Flight Risk

 [Photo description: a close-up of an airport screen listing various departing flights]  Creative Commons.

[Photo description: a close-up of an airport screen listing various departing flights]

Creative Commons.

Aisling. Aisling is the Irish word for ‘dream.’ And Diana had a feeling she’d dream about Aisling for a thousand and one nights and wake up in tears every morning.

#

“It’s all part of the cultural experience, honey!” The man’s Texan drawl was five times louder than it needed to be, even in that chaotic security space, directing glances over to where his red-faced and obviously too old wife was pulling at a pair of panties large enough that that quantity of fabric could have made a whole dress for Diana. Diana tried not to judge. Sometimes she had to try harder than others.

“It’s fucking disgusting, you fucking creeps!” the woman spat as she squatted to submit the sample.

“Ma’ am, we did not make the law.” Americans liked a ‘ma’am.’ Diana struggled to keep the impatience out of her voice. It had already been a long day, and the rest of it would be even longer. The printer situation had hit the international news – that was the thing about working in an airport, you got to see newspapers from all over the world – and the phrase ‘dark ages’ was being bandied around a lot. The companies who had been told to recall their products because they gave users the option to ‘abort’ rather than ‘cancel’ a jammed print job were talking seriously about pulling out of Ireland. A lot of jobs and a lot of tax a fragile economy couldn’t afford to lose. Diana’s two nephews worked for print companies. How much longer would they have their jobs? The UN and such hadn’t kicked up with the usual harangue about freedom of information yet because they were still too busy rolling on the floor laughing. Like all of the foreigners coming through today who were more than happy to belittle Diana, who, like most Irish people, was utterly mortified by the latest manoeuvre of her out of touch government. She understood why so many of her compatriots were angry. She didn’t understand why so many of them were having a go at her over it. She was just an airport screener, after all.

“Girls on the left, men on the right – no, left...Jesus Christ! Left!”

Anto was feeling impatient as well, then. Diana supposed they should get some signs in a few different languages, but still, how bloody difficult was it to just follow what everyone else was doing? Everyone went through the belts and metal detectors to make sure no one was carrying too much toothpaste or wearing a bomb, and then the women went through the second screening process to get their exit stamp. It wasn’t bloody complicated.

She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. Did she always get tired so easily, or was it because of the - ? Or was she just imagining it, this feeling of never getting any value from rest, the occasional weak nausea that made feel her uncomfortable and panicked but never actually ill? Just when it was time for her much-needed break, she got a positive.

#

Diana saw the blue line before it appeared. It hadn’t taken long, she realised, to just get a sense for it.

“Are you resident in Ireland?” she asked the woman. Natalia, Polish, according to her passport.

“No, I lived here before. I was just visiting my friend for the weekend,” she replied in English that was perfect, but so heavily accented Diana had to wait a few seconds to let the words settle before she understood them.

“I’m happy to tell you, you are positive.” Diana spoke slowly and carefully. “We will not be able to issue your boarding pass at this time...”

“What, pos – what?”

Realising what Diana meant, Natalia, Polish, screamed, a moment of pure joy before her face clouded over with anger and upset.

  “We’ve been trying for this baby for ages,” she said. “And the person I have to share this moment with isn’t my husband, isn’t my mother, but you and the strangers in the line.”

“Ma’am, we did not make the law.”

“You didn’t fight it either, did you? In Poland we had the Black Monday but in Ireland you are too busy watching Republic of Telly to care. How much do you get paid to watch strangers piss on sticks all day long?”

I was better off on the dole.

“Madam, please remain calm...”

Diana’s supervisor rushed over.

“I’m Polish! This baby was made in Poland! You won’t keep me here!”

Paul, helped by two impassive and hulking security guards, ushered the furious Natalia into a small room with a blacked out window. A few minutes later the airport gynaecologist rushed through the security area. Paul left the room, all smiles; the charm he relied on when breaking bad news. The guards remained inside. Before the door closed, Diana heard the Polish woman. Not shouting anymore.

“It’s fine, fine,” Paul said, while Diana was still wondering if she had the right to ask. “Just a quick medical exam. If it was conceived before she got here there’s no problem with her heading off. We’ve no jurisdiction over a foreign UBL – unborn life,” he clarified, having spotted the blank look on the nearby new recruit’s face. “And sure if it was conceived here...”

He shrugged, as he did several times a shift, to say “That’s not our problem.” Diana was fast learning that anything that made the staff uncomfortable belonged in this overflowing category.

“If not for these safeguards to the 8th, we’d be out of a job. Go on, on your break now, fort will hold here.”

#

This was the worst stage, she decided. Still too new to have any friends, not new enough to be included in any of the groups as a welcome gesture. She didn’t usually mind; to be alone would be easier than to be around people, if only she could lose the sense that all those who weren’t alone looked at her, perhaps with pity, perhaps warily wondering why, at this stage in her life, she had no one. When in groups, Diana often found herself noticing hands and noticing that hers was the only one without a ring. Some of her friends, when they weren’t too busy with their children – their teenagers, in some cases, almost, their adults, to see her, had been wearing their rings so long their fingers had fattened around it, as though the metal band had fused with their flesh. She imagined bad news at the doctor, the staff at the surgery asking afterwards if they could phone her husband to come and collect her, take care of her.

An explosive burst of raucous laughter cut through Diana’s thoughts and she wished for some company, to take her mind off things. She supposed she could always go over to join them – could she, though? They were all men, a small group making large noise, the same size and style of red polo shirt and blue slacks hanging loosely on the shoulders of gangly teenagers and stretching uncomfortably across the middle-aged girth of men who had had decades to eat and drink. Middle-aged. Was Diana herself middle-aged? She supposed she was. She’d reconciled herself to the fading likelihood of a family as the years slipped by, but she had imagined that by this stage of her life, she would have found at least one person who didn’t make her nervous, one person whose company didn’t feel like effort. She looked down at her uninspiring canteen stroganoff and listened to the men’s conversation, not wanting to retreat into her head again until it was a happier place. Daydreams had always been preferable to her everyday life, but more and more they were themselves a source of depression, as she wondered why, after so many years, she had nothing in reality that was better.

“Ya never see any hot chicks coming through anymore!”

“Ah no, not like the good old days!”

Diana’s fork didn’t make it to her mouth. A piece of stringy beef dangled from it as she froze, realising that they were right, wondering how she had never before noticed it happening, noticed that women were travelling less and less. It was hardly surprising; she’d been told that she would get free flights as part of her perks but had known instantly she would never use them. It was one thing going through flight scan as a stranger, another when the screeners were your colleagues and you’d have to look them in the face afterwards.

Paul hadn’t put anyone on to cover for her break, and the queue had been moving slowly. Women were encouraged to drink as much as they could bear in the line to make sure they could give the sample as efficiently as possible, so the delay had led to a lot of squirming and fidgeting in the queue. Diana got back to work as quickly as she could, not wanting a repeat of the time last week that a particularly highly-strung woman had threatened to stick Diana personally for the dry-cleaning bill.

On the airside of security, frazzled fathers raced about in Santa hats losing passports and losing children, shouting things into their phones like

“How do I know what gate to go to?”

“Did you pack my socks?”

“Is Lapland the name of the country, or of the hotel?”

Landside, little children were crying as they waved goodbye.

“Daddy, why isn’t Mammy coming?”

“Daddy, how come you don’t have to get an exit stamp?”

“I don’t want to go without mammy!”

Landside, airside... so where was Diana? The space in between.

“You’ve got to be joking.”

“Who does she think she’s kidding?”

“Sure we could put her on the conveyer belt and save her a scan to know if it’s a boy or a girl...”

Diana looked up. It was true; the elegant Arabic lady had such a round belly Diana’s grand-nephews would probably try to play football with it. Incredulous eyes followed her as she progressed through security and handed Diana her pass for a private appointment. Diana wondered if this was some kind of set up, if the woman was perhaps an undercover journalist or policewoman and would test Diana by trying to bribe her way onto a plane or something.

Zainab, Sudanese, according to her passport. A doctor. Dark eyes and skin and a smile that made you feel loved. “Here,” she said urgently, once the cubicle door had closed, handing Diana a piece of paper. “It’s a letter from my father’s hospital in Khartoum. He’s dying, I need to see him.”

Diana gaped helplessly and then remembered her role. Zainab batted her hand away as she held out the stick and shunned her as she started to explain the procedure. “Oh, please, no one needs that to see I’m pregnant! This child was planned and wanted. I’ll be back in a few days! My daughter will be born here but I need to see my father.”

Zainab’s composure started to slip. Diana noticed how steady her jaw was; steady but not naturally so, as though it was being clenched, a wide look to the eyes and the skin beneath them even darker than the rest.

“I – I – can’t,” Diana said, gesturing wildly to the badge on her uniform. Defending the Defenceless. “I, em, we did not make the law...You can’t leave at the minute.”

#

At least, after that, the day can’t get any worse. And she’d be off shift soon – though that meant she’d have to go home, make the appointment. Part of her felt that the thing wouldn’t be real, really, if she didn’t mention it. Going to the doctor would make it real. It wasn’t that bad, she told herself, this job. Someone had to do it. She felt sorry for the teenagers. It’s a self-conscious enough time of life anyway. But we all have to do things we don’t want to do to get on.

She had been excited to get this job, looking forward to giving a woman this special news from time to time and be able to share her joy in a moment Diana would never have for herself. But no one wants to be told they’re pregnant by an airport official, and that’s all she was; someone paid to monitor the sample leaving the subject’s body, screen it, and to issue boarding pass and stamp if there was no blue line. They tried to pretend they couldn’t see her. She understood, but it was lonely being invisible or hated all the time. Twenty minutes left on shift, the last positive of the day. Aisling.

Aisling was terrified. She was thirteen, a bit young to be travelling on her own, but then they were doing things younger and younger these days, weren’t they?

Sweet little dote of a thing with a small round face and long straight hair. A thin blue line. When Diana said she couldn’t issue a boarding pass, Aisling ran; Diana had to follow her, and tackle her, as she’d been trained to do, the customised rugby tackle that shouldn’t hurt the UBL. It hurt Aisling, though. Diana took her into one of the private rooms and tried to get the girl to drink some tea, and heard a story so disgusting she had to swallow back the vomit in her mouth. It was Diana who cried, Diana who made Aisling promise not to tell anyone else she thought it would be easier to die than live. Potential suicides had their social media blocked and were moved to secure psychiatric units. There were stories of force feeding and shackled births in padded cells. Yesterday another shipment of the maternity straitjackets had passed through. They seemed in demand. No chances were taken with potential suicides.

The lump no longer seemed like the most terrifying thing in Diana’s life. She dropped her badge, watched as it was crushed under the heels of humiliated women as they passed through the scan, and wished she didn’t need this job so badly.

Author's note:

On 25 May 2018, the people of Ireland went to the polls to vote on whether a 34 year old constitutional ban on abortion should be kept or repealed. The following day, the result was announced - the ban was overturned by an overwhelming majority.

For three years I had the honour of being part of the campaign to Repeal the Eight Amendment. I first thought of this story in my early days with the Abortion Rights Campaign, before I realised we had good reason for hope. I had been researching around how the abortion ban had come into existence, and how it had for many years been illegal to travel abroad to terminate a pregnancy, or share information on how to do so. I wondered what kind of world anti-abortion extremists wanted us to live in.

I can't overstate how proud I am of every single person who made this victory possible. It is my sincerest hope that our success will encourage anyone struggling for the rights to autonomy over our bodies. Because unfortunately, in Ireland and globally, a battle has been won but the war is not over.


Dr Naomi Elster has a PhD in breast cancer, with journalism bylines in The Guardian, BBC, Rewire, and many others. Her short stories and poems have been widely published in print and online literary journals, and she has had two plays produced. Twitter @Naomi_Elster"