I was living in Belfast, Northern Ireland on a six-month tourist visa, working under the table as a nanny. I made enough cash in hand to rent a room on a street called Ava Gardens and go out to the pubs on the weekends. It was a good time.
I loved the Irish. My accent was a conversation starter and everyone was so friendly, so hospitable. Bus drivers acted personally delighted for me to join them. When I dumped about fifty small coins into the fare box the driver laughed and said, “Ach, were ye up all night countin’ that?” If I pulled that in Philly someone would push me down the steps while the bus drove away. The last time I took the subway in New York, a stranger sat down next to me, smiled, and exposed himself. Belfast passengers lined up in a civilized manner and thanked the driver. Delightful.
My six month stay started winding down, and I was unhappy about it. I didn’t want to leave. Spring in Belfast was so beautiful. The days were long and pink light fell over the brick terraced houses in the evening. My friend Lisa and I had just chipped in to buy the entire Sex and the City box set and we were working our way through it. I’d recently joined a coed tag rugby team and not to brag, but I was a natural. I would go home to Ava Gardens, sit on the edge of the bathtub with my legs covered in dirt, and think about how satisfied I was with life at that moment.
I’d also started seeing this Irish guy, Ryan McConnell. He was a ginger from County Cavan, and his accent was particularly musical and enchanting. His stories of growing up in the countryside sounded like old documentaries watched on VHS after your teacher rolled in the audio visual cart. “We had this row of trees going all the way down the lane, and we would climb from tree to tree to tree to tree,” he told me as my pupils dilated. One night, after riding bicycles back over the bridge to my house from a pub quiz, I told Ryan McConnell about my scheme to stay in Belfast past my visa.
The thing is, Northern Ireland is technically part of the United Kingdom, even though it’s on the island of Ireland, and shares a border with the Republic. (For more information, please see Derry Girls.) This was post-peace agreement and pre-Brexit, and you could drive back and forth over the border without showing your passport or stating your business.
So if I left Belfast by plane and flew into Dublin in Ireland, I could get my passport stamped by Dublin immigration and take a bus over the border into Belfast with no immigration checks and the official record stating I was in Ireland. I could then organize another decoy flight to “return” to Belfast from Dublin after the required three months away. (Was it wrong to be pleased with a silver lining of centuries of political strife? I had done my part for the peace process; I was a Catholic with Protestant friends. I’d earned this!)
Ryan McConnell listened to my idea. He said, “Ach, Marta. Don’t fly into Dublin. There’s too much immigration security. It’ll be crawlin’ with police. I tell you what to do. You want to fly into Knock airport. Knock, in the west of Ireland, it’s a wee little airport. You’ll walk right through; they won’t even look twice at you.”
In the accent, his plan sounded flawless. I said, great idea. I’ll go to Knock.
The cheapest plane ticket for Belfast to Knock took me through East Midlands airport in England, halfway between Nottingham (Robin Hood!) and Leicester (cheese?). I booked the flight for the day before my six-month stay was up and got on the plane with my laptop bag and a book. I was impressed with myself for figuring out the plan; I’d be back at Ava Gardens in time for dinner.
The plane landed in a windy rain. I walked down the rickety steps and into Knock airport, an empty room smaller than my high school gym. There were two lines: European passports or non-European passports. No one else from my plane got into the second line. I walked forward.
The immigration officer, a beefy man with dark hair and blue eyes, did not look like someone who watched videos for advice on practicing a power pose or overcoming imposter syndrome in the workplace. He looked at my passport, then looked at me.
Our eyes met. I knew, and I knew that he knew, and I knew that he knew that I knew, that I was fucked.
“Where are you going?” he started. “Where are you coming from? What’s your business here? What do you do for a living? If you’re traveling all over Ireland, why haven’t you got a bigger bag?”
I recited my lies, but perhaps not with the confidence required. Then he asked, “How much money do you have?” It was a dirty move.
“Who are you staying with in Dublin?” he asked.
This was the first positive sign. I pulled out a piece of paper with my Dubliner friend Kelsey’s phone number and address. Now he would copy it down and wave me through, like they always did. I’d flown into Dublin many times and they never called the number. I had used Kelsey’s real information for authenticity, but I hadn’t given her a heads up about the scheme because I was so sure that they wouldn’t bother to call.
“Wait here,” the officer said. He took the piece of paper and went over to a glass booth with a telephone. “Are you expecting any visitors?” Kelsey told me later the mystery caller growled when she picked up. Caught off guard, she said “What? No...”. He hung up.
The officer came back out and looked into my eyes again. “She’s not expecting you,” he said. “That’s deception. Go stand against the wall, you’re getting back on the plane you came on.”
I tend to be a planner, so I said, “What’s going to happen when I get off that plane?”
He said, “I don’t know, they’ll probably deport you. It’s not my concern, I’m not letting you in. Go stand against the wall.”
I went and stood against the wall in a stupor. Deception. A breach of the sacred trust I’d once shared with the country I loved. Could I go back and deliver a presentation? Hold on, you don’t understand, I don’t mean any harm. You guys know me! I’m a big fan! Let me sing you all the lyrics to Whiskey in the Jar. Please!
How could they reject me? After all the positive word of mouth I’d spread about this place? I even put a donation in the hat once when someone passed it round to collect “for the Republican movement” during karaoke night.
As the reality of the situation dawned on me, I felt like kicking myself. How could I have been drawn so astray by a magical redhead? Everybody knows if you’re going to execute a scheme, you have to plan for all eventualities. Why did I expect it to be so easy? “Oh, hello boys! Just breezing through!” The officer really had me with the bag thing. How did he know that normally when I flew on airplanes, I loaded myself down with paper because I was planning to get so much done? Belated holiday cards, tax returns, Death of a Salesman. I could tell that even if he had let me through immigration, he would have gotten me somehow. I’d have gone to buy my bus ticket and said, “One way to Belfast, please,” and he would’ve popped up in the window with a green eyeshade, rubbing his hands together. “Thought you said you were going to Dublin! FOILED!”
Still standing against the wall, the beefy officer eyeing me from his station, I was getting more and more scared when a flight landed. Fifty white-haired elders shuffled by, clutching rosary beads and looking over at me with concern. I suddenly remembered. Knock was the site of a holy shrine that attracted pilgrims from around the world. It was the only reason anyone ever traveled to Knock. It was the only reason they had an airport. I stared straight ahead as the parade of believers passed by, mumbling to each other, “What’s she done?” and shaking their heads at the shame. Sin! Lies! DECEPTION!
My officer personally escorted me to my plane and to an aisle seat in the middle section. He pointed to me as he spoke with the flight attendant, and I looked away, focusing on the buttons of my red pea coat. I looked way too mousy for what was going down right now. It was embarrassing. If I had known everyone was going to be thinking I was a mysterious international criminal, I would have done something with my hair. I could have found a trench coat with a fur collar at a secondhand store. Maybe some leather gloves.
The whole way back to East Midlands, I leaned forward in my seat, a sinking feeling in my stomach, preparing myself for the jail cell. It would probably be really cold. I can’t sleep when it’s cold, and that would throw off the whole next day. I assumed I would get a sandwich. But in Ireland they put mayonnaise on all their sandwiches, and I hate mayonnaise. So I wouldn’t be able to eat the sandwich. What if they rationed toilet paper? I was sure it wouldn’t be enough.
The plane landed, and as I approached the front of the line I saw why it had been crawling so slowly. There was an officer checking everyone’s passport against a printout of my photo. No point making him work any harder. I volunteered, “It’s me,” as if claiming a raffle prize. He took me out of the line and delivered me to an interrogation room. A new officer sat on one side of the desk, and I sat down on the other side. How was I going to play this? Bless me Father for I have sinned? Or, let me walk you through my resume?
This officer was quite young and seemed to be thinking very hard about how to proceed. I know, right? I wanted to say. I don’t want to be here...you don’t want to be here… let’s just call it. He started asking questions. To be honest, he was really nice. He asked about my work, my finances, my future plans. It was basically a date.
I admitted I had been planning to return to Belfast. The gentleman officer considered everything and told me I had to leave by tomorrow. “We’ll be alerting the authorities in Belfast, and if you don’t leave within twenty-four hours, they’ll deport you,” he said, but not unkindly. Relieved, I assured him I would sort out a flight and leave tomorrow. He wrote down his name and phone number and said that I should call him once my flight information was confirmed. Maybe so they could close the case -- or was it so we could keep in touch?
I got back to Belfast, called all my friends and packed up my things. Ryan McConnell said, “Ach, Marta! I feel terrible! It’s my fault. I’m the one who told you to go to Knock, it’s my fault. Marta, I’m so sorry!” My jaw went slack and all the resentment left me. No, I said. I wasn’t worthy of the scheme. It was my time to go.
When I got back to the States, I called the gentleman officer with my flight information and left a voicemail. It’s been quite a few years. I haven’t heard back.