For the sake of Cheryl, and the lab, and everyone else who makes the rules, I go lube-free. Not even saliva. I watch mediocre, boring porn. I flick through the magazines, each time finding a ripped tab where a good bit was likely to have been. The only magazine intact is “MILFs in Heat”, which has been left untouched for good reason. I find myself looking around the room, trying not to imagine the spills that have occurred already this morning, let alone this week. It’s a fucking Friday. Although nothing looks perceptibly dirty, I can’t help imagining the cleaners coming in on Saturdays.
If this sounds gross, it’s because it is.
At the seventeen-minute mark, I finish. As I do, I hear Cheryl in my head, practically yelling: “Make sure you don’t spill any! There’s a lot of sperm in the first bit!” That alone is enough to make me go limp. In every sense of the word.
I’m lost for words as to describing the experience. To bring yourself to the point of climax, only to stop in the seconds before, stick the end of your dick in a clear plastic container that it barely fits, and then wait, is kind of like… sticking your dick in a clear plastic container and waiting. It’s like… It’s like going on a roller coaster ride, and in the seconds before the last rush, the last descent before home, knocking yourself unconscious, and then expecting to enjoy it. No then expecting to remember it. No, then expecting to sit a maths test.
No, no it’s not. It’s like sticking your dick in a clear plastic container and waiting. It’s like nothing else. It sucks. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed masturbation less in my entire life.
I bring the container up to eye level, examining the milky material. Having never before ejaculated into a container, I have nothing to compare it against. But I get a creeping feeling. Something’s not quite right. It’s too clear. It’s…
I stop for a second, before realising with horror – that I’m not done.
There’s more to go.
* * * * *
I look down at my bruised and battered penis, chafe marks already present. As a circumcised male, I seriously do not understand why anyone would masturbate without lubricant. It’s like shampooing your hair against concrete. Why the fuck would anyone – anyone - rub their hair against concrete, for even a minute, let alone seventeen minutes?
That’s my point.
I look at the screen, by now another bored woman, looking even more bored than the last. It’s like a bore competition. The magazines are crap. All of them. I can’t do this like this.
So I relent. I use saliva. I look at the bored women, but I use saliva. I flick through the mags, and I use saliva. And then I stop with the porn. I think of being anywhere other than in the wank room. And honestly, I close my eyes and I think of my wife. I think of my wife, with me, at home, in our own home. I think of my wife.
You give me MILFs on heat? Seriously? Have you seen my wife?
And that does the trick. Six minutes later, that does the trick. After twenty-three minutes, I’m done. I’m over. Again, I have to knock myself unconscious at the top of the roller coaster, waiting for it to finish without any further help. But I think, mostly, I am done. I am done. I am finished. But I am certainly not satisfied.
I look down to see my shrivelled and bruised penis, having not been in such bad nick for twenty-two years. I consider calling my Dad.
But I don’t. Instead, I clean up as quickly as I can, and I exit.
Suse is sitting there, waiting. Her look changes to concern when she sees me.
“Thank you Cheryl,” I say. I give her the sample, meekly, feeling a little defeated. No slamming on the desk for me. She takes it in her purple glove.
“How did you go?” she asks.
“As well as I could, I guess.” I wait for her to tell me that none of my sperm have heads.
“If you could go next door now for payment, please? Enjoy the rest of the day.”
“I might begin to now.”
Suse takes my hand in hers. We walk out the door, me in a cowboy swagger, trying to avoid contact with my undies. It’s impossible.
How was it?”
“Are you chafed love?”
“How was the bottom drawer?”
“There was no bottom drawer. There was no drawers at all. Just “MILFs in Heat.”
“It didn’t cut it?”
“No honey. When you’re dry wanking into a plastic jar in hospital, MILFs don’t cut it. In fact, nothing cuts it. Nothing.”
We head towards the maroon desk to pay for my two-hundred buck jerk off. As I swagger down the hall, it suddenly dawns on me why everyone walks out looking just like this.
I enter Room Two, locking the door behind me. As I turn, I immediately wish I was in Room One. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting. Maybe that there was going to be some sort of oasis behind these doors, that perhaps the luxury of the women’s maroon counter may have been splashed around a little in here.
But it hasn’t.
It’s just like out there.
And while I know that Room One would be nothing more than a mirror image of this, all the same, I wish I wasn’t in Brian’s express aisle. The room is triangular in shape, with only enough space for a red plastic couch and a 34cm television.
There is a small toilet through a door off to the side, with a sink and huge roll of paper. I look at the cabinet below, panicking at the sight of a tiny pile of magazines, and no drawers.
There is no bottom drawer.
I pick up the magazines and find that there are four in total: two ‘Ralph’ magazines, one Penthouse, and the final, called “MILFs in Heat”. They are tattered and used, pages are missing and loose, and other pages are folded and stuffed in underneath.
I mean, these things are old.
The television looks like something we had on our first computer, something called a Microbee, which used cassette tapes. I don’t even think they make TVs this small anymore. The rubbish bin – more adequately described as a disposal unit – sits pride of place, right next to the TV. It is three times the size of the screen, and, by the looks, is almost full.
* * * * *
There is a set of instructions laminated to the top of the television. They state:
“Switch TV on (if button doesn’t work, switch on at power point)
Push TV/Video button
Press stop button when finished
If you have any difficulties, please inform reception.”
Yeah right. I’m sure Cheryl is just dying to know.
I turn on the TV. Snow fills the screen, all thirty four centimetres. I press the TV/Video button. I can make out a woman dressed in a nurse’s outfit and a man, if I get close enough. At least they’re keeping it in theme, although she looks nothing like Cheryl without the purple gloves. I try changing the channel up and down, before fully comprehending that this is it. The woman bobs up and down looking bored.
Now, I wouldn’t call myself a porn authority, but this is ridiculous. Two men’s interest magazines, MILFs on heat, a torn and tattered Penthouse, and a bored nurse on a screen slightly bigger than my iPod. I’ve seen more compelling material on daytime television.
The guy in thongs groans in the effort of getting out of his seat. He slinks across to the counter, one of his thongs almost falling off. I mean – it’s winter in Melbourne. Wear socks.
“You’ve been here before?”
She hands him a jar and a bag. “Room Two,” she says. He drags himself up the hall, and into Brian’s old room.
Trench coat guy leans in towards me.
“I left my form behind as well,” he says, smiling nervously. “My wife is having to bring it in now.”
“Mine’s on the floor in the study,” I reply.
“Mine’s on the couch by the front door.” I nod my head, smiling back.
“I guess I was a bit distracted this morning.”
“Me too,” I say. “A little stressed.”
Every single guy who comes in here has been asked to abstain for the better part of a week. I now get why there’s a Perspex windshield.
“It’s nice of them to have the full selection of women’s magazines,” I say
“Best of 1994, I guess. I think the good one’s are kept elsewhere,” he says conspiratorially.
We give each other a brotherhood look – one of shared anxiety. It’s not cool to admit that this is a confronting process. But for some of us – Trench Coat Guy and me – this ain’t our high point of the day. Thong guy is a different breed. As is Brian. Thong Guy and Brian are in one clan, Trench Coat Guy and I are in another.
“Mr. Jensen?” Trench Coat Guy stands with a jolt, before walking over to Cheryl. “Have you been here before?”
“No,” he says, nervously. Cheryl leans in and whispers something to him, handing him a jar. He nods, listening hard, before turning. He gives me a look, and I nod back. “Into Room One, Mr. Jensen.”
He disappears very, very quickly.
I sit there alone in the waiting room. And I realise that I never saw anyone emerge from Room One. Is there a back door? Is there a cleaner who does a quick reckie in between patients, like happens in hospitals between patients? Is there a bed? Sheets? How big is the room?
A couple of friends have had a semen analysis. One of them said to look in the bottom drawer, because that is where they keep the good stuff. I contemplate how many drawers there are, before realising with deflation that the part of me that was curious to see what this was all about never even woke up today.
I think he was left behind in that dream.
Room Two’s door flies open, and Thong Guy emerges, dragging his feet even more. If he was relaxed before, now he’s almost comatose. Although, I’ve got to hand it to him – that was quick. I look at my watch, like it was my job to time him.
He must have been in there for about four minutes. Wow.
His sample hits the bench like Brian’s did, like it’s his clan’s secret handshake. He signs a form – at least he’s asked to sign a form – and then he saunters out.
I sit for a moment longer, thinking about the cleaner that must be in there, let in through the back door, cleaning things up. But thirty seconds later, Cheryl leans forward.
No time for cleaning.
I guess I’m in the eight-items-or-less queue.
* * * * *
“Have you been here before, Mr Nethercote?”
“No,” I say quietly, before realising I’m the only one in the waiting room.
“So here’s your jar,” she said, handing me a sterile urine pot. “Here’s a placemat for the couch,” she says, handing me a man-sized tissue, “in case of spillage, and here’s your specimen bag. Any questions?”
“Okay.” I shift awkwardly. “And I’ve been told that it’s okay to use saliva?”
“If you must.”
“If I must? Well, I guess I can try without. I mean, you want a sample, right?”
“Just don’t get any in the jar.” I look at her confused. “Any saliva in the jar.”
“Oh,” I say, smiling slightly, “I thought…” I stop dead, looking at Cheryl. This isn’t the place for banter. They’ve got Perspex.
“If you run into trouble, we can just book you another appointment. Or next time, your wife can come in with you.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“Well, you forgot the slip.”
She takes a deep breath. “Look, there are special condoms you can use.”
“Really?” I say, genuinely intrigued. “I didn’t know about them.”
“They’re forty-five dollars. People only really use them as a last resort, or in emergencies.”
I sit on a couch, alone in a room. I can hear muttering close by. Then I hear laughter. I look around, but Suse is nowhere to be seen. The room is empty. And then, from the left, an older lady with straight, grey hair, cut into a bob, enters the room. She perches herself on the edge of the couch, and then holds up a sheet of paper in an outstretched hand, looking at it over the top of her glasses.
A little smirk comes onto her face before she places a consolatory hand on my knee.
She’s wearing purple gloves.
“Mr Nethercote,” she begins, “there seems to be a problem with your sample.”
I look at her, hoping for something to come out.
“You see,” she continues, suppressing a grin, “your sperm have no heads. Every single one of your sperm is just a tail. No head. The problem is you. You’re the problem. Your sperm are retarded.”
I let out a noise, a gasp as I wake. Or I wake to the gasp. I’m not sure. I look around the room, disoriented. The clock says 2.33am. My arms and torso are bathed in sweat, as is my groin, where my headless sperm remain, locked away. As my eyes adjust, I make out Suse in the bed beside me.
I get up, changing my long-sleeved shirt for a T-shirt. I walk to the kitchen for a drink, empty my bladder, and return to the darkness of the room. The woman appears in my head again, smiling.
I guess masturbating into a cup is playing on my mind.
It’s a pretty curious day when my most important job of the morning is to jerk off.
And on top of that, today is our due date.
Our due date.
Today, our baby would have been born.
Today is going to be interesting.
* * * * *
Suse and I enter the hospital’s familiar back entrance, take the familiar lifts, walk around the familiar corridor, and down past the familiar seats. We approach the front desk, the cloned woman glued in place.
“How can I help?” she asks. It sends a cold thought straight through my soul.
“I need to give a sample this morning.”
“Next door,” she says, not looking me in the eye. “In Andrology.”
We apologise for our existence, before leaving the maroon, semilunar desk and walking ten metres down the hall. We enter a small waiting area, the front desk to a laboratory.
There is a counter with a bell, and down a short, tight corridor there are two more doors that I spot immediately: Room One, and Room Two. They have the universal male toilet symbol on them; although I’m guessing that there’s more than just a toilet in there. Directly behind the counter, there are three chairs haphazardly shoved against the wall. Two of them are occupied by men. Both of them sit awkwardly, crossing and uncrossing their legs.
One of them is wearing a trench coat.
I shit you not.
The counter has a Perspex shield, with a small slot at elbow height, as you’d expect in a bank – or in lab that is concerned about armed robbery. The Perspex is covered in A4 sheets of information, each curling at its edges; taped in place for years. Scattered around the walls of this tight little space are worn posters, which cheerily advertise venereal diseases, prostate cancer, and other myriad afflictions to really set the mood. There is a solitary framed picture above the chairs; a painting that someone has discarded from their holiday house.
I look at the two men. They are each flicking through last decades women’s magazines; the ones that been discarded from the slick, female friendly desk just ten steps back down the hall. I turn back towards the counter.
And then I see her.
Sitting behind the Perspex is an older woman, purple gloves on her hands, her grey hair cut into a bob. She smiles slightly. A shiver runs down my spine.
“May I help you?”
“I’m here for a semen analysis,” I say, trying to pitch my voice somewhere between embarrassed whisper and soulful declaration.
“Join the club,” she says, without looking up. As well as being the woman from my dream, I think she might be the clone’s mum. “Path slip?”
“Oh, shit.” I look at Suse.
“Where is it?”
“On the floor of the study.”
“I’ll be back in fifteen minutes. I’ll be waiting out here.”
That solves that one. Ten minutes ago, on the way in, I suggested to Suse that I’d like her to be in the room with me, should I need… support.
“You can’t be serious.” She said. “You’re landing this on me, in the car on the way to the hospital?”
“I just thought that…”
“…I don’t want be in that room where men masturbate all day.”
“I don’t really want to be in a room where men masturbate all day either, honey.”
There is a silence.
“I don’t think I’m comfortable with that.”
“Well this is hardly the most comfortable day of my life either.”
The discussion stopped dead. The man in the lift, in the wheelchair, missing a leg, put paid to that.
And before we could resume discussions, Ol’ Purple Gloves is asking for a slip.
Suse kisses me quickly on the lips.
“Good luck, honey,” she says. And then she leaves the dirty Perspex room quicker than I’ve ever seen her move anywhere.
I look back at the woman behind the counter. She hands me a clipboard.
“Fill out the paperwork, Mr Nethercote, and tell me when you’re done.”
I sit in the empty chair between the man in the trench coat, and a guy wearing thongs. The guy in the coat is talking urgently into his phone, while the guy in thongs flicks happily through a copy of Women’s Weekly.
With that, a door flies open. A man emerges from Room Two, swaggering like a cowboy, in a way that none of us sitting-folk are. He places his yellow-topped container on the counter with a thunk, like you would an empty pot after you’ve just skulled a full beer.
“Thanks, Cheryl,” he says, without even braking stride.
A bunch of parents line up, out the door, dying to tell me about how naughty their kids are. One after the other, they come in; some calm, some in despair. They are here to let me know just how hard it is to have a kid. That’s Behaviour Clinic.
I sit there, trying to be compassionate, trying to be concerned, trying not to feel ripped off. As I listen, at this very moment, my wife is on the phone to our Obstetrician, discussing our increasing inability to have kids.
I just Googled irony, and we were listed.
It’s a challenge having compassion for someone who’s complaining about the very thing you’re dying for. It’s like listening to someone bang on about how much their Ferrari keeps breaking down.
The phone buzzes in my pocket. Right in the middle of another tale of woe. I listen, nodding at the appropriate moments, looking the part, saying the lines right. I think I pass the audition. But all the while, I’m in my pocket. My mind is elsewhere. We also own a house in Woeville.
Eventually, the family rise to leave. I stand at the door, waiting, as they gather possessions, which include two small children. Wooden blocks and pencils lay strewn around. They apologise profusely.
“No problem,” I say. “No hurry.” I even smile. Waving goodbye, I close the door behind them, ripping my phone out. Missed call from Suse. I ring straight through.
She picks up. Before she even speaks, I know.
“Kath thinks I should come in tomorrow and have the tube out.”
Not much more to say. The game is up.
* * * * *
After all of this, we’ve finally raised the white flag. At everyone’s insistence, not least our own, we’ve tried to remain positive. We’ve kept our chin up. But yesterday, we took a big blow. Seemingly overnight, our ectopic rate increased five fold. Seemingly overnight, our chances of ever having an uncomplicated pregnancy went down the toilet.
We’ve poured a gallon of weedkiller on untilled soil, the land now leached for future use. And despite this, a single weed continues to grow. Despite this, body parts will be disposed of. I feel, and I know Suse feels, disposable. Two tubes? You only need one. God only knows why we have two. It’s bordering on excessive.
It’s a disposable age we live in.
We’re gonna take one of your tubes out. Hell, in future, we may want the other one too.
In fact, just quietly, you guys might like to start thinking about never getting pregnant.
It’s fucked. It’s just fucked.
This isn’t how it’s meant to roll.
* * * * *
I talk to Kath. Again, she speaks with reason, and with the very compassion I was lacking just a few minutes ago. She tells me about her impressions, her concerns, and her recommendation for laparoscopy tomorrow. And the likely removal of the offending tube. She understands our desire to hold onto bodily organs. But, the fact remains: this tube has stopped being an organ. Now, it has become a liability.
I listen. I comprehend. My medical brain hears. My rational side listens. But the rest of me acts like a hormonal teen. All I want to do is run away. Or defy. Or fight.
I ring and talk to Suse. We organise for her Mum to drive down. To help out; to just be with us. I wipe my schedule for tomorrow, unable to deal with anymore broken Ferraris while my own Corolla has blown its head gasket. I see the remainder of my appointments for the day, less angry than before. Soon, I’ll be with my wife. Soon, I’ll be home.
I take the tram. It is, as you’d expect, crammed full of kids. Jam packed. I switch to a train, and then walk to our home. I turn the key and open the door. There she stands. My stomach lurches at the sight of her. It’s gastric acrobatics for the heartsick. I hug my wife and I hold her.
And I start to simmer down.
* * * * *
Later, Suse and I crawl into bed. We hug each other tight. But after a while, the burner goes on, and the water begins to bubble. The rage sets in. I’m angry. I’m just plain angry. Angry at the injustice of it all. At the cruelty of the situation. At the shit that has landed and stuck. It’s been flung a lot this year – firstly, the dog getting run over, then Suse’s shoulder operation, then getting evicted, and now this. It’s been shit, and I’m done. I’m fucking done.
So I get up.
“Where are you going, love?” Suse asks wearily.
“To write,” I say. “I’ve got to write.”
I know that it’s nobody’s fault. None of it. Not the ectopic, not the methotrexate failure, not the fact that despite all of the bleeding and pain and everything else, the goddamned little parasite keeps growing, ruining an entire pipeline. And not the fact that at the end of all of this, we have to have surgery anyway.
I know it’s unbecoming to complain, but I think I just unbecame. The fact remains. This sucks. And I’m over it. I’m spent. I’m done with the positivity, with the choosing, with the bullshit hippy ‘try not to make it mean anything’ demeanour. This is fucked. Outright fucked. My wife is sick, and bleeding, and western medicine has acted like the perfect politician; promising the world and delivering nothing. I mean, it’s just a friggin joke.
And through all of this, I can’t make love to my wife. We can’t share our love. We are estranged. It’s a platonic-only-zone. Don’t get me wrong, hugging is great. It’s sweet. It’s nice. But I want my wife. I want to love her, and be with her, and to share with her. Not just hug. Jesus, if I wanted that, I’d buy a goddamned teddybear.
I want our lives to return to normal. I don’t want to deal with this bullshit anymore. Suse had her shoulder operated on just two months ago, and now this? For fuck’s sake, give the woman a break! Give her a second to breathe before you lay down the next calamity, will you?
Just give us a moment, a single shared moment, without providing the next surgically necessary Kodak moment.
* * * * *
I sit out here, in my rage, at 11.45pm. As I type, the door opens, and there is Suse. All angel and sweet and cute and dear.
“Please come to bed, honey – I can’t sleep. And I need you to hold me.”
“Five minutes, honey, five minutes,” I say.
I melt. This is the woman I love so much. More than anything else alive.
I’m just scared.
So fucking scared.
So goddamned scared that it spills over as anger and frustration and hurt and curdling blood. Shit and blood and everything in between.
25 AUG 08 – DEPART – SANTIAGO/ARTURO MERINO 2300 NON-STOP
Terminal: TERMINAL INTERNATIONAL
27 AUG 08 -ARRIVE – AUCKLAND/AUCKLAND INTL 0400 13HRSOOMINS
Terminal: TERMINAL INTERNATIONAL
- AIRCRAFT – AIRBUS INDUSTRIE A340 ALL SERIES PAX
- CLASS – ECONOMY
I dried my bum with the towel, wiped up the puddle in the lobby toilets, and completed my impromptu shower before leaving the hotel that had refused me a real shower, with a smile. Within 15 minutes my shuttle for the airport had arrived. I got onto my third bus for the day, a minibus, and opposite me was a fat Aussie slob with tattoos like sleeves, the extent of both arms. Next to him sat a stunning Brazilian girl named Daniela, angling away from his B.O. The chalk and cheese of life, of my life over the last two weeks, sat right here in front of me. And for all of his physical deformities, B.O. Slob was the one I wanted to hug.
* * * * *
I checked into the Flight of Adversity within minutes. Flight LA801 was not full, and as an Airbus A340-300, I knew the whole middle aisle deal. I smiled at the man at the desk, who didn’t seem to know exactly how to respond.
“Would it be possible to get a seat on a middle row without anyone else?”
“Because I’d like that, if possible.” He shook his head and sighed. You’d think I’d asked to borrow his car for the year. “You said the aeroplane wasn’t very full?”
“So there are some middle rows with no one in them.”
“So could I have an aisle seat in one of those rows, please?” His face said, ‘when you put it like that, it’s hard to pout with integrity’. He tapped hard at his keys, refusing to look up. I gave him permission to hit the desk – punching at keys rarely disperses enough anger. He handed me my tickets, concentrating hard to look over my shoulder.
“Have an enjoyable day,” I said smiling, which caused obvious consternation. As I left, I checked my boarding pass for the follow-on leg from Auckland to home, and saw that he’d put me on a window for that one. I glanced back, and saw that the look had changed. I won’t describe that one.
I passed through customs, putting my camera and computer through the electronic-resetting machine as a man made me stand in star-jump pose before waving a beeping wand over me and fondling at my genitals. I spent my final money on a Chile fridge magnet and a Dunkin Donuts wrap, lining my stomach like a baking dish, readying myself for the flight home. I sat in anticipation, waiting for almost the entire jet to board before getting on. I then headed for seat 42D.
Hope. It’s a dangerous emotion on long-haul flights. Inevitably, there is always this universal joke in the wings, just waiting for its moment to play out. I buckled up, aware of my relationship with hope, trying not to focus on it. I arranged my goods, ritual-like, iPod in place, wallet out, even ready to begin picking at nails. There I was, sitting all on my own, in my row of four. A fug of anxious calm enveloped me. I repeated the mantra that ‘whatever will be, will be’, like I was Edith Piaf or something. More and more passengers boarded. A whining French woman looped in my head. We were getting ready to take off. I was safe; sweet, flat sleep was mine. An announcement came overhead, telling us that we were waiting on two more passengers. I heard the loading dock pull away from the jet.
A mincey looking ginger-ninja and his lanky prostitute of a girlfriend walked down the aisle. No judgement. No bitterness.
The prostitute and the ginger-ninja
Whatever will be, will be.
They smiled at me, as they plonked themselves down in the two seats beside me.
A sensation that can only be described as a mix of every unpleasant emotion one has ever experienced, swelled through my veins. I had to think fast. I remembered that look on the face of the check-in desk guy. Edith started up again. The jet was doing its customary ‘sit still for no reason’ thing. I shot a look towards the back, and among the jungle of heads, I spotted two free rows. A blade of grass shimmered in the breeze – nope, make that one; a stealthy jaguar of a man slipped into place. I turned towards the front, only to see a man-lion out of the corner of my eye from the window aisle – my aisle – get up and walk aft to swiftly to claim his spot. A hunt was in tow. I watched as a wave of emotion crossed his face, as he performed his territorial pissing.
Let it go, Mark. Fuck this. Doesn’t matter. Bastard.
Frantic, I looked back to the front, and again counted heads. And there I spotted it. A free row, ten rows ahead. I looked behind once more, and saw not a single row free. There were the two gentleman, bliss across their gobs, in a sea of agitation, doing just what I wanted to do. Marking out territory.
With a jolt I jumped up, the plane beginning to ferry, and walked the ten aisles forward. I plonked myself down, the calm of the aftermath. Death stares came from every direction. I removed arrows from my back, and the in-flight magazine from the pocket in front. I thumbed it nonchalantly, my heart pounding. An ether of jealousy sprayed the cabin.
I took a breath, thinking. In my hurry, in my reaction, I’d left my seat pockets full, ten rows back. So I had nothing to mark my spot, nothing as entertainment, and my wallet and iPod were at the back of the plane with the prostitute and the ninja.
I untied my fleece from around my waist, bagsing one seat, and plonked the magazine as a marker on another. I unclipped my safety belt. The jet took a corner as I walked the aisle, bumping a jealous arm. I grabbed at my iPod, wallet, passport, and copy of the New Zealand Herald. I winked at the mince and the prostitute, and turned back. A couple of eyes bored, pupils fixed. I dared them back.
I bumped the very same arm on the way back, this time eliciting a wounded howl. Eighteen seconds later I was back in my seat. Had it been nineteen, and the wolves would have had my little hatchlings.
I sat again and reminded myself to breathe. I stretched my neck, the lividity from ski-stillness now well and truly flowing. I returned to an article heraldling the sixth fourth places New Zealand had secured in the Olympics, and waited for the plane to take off. Another ‘long enough to cause trouble’ pause happened at the end of the runway. I counted sheep. I felt comfortable, but, as a pirate, I wouldn’t feel truly safe with my loot until we’d taken off. A couple more checks of locks, wheels, propellers, whatever they do, and we were ready. The motors wound up.
And with that, just as I adjusted my eye-patch, a large, ageing New Zealand lady slipped into the end of my row. Her name was Bitch.
Bitch-eye view of the flight...
I looked at her for a few seconds, willing her to evaporate. Instead, she picked at the cellophane around the inflight rug.
“Bet you thought you had the row to yourself didn’t you?”
Watching twelve hours of blissful sleep evaporate before your eyes, not once, but twice in three minutes is character building. I’ve been robbed at knifepoint. The emotions are similar.
“Didn’t you?” Bitch reiterated.
It was an attempt at small talk, like asking someone when their grandmother had died. I was gobsmacked. There is an unwritten, unstated law of seat allocation on longhaul flights, borne out by the pall of emotion that had enveloped the cabin for the previous ten minutes. It’s primal. If you grab a row, it’s yours. No statement required. It’s obvious. The idea of doing what this lady had just done is morally abhorrent. Like stealing someone’s crack pipe. You just don’t do it. It’s bad manners.
Yet I had no leg to stand on. While I’m happy to play the seat-hog rules when they work for me, and I’d never dream of breaching this unspoken law myself, I understand that when challenged like this, it is indefensible. You just hope that others see the invisible wall too. This woman clearly didn’t. Not only that, but she felt making a joke about it was the appropriate course of action. Her nieces call her blunt Betty.
I stared at her some more, swallowing razor blades. Choosing to take the higher moral ground in this murky water, I gave her the cold shoulder. It was the most mature response I could muster. And the only one that didn’t include swearing.
* * * * *
Fight-flight LA801 continued in much the same vein. Choosing to steadfastly ignore Bitch was taking considerable energy. I placed my book in the seat hold in front, when another curve ball came my way.
“Would you mind not doing that?” a serpent hissed. Hello. What do we have here?
“That’s the third time…” her voice trailed off.
Confrontation is not my thing, but there was still the whole pall thing going on. I was up for it.
“Sorry, what’s the problem?”
“You just keep doing that.”
“Placing things…” again, her voice trailed off. I let it sit.
I ate my dinner sullenly, doing my best impression of a teenager. After dinner, Bitch popped her facemask on. By then, my entire daypack sat in the no man’s land seat pocket in front. And here began the politics.
Picture this. Seats one to four. I was in seat two, as close to centre as possible, guarding against the enemy. Clearly, it had worked well. Bitch was in four. She’d been gradually marking out space; the wrapper from her face mask, a packet of chewies, surreptitiously strewn across seat three. I’d spread my legs in the pose of domination and pulled up the armrest, my right leg holding the non-wrapper half of seat three. The power play had begun.
With her facemask on, stealth passive aggression took full flight. I lay myself out, my head on the aisle-armrest of seat one, my feet tucked up and on seat three. On top of the wrapper and the chewie. With my shoes on. Rough, eh?
Over the ensuing five minutes, I’d heard Bitch sigh, pull at the chewie from under my feet, which I obliged by lifting – no need to be impolite – and my head had been knocked twice by aisle traffic. The first time was a mere brush; think sleeping peacefully as a bird swoops. The second time I got whiplash. Stunned and momentarily unsure what had happened, I lifted my head and looked back down the aisle where a man continued, oblivious, causing an entire row of torticollis. It had to be Bitch’s husband.
It was when Bitch starting playing footsies with me that I gave up. That I’d had four seats, then three, and now two was just not doing it for me. Clearly, I don’t have what it takes to invade new lands and rule with totalitarian subjugation.
“Here’s an idea,” said finally. Bitch lifted the eye shield from one eye and removed an earplug.
“How about I lie on the floor at our feet, and you can have all of these seats? That way we can both lie flat.”
To my mind, at the time, there was no irony in my statement. If there was, Bitch would have missed it. This could have played out in several ways, but I knew exactly how it would.
And that was that.
There’s not a lot of room at your feet. There are four metal struts that sit between each seat, and never really warm up regardless of how much they are heated by various body parts. The floor is carpeted, but has far more metal edging than is strictly necessary. They don’t dry clean Airbus A340-300s very much. People keep their feet down here.
I actually got as good a rest on metal struts as one could hope for. From Bitch’s snoring so did she. The seats blocked the sound of her snoring, but not the Plaza Dorrego men’s reunion that adjourned in the aisle by my head after a marathon three-hour sitting.
In the morning Bitch offered me a chewie, but I declined. I knew where my shoes had been.
* * * * *
I’ve been back in Australia for two weeks now, long enough for the joys of the return trip to be little more than a memory, and an occasional spasm of sciatica. I made it through customs, only having to eat the jar of cheese-stuffed olives from Argentina as punishment for importation. The lack of yellow fever vaccination proof again threatened to derail me, until an official from a side office walked up and told me, “You’re a doctor – if you get sick, report it to yourself.”
I love Australia.
But I have been left pining a bit, thinking back on the trip, wishing for some more of the craziness. A little bit, just something to hang my hat on. Just a little taster to keep me going until the next trip.
And then it came, just two days back.
An email from Janin Alejandro, the taxi driver who had hoped that I could find his ex-Chileno girlfriend. The one who’d moved to Australia twenty years back. I’d done a Facebook search, and pulled up 89 Cecelia Leals. I forwarded it to him, hoping one of them was the one. This was his reply:
“Hello as these graces for the mail but I did not have good results
I wait it you finds been OK in your vacations
If you can verify something when arrives to australia I it am going to be grateful very much
For My Pardon for my terrible Englishman and graces(thanks) for dealing.
You are a very agreeable person and of good heart.
I wish the better (best) thing you for you and your family.
I plan to bring Janin to Australia later in the year. I’ll import him in a jar of cheese-stuffed olives. And I’ll stow it in Bitch’s boogie board bag.
Todos los dias de Lunes a Domingo de 9:00 a 17:00 horas
I read this in the information column, and then looked across at the Mapa de Pistas. There in front of me were the 39 kilometres of ski runs, mapped out on the Mercator projection of Valle Nevado mountain range. I looked to my left and frowned as I absorbed the view of the service station fuel pump.
I checked my watch. It was 9.23am.
Three and a half hours earlier, I’d expectantly bounced toward the desk of Hotel Gran Palace, a misnomer if ever there was one. A man in a tired, threadbare green blazer stood there straightening the gold tassels on his shoulder.
“Hello,” he said, without looking up. A tassel was caught in a knot. His tongue contorted to the left, as his eyes strained to the limit of their range.
“I’ll be up in the kitchen eating breakfast when the bus arrives,” I said. He stopped, his hand still on the knot. A puzzled look slipped across his face.
“But sir, the kitchen doesn’t open until seven.” I looked at my watch. It was 6.55am.
Okay pedant. “Okay, in five minutes.” He kept the puzzled look.
“It’s not open for one hour.” He pointed beyond his tassel at the wall behind.
There hung an array of clocks, one telling me the time in Brazil, another in Sydney, even one in Moscow, as if every second guest is from Russia. I then saw the one labelled Santiago. I managed to distract myself from the fact that none of the hands were within five minutes of each other long enough to see that it read 6 o’clock in the morning.
Point one: When you cross an international border, always check the local time.
“Gracias,” I said, feeling rather foolish. I turned, resisting the temptation to fix the clocks, and returned to my room. I read a bit and wrote a bit, listening all the while to the whispered musac through the speaker on the wall that couldn’t be turned off. Michael Bolton was touring Chile in October. The hype was reaching fever pitch.
As I hummed along to his terrifying rendition of “Murder my Heart,” I crossed myself mentally, thankful that in crossing from Argentina to Chile we gained an hour and didn’t lose one. This was my one day of skiing in the Andes before flying out. This was the whole reason for being in South America. Forget the conference.
I whistled the hour away, and headed to the restaurant, where I stuffed my face in preparation for the day. My lift turned up at 7.20am: a little on the late side, but again, no problem. Plenty of time. I’d been informed that it takes an hour to get to the top of the mountain, give or take. Piece of cake.
Pedro grabbed me by the arm the second I exited the lift and frogmarched me to his van. He was a man in a hurry; I liked his style. He pushed me through the side door, forgetting the niceties of lowering my head as the police would have done. We then proceeded a wordless drive from Hotel Gran Misnomer across town. I stared out the window, a lump growing on my forehead, as I stared towards the Andes, the perfect backdrop to this city. After about half an hour, we arrived at a hotel without guests. Pedro waited there for a number of minutes, checking anxiously at his watch. He walked up to the door several times, but never knocked. Eventually he jumped back into the van and sped off.
We then headed back across town, the Andes now on the other side, making several trademark Chilean 270 degree left hand turns, right hand turns having been outlawed for their disruption of traffic. God help this place during the years they were still allowed. We crawled back to a block of flats just near my hotel where we picked up a mother and daughter, and then proceeded to creep across town again, past the guestless hotel, and into a service station. This whole process took ninety minutes.
* * * * *
The furrow became etched to my forehead at the twenty-five minute mark in the service station. I looked around, trying to massage it away, desperate for an answer. Sixteen of us sat in a bus, waiting to be sent up the mountain. The thirteen locals relaxed, patiently picking their fingernails in unison, like some weird local ritual. Three of us did not.
A huge black hand appeared across my shoulder, as Sam lent forward to introduce himself. He was an African-American skier from Florida. I know: these eight words have never before been written in this sequence. Sam was fifty-five and charming, but clearly had less patience for custom than the locals. He was my kind of guy.
“I was at my hotel room,” he began in a languid tone not dissimilar to Morgan Freeman, “at 7am. Seven…in…the…a.m..”
“Me too,” piped Barry from the back, a 40 year old guy from Boston. You get the idea Barry pipes a lot. He grabbed at the beak of his cap in a nervous tic – there was a slick of grime across it from years of such behaviour. “My wife’s a Chileno, and I’m from Boston.” He paused for a second, potentially waiting for applause. “And she told me to expect this.” He stopped once again, and took a breath. “I’m from Boston,” he repeated. Barry made up for the stereotype that Sam lacked.
“I’m Mark, and I’m from Australia,” I said in my best Alcoholics Anonymous voice, “and right now, I’m going to see what is going on.” I walked to the front and exited in search of Carlos.
Carlos has been introduced to us as the man who would see us right. He was perched on the edge of a planter box, picking at grass.
“Hey Carlos, what’s going on?” He looked up and shook his head, screwing up the edge of his nose.
“No, Carlos, wrong answer. This is not friendly small talk. When is the bus leaving?” A puzzled look slipped across his face. This was getting to be a trend. “We’ve been here for fifteen minutes. Is there any reason why the bus hasn’t left yet?” He pondered this question for a moment, staring into the middle distance. Eventually I walked away; I’d already studied the fuel pump.
Eight minutes, 37 seconds later, he boarded the bus. He approached and asked me to come with him. He led me out of the bus and back over to the plantar box, and then whispered, “I have an idea.” He looked around again. “If you swap buses, the trip to Valle Nevado is only seventy-five minutes. Not two hours.” He grinned, nodding his head knowingly. I found my head shaking in time.
“And why have you just told me this?”
“Because I thought you want the quicker bus,” he trailed off, dejectedly. He picked at grass.
“No, Carlos,” I paused, “that is a great idea. I just…” He looked at me with confusion. It was times like this that my world and his world seemed cramped on the same planet. “Where is this other bus?” He pointed. “When can this bus leave?”
“Can everyone get on this bus?”
He thought for a second. “Sure,” he said eventually, “no problem for me.” Cramped in the same universe.
Carlos seemed confused by the thought that everyone would want to reach the mountain in the shortest possible time, and was open-jawed at the speed with which the transfer occurred. Before he had the chance to slow down natural progress, the bus had left. I pulled out my Mapa de Pistas and looked at the opening times of Valle Nevado. I calculated. Maybe we were an hour away.
Maybe I forgot I was in South America.
* * * * *
Everything went smoothly for a while. The bus drove in a forward motion; the driver pointed it towards the Andes. He accelerated up hills and braked on the way down. It was all very Western in its philosophy.
We wound the curves, and the snow came into view. Sam, Barry and I made decreasingly interesting small talk, increasingly captivated by the pristine snow of the Andes. The traffic began to build – the majority of skiers seemingly happy to arrive three hours after the lifts start for the day.
On one side of the bus the windows began to fog; on the other they steamed from the intense sun. The road started to get icy, but that didn’t worry our driver. And running as late as we were, there was a collective agreement to try our luck without chains. But when, on one turn, the bus began to slide backwards toward the edge of the mountain, it became clear to us that it was time for something to be done.
This wasn’t so clear to Carlos. Sure, he stopped the bus. We all got out to stretch and take in the view while the chains went on. A couple of us even delighted in the yellow slurpees we created in the pristine roadside snow.
Meantime, Carlos took out one set of chains and laid them on the ground. The bus driver flipped it over, carefully smoothing it out. Then Carlos flipped it again.
Sam and I strolled away down the road, returning five minutes later. The chains remained there, dejectedly, on the ground beside the bus. Sam and I watched the driver as he watched Carlos watching the chains. It was like some weird MC Escher picture or something. After a couple of minutes of this, I broke the spell in Neverland.
“Is there a problem?” I asked.
“Sorry?” Carlos said, still staring at the chain.
“Is it broken or something?”
I paused and watched. The two of them remained there, crouched, their eyes fixed.
“Do you need a hand?”
“No, no, it’s fine.” They continued looking at the chains, urging them to levitate to the wheel by themselves.
I walked to the other side of the bus, and saw that this chain hadn’t even been pulled out of the side cabin. It was 10.45am. I blew smoke out of my ears, before opening the side compartment and pulling the chain out.
“What are you doing?” Carlos yelled from his position on the ground.
“Getting the chain ready,” I said, laying it out.
“No necessary,” he cried. I frowned, unable to contain a scoff.
“Can you put the chain on?”
“Relax, just relax.”
“But this one hour trip has now gone for nearly four hours. I kind of want to be skiing. It’s ten forty-five.”
“Just relax,” he said once more, rolling his eyes.
I put the chain down, and walked away. This was, after all, the last day of my holiday. Murder would likely delay things. As I took the step to re-enter the bus, I looked back to see the duo still staring at the chain. These two, who drive this route every single day.
Thirteen Chilenos sat on board, staring out the window. No one seemed perturbed, no one seemed surprised. The ritual continued, only interrupted by Sam. He sat there, shaking his head and saying “Oh, man,” over and over. Barry sharpened a knife.
Sam looks on in despair...
Barry tries to help...
Barry goes to find his knife...
I stuffed my iPod headphones in and counted to one hundred, feeling my ulcer squeeze. Finally, after about five more minutes, and no discernible change in the vapours, the chains were on. A watched Chileno never works.
Within seconds, the bus revved dramatically, and finally lurched forward to the sound of metal breaking. We travelled about five metres more, before there was another loud metal clank. The clank returned, and again, and again. After a few seconds it settled into the rhythm of the bus, the rotation of the wheel. Each time it turned, the cymbals clanged as a piece of chain smacked against the undercarriage of the bus.
I looked toward the front of the bus. Carlos picked at his nails, catching up on the ritual he’d missed, blithely disinterested in this 90dB den. As we sped up, Sam clicked his fingers around his ears, dancing a flamenco. The rest of the passengers seemed not to notice or care. I checked and at least two of them weren’t dead. Barry continued sharpening his knife. Aware that the bus was a Mercedes, I figured whatever damage it was doing would be unlikely to stop us over the final 3km.
We pulled into to Valle Nevado at 11.19am. Right on time.
As we disembarked, Carlos announced to us all that the bus would be departing the mountain at 4pm. With that, I resolved to return half-an-hour late.
* * * * *
The day was truly magical. After gathering skis and stocks, a lift ticket, and a locker, I headed out. Valle Nevado Ski Resort peaks at Tres Puntas, 3,670 metres above the water, with Valle Del Inca, its smaller sibling, just across the way at 3,521 metres. In the valleys nestled between and below, are a meandering link of runs that take you through green, blue, red and black runs. On this day, the sky was blue, dotted with clouds, and there was a whiff of wind in the air but little more. The sun was out, and the snow was perfect. In the lower valleys, it was warm, but as you headed towards Tres Puntas, the wind swept up the powder and slapped it hard against your face like sand.
Like a kid at a carnival, I lavished in the rides on the various lifts and pomas to these peaks, chatting to bewildered strangers, trying as many runs as I could, sucking the juice out of the experience. Who needs Spanish? Here we talked snow. I didn’t once think of Carlos. The runs were wide and ranging, the snow thick enough to be open and untainted by rocks. They were long in comparison to Australia; in fact there is one run, Sol, which descends 625 metres over several kilometres, without needing to stop for a lift.
It was on this run, nearing the end of the day, that I got myself into a bit of a bind. I’d made tracks all over the mountain, skiing solidly, stopping only for a brief lunch of a burger, oil and fries that I think were made of potato. In the early afternoon I basked in the gorgeousness of the views, and hit upon my favourite, the Andes express chairlift. For the last hour of the day, I ran it over and over, hitting the mountain’s solitary moguls, calculating exactly how many more runs I could do, and then adding two more. Carlos could wait. I pushed it right to the edge.
Eventually satisfied, and happy with my fashionably-late timed return, I took my last run of the day along Sol, to end right at the bottom of the resort, before a sneaky lift across to the bus. The run was several kilometres long, and with such an open, full cover of snow, at times you get lost in this white oasis. They mark out the runs, but like everything South American, you wouldn’t rely on them.
Unless you’re me. As I finished the run, I skated in towards the dude in the black jacket. Mmm, different colour to the other towies. He stood there, frowning beneath his goggles, as he looked at my day pass. I smiled back, keen to get on the poma to head back up. Wasn’t this meant to be a lift? Whatever.
I put my hand out to take the poma bar, and he waved his hands.
“Que?” I felt like Manuel from Fawlty Towers.
“El Colorado,” he said, pointing at his chest.
“El Colorado?” My head swam. I pulled out my Mapa de Pistas. There on the edge of the map was an arrow away from the widest run, Sol, pointing out of frame, towards the next ski resort. El Colorado. I’d skied all the way to the next Ski Resort.
I looked at my watch and saw that it was already 4.11pm. Shit.
“Donde esta Sol?” He pointed in the other direction, seemingly towards the sky. I went a whiter shade of pale. I took a breath, and off I went.
For the next twelve minutes, I proceeded to pull several abdominal muscles and blister the webbing of my hands as I traversed my way towards several osteopathic treatments. I congratulated myself on a personal best over the two hundred metre uphill slog, not likely to be an Olympic event anytime soon.
I caught the Prado lift, bolted down to Vaiven, and spent the interminable ride to the top looking out for a departing Turistour bus. The chairlifts hadn’t seemed this slow all day.
At 4.26pm, I unclipped my boots and ran up the final hill, only to find Carlos standing there, looking slightly agitated.
“Sorry, Carlos,” I said, between heaves, “I just came from El Colorado.” The look of agitation disappeared.
“Wow,” he said, “are you Superman?” I felt my neck crick.
“Nope, no, I’m not.”
When I got on the bus at 4.34pm, Sam and Barry were smiling. Amazingly, the entire bus had been there at four on the dot, breaking with national tradition. The nail picking went on.
“You owe me a Foster’s,” Sam said, slapping me on the shoulder, causing a knot to harden.
The driver seemed surprisingly keen to return home, speeding the entire way. On the home stretch, at the end of the day, he’d found his mojo. All the way we listened to golden oldies, a video playing the best of Michael Jackson, while rigor mortis set in.
By the time we said farewell to Sam and Barry, I was barely able to move. I was thrown out at Hotel Gran Misnomer, the bus slowing slightly for my departure. I waved Carlos into the sunset, who was already preparing himself for the repeat farce on another unsuspecting group in the morning.
I took the stairs, and the bellhop fetched my bags. The day before I’d attempted to negotiate with the Good Palace Misnomer about having a shower on my return, but they’d baulked. I understand their position, but after a day on the mountain, prior to a 19-hour leg home, I was pretty keen to wash.
Again they sidestepped my request, like the slick dancers they are. So, I proceeded to their public bathroom, blocked the door with my bag, stripped naked, and had a birdbath.
Those little hotel towels have trouble soaking up an entire drenched floor, but they can do it. I exited the dunny, a wet rag on the bench the only evidence of my cleansing ritual, the staff none the wiser.
Other than the three people who barged in. But they were public.
“The Victorian SES received more than 700 calls for help overnight, after wild weather lashed the state. Melbourne was thrown into chaos late yesterday, when flash floods swept through parts of the city. More than 100 sets of traffic lights were knocked out, while around 20,000 homes lost power. SES crews worked into the night dealing with flooding and fallen trees.”
- Sunrise, Channel 7, 12th February 2010.
I went to the bank today.
I didn’t have to. I really didn’t. I’m a weird one sometimes.
I had a day off work, an afternoon off, and my desk was full of stuff, full of piles of things to do.
I sat there and looked out of my window at the pending storm. I was in boxer shorts. The oppressive high had been sitting over Melbourne in an unusual way, trying to break for nearly two days. It’d been a hot February, muggier than usual. The rain started to hit the next door’s roof in fat drops.
I sat and looked, knowing that there was no end of paperwork to be done. And that there was the logical order for doing them.
Or there was the fun way.
It’s a game my mind plays with me. There is the clever thing to do, the right thing, the smart thing. I can go through my piles of jobs, clearing my desk, feeling a sense of accomplishment at the end of it all.
Or I can get caught up in something else. Far more fun.
* * * * *
I flick through piles, listening to the deep rumble outside. I get up and walk to the back door, only to shut it again, still too hot. I look up at the thick coffee-grey sky outside.
I walk back into the study and sit again. I look through papers strewn from days of piling, eagerly awaiting this moment. I throw a couple of pages in the bin.
And then I see it. Two cheques.
My conscious doesn’t know it. It doesn’t see it for what it is. But somewhere, deeper, I hear the faint call.
It’s the call to adventure.
The cheques have been there for weeks. Insurance cheques. Reality is that they should sit there for weeks more. There’s absolutely no hurry to do anything about them.
But at this moment, right now, in this sticky seat, looking at the disorder all around, there is absolutely nothing more important than getting these things cashed.
I tell myself that it is going to be months – probably years – before I’ll next have a chance to get to a bank. One is made out for $134.95, the other for $396. They have to be cashed today. They just have to.
I grab my keys, and my wallet, checking my watch. The bank closes in thirteen minutes. It’s just up on Swan Street. The rain is falling hard now, good, proper rain, a fully-fledged storm. It spews out from above, the sky spilling over, two days of pent up emotion, now crying down. In buckets. We haven’t seen a storm like this in Melbourne for weeks, if not months.
A perfect day to cash a cheque.
I stand at my doorway, looking beyond the balcony. I still have a choice. I can choose to stay and watch, presently, peacefully. Or I can enter it. My subconscious already says “yes”.
I hesitate for a second, rationalising some more, before checking the rain radar on my phone. It shows that we in the epicentre of the storm; it’s white centre is surrounded by red, orange, yellow, green then blue. It’s the deepest it ever gets. And it’s happening right this minute. The pressure is palpable, like a massive cloud purge, the water vomiting down right now. And the need for me to be in it is equally primal. I grab an umbrella, and after thonging up and throwing on a T-shirt and shorts, I’m out there.
And I’m in it.
I run through the yard to the gate. The umbrella has to bend at an angle to get through. Plops of rain wet the legs of my shorts as my feet splash through puddles, and the cheques remain tucked under my left wing. I hop through the growing stream and to my car, overcome by the inevitable feeling of superiority that comes with having an umbrella. I try to dispel this emotion, knowing the deeper it brews, the more likely it is that a gust of wind will turn it inside out.
I wade through six inches of water, at path’s edge, filling the guttering full. It threatens to sweep off a thong, and again, I feel chuffed at my choice of footware. I jump into the car, closing the door ajar, and managing to fold my umbrella through the crack.
I survey the damage. Wet feet to shins, spotted shorts, otherwise good.
* * * * *
I start the car and head towards Swan Street. Within moments, the windshield is fogged and my visibility is gone. I open a crack in the window and turn my car fan up to full. It whines informally and ineffectively. I euthanase it.
I turn the corner and head right onto Swan. I pass under the train bridge – whump whump, whump whump – the water percussing its beat on my bonnet, interrupted by the train lines overhead.
I drive like I’ve got glaucoma. By this stage, I’m just trying to keep the other car’s highbeams to my right. The windshield is closed in, and through it, I search for the bank’s mid-blue light. I spot it, to my left, not far ahead. I double park outside; at this moment, there is not a single traffic cop working in all of Melbourne. The door opens like a can, the tinny sounds of the rain-slapped world outside leaping in. I manoeuvre my umbrella, and step outside, closing the door as I do.
There on the footpath, I spot a Polynesian woman, cloaked in a plastic bag. She eyes my umbrella enviously. I try to not look smug, as I walk towards the kerb, repeating the wading exercise of five minutes earlier. Only this time, the water is up to my knees. The river runs heavy towards the storm drain, and this time I have to pinch my toes hard, to not lose my thongs. I wade and leap, a last little hop, onto the path.
Surveillance: I’m wet, but compared to Ms Polynesia, I’m cruising. I’m a best case scenario right now.
I look through the glass door, only to see a bank clerk on the other side. Her windows are nearly as fogged as mine, the air con already off. She gives me a little shrug of her shoulders, showing her gappy front-tooth space as she does. You could floss it with a coin.
My face contorts involuntarily, as the Polynesian woman grins.
Gappy mouths her apologies, as she points animatedly at her watch. Behind her, a slick lad stands at the counter, smugly flicking through wads of cash. He licks a finger as he lets out a chuckle. He reminds me of me, five minutes ago. His karma umbrella is definitely up for an inversion on the way home.
And then I see it: “Opening times – 9.30am until 4pm”. Not 4.30pm. Four.
I absorb this information, shielded by my curved lid. For some reason I had it in my head that it was 5pm on Fridays and 4.30pm every other day. I keep forgetting that banks run like Daylight Spending schools. What was I thinking?
I turn. This time, I step into a river. A thong comes loose, or threatens to, and I lean down to stop it. The cheques dip in the tide, along with my T-shirt sleeve, and the umbrella splays forward, uncovering my back. I feel the drops fall from its crest, directly down my crack.
I straighten up, saving the move, not quite falling off the high wire, and wade back in again. I peek back and see the Polynesian lady grinning widely. I stop myself from looking at Gappy or Slick Boy.
I make it across the river, almost ending at the tram tracks in the centre. Dimmey’s, on the other side, has a growing moat, swimming up against her legs. I spy a set of headlights coming my way as I walk to my car door, plopping through the pond. As it passes, the wheels shoot a dirty spray of water at me, like ten super soakers all at once.
Instinctively, I move my umbrella down, covering my guts, hit by the shrapnel of warfare. Only to be rained down on from above. As I move it back to cover my head, another car comes past. And then repeat. Four or five more times.
I fumble for my keys, plonking my hand in a cup of water – my pocket. I fish for the beeper, trying to open the car. Two more cars drive by, throwing buckets of water at me, shells from above, the river at my feet.
I open the door of the car, sit quickly, and shut the door as much as I can. Then I wrestle with my umbrella, sticking out like a surrender flag, my door ajar.
You don’t often think about the physics of a car driving in water. Or, let me rephrase. I don’t often think about driving my car in water. Because I don’t do it, if I can avoid it. Unless there is an urgent cheque to deposit, that is.
When you do, paraplaning over the water surface, it feels freeing. Sure, we’ve all splashed through water, but to slide through a deep bit of water for anything more than a few feet feels dangerously liberating and slightly out of control. As you do this, your wheels displace the water sideways. But, because you are travelling forward, the water actually shoots up from the wheels, not at right angles, but at a forward angle. At about the exact angle – should a door be five centimetres ajar – that it would make it through, spraying the entire dash, the stereo, the steering wheel and the front window. Perfectly.
I just learnt this.
Twice. And then once more.
I gasp, shocked and bewildered by science. With three sets of car wheels, the entire river outside – the whole lot – has been deposited on my dashboard. I mean, it’s really very, very impressive.
As I wrestle to close my umbrella, two more cars come past, emptying even more over the insides of my car. And then again.
I wrestle some more, three rivers dripping onto my legs below. Finally I tear a limb free, an umbrella arm breaking as it comes through the door. I dump the injured implement on the passenger seat, wetting it for uniformity. I look out at the Polynesian woman, who, by now, is bent forward with laughter. She actually slaps her knee.
I fumble the keys before starting the car. It’s a beautiful old thing, this car, twenty-two years old. Yet – despite convention in a car of this vintage – I can’t find a single faded towel to wipe things down. As I drive off, and around the corner, I clip the edge of the guttering, leaving Polynesian lady, Gappy and Slick Boy in my dust. Well, mud, really.
I swerve up a side street, and the drops coalesce to stars, a hazy fog in my windscreen sky, making visibility impossible. Two decades of steering wheel grime turn to steering wheel slime under my fingers, black paint marking my hands. I attempt to turn left, and then left, almost hitting the middle of the roundabout, unable to let go of the steering wheel.
I turn the fan on high again, which blows me with litres more of water, the entire lot that was deposited into the airvents just one minute ago. For interest, each of these holds a bit over a jug. I blink it away, avoid more high beams, try to stay on the road, and make the turns. It’s like playing space invaders with cataracts and sunglasses while squinting.
The whump whump, whump whump has crescendoed on the way back – now harump harump, harump harump. My wiper rubbers threaten to come free, trying their hardest at high speed, only aided by the fact that it is faster than its arthritic arms care to go. I feel the tires slip. I hit a bump and more water comes out of the vents. The car gains grip again. Lucky I’m doing twenty.
I turn right into my street, and into my spot. As I stop, the water drips down my arms and legs into pools. I realise the cheques are still stuck in my pit. I grab at the umbrella, stupidly, as if it will now make a difference. My black painted fingers stick to the door handle as I pull, letting me out into the storm once again.
I close the door, lock it, and head over the road for my front gate. I angle the umbrella once more, again pooling all of the water that it has collected in it’s broken sprig yet again, and once more down my crack. I play at the gate with my submerged keys, wrestle the gate open, and find shelter. Once inside, I strip off naked, flicking my shorts across the slate with a kick. I turn and stand on the front mat, dripping, looking at the world outside.
Exactly where I should have stayed.
If I was smart.
* * * * *
I sometimes think I should get a new car. But then something like this happens and I’m not so sure. Had this been a brand new car, then the humour of the situation may not have been immediately evident. But on the other hand, I wouldn’t have had to deal with steering wheel slime. Yet, I could have ruined a perfectly good stereo. But, at least the demister would have worked. That is, if it hadn’t had its modern electricals destroyed by the drenching water, setting me back thousands.
I’m fond of my old car. It’s got character. Which is what you say when you’re short of modern features. And the winner, the clincher, the greatest invention of the modern car, is the alarm that goes off when you leave the lights on.
Something my old car neglected to tell me. Until two days later.
Today, I saw a man bargaining for bread. In a bakery. He was trying to get a better deal on a loaf.
There I was, on Victoria Street, at Lo Bahn Mi Bakery, buying a Vietnamese pork roll. It was a crisp autumn day, the sun was shining, and the footpaths along this strip of little Vietnam were thick with people.
The bakery was pretty full. Lo Bahn Mi has the best pork rolls in all of Melbourne. They are the best in Richmond, and consequently they are the best of the best. The vegies are fresh, the chilis are hot, and the pork and sandwich loaf are instilled with the finest of preservatives. And they are an absolute steal at $2.80.
As I ordered, I looked at the people around me. There was an elderly Greek woman whose hair sat flat against her crown, flakes of dandruff scattered through, a myopic chinless man asking for directions, and girl with a foot in a brace, hobbling on her remaining leg, trying to stop jam from her donut soiling her white T-shirt. Too late.
A came in, his arthritic limbs keeping his steps small. It’s like he bustled in, but in slow motion. He sidled up to the counter, pushing past the girl, more jam spilling.
“How much for the roll?” he asked.
“$1.90,” said the grey-toothed lady behind the counter. He stood for a moment, staring intently.
“Can you do any better than that?” She looked at him, confused. So did I.
“It’s a pretty small loaf,” he continued, unabashed, “don’t you think you can do a little better than that?” He looked around at me frowning. “What are you looking at?”
“You. Bargaining for bread,” I said.
“So what?” He threw his hands up, his shoulders frozen down. “You can bargain for electrical equipment, right? So why not food?”
I stopped for a second. Everyone looked at me – even the directions guy. Through coke-bottle glasses his eyes were the size of golf balls.
“I don’t know. I guess,” I said, pondering his logic. “For God’s sake, don’t let me stop you.”
He flung his arm up again, shooing me away. He turned back to the woman behind the counter.
“$1.50,” he countered.
“Hah,” the old Greek lady said, crowing loudly, “you’re kidding, Max?”
“$1.60, then,” he said, now irritated.
“Does anyone know how to get to Kmart from here?” asked the man with spectacles.
“$1.70,” yelled the man. He scratched nervously at his facial hair. It was the first sign of buyer’s nerves. Another drop of donut jam fell. The Greek woman cackled again. The girl behind the counter smiled benignly, baring her grey teeth. Like she was daring him.
“Fine then,” he said, looking around, “forget about it!” He yelled it at me, shaking his cane vigorously. He turned, taking in the room, his hostile audience, before turning back. He fumbled around in his coin purse, mumbling as he did, before taking out a five dollar note and a single gold coin. He slammed them down with a strangely unsatisfying clink. “Three loaves, thank you kindly,” he grumbled.
The girl behind the counter turned, took three loaves out, and placed them carefully into separate bags, before handing them to him. She took the money and headed for the register. As she did, the grumpy old man began to walk away.
“Sir,” she called, “you forgot your change.”
“Ahhh, keep the change,” he said, waving his cane forcibly in my direction.
We all stood, watching.
“Bye, Max,” called the Greek lady, scratching some dandruff from her flat patch. Max took tiny steps, faster and faster, like a wind up robot, gradually motoring towards the door. The donut girl took a final bite, the sugar dusting her lips. The chinless guy continued attempting to read a napkin.
“Keep the change,” Max mumbled. He twisted around as far as his frozen joints would allow, the puff gone from his voice, a little defeated. He raised his cane, almost too heavy, before he looking at me. And he said, “I wanted her to keep the change.”