I board the plane, and shuffle down aisles, past seats crammed together, to find my allocated space. I find it half-occupied by my seat neighbour, who, despite adopting half my seat for his own sizable gluteus maximus, smiles kindly at me and lifts my hand luggage into the overhead lockers. I settle into the eighteen inch space that will be mine for the next eight hours, and try not to look out the window. I do not want to see anything fall away from beneath the plane, not an engine, not a wheel, and definitely not the earth itself.
I want to go to Australia more than I can possibly say – I want to see my family again, and I want to see my cousin marry his lovely fiancée, and most of all, I want to talk to the person who is my oldest and dearest friend without internet or phone intervening. But I would rather have walked there than climbed inside this metal tube, and allowed strangers to seal me inside, and shoot me into the sky at nearly 600 miles an hour, forty thousand feet in the air.
I am not doing this for fun, I am doing this for a very specific and wonderful purpose, and I will live through it.
The cabin crew are frenetic, and the smell of cooking food abruptly wakes me from my fitful doze. I am too tired to eat, but the flight attendant is smiling nicely at me, and offers me the special meal I requested. I take it, thank him, and set it before me. I know it’s important to eat, to maintain my energy, but I don’t want to. My stomach churns when I take a bite of food, and I don’t want to eat this, I don’t want this, I want to sleep.
I push it away, leave it for the flight attendant to collect, and try to sleep. I do not think about the empty space between the bottom of the plane and the earth below; I do not think about how fast we would fall, and how quickly we would reach maximum velocity if we were to stop being suspended in the air by the laws of aerodynamics. I do not think of what it would be like to crash in this plane.
I pull the blanket around me and close my eyes, settling my headphones over my ears to block out the noises from the galley. Stephen Fry begins to narrate an audiobook to me, and I finally drift to sleep hearing the soothing voice tell me he’s about to start on Chapter Five.
I wake myself up with a snore loud enough to rattle my bones. How deeply unattractive. I snored so loudly that I heard it through the audiobook still playing in my ears. My bladder is aching against the waistband of my jeans, and the plane is steady enough that I decide I must face the first of my fears. I undo my seatbelt and struggle out of my blanket cocoon to my feet. I am surprised that the plane feels stable, feels level, feels secure. I walk down the aisle to the bathroom, and am surprised by how unafraid I feel. I wonder if it is adrenaline keeping me upright, but my heart is not racing and my hands aren’t clammy. I use the bathroom, and despite the horror stories I have heard, it is not awful. I have peed in worse places. Hard to recall now, but I have.
I wander back to my seat, through the plane, through the dark cabin, past those sleeping and those waking. If we make eye contact, I curl up the edges of my lips into the thing I think most approximates a smile at this altitude, as though the lack of gravity would make the edges of my mouth drift into a Joker-like grin if I am not careful. I am tired, and I am thirsty. I ask the flight attendant for more water, and he refills the small bottle I was issued with upon boarding the plane. I drink it down, and pull my headphones up over my ears again. If I can doze for another hour, I will nearly be in Dubai, and the first flight will be over.
Dubai is hot. The pilot apologetically tells us that it is already 35 degrees outside the plane at 7.30am, and tells us we can leave the plane for a short while, whilst it is cleaned and refuelled. All five hundred passengers traipse off the plane. Some people have reached their destination, whilst more of us still realise we have the rest of the way to go. I walk into arrivals, with the other passengers, and wend my way through the airport to find a bathroom. I stand in a security queue, and once again have my bags searched.
The airport is air-conditioned, but it is mostly ineffective, and I feel the sweat pool in my lower back. I am wearing a cardigan over a sleeveless top, and when I take the cardigan off, the guard standing near me looks away disapprovingly from my bare arms. I remember the etiquette in Muslim countries and dip my head in apology, pulling the cardigan back on. I am so hot, but these people have the power to stop me travelling onto Australia if they desire, and I want to get there. I still don’t want to fly there, but I do want to get there.
I am finally through security again, and walk through the terminal, looking for toilets. The duty-free shops are open, selling Rolexes and Maseratis. I keep my eyes down and walk past. No use looking at something I’ll never afford.
I join the queue for the ladies’ toilets, and waste twenty minutes waiting. I loathe public toilets usually, but I have been pleased to find that the toilets so far are not too grim. I am still too hot, and I look for water, but before I can put my hand in my pocket to buy a bottle, they are announcing the gate, and we have to reboard the plane.
We go through more security, a smiling man asks to check my bags, and I open them up for him. He finally tells me I can go on to the boarding gate, after he has sifted through the contents of my bag, which include clean knickers and some sanitary towels. He hasn’t flinched at this, and I wonder if I imagined the look of disapproval on the face of the other guard. If I have, I am annoyed, because I am still too hot, and now I am thirsty, and my cardigan is limp with sweat.
Finally, we re-board the plane. This time, my seat has changed, and I am sitting in the middle of the middle group of seats, next to a German student who doesn’t speak to me until we land in Sydney, and the father of a family who are sitting across the aisle from him. They have two small children, and the littlest boy is already looking fractious and tired.
I fall asleep waiting for the plane to take off, and wake when we are already in the air.
This flight is peculiar. Because we travel forward over the date line, they feed us dinner at 11am, and artifically create a night time environment at what would be 4pm in Dubai. My brain still thinks it is 1pm, but it is also woozy with a lack of proper sleep, and feeling dehydrated.
I wiggle my feet and ankles, worried about blood clots. My seat neighbour is very happy to let me stand up and take a walk or two, until dinner is served, and the fake night falls in the plane. Then he falls asleep, and I am actually content to plug in my headset and watch movie after movie. I tuck myself into a blanket cocoon again, and wedge my head against my pillow. I flick through the channels, and finally decide I will watch something I have seen before, and then attempt to doze through it.
It semi-works. I wake every time there is a loud explosion on screen, but I fall asleep again immediately.
Seven hours into the flight, I frighten myself awake with a loud snore. Again. I am sure by now, with my sweaty forehead, greasy hair and loud snoring, I am as attractive as it is possible to be. Lucky people around me.
As the movie drifts to a close, I turn slightly, and realise that the man who was sitting next to me has suddenly changed into his wife. She looks exhausted. I have woken not just because of my snore, I realise, but because one of the flight attendants is whispering to her about giving her youngest son some medicine to help lower his temperature. She thanks him, and agrees to whatever the attendant is suggesting. I watch the last few minutes of the film and fall asleep again. When I wake up, I don’t want to sleep any more. I am restless, but the man has switched back to sit next to me, and is sleeping in his chair.
There are seven hours of flight to go, and for the first time since getting onto the plane, I feel wild panic rise in my throat. I cannot possibly go another seven hours in the air. I cannot.
I must get off the plane, I must be allowed fresh air, I am confused, I am disorientated, I need to lie against the ground and feel steady again.
I take some deep breaths. What I want is not possible. I have seven hours until it is possible. What will I do?
I find the Disney movies on the inflight entertainment system, and decide two ninety minute movies will kill enough time for me to feel less panicked. I put on something I have not seen before, and within seconds am engrossed in a story that is beyond ridiculous.
But it works. My panic fades away, and I forget I am forty thousand feet above the earth.
When the first movie finishes, I accidentally press the button that takes me onto the flight information. I scramble to get out of it, but find myself amazed by the way the tiny aeroplane moves across the map. We have travelled for hours, but are still not halfway to Australia, let alone Sydney, where I will land first.
Alongside the map, statistics flash up over and over again, telling me how many more hours and minutes until we land, how fast we are travelling, how high up we are, what the outside temperature of the plane is. I didn’t think I wanted to know this, but now I cannot look away, I am enthralled. The page refreshes every fifteen seconds (I time it, because I need to know this) and every fifteen seconds, another ten miles drops away.
The incredibleness of what I am doing suddenly hits me. I am in the air, in a metal tube, and by magic (OK, physics and engineering, but it might as well be magic for all I understand it), the thirteen thousand miles between me and the people I love are being eaten up, vanishing away every time my screen blinks; this impossible thing that frightens me so much is taking me across the world, through the sky.
And then I’ve freaked myself out. Too much, too enormous. My hearts turns over, and drops, my own internal plane in turbulence.
At 5am, I stumble off the plane, and am greeted by a blast of cold air, and the familiar drip of early morning drizzle. Disorientating, I find myself wondering if I am back in England suddenly. I plod through the arrival terminal, and find myself in a brightly lit, carpeted room, negotiating passport control. I declare my suitcase full of Marks & Spencer biscuits and chocolates, and jars of Marmite. The customs officer looks at me as though I am mad, and waves me through.
I’m so tired that my legs are shaking and my eyes are blurred. My suitcase – easily wheeled in London – is heavier now, skittering around so much I think the wheels are broken. They’re not, it’s just my hands are shaking too, and I haven’t slept and I only have to walk 200 metres, but it might as well be 200 miles.
I stumble into the domestic terminal, and check my bag back in, board the bus. At the gate, I wait with a council of businessmen and women, who are suited and booted for their commute up to Brisbane. My bones ache with tiredness. My feet are sore, and I am sure I smell as pungent as it is possible to be after twenty-one hours in recycled air. And ahead of me is yet another flight, yet another take-off, yet another landing, yet another swoop of terror, and I wait for it to arrive.
But another surprise yet to come.
As the engines whine, and the strange pressure between gravity and flight reaches a tipping point, I feel something new and unfamiliar grip my gut.
I think I am finally enjoying this travel.
I grin as the plane’s wheels leave the earth – my beloved earth – and we scream into the sky. The cityscape falls away, becoming matchbox cars and buildings in seconds. The plane passes over the Opera House – look, it’s really there! Down below me! My eyes, my real eyes, have seen the Sydney Opera House! – and so we climb, metre by agonising metre, through the sky, banking left and right, juddering through the cloud, the captain chattering away, and we are airborne.
The plane glides through the sky. The clouds are cotton-wool white and fluffy, suspended in mid-air beneath the fuselage I’m sitting in. Beneath us, on the vivid turquoise sea, a small grey shadow darts along and follows us – I think it’s a shark, or a dolphin, until I realise it is the plane’s shadow, so tiny because we are so high up.
The plane whines as we make the final turn to come into land. The whirring machinery drops the wheels down, and there are howls as the engines reverse to slow us down.
The runway is not the damp grey runway from which I departed some thirty four hours earlier. It is orange. Alien. A marked difference. And it tells me one thing.
I have arrived.