Other Funds


Chapter One: Horror Stories

by Paul Kincaid

(First published in GUFFaw 3, November 1999, edited by Paul Kincaid.)

Dave the plasterer arrives first, bang on 8.30. 'Morning. Packed yet?' Then Clive the carpenter. 'Lovely day. Done your packing?' A little later Peter the painter turns up. 'All packed, are you?' Terry, the labourer, doesn't say much. He doesn't need to.

Yes, of course we've done the packing. Last night. Most of it, anyway. There's still a mass of stuff cluttering the bed, with no immediately obvious way of getting it all into the bags available. But that's the least of our problems. There's the trip to Sainsbury's, for a start, to buy 66 cans of cat food, enough to keep the brutes fed for three weeks. Then Richard turns up. He's the building contractor, so he's nominally in charge of all the work that's going on, the work that's going to keep going on while we're away, isn't it, Richard? Of course it is, he promises, he's not going to take any of the men off this job just because we're not around. 'Captain Laptop'. That's what his men call him behind his back, because he'd rather disappear into his office and play with his computer than come out on site and pretend he really knows what he's talking about. He's also afraid of Maureen because she knows what things like soffits and facias are (her father was in the trade), only she's a girlie so she's not supposed to know stuff like that. Our conversation, therefore, has a peculiarly triangular shape. Richard talks to me. I look to Maureen, because all of this is like a foreign language as far as I'm concerned. Maureen answers. Richard addresses his next remark to me.

In among everything else, there are three big, disruptive, messy jobs that we want doing while we're away: the skylight at the top of the stairs needs to be replaced, a new skylight needs to be fitted in Maureen's study, and taking down the unsupported chimney and fireplace. Now these will be done before we get back? Of course. We try to feel confident. Anyway, assuming he'll be true to his word, all of this means in turn that we must hurriedly load all our philosophy books, nut books, comedy books, travel books, maps, etc into a seemingly endless supply of banana boxes and heave them up to another room out of the way. Then I need to go into town to get cash for the taxi. And Maureen has umpteen Novacon letters to write, and an apa contribution, and lord knows what else. And I need to disinter a stack of addresses for postcards and stuff and feed them into my PalmPilot. And help, there's still this pile of stuff waiting on the bed and needing to be squeezed into cases that look smaller every time we go back to them. We shove things into every stray corner of every bag, then we unpack it all again to start over. How on earth am I going to fit any copies of my fanzines into the bag? And we've lost the hotel confirmation. And somehow it all gets done and ten minutes before the taxi's due we've got bags lined up and coats on.

In the few minutes it takes to drive through the back streets of Folkestone to get to the motorway our taxi driver has discovered that we are on our way to Australia, and has told us in turn all about his time in the army (or was it the airforce) and how he nearly went on to serve in the Australian army (or air force). As we come up to the motorway junction we notice that someone, apparently overnight, has either cut or painted a white horse onto one of the hillsides overlooking the town. That changes the subject for a moment, then he's off again: how the Witnesses prove the truth of the Bible through exhibits in the British Museum, how he used to enjoy The Eagle and Dan Dare when he was a kid, Morgan cars. It all seems connected at the time. By the time we pull into Heathrow we're promising to find out for him exactly how the Australians regard Indonesia.

We're early. No, that doesn't quite do it justice. We have time to return home, unpack, repack, travel all the way to Heathrow once more, and still make the flight with time to spare. The flight is at 10.30. We have arranged to meet Claire, Dave and Mark sometime between 7 and 7.30. It is now 5.30. When we flew out to America for Maureen's TAFF trip we left on the busiest weekend of the year and the computers had just gone down, so there were long queues outside the terminal. Now the building seems virtually empty, a great long barn of a place with chrome railings set in little maze-like patterns here and there to control non-existent queues. A TV screen tells us which check-in desks we'll need, so we trundle our luggage off in search of the right place. That doesn't take long. We find a little row of seats more or less opposite where we'll need to be and colonise them. Then we take it in turns to explore. Terminal Four at Heathrow is long and narrow, so exploring consists of walking in one direction as far as you can go (passing an exciting array of money exchange, W.H. Smith, lifts, café) then turning round and walking back. Feeling daring, I go on past where Maureen is sitting to see what lies in the other direction. There is a booth for taking passport photos (seems a bit late to me) and an area roped off for first class passengers. Returning to Maureen, she sets off to find out if I missed anything. I sit and stare at the usual to and fro of an airport for while, then Maureen comes back and I set off once more. Well, I could have missed something. But I hadn't. I browse for a while among the books at W.H. Smith, and buy myself a Coke. Then Maureen goes off. And so the hours pass. At last I hit on an infallible method of conjuring up our travelling companions: I start making notes for my trip report. As if by magic, Dave Langford appears.

This at least gives us an opportunity to natter for a while, until Claire Brialey and Mark Plummer show up, bang on 7.30. Ah, now we can start making moves towards Australia. We descend en masse on the check in. The poor girl on the desk seems to be new to the job and having some difficulty with her computer, which appears to be running extra slow. Nevertheless we get our bags weighed (mine barely scrapes in under the weight limit - bloody fanzines) and fortunately they accept that the small fido (which, believe me, seems to weigh as much as all our other cases put together) really is cabin baggage, honest guv, and we collect our boarding passes and we're away.

Going through to the departure lounge, the first thing you hit, inevitably, is the duty free shop. Claire and Mark emerge with a bottle of whisky, I emerge with some films for my camera. Then it's time to find out what else is on offer, which isn't much until we happen upon a Wetherspoons pub. It seems a reasonable idea to squander the last of our English money on a meal and a pint or two. As we eat, and listen to the usual run of airport announcements - 'Will Mr So-and-so please report to Gate 8 where your flight is waiting to depart' - Dave confesses his terrible secret. He is endeavouring to smuggle quince jam into Australia. We sit back in alarm, look anxiously around lest anyone might have heard. This is a heinous crime indeed. We have all heard the stories of the ruthless efficiency of the Australian customs. I have even had to get my doctor to give me a note saying I really do need to take these anti-inflammatories to help my bad knee get better, because otherwise they are liable to rip my bags apart in order to confiscate such horrible drugs. It takes another pint to calm our nerves after this dreadful revelation. Fortunately, by the time we've finished they are calling us to our Gate, though it goes without saying that we then have to sit and wait for ages before they finally get around to letting anyone onto the plane.

The plane! It's a Boeing 747, a big bugger to say the least, and it's going to be our home for near-enough 24 hours, our cosy den. So why does it feel so cramped? Maybe when the usual scrum of people shoving things into overhead lockers and squeezing past each other and failing to find seats and all the rest of it has died down, maybe then it will feel a little better? Well the scrum does finally settle down. The pilot announces we are all set, except for some final bits of freight which should be loaded in the next minute or two. He tells us this several times. Half an hour late or so, a little after 11pm, the plane starts to move (accompanied by an unmistakable and very worrying reek of kerosene) and my knees are still jammed against the seat in front of me, and it is still impossible to bend down and reach anything on the floor. At one point I consider taking my trainers off for the flight, but if I did I'd never be able to get them on again. We are further encumbered with pillow and blanket and pack containing blindfold and oversocks and toothbrush, toothpaste, comb. It's all meant to make us more comfortable, but it just takes away a little more of our all too little space. The first announcement the cabin crew makes is to tell us that sleeping in the aisles is forbidden. That does not seem especially reassuring.

Our little gang is in line abreast: Mark, Claire, Maureen and myself in the four seats in the middle of the aeroplane, Dave across the aisle from me, so we don't even have a window to peer out of. The screen is on a bulkhead only about half a dozen rows in front of us, but a quick survey of the magazine tucked into my seat pocket reveals that neither of the two films on offer is one I want to see, nor do I particularly want to listen to any of the 12 radio channels. Dinner follows. Meals are a big production on a long-haul flight like this, I suppose because they help to fill in the time, but I still couldn't tell you what it was we ate. A film is shown which I don't watch, instead I try to read, though without any great success. At last I give up and go to sleep. Or try to. The seat is too narrow, too close to the one in front, doesn't recline very far. I twist and turn. I pull the blanket over me because my shoulders feel cold, then push it away because I am too hot. I put the blindfold on, but it makes me sweat so I take it off again. Even in a quiet plane there is noise, the susurrus of the engine (even now building pressure in my ears), coughs, a child crying, conversation soft and far away and all the more infuriating for that. I keep my eyes resolutely closed, but after two hours I am still wide awake. So is Maureen. We talk for a while, try to cuddle but discover that whether we raise it or lower it the seat arm is always in the way. At last, though, I get to doze, lightly and for no more than a couple of hours. By 5.30, UK time, I'm awake again. There is a slab of pain or tiredness or both squeezed behind my eyes, no chance of getting back to sleep. I'm not the only one, I sense movement, hear conversation, all around me, and outside, wherever it is we are flying over, it is broad daylight. Yet for more than an hour we sit in sullen darkness, anxious for the daylight outside but forbidden to raise the blinds, our eye drawn hungrily to the only light in the cabin, the little glowing TOILET sign. Every so often someone will raise a blind and we lean towards it as if towards a magnet, but quickly the light must be extinguished leaving nothing but a vague impression of formless white. At long last, at 7.00 UK time, Qantas in their wisdom decree that the day may begin. Abruptly, shockingly, the cabin lights flicker on, the blinds are now raised. Another meal is served.

As we begin our descent into Singapore the screen at the front of the cabin displays land speed, altitude and outside temperature. 'The time to worry,' I tell Claire, 'is when the altitude shows minus figures.' There is a tremendous judder, the plane touches down, and immediately the screen shows an altitude of -8 feet. Howls of laughter from the middle of the plane.

As we taxi to a stop the captain instructs: 'Crew to disarm doors.' They apparently do this by speaking into a telephone handset. I try to imagine them murmuring sweet nothings: 'You really are a very nice door.'

We have an hour or so to kill in the Departure Lounge at Singapore's Changi Airport; not, I must confess, a prospect that fills me with delight. I imagine identikit duty free shops in the style of Heathrow. Initially, there is nothing to disabuse me of the notion. Our Gate is at the end of a long, featureless corridor, glassed-in seating areas to one side, the usual posters for the usual transnational companies to the other, and between them a succession of moving walkways. This could be anywhere. At a window I press my forehead against the glass to be able to peer out at the gathering dusk. It is raining, I see an empty road, a short stretch of pavement, a little area of grass. It hardly seems tropical, exotic, foreign. When we reach the end of the corridor we find an array of shops, just as expected, but one that is well laid-out, one that has a spacious, quite comfortable feel about it. Inevitably we descend, like locusts, upon the bookshop, though the stock is curiously familiar. Rather more interesting, I find, is the computer software shop right next to it, and both Maureen and I spot things we plan to pick up on our homeward stopover. Then we decide to explore a little more (and, perhaps more importantly, to stretch our legs after so long cooped up on the plane), so we move on past the broad open stairway that curves up towards a balcony above us, past a waterfall like a silver curtain, past what appears to be a row of security desks, past what appears to be another row of security desks, past a waterfall like a silver curtain, to the foot of a broad open stairway curving up towards a balcony above us. I'm looking around for Alice and the Red Queen before we work out that the airport really is arranged in wings that mirror each other precisely. We decide to head back towards our Gate before we lose track of where we are. Then someone notices the sign that says Cactus Garden. We follow it and find ourselves stepping out onto a roof, out of the sterile, cool, conditioned air and into something so hot and damp and clinging that I hardly recognise it as air at all. All across the rain-sodden roof there are cactuses, huge beasts, phallic beasts, creatures of obscene sinuosity and disturbing colours. It is remarkable and vivid and exciting, and seems totally out of place. Cacti flourish in dry deserts, a notice informs us as rain dribbles down our necks.

And then it is back onto the plane, and more meals, and another film I don't want to watch, but at least this time Maureen and I both manage to catch a little sleep.

There was a suggestion that representatives of Melbourne fandom might be there to greet us as we passed through en route to Adelaide. So it is really cheering, after passing through immigration and customs, to find the smiling face of Dave Langford there to meet us. Or, to put it another way, my case is about the last thing to emerge on the baggage carousel. As we stand there waiting for it, and I contemplate the prospect of three weeks in Australia without a change of clothes or indeed my fanzines, Dave has a fit of nerves about his quince jam smuggling plans. He decides, instead, to go through the red channel and confess all. So there he is to greet us when we finally emerge from the customs hall ourselves. Nobody had been interested in his quince jam. Nobody had demanded to see the doctor's note that explained my drug dependency either. And they hadn't even sprayed us before we got off the plane. After all we'd heard about the ferocity of Australian customs, it seems a bit tame. I'm rather miffed: where are all the colourful anecdotes I was going to use to flesh out my GUFF report?

Secretly, this was the part of the journey that worried all of us the most. We had less than two hours to disembark from one plane, pass through all the immigration procedures, and catch another plane from a different part of the airport. Would we find the right way? Would there be any hold ups? What were the chances we'd arrive just in time to see our next plane disappear into the dawn? We needn't have worried, the whole transfer goes remarkably smoothly, we are through immigration, baggage claim and customs in less than half an hour, so we're in plenty of time for our onward flight to Adelaide. We even have time to stop for a coffee. This is reassuring. When I went to the bank to get some Australian money I was handed a little stack of brightly coloured paper with clear plastic bits inset into it. Now, I'll be honest, I still have lingering doubts that, due to some appalling clerical error, I was given notes from a peculiar Australian version of Monopoly. But no, a café latte and an orange juice comes to A$5.60 and the woman happily takes my Monopoly money and gives me real genuine coins in exchange. Then we're free to sit down, relax, and marvel that an airport café is actually open at six in the morning.

While we marvel at the universality of airport announcements - 'Mr so-and-so, please go at once to gate 11 where your flight and your fellow passengers are ready to depart' - we exchange horror stories about the flight. Mark told us about a young woman who was sitting just across the aisle and a row or two behind him on the flight to Singapore, and who spent the night alternately throwing herself upon, then fending off an older man she was sitting beside and apparently hadn't met before the flight. Every so often she would get up to adjust her clothing. The next night, on the flight from Singapore to Melbourne, Mark was kept awake once more by a different woman sitting across aisle from him who talked non-stop in a penetrating Liverpudlian accent, mostly complaining about the antics of woman the night before though occasionally spicing up the monologue by discussing her separation from her husband and also her daughter, Maureen. Dave, meanwhile, had been sitting beside a gnome of a man who seemed to be escorting a vast extended family to Australia and clearly felt the only way to do this was to patrol the entire length of the plane every 5 minutes.

Onto another plane and I've realised that the thing I really don't like in all this flying business is taking off. Maureen loves it, can't get enough of it, sits there with her nose glued to the window and a big grin plastered across her face, then she starts to get guilty because she's not supposed to enjoy it as much as she does. Me, I sit back in my seat, grip something hard, close my eyes, and wonder when its all over. And I'm undergoing my third take off in less than two days. The one in London was accompanied by a pervasive and very worrying stench of kerosene, this one is accompanied by a banshee screeching like a coven of demented sirens. I am not reassured. And for the first time this trip Maureen has a window seat. She turns to me and with incredible satisfaction and pronounces: 'I have ground!'

There is more food, of course, and I actually manage to read a little, and all the while Maureen is joined in unholy union with the window. 'Oh look,' she exclaims every so often, pointing out sea and river and mountain and plain and habitation and green and brown and all sorts of shades in between. Only a short flight, thankfully, less than an hour indeed and then we're descending and I'm trying to see something, anything, over Maureen's shoulder. This is Australia, I'm trying to get a picture of the place. But the view from the air really gives you no clue about the real place. And we land, join the chaos of disembarkation. My case is, naturally, the last thing on the baggage carousel, so Claire and Dave and Mark are already there when we emerge from baggage reclaim, and there are three people with them. John Foyster we've met before, and we're introduced to Damien Warman and Juliette Woods.

Australia begins to seem real.

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