“It’s very icy this morning,” I told everyone. “Are you listening, Bob? Are you listening, Polly? There’s lots of ice on our driveway. So you have to be really careful, okay? That means don’t run. The taxi will be here to collect us any minute.”
Fifteen minutes later I was phoning the taxi company: “Where are you? Have you forgotten to send someone? We have to be at the airport in half an hour!”
Another fifteen minutes, and despite the sub-zero temperatures I was actually sweating with stress. When the taxi finally arrived, I shouted: “Run for it everybody! We’re going to miss our plane!”
I picked up a suitcase in either hand and sprinted towards the front gate. The concrete paving stones seemed to rise up, twirl around, and then suddenly leap forward to smack me hard in the face. To my credit (or, at least, I presume some people might think it’s to my credit) my first thoughts were artistic in nature: don’t the rivulets of blood look pretty against the snow? Then I thought: “Ouch, that hurt.”
But there was no time to examine my wounds. We piled into the taxi. The taxi driver handed me a wad of tissues; I clutched them against my bleeding face. We were off to Trondheim, Norway.
Ah yes, Trondheim, only a mere 58 hours journey (door to door) from Dunsandel. This was a trip clearly absent from the slogan-writer’s mind when the phrase “getting there is half the fun” was coined. Unless, of course, the slogan-writer was thinking: “Getting there is half the fun of smashing your face into cobblestones”—which, now that I have done both, seems approximately correct.
At the airport, I sponged the worst of the blood out of my beard, and mailed a last-minute package to Russell Brown. The stress of the journey so far (30 minutes elapsed; 57.5 hours to go) made me unable to remember my own address to list as sender. Weirdly, however, I was able to remember Russell’s address. You never forget where you’ve had good coffee.
Naturally I refused the vile, luke-warm beverage offered by Air New Zealand on the flight to Auckland, but sucked a double espresso through a straw at the international terminal. My nose was throbbing like a bad nightclub, my lips continued to ooze blood, even my teeth were pounding with pain. How much worse could my day get? Travelling with small children for the next 55 hours: that’s how much worse.
The first leg of our international journey was to Hong Kong. I’ve never previously been to Hong Kong for the simple reason that you inevitably have to fly with Cathay Pacific. And I’ve never liked the idea of flying Cathay Pacific because I don’t like their logo, which is a stylized image of a burning plane.
It’s not that I don’t admire the magnificent ‘fuck you’ attitude in adopting a burning plane as the logo for an airline. A logo which, put into words, might read: “It’s not crashing into the ground that hurts; it’s burning alive on the way down.” But I worry about the nihilism of employees who might be attracted to work for such an organization. Safety engineers with “Live Hard, Die Young” tattooed across their chests. Stewardesses who sing The Who’s My Generation as part of the safety demonstration: “Join in on the chorus everyone! ‘Hope I Die Before I Get Old’.” I confess to finding the whole thing excessively morbid.
Fortunately, however, there were no singing nihilistic stewardesses on this particular flight. The only singing during the safety demonstration came from my own daughter, Polly, who took the general silence as a cue for a deafening version of her favourite nursery rhyme: “WINKLE! WINKLE! LITTLE STAR!” A few nearby passengers smiled indulgently. But I didn’t kid myself they’d be doing that for long.
By this time Bob’s interest in air travel had well and truly evaporated. “I feel grumpy,” he said. “Make Polly stop singing. How long until we get to Norway?”
“Fifty-four hours,” replied Jennifer soothingly. “As soon as we leave the runway.”
“How much is 54 hours on a plane? Is it soon?”
“Not long,” said Jennifer, in a statement that she later admitted was the most outrageous lie of her life.
Over the next twelve awful hours we gradually fell into a routine. Jennifer dealt with Bob, and his endless complaints: “These movies are all boring! How long until we get to Norway? Can you please read me another book? Why can’t you make Daddy stop breathing like that?”
At the same time, I attempted to deal with Polly and her ongoing mission to throw herself from the plane’s emergency exit. My cunning approach was to distract her with Mickey Mouse cartoons, which, according to the Walt Disney Studios, are beloved by children everywhere in the world. “I don’t like this rat! Make it go away!” shouted Polly at regular intervals. Then catching sight, once more, of the emergency exit: “OPEN THAT DOOR! I’M GETTING OUT!”
By Hong Kong we were all beyond exhaustion. “Only three more flights to go,” said Jennifer, attempting to raise our spirits. In their usual contrary manner Bob and Polly quite enjoyed being checked for bird flu at immigration. Indeed, as far as they were concerned, it was the high point of the entire trip.
Jennifer had booked a hotel on the basis of a theory, which she subsequently admitted was delusional, that we could get a few hours sleep before our next flight. Apparently she had forgotten our children’s personal motto: “Sleep is for losers”. While we waited for the hotel bus, Bob and Polly sprinted in circles around our immense pile of bags. It was 3.00 AM local time.
No, they didn’t sleep.
“Why is it so hot in Norway?” asked Bob a few hours later, as we wearily boarded the bus back to the airport for our next flight.
“Actually we’re not quite in Norway yet,” I said gently. “We’re in Hong Kong, where Keith Ng was born. Do you remember Keith?”
“He bought me cake,” said Bob. “Let’s go and visit Keith again. Let’s go back to New Zealand.” And then suddenly sobbing, “IT’S TOO HOT HERE, THIS IS THE WORST DAY OF MY LIFE!” Jennifer and I felt disinclined to dispute this.
Two minutes before our arrival at the airport, Bob fell into a deep, coma-like sleep. He lay motionless on the concrete footpath while we offloaded our bags. The bus driver found this astonishing. “I’ve never seen anyone so much asleep before,” he said.
Bob remained completely unconscious as he was lugged with maximum inconvenience through the departure process. It goes without saying that the slight unpacking of our bags at the hotel had somehow caused one of them to become 300 grams overweight, which necessitated ten minutes of repacking at the counter; and which, of course, resulted in catastrophic failure of the hinges of the other bag.
Tight-lipped with anger and frustration we joined the huge security queue. By now it felt like Bob was made of uranium; an immense patch of dribble crept slowly over my shoulder and down the front of my shirt. Polly was weeping inconsolably. Jennifer looked as though she wanted to join her. The cuts on my lips were still oozing blood.
Bob awoke, suffused with energy, as soon as we had passed through security.
The plane to Frankfurt was like a bad movie sequel to our Hong Kong flight. Jennifer and I, both convinced that we’d previously been saddled with the more horrible child, mutually agreed to a trade. Jennifer lost out. It transpired that the wonderful people at Lufthansa had programmed a couple of ESA documentaries on the flight entertainment system; Bob watched each of them five times over in rapt attention.
From the other end of the row I could hear the semi-muffled screams of Polly, and the unmistakable sounds of a two-year-old being forcibly restrained from throwing herself from the plane’s emergency exit. I’ve known Europeans critical of the cost of their space programme, but if you ask me it’s worth every bloody penny.
The only drawback to the ESA documentaries was Bob’s desire to share information by out-shouting the commentary in his earphones: “DADDY, DID YOU KNOW THAT CERES MIGHT HAVE LIQUID WATER BENEATH ITS SURFACE?” His observations were, I admit, penetratingly loud in a cabin full of slumbering passengers; but by now I was beyond caring about other people’s sleep.
We arrived in Germany.
A quick customer survey: how satisfied were we with our experience at Frankfurt Airport? Well, you know, I feel moved to make a slight, and very diplomatic, suggestion. Perhaps the airport could have a lane at immigration for parents with young children? Or to put it another way: WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU THINKING? WHY HAVEN’T YOU GOT A FUCKING LANE FOR CHILDREN? DO YOU WANT PEOPLE TO GO MAD AND START STRANGLING THEIR BABIES? I HATE YOU, YOU FUCKING IDIOTS!
Bob had again reached the end of his tether and lay stomach-down on the floor. He declined (loudly) to be picked up. He declined (very loudly) to walk. I considered the sanity of the many hundreds of weary travellers who surrounded us. I reached the conclusion that they would be unwilling to listen to hours of ear-splitting whining and weeping. We compromised on Bob remaining in his preferred prone position, but holding onto my trouser cuffs, and being dragged along the airport floor.
Bob was dragged along the floor for over an hour, as the queue snaked eight times back and forth in front of the passport control gates. About halfway through, Polly lay down on the floor, grasped Bob’s trouser cuffs, and was dragged along behind him as well. When we eventually arrived at the passport counter our children arose to reveal their clothing black with dirt.
We were quite a while at Frankfurt Airport, with an amusing last minute sprint to another terminal when we discovered that the wrong information had been printed on our tickets. Then we boarded the flight to Oslo—which, after the first few moments, I mentally dubbed the “fight club” plane. Jennifer and I have agreed never to talk about the fight club plane. Indeed, ever since it happened we have both been trying to erase our children’s behaviour from our memories.
But worse was to come. In the security queue at Oslo airport Bob finally snapped. He engaged in a full-scale temper tantrum. And yes, a six year old having a tantrum is not a pretty sight; and yes, the other passengers were no doubt fully justified in wondering what sort of parents would raise such a child. This was the moment, I regret to say, when I finally understood why parents want to beat their offspring. Only a vague recollection of Norway’s progressive child-abuse laws prevented me from enacting the violent fantasises that suddenly filled my head.
Polly fell asleep as soon as we boarded the next plane. We emerged at Trondheim Airport almost delirious with exhaustion. Polly still fitfully slumbering; Bob sullen and tear-stained; my face still swollen and seeping blood. Jennifer investigated the transport options and found a bus that would transport us to the town centre.
In our hotel, Bob collapsed on the bed, unconscious in mere moments. Polly was tucked beneath her blankets without waking. It was early evening. Bright sunlight illuminated the room. The streets outside thronged with people; buskers were playing beneath our windows. We slept.
I awoke an hour before midnight. Bright sunlight still streamed into the room; the streets were still filled with people; the buskers played on.
I awoke at 3.30 AM. Trondheim was as beautiful and sunshine-drenched as before, but the streets were empty. It was as if the entire populace had suddenly been abducted. In Canterbury I’d have judged it time for morning tea. How odd it seemed that no-one was outside in such bright sunny weather.
This is a pleasant change from midwinter in Dunsandel, I thought, as I drifted back to sleep.