It's 7am at a London airport security desk. I'm peering at a bomb scanner monitor that shows a remarkably accurate X-ray of my bag. On the screen are two large, red circles. In each circle is a cylindrical object, around an inch long. The objects are identical and they look... dangerous.
"Any idea what these are, sir?" says the jovial woman who has been searching my bag. "We've been looking for a while and we have literally no idea!" She laughs. I do not laugh. Because neither do I.
"Hmmm. Yes. Yes. It does seem a bit odd," I squeak, like a teenage boy who has just slammed down his laptop after his mother enters the bedroom without knocking, while the muffled sounds of ethically dubious pornography ring out into the room.
She gives me a sideways glance and stops laughing.
"I'm just going to call one of my colleagues over, OK? Don't go anywhere."
"It's an airport and I'm past security. Where, precisely, can I go? On the lam to Wetherspoons?"... I think to myself. Quietly.
Presently the woman comes back with an older man whose bloodshot eyes, uneven stubble and angry demanour scream "cavity search". I flash him what I imagine to be a winning smile. If he could spit on the floor, he would. Instead he looks down at the open bag and gestures roughly toward the waterproof jacket lying inside.
"You looked in those pockets?" he says, peering down at his subordinate.
"Oh good idea!" she says.
"Yes, good idea!" I echo like a member of the Famous Five.
He takes the jacket, undoes the pocket zip and rummages inside. Moments later his hand emerges.
Everyone knows the feeling, we've all had it at one time or another. It's the chill that creeps up your spine as you realise that you have really, deeply and truly screwed up this time. It's exactly the feeling I have as I stare in horror across the desk, as the security guard extracts two high calibre rifle casings from my jacket pocket.
My face is doing a pretty accurate impression of Michael Gove in a wind tunnel. I stammer an apology.
"Good lord, I... I... I'm terribly sorry. I went deer stalking, you see -"
As soon as the words "deer stalking" come out of my mouth, I know it's going to be the cavity search. I close my eyes and let out a small whimper. But the security guard has already walked off, ignoring my babbling, to telephone someone in authority.
"Did you get one, then?"
Dazed, I turn to the woman who had first searched my bag.
"A deer! Did you get one?"
She is wide-eyed and curious. I confess that I did not, and that deer stalking isn't something I'd done before, or will likely ever do again. She smiles sympathetically. I explain that an old friend in the army, who likes that sort of thing, had invited me along and I'd given it a go. Before long I'm giving her a blow-by-blow account of the stalk as if, contrary to my earlier confession, I am in fact Ernest Hemingway.
There is nothing like a man coming toward you wearing rubber gloves to convince you that you are not, in fact, Ernest Hemingway.
"Remind me why you had these, sir?" he says, removing the casings from the jacket pocket again.
"Deer stalking," I stammer. "I'm so terribly sorry, really I am, dreadful business. I'd never even done it before. I just popped the spent casings in my pocket and completely forgot about them. Should have disposed of them myself. Do you know, that jacket has been to Berlin, Poland and Paris and you're the first security desk to -"
After a while I realise that I'm still speaking but have absolutely no idea what I'm going on about. I stop and wait for the full might and brutality of the state to come crashing down upon me.
"OK sir, not to worry. Apologies, but we'll have to take these off you. Have a pleasant flight."
And that's it. I'm free to go. I've just turned up at a major international airport with two rifle casings covered in gunpowder, been waved through with an apology and wished a pleasant flight. With curt nod to white privilege, I hurry off to departures.
As I look for my gate, though, I'm reminded of the day of the deer stalk, and am overwhelmed by a terrible sadness. It had not ended well, and I lost more than a couple of rifle casings in the process.
I had know the host since we were boys, been at his wedding, sent him letters, parcels of coffee and magazines on his tours of Afghanistan. Our relationship had been forged at school, both of us to a degree outsiders trying to fit in. Both playing roles to win acceptance into a group to which we didn't quite belong. Both, later, playing at being men - as all men do. Conducting those ancient masculine rituals -- grandstanding, posing, exchanging humorous insults rather than thoughts, and never, god forbid, discussing feelings.
As a soldier, a tough guy, it was always easier for him. By 30, I had long since stopped pretending, and our rare reunions were always tinged with awkwardness that nonetheless ended well enough, usually smoothed by alcohol.
But that night, when I refused to back down and laugh off an insult, to "sit down and shut up," to pretend that feelings don't exist, I looked across the table and saw little more than a bully and a stranger, living in a past that never really existed, speaking in a fake accent, desperately conjuring up a fantasy life in an imagined social class to which he could never belong. And I told him so.
As you can imagine, he took this well.
The next morning, nursing a bruised shoulder and the welcome realisation that we would never speak again, I set off for home.
Two weeks later, here I stood in the cold, sterile airport, shedding a tear for what was. It happens to us all, eventually. People we thought we knew turn out to be strangers, and ancient friendships fall away as if built on sand.
And so, two bullets and a friendship down, I set off in search of my flight.Suggest a correction