20A. Thank the Lord: a window seat. The man in 20C shuffles out to let me shuffle in. When the plane’s up and banking hard left over the Sydney suburban grids, an announcement from the cabin crew offers an apology in advance for the amended in-flight service. In an effort to minimise the health risks to passengers and staff, they say, there will be no breakfast served on this flight. A mild bummer, I think to myself, but I’ll grab something when we refuel in Alice Springs.
I drift into one of those droopy, interrupted plane sleeps until the man in 20C nudges me in case I should want the mini packet of rice crackers and the mini bottle of water the steward is offering me in a latex-gloved hand. I pop them on the seat between us and, after five-or-so minutes, my neighbour asks if I’d mind if he ate them. I’ll grab something when we refuel in Alice.
In Alice Springs airport, everything is closed. A masked police guard corrals those travelling on to Darwin in one pen and directs the rest down a different cordoned corridor. The family standing 1.5m to my left came prepared: they have muesli bars and juice boxes. Maybe the refreshments on the next flight will be an improvement on rice crackers.
I get to my seat before 20C this time, so I notice his hi-tech Nikes and how at odds they are with everything else about his aesthetic. He’s about 65, with wiry hair that sticks out fifteen odd centimetres the whole way round his head (kind of spherical in effect). He sports holey trackies and a Kathmandu fleece over a grimy band t-shirt. On his left hand he wears a silver ring that covers the bottom 4cm of his finger in a design that’s like there are little wings wrapped around it. It’s part bikey, part hippie. From Alice to Darwin, he divides his time between meditating and drawing intricate, abstract patterns on the back of his boarding pass with a biro. He eats his packet of cardboard pretzels and mine. Interesting bloke, I think.
For now, crossing state lines in Australia is like entering a new country. Customs queues snake and bank up all the way back to the aerobridge. I clasp my NT border arrival form in a sweaty, sanitised hand. Once my paperwork is signed off and I’ve located my suitcase and guitar I’m ushered into another pen, this time collecting people to be taken directly to quarantine. Here, a welfare lady takes my details and gives me a sympathetic frown when I report I’m on my way to Katherine to work as a teacher. This happens a lot. What the heck am I in for???
It stands to reason that when you treat people like they’re diseased livestock, you’ve got to be prepared for the animalistic behaviour you bring out of them. During my 45 minutes in the quarantine holding pen, I witness in the antics of my fellow passengers two examples of such primal instincts: firstly, the drive to find a mate; and, secondly, the need to escape captivity.
Too busy eavesdropping on a conversation between a Chinese-Australian businessman and a pretty young doctor, I don’t notice the slick Sri Lankan chap sidling up to me with his matching Hugo Boss luggage. He deserves full credit for the obvious effort he put into his appearance this morning: cuffed chinos, boat shoes, collared shirt (a bit toooo slim fit, perhaps?) with perhaps a few tooooo many buttons left undone at the top, perfectly gelled hair and a blingy timepiece. He deserves full credit, also, for a record-breaking two opening gambits (‘First time in Darwin?’, ‘So, quarantine eh?’) before he suggests dinner on Night 15 and asks for my number.
I’m a bit sheepish about this next part. He’s cheerful and has a lovely smile, but I could not be less keen to have dinner with this man. (Will I feel differently after a fortnight in a budget hotel, I wonder?) Under normal circumstances, I would’ve excused myself and ‘gone to the bathroom’ (read: and never come back) but here I am, in a holding pen, destined for quarantine. There’s no escape.
Thinking as quickly as I can on an empty stomach, I give him nine digits of my number but change the tenth. He proceeds to ‘leave me a missed call’, which I too hurriedly pretend to receive before he says the number doesn’t exist. Sprung. I mumble some crap about having recently travelled overseas so maybe my phone isn’t working properly…? (Come on, girl. Really??) Mercifully, he gets the message and retreats… right into to the pretty doctor who’s since managed to fend off the flirty businessman! Sorry, I say with my eyes as she glances at me, showing with her smirk that she’s caught every last word of my bungled encounter with the plucky chap.
The other instinct on display is the urge to escape captivity – to claim freedom, to run wild, to go rogue! You’ll be relieved to know it isn’t me causing a scene, and you’ll be amused to know it is the man from 20C. He starts having a very loud conversation with the police officer at the customs desk about how it makes much more sense for him to talk to the welfare lady before signing the quarantine deed poll, not after. They’re tricking him, he says with a flourish of biros and forms.
The histrionics continue: ‘he has a right to not go into quarantine’, ‘he can’t apply for exemption because he doesn’t have the internet’, ‘he maintains it’s just plain abusive for the police to ask him to wait in such a tiny section of the airport’, ‘he’s sooooo thrilled to spend two weeks in a ****ing hotel room’, etc. The rebellion becomes louder and more sarcastic by the minute and I’m mortified when he tries to get me to support his tirade, thinking, presumably, that he’ll find an ally in his sleepy neighbour from row 20.
Not so, my man, not so, I think. I have my own battles to fight in this holding pen!
In the next instalment of ‘Welcome to the Territory’, I’ll bring you along on the bus ride with Rob the nurse and introduce you to Haidee, the very persistent receptionist at the Quest apartments whence I write.