthodox church. She might be the virgin Mary at the deposition; the lined cheeks, the dipping brow, the skin drained of colour; what her physicality communicates is both concern and reverence, as if she not only appreciates the pains borne by the body she is handling, but also the deep sorrow of witnessing a cherished body broken, and the realisation of its awful necessity in the scheme of things. Her eyes are fixed on her charge.
Our man tunes in to our immediate needs; welcome, freedom from anxiety, practical help. We’re in the terminal now and under bright light. He speeds us through passport control. He insists we won’t need a trolley, although I’ve warned him the cases are both heavy. I’m not to touch them as they come of the belt – just indicate to him which ones are ours, and stand aside.
He handles them deftly and then, to my amazement, somehow he’s pushing my husband in the wheelchair whilst simultaneously pulling along the two suitcases, side by side. I’m still not sure quite how he did this; presumably the extended trolley handles were hooked over the two handles of the chair as he advanced; but it takes long legs and strength to achieve this feat, bent over the whole locomotive without tripping over the bags yourself. All I know is, I, with the carry-on bags, have my work cut out to follow him through the crowds of luggage-bearing, and luggage-seeking passengers; shaking my head ironically and muttering, chiropractic nightmare. People smile as our little circus parade whizzes past; his amused colleagues exclaim in Greek as he goes by, and he responds cheerfully; nothing hinders our progress; he correctly assumes we have nothing to declare, and in minutes we’re no longer airside; and finally, when we part company at the waiting taxi, our fairground ride has been such unexpected fun that we give him a decent tip.
And yet… while this will be the traveller’s tale we’re going to share, every time we tell it I’ll remember his serious colleague.
That vision of her was literally a picture of obscurity: on the tarmac at night, a woman in black, quietly doing a necessary job. I sense she gets few tips. And yet the energy that she invests in her work must surely equal that of our young man, even if it is of a different sort. A gentle and persistent energy. I wonder what brings her to this job, who she goes home to care for, and who cares for her. I hope she too is thanked, and in the currency which she prefers.