Stop me if I’ve told you this: I was deported from another country.
But before you judge me, let me tell you the circumstances. First, a disclaimer: Among other things, I was naive as a younger woman and, second, I had unrealistic expectations in those days, which were the 1980s. If you’re still interested, read on.
When I was managing editor of a newspaper in Connecticut, but thoroughly burned out, I mused aloud to an IT support person working for a company that had just sold our chain new word processing software. It went something like this (imagine a bit of a whine here): Did I tell you I’m moving to England? Gee, I wish you guys had a company there.
“We just bought one.”
So I made a long distance call on the company’s dime and it was decided that I would be picked up at the airport by a company official and whisked away to beautiful Wolverhampton in the bowels of the West Midlands.
Wherever that was.
I was in. Do I need any special paperwork? I asked.
“Just tell them you’re on holiday.”
I drank two beers and slept through most of the flight to England. It was a redeye. We landed at Gatwick where, at Immigration, immense lines waited and I noticed that every now and then officers would pull someone aside and they disappeared.
I wore a little bit of Army surplus in those days just to shake up the boutique duds I favored. On this occasion I wore a simple black sheath belted by one of those webbed ammunition belts. It was very comfortable, BUT WHAT WAS I THINKING?
When I finally made it to the front of the line, the officer took one look at my passport, my ticket, and, I assume, my belt, then motioned for another uniformed officer.
And I disappeared.
They took my luggage, all of it and there was a lot of it. They took my passport. I was escorted into a locked room with 2-foot-by-2-foot square carpet square in worn-out beige and brown. It turned out I had the whole day to memorize them. The room was ringed with rather uncomfortable fiberglass chairs and on the wall there was a pay phone. The only other contents of the room where the equally dismayed travelers who would come and go, either forced to return where they’d come from or released to travel on through to their original destination. An Asian nanny traveling with an Australian family was deported. Several of the nine Florida Chippendales who were launching a world tour were not.
One by one, they left the room. At the end of the day, I was the only one left.
It was then that I learned that Immigration had contacted the company in Wolverhampton and told them I was being deported. They told the official sent to get me to go home. It turned out the company was supposed to do paperwork that they didn’t do. The tipoff to something awry was my one-way ticket. They knew I was planning on staying to work without proper authority.
I was in another country, where I knew no one. I was about to be locked up, then put on a plane back to the U.S. and deposited as a reject. All my grand delusions were going up in a terrifying poof.
Still, I was defiant.
The Beehive at Gatwick was being used as an incarceration hub then. It was night when I was escorted to a dormitory room where the sheets were like Handiwipes and the narrow beds lined up in the way one might expect in a costume drama about woebegone orphans.
I had been given my first British meal: shepherds pie, the TV dinner version. As I ate it, I assured the guard that I was not going to be sent back.
He rejected that with the kind of authority one gets with a uniform, rules and a fortified enclosure.
Now I was angry and terrified.
I cried myself to sleep that night.
The next morning, the same guard was on duty. He taunted me with my impending departure.
Did you know that, at least back then, the airline that brought you in was required to take you back for free if you were deported? I met a young Swedish guy at Gatwick who had somehow managed to travel the world that way. In this case, he was being deported to his native country, which was just what he wanted. Anyway, a rather unpleasant woman from the airline that brought me to England suggested things would go better for me if I bought my own ticket home. I told her I had no plans to leave at that time.
Perhaps the most curious thing that happened that day in Gatwick, in the room of carpeted squares, was that the phone rang. I looked around. By that late hour, everyone else had left, Florida Chippendales and all. So I answered it.
The person on the other end asked for someone who wasn’t there. I said I was the only one in the room. He asked: “Are you being deported too?”
That morning, when the guard in the enclosure began taunting me, I repeated to him that I had no intentions of going home.
His phone rang.
The look of disbelief was priceless.
That day in the room of carpet squares, when I answered the phone? Turns out the guy on the other end was a Sikh attorney. He made some calls and I was free.
At least for the next two and a half months while my appeal was being processed.
Then I was deported.
Final irony: I am a direct descendant of the Widow Elizabeth Curtis, the only female signer of the charter that founded Stratford, Connecticut, who came from Nazeing in Essex, England. I was deported from my family’s native country.
Jane Curtis is the editor of The Messenger.