This is fiction.
“Are you absolutely sure you want to tick this box with a Yes, sir?” said the airline official at the desk, pointing a lacquered fingernail at the tick box on the US Alien Declaration form.
“Yes, I’m sure,” I said, looking at her with a well practised nod-frown combination indicating I was as sure as possible.
“You feel comfortable telling US border control that you are affiliated with a Communist organisation?”
“What else can I say? We were a self-declared Communist organisation. We even called ourselves the Croydon College Anarco-communist League. The exact blend of anarchism and communism was never fully defined, but communism was definitely part of it.”
“Do you advocate a totalitarian Communist takeover of the US? Those are the people the US is really not so keen on.”
“We were never that specific, but it is perfectly possible we would support it. Let’s say, we were on the fence.”
“‘On the fence,’ I see. And you are still a member of this Anarco-communist League, sir? If you don’t mind my saying, you seem a little old to be at uni.”
“Oh, I’m not that old. And the truth is I don’t remember leaving or disbanding the organisation. So, I think, technically, I am still a member.”
“What I am saying is that if you were to suddenly realise that you were a lapsed Communist you would not need to declare it to the US authorities.”
“I still have my membership card somewhere,” I said, reaching for my wallet. I’d really rather play it straight.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Okaaay. Have it your way,” she said, drawing the form away from me, stamping my passport and sliding it into a grey machine which flashed like a mini photocopier. She pushed it back to me across the desk, still warm, my boarding card sandwiched inside it.
“Here we are, sir. Have a nice flight. And good luck,” she said with a glance at the passport.
“Thank you,” I said.
The “good luck” worried me. But I was also grateful. Nothing bad had happened, nothing at all. Was this a good thing? The idea I had pitched to my editor was to write about what happens if you declare yourself a Communist and tried to enter America. The answer, so far, seemed to be nothing at all. That was probably good for my wellbeing but not good for the story.
“Nothing happened,” was not a good semi-humourous real-life Sunday supplement travel piece. Although I guess I still had the story that the US was now officially open to incursions by self-declared Communists, though that seemed unlikely.
I ignored the many disastrous outcomes that came rushing into my mind as I headed towards security. This could well be the worst story idea I had ever had, I thought.
“That is without doubt the worst story idea you ever had,” my wife had said after I explained the idea to her. “And God knows you’ve had some shitty ideas over the years,” she added unnecessarily, taking Tom, our two-year-old, from beside me in the spare room.
“Thanks for your support,” I said under my breath.
“What did you say?” she said, turning to me.
“‘I guess we will see if you’re right,’ I said,” I said.
Jemma scowled and left.
I went back to going through the drawers in search of my old Anarco-communist membership card. Twenty minutes later I found it, the two sides now coming apart, the glue decomposed, the plastic fogged with age.
I put it back together, sealing my younger self in sticky tape, wondering what the hell had happened to all those years.
“Please don’t let her be right,” I thought.
The same thought crossed my mind now, as I walked to departures, consoling myself with the thought that being ignored was marginally better than being told to go home immediately.
I could already squeeze a few paragraphs out of it, with a bit of extraneous background, so, technically, it already wasn’t the worst idea I’d had.
On the downside there was the fact that I was a self-declared Communist on route to America. That thought played on my mind as I went through security.
But apparently my revolutionary intentions had not been logged with staff.
As I waited in the departure lounge at Gate 53 for my flight, the 22.30 for New York JFK. I pulled my passport out of my cabin bag and opened it at the visa page. There was a visa for the US, and beside it a small circular red dot.
I ran my thumb over it. It was slightly raised, like a waxy polythene seal. I tried to get my nail underneath it, but it was bonded tight to the paper. Maybe it had a microphone or transmitter in it, I thought.
I looked up and saw the woman next to me was watching me from the corner of her eye.
“I told them I was a Communist,” I told her, smiling.
She turned away and put in her earbuds and busied herself with her phone. She clearly did not want to associate with a Communist.
“Now that was embarrassing,” a lady was thinking as I caught her watching.
I put in my earbuds too. 21.43, in 47 minutes we’d be on the plane. There was no going back.
I pulled out my phone and started a heavy session of Candy Crush.
It must have been very annoying for the woman who blanked me in the departure lounge to find we were seated next to each other.
That’d teach her, I thought. But she did a very good job of ignoring the lesson. She kept her earbuds in and slept, or pretended to, stirring only to raise a finger to a passing steward for a glass of water.
I didn’t sleep a wink. I was too anxious.
I watched Die Hards one and two, drank a Pepsi, played Candy Crush and ate a pizza slice.
I was a Communist revolutionary, with totalitarian leanings, but nobody could accuse me of being rigidly doctrinaire in my tastes.
The world was dark but JFK was an oasis of light as we touched down.
At the point the rubber hit the tarmac, and the seat jolted me, it all seemed to get real. A self-confessed Communist about to set foot in an enormous capitalist airport, all for the sake of a story he might sell for a pitiful amount of money.
Not only that I had a mysterious red dot on my passport that I couldn’t explain. Not even the woman next to me could explain it. And now we were getting off the plane, already.
It felt like I was being pushed ever closer to an enormous, immovable legal wall, with potentially uncomfortable consequences. The anxiety took on physical form. My chest grew tight while my stomach felt like I had ingested a bowling ball. I was told the toilets were not available on the ground.
That could be awkward. There would surely be cavity searches ahead. And there would be bright lights shone in the eyes, and hooded helicopter rides to god knows where for days of waterboarding and white noise.
I had very little to say about our communist league, it was a long time ago now. We were probably the best Communist league at pub quizzes, largely thanks to Joe’s memory for football. That was about it. I hoped that this would be enough for them.
There was no mistaking it. I was feeling anxious, which manifested itself in being excessively polite, letting people past, helping them down with their bags. There was something soothing about it and I was certainly in no hurry to reach border control.
I sat back in my seat, pulled out the passport and ran my thumb over the red dot, in case it might help. Time passed.
“You will have to leave the plane now, sir,” said a voice, the calm-as-you-like-twenty-something American air steward.
He had none of the aggressive edge you get on Ryanair. I looked up and the last passenger was making their way off.
“Of course, yes,” I said and took my bag as he walked behind me, discreetly escorting me off, while sweeping the cabin for left rubbish.
Once off the plane I got to the bottom of the stairway. There my legs were unwilling to take me any further and put me in a sitting position on the bottom step.
“You cannot sit down there, sir,” I was told in no uncertain terms by a very large security man, with a side arm.
“Of course,” I said. “I’m just feeling a little under the weather.”
“I am sorry to hear that, sir. Just make your way to the terminal,” said the mountainous man before following me uncomfortably close behind.
I opened my phone as we walked, the sound of aeroplanes taking off, engines roaring, the yellow-orange flashing light from the baggage waggons. It was very late in the UK. I found Jemma in my WhatsApp and recorded a voicemail.
“I’m just off the plane in New York. I just wanted to say, yes, you were right, it was the most stupid idea I ever had. Lots of love to you and to Tom,” I said and walked on, tears forming in my eyes.
The most stupid idea ever had.
When I made it to the security desk, I felt quite sure I was pale with fear.
The border officer looked at me directly from under the peak of his officer’s hat and asked me sternly why I was travelling to the US?
I said I was there for work. I had a story to research. I said I was going to be there for a night and fly back tomorrow afternoon. This made him suspicious. I had gone from feeling terrified to feeling ridiculous.
“You are coming to New York for 18 hours?”
“Yes, it is just a quick fact-finding mission.”
“A fact finding mission? How many facts can you find in 18 hours.”
“A few. It’s just to confirm a few things,” I replied weakly.
He pored over my documents, feeling every page of my battered passport, examining it with a magnifier and running his thumb over the strange red seal. He put it under a scanner, then turned to his computer. I felt a bead of sweat drip from my armpit.
After what seemed like a year he put the passport on the counter in front of me. It must be a test. I did not grab it and run off as I desperately wanted to. As I inched my hand near to it the border officer raised his head and said.
“One last thing, sir. Your US Alien Registration form is incomplete.”
He laid down the same form as I was shown back in London. I looked it over. It was mine, only all the boxes were ticked “no” this time. I was no longer declaring myself a Communist.
“You just need to sign it,” he said, placing a ballpoint beside the form.
I signed. ■