Just before midday on a hot Saturday. I took the Ring Road west and exited onto Tullamarine Freeway a confusing hundred metres after bad signage and the city turn-off. One mistake and you’re back in town. Heat haze shimmered in the distance and on the horizon Melbourne International Airport shimmered with it. The airport sits on the edge of a basalt plain, a parched flatland of leaning eucalypts and vague beauty spoiled by the kind of endless concrete warehouses and distribution centres that swarm around every airfield in the world.
I drove up the ramp to departures and pulled up outside the terminal and Tracy and the boys got out. I told her I’d meet them in the food court behind the international terminal and pulled away from the kerb, down the ramp and into the car park. I pointed the car into my favourite spot near the Thrifty rent-a-car depot, where there is always an empty space and it’s a short walk to the terminal. Then I followed the walkway to the terminal below the hotel that keeps changing its name. Holiday Inn or Travelodge? Who knows? Why do hotels always change their names?
We weren’t flying anywhere. We had come to farewell Tracy’s mother and her sister and her sister’s teenage children before they flew 2720 kilometres to the other side of the country. They live in Melbourne's far east – my mother-in-law in darkest, deepest, most beautiful Gippsland of the emerald hills and black and white cows – and it’s an all-day trek for them to the airport involving Skybuses and other complex and slow-moving modes of transport. This means they arrive hours before their flight, because you have to build in extra time due to all the variables involved in travelling by complex, slow-moving transport modes. A taxi from Gippsland would cost more than the plane fare to Perth. By contrast, I live fifteen minutes from the airport and I can lock the front door, drive to the airport, park in the long-term car park, race-walk onto my e-ticketed flight and be drinking bad coffee and reading inflight magazines full of ads for expensive watches within the hour. On the other hand, I have planes flying overhead. But I like planes. I grew up watching DC-3s, Electras and Vickers Viscounts through my school window. I remember the day the first 727 arrived. They called it the whispering T-Jet. It didn’t whisper, it roared. It cut a 25-degree diagonal across my ten-year-old life as it soared from the north-south runway of Essendon Aerodrome.
They were taking a week’s holiday before attending the wedding of a nephew late on a summer’s afternoon on the white sand of some twilit, endless beach north of Perth: Sun an orange ball on the horizon. Do you take this woman? – Yes, I do. Sun a red semi-circle. Do you take this man? - Yes, I do. Sun almost gone, just a rippling red vee on the Indian Ocean. I declare you man and wife. You may kiss the bride. Champagne. Finger food. A marquee in the sand. Music. Heat. Darkness.
They were sitting at a window booth in Hudson’s overlooking the enormous tail of a Qantas Airbus, the rest of which was obscured by an aluminium terminal roof. All the other booths were full of people eating food from Nando’s and Hungry Jacks and enjoying the view and I noted subconsciously the garish takeaway wrappings of the food clashed with Hudson’s cool muted décor. My mother-in-law did the right thing and ordered a nice sober dark brown Hudson’s coffee, but my sister-in-law did no such thing and came back smiling with a package of hot chips redolent of vinegar and salt, and sat down and shared them around and they were gone in minutes. What is it about hunger and airports? And why do people wear all those funny clothes? And who are all those sports teams? The enormous Qantas red tail moved out of view slowly, like a galleon setting sail, and soon another took its place and then the flight was called. QF758 now boarding.
My mother-in-law and her daughter and her daughter’s children kissed William and Thomas and waved to us and disappeared from view and we left the terminal. As I drove out of the car park, a plane screamed overhead and we drove home via the Tullamarine Freeway to Bell Street and east. It was quiet now, and still hot.