Unaccompanied minor: my childhood flying between two cities, Mum and Dad

The first time I fly to Melbourne to see my father alone I am four years old, and I’m so little that Qantas won’t take me unaccompanied. My father pays an air hostess to sit beside me the entire flight down.

For the rest of my life growing up between two cities the starting point for these flights would be Sydney, but the first time it’s Canberra. My mother and I are on holiday with friends in Jindabyne for the Easter long weekend. Canberra is the closest airport. On the drive there, my mother is so petrified about what she is about to do that she has to pull over on the side of the highway and vomit in the dry, yellow grass. At Canberra airport, we do the thing we will learn to do in the years to come. The rest of the passengers board the plane – the adults, and other children accompanied by parents. I wait until everyone is in, comfortably seated, reading their magazines. Then the designated air hostess approaches and takes me by the hand. I walk down the gangway and turn to look back at my mother, who stands at the soon-to-close door, smiling and waving at me, always smiling until I’ve stopped looking.

Tot vandag toe, recounting this story of the first flight is one of the most reliable ways to get my mother to cry. “You were such a tiny thing,” she tends to say. That first night without me she was too sick to manage the drive back to Sydney. She took a room in an airport hotel and waited until enough time had elapsed that she could call the phone number in Melbourne and check that my father had picked me up safely at the other end.

In the car that year – 1994 – my father often played me Paul Kelly’s Post, the opening song of which is From St Kilda to Kings Cross. My father liked to play me instructive music and turn the volume up as high as the car stereo would go, telling me to “listen to the lyrics”. The story of From St Kilda to Kings Cross is the story of a bus ride from Melbourne to Sydney. I knew enough by then to know that the bus terminal in Melbourne was certainly not in St Kilda, and that the bus terminal at Sydney’s Central station was a good half-hour walk through Surry Hills and Darlinghurst to Kings Cross. But that was not the point. Paul Kelly gets on the bus, presses his face against the glass and watches the white lines on the tarmac move past the window. Kings Cross is lovely, but once he’s there Kelly misses St Kilda: the promenade and the bedraggled beach and the palm trees. “I’d give you all of Sydney Harbour – all that land and all that water – for that one sweet promenade," hy sing. My father turned the volume up especially loud for that line.

That first year in Melbourne my father had taken to his new life with the ecstasy of abandon I recognised in myself in 2013, my first year living in America. Fuck the past, fuck the old home, everything here is new, everything is better.

On one of those Post drives in 1994 my father drove me to St Kilda. It was a cold dusk, and St Kilda in 1994 was a very different proposition to St Kilda now, and I remember that we walked out to the end of the promenade and surveyed Port Phillip as the sun set over Werribee. “Remember, Maddy,” my father said, “Paul Kelly would give all of Sydney Harbour for this”. There was a valuable aesthetic lesson here: things are not always beautiful just because they are showy, dramatic or spectacular – the broken-down splendour of mid-90s Port Phillip had its own subtle and particular beauty. But it was also a reminder: one of these cities, these parents, is better, and you are being asked to choose. There is only one place that you can call home.

For most of my childhood the fact that I had two homes in two different cities was one of the things that most defined me. I would not be around during the holidays, I could not play on the weekends – I would be at my father’s house, a father who none of my friends met, a father who, it was occasionally put to me by the little boys who lived next door in Sydney, was imaginary. Nobody else had a father who was a plane ride away. But I did.

I was always on planes back and forth between my parents, and every single one of those trips I made on my own.

For most of my childhood I took, at minimum, 10 flights on my own per year. By the end of 1995 – the year I turned six – I was an old hand. Tot vandag toe, I don’t know how my father bore the cost. He struggled financially those first few years in Melbourne and didn’t have the safety net that family and class often provide. The frequency with which I flew the Sydney to Melbourne route in childhood presents itself to me now as an artefact of a particular time – a time of prolific energy extraction without considering the consequences, a time of increased movement and globalisation, a time of more money for the few. It was the Howard era, in kort.

People often ask me where in Australia I grew up, and now that I live overseas I say “between Sydney and Melbourne, mostly Sydney” and leave it at that. There is something lovely about this, something comfortingly simple about not having to explain. Because I’ve never quite been able to articulate it very well – the privilege and difficulty of growing up, simultaneously, in two cities, one of which you are always preparing to leave.

The Sydney to Melbourne flight route is regularly listed as one of the world’s busiest flight corridors. In recent years it has come in second, behind Seoul to the holiday island of Jeju, although at the time of writing it had been knocked down to third due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Official Airline Guide reported that in 2018 daar was 54,519 flights made between Sydney and Melbourne. Once Jetstar and Tiger started running, it was possible to fly from Sydney to Melbourne just about every half hour.

The flight takes an hour and a half, boarding to disembarking. You’re in the air for just over an hour. It’s enough time to have a small meal, have a drink. I suppose you could watch an episode of a television show on your personal device, but when I was starting out the best you got was the communal overhead television screen to which you could tune in with your plastic-wrapped headsets. I read books, coloured in, played with my doll, Amy, looked out the window.

Even though I’ve flown it hundreds of times, the window-seat perspective never gets old. More often than not, the Sydney flight takes off over the waters around Botany Bay and gives you a view of, if not the Sydney skyline, some of the spectacular cliff faces and beaches along the coast. Unless it’s raining hard, you get a picture-perfect Sydney view. Watch out the window and pick where your friends live. Try to spot the Northern Beaches where your aunt lives, the arterial road where your grandmother lives in a house that smells of leaking gas, search for the water tower in Petersham, proximate enough to your mother’s house to feel familiar. Watch the topography shrink as the plane rises above the clouds. The landscape north to south is much of a muchness, flying south-west towards Port Phillip. Soms, around Christmas, there are bushfires, and you fly right over the smoke and glow. It is troublingly beautiful when seen from above – such is the problem with an airborne perspective.

When you’re physically above everything in the material world, you can become magnificently myopic to anything else outside of yourself and your seat. If there is ever turbulence, you are too young to be scared of it. You are never scared of the plane itself. The plane is an interstitial space.

The landing in Melbourne is never as spectacular. There is rarely a big, sweeping city view – only if there’s too much traffic at Tullamarine and the plane is forced to circle until given permission to land. I know we’re landing because my ears are in so much pain that I am close to tears. I try all the tricks – swallowing, opening my jaw wide, yawning, lozenges. Nothing ever reliably works. Neither of my parents really knows how debilitating this in-flight ear pain is, and neither of them is ever with me when I experience it. I go it alone, and I know about the yawning, the swallowing and the lozenges from a parade of air hostesses and kindly passengers who have consulted with me about my ears on previous flights.

Often I spend the first 24 hours in Sydney or Melbourne slightly deafened. I come to enjoy the deafness, drowning out as it does some of the unpleasant things my parents say about each other upon my return and making the volume of my father’s car stereo quite reasonable.

I only thought about all of this a few years ago, the last time I did the Sydney to Melbourne flight. The pressure in my ears built until I was sure, as I had been as a child, that an eardrum would burst. Fingers in my ear canals trying to hold them open, swallowing and yawning and cracking my jaw wide, eyes beginning to tear from the pain. This pain is one I associate with the ending of the interstitial time of the plane. It is how I am christened, each time, into my other life.

Plane lands, plane taxis, plane waits for a gate assignment, cabin crew prepare to disarm doors. The other adults begin to fuss, unbuckle their belts, pack their things away, as though standing in the walkway will get them off faster. I am required to stay in my seat until my air hostess comes to collect me. The flight empties, the air hostesses get relaxed and chatty, moving through the plane looking for discarded jackets, forgotten bags. At last they come to collect me from my place at the back of the plane, checking with me, as we walk, about who we are expecting on the other side. My mother will stand right where I can see her. My father will emerge from the crowd at the side, forcing me to find him. Whoever it is, I run to hug them.

In my Melbourne bedroom I have a bedspread embroidered with elephants and tiny mirrors in which I like to catch my reflection. In Sydney I have a pink and green floral doona, which matches the pale pink walls my mother painted herself.

In Melbourne I say “bathers” instead of “cossie”. I say “milk bar” instead of “corner shop”. In Melbourne, Woolworths is Safeway. In Melbourne the school holidays are always one week different to the school holidays in Sydney. In Melbourne my father doesn’t sleep at night but instead paces the hall. In Melbourne I am left to dress myself, and my hair goes unbrushed, becoming a tangle of knots by the time I’m sent back.

In Sydney I have school. In Sydney I have morning school care and after school care two days a week, Mondays with my paternal grandmother, Thursdays and Fridays with my maternal grandmother. In Sydney my mother is exhausted because she’s parenting me alone. In Sydney I have a doctor and a dentist, Kumon tutoring in maths on Saturdays, Irish dancing on Fridays. I have friends, which I never have in Melbourne, not for long.

My mother doesn’t know what my Melbourne life is like, and my father doesn’t know what my Sydney life is like. I learn to tell them different versions of the truth, until I’m not sure myself which is the authentic depiction of the thing I feel or think. Neither of them wants to hear about the other parent, the other city, or at least they don’t want to hear anything good.

Qantas’ unaccompanied minor program was the means by which my childhood functioned the way that it did. This was a kind of golden age of air travel, the 1990s, before post-9/11 security tightening, before cost-cutting measures sucked the pleasure out of the experience, before it became clear how damaging air travel is to the environment. At no point in my life have I ever been so airborne as when I was a child.

Adults were anxious for me in a way I only understand now. But I was used to flying alone. I carried a backpack with me, filled with supplies. Books, four of them usually, a pencil case, a case of CDs, my Walkman and, when I was still very small, my doll. A red-and-white tag, which said ‘UM’ in big letters, was safety pinned to my top. The ‘UM’ had to be in plain sight of adults at all times while I was on the plane. I hated the badge. In the very sound it made it evoked a sense of hesitation, one that became a kind of objective correlative for the entire experience.

I said I was never scared of the plane, and that is mostly true. I was not scared of flying per se. But I would sometimes be overcome by a feeling of doom before a flight. Afraid that I might not come back. Afraid that something terrible would happen. A presentiment of cataclysm that wasn’t about engines or weather or mid-air bombs, but a kind of atmospheric fear tied inextricably to that ‘UM’-space of hesitation, the parenthetical time of the flight.

The air hostesses were always watchful for an unaccompanied minor making a scene. But I never make a scene. When I cried on the plane, as I often did, I made sure it was hidden. I saved the crying for the plane because that was part of the ritual of interstitial space. The crying came at the beginning of the flight – during the ascent. It was rarer to cry at the close upon landing – by then I was excited, ready to get off. The crying at take-off made logical sense. It is always more painful to leave somebody you don’t want to leave than to arrive somewhere happy to see somebody you’ve missed.

The crying would abate once I landed, but it often continued on and off in the days afterwards. The crying was never welcomed by either parent, as they read into it a kind of rebuke. There wasn’t a lot of sympathy for my hiding in the cupboard to cry after returning from Melbourne because I missed my father, nor a lot of sympathy for middle-of-the-night nightmares because I missed my mother when I wasn’t in Sydney. My parents had a bitter, acrimonious divorce, and each felt it necessary to insult the other. Each wanted to believe that I preferred my life with them, that nothing really good or pleasant happened with the other. Sometimes I slipped up, but I learnt to keep my stories straight. Yet every time I arrived, I wept, and every time I left, I wept, and it didn’t matter which city it was. The only place I could cry in peace was on the plane.

The crying stopped when I got older. The trips became a matter of course. But the time in the air still mattered. So much of one’s childhood is claimed and narrated by somebody else. Your parents can confirm what food you liked, which places you went, your teachers’ names, when you cannot. But my mother has one version of my childhood, my father another. No one in Sydney knew what my Melbourne life looked like, didn’t know what I ordered from Brunetti, where the children’s books were shelved at Readings, that my favourite place to swim was Black Rock or the North Melbourne pool, that I knew how to get the trams they didn’t have in Sydney back then, that I knew to say “bathers” and “milk bar”, that I was, in werklikheid, a slightly different child in the other city.

Nobody was witness to it all except me, and it was only on the plane, the hour and a half start to finish, when I sat there alone and recalibrated in that parenthesis over the land, that I could ever get the story straight with myself. When there was nobody to witness, nobody to convince, and I could cry and read and colour and eat my Goulburn Valley fruit cup and look out the window in peace.

I’ve been listening to From St Kilda to Kings Cross since I was four. The second-last line in the first verse goes, “And my body left me”. I have always – up until the moment when I looked up the lyrics just now to double check as I wrote this paragraph – heard the line as “And my father left me”. This mondegreen makes sense, I suppose, given it’s a song that I so closely associate with my father. That my father left me when I was four years old is the truest, most pathetic, snivelly little fact that sits at the beating heart of everything about me.

It would have been easy for me to resent Melbourne, to have hated those flights, dreaded the earaches they brought on, the sense of never being at home because home was divided between two cities. I didn’t. I was glad to have both places and to know that there was no logic to the message of the song: you don’t have to give all of Sydney Harbour for anything. You can have both.

This is an edited extract of the essay Unaccompanied Minor 47 published in Escape Routes, Griffith Review 74, available now

Kommentaar gesluit.