`This shotgun certificate,' said one man in a voice of doom, `has not been signed'
Saturday 02 September 1995
A young woman fielded my inquiry. Over the telephone line I could hear her turning pages, and nearly a minute passed before she said: "You should unload it first."
"A very good idea," I agreed. "What else?"
"If possible, it should be broken down."
She then confirmed that the shotgun should travel inside my suitcase, and that the cartridges should also be inside the case, but in a separate container. That was how I had things arranged as I picked up a friend and headed for Birmingham airport.
A go-slow on the M42 delayed us, and we reached the airport with little time to spare. I therefore dropped my passenger and all our luggage at the door, and asked her to check mine in while I skimmed off to the long- term car-park.
Back at the terminal, I found chaos threatening. My suitcase had been checked in - and out.
"The gun can't travel inside it," said the girl on the desk accusingly. "Anyway, the police will have to check it."
Time was now extremely short. I was ushered towards a security room at one side of the hall. I urged my companion to go through into the departure lounge. Minutes ticked away.
My mind flew to a similar scene in Warsaw, where an appalling customs official straight out of a James Bond movie had threatened to impound my rifle. Orange-haired, black-eyebrowed, and apparently in a furious rage with her subordinates, she had several times boomed "Dokumenti!" in a menacing baritone, when suddenly she seized the weapon - which was only in a canvas cover - and hurled it down the steel luggage chute.
I began rehearsing sarcastic asides about the speed with which guns were handled in Poland. At last two police officers appeared, sauntering towards me.
"Sorry!" I said cheerily. "Misunderstanding." As I unpacked the gun so that they could check its number against my certificate, I explained about my telephone conversation.
"This certificate," said one man in a voice of doom, "has not been signed."
Ye gods! The certificate was new, a replacement. This was the first time I had had to produce it. Did the copper realise that failure to sign the thing was in itself an offence? Apparently not. I signed rapidly.
"Any ammunition?" he asked.
"Yes - in this bag."
"That's got to travel separately. You'll have to pre-board it."
What the hell did that mean? No time to argue. Departure was now five minutes away. The suitcase was checked in once again, with the gun inside, but the police took the bag of cartridges away.
At the security desk I caught up with it again. More questioning. Two minutes left. One of the staff began trying to force the bag into an orange- and-black envelope, which split. Another envelope, larger. This time the bag went in, and the envelope was taped shut.
"You'll have to sign," said the man, rooting about under a counter. "Here, Fred - where's the pre-boarding book?"
Several people started hunting. A minute to go. "So do I take it with me now?" I asked.
"Oh no. We pre-board it for you."
When I inquired how I would get the package back, somebody told me to ask one of the stewards on the aircraft for it at the other end.
At last the book was found. Fred began laboriously entering my name and details. Hopping from foot to foot, I signed and shot forward to the departure gate.
The flight gave me time to regain my composure; but when, as I was leaving the plane, I asked for my package, the stewardess said I would find it in the baggage area. Sure enough, there it was sitting untended on the revolving belt.
I found it hard to see what all the fuss had been about, but I decided that on my return journey I would leave the remains of my ammunition behind.
The Scots check-in girl was good sense personified.
"Is the gun broken down?"
"That's fine, then" - and through it went.
I did not let on that my cartridge bag now contained a brace of grouse. There was no knowing what might have happened if I had declared an item which, though not explosive, was certainly putrescent, and probably in breach of at least 250 Euro-regulations.
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