It’s a gorgeous day to touch the sky.
In Brazil we put the contents of a small flower shop in our wigs so we can toss pretty relics for grandmothers to turn over in their hands after we have gone. The gig is in an enormous field where they fly kites across the road from the lucky people’s houses. You can tell they are the lucky people because of the broken glass lining the edge of their fences.
The show is muscular and it’s a sensual crowd and we speak to a thousand strangers with our bodies. Our imprint is left, written on the wind.
When we descend, they are upon us. It is as if we can heal the sick. The little boys crowd around us especially close. One boy is learning English. He can say, ‘My name is . . .’ He places a hand on his chest and says, ‘My name is Sabastiao Fernando.’ I write lots of love to Sabastiao Fernando and he introduces each kid holding out a scrap of paper in an unwashed hand. Sabastiao Fernando points to a tall boy in short shorts.
‘My name is Miguel Campos Santos.’ I draw a picture for Miguel Campos Santos. Sabastiao Fernando points to another little fellow.
‘My name is Jose Eduardo Taveres Melo Silva.’
I get Sabastiao to spell out his name. Jose has no paper so I use his arm. Jose Eduardo Taveres Melo Silva is transfixed by the letters appearing along his delicate limb. I draw a love heart to dot the i. The kids walk back with us to the dressing room. Men pat us on the back and women say, ‘Obrigada, muito obrigada.’ We pause the procession to pose for pictures with pretty families who put their arms around us. And everyone’s looking at me. Everyone loves me. This piece of me, this smallest part of me projected like a shadow puppet on the back wall of people’s minds. The kites dance in the empyrean and I can smell popcorn.
I don’t want to take the costume off. I want to be a deity forever. I want to bask in the love of a thousand faces. I spin around like a small girl. My skirt spirals in the vortex. This drug, this addiction, this distraction from my stillborn life, this is what I do.
I catch myself in the mirror and suddenly I’m Miss Havisham in a long velour dress and a fright wig. I see the crone in the maiden’s gown caught in a single moment, calcifying in the best of times until it becomes the worst of times meanwhile missing all of the other times: the good times, the fair-to-middling of times, and the times when nothing much seems to be happening at all. Everything you love discards you in the end. Even gorgeous days slip away through the horizon. All I can be sure of is that I am running out of time.
I take off the wig and I’m left a woman with flat hair and a smudged face.
I have to pick up the others on the way to the airport. I leave my place two hours before check-in which is two hours before take off. I hate being late. Not everyone hates being late.
The taxi driver is a wiry guy of indeterminate age with a beard. A career cabbie. He helps me with my luggage. I’ve packed my case, taking only the portable, the foldable and the light, leaving enough space to fill later with all the beginnings, the promise, the life still to be led. I can be anyone. No burden of history creating arthritic relationships. No ends, just interruptions and beginnings. The taxi smells of laboratory apple scent.
We’re slicing through the streets on the wrong side of the speed limit when the driver comments on the weather.
‘Nice weather we’re having.’
‘This town doesn’t have its own weather. It does impersonations of other climates. When we have four seasons in one day, that’s just the weather showing off.’
The driver appraises me in the rear-view mirror for a moment. I change the subject. ‘So, what’s it like being a taxi driver?’
‘Well, you need patience and skin like a crocodile. Some of the things that get said to you . . . I just agree with whatever they’re saying. Nod along. It’s much easier.’
‘Do you get more tips that way?’
‘You do.’ He smiles a little. I smile with him.
‘If you’re going to be confrontational, then they’re going to come back at you. Especially with a bit of soup in them.’
‘So you just nod along?’
‘What’s it like driving a yellow cab?’
He thinks for a moment. ‘It’s sort of like wearing a yellow tie.’
We pull into Edmund’s driveway. He’s not waiting out the front. I knock on the door. It takes a long time before I hear someone at the lock. Edmund is in his underwear.
He looks at me.
‘You’re not ready, are you?’
He shakes his head.
‘How about I go pick up the Prince and come back for you?’
He nods. He gives me his sweetest smile. He gently closes the door. I can hear running down the hall.
‘You travel much?’ asks the driver.
‘You like it?’
‘What do you like about it?’
‘I like hanging around airports.’
The cab driver regards me briefly. He looks a touch hurt.
‘I don’t know,’ I say, trying to take the question seriously, ‘a last chance to see. I may as well have a look at it all before the world ends. May as well have a look at all the monuments to human endeavour before they fall. Walk in the final remnants of the natural world. See all the fine things that used to be forests. Dine in the dying light on the last of the oceans sheltering on an elegant patio with a stunning vista as the earth breathes its last.’
‘I see,’ says the driver.
I briefly wonder if I haven’t said too much, the way you sometimes do when you confide in strangers. And yet I keep talking.
‘When you realise that your life is worthless you either commit suicide or travel.’
‘You really should cheer up.’
‘I am cheerful. I just won the lottery.’
‘I won the chance to stand in a dark cave and watch the sun come up for seventeen minutes.’
‘You won the Newgrange lottery.’
This cabbie knows his Megalithic passage tombs.
‘That’s the one. My ticket was chosen out of forty thousand. I’m one of the lucky ones who will spend winter solstice in Ireland, at dawn, standing in a cruciform chamber with a corbelled roof to see a beam of light illuminate a passageway falling two metres short of the back wall.’
‘The light falls short of the back wall because the tilt of the earth’s axis has changed since it was built five thousand years ago,’ says the driver.
‘So why Newgrange in particular?’
‘Why do we do anything, really? I entered a lottery on a whim and I won it on a whim.’
In the rear-view mirror, the cabbie doesn’t look convinced.
‘I want to see ancient architecture and a trick of the sun.’
The cabbie takes his eyes of the road to look at me again. I try once more.
‘Maybe the ancients left a message I want to hear. And maybe I want to mark the moment. It’s impossible to remember all the moments of your life. But I’ll remember this one and mark it against the moment I stood in the doorway, downstairs outside the laundry, just a kid in a small town on the Tropic of Capricorn. The thing about the Tropic of Capricorn is that it marks the most southerly latitude at which the sun can appear directly overhead during the December solstice. You don’t cast a shadow at noon on one day of the year. I was looking at a daddy-long-legs spider and neither of us had a shadow. I marked the moment to measure my life against. This moment in Newgrange, pretty much on the other side of the globe, can be a moment like that. I will experience a moment in space-time set on an arbitrary set of coordinates, watch the sun come up and mark my life against the time I stood next to a spider without a shadow.’
‘It will probably be very cold.’
‘I packed an extra cardigan. Just here.’
The cabbie turns into the Prince’s street.
The Prince is sitting on his verandah drinking with friends but he’s packed and mostly tidy. He brings his beer into the taxi.
‘You are outrageous. You know that, don’t you?’ I say as he climbs into the back seat.
‘It was a big night. My going away party. Going to sleep it off on the plane. Where’s Edmund?’
‘Wasn’t ready. Going to pick him up now.’
‘Ah, Edmund,’ says the Prince and looks out the window.
‘Where you all going?’ asks the cabbie.
‘Everywhere,’ says the Prince.
‘An international man of mystery then?’
‘We’re going on tour,’ I say. ‘James Bond here is an acrobat. He’s very quick on his hands.’
‘What’s it like being a cabbie?’ asks the Prince.
‘Well, the world comes to you. Chinese, Japanese, Timorese, Bengalese.’
‘Danes, Ethiopians, Dutch.’
‘That’s a lot of people.’
‘Cubans, they’re always smoking, Bolivians, Cambodians, Canadians, Colombians, Catholics, Hungarians, Palistinians, Mexicans, and the Swiss. They all come through the car from all over the world. You get that every day. Every single day your life is different.’
‘Cool,’ says the Prince and takes a swig of his beer.
No sign of Edmund as we pull up to his house for the second time today. I jump out and go to the door. It only takes one knock this time. Edmund’s special friend Elsie answers the call. She’s a sweet, pretty, young thing – all black hair, luminous skin and lovely manners.
‘He’s ready now,’ she says.
Edmund appears, carrying his things. We walk to the taxi. Edmund stands on the footpath and takes a while to say goodbye to his special friend Elsie. The farewell becomes almost inappropriate for a public street. Eventually he jumps into the back seat.
‘You got everything? Passport, tickets?’ I say, trying not to use my mum voice.
Edmund checks his pocket. Then he looks through his jacket. Then he rummages through his bag.
‘Guys, I’ve left my passport inside the house.’
I look at my watch. ‘Well, hurry up then.’
‘Yeah but . . . my keys are sitting next to the passport inside the house.’
The house, which is now securely locked. Elsie, who is still standing on the kerb, doesn’t have keys either.
‘Edmund,’ I say, using the tone we all take with Edmund in times like these.
‘You go pick up the Princess and I’ll go and break into my house.’
The Princess eventually answers my knock.
‘I’ll just get my bags.’
She has a lot of bags. A lot of big bags. A lot of very big bags. And they all match. A pink floral pattern that baffles the eye. The driver uses his secret cabbie powers to get them all in the boot.
For the third time today, we pull into Edmund’s driveway. He is standing forlornly in the front yard.
‘I can’t get in.’
The cabbie suddenly becomes action man, takes off his seatbelt and gets out of the car.
‘Let me have a look.’
He takes a piece of wire from under the seat. Edmund follows him nervously.
After a short while, they return. Edmund has his passport. He says goodbye to his special friend Elsie a little more quickly this time and we pull away from the house for surely the very last time. Elsie waves until we are out of sight.
‘Edmund,’ demands the Prince, ‘what’s going on, dude?’
‘Lost track of time.’
‘Lost track of time?’
‘I was having sex all morning and lost track of time. You know what it’s like.’
The Prince doesn’t look at all pleased.
‘So what’s it like being a taxi driver?’ says Edmund in a voice that is a little too loud.
‘Well, it’s a bit like . . .’
The Princess, sitting in the front seat of the taxi, chooses this moment to put on the radio. It’s tuned to a classical music station.
‘I like this song,’ says the Princess. ‘I used to do my ballet barre to this song. Who is it?’
‘It’s Bach,’ says the driver. ‘Invention Number One.’
This cabbie knows his eighteenth-century composers. We listen for a while as we watch the familiar landmarks of the city recede into the distance.
‘I like classical music,’ confides the Princess to her captured audience. ‘Did you know that Joanne Sebastian Bach is the most famous composer in the world?’
‘You don’t say,’ says the cabbie, nodding.
‘Yes. He enriched the German style with a robust contraception technique but he still had twenty children.’
‘Really?’ says the cabbie, nodding some more.
‘Yes. He used to practise on an old spinster.’
‘Don’t you mean spinet?’
Now everyone is nodding.
We’re not late after all. We join the others waiting to check in. The Chancellor is at the front of the line demanding that we all hand her our passports. She is a heavy, officious woman who used to work for the public service in a particularly infuriating part of the sector.
‘Quickly now,’ she says, counting the slender books in her hands. ‘Edmund, where’s your passport?’
Edmund is searching through his bag. He looks just about ready to climb into it. And then Edmund has a thought. ‘Maybe I left it at the coffee stand.’
‘Well, go get it. The flight is not going to wait for you.’
Edmund scampers away. The Chancellor looks at the girls working behind the desks at check-in.
‘I hope we get a girl who can speak English. I don’t want to start the mime show before we’ve even left the airport.’
And here’s the thing, the Chancellor doesn’t like foreigners. She’s our tour manager.
The Generalissimo is standing behind her. He is a very short man and he’s ‘over it’. He’s been ‘over it’ for years. He doesn’t like performers or touring or showering. He carries a hip flask. I think he’s always drunk. He’s our safety officer.
The Generalissimo says a begrudging hello to my cheery greeting and settles back into silence. I struggle in the silence and so try to fill it with words.
‘These queues are long, aren’t they? Makes you wish you were in business class, doesn’t it? Straight up to the counter and then straight down to the lounge for the catering and the newspapers. After that it’s all first on the plane, drink on arrival and real cutlery and china plates. And those little comfort bags with the perfume and moisturisers. When I get off a plane I always check to see if anyone in business class has left their complimentary comfort bag. Sometimes I’m lucky. Sometimes they haven’t even been opened. The trick to taking a complimentary comfort bag from business class is to do it as if it is the most normal thing in the world to do. And quickly. Quickly is important. You have to get in and out before an air hostess notices.’
I try to stop talking. Eventually I do.
The Lady In Waiting is waiting next in line standing beside one of the biggest suitcases I have ever seen in my life. She could be transporting a body in that thing. The Lady wears a tracksuit, which has a glittering ‘Honey’ emblazoned across her bottom. She has long, jet-black hair. Underneath a full face of make-up, she looks like she needs a steak. She shows her teeth to me like someone who is unused to smiling.
And then there is me. The Courtesan. I’m just happy to be invited.
We are the Kingdom of Nobodies. Sometimes we visit real royal courts and entertain them before dinner. Other times we play to the multitudes gathered in town squares, at festivals, in parks, on traffic islands and sometimes behind the basketball courts. Free for the people. Pleasant distractions. Diversions for all.
The Princess prances up to me. ‘Thank you for letting me borrow this book,’ she says.
The Princess chooses this moment, as we stand in line waiting to travel overseas for a very long time, with a limit of twenty kilograms for each person, to return the book she has borrowed from me. She hands me Arabian Nights. The book is a very heavy, hardback tome in large print with brass corners. I consider telling her where to put it. I decide instead to leave it on a bench before I go through customs.
‘Thank you, Princess.’
Edmund rushes up clutching his passport.
‘Found it. A nice girl behind the counter put it aside. I got her number as well.’
‘Well give it here,’ says the Chancellor.
‘What? The phone number?’
‘No, your passport.’
‘I want a window seat,’ says Edmund.
Edmund won’t be getting a window seat. If the Chancellor can manage it, she’ll get him in the middle of a row of four, just outside the toilets.
A certain sentimentality colours the beginning of a new tour. Infamous stories get retold, indignities revisited, fun recaptured and slanders brought up to date. Everyone’s brimming with excitement. This never gets old.
‘Who are we flying?’ asks Edmund.
‘The Singaporeans,’ says the Prince.
‘Great: ever helpful, cute-as-a-button hostesses, movies on demand and enough legroom.’
‘Yeah, better than the Dutch. No legroom, no personal TV and only cheese sandwiches to eat.’
‘Or the Germans, who make you get your own drinks from down the back and the hostesses can speak all the languages in the world but they don’t want to speak to you.’
‘Or the Americans,’ says the Princess, joining in, ‘who don’t let you drink but you’re welcome anyway and thanks for that smile. They have old air-waitresses.’
‘Well, as long as it’s not the Australians,’ says Edmund. ‘The disciplinarian airline. Giant male stewards with big hands who never let you leave your seat even to go to the toilet and you get in trouble if you talk during the safety demonstration. The “Shut Up and Keep Still Airline”. Those planes are run like convict ships.’
‘What do you never leave the country without?’ asks the Prince, changing the conversation to pleasanter things.
‘A travel wallet, says Edmund, ‘ideally leather with a coin purse for odd currency. Look at my wallet. It contains bits of paper. You just show these bits of paper to people and they let you get on a plane. It’s magic.’
‘Luggage on wheels,’ adds the Lady. ‘Backpacks are for bushwalkers.’
‘Power adapters for the whole world,’ says the Prince.
‘Good boots, party dress but never, ever, hula-hoops,’ I say.
‘I take my teddy bear,’ says the Princess. ‘He’s called Rufus. Would you like to meet Rufus?’
The Lady decides to save everyone from meeting Rufus with a confession.
‘I take everything I can from the hotel room. I take soap, shampoo, conditioner, combs, toothbrushes, razors, cotton balls, sewing kits, notepaper, matches, shower caps, bibles and a bathrobe if they have one.’
Edmund does too. ‘Yeah, I do too,’ he says. ‘Some of those hotels in France you have to bring your own soap. Touring like this is like playing a computer game where you have to pick up swords and small elves to use for your next challenge but for me, it’s the antiseptic wipes from the plane and those little packet snacks. I never pack a towel.’
‘We know,’ says the Prince.
‘Next,’ says the woman behind the counter.
In the stampede for the desk everyone begins the plaintive cry, ‘Aisle seat? Can I have an aisle seat on an exit?’ The Princess knocks my phone out of my hand in her rush to the front of the line. A shadow behind me catches it before it hits the ground. I’m momentarily impressed by the quick reflex action. The man winks at me. I don’t know if I approve of winking. Makes me check to see if I still have my purse. The man is part of what looks like a band. Behind him stand six young men, all with their original hair, wearing the secret high heels of men.
‘Thank you,’ I say.
He winks again. Maybe he has something in his eye.
‘Pleasure,’ he says in an accent I can’t quite place with only a single word.
I turn back to the check-in counter. Edmund and the Prince are trying to get upgraded to business class, the Generalissimo is heading out for a cigarette, the Chancellor is struggling to get a suitcase onto the scales and the Lady is accusing the Princess of pinching her. I take my place in the chaos.
I do up the seatbelt. Let the boredom begin.
I’m not a good flyer. Some people say they love the peace and quiet and not having to answer the phone but for me it’s like being in an old people’s home where the only thing to look forward to is the next meal.
Someone is making a disturbance a couple of rows behind me. I turn around. It is the Princess. Her distinctive voice fills the plane.
‘How dare you put your seat back!’
A man’s voice replies but quietly enough so that I can’t hear his response. But he does sound cross.
‘If you want more room then you should have travelled business class!’ screeches the Princess.
Hostesses converge on the incident from what seems like every corner of the plane. I can’t hear what they are saying but the tone is clearly conciliatory.
‘I don’t see why I should move,’ yells the Princess. ‘He should move. Make him move. I like my seat.’
The hostesses murmur politely.
‘I’ll only move if you upgrade me to business class.’
The polite voices don’t sound like they can accommodate this request.
‘Well I’m not moving then. I’m not. I’m not. I’m not!’ It sounds like the Princess is stamping her feet.
I hear someone else shuffling to their feet. I look around again. It is the man I assume was sitting in front of the Princess. He follows the hostess down the aisle. He looks relieved.
After dinner I take the coffee spoon from the tray and put it into my bag. I take a coffee spoon from every flight. I can’t help it. The security guards at airports don’t seem to mind. Except the time I took the whole set of cutlery and the knife came up on the X-ray. I was given a very thorough patting down. And I didn’t even catch his name.
I’m still sitting on a plane. Seven hours into thirteen. I’m having violent fantasies involving my colleagues in seats 24, 65 and 18 and all of the other passengers, especially the sookie fat man who wouldn’t swap seats with me so I could have the aisle which would mean he could sit next to his wife. I have to sit next to her. She is a pale-eyed woman who is wearing as many patterns as she can in a single outfit. The patterns are in constant border skirmishes with each other. Her hands are two white snails corseted by gold bracelets. The hillside of her flesh is avalanching into my seat. I am being invaded by the immoral continent of her body. I’ve had three people in quick succession point their bum at me and it was like looking into their souls. I can’t die in a plane crash. I can’t die in a room full of people.
To read more, find Sideshow at your nearest bookstore, from our shop, or as an ebook through all major retailers.