Aimee handed over her passport and felt that familiar mild frisson.
She knew that there was nothing wrong with her passport,
that she hadn’t done anything wrong, that there was absolutely
no reason she might be refused entry to Corfu, but every time she
arrived anywhere she had the same vague fear that the guy in the
glass booth behind the computer would look up from his screen
and say, ‘There is a problem.’
There was always a moment when they seemed to take just that
bit longer to study her picture than everyone else’s. Did everyone
feel this way? Was it just the rawness and exhaustion caused by
travel- induced anxiety? Or was she not imagining it? Was it lowlevel
racism? Was it a general mistrust of black people? Particularly
in places like this where they had a very small black population.
Was he really even taking any longer?
There wasn’t a problem. He passed her passport back and gave
her a professional smile, was already waving the next passenger
forward as she shuffled away, stowing the passport in her bag.
She went through to the baggage reclaim area and waited for
her bag. Just a small suitcase. She’d have preferred to travel with
only hand luggage to save time and hassle, but she had no idea how
long she might be here on Corfu and what she might be required
to do, so she’d packed a few options.
She looked around at the other passengers. Holidaymakers.
Come to escape. It was funny – though not in a funny way –
most people who came here didn’t know anything about what
was actually going on locally. Didn’t want to know. They wanted
to forget everything for two weeks downing cocktails. Sun, sea,
sand, sex and squid. A holiday in the sun. How did the song
go? ‘Cheap holidays in other people’s misery . . . ’ Shit. Who was
that? Mom used to play it in the car driving her to school. To
wake her up.
Fuck, yeah – The Sex Pistols. Ha. Mom had been a bit of a
headbanger in her time.
Aimee had called her while she was waiting in departures. She’d
told Aimee that she’d been to Corfu for a holiday once when the
‘colonels’ were still in power in the early seventies. Just before she’d
joined the army.
Corfu had been cheap and easy.
‘And that’s what the men thought us girls were – cheap and
easy. Wouldn’t leave us alone. Three blonde English girls. As far
as they were concerned, we were fair game. Free lunch. I expect
it’s changed a lot since then . . . ’
A hundred thousand people lived here now. Aimee had looked
it up. About the same number as Bath, or somewhere like Flint,
Michigan. Probably grew to twice that number in the summer.
There must be a shitload of crime, a lot of drugs, a lot of misery
under the surface. And, let’s face it, that’s why she was here. To
poke a shitty stick into the rotting underbelly.
The luggage was starting to come through now and she took
off the top she’d worn on the plane and packed it into her hand
luggage. But still felt really sweaty, even though she was only
wearing a thin cotton dress. At least, so far, it wasn’t showing any pit stains.
It’d been cold when she’d left England. Grey and damp.
Corfu couldn’t be more different. A pleasant wave of heat had
hit her when she came down the stairs from the plane and she’d
stopped to put her sunglasses on. But it was stuffy and oppressive
in the baggage reclaim area. A hard light burned through a strip
of high, dusty windows, bounced off the shiny floor and hit your
tired eyes like a hammer.
Her bag appeared. One of the first on to the carousel. Luck.
She grabbed it, hoiked up the handle and started to roll it away.
She was vaguely aware of someone approaching her and the next
moment a guy in a faded red baseball cap took hold of the handle.
‘Hold up . . . My bag.’
Aimee laughed, gave him a friendly smile.
‘They all look the same, don’t they?’ she said, not letting go.
He didn’t let go either. Neither was he returning the smile. He
was an older guy, skinny and pale, wearing long, baggy shorts and
an old T-shirt – I like the Pope. The Pope smokes dope. A doctored
photo of the Pope waving a fat joint. An ex- pope. At least two
‘This is my bag,’ he said.
‘Easy mistake to make.’ Aimee was still smiling. ‘But I’m pretty
sure it’s mine.’
‘This is my bag,’ he repeated.
‘Do you wanna take a look in it?’ she said. Staying calm. Keeping
her voice uninflected. Not wanting to give him any ammunition.
‘None of your tricks.’ The guy had a tatty, blond moustache and
goatee, greying and stained with nicotine. Very yellow against his
colourless skin. ‘I know this is my bag. I know what happens in
airports. I know what your sort do.’
‘Yes. Your sort. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I mean,
darling. You just grab someone else’s gear and get out sharpish
before anyone questions you.’
‘I’ll remember that next time,’ said Aimee. ‘Save me having to
bring my own bag.’
‘Listen – you’ve made a mistake. It’d be real easy to check. Just
open it, yeah?’
‘Nah. I don’t trust you. I know you people work in gangs.’ He
was looking off to one side. Aimee checked to see what he was
looking at. A young black guy scrolling down his phone screen.
‘Oh, for fuck’s sake,’ she said and let go of the bag. ‘Just open
‘No, you fuck off,’ he said.
‘Whaat? I didn’t tell you to fuck off . . . Just open the
He glared at her. And then she got it.
‘Ah, shit,’ she said. ‘You’ve got something in your bag you don’t
want anyone to see, haven’t you?’
‘What is it? Dope? Coke? Pills? A dismembered body?
‘I said fuck off.’ He started to walk away, wheeling the bag
‘Hey!’ She went after him, touched him on the shoulder.
He whirled round, raised a finger and jabbed it in her face.
‘Listen, you black bitch . . . ’
‘Whoa! I was wondering when that was gonna come out.’
‘I’m warning you.’
Again the finger.
Aimee stepped in close, executed a perfect finger lock, then
pulled his hand down and trapped it between their bodies. Very
close now. Intimate. She could smell alcohol and cigarettes on his
breath. He’d probably got into the holiday spirit at Stansted with
the other early morning drinkers.
‘Hey,’ he said, grimacing in pain.
‘Hurts, don’t it?’ she said, in a kindly, empathetic manner, like
a mother consoling a kid with a grazed knee. And, let’s face it,
having your finger bent right back behind your hand did hurt.
Nobody else could see it, though, and she kept a broad, friendly
smile on her face, as if they were old friends.
She glanced over at the pair of armed policemen standing by
the exit. The last thing she needed now was to get into a fight in
baggage reclaim. That would not be a good start. She figured that
if her hunch was right and the guy had something illicit in his
bag, he wouldn’t want to attract any attention either. She had to
control the situation. She rotated him a little ways to make sure
his back was towards the cops. He sucked in his breath. His eyes
were showing shock and panic now.
‘It’s a good move, isn’t it?’ she said enthusiastically. All eyes and
teeth. As if she was discussing a fun dance move. The Floss. The
Futsal Shuffle . . .
‘Simple but effective,’ she went on. ‘I’m a personal trainer and I
use a lot of martial arts in my workouts. A bit of self- defence training
for women on the side, if they ask. So, let me tell you this – if
you stay still it won’t hurt too much, but, if you try to move, your
finger’s either going to be pulled clean out of its socket, or snapped.
Either way it’ll ruin your vacation. So just stay still, yeah? And
smile at me. Go on. Smile.’
The guy forced a weak smile.
‘See. It’s not so hard. A connection. An acknowledgement of
our shared humanity. Are you familiar with the TV show Game
‘What?’ Almost whispered.
‘Game of Thrones?’
He nodded. Gulped. Sweat rolling down from under his cap.
‘The big girl? Blonde goddess? Brienne of Tar?’
‘Tarth,’ said the guy. ‘Brienne of Tarth.’
‘That’s her. Well, that’s what my mom looked like in her prime.
Came from an army family. Long line of soldiers. What’s that cool
phrase she always uses? “Tough as old boots.” But she’s cool, you
know? Doesn’t throw her weight around. Doesn’t need to. One
thing she always taught me. “Aimee,” she’d say. “Always stand
up for yourself. Never let anyone bully you, talk down to you, or
belittle you in any way.” Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re
thinking that this girl, Aimee, doesn’t look like the daughter of a
blonde, British, soldier lady.’
‘Uh . . . ’ was all he could say to that.
‘Well, let me explain . . . ’
He sighed. Who could blame him? This was taking a lot longer
than she’d intended. But she’d started down this track and now
she had to finish, or she’d look foolish. She knew she was grandstanding.
Risked being seen by one of the cops, but fuck it, she was
washed out and antsy, too. Up at three to take an insanely early
Ryanair flight. Cramped seats. Crap food. One stress piled on top
of another. She was thirsty and feeling washed out – grey – just
like this bewildered jerk.
What was that quiz show her mom loved? The catchphrase?
Brits used it all the time . . .
I’ve started so I’ll finish.
And she wanted to tell this prick that she was someone. A
person with an identity. Not just some faceless member of the
‘My daddy was a boxer from Chicago,’ she said. ‘Could take a
man down in five seconds. Never lost a fight – until he took on
pancreatic cancer. He was big. Could have killed you with his fists.
Taught me how to fight. But you can’t fight cancer. And I’m still
angry about that. I carry around a certain low level of repressed,
fucking rage. An itch inside me that I just can’t scratch. So, you are
one step away from being an unidentifiable puddle on the floor.
You picked the wrong person to make angry today. The wrong
person to insult.’
‘Uh . . . ’
‘What’s your name?’
‘Well, Billy, nobody likes being insulted. But I’m gonna be generous
and give you the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it was out of
character for you. It’s been a long day, and it’s not even lunchtime.
I’m tired. You’re tired. It’s hot in here and travel always twists you
into a knot. So, I am going to take the position that you didn’t
mean to say what you just did. And that you’re gonna regret it
later – wish you’d apologised. Well, we can change all that. Just
say sorry and we’ll forget all about it. Get on with our vacations.’
Someone was calling from the carousel, ‘Dad . . . Dad . . .
Dad . . . ’
Billy swallowed. ‘I’m, yeah . . . I’m sorry . . . ’
Aimee let go, still smiling, and held out her hand.
The fucker was still reluctant to give it up.
‘Dad . . . Dad . . . Dad . . . ’
Aimee looked over to where a teenage girl in crop top and
shorts, straightened hair, long false nails, was standing, holding
‘What is it, Emmaline?’ Billy shouted. Angry at the world,
angry at Aimee. Angry at his daughter.
‘Dad. Come on. I’ve got your bag.’ Sounding pissed off, bored
and disapproving in a way that only a teenager can really pull off.
Aimee looked at the bag the girl was holding.
Fuck’s sake. It wasn’t even that similar.
Billy looked bitter. His brain whirring. Made a decision.
Walked away from Aimee. Left her bag standing there. Didn’t
Aimee waved after him, smiled at his nonplussed daughter –
Emmaline. An old seventies song came into her head. Something
her mom used to sing, ‘Emma – Emmaline . . . ’
‘Have a nice break, Billy.’
She headed for the exit. Wheeled her bag through the automatic
doors past the cops and scanned the crush of people waiting
at the barrier for friends and relatives and pick- ups.
There he was. He’d said to dress conservatively. He was so
conservative he was almost invisible. She’d looked past him twice
before realising it was him. He gave a little nod. She went over to
him and said hi. No names yet.
They talked as they walked.
‘We didn’t crash. Which is always a bonus.’
‘You look tired.’
‘Some jerk back in there accused me of trying to steal his bag.’
‘You sure that’s yours?’
She laughed. ‘Well, it would certainly be a hilarious anecdote
if it wasn’t. Instead of a tedious, dreary one.’
‘Tell you about it later. Haven’t got the strength right now.’
When they got to the car, she slid her seat back, did up her belt
and stuck her feet up on the dash.
‘So,’ she said. ‘Who am I?’