It’s not that I’m afraid of flying. I am okay with being in the air. I like airports, and I like planes, and I like being in transit. There is a freedom to being between places, with little to do but wait. I read a lot, on planes, with a speed that I will never manage on the ground.
Nor, as the old joke suggests, am I afraid of the landing if things go wrong, although I do think about it as we taxi down the runway. I close my eyes and picture the moment of impact. Or, rather, a moment of impact, as I expect the image in my head bears no relationship to the reality of connecting with the ground. In my imagination the human body is like a squishy china vase, tipped from the edge of a table and allowed to hit the floor. In my imagination we do not squish, but shatter. We disintegrate on impact, reduced to wet, pink shards that scatter and take considerably effort to clean up.
But I am okay with that ending. It seems messy, but very quick.
What bothers me is falling. The helpless moments as I tumble, watching the inevitable rush towards me. What bothers me are those terrifying seconds when the end is coming and panic seems a perfectly sane response, because there is nothing at all I can do to stop me and the ground from connecting. There is time to think, as you fall. To realise what will come.
And it’s this that keeps me awake, the night before I fly. The terrible, awful but what if that is still less likely than being hit by a car.
It’s eight in the morning. I’m flying to Melbourne. I’ve already been awake for far too many hours.
The friends I love keep moving to Melbourne, and so I go down to visit. Rarely, at first, when I was young and broke. Now I am heading down for my second visit in six weeks. Melbourne has become an old friend, filled with old friends. Filled with people I trust with secrets, and hurts, and slices of my history, in ways that I can never trust the people I see every week.
When I tell friends at home that I am going to Melbourne, they ask the usual questions: what are you going to do? What are you going to see?
The answers are mundane: couches; friend’s cats; cups of tea and cups of coffee; board games and train lines that will get me from lounge room to lounge room. The occasionally café, in the city, when the logistics of getting around make it easier to meet somewhere central instead of visiting a friend’s home.
It wasn’t always like this. When I was younger, the appeal of Melbourne was the city. The book shops, the lane-ways, the novelty of a city with a population to support the weird and the niche. I grew up on the Gold Coast, dreaming of places like this: art galleries and theatre and comedy and books. When you grow up young and arty, in Queensland, Melbourne feels like an obligation. It’s the place you run to, first chance you get, in order to find your people. It’s a place where you feel like you belong, instead of fighting for space.
I thought it was inevitable once, and the lure of the city is still there. “When are you coming down?” Friends ask me, and I used to have an answer.
“One day,” I’d tell them. “When my job working with writers is done.”
But I’m done with that job now, and Brisbane keeps me still. Keeps me by dint of a mortgage and new gig; by dint of friendships that filled the gaps after older friends moved away; by dint of its familiarity, the feeling of home when I walk down the street, but also its ability to surprise me when I remember to pay attention.
These days, when I’m in Melbourne, I think of the bits of Brisbane I love. I think of the trees on the side of the road in Adelaide street, which I had not noticed for the first decade I lived in Brisbane. I think of my café where the owners know me, and the bookstore where they know my tastes. I think of my routines, and my small flat, and my train line.
And I think, you now, I’m happy there. Happier than I thought I could be, once upon a time.
The first time we flew to Melbourne, we took an early flight. I was not a morning person back then, and I was not comfortable on a plane. Fear made me irritable, when combined with the lack of sleep. I loathed the cabin crew for being too perky. I loathed the short, painless flight because I was stuck in a window seat. I hadn’t yet learned the pleasure of being in-transit. I didn’t read, and I didn’t write. I just sat and brooded and killed the time. Felt the pressurised steel shell around me and imagined them peeling away, folding back like the lid of a sardine cane before you shake the contents free.
I pulled down the window blind so I wouldn’t look at the ground anymore. Tried not to picture ten thousand empty meters I’d need to fall through in order to reach the ground. Tried not to do my back-of-the-envelope mathematics: terminal velocity averages out at 60 meters per second; that’s a whole lot of seconds to live through on the way down.
We did not crash. We landed in Melbourne. I went to my hotel room and removed my shoes, made fists with my toes just like Die Hard taught me.
There was no-one I knew in Melbourne back then, except for the friends who were travelling with me.
An incomplete list of things in Melbourne that have, at times, been used to convince me it’s a good place to live: the bookstore on Collins Streets; trams; The Maltese Falcon; the Azteca Hot Chocolate at San Churro, before the chain spread across Australia and you could get their hot chocolate everywhere; Minotaur Books; All Star Comics; the cocktails at the Americano bar, where one doesn’t so much order as suggest a flavour profile and let an expert do their job.
An incomplete list of things in Melbourne that actually tempt me to move: walking across the Yarra on the William’s Street Bridge; jacket weather; scarf weather; the presence of deciduous trees and a regular Call of C’Thulhu game; the baked beans I used to order, in this café down in Brighton, which were smoky and thick and served with crusty bread, even if the coffee that came with them wasn’t the coffee that Melbourne boasts about.
In truth, if I go, it will be none of these things that does it. The friends who truly want me to move don’t bother selling the city. I’m a writer, and not the wildly successful kind, which means I don’t have money. The books and the cocktails and the cafes are extravagances, easily afforded on a holiday but too unlike my ordinarily life.
The friends who want me to move simply sit me on a couch and give me a cup of tea and proceed to talk about things. They remind me of who they are, and how they haven’t changed, and exactly why I miss them.
I told a friend about my fear of falling, once. About the empty seconds where the air whistles in your ears, giving you time to think about what’s waiting below.
“At thirty-thousand feet,” they said, “you’re probably not going to be conscious. They pressurise the cabins ’cause there’s not enough oxygen. I think you’d pass out for some of it.”
I don’t know if they were right about that. I prefer to not know for sure. Any second I don’t have to be thinking sounds good, when I am falling.
I made plans to move to Melbourne once. I had the date, and the budget, and nothing left to loose. Brisbane had not been good to me, after being good fro a very long time. My heart was broken, and other parts of me joined it.,I felt the lure of being somewhere else, where the past didn’t dog my footsteps. And so I set my sights on Melbourne and hoped that it would change things. I would move there, and I would find myself. I would move there, and I would belong. I would move there, and if I was wrong, it did not matter how I landed. Breaking matters less, when you think you’re already broken.
I recruited friends to move down with me, sold them on the city and set their plans in motion. Their plans went through, and mine did not. I got a job, and my heart scabbed over. I figured it for a short-term thing, that the job would end and I would move. Instead, I stayed. Bought a flat. Worked at my job. Looked at the things that broke me, and tried to fix them, one by one. It’s slow work, gluing yourself together. It’s never as fast as you’d like.
Now, it’s six years later. It’s eight AM and I am flying, sitting in a window seat with a notebook, a novel, and a weekend with friends ahead of me. The cabin crew do the seat-belt demonstration. We taxi down the runway. I lean back in my seat and close my eyes, feel the lurch as we take off and the plane begins its ascent.
We rise, and we are flying. Me and a plane full of people. There is space underneath me. More space with each passing second. And I’m not so afraid of falling now, although the fear’s still there. I open my eyes and I keep breathing, watch the seat-belt sign and wait for the moment when tray-tables can be lowered and my writing time has started
I should write about Melbourne, I think. I should write about flying.
Then I pick up my book and start reading, because the seat belt sign is illuminated and none of things can happen until it has been switched off.