HALF THE FUN
by Irwin Hirsh
(First published in Sikander 15, March 1989, edited by Irwin Hirsh. Reprinted as 'La Moitié du plaisir', in French, in Yellow Submarine 61, June 1989, edited by Andre-Francois Ruaud)
It is 2 o'clock on the afternoon of Thursday, the 21st of August, 1987. The next day Wendy and I are leaving on my GUFF trip and I'm making one more check through the stacks of clothes, books and other travel paraphernalia. Just as I decide that we don't need most of the maps and travel brochures the telephone rings. Wendy is right next to the telephone and picks up the receiver. As I listen to Wendy's half of the conversation I ascertain that she is talking to Andrew, our travel agent. Soon I'm brought into the conversation, "Irwin, what's the Harvey's address and phone number? Cathay Pacific and British Airways need it."
"The Harveys," I think to myself, "I saw our address book just a few minutes ago." And with that I started retracing my steps of those last few minutes, flicking through this stack of papers, under that stack of clothes. Soon I found the book, turned to the 'H' page and handed the book to Wendy.
After the address had been relayed to Andrew, the telephone conversation took a turn for the worse. From Wendy's mouth I heard such phrases as "Really!' "why?" "so what happens now?" and any number of "Oh my god!"s. I stopped what I was doing to concentrate on the telephone conversation. Listening carefully I tried to work out what it was that was prompting Wendy's short responses. A strike in the airline industry? The flight has been overbooked and we're the ones to get bumped? It was something along those lines.
The conversation finished and Wendy replaced the receiver, slowly, and just looked at it for a bit. Her facial expression the complete antithesis to that with which she answered the phone. "Both airlines are talking about not letting me on their flights," she said, her eyes fixed firmly on the telephone. "They don't want to be held responsible if something goes wrong."
"But what's going to go wrong?" I asked rhetorically.
A few days before we had put in an application asking the airlines for special consideration, in view of Wendy's medical problems. Essentially we knew that nothing was going to go wrong, but we knew that with a medical excuse we stood a good chance of reserving seats right next to the emergency exits, seats which have a lot of leg-room. Neither Wendy's doctor nor Andrew saw anything wrong with the idea. "The worst that they can do is say 'No'" said Andrew. The concept that they wouldn't allow Wendy on their flights was an entirely alien one.
But the feeling I had as I stood there looking at Wendy was not alien. The wave of emptiness was the same as the feeling I had a few months earlier when suddenly Wendy was found to require an operation, which among other things lead to Wendy being off work for four months and a six week delay in the date of our departure. Someone out there is out to get us, I thought to myself.
"Anyway, it is not as if they would know anything was wrong," I added, sort of answering my own question. Wendy accepted the double meaning. On one hand we volunteered the information that Wendy is an epileptic. But at the same time only a trained person would be able to spot when she is having a seizure. I know that blank expression for what it is, which is the worst Wendy had been for as long as I've known here and which hadn't happened since the operation, but most people would just read the expression as something which happens on 20+ hour flights.
I felt pathetic and Wendy looked worse. Empty. As I walked over to console her she started to cry. A few minutes later we'd recovered from the initial shock and we started to get some perspective on the situation. "So what did Andrew say is to happen now?"
"We just have to wait till they decide on way or the other."
With only one day till departure I didn't like the idea of just sitting back. Should they make the decision to not allow Wendy on the flight there may not be enough time to convince them to reverse their decision. I picked up the phone and rang Andrew to put this to him but he was out to lunch. I wondered if his co-workers knew anything about what we could do. Even the hour of Andrew's lunchtime could count against us so I asked the person at the other end of the line if she would be able to help. Her response was a qualified decline: she was totally unaware that this was happening and didn't feel she could just step in like this. That's odd, I thought, it wouldn't be too often that a travel agent has a client who the airlines aren't prepared to carry. I would've thought that such news would quickly spread throughout the agency.
The next ten minutes Wendy and I spent just looking at the phone, waiting for it to ring. "How can he have such a long lunch when he should be helping us?" I screamed in frustration. We decided to ring our parents so that they knew what was happening and out of that came a halfhour blur of further phone calls. My father suggested that Wendy's surgeon may be able to alleviate any fears the airlines have.
"I'll get you on your flight, don't worry," Dr Wallace told Wendy, "When do you leave?"
"That soon, huh."
Ten minutes later his receptionist rang back asking us to get the name of the person who'll ultimately be making the decision on Wendy. So another phone call to Andrew was in order. He was still at lunch, so I outlined the situation to the voice at the other end of the line. It was a different voice to that who I spoke to before.
She was just amazed at what I told her. "I'll find out who your doctor needs to speak to, but in the meantime you should get him to give you a letter about Wendy's condition. When you are travelling around Europe you may need it." And there and then she dictated the letter to me and suddenly I knew who I was talking to. My mother had recommended this travel agency to us, in particular Robert. When Robert moved north my mother had hoped that Claire would take over our file and suggested we speak to her when you next contact the agency. But it was Andrew who took over from Robert. Now I was talking to Claire and I knew why my mother had suggested her - she is willing to fight for her clients.
The doctor's receptionist said the letter would be ready in half an hour and I went out to pick it up. My idea was to go from the doctor's surgery on to the travel agency; I felt useless sitting at home waiting for more news and the conversations on the telephone weren't satisfying my sense of unease. There is nothing like being forced away from a telephone to cause things to fall into place for when I arrived at the surgery the receptionist was pleased to tell me that Wendy was half-way onto the flight. As a result of Dr Wallace's phone calls to them, the Melbourne office of British Airways had agreed that the tension they were placing on Wendy was more likely to cause an epileptic seizure than would travelling at a high altitude or the airline's quality of service. All that would be needed was the okay from Head Office in London, and given the time difference we wouldn't know of their decision till the next morning.
The rest of the afternoon and evening was dominated by quite a dull sensation. We packed our bags, wondering if was necessary. The visits and telephone calls from friends seemed, too, to have a futility about them. Were we on the flight or would we be stopped at the departure lounge? It was a good thing the day's activities were so draining as it was the only reason I got a good night's sleep.
I woke up the next morning just on 9 o'clock and nervously rang British Airways.
"Yes, Mr Hirsh, London has ok'd your wife for the flight."
* * * * * * * * *
So, we were on our way. And for all our trouble, all the tension of the previous day, the seats we planted our bums into weren't the seats we'd requested. As far as I can tell the check-in clerk took a dislike to us, and decided that the best he can offer is seats in the row behind those we wanted. When we pointed out that we'd requested particular seats we were told that that is all we'd done: put in a request. When we pointed out that we were the first in the queue, the clerk told us that the flight was originating in Sydney, implying that that was why the seats weren't available. When we went upstairs to the Top Deck restaurant for lunch we saw a British Airways 747 on the tarmac, at the same gate from which our flight would be departing. There were three hours till departure, so our flight should be in Sydney but there were no earlier flights listed to be departing from that gate.
I went downstairs and asked a polite question about the origin of flight 10. As angry as I was made by the reply I was reluctant to make any waves. After all that went on the previous day I was glad to just be on the flight. Wendy felt much the same, and as we sat in the seats in row 29 we sneered at the people in row 28.
The flight to Sydney was extremely pleasant. We knew that beyond Sydney we would be part of a teeming mass of humanity, but for one hour we were able to stretch out and work our way up to the cattletruck beyond Sydney. I took to sampling the various channels of the audio entertainment, settling on the humour channel. The best and not so best of essentially British humour, hosted by Frank Muir. About twenty minutes into the tape I was told that I was about to hear "a particularly delightful sketch about kindergarten children." I tapped Wendy on the shoulder. "Listen to channel four. There is something you might enjoy."
The sketch by one Joyce Grenfell left a lot to be desired, and was only saved by Wendy's touch. When Ms Grenfell told her imaginary class to "put on our thinking caps," Wendy put on an imaginary cap. When the ever-so-delightful Grenfell lady asked her class to "put on (their) biggest smile," Wendy put on her biggest cheesy grin. As I proceeded to be bored by Grenfell's condescending view of her subject matter I found myself looking out the window, considering south-east New South Wales. After a bit of staring into all that space I turned to Wendy and found that she'd given up on the 'humour'. I followed her line and randomly turned to another channel, where I found a piece of music which sounded as if was Mel and Kim but was probably some other plastic group.
The jet landed in Sydney and Wendy and I took the opportunity to stretch our legs in the direction of, first, the duty-free shop and then on to relieve ourselves. Back at the departure lounge Wendy pointed to a lady who was standing with her back to us. "She pushed in front of me in the toilet queue."
I looked up, following the line from the tip of Wendy's pointed finger. "She looks like Janeen Webb."
"Yeah," agreed Wendy, "same long legs."
"And very similar hairstyle."
The likeness was rather uncanny, so I waited for confirmation one way or the other. Eventually she turned side on. It wasn't Janeen.
Back on the jet I was a few steps ahead of Wendy as we walked down the aisle. Just as I reached our seats I heard Wendy let out a scream of laughter. I turned around and saw that she was standing talking to someone. I walked back to see who it was.
"Er, hi Janeen!" I said.
"Do you know that there is someone on this flight who looks a lot like you." Wendy said.
"You realise that the Blackfords will probably be at the airport to meet us," I told Wendy when back at our seats, "They left about a fortnight ago."
"God! We go half way across the world to be met by people we only occasionally see in Melbourne. Fan-bloody-tastic."
The rest of the flight, all 22 hours of it, was unremarkable. We had a Maggie Thatcher lookalike sitting behind us and in keeping with this the food was bland. The Janeen Webb lookalike was sitting just six rows back, an incredibly exciting piece of information we provided to Janeen when she came down to talk to us. Janeen and Wendy managed to pass whole minutes by gossiping by the good ol' days when Wendy was a mere college student and Janeen was her tutor.
It is probably a testament to the cattletruck that was this flight that the most fascinating thing to do was watch the queue for the toilets. In their infinite wisdom British Airways had decided that two toilets could adequately serve 200 people, when other airlines like the idea of having a block of four toilets. In their attempt to squeeze in an extra four seats there were half hour toilet queues for most of the flight. The cubicles couldn't cope with the constant use and towards the end of the flight they were a stinking mess. A couple of hours out of Heathrow I decided to freshen up with a shave. I applied a soapy lather to my face but gave up after only one stroke of the razor. The stench was too much and I went back to my seat feeling worse than I did two minutes earlier. And I had to wait half an hour for that privilege.
Throughout the flight we'd been debating whether we should use the wheelchair Dr Wallace had requested for Wendy. She felt self-conscious about the idea of being wheeled around, while I felt she should take advantage of it for the same reason the Doc has suggested: it would enable us to queue hop at the passport check. After a 22 hour flight I didn't feel like spending an hour or more in a queue and ultimately Wendy decided she didn't think much of the concept. A wheelchair it was.
The wheelchair attendant proved most deft at his craft, zipping Wendy down ramps and through corridors with great speed. I was left with the need to run to keep up. At emigration there was a queue of three or four hundred. While I stood there trying to work out how many plane loads the queue represented the wheelchair attendant found a nice little queue of one, just for us. A representative of Her Maj's Customs welcomed us to his country with the news that Walkabout was his favourite Australian film, an opinion motivated by the many revealing shots of Jenny Agutter.
We collected our luggage and went out into the arrivals hall. I scanned the area looking for Eve and John Harvey but they weren't to be seen. No sight of Russell and Jenny Blackford, for that matter. The wheelchair attendant suggested putting an announcement over the public address system for the Harveys. A minute later I'm hearing "Would Mr and Mrs Harvey meeting Mr and Mrs Hirsh please go to the Information Desk" coming out over the speakers. And I thought such announcements only happened in the movies.
Soon enough Eve and John came along. Suddenly it occurred to me that I didn't really know them too well, not seeing much of them on Eve's GUFF trip in 1985. "Er, hi."
"Hello. How's the flight?"
I shrugged my shoulders. "Er, fine."
"Over there, in a wheelchair," I said, pointing.
And just then I realised what that last word meant. We hadn't warned the Harvey's about any wheelchair. "I'll explain about the wheelchair later," I said and walked up to Wendy.
Wendy was introduced to our hosts, the wheelchair attendant thanked, and on our way we want. As John negotiated his car through the carpark we explained about the wheelchair. "Phew," said a relieved Eve, "We knew you'd been sick but we didn't expect a wheelchair. My first thought was to wonder how you were going to get around our two storey house."
Once out of the confines of Heathrow Wendy and I sat back to get our first views of this foreign land. The problem being that it didn't seem foreign. I'd look this way and that, wanting to see something new, something different. From what I saw we may as well have been on the Tullamarine Freeway driving from Melbourne's airport. I turned to Wendy "We've just come halfway across the world, haven't we?" I asked her.
"I think so" she said.
"Don't worry," Eve said, "When we arrived in Australia it also felt like we hadn't left home."
Then, perhaps half a minute later, I noticed a sign indicating the distance to Sunbury. "Look" I said to Wendy, pointing. Wendy just laughed.
Eve turned around. "What's so funny?"
"The freeway sign that announces the exit to Melbourne's airport also tells you the distance to Sunbury. We haven't left home."