Harriet Walker: 'I missed my flight. Things like this just don't happen to me'

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The Independent Online

Some people miss flights, some people don't. The people who do, generally, are the sort of people who lose their keys three times a week, forget to take their money from cash machines and turn up hours late for lunch because they got off at the wrong bus stop. They are, in short, nincompoops. They're unalloyed idiots who make you wonder whether evolution doesn't need to raise its game a bit. And last week, I joined their number.

I'll point out now that I'm usually the sort of person who makes lists and checks I have my house keys five times before I've even gone downstairs. I worry constantly and arrive early. I'm so neurotic that even my anxiety dreams are paranoid that they're doing it wrong.

Incredibly, then, it wasn't until I found myself wheezing along a conveyor belt at Stansted Airport that the prospect of missing my flight even entered my head. "Things like this just don't happen to me," I told myself, even as I watched the plane trundle away from the gate and off on my holiday. "It's simply got to come back for me." As I waited for it to swing its friendly nose around and beckon me over with a flubbery white wing, I was overcome by a strange sinking feeling that is alien to many hyper-organised people – because what they fear the most (ie the worst) never normally happens.

It's very hard, preparing yourself for the worst on every occasion but never actually experiencing it. When failure and foolishness finally strike, you don't know how to react. So this time, in my incredulity, I opted for stamping my foot, biting my lip and trying not to cry. All the while, laughing hysterically and trying to recover from my stitch. (I am also not used to running.)

A security guard escorted us the back way to a ticket desk presided over by an unhelpful bullfrog of a woman, who rolled her eyes at my every question. It was like being told off at school, except I was acutely aware of having paid for the privilege, and of the prospect of having to cough up again to go on my holiday.

So it was more like being infantilised in a dominatrix's lair – I was to blame for everything, it was my fault, what could I expect, hit me harder please. Customer service? Pah! Just another cross to bear: travel with a budget airline, get bullied by budget bullfrog.

"It's like doing work experience," murmured my friend, "except it's during our holiday." "It's like a death in the family," said another, "but as if we killed them with our own hands."

"There are only two seats on the next plane," the bullfrog burped joyfully, looking at each of the three of us in turn. "Oh, no – one seat now."

I won't relate the precise costs and variables of every other method of reaching Berlin that the three of us formulated over the next hour, but it's testament to our upbringings that we each expected some deus ex machina to come and make everything better again. As it was, I found myself bidding goodbye to the two of them as they went to get the bus back to London, and waiting to travel to Berlin alone to meet our other friend there that evening.

The 13-hour wait before the flight passed like a dream – the sort of dream where one is trapped in a sports hall and has to perform the same mind-numbing tasks again and again. There were some stag-do boys all asleep in a pile by the main doors, so I emulated them for a while, but couldn't drop off because I'd set myself up too close to the clatter of the vending machines. I walked around and around to avoid atrophy. I changed some currency. I was tempted to ask the check-in agents to weigh me and send me off on the conveyor belt, just for a laugh.

By the time I finally got to Berlin, I had been confined and bored for so long that I had gone a bit Heart of Darkness. Berlin is a city that greatly appreciates a casual attitude and lackadaisical approach to time-keeping. In other circumstances, this would set my neurotic nerves a-jangling, but in my new capacity as a tardy idiot heedless of deadlines, I had a whale of a time eating breakfast at 2pm and napping until 7pm, before getting up and starting to party all over again. As a city, Berlin spits on traditional notions of German efficiency, and its people are as far from the stereotype as it's possible to be without becoming French.

So much so that when I turned up to catch my return flight four hours early (I wasn't going to get fingers burnt again), a security official told me smilingly that I had made a mistake and should go and have a few beers for a while. But this time I was idiot-proof: I stood in line for two hours, and by God, was it worth it for the adrenaline rush of neuroticism as I touched down on home turf.