‘They Were Jugglers’ is from Steve Day’s short story collection. An incident at Hannover Airport raises more questions than answers.  A story for all travellers.




Short Stories/Essays



  They Were Jugglers


They were jugglers, tossing coloured balls, paper cups and oranges between the rows of seated travellers waiting at Gate 36 of Brussels Airport, Terminal A for a one hour flight to Hannover. Two of these clowns began to deliver a circus trick of stealth and strength. I sat, transfixed by the dexterity of their delivery and the fact that it came out of the blue without warning. A small guy with a black thatch of Spanish hair and a week’s stubble of a beard’s promise, climbed onto the shoulders of a taller thinner compatriot dressed in a white vest. His legs were in Levis straights spread wide for maximum weight bearing. The two men gripped hands and then in one continuous movement across their two bodies, flicked their torsos into an angular arc. Quite suddenly the little juggler was now upside down, his legs fully extended being lifted high into the air directly on the flexed arms of his buddy. They were jugglers for sure, but more pertinently, they were acrobats.


Another guy with a lighter and a cigarette was with them. He looked like a skinny dog on upright legs. The two articles in his hands had not recently met; the lighter flame and the end of the cigarette, but he was waving both around as if they had a warm relationship. Of course he had been drinking. It does not take long for mobile canned beer to influence a public place. To my well trained eye he was at least a pack-of-beer high. His face flush with the glow of a unhealthy colour we used to call puce.


I first noticed the two old Germans when the man suddenly pulled off a rather chic black beret and appeared to use it like a glove to warm his wife’s hands. Why? It wasn’t cold, Terminal A is a modern airport lounge. The temperature is digitally controlled to remain at a standard 19 degrees. I then realised from where they sat there was already a premonition of a problem. The old couple had finesse but they were also nervous; the young guy with the lighter bothered them. In appearance the Germans were frail yet retained their elegance. They were both dressed in blue. The man was in a distinguished deep blue-black suit, probably two decades moth-balled, yet stylish if you are into double breasted mohair. Fuck it, wake up. The old woman, wrapped in a blue wool coat demurely advertising the spirit of her age, was actually well passed modelling. She’s scared. It was the lighter guy.


Any attempt to light a cigarette within the terminal building is going to be an act of acute provocation. And even, jugglers becoming acrobats are well outside the norm of polite public patience when waiting to board a scheduled flight out of the Belgium capital. To this day I have no real understanding of what a requisitioned chic beret as glove was meant to achieve. I assume the old man was using it as an involuntary act of protection. Perhaps her hands were particularly special, a pianist maybe, or was it just that the old man cherished her? Old flame baby, it didn’t work. The guy with the lighter staggered before collapsing onto the two elderly German sweethearts.  It was like watching a diver tripping over his toes at his last moment on the high board above a deep blue pool.


One act of desecration, even of a secular moment can generate spectacular results. People, who have been seemingly oblivious to jugglers and acrobats, ignoring them for the sake of a quiet life, can wake up to a new situation extremely quickly. To cross even an unmarked line brings its own retribution, the world around you adapts fast. Within sixty seconds of his untimely arrival in the collective lap of the two old people, the guy with the lighter and cigarette found himself soundtracked by an emergency siren signalling public disorder. It blared out like audio bad breath. Lights began flashing over the digital display marking Gate 36. The first security guard was on the scene within two minutes buzzing his mobile with serious excitement. It took only a further eight minutes for full security enforcement to swarm the area; flies on a feast that was no longer flying anywhere. All the people on their way to Hannover should have been boarding the Boeing parked outside with chocs down on the tarmac, instead they fully, anxiously engaged with the entertainment being performed in front of them. The acrobatic jugglers, just a few minutes ago clowns in a pop-up circus, have instantly merged back into the general hubbub of audience anticipation. Where are they? I see them not.


A different kind of presence emerged to catch the interest of our eyes. There are twelve security personnel dressed as if about to walk into a war zone; guns, helmets, goggles and gloves, as well as all the additional accessories for a proper response to an airport disruption. Orders are snapped out electronically, loud so everyone can hear. The young guy is to untangle his arse from the old couple, get down on the floor and spread eagle his soul. Once completed, the German couple must pick up their travelling cases and shuffle off the scene towards the uniformed staff standing a safe distance away at the Duty Free entrance, still within eyesight of the departure Gate. At that point the whole curtain comes down on the drama. The rest of us are told to move with immediate effect for embarkation: “Please proceed through Gate 36; have your boarding passes ready for checking.”


Just when a trip to Hannover was beginning to take on an interesting dimension, our ShowTime drew to a close. Not quite, not exactly, not if you keep your eyes wide open.


From the aisle seat, row 17, I could see the length of the plane. On this type of city hopper aircraft people only enter from the front. All the passengers were on board; hand luggage stored, everyone sat in their correct place, seat belts fastened, but the plane was stationary. We waited, ten mischievous minutes shifting around in our allotted seats listening to the whining and groaning of the plane’s engines on standby. I looked around carefully; there was the familiar sight of adults playing with their toys. Mobiles and what are now quaintly called ‘digital devices’. At this stage, prior to take-off such things have to be switched off or placed in flight mode, but, no one was feeling ready to do so until the last possible moment.


Then they appeared. Like the next episode of a serial. The old German couple; he with his rakish beret back in place upon his head, she still looking nervous and whispering apologies to everyone within hearing distance and graciously in return receiving the concern and sympathy of her audience. Get the old bird in the air. I mean, I simply wanted the crew to do their job, fly their tin-pot plane. The party was over.


The take off was not as clean as I would have liked but once up above Belgium the clouds looked well manicured; the sky spread blue like a chiffon sea. From my aisle position at the end of the aircraft I watched the back of their heads. Some people…. Damit, some people, there are always some people who feel the need to piss in a plane even when it’s only going to be in the sky an hour. In doing so they piss off other people too. Asking them to move: “Sorry, I’m going to have to ask you to unbuckle your belt.” “Would you mind if I interrupt your reading of that airport crime novel for just a moment? Oh, it’s that one, it wasn’t him, his sister was the troll and finally the defrocked priest is revealed as the serial killer.” I distinctly remember closing my eyes for a short while. I never sleep on a plane.


I had been rubbing my forehead, trying to stay awake. I could see him. The small Spanish guy with the mop of black hair, remember him? The one who was upside down in the air at Gate 36, I spotted him half way down the aisle, getting something out of the overhead locker.


It wasn’t anything. I mean, well it was something of course it was, I think it was sweets. I don’t really know, perhaps something to eat. What I mean is that it wasn’t anything to worry about. The guy was just fiddling about with his travelling bag. That’s all. They were jugglers not bombers. I just remember seeing him and noting the fact that he was on the plane and, yes, so were his compatriots. Not the one with the lighter for sure; we’d left him lying spread out on the floor at Brussels Airport with a dozen security guys ready to give him a hard time. But, the jugglers, yes, they came with us to Hannover. We were, for one hour, all together.


When you leave a plane the contents, the actual people, disperse in every direction. The airport is not the destination, it is only a dropping off place, there are still more journeys to be undertaken. For a minute I watched the old German couple. Their matching blue elegance restored, they were moving off in the direction of the taxi pick-up point still holding hands. She’s wearing rings. At that point I noticed, I remember now taking in the fact that the woman’s hands, both hands, were full of sparklers, diamonds, sapphires, I don’t know, I couldn’t tell at that distance. Is that why her husband had taken off his beret at Brussels Gate 36, covering up her hands with the hat? I finally lost sight of them passing through the revolving door out into the Heimet of Germany. They looked like fine people. It was October, late afternoon, still warm enough not to need a blue coat unless you particularly wanted to wear one.


The train station at Hannover Airport is below ground. The platform is permanently nocturnal. You reach the platform either by stairs or the lift. As the automatic doors opened I could see the waiting ensemble. They were trying to buy their tickets from the machine. At Hannover Airport you cannot purchase your rail tickets from people, no, you have to get them from this machine right there on the platform. A fixed metal box, a robotic box with a screen, a keypad and instructions and options and further instructions; that is it. And you have to patiently stand in the ever present underground queue as each set of new purchasers try their best to figure out how to gain access to a ‘ticket to ride’. But she didn’t care, not one iota. A woman directly ahead of the jugglers, was bashing the side of the machine, speaking fast in French, cursing the metal box. She had a train to catch. And the jugglers too were getting excited, they too needed to be on their way.


There was a funny little guy in front of me. He looked like Father Christmas except he was not dressed for the part but hey, give the guy a red cloak and hat to match and he would have fitted the role with a genuine “Ho, ho, ho.” So, to the rescue came Santa Claus.


He was talking in French to the woman. Where does madam want to go? A single or return, and yes, ah, the payment method? He delivers the ticket from the machine like a professional mid-wife producing someone else’s baby. Now then. He began addressing the jugglers in German and then switched to Polish. The guy who I had thought of as Spanish was in fact closer to these borders. Each of the clowns handed over their money, Santa produced their tickets, they applauded the trick and simply got on the train. It was the last I saw of them, they left my life forever.


The Father Christmas face turned to me, his twinkling eyes wrinkled like the skin in which they sat, glued into place by pus and mucus. I heard him ask if he could be of any service to me too. First in Polish and then in English, but I suppose I made no reply because he then asked me a third time, again in English using such a precise diction it passed through my mind that he had been taught in some ridiculous private school in England. He was staring up at me. As I have already said, he was short. At the time it felt as if I was towering over him. I had no choice other than to be frank with him.


“Eh, no. No, thanks. I’m merely an observer.”