It was in the 1990s before widespread use of mobile phones, internet or even credit cards. I was an invited speaker at a conference in Thessaloniki. The organisers sent me my tickets which were via Amsterdam and Athens. My return journey was on a Sunday.
The taxi driver who took me from one airport to the other across Athens was horrified to know I had only this short journey to see the sights. He said he would take me the scenic route and wouldn't charge much more. And to be fair, he didn't. The commentary degenerated though as he told me with rising indignation about his American ex-wife and the sheer effrontery of Aristotle Onassis in marrying Jackie Kennedy. I never got the link. In amongst the 'She said to me ... I said to her ... my lawyer told her lawyer...' would be an occasional, 'That's the Coliseum,' but it was an interesting ride and gave me a more positive memory of Athens than what was to come.
Tired, hungry, overdue for a visit to a washroom I finally plonked my case down at the check-in desk and awaited my paperwork. No online check-in in those days, either.
'This is a stand-by ticket,' the woman said. 'And the flight's full.'
I can't quite remember which emotion surfaced first. It might have been anger at the conference organisers who had invited me out and landed me with a cheap ticket at the height of the holiday season, but mainly I think it was HELP! What do I do now?
'When's the next flight?' I asked.
'Same time tomorrow.'
All manner of practical issues rose in the wave of panic on that one. I had almost no Greek money, no credit card that would work in Greece, couldn't access the safe bit of the airport, just this huge hanger like space that was open to the street in what didn't seem to me to be a very salubrious part of the city. The woman might have been used to this sort of thing because she allowed all this to go through my head and once I had room for the next bit, added, 'But that's full, too.'
''When can I get a seat?' Probably more of a squeak than a straight ask by this time.
She checked her paperwork. 'In a fortnight.'
There followed a frenetic couple of hours. I found a phone and rang home to explain the problem, not that they could do anything from there. Then I went round every airline in the place - there were a lot. At first I was after any flight to Amsterdam. No luck. It was the holiday season, they were all booked solid for at least two weeks. OK, anywhere in England? At least my credit card would work there. But no, not a thing.
In the end, I was reduced to asking for any flight to anywhere where my credit card would work i.e. Western Europe. Same answer. Nothing for a fortnight. One woman said she could sell me a flight from London to Humberside, but I pointed out that was no good unless she could also sell me a flight to London. Nothing for a fortnight.
Come to think about it, that London-Humberside flight sounds dodgy to me. But maybe there was such a thing back then.
I waited with diminishing hope in the ticket hall as my flight clicked its way to the top of the board as its take-off time approached. Then take-off time arrived, it disappeared from the board and I decided to go and find that washroom while I thought out my next move.
Just going through the door when I became aware of a voice on the tannoy, calling... not exactly my name, but the name by which they'd been calling me throughout. The conference organisers had booked my tickets in a slight variation of my actual name which had caused some sideways glances through customs. The voice now calling my pseudonym implored me to '...go to the ticket hall.'
I raced back. The woman behind the counter leapt out as she saw me. 'There you are! Follow me.'
She sprinted through the airport. I struggled behind with suitcase and hand luggage. She took me through check points and gates, up and down stairs and eventually threw me at an aeroplane where I was bundled up the steps, my case rammed in a corner, and shoved into the only spare seat.
It was the plane for which I had the stand-by ticket. I never found out what happened, but I always assumed that it must have been late because they'd had to delay take-off to throw out an unruly passenger and at the last minute they gave me his seat. I don't know why I assume the unruly passenger to have been a man but that's how I picture it. Belated thanks to him and I hope he didn't have too uncomfortable a night in Athens.
**unlike many writers who clock up weeks, months and years behind bars, uncharged, and unaware what charge, if any, will eventually be brought.