I always feel relief when I’m heading for the departure lounge after the final boarding call. If I’ve forgotten anything, it’s too late. All I have to do now is follow instructions. There are no more decisions about what to take, how to pack it, whether to stow it or throw it.
The bulky luggage is checked in and it’s not my concern any more. Like children set free to roam the world, its destiny lies in the hands of strange people in foreign, echoing spaces.
My carry-on bag is well worn, and sags casually with room for a couple of duty-free bottles. It’s not bulging with bits and pieces to cover every possible contingency from strange bathrooms in third-world countries, to heat waves, blizzards and hijacking to Bolivia.
From the departure lounge, a white laminated corridor of artificial light and plastic air leads to a distant exit, taunting with a promise it has no intentions of delivering. It’s a corridor that cancels out movement, like trying to walk up the down escalator.
That nightmare of inertia is the reason why I had fled. I needed to find the exit from the corporate avenues of my life; to feel the wind in my hair, rather than languish in stifling halls of respectability.
It was a type of suicide. When I quit my job in Sydney, people’s reaction varied from disbelief to shock. There was pity and envy, in amounts depending on how satisfied they were with their lives.
My widowed mother had been caught on the pointy ends of the two-horned beast of parenthood. On one side was the desire for her child to be happy but the other point impaled all her dreams for me; the X factors of expectation, exasperation and expense.
To commit suicide is usually considered an act of cowardice, so I always thought of my choice as selfish, never brave. Instead of jumping out of a window, I jumped off the corporate ladder.
On good days, I can believe there was some bravery in my decision, but it’s a fine line between courage and desperation. I was trapped in the corridors of my existence, stretching towards that elusive exit. There were paths between classrooms, lengths of platform for the commuter trains, rows of books in libraries and echoing stairwells in apartment blocks.
The prospect of promotion never felt like opportunity. It was more like membership to the mid-life crisis security fund with a bonus subscription to Reader’s Digest.
I worked in an historic sandstone building, overlooking Hyde Park in the heart of the city. An enviable address, but my office was a tiny cubicle in the sub-basement. A couple of travel posters were pinned to the cork partitioning. They were like windows to another life but, instead of promise, they shone a spotlight into the cramped corners of my existence.
It was autumn when I decided to leave. Unloved trees scratched at a brisk westerly wind. The crisp air held a promise, giving me a moment of panic, as if something had slipped from my grasp before I’d had time to work out what it was. I knew it was something important.
Sitting in one of the small city cafes, I could pretend I was one of life’s participants. I was impressed by a solid Mediterranean Mama preparing lunch behind a huge espresso coffee machine. She took my order with the same nobility that kept her smiling after an 18-hour day in the cafe. Her unyielding patience ensured that her children could take advantage of her escape from the ‘old country’.
Tasting the flavours of exotic places, I saw a future where life’s true participants would compete for my increasing pay cheque in the city’s interesting restaurants, theatres, museums and sports arenas. I didn’t want to rely on those creators, performers and collectors to define my life. So, I had walked back to the standstone edifice, negotiated one of the infinite corridors through the sub-basement to the boss’ office, and quit.
When the plane accelerates into its take-off run, I feel the thrill of momentum. It’s a feeling of freedom, of belonging to no-one, the achievement of leaving. Then, the plane levels off, settling into a heavy floating motion, more of a wallow than a flight. Regret for what’s left behind starts to dull the excitement. I am a coward, running away, not a hero on a quest of discovery.
When I was a teenager, a gang of farm girls from Wauchope taught me about courage. At Port Macquarie surf club, on a summer’s night, they challenged the surfie chicks to a fight.
Looking at photographs of school days in Port Macquarie, I see a group of beautiful young girls, so full of promise they should have been invincible. But back then, I was afraid of everything: being ugly, failing exams, missing an invitation to a party, or not finding a boyfriend. Getting old was a nightmare too terrifying to consider.
For me and my friends, bravery came in a glass, or sucked straight from a bottle of Cold Duck. A highlight of our cultural life was when a big city band played the local surf club. In the make-shift nightclub, we were the height of glamour and sophistication. We could do anything. If we couldn’t achieve it, that was because we didn’t want it.
We felt sorry for the Wauchope girls in their unfashionable jeans. Their weekends would have been endlessly dull without a beach to go to. Besides, they didn’t have a tan and they were fat.
The band played Rock, not Country & Western. They came to our town to play to us, not westie hicks. We didn’t mean to be rude, but were really curious to know what they were doing in our surf club. When they started to yell abuse at us, at first we thought it was a bit of game and joined in the fun.
“Right! We’re going to take you,” one of the bigger girls stood in front of the others.
We looked at each other in surprise. She couldn’t be serious.
I think I said something like, “We don’t fight.”
It was true. We just liked hanging out at the beach and listening to music. The most physical thing we did was paddle a surf mat onto a wave. The alcohol fuelled bravado failed us, and we looked around helplessly for somebody to rescue us.
Nobody stepped up. The big ugly girls had picked their target. “Get outside and fight,” was their answer to any of our attempts at reconciliation. “You can’t get away from us.”
We retreated to the ladies’ toilets.
Our worst fear was getting really hurt. Those girls were big and mean. We didn’t stand a chance. But spending the rest of our lives in a public toilet wasn’t an option.
We decided we weren’t going to be turned into victims in our own town. They had no right to come here and start bossing us around. If we stuck together, we thought we might stand a chance. Maybe they couldn’t get to all of us and some of us might survive, hopefully me.
The Cold Duck had worn off. This was real bravado as we walked, side by side, into the dimly lit barn of a venue. As if they were the last moments of my life, I can remember the scene: the soft swish of surf, the glint of street lights on wooden slat floor polished by sandy footsteps, the thump of rock music played close and raw, moonlight reflecting on the surf club trophy cases, and the dark shadows of an unknown future as we passed beyond the glass exit door.
I don’t remember who said it, but the words came out of one of us, “OK, let’s fight.”
“Yeah, well, we’re leaving now. Our ride’s here.”
Inside, I felt a little whoop of joy, but none of us was going to poke the pugilists with any sounds of victory. That’s when I realised that courage and fear don’t cancel each other out.
The idea might have started earlier, when I jumped off the shed roof, so my big brother wouldn’t run off with his mates and leave me behind. I knew the leap would kill me but getting left behind was worse than anything. So, I closed my eyes and jumped, and survived to join the adventure.
That sort of foolhardy courage is not something everyone should discover. We need people with the courage to stay and make their world a better place. I admire those who can find comfort in the mundane, but I’m not one of them. Without a bit of jump-off-the-roof bravery, I would still be living in a tiny cubicle.