The people were queuing up to board, some through the front door, some through the rear, according to which line the flight attendant checking our boarding passes had assigned us: in theory the two queues would never meet, dissolving somewhere in the middle of the aircraft: “Row 19 – board through the rear door, please. Row 8, board through the forward door.” A woman who was already seated in row 23 typed a text message into her phone: she wrote of their church being the loveliest little church, the most essential cornerstone of Christian life. That was the expression she used, as if a cornerstone could be anything other than essential. A young woman came along the aisle of the A320 from the forward door, past the middle, against the traffic, looking for her seat somewhere at the back of the plane. She looked up with a pleading look and couldn’t manage a “Thank you,” when people stood aside to let her pass; going to places where we hardly speak the language is a thing people do now.
My seat was in the middle of a row. A large young man in beach wear sat hunched over a smartphone with a shattered screen in the aisle seat. People don’t get them fixed now, even though many places do it for as little as $50 in only half an hour: phone screen repair is the dry cleaning of the 21st century.
“Thanks,” I said as he stood to let me into my seat.
“Don’t mention it. I got smashed on the reef. My tailbone is all bruised. It’s good to stand up.” As if you needed an excuse.
“Maybe they’ll let you stand the whole way once we get in the air,” I offered as a way to end the conversation. His holiday surfing exploits were of minimal interest to me at that moment.
As I tok my seat I suggested to the young man in front of us that he might want to put his seat back up for takeoff; I really was thinking of the large young man with the reef-smashed coccyx. He put the seat back up, and left it up for the entire flight, which he spent watching episodes of a Chinese game show on his laptop.
When it came time for the safety demonstration our nearest flight attendant was Craig. He stood in the aisle holding the demonstration seatbelt and glowering. He wore his sandy hair in a buzzcut above a sunburnt face, and his neck and shoulders strained against the fabric of his uniform. He looked like a rugby player, like he had probably once been in the army. They’re recruiting muscle now as well as charm, for obvious reasons. They’re wheeling scales around the boarding lounges to weigh people’s carry-on baggage, and counting hand luggage at the gate.
The national carrier has its own terminal at the airport, the budget airlines another. It’s like a human zoo in there, like a northern suburbs shopping mall on a sweltering summer’s day. Hydration, distraction, empty calories. Being there in the food courts and the label chainstores is the point; the flight is just an afterthought, the destination is the place to wear the new things you buy.
Craig pulled down hard to start the flow of oxygen and slipped the mask over his face before assisting those next to him. His dark eyes darted from person to person from behind the mask, sizing each of us up in a fraction of a second.But no one was watching the safety demonstration; we were all bent over the cracked screens of our smartphones.
On these flights I was often seated in front of someone who pushed through the seat into my lower back. I thought it must be a tall man whose knees didn’t fit, but whenever I turned to look at the end of the flight it would be some small woman who had been putting her feet up.
Craig pulled the lifejacket over his head and passed the tapes around his back to fasten them. He showed us the whistle and tapped the light to attract attention insouciantly.
When they find the lifejackets in a field, people are almost never in them.
The plane taxied to the far end of the runway, turned back towards the city we were leaving, gathered speed and heaved itself into the air with a grinding sound from somewhere outside. The flight attendant in the take-off seat two rows ahead appeared to pay the noise no attention. The next time I saw Craig he was pouring airline coffee into paper cups and making change for a twenty.
The woman in the window seat wore a cheesecloth top and had that quality of skin that’s won with half a century of swimming at Sydney beaches. I thought I’d get her talking just to hear the sound of an Australian woman’s voice – the matter-of-fact inflection, the way of drawing a syllable out to emphasise something, you were never sure what, only that it wasn’t whatever word the syllable was part of.
She twisted awkwardly in her seat, turning towards the window and lifting one leg over the other as if she were going to take her plastic beach sandal off. “They really squeeze you in now,” I said. The seat in front was only inches from my nose.
“Lucky we’re not big,” she half-whispered; the large young man on the aisle was dozing in the brace position, his arms and head on the seat back in front. His face was stubbled and sunburnt and not really serene, as if the bruised tailbone were reaching down – or up – into his sleeping brain.
The woman was on the last leg of a flight from Denpasar to Sydney, which accounted for the cheesecloth, the plastic beach sandals, the purple-painted toenails, as well as the large young man’s beach wear and reef dumping; it struck me that he must have been delirious with fatigue in that way you get towards the end of a sleepless long-haul flight, just before you finally drop off in your upright seat back for a few precious moments, prior to our descent for landing.
The woman had been to her son’s wedding, and the thing was not just that he lived in Bali and was marrying a Balinese woman, but that hecommuted to work in the north of Western Australia as a drill-rig supervisor out of Leonora. “It’s cheaper to buy a house in Bali than Sydney,” the woman said. “And it’s only three hours to Perth.” There was a whole community of fly-in fly-out mine workers: Seminyak was just a northern suburb of Perth with cheap help.
The woman’s partner kept a boat on Port Hackin that they took out for picnic cruises on the weekends.
“That must be nice,” I said “Which one is Port Hacking?”
She said two words: “Shire …Cronulla”. They hung between us in the artificially cool, dry air of the Airbus cabin. It was up to me to make of it what I would.
As the plane descended through low cloud a southerly front misted grey over the Pacific. I thought how much like London Sydney could look, in certain muted light, from a distance, though hillier, as if someone had taken London by an edge and shaken it into gentle rumples like a messy bedcover and later, as the train was speeding through the inner western suburbs, I thought that Sydney couldn’t decide whether it was London or New York or Los Angeles and had therefore settled for being itself; and looking at low cloud over forested hills in the outer north-west I thought how much like Melbourne it could look, in the right light, seen from a distance, though I know that each city has its own subtle character, worked into the bricks and stones as well as into the very fine grain of its inhabitants’ attitudes to the world, a ting that is almost imperceptible to a non-native.
At the gate a man in an airline uniform was wheeling a set of scales along the queue of people waiting to board. He stopped beside a young man in black and loaded his bags onto the scales. He directed the young man’s attention to the digital readout: more than seven kilos. As we filed by the flight attendants with the boarding pass scanners we all watched the man with the scales take a credit card payment from the young man in black and send his suitcase to the baggage hold; a small young woman looked baffled as the flight attendant scanned her boarding pass and said, “Row 23. Board through the rear stairs, please.” These are the things they do these days, this is how the world is, whatever your dreams of quick getaways from the arrivals hall while the rest wait for the baggage carousel to restart, and as the plane taxied towards the arrivals gate the post-deceleration silence was broken by the cell-phone pings of delayed messages arriving, and we knew we were connected again. #