A short story by Susan H. Evans
Our flight out of Porto’s TAP, possibly meaning “Try a Pushcart,” airport is scheduled for 6:40 a.m. Christiana, our glib Portuguese cruise director, assures us that only one pilot’s union is on strike and she will alert us about flight cancellations 24 hours in advance.
At 15 minutes to 4:00, on the morning of our flight, I arise from a sleepless night, tangled and strangled in bedclothes, to the sound of Stan’s funereal voice: “Susan. It is time to get up.” Stan shuffles off for breakfast. He returns at 4:00, and we wrestle luggage outside our cabin for the porters. I ask Stan if he inquired about our airport cab, and – not one to ponder the immediate future – he did not. So he bounds back up the steps to ask. I throw on already worn tee shirt, jeans and raincoat. It is dark and drizzling as we clamber over the metal walkway bridging the Douro River to the shore. The ship’s lights dance on the water. A pot-bellied driver waits, his car motor humming. I wearily climb in the back of the cab. A rosary dangles from the cab’s rear-view window and the taxi maneuvers through the wet streets. We arrive at the Porto airport at 4:30. But all the swinging rosaries in Rome won’t help this morning.
The driver swivels around in his seat and in heavily accented English announces, “Twenty euros, por favor.”
Stan, in his own mid-Western accent, explains that the ship is to pay for the ride and tells the cabbie, “Call the ship.” The man can’t understand and jibber-jabbers angrily, thinking we are English-speaking lowlifes. I stay mute in my morning fog. Stan throws a credit card at the man. The card reader promptly refuses it. Stan fishes another credit card out of his wallet, but the result is the same. I have no euros and keep my Visa to myself.
The argument drones on. Stan, a 72-year-old reedy former LAPD cop, darkly threatens to alert the policíal, one of the few Spanish words he knows, except for the phrase, “Drop your weapon and put your hands in the air.” The threat to call the law seems to work because the driver and Stan slam out of the cab.
I superglue myself to the cab’s backseat, afraid that Stan will push the driver’s taximeter too hard and the man will speed away with my valuables in the trunk. My pink and purple earrings and frog matador tee shirt are priceless. To me, anyway.
When I hear the welcome sound of the car trunk click open and the thunk of our suitcases hitting the pavement, I untangle myself out of the cab’s backseat, collect my battered blue suitcase, and scurry through the automatic doors of the airport like a squirrel with its eye on a newly fallen acorn. I’ll let the men sort it out. I have a plane to catch.
Stan catches up with me just before an escalator, and says breathlessly a cruise employee appeared and appeased the cab driver. We settle on metal chairs to wait for our gate to open and the plane to board. Time leaks away like water in a clogged-up sink, and we don’t board. Ten minutes before we are scheduled to fly out of Portugal to Madrid, people around me start rising, shaking their heads, and gathering their belongings. I snare a young man who tells me, “Si, our flight has been cancelled. Pilot’s strike.”
Over at nearby Gate 6, I spy a Senora in Charge. High heels. Swinging high glossy black ponytail. Coat in lime green. Like refugees fleeing bombed-out Berlin circa 1945, we hightail over to Gate 6. The woman crisply tells us, “Collect your luggage and come to the third floor.”
After an interminable wait for suitcases, we race to the third floor, only to find Porto-Bombay, sitting and standing dark-haired people and piled luggage in a long spread out queue. No sign of Lime Coat.
After an hour waiting, I wander off to find a restroom and spot the green-coated senora. I rush up to her and beg, “Will I be able to reach the United States any time today?” Again, a curt reply to bring my bags and follow her. I race off for Stan and the woman walks us over to a counter where a man in his early twenties sits at a computer.
After tapping some keys, he says that the earliest flight out to Madrid is tomorrow morning at 8:10 AM. We protest, and look suitably deranged – Stan, with his wispy white hair saluting the air and Polish face screwed up in a scowl, and me, whiny and pitiful in a salmon raincoat and with frizzing red hair – that the startled young man considers other options to get rid of us. He allows that we COULD go by train to Lisbon’s airport and might be able to fly to Madrid today.
I explain to Stan what the young man says since Stan can only pick up the sound of a speeding train two feet away. Not an option for him. He is antsy to go home to eat his next breakfast at the Outback Steak House and ride his lawn mower. And neither of us is convinced that we won’t have our flight cancelled again in the morning, so we race downstairs to catch the next metro.
We ride the metro for 40 minutes to the long distance train station. Wallpapered with damp people, Stan and I scrunch up in two adjoining train cars. We are to get off at the Campanhã station. Although I am limp as an old rag, hungry, and drowsy, I must stay alert. Someone must. The effervescent Stan nods off, his head buried in the neck of his navy jacket like a turtle, just when the train announcer, over a crackling intercom, intones our stop. At my pantomime request, three young women poke Stan and frantically motion to the door.
The train station is outside through a courtyard. Rain beats a staccato on the breezeway. I open my suitcase and drag out my new lambswool sweater from Barca D’Alva and my Walmart umbrella. Cobblestones crunch under our feet.
Stan and I board the train, bone-tired and swimmy-headed. As we steam south to Portugal’s capital in economy seats, the trains’ green shutters flap in the wind and a watery gray landscape flies by. We disembark to find hundreds of animated teenagers and an expensive looking shops surrounding us. Bewildered, we finally realize that we are not at the airport on our way to a concourse, but stranded at a far distance from where we need to be. It is a terminal condition.
I approach some young Spaniards who say we need to ride Bus 44 to get to Terminal 1. They wave us off in an easterly direction where the bus ostensibly shows up from time to time. I suggest to Stan that we hail a cab. His unshaven face reveals a miserly and wizened money-clutching soul, but he reluctantly agrees. Then he grumbles bitterly like he had been pricked by the devil’s pitchfork when the cabbie announces a whopping fare of 4 euros.
We get new boarding passes at Terminal 1. Stan is in front of me in the security line, grabs his suitcase, and sprints off to find our gate like an ancient stallion on steroids. I lift his boarding pass out of the tub on the conveyor belt and follow the signs to our gate.