Look back in Bognor

My tally for items lost in the last 12 months has just reached five.

The outcomes have been varied – a mobile phone left on a bench was returned two weeks later after negotiating with an anonymous man and giving a ‘goodwill’ payment of £20. A cherished umbrella left hanging over a billboard in Oxford Street was still there when I hurried back 30 minutes later. And a wool cap and scarf set down on a settee in a grand lounge simply vanished. In each instance separation caused anxiety, even remorse and being re-united (when lucky) relief and joy. But none of these matched the turmoil that followed the loss of my backpack last week.

My wife and I arrived in good time at Gatwick Airport and wandered up to the check-in desk all smiles. A week’s walking in Scotland beckoned. We handed over two cases and then came the question, “Any hand luggage?”  “Yes we have a …” The end of the sentence never came. I suddenly realised there was no weight on my back, no straps weighing on my shoulders.  I looked at Rohan and we said as one, “The backpack is in the luggage rack on the train”. I felt very silly, she looked very annoyed.

Suddenly everything changed as the loss took over. The bag contained three critical possessions – my medicines bag, my laptop and a collection of French texts. Ironically, it was because of their importance to me that I had decided to carry them myself rather than entrust them to the baggage handlers. The enormity of what I had done and the potential implications began to displace all else in my mind. With this came feelings of being helpless and hollow. My medicines could be quickly replaced but even so, I felt vulnerable. The texts were my holiday ‘reading material’ and would be missed greatly. Loosing my laptop was the most perturbing. Without it my holiday writing, blogging, correspondence, French homework would be impossible but so too, and more daunting, would be much of my work when I returned. Without it I would be lost. But set against these more material concerns was the recognition that time spent chasing my backpack could wreck the start of our holiday.

What then should be done? We quickly decided that Rohan would go to Inverness that day come what may. I would concentrate on retrieving the backpack and would either travel up with her as planned (we still had 2 hours before departure) or join her in Scotland the next day.

By now my mind was racing. I felt I had to act fast but was not sure how. I suffered unhelpful feelings of anger and unfamiliar ones of panic mixed in.  I ran down to the station platforms but no staff could be found. Next it was up to the railway information desk.  After what felt like hours I was at the front of the queue and facing a calm and methodical clerk who took charge – what a relief!  The detective work began and she seemed to repeat the same questions over and over again. I must have lost coherence. Gradually she traced our train and, with dozens going through that station every hour, this required some knowhow. The search for the bag was going to be complicated because my train divided into two down the line. If I had been in the 5th carriage, my backpack would travel down to Bognor Regis, if in the 4th, to Portsmouth. Despite much brain racking, the carriage placement escaped me.

The clerk phoned each of the stations down the track. Nothing had been handed in. Our last hope was Bognor and the train would be arriving there in 10 minutes. Have a coffee, suggested the clerk, adding that Bognor would phone back when the train arrived. Optimism and doubt led me a merry dance. Why would anyone notice, let alone steal, a scruffy, brown, nondescript bag?  True, but does one ever hear of lost computers being returned? Anyhow, even if it were found, surely the bag would be empty?

I kept looking across at the clerk and suddenly she smiled and waved me over. My backpack was at Bognor, nothing was missing and I was “very lucky indeed”.

I quickly told Rohan the good news and as she left for Inverness. I started on a three-hour round trip to Bognor. For security reasons, they could not send it back on the next train. I collected the bag from a smiley man in the Bognor ticket office who repeated how lucky I was and how I should be more careful next time. I felt drained and inadequate and although I deserved this fatherly reprimand, I could have done without.

On the way home anxiety waned, feelings of void lifted and a sense of equanimity returned but I still found myself repeatedly checking my bags. Normally I would have read but my mind simply wanted to re-run the events of the day.

Next day I was back at the airport, still obsessively checking and still reliving the saga. But now there was time for some more abstract thoughts; possessions, loss and identity came to mind.

Looking back on my unplanned day trip to Bognor (with the ticket office man’s mild admonishment still ringing in my ears) I reflected that, thanks to somebody’s honesty and kindness, all had turned out for the best. It could easily have been otherwise.

Photo credit: Groynes at Bognor  © Copyright Mark Pepall and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence

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