I am not built for Business Class. The gentleman to my left, wearing shirt and suit and sipping Scotch, frantically types emails to remote colleagues, running his hotel empire from the skies. En route to Singapore, he had embarked fresh from a meeting and is heading straight to another. His body language is deliberate; his emails are succinct. He is a professional businessman: he is to be taken seriously. Meanwhile, I have found the buttons that make the seats go up and down.
And despite the perks of business travel — the myriad films, television programmes, radio stations, music albums and even interactive language classes; the four course meals and fine dining; and that ultimate luxury, a bed on an aeroplane — I fail to conform. I do not want to sit and watch a screen. I do not want to sit and do business. I want to know the stories of those travelling. I want to know what is taking them to where they are going. I want to know their businesses, and how they fit in to this world. But most of all, I want to see what is going on outside that window.
It is mid-afternoon, and not a cloud can be seen in the sky. Out there, through my tiny portal from this irrelevant flying metal tube, is the red centre of the entire Australian subcontinent. Dust and spinifex dominate for hundreds of miles. Barely a human scratch can be seen on this scorched surface. The Great Dividing Range and the plains beyond have disappeared, the ground has morphed from yellow-green to yellow, and now the rust colour is kicking in. Giant old river networks stretch across this desolate place, their long evaporated waters leaving behind bleached scratches and scars, deceased capillaries of a once pulsating lung.
We fly so quickly, yet the landscape passes so slowly. I turn back to my screen, lower my seat once more and watch my film. Yet whereas in any other context this otherwise decent picture would keep my attention, I, like the titular hundred-year old man who was to climb out of a window and disappear, am desperate for a story, for an adventure. The seat motor whirs as I lift again to peer out on to the world below. My neighbour ignores me, and orders a refill of Scotch.
Desert. Dust. Spinifex. A road! Houses! A grid based system so far from anywhere, on the shores of a salty lake relic. What possesses such souls to live in a desperate place like this? What draws them here? What sustains them?
The town passes. I return to my film. It is not long before the window is my theatre stage once more.
Lines, perfectly straight, pattern a ground that has quite suddenly become a much stronger red. We are over the red spot in the centre of the continent: the Simpson Desert, an erg or sand sea. For hundreds of miles, in all directions, nature has been practising with set squares. Her winds have whipped up the sand into perfect dunes, untouched by man. Her flaming carmine palette flaunts her ores, so lucrative to this mining nation.
Suddenly a sizeable town. It can only be Alice. I am flying above Alice Springs — Uluru might be visible from the other side of the plane! My face is wedged against the window. My attention is rapt.
It is at this moment that my heart begins to ache.
It has not even been a full day since my three-year old niece, fresh from her bedtime story, had been found defying her parent's instructions to go to sleep. After much singing heard over the monitor hidden in her room, her mother had gone to investigate, while I sat in their living room, glowing with pride from having been personally selected to read to her one last time before I flew home. Her mother returned to describe how my niece, far from sleepy, was pressed up against the window, enraptured by the traffic on the street below, by the lights and the sights of this corner of the city. She had been desperate to know all that was going on below, just as I am now, thirty-three thousand feet above and many hundreds of miles west from that moment, heading much further away.
My hardened soul had been melted. The in-laws I so rarely get to see had welcomed me in, loved me, cared for me, entertained me and accepted me in a way I had not been expecting. It had been so comfortable and had felt so right to be one of their clan for a few days. I had been uncle to the greatest niece and a miracle nephew. I had been brother to the most loving of people.
Desert. Dust. Spinifex. Desert. Dust. Spinifex. Ocean. Volcano. Night time.