Wish you were here…

It’s funny how I wasn’t excited. A few days visiting a best friend after a long, five-year absence; basking in warm sunshine, dipping in the sea and wolfing down as much felafel and hummus as I could lay my hands on – what’s not to like? And yet, something wasn’t quite right. I dismissed it; perhaps I simply couldn’t believe the day had finally arrived and I’d be in the zone once I was on the plane. Seylan couldn’t wait; I’d promised, during lockdown, that the first thing I’d do when restrictions eased was book a flight to Israel. That’s one thing Covid taught us: Friends come first. Don’t wait – do it now.

My gut tells me many things and I trust it implicitly. If only it could have explained exactly what was wrong, I could have avoided a lot of wasted time and money, but the way things fell like a stack of dominoes is sillier than a slapstick farce, so I’m reliving it here before I start to think I dreamt it. This is going to be a long story, so quit now if you’ve better things to do.

It began in the usual way: A pamper day in Inverness, with a visit to my new vegan hairdresser who neatens my straggly locks quickly and without fuss, never tries to make me look like Anne Widdecombe and pours a mean oat-milk latte. A leisurely drive up to my customary B&B near the airport and a cheeky glass of wine with John, who has become a friend. He goes above and beyond anyone’s usual hospitality expectations, never complaining about waking at 5am to drop me at the terminal for that ghastly (but convenient) 7am Gatwick flight.

Inverness is sleepy at that time of the morning and passing through departures is painless. The flight was on schedule, though a lassie in the queue was anxious about a message she’d received on her Easyjet app, which I’d deleted to free up space on my phone. Apparently there was an air traffic control problem in Gatwick and flights were being seriously delayed as a result. We were called to board; perhaps they’d sorted things out?

I don’t pay to choose my seat. I’m rarely unlucky. This time, however, I had the middle. I wouldn’t usually regard this as a problem for such a short flight and I generally doze off anyway, although it’s not so cool to wake up with your head on a stranger’s shoulder. I wasn’t going to let that happen on this flight, as the man to the left of me began with two huge sneezes while the pale, spotty specimen to my right, wearing grubby, grey jog pants, proceeded to cough, snort and splutter his way through the entire two and a half hours we sat on the tarmac, waiting for a landing slot to be granted. I didn’t think I’d yearn for the reinstatement of masks

The girl with the app missed her connection, though the flight attendants weren’t concerned.

‘All the other flights will be delayed, anyway’, she’d shrugged.

I had a fairly long layover so I wasn’t especially worried. I’d made it to London, at least. I’d managed to cram everything for the four days into the tiniest little daypack you’ve ever seen; Wizzair’s hand baggage rules are brutal, but all I needed was light, summer clothes and I was grateful to have so little. Like household clutter, excess luggage weighs you down in every way. I skipped around the terminal carefree, looking to see if my Tel Aviv flight was on the screens yet. It was: delayed. But not by much. I messaged Seylan: I’ll be fifteen minutes late. He and his partner were meeting me at the airport on public transport, so I didn’t want them waiting around for too long. I looked around for somewhere to sit but the airport was seething; I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so busy. It must be all the delayed flights! I thought. I went to queue for a coffee.

Over the course of the next hour, my flight was delayed two or three times more. Now I would be arriving at midnight; not ideal, as we’d then have an hour’s journey to reach their apartment, but at least I’d be there. On arrival at Gatwick I’d noticed some extremely dark and rather menacing storm clouds in contrast to the clear, sunny skies I’d left behind and I noted this as a reversal of the norm. Supposedly they’d had violent thunderstorms and flooding in the South, and in other parts of Europe as well, contributing to the delays, not helped by the lack of staff due to the most perfect of all storms: Brexit and Covid. This, combined with an unprecedented number of holidaymakers desperate to get away, gave the place a chaotic, New Delhi feel. Hundreds of faces were turned to the screens as, one by one, departures were announced, delayed – or cancelled. I did a double-take. Wizz air, 13:45 to Tel Aviv: Cancelled. Go to desk.

My biggest mistake was booking through an agency in order to save £20. I received messages from both the airline – I’d checked in directly, for which I’d had to set up an account, as the agency seemed to perform no function whatsoever other than offer a slight discount on my ticket – and ‘MyTrip’, informing me my flight was cancelled and that I was entitled to a refund, or to transfer onto another flight. I called Seylan: of course, he wanted me to try and get there as soon as possible. On the message from the agency there was a red ‘Rebook now’ button. This directed me to the Wizzair website, which I then needed to sign into. I had no bookings registered there – because I’d booked through an agency. I joined the lengthening queue in the terminal marked ‘Airline desks’.

There only seemed to be one person answering queries and dealing with the increasingly irate passengers from the several newly-cancelled flights. One lady needed to get to Bordeaux, where her sister was very sick. A large man was stabbing his finger at an official in a high-vis vest. When I finally reached the window I was told this was for Tui customers only. There were no other airlines represented in departures. I’d have to go back through security!

There was a mass exodus of people marching towards Gate 19, where we were told we could get out, though we couldn’t come back in again, so we’d better be very sure that was what we wanted to do. Since nothing seemed to be taking off, many of the gates were deserted and relatively quiet so I ducked into one and called the agency. I was number 48 in the queue, but assuming it wasn’t a premium rate number (as is the case with Hungary-based Wizzair), I made myself as comfortable as one can on a cold, hard floor and stayed on the line.

After about twenty-five minutes I got through to Daniel. I doubt that was his real name as I believe he was speaking from Mumbai. He couldn’t hear me.

‘Madam! Madam! Can you hear me..?’

I could hear him perfectly, though if I wandered about the signal dropped. I resorted to screaming at him; it seemed to work. He didn’t seem to understand anything. Did I want to cancel my flight? Refund? Oh, I’d have to take that up with the airline directly. According to their website, I informed him, it was the responsibility of the agency from whom I’d purchased the ticket. He put me on hold for at least ten minutes while he checked this out. There was no music on the line, which is usually a blessing, but he was gone so long I thought he might be on his lunch break. Then,

‘Madam, are you there? Hello? Hello? Madam, can you hear me?’

This happened several times. Each time he put me on hold it was for the same query; it seemed he had to keep coming back to check that yes, I wished to cancel the whole booking and yes, I did indeed want a refund for the whole amount, to which I was entitled. Each time he came back, I had to walk around until he could hear my yelling. My voice was hoarse, my legs ached from standing in one spot and then suddenly the gate sprang to life as a flight attendant switched on the lights, removed the ropes, set up a billboard and opened up for boarding. But not, clearly, to where I was going. The last thing I heard Daniel say, before the sound of suitcase wheels trundling along the moving walkways became deafening and bodies filled up every corner of my private space, was that he had ‘requested a refund’ and that I would receive an e-mail confirming it. This I had insisted on, as I was on my way to the Wizz air desk and I would need proof of our full hour’s conversation.

By the time I reached Gate 19, everyone who had needed to get out had already passed through. A figure sat in the shadows and sprang to attention as I approached.

‘You do know you can’t come back in, don’t you?’, he informed me once I’d given him my flight details and he’d nodded sadly. Did I want to? Ever? Now I just needed to find the Wizzair customer services desk. (Insert laughing emoji). There did not seem to be any airline customer service desks anywhere, but I soon found the correct check-in counter where a group of Israeli orthodox Jews stood in an apparent state of confusion, steam coming from behind their pigtails.

‘I assume you’re enquiring about the cancelled Tel Aviv flight?’ I needlessly addressed one of them.

‘They tell us nothing. Nothing! This is a shit-show’, he declared, looking over my shoulder, since they aren’t allowed such close contact with women. He didn’t offer any hints as to what they were going to do now, which is probably because they had no idea. The woman behind the desk informed me in a world-weary voice that this was just for check-in, they could not help with our problems. We booked online so we must sort it out online.

It was now around 3pm and I was hungry, but if I was going to get to Israel that day or the next, I’d need to get onto it straight away. My phone battery was low but I could see that no e-mail had yet arrived from Daniel. Perhaps it was in spam? I found a relatively quiet spot on the floor with my back against a pillar while the still-hopeful and the despondent with their trolley-loads of luggage hurried back and forth around me.

I had been logged out of the airport wifi, so the first thing was to get connected once more. Then I checked my Gmail. Nothing except a message to say I was out of storage. Upgrade now! Or I might not receive any more messages! Actually I’d been meaning to do it for a while, as although I object to having to pay for e-mail, I also don’t like being forced to delete old messages that I might want to keep, so I thought, perhaps that’s the reason the MyTrip e-mail hasn’t arrived yet, and I set about upgrading my storage. The first month was only 39p; I could manage that. In order to proceed, I needed to log into my account. The fact that I was already logged in was evidently irrelevant. I stay logged in because I can never remember my password; it’s written down in a safe place at home for occasions like this. I couldn’t risk getting it wrong and finding myself locked out, so for now, no upgrade, and still no e-mail from Daniel.

Next task: look for flights to Israel. I tried the ‘rebook now’ button on the agency e-mail once more but each time it took me to the Wizzair site where I had no registered bookings. I tried the ‘live’ chat with someone – or something – that had clearly never taken a breath and kept asking me to phrase my question more clearly. Now was the time to submit a claim form. To do this I needed to sign in again – even though I was already signed in. Round and round in circles. After three or four goes at this, a message popped up on the screen: Are you a bot? I was blocked. No amount of trying would let me onto the site. No new flight, no refund, no complaints. Now I understood why they’re cheap.

Without the assurance of a refund I couldn’t afford to book another flight, yet I was already in Gatwick. I needed to see Seylan and he needed me to get there. I went onto Skyscanner to search for all available flights to Israel in the next two days. They were all fully-booked unless I took one via Johannesburg, taking 26 hours and costing £1000.

What to do? I had a room in the Yotel right inside the terminal for when I returned on Monday at 1am. Just that morning they had extracted payment for the booking but I hoped they might take pity on me if I went along to see if I could swap it for that night. The guy on reception was sympathetic but they were full – the last room had just been taken, he said. As far as he knew every hotel in the vicinity was now booked up with people in my situation and I’d be lucky to get anything. He smiled in empathy, or perhaps amusement. What could he do?

I am one of those lucky people with contacts all over the place. On the south coast, I have three lovely households who will take me in at the drop of a hat, and I’m more than happy to spend time with them. First I called Sonia, who has just returned from fifteen years in New Zealand and now has a house in Worthing which I haven’t seen yet. Visiting her is a priority. She didn’t answer at first. Was she there? I messaged. She called back. It would be lovely to see me, she enthused, but unfortunately they were away this weekend in Yorkshire. Any other time, though!

Next up, my cousin, in Pevensey Bay. I know the door is always open for me there, which has been of great comfort on several, sometimes extended, occasions. The home phone rang out; I tried Whatsapp. After a few minutes she called back – from Greece. Symi, to be precise; the same place we were having such fun together three years ago.

The third person I would normally try was Kim, who lives not far from my cousin. But where was she? Yup – in my flat. In Lochinver. Because she’d had to move her dates around, by which time I’d booked my trip to Israel. I’d told her to use the flat anyway, which she did. You simply couldn’t make it up, I thought, as suddenly all I wanted to do was go home.

With a flash of inspiration, I clicked onto the Easyjet website; if I remembered correctly there was an evening flight to Inverness. It was now 6pm. Bingo! There was a flight at 7.45pm! I immediately phoned John to check if he’d changed the sheets on my bed yet. He hadn’t. What’s more, he’d pick me up from the airport and feed me, it was no problem. It was by far the best option yet. A big glass of wine and pleasant conversation and all this would just go away. I sprang into action to book the one remaining seat. At £114 it was cheaper than a hotel for the night, I figured, after which I’d still need to get home. It was a bargain. I clicked ‘Book now’. Did I need to check a bag? No. Did I need to hire a car? No! Travel insurance? Golf clubs? Speedy boarding? Just let me buy the b* ticket! Proceed to payment… I held my breath.

‘There has been an error. Please try again’.

The last remaining seat on that life-saving flight had been purchased by someone with a faster finger.

I wanted to cry. My bottom was numb and an Asian baby was crawling over my legs while its family tried to make sense of it all. It was time to move. I tried the train: nothing under £300. My mind was fuddled, I needed to sleep on it. Finally I found a hotel room in Horsham, a short train ride away. It was expensive, at £110 for the night, but it did look comfortable and welcoming. I booked it; decisions over for the afternoon. By now I was starving, but my train left in five minutes so I stood on the platform hoping it wasn’t going to be cancelled, as it appeared it wasn’t only planes suffering this fate. I realised I didn’t know how to find the hotel once I’d arrived in Horsham so I called them, only to be told I’d need to take a taxi from the station, and it’d cost about £15. I was too tired to argue and too scared to check my bank balance.

At Horsham railway station was a small grocery kiosk; if the hotel was in the middle of nowhere, perhaps I wouldn’t find anything to eat, so I’d better stock up on snacks. To my delight there were delicious-looking samosas and, after a few anxious moments, I located the vegetable ones. Clutching the warm, greasy parcel which proceeded to dribble down the sleeve of my jacket, I waited in the slowly moving queue for a taxi, as the rain began to fall and my phone finally powered itself off.

I could have kissed the hotelier when she brought me a jug of soya milk to have with my mug of tea. After a hot shower things looked brighter. I settled myself onto a Chesterfield with a large glass of wine and called Kim, at home in my flat. It was boiling up there, she said. Wall to wall sunshine; she’d spent the day on the beach. I should have stayed home. She’s a real organiser, though, Kim. She took my woes and ran with them. She managed to log into the Wizzair site and submitted the claims form, then spent an hour scouring every imaginable travel option to get me home the next day, while I listened to her excitements and disappointments with my feet up. The choices were bleak. Twenty hours on a bus with several changes; a train-bus combination costing a small fortune, or a flight to Edinburgh that I’d need to get up at 6am to catch. It was now 10.30pm.

Kim told me she’d drawn out some money to leave for her stay in my flat and I told her not to be so daft. In the end, after hours of debate, she managed to spend the total sum of her saved airmiles to pay for a flight to Inverness with BA from Heathrow the following afternoon. I have never been so happy to be home, after a thirty-six hour ‘holiday’.

I have wonderful friends. What I don’t have is an e-mail from Daniel or a refund from Wizz, despite their announcement that they had processed it. I also don’t have another flight to Israel. I’m not sure I’m ready to face it all again, but at least I didn’t catch that cold.