It’s seven a.m. and I am bone weary. The plane finally screeches and bumps to a halt in Heathrow airport, and we escort the passengers down the steps. Many of them are irritable after the long red-eye flight, but the crew smile patiently and work hard to make their arrivals as easy as possible. Only after the last passenger disembarks, and the post flight checks have been completed, can the crew start to unwind.
I look forward to a large glass of red wine, a hot bath, and then a few hours’ sleep, spooning against the warm body of my husband.
Grabbing my overnight bag, I bid farewell to my co-workers and head off.
Thankfully, I’ve no other luggage to worry about so I follow the signs for the Nothing To Declare area of Customs.
As I turn the final corner, I see a long queue of people ahead of me, waiting their turn to be processed. Just another typical morning at Heathrow customs, warming up for the rush hour traffic.
I join the back of the line and we shuffle slowly along for a few minutes. I long to take my shoes off and massage my weary feet, but I’m still in my stewardess’s uniform, so etiquette prevents such a breach of protocol. God forbid that any of the top brass should see me doing anything so human. I’d never hear the end of it.
I lean out, looking to see how much the line is depleting, and I spot a sniffer dog making its way patiently through the crowd. The dog is a large jet black German Shepherd. He is wearing a navy blue vest with ‘Customs and Excise’ embroidered into the material. The dog’s handler, a heavyset officer in crisp uniform, follows the dog as it works its way through the crowd.
“Oh my God!” I mumble to myself. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” I’m suddenly reminded of the cellophane zip-locked bag I packed away into the inside pocket of my suitcase.
It doesn’t take long for the dog to make its way through the crowd. He sniffs once at my bag and then moves on.
I breathe a sigh of relief.
The dog pauses, turns, and returns to my carry-on. This time his sniffing is more intense, as it focuses in on the hidden item. He looks around to his handler, barks once, wags his tail with enthusiasm, and sits down next to my bag.
I can feel blood rushing to my cheeks as I try to act innocent.
A hand lightly touches my elbow, and I almost leap out of my skin. A Custom’s officer has approached me from behind on silent feet.
“Ma’am? Is this your luggage?”
It takes me a moment to find my voice. Finally, I reply, “Yes, but there must be some mistake.”
“If you’ll come with me, Ma’am,” he responds in a calm yet commanding voice.
By now, other officers have quietly surrounded me. Two of them are even carrying sub machine guns.
Mortified, I do as directed, following the Customs Officer down the long queue of waiting passengers. The sniffer dog walks beside me, attentive to my every move.
I can hear passengers muttering as they see me being escorted by the burley security men. I can feel their judgemental stares. Some of these people could have been on the same flight as me. I might have served them drinks at forty thousand feet, for crying out loud!
I’m led into a small brightly-lit room, made brighter still by the white walls, white ceiling, and white table that dominated the centre of the room. The two armed policemen take up positions by the door, mute sentries silently overseeing proceedings.
“Ma’am,” the Custom’s Officer addresses me, “Pathos is a highly-trained sniffer dog. He’s able to detect a variety of illegal drugs and firearms.”
Pathos wagged his tail enthusiastically.
“He has indicated that he believes that you might have such items in your luggage, Ma’am. Is that the case?”
“No, certainly not!”
“He is rarely ever wrong, Ma’am. You could make this a lot easier on yourself if you come clean now. We wouldn’t want to waste everyone’s time, and the embarrassment of a strip search, now do we?”
“I’ve told you before, I’m innocent.”
“Very well Ma’am, if you insist. Can you please place your bag on the table and open it, so that we may look inside.”
“You bastard!” I hiss, aiming the comment at the dog handler.
“Ma’am? There is no need for such profanity. If you continue to resist, we will be forced to place you under arrest, and use restraints if necessary.”
With a sigh, I lift my bag onto the table and flick open the catches. I know full well what they are looking for; what the dog has sensed, so I cut to the chase. Unzipping the inner pocket, I pull out the cellophane bag and slap it down on the table. Inside, they can clearly see a large block of brown substance.
The dog, Pathos, eyes the package eagerly, even letting out a small whine of enthusiasm.
The Custom’s Officer leans over and inspects the offending package, before turning to the Armed Response Unit and giving them a nod. “I think we can take this from here, lads.”
The two armed officers relax slightly, now that any possible bomb threat has been ruled out. Quietly, they slip out of the interrogation room.
Turning to the dog handler, the Custom’s Officer asks, “What do you think, Bob? This certainly looks like the real deal to me.”
Bob, the dog handler smiles lightly before answering, “Only one way to be sure, Jeff. We’d best feed a bit to the dog.”
Jeff raises an eyebrow, “Really. Is that normal procedure?”
“No, but there’s no quicker way to find out whether it’s drugs or not. Our shift is finished. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not waste all my morning doing unnecessary paperwork.”
“If you’re sure, Bob. You know best.”
Turning to me, the Customs Officer says, “Can you open the bag please Ma’am, and break off a piece?”
“You’re kidding me, right?”
Jeff looks at Bob, who nods. With a shrug of resignation, he turns to me, “It’s up to you. We could do this through the proper channels, but it could take a couple of hours for the lab to come back with a result. This way does seem to be quicker.”
Pathos barks once.
The noise is quite loud in the small room. His eyes have not left the offending package since it was revealed.
“O.K. If you insist,” I say, doing as instructed.
I break off a bite-sized chunk of the brown matter and hold it up for inspection.
By now, a small line of drool is forming in the corner of the sniffer dog’s mouth.
“What now?” I ask.
“Toss it to him, of course,” prompts Bob, the dog handler.
With a shrug, I flip the brown morsel into the air.
The dog leaps up, snatching it cleanly and begins to chew noisily.
“Yep, that looks like the real deal, alright,” confirms Bob, petting his dog affectionately. “He sure does love that beef jerky.”
I move around the table to slip into Bob’s arms, punching him affectionately on the shoulder, before stealing a deep kiss. “You bastard!” I repeat, though with a smile this time.
Jeff, who was the best man at our wedding, smiles warmly.
Pathos sniffs up my skirt, looking for more of his favourite jerky.
“Do you have to pull that stunt every time I come home?” I ask. “Do you know how embarrassing that is?”
My husband smiles and returns my kiss, “I was only trying to help.”
I had to admit that it was quicker that waiting in the queue for half an hour, but still….
“Come on … I’ll drive you home. Our shift has finished.”
Jeff has fastened my carry-on, and hands it over as we head for the exit.
Pathos hugs my side the whole time. He’s Bob’s dog really, and very loyal, but he’s always had a soft spot for Western-style beef jerky. I always remember to buy him some whenever I’m flying over to the U.S.”