Lounging Around

In a Heathrow hotel conference room the tables were scattered with a host of battery operated furry creatures; this apparently was to ‘break the ice’. British Airways was paying for our catering company to attend a course of several events on passenger service, quite amusing as British Airways needed to learn about passenger service, not us – in my opinion. It was we who had to soothe the troubled brows of passengers by the time they had made it to the business class or first class lounges.

We didn’t need the ice broken as we were already relaxed and chatting to friends and fellow staff we hadn’t met before; a good chance for a natter without being interrupted by passengers. Being paid to have a day off with coffee and lunch instead of being at work, what was there not to like?

My first job as a lounge hostess had ended when the Qantas Lounge ceased to exist and Qantas moved over to Terminal Four. The lounge was now British Airways, used for flights to the USA and unless you noticed the kangaroos on the glass screens you would never know. The first class lounge became the quiet area and first class passengers had their own little lounge downstairs – at least they didn’t have to cope with the awful lift. We now worked for a much larger catering company who were subcontracted to work for a variety of airlines. Our new uniform consisted of a comfortable blouse and elasticated skirt which adapted itself to any figure, the fabric design was a multi coloured jigsaw pattern which also hid a multitude of sins. The navy jacket made it look quite smart, but my younger son was horrified and said ‘You’re not going wear that on the bus are you!’ On the bus and anywhere on the airport, we could easily spot who else worked for the same company, though the chaps wore white shirt and grey trousers with just a tie in the zingy pattern.

A cleaning company was also contracted to work alongside us, ‘Airspeed,’ a contradiction in terms for some of their staff, such as the lugubrious Raymond who became a permanent fixture. On the front desk a variety of British Airways staff rotated, some very efficient and passenger orientated, others not quite so; they provided us with great amusement, but probably not the passengers. One was an alcoholic who had easy access to the two bars and liked ‘orange juice’. His announcements when he called the flight were most entertaining; his exhortations not to leave anything behind and have passport and ticket ready came with colourful warnings of what might happen if you did not. Another staff member was always on the phone and her easily heard telephone conversations were interesting, with the added frisson of worrying if the passengers were listening. One morning I heard her say within easy earshot of passengers ‘We’ve got a right load of trailer trash in here today.’

The passengers were lovely friendly, polite Americans who said ‘Thankyou Maam’ plus an assortment of Brits and others.

The first manager we met said he was ‘running eighty per cent Pilipino’ and without the hardworking Pilipinos I imagine the lounges wouldn’t have run at all. We didn’t see this manager often and he hardly spoke to me until he discovered it was my husband who was the licensing officer for Heathrow and he needed to be interviewed by him to get the licence for the lounge to serve alcohol.

Our immediate manager was an Indian bundle of energy who had his own unorthodox way of running things, which worked with our wonderfully mixed staff. He was never without his large diary and mobile phone; if anyone was off sick, or needed to change shifts he was on the phone and in seconds had a replacement. There were always people happy to do overtime or do him a favour because he would help them out in turn. Some of the Philipinos worked every day without a break and saved all their holidays and days off to go ‘back home’ for three months each year, often investing their savings in property in the Philippines. Some staff were supporting all sorts of family members and needed the extra money, while others obviously preferred being at work to being at home. Heathrow airside and no doubt any big airport, is a world of its own, cut off from the rest of the world.

I started off with no intention of doing overtime or being whisked off to other lounges and terminals, but gradually I found myself doing just that and discovering that each lounge and airline could be very different… but that’s for another blog.

And what of our passenger service course? We also enjoyed a dinner out at another hotel where we had to rate the service and one to one coffee, cake and chats. They were asking us for our opinions, taking down all our suggestions for improving life for us and the passengers. None of our suggestions were ever acted on , but at least we had had fun.

Airside

The first aim of passengers arriving at an airport, especially a huge one, is to get themselves and their luggage checked in; a weight off their minds and shoulders. Next is to go through the portal between normal life and the rest of the world. It’s years since I have flown and I am sure the presenting of passports, getting X-Rayed, confiscating of water bottles etc has been quadrupled in stress with the pandemic, though hopefully far fewer people are flying.

Covid has taken away that other entertainment or ordeal; ‘seeing people off’. In normal times getting to the airport early was quite likely, having left home very early ‘just in case’ and because passengers were told to be at the airport two hours before their flight. This left limbo time to have coffee with friends or family, sad or happy depending on who was going where and for how long, perhaps for ever. One of my Asian colleagues at Heathrow did a wonderful impression of the difference between an English farewell and his relatives and fellow countrymen; he said he preferred the English style… English small group no more than five… ‘right then, goodbye, have a good trip.’ Relative walks towards the portal, turn of head and slight nod, relatives give small wave and he strides forward, never looking back as he is swallowed up into the portal. My friend’s family; at least twenty, plus young children clinging shyly or sliding across the floor and running around; there is wailing and gnashing of teeth as the departing ones walk reluctantly to the portal, stopping and turning twenty times and walking backwards through the barriers.

What happens on the other side? Unless you are a seasoned traveller you will feel lost among swathes of people nervously looking at the departures board every two seconds, then seeing their flight is delayed by two hours; they could have spent more time landside with the relatives. Others surge forward to pass under the sign saying Gates 65 to 97, blissfully unaware that Gate 97 is miles further on. I once saw a poor lady buttonhole a young man in a uniform that had nothing to do with airlines or customer care; she was saying  ‘I just can’t take any more’ while he was looking round for means of escape.

But if you are travelling business or first class you can escape this hell hole by going to your airline’s Club Lounge. They vary, some are an oasis of calm, others very different. I ended up as a lounge assistant after Cyberspouse’s attempts, while patrolling Heathrow, to find me a job that earned more than working in the local playgroup and didn’t involve computers. He came home and announced he had found a job where all I had to do was make coffee.

My interview, if you could call it that, was with a very nice manager and with hours 11am to 2.30pm in the Qantas Lounge catering for one morning flight, it sounded a dream; what I didn’t know was that the woman I had to work with was a right… and a real…

Qantas Lounge Terminal Three at that time (end of the twentieth century ) was down a quiet corridor, up some stairs, down an even quieter corridor. The Qantas staff on the desk were very pleasant and our job easy. Making coffee was simple, filter coffee dripping into a jug. We put out biscuits and served up ready made sandwiches at eleven o’clock. The passengers were friendly and of course spoke the same language. It was a homely place to be, a medium size business lounge with a quiet first class round the corner; lots of passengers bumped into friends.

Passenger/customer service is easy, all you have to do is treat them how you would like to be treated. The pettiness of my ‘colleague/boss’ was soon brought home when I made a tray of tea; teapot, milk jug, sugar. I added a pot of hot water so they could adjust the strength or top the pot up, which irked her greatly. Why? Passengers had paid plenty for their fare and a drop of hot water was no trouble for anyone. Fortunately she spent most of her time draped over the front desk chatting to the ‘the girls’ or on the phone in the kitchen chatting inanely to one or other of her twin daughters. I was happy to get on with all the table clearing etc. by myself.

There was one task I found myself doing which was certainly outside my comfort zone. One of the Qantas staff asked if I would mind ‘popping down to fetch the papers’; I innocently agreed. The incoming morning flight brought ‘The Australian’ newspaper, but to collect it involved going down in the pair of old lifts that I always avoided. Not only do I hate lifts, but I had seen them being mended enough times to not trust them. Even worse, like something out of Doctor Who, I was given the secret key that allowed the lift to go to depths passengers must not go. When the doors opened there was the bundle of newspapers waiting, but this was not the basement. There was a strong smell of kerosene; this was the outside, the real outside airside where planes park. I was terrified of being stranded down here, trying to reach the bundle of papers while keeping one foot in the lift doors so they wouldn’t close. When I finally made it back to the sanctuary of the lounge my colleague was ready with acid remarks that I was not supposed to have gone as it was not one of our jobs.

As usual at Heathrow things were changing and after a couple of years Qantas was moved over to Terminal 4, their passengers to share the British Airway Lounge. I didn’t lose my job, we were about to be absorbed into a different company and I was about to work longer hours and meet a lot more people.

A footnote. Qantas now has a new dedicated lounge in Terminal Three and from the pictures it looks a lot different from the old one.

What are you departure experiences at airports?

Demolition and Development

In 1955 Queen Elizabeth officially opened new buildings in the centre of what was then London Airport; the Europa Terminal ( which later became Terminal 2 ) and The Queen’s Building with its offices and roof gardens. In 2009 they were demolished to make way for a new Terminal 2. The Queen has outlived her own historic buildings. In the meantime, in the nearby historic Harmondsworth Village mentioned in the Doomsday Book, The Great Barn built in 1426 still stands.

The Queen opens London Airport terminal, 1955 – BBC Archivehttps://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/queen-opens-london-airport-terminal/zdvd92p

‘Built by Winchester College as part of its manor farm at Harmondsworth, the oak-framed barn is an outstanding example of medieval carpentry and contains one of the most intact interiors of its era. At nearly 60 metres long, 12 metres wide and 11 metres tall, with 13 massive oak trusses holding up the roof, both its size and aisles evoke the space and shape of a cathedral.‘ It is now under the care of English Heritage; when we lived nearby it was on private land and only open to the public occasionally, but one visit was enough to stand inside and be awestruck. It was heart breaking to hear that Harmondsworth Village could be demolished to make way for a third runway. There was ridiculous talk of moving the barn and in 2015 our future Prime Minister famously said, as MP for the Uxbridge constituency near the airport, that he would “lie down with you in front of those bulldozers and stop the building, stop the construction of that third runway”.

Harmondsworth Barn | English Heritage (english-heritage.org.uk)https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/harmondsworth-barn/

The barn is still there and there is no third runway yet, but Heathrow Village must be the most changed and continually changing patch of grade A agricultural land in Britain; perhaps not in the whole world, Dubai and China might compete for that honour. There will still be people who remember a few tents being put up by the Bath Road in the 1940s; many years ago an old lady told me they looked across the road from their house and thought those few tents would not make much difference to them…

When our family emigrated to Australia in 1964 we left on a chartered migrant flight from London Airport on a Saturday afternoon. We walked across the tarmac to the steps of the plane and waved to our relatives standing on a balcony; just as well we could wave as we had arrived late at the airport ( that’s another story ) and had no time to chat to them. So there was no time for pictures, or perhaps Dad had no camera till he bought one in duty free during the trip.

Pictures from my father’s album.

In the late 70s, early 80s you could still go up on the Queen’s Building roof gardens; there was a playground for the children and it was a playground for plane enthusiasts who sat with their sandwiches and radios listening in to the control tower and incoming aircraft. But Heathrow has always been a continual building site, constantly adding bits on or demolishing. I occasionally worked in the old Terminal 2 and as you went through and down into the staff airside area, the ceilings seemed to get lower and lower, a security chap told me they felt like pit ponies… so perhaps this building was ready for demolition.

While I was working at Terminal Three it was being modernised, yet again. In Singapore business lounge our passengers went out on the last flight of the night and when we locked up and walked through the main departure lounge it was totally deserted, very different from what the passengers experienced. As we went out through the staff exit the builders would be coming in, nearly decapitating us as they wielded planks and all sorts of equipment.

One day going into work I got off the bus as usual, down to the subway and moving walkways, up into Terminal 3 Arrivals, turned left to step on to the up escalator that was there the day before and nearly fell over, it had disappeared. Another night our late flight was delayed and I was the only one heading for a particular staff exit… but when I got there it wasn’t there, it wasn’t just closed, there was no sign that it had ever been there in the first place. A story idea for sure, I was suddenly trapped in the no man’s land of Airside, would I ever see my home again? Luckily I saw a security bloke and said ‘I know you won’t believe this, but I can’t seem to find the staff exit.’ Luckily I wasn’t going mad, he directed me to the new exit.

One of my colleagues told me that he had a job in the ‘Irish Pub’ in the departures lounge. He went on holiday back to the Philippines for three months, returned, put on his uniform for work, went in and couldn’t find ‘the pub’ – restaurants and bars had five year leases and were always disappearing to be replaced by something completely different.

We moved away in 2004 and only a few years later we went to meet someone at Heathrow and parked in the Terminal 3 multi-storey car park. I had this feeling I could not get my bearings. Absolutely nothing looked how I remembered. It turned out the original car park had been demolished and a new one built further back, creating a pleasant plaza effect. If you ever want to know how to find your way round Heathrow, don’t ask me!

Have you had a Heathrow experience, good or bad?

My short story ‘Fog’ in my Dark and Milk collection was inspired by the third runway controversy and a few thoughts on what might have been…

My novel Quarter Acre Block is inspired by our family’s experience of being Ten Pound Pommies.

Au Revoir or Adieu?

Whether you jet set on business or love going on cruises, you can’t have failed to notice there are more hazards to travel lately. Your cruise ship may weigh anchor and keep all the passengers hostage – in quarantine because of Coronavirus, which we now have to call Covid19, though that doesn’t slip as easily off the tongue. If you’re lucky you may get to have your own videoblog as self appointed spokesman to your national television channel and the folk back home. If you’re unlucky you will have a cabin without a balcony, a government that will not evacuate you and test positive for the virus.

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Is flying any better? You may not be allowed on the plane if you have a temperature, you may not be allowed off the plane until you can be hermetically sealed and sent off to a quarantine centre; though that could be the start of a pleasant fortnight’s holiday if a nice hotel has been commandeered. World wide plague is not the only hazard for fliers. Storms hurling themselves across the Atlantic to Europe have caused mass cancellation of flights, but that is better than the Ryanair passengers on a flight from Prague, that in hindsight should have been cancelled. Thrice, pilots attempted to land at Bournemouth Airport as passengers screamed and hyperventilated. They abandoned the attempt and with petrol running low were diverted to Brussels from whence they returned to Prague…

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Although I hardly ever go anywhere outside this kingdom I can give advice on ocean liners and airliners. Cyberson 2, builder and pyrotechnics expert, has often worked at Southampton, sending up fireworks to farewell passengers on their trip of a lifetime, or often their twentieth or perhaps their last… The first time he worked there, one of the regular workers on the docks described the arrival of an ocean liner ‘The first thing that happens, they bring all the bodies off.’ Whether this is due to the age of the passengers, the vast amount of food provided or terminal boredom, I cannot say, but it sounds like a good way to go. Perhaps if you pay extra you can have a burial at sea. My longest voyage was on ‘The Pride of Bilbao’ from Portsmouth to Bilbao and back again on an off season excursion, where the only hazard was the live entertainment.

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Storm Dennis was not the only problem at Heathrow Airport on Sunday as ‘technical issues’ created chaos. Whiteboards, marker pens and extra staff were drafted in to ensure chaos continued. When I worked at Heathrow I won’t pretend I was not occasionally envious of passengers jetting off somewhere exotic, but mostly I was glad I could go home and would always advise DON’T even THINK of flying at Easter or Christmas. One Christmas Eve, working in Singapore Lounge, the evening flight was delayed, putting Christmas on hold in Singapore and Australia for those who celebrated it. I cringed as a young colleague said in a loud voice in front of the passengers ‘That’s ALL I need.’ We would be late finishing, but she only had to get home to Osterley Park and none of us were going to miss Christmas.

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Singapore Airlines treated their customers with oriental respect and had letters printed out and delivered to them explaining delays. When we worked in British Airways lounges catering staff were left to soothe disgruntled passengers. The huge lounge in Terminal 1 catered for the many short haul flights, very different from the serene atmosphere of quieter business lounges. There was an endless  surge of passengers, the buffet bars constantly replenished, platters of sandwiches devoured instantly. I only worked there a couple of times, but one weekend a story came from our colleagues. There was a strike on; passengers kept coming in, but none went out. Then the British Airways staff abandoned the desk leaving the catering staff to deal with the ever increasing braying mob; in the end they called the police.

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What were your worst travel experiences? You can tell us about your good journeys, but that might not be so amusing…

Landing Airside

When our family took off for Australia from London Airport ( soon to be called Heathrow ) in 1964 I never imagined I would be returning nine years later, let alone that I would spend years living very near the airport and end up working there.
With perhaps the exception of China, Heathrow must be one of the most continually changing spots of land in the world.

London got its new airport in 1946. The site included the Vicar of Harmondsworth’s back garden, bought for £15,000 by Richard Fairey in 1930 as a site for testing his planes.
The village of Heath Row was bulldozed in 1944, plans were steamrollered through by the plane-mad air minister Harold Balfour. He persuaded Churchill’s War Cabinet in the 1940s that an RAF base was needed on Hounslow Heath, when actually he wanted to push through plans for a post-war civilian airport. An old lady told me years ago that when they saw a few tents going up near their home on the Bath Road they did not think it would make much difference to their lives.

https://www.independent.co.uk/travel/the-history-of-heathrow-2228431.html

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In 1964 we walked across the tarmac to the steps and turned to wave to our relatives standing out on a balcony. In the seventies and early eighties you could still stroll on the roof gardens of the Queens building, children could play and plane spotters listened in to their radios.
In one of my many incarnations I was a lounge hostess for eight years either side of the turn of the century. Even since then everywhere I worked has either been demolished or changed completely. But passengers and the 80,000 ( guestimate, but it’s a lot! ) staff who work there are no doubt much the same.

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With the children all at senior school it was time for me to leave behind my various pin money jobs and find properly paid part time work. A few hours in the middle of the day, Monday to Friday in the Terminal Three Qantas  Lounge seemed perfect for someone who had missed out on the computer revolution; all I had to do apparently was work the coffee machine and put out a few sandwiches and I spoke the same language as the passengers. Two of us just had the morning flight out to Australia to look after. It turned out my senior colleague was a right… not easy to work with, but luckily she spent most of her time talking to the Qantas girls on the desk or to her twin daughters on the phone in the kitchen. The main lounge was Business Class and a select corner was for First Class passengers. There were cheerful Australians often meeting up with friends and British holidaymakers in a good mood. Another great feature of this lounge was the wonderful view of the south runway and Concorde taking off at 11am.
This little oasis of peace and quiet was down a corridor just before The Gates and up a flight of stairs. I don’t like lifts and could see no reason why I would need to use the rackety metal box that was always being repaired. When it was time for passengers to go to their Gate they could choose stairs or lift. One day the Qantas lady asked me to escort a nervous passenger because she was afraid of lifts; so am I wanted to say! Worse was to come. I was asked to fetch the papers… the Australian newspapers just arrived on the in bound flight. It turned out this involved going down in the same lift, but with the magic key which took the lift down to hell, or at least the outside; real airside where planes park; dark concrete undercover places passengers never see. I was petrified I would be stranded there if the lift doors closed… which they did because I had to walk a few feet to reach the bundles of paper. When I returned trembling to the safety of the lounge my colleague said I should never have agreed to do it as it wasn’t our job!
Companies, jobs and uniforms were to change as frequently as the buildings, but I did not know that at the time.

liebster-award

Friday Flash Fiction 725 – The Skies Above

I never tired of watching the skies above. Living close to the airport the sky was never empty. At night I counted the lights, four in a row coming into land, no room for error. On winter mornings as I got up early for work I was never sure which were stars and which the passenger planes circling, waiting for their turn to land.

But this morning something was different, a shape dropping gently, slowly; higher than the other aircraft, lights unfamiliar, not a helicopter. As the night sky turned to indigo the shape became a luminous jellyfish floating in the deep blue of the ocean, the world turned upside down and inside out. I was transfixed, not afraid, not afraid at that moment.

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As the sky lightened I discerned a darker shape beneath the rainbow coloured dome; still so high in the sky it was hard to tell if it was ascending or descending. But even as I blinked I saw it becoming larger. I rushed through the house to the back garden to get a better view, all thoughts of getting to the bus stop in time for work forgotten. The feeble early morning light disappeared as a giant canopy blocked the whole sky. I hardly dared allow my eyes to follow the heavy cables that hung below what I now realised was a giant parachute. The cables twisted and jerked as they were manoeuvred by the dark shape attached to them. The shape took form as it slowly descended, legs and arms flailing. The garden security light came on to reveal a human shape; I hoped it was a macabre joke, a giant inflatable doll, strung to a parachute that was about to cover the whole of my large back garden.

Saucer eyes stared at me, a gaping mouth uttered a sound that caused the ground to tremble beneath me and a hot wind, tobacco scented, blew me backwards. Before I could attempt to recover and retreat indoors there was an almighty splintering of glass as my greenhouse was crushed out of sight by a giant boot. And even as a tiny part of my brain urged me to get indoors and save my family I felt a rush of wind on my cheek and the other boot flattened my house as if it was cardboard.

I fought to escape as the canopy that had looked like gossamer high up in the sky now crashed around me with its deadly weight. As the breath was about to be squeezed out of me, my paralysed brain seemed to revive and make time stand still. I observed the hand that raised up the canopy, each digit the size of a tree trunk, a hand that could rescue or crush me. Hysterical laughter shook my body for a moment as I pictured myself telling the boss ‘Sorry I’m late, but a giant landed in my garden.’

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What was he, a giant of legend? Or perhaps an alien; we imagine them as either strange monsters or green coloured humans, but why not a distant planet populated by homo sapiens who just happen to be ten times our size? For a bloke who wasn’t a great thinker I was doing a lot of thinking, there was a strange silence that was comforting. The hand was not touching me, joined by the other hand it lifted the crumpled structure clear so I was staring into the face, but it was too vast for me to discern its expression.

It had been the titanic parachute shielding me from the noise; now the air was filled with the shrieking of sirens and the shrieking of my neighbours. How many seconds had passed since the boots destroyed my home and woke all the neighbours? The control tower must have been tracking him before I even left my front door. What would the emergency services do, call in the army? I almost felt protective of my giant, I hoped they wouldn’t harm him. As another hot wind blew me backwards and the ground vibrated I realised the deafening rumble was the word sorry. I knew then that he must have intended to land on the runway and as his hand stretched out to pick me up I hoped he didn’t mess up the next part of his plan.

Silly Saturday – Fifteen Favourite Facebook Fotos

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Sue has checked in to Toytown International Airport.

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Chocolate Moose has changed his profile picture.

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Wanda has changed her profile picture.

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When one door closes another one stays shut.

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We all need libraries – in our own homes…

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        Behind every cloud there’s rain.

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Donald Trump buys Stonehenge for new golf course.

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New Spiderman film, the 27th in the franchise, promises to be the blockbuster movie for 2019.

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The clock is ticking backwards towards Brexit.

 

 

 

 

 

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Government announces new technology to deal with drones.

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Know what you are getting when you book a cheap holiday flight.

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Hey guys, wish you were here, this is the view from our holiday apartment.

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Day 53 of our world cruise.

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Doctors successfully separate conjoined twin rabbits.

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Please share – our darling fur baby Tiny has gone missing.