Prince among Men

00:40. Customs. Baggage Reclaim Area. London Gatwick Airport.

Prince Jr felt his bottom lip begin to tremble and he bit down hard on it, fearing to look foolish in front of the passing travelers. He was re-running the events of the last hour over and over in his head, but was coming up with the same conclusion each time: he was being massively disrespected. He crouched on the floor, out of the sightline of his boss Jamal and the others and began pecking at his snacks in a lackluster fashion, not even feeling hungry.

‘I mean, I really felt I knew these guys, you know?’

The girl in the holiday poster stared back understandingly as she danced on a white-sand beach advertising something he’d never be able to afford. But that didn’t stop a man from dreaming and dream he did each night round this same time with his humble lunch imagining what it would be like to run with her through the surf.

‘We’d worked together in close quarters for about five years,’ he continued, ‘You know a man after that long. So it hurt, I mean man, it really hurt the way they could just forget all the great shit that had gone before, just wipe it all out, and suddenly judge me only on that moment. I mean… it wasn’t my fault what happened back there on the carousel. I just lost control that’s all. It happens to everyone, right?‘

Prince Jr stared deeply into the girl’s blue pixelated eyes and felt a sudden stab of guilt. He knew it didn’t happen to everyone.

‘All I ever wanted from the job was a chance to fit in, you know? I always felt different, see? But I could never quite put my finger on why…’

Prince Jr had worked for Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise for what had seemed like all his life. It had in fact only been five years but he already felt like he was fit to retire. Searching through the valises of snobby travellers always in a rush to be somewhere important, he had come to hate them all with an equal passion, working at an airport is no fun he’d decided about six months into the gig. Of all the people he worked with it was only he who never got to go anywhere outside the airport in those golf-buggies. It felt demeaning.

If you’d asked, his work colleagues would have told you they found him to be happy go lucky, totally committed and focused on his work, but in actual fact Prince Jr was bordering on the suicidal. It was when, just now, he’d accidently shit on the Number Two Baggage Carousel that things had finally come to a head.

What had hurt the most, even more than the disapproving looks was that someone had actually appeared behind him with those special gloves they always kept for cavity searches and scooped it up, but not before the perfectly crimped turd had done a few rounds on the carousel. It had perched regally atop the black rubber slats moving round at a sedate pace on the empty loop, reappearing unscathed out of the hold every four minutes to repeat his guilt and shame as he stood there open-mouthed. That had surely torn it, he’d thought, and enough was enough: if ever a man needed an inciting incident to draw a line under it all, then this was surely it?

He felt a sense of perverse relief that it was now all going to come out, as surely as his bowel evacuation on the luggage from Cairo. No-one knew about the secret habit he’d been developing on the quiet. A little extra-curricular searching that had yielded strange addictive fruits. He’d begun with a little nibble here, a little sniff there, but his intake had seriously escalated in the last couple of months, especially now as he’d switched to working nights. He knew that the ‘coke shits’ which always came with prolonged use of the drug were in the post, but he never expected it to be delivered so unannounced and bounteously.

His boss Jamal, the heartless bastard that he was, hadn’t even let him quit for the night but had ordered him to get cleaned up and finish off the last two hours of his shift. On top of everything, Prince Jr felt like he was coming down and he knew the stockroom to be dry. He desperately hoped that if he had to stay then at least he’d make a pull soon and snaffle a little pick-me-up when no-one was looking out, perhaps from some hapless mule on the Tampa Bay flight that was coming in at half two.  He stared up at the girl in the poster for a final time, now with a longing far more than just sexual. How he wanted, no, needed to be on that beach with her. Memories of being young flooded his brain, memories that were so golden it was as if they were suspended in amber. The smells he remembered most of all, home food, soul food, nourishing every part of a man along with the endless summer and laughter. He looked down at the ancient biscuits in front of him and spat the remainder back into the bowl, feeling he was chewing the desiccated ashes of his own life. It was time to go back, and not just to work.

With the heel-dragging of a man walking to the scaffold he made his way back to Baggage Reclaim. Almost immediately his eye was drawn to a nervous, fidgety man hanging round the recently arrived Tangier flight: He was good with smells and this man smelt all wrong to him. He looked at the suitcase and felt his eyes instinctively narrowing.

‘I bet he’s carrying’, thought Prince as he prepared to make his move, but Jamal sidled up to him and beat him to the punch.

‘Hey Prince, you thinking what I’m thinking?’ Jamal didn’t wait for him to respond, ‘I bet you are. Go on then… fetch that shit.’

Prince Jr looked round to check he’d heard him correctly.

‘Fetch?’ What the fuck was he? A dog? He looked Jamal up and down as if studying a cancerous x-ray. He could actually feel that final straw filament in his brain snap and he heard the voice inside him coming from a different place, somewhere dark between his ribs.

‘You want me to fetch, huh? OK, I’ll go fucking fetch then…’

Prince launched himself at the suitcase and ripped it open. Almost immediately a large block of cannabis resin fell to the floor and its unclaimed owner began to do a hot-shoe-shuffle away from the belt. Prince made him but didn’t care, he tore at the cling film and began to chow down on the treacly black solid, it stuck to his teeth as he swallowed lump after lump with the gusto of water to a shipwrecked man. Without even needing to look round he could feel Jamal’s stench of stale sweat upon him. Not this time though, he thought. No more humiliation. Prince Jr spat out the remaining hash and made a run for the airport golf-buggy parked on the steep incline heading down to the Arrivals area. He leaped onto the driver’s side and kicked the handbrake off with his foot like he’d seen his workmates do a thousand times before. How hard could this driving business be?’, he thought, ‘point the bitch where you want to go and let gravity do the rest.’

He began to gather speed as behind him Jamal turned his interest from the hash to the dashing buggy. Prince Jr hoped his boss would be stupid enough to try and get between him and the locked glass doors that separated the baggage area from Arrivals, and sure enough as he turned the wheel, the sweaty oaf had positioned himself right in front of the doors, arms outstretched in a futile effort to stop the fast approaching vehicle.

Prince Jr felt the buggy make the satisfying contact with Jamal’s kneecaps: it was like a release of five years of pent up anger to him. At the point of impact Jamal’s face had held an expression Prince had never seen before in all the painful years they had worked together, it seemed to him a mixture of disbelief and pure fear as he went flying back through the doors, the frosted glass shattering around him in a halo of bright shards. He flew over the passenger seat and Prince Jr flipped him the bird as he passed, feeling the cannabis kicking in like a stick of dynamite. As he errupted into the Arrivals Hall the security guards that began rushing towards him took on an almost balletic grace as they cocked their assault rifles and danced towards him in a slowed motion whilst behind him the glass continued to tinkle out of its shattered frame onto Jamal who moaned like a beached whale.

The incline began to level off and the buggy slowed as it passed a Starbucks, clipping the periphery of loose seating, and catching the corner of a bench as it came to a gradual standstill. Prince knew the angry world wouldn’t be far behind him, but as he leapt from the driver’s seat he caught his reflection in the large angled wing-mirror and froze almost in mid-air.

A guttural whimper breached his throat.

‘Oh Christ no, say it ain’t so…’

The hash exploded into his brain and he found himself unable to look away from the mirror, drawn into what he was seeing. For the first time in his life he could see something reflected in these shiny surfaces his workmates always looked into. It all made sense to him with a brutal alignment of reality, and as he blinked, so the reflection blinked back and he realised with abject horror, not dissimilar to the expression on the flying Jamal, that he had to take ownership for what was staring back at him. This was his reflection. Cogito Ergo Sum with a lightning bolt of revelation he realised something final. Something he’d had a sneaking suspicion about for all these years but had chosen to ignore until confronted now with an irrefutable proof… he began to howl in despair unable to deny reality any longer… Oh God suddenly it all made sense. He was a dog.

Immediately his instinct kicked in as it always did. He knew his options were running out fast. But where to go? Prince thought of the poster. He thought of the girl pointing behind her to a glorious sight unseen. Somewhere safe and wonderful. Paradise. That’s where he’d go.  Running down the escalator he could hear them all behind him like an approaching hunt, on his scent, he too could smell them.  But these bastard hounds weren’t his brothers, he was now the fox. The escalator led straight onto the train platform and Prince lept three steps early over a wall of suitcases. detecting the stench of coconut oil from inside. To his left he watched them all come off the train: perhaps this of all trains would lead him to the promised land?

He hid, crouched in the gap between the bins and the ticket machine waiting for his chance to make a run for it unseen. The officers behind him were running him close and he couldn’t afford to wait any longer. With a quick look to left and right he leapt out from the bins and rushed the train doors, hurtling through them and rolling over onto his back as he skidded across the carpet.

Despite the stunt-dog entrance, no-one had seemed to notice and he quickly positioned himself behind a pyramid of suitcases from where he could cover himself satisfactorily on all three sides. Feeling a little safer but still horribly out of breath he looked back through the still resolutely open doors, watching the people beyond moving back and forth. As reality sunk in to his drug-expanded mind he began to feel incredibly bitter towards them all rushing about their ever-so-important business. He addressed them all for the first time as one collective species.

‘If there is a god, then of all the things you’ve done to the planet, the one he won’t forgive you for is not seeing animals as people too.’ he spat the words out like the dry biscuit, hot and brittle, no-one was listening, but he didn’t need an audience anyway.

‘Do you know why all those tribespeople look so content with their lot? It’s because they don’t have ego. They’ve got nothing but what they stand in. Not for them the problem of always drawing comparisons with unrealistic images of celebrity, perfection or what society tells you must be acquired to be seen as successful, all those lying posters I had rammed down my throat for five years. Those with nothing just be and exist in the moment. I’m even luckier than that. I’m an animal and hooked into the present by design, no past or future, connected inextricably to the universal energy that bubbles at the heart of every living thing. Go rush for your closing doors humans, they’re shutting on you forever.’

As the train pulled out after what seemed like a cold sweat eternity, Prince Jr finally allowed himself to acknowledge the appendage on his rear that had been banging for some time now with a joyous ryhthm against the leather satchel behind him. No-one suspicious had boarded his carriage, he’d lost any tails but had found his own, and was at last heading toward the promised land.

Three carriages ahead of him the driver tooted his horn and reached up to change the overhead display to its final destination as the 03:34 from Gatwick departed for Barking.

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