Melbourne. Sunshine dropping sheets of molten gold over the city. Humidity so high that you can swim to work in your own sweat. The headache-thumping whine of a million angry mosquitoes as the cars race around the track in Albert Park. This is Melbourne during Grand Prix week. They send me there every year; its horrible.
I stamped my foot like a petulant child. "Dont wanna go! Not gunnoo!"
They bribed me with Luxury. "The usual hotel is booked out and so at the end of the week we have booked you into a hotel in Brighton. Its right by the sea in one of Melbournes most luxurious and exclusive suburbs. Youll love it!"
We all filed on to the aeroplane and took our seats. The driver put the gear stick into neutral and vroom vroomed the engines for a while. Then there was a hydraulic whine as the flaps rose, closely followed by a horrible graunching as the driver jiggled them about a bit. Soon there was an announcement:
"As you can probably tell from the noise, we are having some trouble with the flaps. Ive called the engineers out to have a look. I dont think it will take very long. Just a few minutes."
A yellow mechanism drove out and sat under the wing for a while. Then it went away again. I saw no evidence of engineers; obviously they were invisible. We all waited patiently while they hit things with invisible hammers and tightened screws with invisible screwdrivers. Eventually the onboard voiceover said: "Well the engineers are happy now, and if they are happy, so am I."
It seems to be a universal rule that no Air New Zealand plane will ever take off on time (I have flown a lot with Air New Zealand and never once has the plane met its announced schedule), but this one was now more than an hour late, and thats excessive even for them. We rumbled down the runway and lumbered into the air.
Soon it was time for the in-flight service. As usual, I had managed to sit in the seat that was served last. Not only that, I was mortified to find that the trolley in the opposite aisle was racing up and down like greased lightening whereas the one in my aisle appeared to be propelled by arthritic snails. Geological aeons came and went before finally a packet of cassava chips (guaranteed cholesterol free) and a can of beer were casually slapped down in front of me.
To pass the time, I continued a research project that I began several years ago into the causes of turbulence. So far the statistical evidence suggests that it has two major causes. The serving of food and drink is one cause. The other is going to the toilet. There is something distressingly disconcerting about feeling the whole aeroplane shudder immediately after indulging yourself in a fart.
We began our descent into Melbourne airport and I was quite upset to hear the flaps make the same unhealthy graunching noises that they had made when they were tested on the ground at Auckland. I began to wonder just what the invisible engineers in the yellow mechanism had done to them. Had the repair worked? We landed without incident, but Id love to know how narrow the escape really was
As we taxied towards the gate the voiceover said: "Please remain in your seats when we reach the gate. The quarantine inspectors need to come aboard."
Funny, I thought. Are they going to spray us? It has been a long time since Ive seen the quarantine people walk up and down the aisles spraying insecticide on the passengers in case any of the people in the seats are fruit flies in disguise. I thought they did it automatically through the air conditioning nowadays. Oh well. Maybe the spraying device was connected to the flaps and was consequently out of order. We came slowly to a full stop at the gate.
"Remember," said the voice, "please remain seated for the quarantine inspectors."
The seat belt sign went off with a musical ping. Immediately a businessman two seats in front of me got up to remove his laptop computer from the overhead locker. An aeroplane full of eyes glared at him. "Sit down!" He sat down.
The doors opened and two large policemen and a policewoman strode fiercely to the back of the plane, every eye upon them. I could see them remonstrating with someone. Then they disappeared, presumably through the rear door. Finally we were allowed to disembark. The policemen were now standing in the gate and I overheard one of them saying to his mate, "I told him to stop being a silly bugger and not to do it again."
As I walked away from the gate, I glanced through a window. There were yellow mechanisms beneath the wings of the plane. The invisible engineers were out in force again
My boarding pass said that I was allowed to enter Australia through the express lane for priority processing. I have never seen any evidence whatsoever of an express lane on any of my visits to Australia and this trip was no exception. All the passengers were filtered through the same check in desks irrespective of what it said on their boarding cards. The queue snaked on forever. Eventually I reached an immigration official. He was labelled "Frank Kilroy". He glared at me with eyes made malignant by a long, hot, tiring day and a million recalcitrant passengers.
I handed it over silently. I just KNEW that if I made any smart-arse remarks about Frank Kilroy being here, proctologically inclined gentlemen with an infinite supply of rubber gloves would be summoned to converse with me. I restrained myself, but I think I ruptured something in the effort.
He waved me through, looking mildly disgruntled. Welcome to Melbourne.
The first three days were spent at the usual company hotel, and very pleasant it was too. On the second day it grew a cute little red racing car in the foyer and petrolheads could be heard murmuring "Vroom, vroom", softly as they passed. Impatiently I drank beer in the bar and ate meals in the restaurant. Soon it would be Thursday and the barely hinted-at sybaritic luxuries of the hotel in Brighton would be mine to indulge in. The days crawled past.
Thursday dawned hot and humid (of course). A taxi was summoned. Brighton beckoned
The hotel in Brighton turned out to be a combination motel and conference centre. As I walked down the corridor towards my room it was pleasantly cool, the distant hum of air conditioning units a soothing presence. I unlocked the door of my room and entered it. I became aware that behind the scenes all might not be well
The room was humid and stuffy. I broke into a sweat as soon as I got in. The air conditioning unit on the wall had been gimmicked and the dial wouldn't turn itself below 25 degrees, but that didn't matter because it didn't appear to be working anyway. Not a trickle of air came out of the vents.
The bathroom contained three small and threadbare bath towels. There were no hand towels or face cloths. Two minuscule cakes of soap were provided, but there was no shampoo, no shower gel, no sewing kit. The shower had two temperatures - hot and off. I explained this to the lady at the reception desk. Her eyes widened with pretended concern,
"Would you like me to tell Bill the engineer?"
Bill proved to be just as invisible as the Air New Zealand engineers, but much less efficient. He failed to make any useful repairs to the room. I returned to the reception desk.
"Do you have a street map, please?"
"Where do you want to go?"
"Well, I don't really know until I see a street map. I'm not even very sure where I am at the moment."
The eyes widened again and the voice dripped condescending honey sweetness as she said slowly and distinctly, "You're in Brighton, dear. Brighton is in Melbourne."
After a sweaty nights sleep, it was time to make my way back to the office. The instructions in my hotel booklet told me to dial 800 to order a taxi. I dialled and nothing happened. I dialled again with the same result. I went down to reception. This time a man was on the desk. I explained my problem with the phone.
He sniffed. "Oh yes," he said. "That's right. Everybody's got mobile phones these days so we don't bother turning on the room phones unless people specifically request it."
"It doesn't say anything about that in the book in the room."
He looked down his angular nose. "All our regular clients know about it."
"Can you call me a taxi please?"
"Well just this once, but that's not my job you know."
I began to wonder if everyone in the hotel had been to sarcasm and rudeness school. I went into breakfast while I waited for my taxi. As I entered the restaurant, a group of gossiping waiters turned their backs on me in order to continue their conversation.
The fruit was tinned, the coffee was lukewarm and so was the milk I poured on my cereal. I went out to my taxi
Later that evening, after a racing car noisy day at the office, I returned to my private sauna bedroom. I decided to go for an explore (anything rather than lie and sweat into the sheets which seemed to be my only other alternative). Brighton really is a luxury suburb. Expensive houses jostle cheek by jowl and nestle snugly in immaculately manicured gardens with stately palm trees to give them shade. Languid ladies relax on the beach which stretches in smooth yellow swathes as far as the eye can see. And at irregular intervals the Brighton Boxes stand and stare.
The Boxes are simply that - small single-roomed wooden sheds, many quite ramshackle for they seem to date from the early years of the twentieth century. They are simply changing rooms as used by stately Edwardian ladies to don stately Edwardian bathing costumes.
Possession of a Brighton Box is the ultimate status symbol in this supremely status conscious suburb. On the rare occasions when they appear on the market they change hands for fantastic sums. One recently sold for $120,000. Can you imagine paying that sort of money for a one-roomed shed with no electricity, no running water, no facilities of any kind?
Box proud owners try to decorate them as best they can. I saw one painted as a Union Jack and another had a most lifelike drawing of a seagull perching upon it. However I'm not sure it compensated for the cost.
I returned to my room and dressed in my scruffiest clothes then I went and sat in a prominent place in the cool corridor and read my book. Passing staff glared because I was making the corridor untidy, but I just smiled sweetly back at them. Soon it would be Saturday and time to go home.
The plane back to Auckland was barely ten minutes late taking off. It must have had a downhill wind because it made up the lost time (and more beside) and we landed about twenty minutes early. My boarding pass was marked "Express Lane In", and unlike Australia, New Zealand always seems to have one working. The formalities were over in less than ten seconds. A taxi was waiting and we drove off into the night.
It was good to be home.