OPINION: To cross the world I had to leave at dawn. Helen said she'd take me to the airport. Then the snow came. It fell all day, silencing the sunless valley, bowing the trees, the only sound the occasional rifle-crack of a branch snapping. In the evening it froze. I rang Helen.
"I think," she said, "there are chains in the garage."
"Do you know how to put them on?"
"No," she said. "But I'll be there." And she was. As the sky lightened and the crest of the hills turned pink, she came crunching slowly up the valley. Sometimes it is hard to know how to thank people. "Thank you," I said.
The new airport at Christchurch remains small enough to be personal. The man who X-rayed my bag cracked a joke. There's a sinister new machine that scans your face for evil intentions. I put my passport into it the wrong way round but a woman came to help me and she made me laugh. As we waited for the sun to thaw the runway, passengers recognised each other across the holding pen and gathered in knots to talk of rugby and journeys and snow.
When we boarded, the cabin crew offered a first hint of the exotic: small, Asiatic girls in clinging patterned dresses, like delicate vases. We took off over a land in a long white shroud. It was ineffably lovely.
I woke above central Australia. A million square miles of reddishness, scored by dry water-courses like the veins on a leaf. A vast blank awaiting the mineral prospectors or a foolhardy adventurer to shrivel.
We landed in Singapore in the dark. The air bridge didn't quite fit the plane's flank. Air seeped through the gap, steamy, heavy, alien air clamming the skin.
Though the airport concourse was cooled to comfort, there was no mistaking that we were abroad, that just 12 hours after leaving the southern ocean we'd reached the planet's hot waist. The cleaners and overalled workers were tiny, their frames pared by the heat, their skin darkened by sun. We pale lumberers from the south or north would struggle here, beyond the air-conditioning. Technology's shrunk the world, but not changed it.
Last time I was here a sign said "This carp pond is being upgraded for your convenience." The upgrading's done now and I sat with a Tiger beer watching koi carp glide like ginger submarines. Nearby it was an indoor shrubbery's time to be upgraded. Two tiny men squatted as Asian peoples squat and chipped at the floor tiles with chisels.
We boarded for London at midnight. Sleepy people shuffled forward to be X-rayed and scrutinised by people who saw us only as lucrative luggage, transiting beasts to be screened. We had come to this hub from all parts south and east to be herded into a single metal tube and fired northwest through the darkness.
On board we ate and drank then settled to sleep in the dimmed cabin. I woke mid-flight, climbed over the young woman whose ambition, she had told me, was to translate the Bible into tribal African languages, and passed down the aisle through the land of the living dead. Rows of people laid out in positions of the least discomfort, their faces slack with sleep, unguarded, vulnerable, engaged in the ultimate privacy in a public place. The air was thick with muttering and raspings, with the involuntary deeds of the flesh. Such tender ugliness.
We landed in London at dawn, a day and a half since the last dawn I'd seen, a day and a half that took me from frozen winter to high English summer. It was raining. I took the Tube into town, to the seething rush-hour of Victoria Station, helped a woman lug a double bassoon on to a train, then travelled down towards the south coast on a line I have known since childhood. My mother was at the station to meet me, the woman I ran to as an infant, who nursed me, fed me, sheltered me then let me go.
Frail, her hair all but gone, her spine hunched by nine decades, her world reduced to the few hundred yards around her home, the house that I was raised in and that I left a long time ago. I'd crossed the world to come back. Her ancient eyes were watery, but smiling, and I hugged her to me, gently, for fear of hurting her.
- © Fairfax NZ News