It took the officer fifteen seconds to close the door and walk around the desk. I know because I watched them tick by on my watch like tiny explosions. Fifteen seconds was just ridiculous. Fifteen seconds was a quarter of a minute and I only had ten of those. My plane sat on the runway, oblivious. The officer took another twenty seconds to open my bag and pull out a tin of buttons.
“A tin of buttons.”
I nodded and repeated his words. That tin was stuffed with buttons. It was an old chocolate tin, decorated with a picture of Peter Rabbit on the side. The officer looked slightly paranoid and I wondered whether he had been subject to a recent button burglary, but this was not the case – he was a strictly zips man. Zips on his trousers, jacket, even a zip pocket on his hat.
“Anything in here?” he shook the tin.
“Buttons.” Maybe he thought I was hiding something in the tin of buttons. There were all kinds of buttons in the tin, all shapes and sizes and colours and weights. It would be easy to hide something valuable. It was a good idea.
There were no more questions. He put the buttons to one side having established that he was not going to get anything out of me. Next he pulled out my bright pink travel towel.
“Yup.” I think he just pulled that out to embarrass me. There certainly seemed to be no other reason for asking questions about an innocuous bright pink travel towel. I watched as he stuffed it back in, taking no care to fold it back up again and made a mental note to take it out and fold it as soon as I got the chance.
He rooted around in my bag again. More seconds ticked past on my watch. I had three hundred and ninety seconds left to catch my flight but the officer was using up another twenty of them just trying to find things in my bag.
“Ah, now here’s something interesting.”
He was holding up a book.
“Trout Fishing In America by Richard Brautigan,” he read from the cover. “Good book?”
“Yes. I’m enjoying it.”
He flicked through it quickly.
“Would you recommend it?”
“Would you recommend this book to me?”
“Yes, yes, I would.” Anything to hurry him up. That said, I would have recommended the book to him anyway.
“You got this from your public library,” he was examining the date label on my copy of Trout Fishing In America. I nodded. “Now, this is interesting,” he held the date label up for me to see.
I stared at it. There was nothing out of the ordinary that I could see.
“Read the date stamp to me,” he demanded.
MAY 28 2008, it read. “The twenty eighth of May, two thousand and eight.”
“And what is the date today?” he spoke slowly as if I were a dog.
“The fourth of June.” I knew that from my plane ticket. Which reminded me to look at my watch. I was down to two hundred and forty five seconds. I needed to hurry things along. “It’s overdue,” I observed. The two words took little over a second to say but they were like an investment, by spending that second I might save more further down the line.
“So,” the officer looked at me in mock-puzzlement. “You were planning on taking an overdue library book out of the country?”
“Um, yes, I mean no, well, I suppose,” I was panicking as the seconds ticked on, couldn’t they just stop, just for a moment? Still, in my panic I did feel some slight relief that I was not being stopped for some other major indiscretion that I had been completely unaware of, as can happen sometimes. It was just a library book.
“Do you understand the seriousness of this? Do you realise the repercussions?”
“There’ll probably be a fine.”
“There will be a fine, well done,” I felt like he was throwing me a chocolate. “How long are you going away for?”
The officer whistled. “That’s going to be one big fine when you get back. Three, four pounds maybe. That’s if you don’t lose it, drop it in a swimming pool or something. You know how many overdue library books are lost on holiday every year? A lot. The ones in date, well, we don’t mind too much. It’s an honest mistake. But an overdue book, well,” he shook his head sadly.
I wasn’t sure what to say. I wanted to grab my tin of buttons, pour them on the table and then organise them in piles just to calm myself down.
“Here’s what I’m going to do,” there was a kindly menace in his voice. “I’m going to offer you a way out. You leave this book with me and some money to pay the fine and I’m going to let you go for your plane. How’s that sound?”
I was down to seventy five seconds. “Ok.” I grabbed my wallet and pulled out the spare English money I had. It came to about three pounds and twenty four pence. I pushed it across the desk and reached for my bag.
“Probably won’t be quite this much,” the officer was counting it. “Here, take some back,” he pushed some of the coins back across the table.
“No, no, really, it’s fine,” I grabbed my travel bag. “Am I alright to go?”
“You don’t want a receipt?”
“Then, yes, you can go.”
I burst out of the door and into the corridor and ran towards the gate. My plane had been sat there all the time, oblivious and it was still sat there. It was going to take me up in the sky and it didn’t even know about me. It hadn’t even read Trout Fishing In America. It should.
My body, laden down with luggage, twisted as I ran. I was like a trout, a trout who had escaped the fisherman’s hook and was swimming desperately for his plane. The trout had been forced to leave his holiday reading behind. He would have to spend more time in the pool.
“Enjoy your holiday,” the officer bellowed behind me.