It's just after five in the morning and I'm fourth in line at the fast track security search queue at Heathrow's Terminal 5. Immediately in front of me is a young girl who is dressed as if she's about to head off to a jungle somewhere - sturdy boots, practical clothes, heavily-laden rucksack. In front of her are two large African-American women with big handbags and scarves and hats.
The security guard is a brusque, efficient, unsmiling Australian woman who has a facial expression that suggests she resents having to work at this early hour. The trays on the conveyor passing through the x-ray are backed up and nothing is moving.
The first African-American lady puts her items into one of the large grey plastic trays when a gap in the conveyor appears and wanders off through the metal detector, swiftly followed by the second woman, only the second woman is wearing what might be boots, but as they're tucked beneath her jeans, it's hard to tell. The Australian guard calls the woman back and asks her, not unpolitely but certainly firmly, if she's wearing boots. The woman grunts something that I can't make out and hands her boots to the guard and then huffs off toward the gate again.
The Australian guard could easily have let it pass, but chooses not to, and says something officious back about rules and regulations that clearly winds the woman up further. She turns back, makes a complaint about why she should even have to take her boots off anyway, just at the point where the guard is lowering the boots into one of the woman's two trays, this one holding her coat. Still complaining, the woman grabs the boots and thrusts them into her other tray, the one containing her ridiculously over-sized handbag, presumably affronted at the way the guard could have dirtied her coat by placing her boots there.
It's clear that the Australian guard is not going to take this lying down and offers a perfunctory retort, bereft of any hesitation or pause for breath.
'Madam if you object to having to take your boots off I suggest you avoid travelling in the future.' It's a perfectly barbed response, but it's evident that this response has no real purpose whatsoever; it's just designed to antagonise, and that's exactly what it does.
The woman responds with some low growl or other and the Australian looks momentarily shocked. I honestly thought she was going to get a burly security guard over and have the woman denied the opportunity to fly, but instead she just responds with a defensive 'My God, it's not even six in the morning and you want to argue,' as if there is an official start time from which one is allowed to enter into disagreements with one another. The woman waddles off through the metal detector and the young girl in front of me mutely and compliantly removes her sturdy boots and places then in a tray.
The Australian guard is evidently not finished with the African-American woman and what she does next is both passive-aggressive and final proof that she absolutely maintains the upper hand in this whole business. I watch as she calmly wanders down to the guards at the other end of the belt, whispers something out of the side of her mouth to one of them and goes back to her station. I may have imagined a small smile on her face as she did so.
Soon, I'm on the other side of the metal detector, waiting for my own tray to descend down the rollers toward me. The jungle trek girl and the two African-American are next to me, and the two women are evidently moaning about what just happened. The first woman's tray emerges from the x-ray and teeters slowly down the rollers toward where she's waiting. When the other woman's bag emerges, it pauses momentarily before being mechanically shoved over onto a separate set of rollers, meaning that the bag is now only accessible to the security guards at this end of the belt.
'Why is my bag that side?' pleads the woman.
The guard responds blankly that it needs to be opened and the contents completely emptied and checked thoroughly. He glances back at the Australian guard who is beaming innocently. It's clear that the woman poses no major terrorist threat and that they'll find nothing remotely unacceptable in her bag, but in thinking she's got the upper hand when dealing with the authorities, she's misplaced where she sits in the pecking order of things, and now she's paying the price.
I wander off to the lounge to get some breakfast, wondering if they'll cart her off to a room nearby for a more comprehensive search for no other reason than to teach her a lesson. I wonder if she'll think twice before answering back next time.