Thomas Bunstead works as a video editor, subtitler and Spanish-to-English translator. After attending the British Centre for Literary Translation’s Summer School in July, where he worked with author Eduardo Halfon and translator Anne McClean, he was picked to do a mentorship under Margaret Jull Costa, which is currently underway. He has translations of essay-stories by Enrique Vila-Matas forthcoming on the Words Without Borders website and in the introduction to documentA‘s collection of letters between Thomas Mann and Theodor Adorno, and of a play by Puerto Rican playwright Luis Rafael Sánchez on the Out of the Wings website.
He has had short stories published at >kill author, Text’s Bones and The Lick and has recently completed his first novel, a work of historical fiction. He also contributes reviews and interviews to The Independent, the TLS, 3ammagazine.com and the Paris Review.
The Things People Weren’t Allowed to Take on Aeroplanes
Jonny got a job. Good thing, since he’d lost the last one when his mate’s roofing business had gone bust just a month before the baby was due. The baby was three weeks old when Jonny came back from the jobcentre with the news: Airport Security at Gatwick. That made it two months all told he’d been out of work, because the baby had arrived a week later than the due-date, having to be induced – ‘swept’ they called it. You don’t want to know, Katy had said; Don’t tell me, he’d agreed. She said to herself that this was him being protective, this distance was his way of showing her how he really felt. He didn’t care – four weeks of training, funny hours – but then straight to it. Nothing to it. After six months, a pay review. Jonny had worked enough jobcentre-provided jobs that he knew not to get too excited. Katy didn’t know if she should be pleased he wasn’t getting too excited.
After his second day on the job, he came back with a six-set of fig-flavoured yoghurts and a pot of expensive moisturiser. Be good for, you know, down there, won’t it? he said. The yoghurt or the Clarins? Katy joked.
The next couple of weeks he came back with Marks & Spencer’s orange juice, plus other drinks, many of them unopened, a boules set (‘Potential weapons’), some marvellously sharp barber’s scissors, a hash-encrusted peace pipe (‘Seriously, that’s what the guy called it’) with faux Native American or maybe Polynesian designs along the sides, and various moisturisers and sun creams (‘Anything over 250ml. and we just can’t let it slide’). Be good for the baby, his cracked feet, maybe? I s’pose, said Katy, not totally convinced.
Do the people you work with take stuff? she asked, when he came back the next week with a spiky rolling pin-like implement: a foot massager, according to the passenger, potentially something to bludgeon people with according to the regs. Some of them, most don’t bother, he said. Seems like something to kind of welcome new staff, ease them into it – you go ahead, we helped ourselves when we started. And things only get chucked otherwise. Anyway, really nice stuff, things the passengers genuinely want to keep, if they’ve got time to queue all over again, they’ll go back and check them into the hold. This one kid had like a quarter-length samurai sword the other day, you wouldn’t believe. He was going nuts, his dad who looked like a Prime Minister or something, dripping in it they all were, he wasn’t exactly over the moon about the whole thing. Our line manager seemed like he might let it slide, but then the second the dad started giving it the whole ‘Do you know who I am?’ then there was no way they were taking that mini-katana on! I think the kid and his mum did go and check it in – just booked a later flight. Dripping in it. Katy nodded, picking the baby Geoff up out of the cot. He had started chewing his fist, which meant he was hungry.
One day, though, when Jonny came home he was really upset. He looked more than just tired, and not shrunken, not diminished the way people can do after a shock, but actually up-set – his shoulders were up, his eyebrows slightly, just-perceptibly up, like one of those celebrities from Katy’s magazines after not entirely successful Botox, lifted, alarmed, like an arch-backed cat and the wind had changed but, with it, terribly tired as well. Katy could have been imagining it but when he walked in the door, it looked almost as though his hairline had receded that one day.
It was horrible, he said. A Muslim woman, they had to arrest her in the end. She had all the robes on, the hijab is it, the burqa? I mean, it isn’t such a problem their faces being covered, but if you’ve got fifty layers it’s difficult for the guys with the hand-held metal detectors, and the people frisking you, right? You’ve got to let them do their job, right? We’ve even got a guy called Riad and this girl, Jamila, and they deal with Asians. Anyway, didn’t stop her from losing it. Ended up scratching this guy – Carlos, the seagull guy, you know? – right down the side of his face. It wasn’t even as if she didn’t have a command of English, she had some choice words for us, I can tell you! Right from the off you could tell she was ready for a ruck, even not being able to see her face you could tell she was uppity. I s’pose in a way at least it was only her; when the police came and took her off to one of the booths, at least there wasn’t some whole jihad of them, you know? The weird thing I found was, though, not long after, the passengers who were in the Customs Hall when it all happened, it wasn’t long before they’d all gone through; you know there’s probably like a hundred and fifty capacity in there, well, just like that, it felt like, they’d all gone. Then all the people coming in had no knowledge of what happened. Except us. The majority of the people who had witnessed it weren’t there any more, but the incident still was, in the air. There wasn’t a shift change for like another three hours, so all the staff carried on feeling the after effects – I mean, we’ve got an ex-sergeant major on our rotation, and you could tell even he was feeling it. We all got uppity! There were a couple of arguments, nothing too big, but everyone was just so on edge the whole time. Long bloody three hours.
Katy said soothing things. She knew it wasn’t the right time to agree that he looked bad, to make a joke of it. She gave him baby Geoff to hold. Then, a lightbulb lit up – he didn’t have to go in the next day, did he? He’d been there almost four months, not taken any time, never even been late. Prawn curry, she said, rubbing his arm, I can ring if you want. He had a bath, using the soothing eucalyptus bubbles he’d bought Katy when she was pregnant, and then seeing a break in the wet and windy autumn weather allowed himself a beer and a cigarette on the front step, and just rested in the fact he wouldn’t be going to work tomorrow, a whole wide day. God. He slept deeply, before waking at his now customary 5:45 am. Having slept so well, though, he decided he would go in, he felt more than up to it. He thought, other people might have had the same idea, of taking a day, and him going in would look good as he approached that pay review. He left a note and went and got in the car with his Thermos.
Driving to work the sky was full of dark clouds, so that the blue-white of the dawn only showed here and there. It was still stormy, and around Haywards Heath the Toyota was lashed for a full five minutes by a downpour. The unreality of the final stretch of the journey clinched it for him – the always-alight undulations of the M23 and those final few junctions on the M25, with the dawn over south-east England, the forests and the towns, now threatening more fully to break apart the storm – he couldn’t say what it was exactly, but Jonny felt changed, unmistakeably.
Soon, Jonny stopped bringing home the things people weren’t allowed to take on aeroplanes.