Man in the Middle 77: Chaos at Catania Airport

Man in the Middle is the fictional diary of a Boomer coping with the demands of an ageing mother with dementia, his millennial children and his own impending obsolescence. Bowed down by Brexit, Covid and self-pity, all he wants is more ‘me time’. Will he succeed? Or is he destined to be stuck forever in No Man’s Land in the war between the generations?

If you’d like to begin at the beginning and missed the first instalment, you can read No. 1: The Letter here

No 77: Chaos at Catania Airport

The woman at the British Airways desk won’t check me in for the flight to London until I can prove that I am Covid negative. Unfortunately, I’ve lost my Covid certificate.

I’ve shown her my passport, my ticket, my European locator form and my five-star guest rating on AirBnB. But these count for nothing.

And now, after five minutes of me desperately rummaging through the crypts and crannies of my email server, she’s decided my time is up. Puffing up with bureaucratic self-righteousness, she jabs my passport towards me.

‘Step away from the desk, please,’ she says.

‘I will not,’ I reply.

‘Then I will have to call security, sir.’

She says this with a sinister Sicilian smile. It’s the sort of cold sadistic look you’d expect to see on the face of a Mafia hitman just before he pulls the trigger. ‘Go ahead, punk. Make my day.’

I turn to my wife.

‘She actually wants to have me arrested. Can you believe it?’

‘Yes,’ says my wife. ‘I can.’

I turn back to the BA check-in desk.

‘British Airways must have a process to sort out this problem, surely?’

‘British Airways does not exist here. We’re just contractors,’ she replies.

This sounds almost threatening. In Italian, contractor is a euphemism for hitman, right? Perhaps, she is Mafiosi! I’m at Catania airport in Sicily, so it’s not beyond possibility that she’s the daughter of the local Don and not just a BA staffer with a first-class degree in the art of telling customers how to ‘go f*** themselves’. I must tread carefully.

If I move away from the desk, I’ll be condemned to roam Catania airport until next Spring, as lonely as Tom Hanks in Terminal. This is the not only the last flight to London tonight but the last flight until Spring next year.

But if I stand my ground something miraculous might happen. The email confirming my negative covid test might suddenly reappear on my phone or Boris Johnson might call her personally to stress how important it is I get on this plane.

‘If this chap isn’t in London tomorrow for the secret Anglo-Italian prosecco trade negotiations, the talks will collapse. We need more of your lovely bubbly stuff to drown the pain of not having enough turkeys this Christmas. Do you want to be the one that ruins Italian prosecco exports to the UK, just because he hasn’t got the right piece red tape to hand?’

Unfortunately, looking at her stony face, it’s clear she would be happy to wreck the Anglo-Italian prosecco trade now and forever more, especially if it involved spiting me.

‘Come on, mate. Get on with it’.

The plane is boarding and there are ten people behind me getting anxious and angry.

The BA contractor-come-mafia-hitwoman-come-saboteur of the secret Anglo-Italian prosecco trade negotiations flaps my passport up and down to catch my eye.

‘Step away from the desk.’

No ‘sir’ or please this time.

Defeated, I take my documents without catching her eye. I slink away from the check-in desk towards a mound of lost luggage. The departure board shows the plane is now boarding and we’re still the wrong side of security.

‘Their system is flawed,’ I say to my wife.

‘No system is idiot proof,’ she says.

‘I’m so angry I could harm something,’ I say.

‘Why don’t you start with yourself,’ she says.

It’s clear that the next thing I say has to be spot on. Any facetious comments or jokes will lead to the divorce courts sooner than you can say ‘lateral flow test’.

‘Sorry,’ I say.

‘I saw the email with the certificate on your phone yesterday. What did you do with it?’

‘I deleted it,’ I say, looking at my toes.

‘Deleted it?’


A shadow flites across her face that passeth all understanding.

‘I’m getting on the plane,’ she says and hands me a 50 euro note. ‘This is all the cash I’ve got.’

‘You’re going without me?’

‘You bet,’ she says.

I don’t blame her. In the last three months, I’ve lost every draft of the book I’m writing, my mother’s power of attorney (which I had to do twice because I signed it in the wrong place) and my father’s birth certificate. Each time, just when they were needed. The only thing I can’t seem to lose is my incompetence. I am the archbishop of clerical cockups, the faux pas in the filing system. The word administration brings me out in hives.

Something lights up in my wife’s face.

‘Have you called the test centre and asked for a copy of the covid result?’

‘No,’ I say. ‘Will they be open?’

‘How do I know,’ she says.

‘They’re in South Africa, though.’

‘Got any better ideas?’

It’s the last roll of the dice. The check-in desk is closing in five minutes and the flight is on last call.

The nurse at the Covid test centre remembers me.

‘The thing you did with the swab up your nose was very amusing,’ she says.

‘I’m desperate,’ I say. ‘Could you send me another copy of my Covid test?’

‘Of course,’ she says. ‘Give me your email, again.’

I wave my new covid test certificate at the woman behind the BA check-in desk.

‘I’m negative,’ I say.

‘The gate closes in 10 minutes,’ she says.

As we run towards security, my wife asks me if I’ve learnt anything from this experience.

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Never to travel without you.’

Read more blogs by James Thellusson

Read the next in the series: Man in the Middle 78: Becoming a detectorist

Read the previous one – Man in the Middle 76: The Ear of Dionysus

See all James’s Man in the Middle blogs here

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