The Long Dark Tea-Time of the SoulDouglas Adams
The Long Dark Tea-Time Of The Soul
When a passenger check-in desk at Terminal Two, Heathrow Airport, shot up through the roof engulfed in a ball of orange flame the usual people tried to claim responsibility. First the IRA, then the PLO and the Gas Board. Even the British Nuclear Fuels rushed out a statement to the effect that the situation was completely under control, that it was a one in a million chance, that there was hardly any radioactive leakage at all, and that the site of the explosion would make a nice location for a day out with the kids and a picnic, before finally having to admit that it wasn't actually anything to do with them at all.
No rational cause could be found for the explosion — it was simply designated an act of God. But, thinks Dirk Gently, which God? And why? What God would be hanging around Terminal Two of Heathrow Airport, trying to catch the 15.37 to Oslo?
The Long Dark Tea-Time Of the Soul
It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the expression “as pretty as an airport”.
Airports are ugly. Some are very ugly. Some attain a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of a special effort. This ugliness arises because airports ane full of people who are tired, cross, and have just discovered that their luggage has landed in Murmansk (Murmansk airport is the only known exception to this otherwise infallible rule), and architects have on the whole tried to reflect this in their designs.
They have sought to highlight the tiredness and crossness motif with brutal shapes and nerve jangling colours, to make effortless the business of separating the traveller for ever from his or her luggage or loved ones, to confuse the traveller with arrows that appear to point at the windows, distant tie racks, or the current position of Ursa Minor in the night sky, and wherever possible to expose the plumbing on the grounds that it is functional, and conceal the location of the departure gates, presumably on the grounds that they are not.
Caught in the middle of a sea of hazy light and a sea of hazy noise, Kate Schechter stood and doubted.
All the way out of London to Heathrow she had suffered from doubt. She was not a superstitious person, or even a religious person. she was simply someone who was not at all sure she should be flying to Norway. But she was finding it increasingly easy to believe that God, if there was a God, and if it was remotely possible that any godlike being who could order the disposition of particles at the creation of the Universe would also be interested in directing traffic on the M4, did not want her to fly to Norway either. All the trouble with the tickets, finding a next-door neighbour to look after the cat, then finding the cat so it could be looked after by the next-door neighbour, the sudden leak in the roof, the missing wallet, the weather, the unexpected death of the next-door neighbour, the pregnancy of the cat — it all had the semblance of an orchestrated campaign of obstruction which had begun to assume godlike proportions.
Even the taxi-driver — when she had eventually found a taxi — had said, “Norway? What you want to go there for?” And when she hadn't instantly said, “'The aurora borealis!” or “Fjords!” but had looked doubtful for a moment and bitten her lip, he had said, “I know, I bet it's some bloke dragging you out there. Tell you what, tell him to stuff it. Go to Tenerife.”
There was an idea.
Or even, she dared to think for a fleeting second, home.
She had stared dumbly out of the taxi window at the angry tangles of traffic and thought that however cold and miserable the weather was here, that was nothing to what it would be like in Norway.
Or, indeed, at home. Home would be about as icebound as Norway right now. Icebound, and punctuated with geysers of steam bursting out of the ground, catching in the frigid air and dissipating between the glacial cliff faces of Sixth Avenue.
A quick glance at the itinerary Kate had pursued in the course of her thirty years would reveal her without any doubt to be a New Yorker. For though she had lived in the city very little, most of her life had been spent at a constant distance from it. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Europe, and a period of distracted wandering around South America five years ago following the loss of her newly married husband, Luke, in a New York taxihailing accident.
She enjoyed the notion that New York was home, and that she missed it, but in fact the only thing she really missed was pizza. And not just any old pizza, but the sort of pizza they brought to your door if you phoned them up and asked them to. That was the only real pizza. Pizza that you had to go out and sit at a table staring at red paper napkins for wasn't real pizza however much extra pepperoni and anchovy they put on it.
London was the place she liked living in most, apart, of course, from the pizza problem, which drove her crazy. Why would no one deliver pizza? Why did no one understand that it was fundamental to the whole nature of pizza that it arrived at your front door in a hot cardboard box? That you slithered it out of greaseproof paper and ate it in folded slices in front of the TV? What was the fundamental flaw in the stupid, stuck-up, sluggardly English that they couldn't grasp this simple principle? For some odd reason it was the one frustration she could never learn simply to live with and accept, and about once a month or so she would get very depressed, phone a pizza restaurant, order the biggest, most lavish pizza she could describe — pizza with an extra pizza on it, essentially — and then, sweetly, ask them to deliver it.
“Deliver. Let me give you the address — ”
“I don't understand. Aren't you going to come and pick it up?”
“No. Aren't you going to deliver? My address — ”
“Er, we don't do that, miss.”
“Don't do what?”
“You don't deliver? Am I hearing you correctly...?”
The exchange would quickly degenerate into an ugly slanging match which would leave her feeling drained and shaky, but much, much better the following morning. In all other respects she was one of the most sweet-natured people you could hope to meet.
But today was testing her to the limit.
There had been terrible traffic jams on the motorway, and when the distant flash of blue lights made it clear that the cause was an accident somewhere ahead of them Kate had become more tense and had stared fixedly out of the other window as eventually they had crawled past it.
The taxi-driver had been bad-tempered when at last he had dropped her off because she didn't have the right money, and there was a lot of disgruntled hunting through tight trouser pockets before he was eventually able to find change for her. The atmosphere was heavy and thundery and now, standing in the middle of the main check-in concourse at Terminal Two, Heathrow Airport, she could not find the check-in desk for her flight to Oslo.
She stood very still for a moment, breathing calmly and deeply and trying not to think of Jean-Philippe.
Jean-Philippe was, as the taxi-driver had correctly guessed, the reason why she was going to Norway, but was also the reason why she was convinced that Norway was not at all a good place for her to go. Thinking of him therefore made her head oscillate and it seemed best not to think about him at all but simply to go to Norway as if that was where she happened to be going anyway. She would then be terribly surprised to bump into him at whatever hotel it was he had written on the card that was tucked into the side pocket of her handbag.
In fact she would be surprised to find him there anyway. What she would be much more likely to find was a message from him saying that he had been unexpectedly called away to Guatemala, Seoul or Tenerife and that he would call her from there. Jean-Philippe was the most
continually absent person she had ever met. In this he was the culmination of a series. Since she had lost Luke to the great yellow Chevrolet she had been oddly dependent on the rather vacant emotions that a succession of self-absorbed men had inspired in her.
She tried to shut all this out of her mind, and even shut her eyes for a second. She wished that when she opened them again there would be a sign in front of her saying “This way for Norway” which she could simply follow without needing to think about it or anything else ever again. This, she reflected, in a continuation of her earlier train of thought, was presumably how religions got started, and must be the reason why so many sects hang around airports looking for converts. They know that people there are at their most vulnerable and perplexed, and ready to accept any kind of guidance.
Kate opened her eyes again and was, of course, disappointed. But then a second or two later there was a momentary parting in a long surging wave of cross Germans in inexplicable yellow polo shirts and through it she had a brief glimpse of the check-in desk for Oslo. Lugging her garment bag on to her shoulder, she made her way towards it.
There was just one other person before her in the line at the desk and he, it turned out, was having trouble or perhaps making it.
He was a large man, impressively large and well-built — even expertly built — but he was also definitely odd-looking in a way that Kate couldn't quite deal with. She couldn't even say what it was that was odd about him, only that she was immediately inclined not to include him on her list of things to think about at the moment. She remembered reading an article which had explained that the central processing unit of the human brain only had seven memory registers, which meant that if you had seven things in your mind at the same time and then thought of something else, one of the other seven would instantly drop out.
In quick succession she thought about whether or not she was likely to catch the plane, about whether it was just her imagination that the day was a particularly bloody one, about airline staff who smile charmingly and are breathtakingly rude, about Duty Free shops which are able to charge much lower prices than ordinary shops but — mysteriously — don't, about whether or not she felt a magazine article about airports coming on which might help pay for the trip, about whether her garment bag would hurt less on her other shoulder and finally, in spite of all her intentions to the contrary, about Jean-Philippe, who was another set of at lest seven subtopics all to himself.
The man standing arguing in front of her popped right out of her mind.
It was only the announcement on the airport Tannoy of the last call for her flight to Oslo which forced her attention back to the situation in front of her.
The large man was making trouble about the fact that he hadn't been given a first class seat reservation. It had just transpired that the reason for this was that he didn't in fact have a first class ticket.
Kate's spirits sank to the very bottom of her being and began to prowl around there making a low growling noise.
It now transpired that the man in front of her didn't actually have a ticket at all, and the argument then began to range freely and angrily over such topics as the physical appearance of the airline check-in girl, her qualities as a person, theories about her ancestors, speculations as to what surprises the future might have in store for her and the airline for which she worked, and finally lit by chance on the happy subject of the man's credit card.
He didn't have one.
Further discussions ensued, and had to do with cheques, and why the airline did not accept them.
Kate took a long, slow, murderous look at her watch.
“Excuse me,” she said, interrupting the transactions. “Is this going to take long? I have to catch the Oslo flight.”
“I'm just dealing with this gentleman,” said the girl, “I'll be with you in just one second.”
Kate nodded, and politely allowed just one second to go by.
“It's just that the flight's about to leave,” she said then. “I have one bag, I have my ticket, I have a reservation. It'll take about thirty seconds. I hate to interrupt, but I'd hate even more to miss my flight for the sake of thirty seconds. That's thirty actual seconds, not thirty ‘just one’ seconds, which could keep us here all night.”
The check-in girl turned the full glare on her lipgloss on to Kate, but before she could speak the large blond man looked round, and the effect of his face was a little disconcerting.
“I, too,” he said in a slow, angry Nordic voice, “wish to fly to Oslo.”
Kate stared at him. He looked thoroughly out of place in an airport, or rather, the airport looked thoroughly out of place around him.
“Well,” she said, “the way we're stacked up at the moment it looks like neither of us is going to make it. Can we just sort this one out? What's the hold-up?”
The check-in girl smiled her charming, dead smile and said, “The airline does not accept cheques, as a matter of company policy.”
“Well I do,” said Kate, slapping down her own credit card. “Charge the gentleman's ticket to this, and I'll take a cheque from him.
“OK?” she added to the big man, who was looking at her with slow surprise. His eyes were large and blue and conveyed the impression that they had looked at a lot of glaciers in their time. They were extraordinarily arrogant and also muddled.
“OK?” she repeated briskly. “My name is Kate Schechter. Two ‘c’s, two ‘h’s, two ‘e’s and also a ‘t’, an ‘r’ and an ‘s’. Provided they're all there the bank won't be fussy about the order they come in. They never seem to know themselves.”
The man very slowly inclined his head a little towards her in a rough bow of acknowledgement. He thanked her for her kindness, courtesy and some Norwegian word that was lost on her, said that it was a long while since he had encountered anything of the kind, that she was a woman of spirit and some other Norwegian word, and that he was indebted to her. He also added, as an afterthought, that he had no cheque-book.
“Right!” said Kate, determined not to be deflected from her course. She fished in her handbag for a piece of paper, took a pen from the check-in counter, scribbled on the paper and thrust it at him.
“That's my address,” she said, “send me the money. Hock your fur coat if you have to. Just send it me. OK? I'm taking a flyer on trusting you.”
The big man took the scrap of paper, read the few words on it with immense slowness, then folded it with elaborate care and put it into the pocket of his coat. Again he bowed to her very slightly.
Kate suddenly realised that the check-in girl was silently waiting for her pen back to fill in the credit card form. She pushed it back at her in annoyance, handed over her own ticket and imposed on herself an icy calm.
The airport Tannoy announced the departure of their flight.
“May I see your passports, please?” said the girl unhurriedly.
Kate handed hers over, but the big man didn't have one.
“You what?” exclaimed Kate. The airline girl simply stopped moving at all and stared quietly at a random point on her desk waiting for someone else to make a move. It wasn't her problem.
The man repeated angrily that he didn't have a passport. He shouted it and banged his fist on the counter so hard that it was slightly dented by the force of the blow.
Kate picked up her ticket, her passport and her credit card and hoisted her garment bag back up on to her shoulder.
“This is when I get off,” she said, and simply walked away. She felt that she had made every effort a human being could possibly be expected to make to catch her plane, but that it was not to be. She would send a message to Jean-Philippe saying that she could not be there, and it would probably sit in a slot next to his message to her saying why he could not be there either. For once they would be equally absent.
For the time being she would go and cool off. She set off in search of first a newspaper and then some coffee, and by dint of following the appropriate signs was unable to locate either. She was
then unable to find a working phone from which to send a message, and decided to give up on the airport altogether. Just get out, she told herself, find a taxi, and go back home.
She threaded her way back across the check-in concourse, and had almost made it to the exit when she happened to glance back at the check-in desk that had defeated her, and was just in time to see it shoot up through the roof engulfed in a ball of orange flame.
As she lay beneath a pile of rubble, in pain, darkness, and choking dust, trying to find sensation in her limbs, she was at least relieved to be able to think that she hadn't merely been imagining that this was a bad day. So thinking, she passed out.
The usual people tried to claim responsibility.
First the IRA, then the PLO and the Gas Board. Even British Nuclear Fuels rushed out a statement to the effect that the situation was completely under control, that it was a one in a million chance, that there was hardly any radioactive leakage at all, and that the site of the explosion would make a nice location for a day out with the kids and a picnic, before finally having to admit that it wasn't actually anything to do with them at all.
No cause could be found for the explosion.
It seemed to have happened spontaneously and of its own free will. Explanations were advanced, but most of these were simply phrases which restated the problem in different words, along the same principles which had given the world “metal fatigue”. In fact, a very similar phrase was invented to account for the sudden transition of wood, metal, plastic and concrete into an explosive condition, which was “non-linear catastrophic structural exasperation”, or to put it another way — as a junior cabinet minister did on television the following night in a phrase which was to haunt the rest of his career — the check-in desk had just got “fundamentally fed up with being where it was”.
As in all such disastrous events, estimates of the casualties varied wildly. They started at forty-seven dead, eighty-nine seriously injured, went up to sixty-three dead, a hundred and thirty injured, and rose as high as one hundred and seventeen dead before the figures started to be revised downwards once more. The final figures revealed that once all the people who could be accounted for had been accounted for, in fact no one had been killed at all. A small number of people were in hospital suffering from cuts and bruises and varying degrees of traumatised shock, but that, unless anyone had any information about anybody actually being missing, was that.