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Mother Out Law's Tongue

Robin and I had it all planned. My mother-out-law was arriving for a holiday shortly after midnight on Friday 22nd November (actually, to be precise, that's really the small minutes of Saturday 23rd of November). I was teaching in Auckland that week but I was booked to fly back to Wellington on the 8.30pm flight which meant I should get home about 10.00pm. Just enough time to give the house a spit and a polish, sufficient to remove the more festering growths, and then off to the airport to pick up Phyllis.

I got to Auckland airport for my flight home just after 7.00pm. My 8.30 flight was on the board, but the ominous word DELAYED was displayed against it. I went to check in.

"I'm on the 8.30 to Wellington," I said. "Any chance of an earlier flight?"

"It depends what kind of ticket you have," said the man, and he banged a few keys on the keyboard and frowned at the screen. Then he shook his head sadly. "Sorry squire," he said in tones of deepest indifference, "you've got a T-class ticket. No transfers allowed. If you want an earlier flight you'll have to buy a whole new ticket."

"Damn! Oh well, I'd better go on the flight I'm booked on. How long is it delayed for?"

He tapped a few more keys. "Three hours," he said lugubriously.

"Oh come on!" I said. "That's ridiculous - do I really have to hang about for the next four hours waiting for the stupid thing? Isn't there anything you can do?"

"I'll talk to my supervisor," he said reluctantly and disappeared round the back.

A few moments later he returned. "I'll put you on standby for the 7.00pm flight," he said. "That's only delayed by one and a half hours."

"Yes - that's much better," I said. He didn't react and I began to feel that perhaps irony was over-rated as a communication method.

He tied a yellow standby ticket on my bag and put it on the conveyor to the nether regions. The yellow sticker looked quite pretty next to the red priority sticker. I waved my bag a fond farewell and proceeded through security to the Koru Club lounge where I waited with keen anticipation for the flight to be called. Would I make it on board?

Then, wonder of wonders, I was paged to the desk.

"We've got you on the flight, Mr Robson," said the nice lady and she gave me a boarding pass for seat 14B which proved to be the middle seat of a row of three. An extremely large gentleman had the window seat and he overflowed generously into my space from the left. An even larger gentleman had the aisle seat and he overflowed into my space from the right. I crunched up small and read my book, dreaming about deep vein thrombosis caused by my utter inability to move for the duration of the flight.

Now that Air New Zealand has become an economy airline it no longer serves a meal on the flight between Auckland and Wellington. However in order to give the cabin crew something to do after they have gabbled their indifferent way through the safety demonstration, coffee and tea are served. First a trolley is trundled down the aisle and cups and saucers are handed out. This is followed, after a decent interval, by a man wielding jugs.

Everyone let down the tray table conveniently located in the back of the seat in front of them, and placed their cup and saucer on it. At that point we all made the very interesting discovery that the tray tables sloped downwards at slight angle below the horizontal, and no matter how carefully you placed the cup and saucer on the tray, they always slid down towards you and fell off into your lap.

All around me worried commuters pushed their cup and saucer up to the top of the tray table. Then they watched it slide down again, and just before disaster intervened, they pushed it back up. We all diverted ourselves with this game for several minutes while we waited for the cabin staff to come round and fill the cups.

The cups were pushed up, the cups slid down. In the early seventeenth century Galileo Galilei spent a lot of time sliding things up and down inclined planes that looked suspiciously like the tray table in front of me. From these experiments he deduced the basic laws of motion that were later embodied in Isaac Newton's first two laws. One of his deductions was that objects fell with a constant acceleration in a gravitational field. It didn't matter how light or heavy they were, they all fell at the same rate. I seem to recall an astronaut on one of the moon walks demonstrating this interesting fact by dropping a feather and a hammer. In the vacuum of the moon, with no air to support the feather, both hit the ground at exactly the same time.

The steward filled my cup with liquid mud coffee substitute, thereby making it substantially heavier than it had previously been. Immediately it slid down the tray table much faster than it had before! Somehow Air New Zealand had managed to repeal the laws of physics. All around me I could hear the screams of scalded commuters as the cups raced speedily down the tray tables.

Once we were all suitably refreshed, the cabin staff came round and collected our dirty cups from our soggy laps. We all stowed our tray tables away, glad that our ordeal was over. Soon my ears began to pop - we were starting our descent into Wellington.

We landed with the normal wobble and thud that accompanies most flights into Wellington and taxied to the terminal. The gentleman on my right struggled into the aisle and I managed to breathe properly for the first time in an hour. My deep vein thrombosis miraculously vanished. I trotted off to claim my luggage.

You will recall that my luggage, festooned with yellow standby labels and red priority labels, was last seen disappearing into a black hole on the conveyor in Auckland. The priority label is supposed to ensure that it is among the first bags off the plane. Because I was a standby passenger, my bag must have been one of the very last on board. For both of these reasons, I was sure that it would be among the first into view.

Air New Zealand baggage handlers are the slowest in the known universe. Once, on a flight to a provincial city, I waited for my bags to appear for longer than the actual flight itself had taken. In the main centres it normally takes about twenty minutes before the first bags trundle into view. Today was no exception. But yet again, Air New Zealand proved their mastery over the laws of the universe. Despite the fact that my bag was the last one on the plane, it was also one of the last ones off the plane as well. I had almost given up hope and was about to report it missing when it finally appeared, looking rather embarrassed at the delay it had caused. So much for the priority sticker for which I pay $350 a year to have attached to my bags. Everyone always ignores it. I can't think why I bother.

There is a very good reason why Air New Zealand is losing money hand over fist. And it isn't the high quality of their service.

Because I had travelled on the plane that was only running an hour and a half late, as opposed to the one that was running three hours late, I was home by the original expected time. The mother-out-law plans were still on schedule.

It was growing dark and the manky bits in the house were becoming hard to identify. I half-heartedly wielded a vacuum cleaner hither and yon, but I can't honestly say that anything much changed. Robin put clean sheets on the guest bed, and we were ready to go. I drove out to the airport. It looked strangely familiar, almost as if I had been there before. We arrived shortly after midnight. The Air New Zealand flight had just landed - I knew it would be hours before we saw Phyllis. After all, the luggage alone could take days to work its way through the system. And then she would have to come through customs.

Uncounted aeons later she finally appeared through the immigration barriers. "The luggage took forever to appear," she said. I nodded knowledgeably. "Of course," she added thoughtfully, "my suitcase went round three times before I recognised it. I had a ribbon tied on it so I could spot it easily but the ribbon had fallen off in transit and I didn't notice."

"Welcome to New Zealand, Phyl," I said.

"Thank you."

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