Saturday, October 29, 2011

Travel - a Personal Nightmare

In January, I went somewhere for a few days, and travelled with my mother. It was hair-raising, and I blogged about it here. Today my kid brother (I have a kid brother, 50, and a baby brother in his mid-forties) visited, and I tried to show him the blog entry, but it seemed to have disappeared off into the ether, disappearing even from my blog archives. So as I haven't paid too much attention to this blog recently, I thought I'd have another go at writing it up. Our mother isn't the - er - easiest person in the world to deal with, and while the weekend was horrific to live through, it was high comedy to write about and to describe to my brother. I didn't get too far into the story before a friend visited, putting the kybosh on telling the rest of the story, and my co-resident turned up not long afterwards, killing it completely. I was going to show my brother the blog entry, but it has become invisible, apparently, although entries before and after it are still there, so here we go - take two at telling the story.
The trip was all about my daughter, who had recently moved out in order to go to university via the ADFA system - training for an officer's job in the Australian Army and picking up a university degree without a HECS debt at the same time. It's pretty hard to get a free - or even affordable - degree these days, so she did well to be accepted. After a number of weeks' basic military training they were to have a big welcome-to-the-military parade, with all the top brass, and this is what we were travelling to, as it happened on site in Canberra, quite a distant city.
I decided to go down there by train, a five-hour trip starting on Friday at about lunchtime. We were to stay the entire weekend, and come back up on Monday. I was planning to sleep at my friend Niall's place in Cooma, a town an hour or two's drive out of Canberra. My mother, as the all-important grandmother, was going to come, too, and was going to hire a car once we were down there for both our use around town and for me to drive out to Cooma nightly to sleep at my friend's place.
My mother's surname is West. My surname is Merrieweather. Nothing alike. We booked our tickets separately, on the same train as there are only two trains a day between the cities. Guess what - we were given adjoining seats. Knowing what she's like, and knowing what I'm like, this bothered me immediately. Adjoining seats? We'd have to sit next to each other for a whole five hours. Never mind, I consoled myself, I'd do anything for my daughter whom I loved with a ferocious maternal love, anything. Even sitting next to my mother for five hours. After all, isn't she meant to love me the same way? Yeah, right.
But still, it was an important day for my daughter, and I was always damn well going to be there. Her grandmother was also always going to be there. Neither of us were ever going to miss it. It was all good.
The day before we travelled, she rang me to confirm that I had my ticket for the trip (of course I had). She told me not to check in my luggage when I got to the station the next morning, "because it will take ages to get it back, and the train gets in after four, and the car rental place closes at six". Two hours? I wouldn't have thought it was a problem.
I decided that I couldn't face the trip without a moment of peace and tranquillity first, so I turned up a couple of hours early to sit in a cafe with a nice coffee and read a few pages of my book beforehand. Being a good, obedient daughter - or at least wanting to keep the peace beforehand - I didn't check in my luggage. I had one black suitcase with my toiletries and a long-weekend's-worth of clothes, pyjamas etc in it, a black backpack with food and drink for the trip (I have eaten lunches bought on XPT trains before, and they are truly awful) and a warm layer of clothes in case the air conditioning was cranked up to Too Cold, and I had a handbag with all the personal stuff you carry around in your handbag. My black backpack and matching suitcase had been pre-decorated by me, with braids of brightly multi-coloured wool hanging from each of the zippers, and there were a lot of those. A matching set, looking all very hippy and rainbow-peopley. Unique, yes? Remember that, it becomes important later.
So, thinking I was mother-free for at the very least an hour, I sought out coffee. Before I'd even bought one, she found me. She was carrying a handbag - and not pulling any luggage. I asked her where her luggage was, and she said she had checked hers in, and why hadn't I? I'd better hurry and check it in, she told me. Careful not to roll my eyes, I went to the baggage office to check in the luggage that she had told me not to check in. I intended to keep my backpack and handbag with me, and check in the suitcase. She came trotting after me.
We got to the baggage office, and there was a queue of about half-a-dozen people lined up in front of us. First in the door, I added myself to the end of the line. She swanned right in, walked to the counter at the head of the queue, pushed in before the guy already being served, and started talking to the attendant, a man in his fifties. Some of the people in the queue protested, and the guy behind the counter politely suggested that others had been here before her and were waiting, and could she please queue up at the end. She walked back to me at the end of the queue, and said loudly enough for everyone in the room to hear: "I suppose I could let these people be served first." At "these people" there was a very real sneer of contempt in her voice.
So we waited, and it wasn't long - the system was fast, efficient and polite. By the time we got to the head of the line, I had my rolly-bag in one hand and my ticket in the other. As I opened my mouth to talk to the guy, she bodily snatched the ticket out of my hand and told him she'd like to check in the bag. I was fifty at the time - I'd probably travelled before. I'd almost certainly checked in luggage before. But no, I was incompetent, and she loudly and busily checked it in for me. It got X-rayed, weighed and put aside with the other checked-in bags for the Canberra train. Several times, loudly, she asked him to make especially sure this bag got on the Canberra train. Several times, he told Madam that it could only go on the Canberra train, as that was all they were checking-in at the moment. Several times she insisted on asking him how could he be sure it would be taken off at the right station. Several times he said Madam, the bag has a clear label, and will be taken off the train at the Canberra station and nowhere else.
She is only a short woman, though terribly scary, and during this dialogue he glanced at me sympthetically over her head. Each time I met his eyes, and smiled sadly. She was oblivious, although she was looking right at him. Finally my bag was checked in, slower than everyone before us, and he went to hand me my ticket, asking if it was mine. Yes it's hers, she said before I could reply, and snatched it out of both our hands just as he was giving it to me. When we left the luggage office, I asked for my ticket. She said she wanted to make sure I wasn't going to lose it. I retrieved it from her anyway, and ostentatiously put it in my handbag, telling her I wouldn't lose it.
By now, my nerves were already shot (mostly in anticipation of worse to come), and we weren't even on the train yet. I needed that coffee, but there was no chance of enjoying it in peace. We retraced our steps to the cafe, and ordered, now that we were finally freed of the luggage that she'd told me not to check in the previous evening. We had coffee. Conversation was stilted, noncommittal and peaceful. I didn't enjoy my coffee. So far so good.
About half an hour before departure we ended up on the platform, and even though there were signs everywhere not to board the train because cleaners were at work, she maintained that we had paid-for tickets, so despite the signs she had a right to board the train whenever she liked. With difficulty, I restrained her, still keeping the peace, and suggested that we might like some freshly polluted city air before five hours of air-conditioned travel. Grumbling, she settled down on the platform until the cleaners finished. The moment a cleaner emerged from the carriage whose number was on our tickets and even before they picked up their "no entry cleaning in progress" signs and wheeled their cleaning carts away, she was pushing her way on board and anxiously checking and re-checking seat numbers on tickets and seat numbers on seats.
We are both quite fleshy people, and the seats were designed for skinny little dwarves. We were going to be sitting, thigh pressed to thigh, for five hours. I didn't like it. Never mind, I told myself, be barely polite to her. You have a superb natural gift: you can put yourself into a deep, natural sleep at will whether you are tired or not. As soon as the train pulls out, fall asleep. She can't object.
As soon as the train pulled out, I fell asleep, properly asleep. She nudged me awake. "Are you tired?" she asked disbelievingly. ""Yes," I lied, and prepared to sleep again. This went on for some time - every time I fell into a deeper sleep than a light doze, she'd nudge me awake and start talking to me loudly again.
An hour or two into the trip, she decided it was lunchtime. I already knew what that meant, so I had packed far too much lunch in anticipation. Apples, grapes and plums. Wholemeal sandwiches with salami, a really expensive cheese, grated fresh carrot and sorrel leaves from my garden, home-grown, organic and biodynamic. They were probably even still photosynthesising in those sandwiches. Having had prior experience of her lunches, I pulled some of my sandwiches out of my backpack with alacrity.
I was right.
True to form, she pulled a glad-wrapped sandwich of some description out of her bag, unwrapped it, took one of the cut halves, wrenched it into two pieces whilst twisting it and pressing the air out of the bread turning it effectively into dough again, and offered me one of the torn and squashed halves of a half-sandwich. I gratefully refused, opened one of my own sandwiches, and offered her another one, still sealed and unsquashed, just as a sandwich should be offered. She had no idea that I was trying to demonstrate the correct way to share sandwiches. Later on, she tore another half-sandwich in half, squashing it completely, and offered it to me again. Again, I pointed out that I had plenty, and would she like another. She helped me eat my plums, which were perfectly ripe, delicious, numerous, and which I was very happy to share.
I slept again. Every so often she'd wake me to say something. I'd give her the minimum polite answer, and put myself to sleep again. She offered me squashed sandwiches several times, I offered her fresh sandwiches every so often. Once she accepted one, gingerly bit into it and discovered to her surprise that in addition to not being poisoned, it also was quite delicious. I was glad that I had made many of them - obviously my anticipation of what lunching with her would be like had been fairly spot-on.
Despite my attempts to sleep the hours dragged, and arrival in Canberra took forever. I woke up properly five minutes earlier, another sleep-related skill of mine, and stayed alert. Just before we pulled up at the station we passed a huge apple-tree growing on the wasteland along the track, laden with large, perfectly ripe red apples of one variety or other. The tree had never been pruned and had a scatty growth-habit, but its fruit looked wonderful. As a Pagan, to whom apples were sacred and a symbol of the Afterlife, I was greatly cheered by this sight.
We pulled in at the station. This was where she had expected the checked-in luggage to take hours to retrieve. By the time we climbed out of the carriage onto the platform, there was a neat array of suitcases there, in all sizes, shapes and colours. She grabbed the only black one with a big yellow spot painted on it - hers - without checking the label. I grabbed the only black one with bright rainbow braids hanging from all the zippers - mine, and matching my backpack - without checking the label. It was the only suitcase there with colourful braids on it. Nonetheless, she insisted on checking the label on it, and reading it thoroughly to make sure I wasn't stealing someone else's bag. I pointed out the matching braids. That wasn't evidence enough of my ownership, although apparently a big yellow spot was evidence enough for her ownership. Wonderful.
Eventually she ascertained for herself that the bag I thought was mine was in fact mine, and the next stage was to find a cab to take us from the train station to the car rental mob where we had booked the car for the weekend. We walked out of the station, and found two signs. The one pointing left said "To Bus Stop". The one pointing right said "To Taxis". She walked left, the crowd and I walked right. Taxis pulled up in front of her to let passengers off near the doors, then swung away before she could climb in, coming back to the taxi-rank where the first person in line would climb in. I was somewhere in the middle of the line, but she kept bleating at me, so I eventually left my position and walked to her. "None of them will let me in," she said.
I pointed out that the taxi rank was where all the people were lined up, so after she finally digested this information we walked over to the queue. I put myself at the end of it. She waltzed up to the head of the line, giving me a flashback to the luggage office earlier in the day. The screams of protest were louder now - everyone had been travelling for a long time, and didn't want to sacrifice their cabs to her. Grumbling, she lined up with me at the very end of the line, bitching about how selfish people were. It completely escaped her notice that if she had followed me in the first place we would now be ten or twelve people ahead of where we now were in the line.
Cabs came and cabs went. We were the very last people in line, and eventually a last cab came and picked us up. It was being driven by an Australian guy with a broad Australian accent, sounding for the world like my baby brother, who has an almost exaggerated Aussie accent. She looked at his face, and decided that he was a foreigner. She immediately started speaking very, very slowly and very, very loudly, to make sure he understood. Recognising racism in action - his ancestors evidently came from India - he flattened his vowels even further until he sounded like the most Australian of Australians. She was oblivious. The whole drive, she pointed out how much she liked Indians (speaking loudly and slowly) and how some Indians were actually very nice people (still speaking slowly and loudly) and how once he had been in the country a little longer he would learn to read street signs and realise they should have gone straight ahead (which would have meant ignoring a detour sign and heavy machinery in the middle of the road). He doggedly followed the detour signs until they brought him back on the main road, being polite and very Australian at her. She was oblivious, and kept chatting in an artificially non-racist way about how nice Indians were, including telling him that his photo on the driver ID didn't look at all like him because in it he was wearing a turban and today he wasn't wearing it. Never mind that his facial features were identical despite his lack of headwear - had he, perhaps, "borrowed" the ID?
I sat there, cringing. He was a normal bloke - why couldn't she just talk to him like a normal bloke? When we got there she paid the exact fare - and I quietly dropped an enormous tip on the seat I was climbing out of. As I climbed out, he shot me a look of extreme compassion and sympathy. I grinned back at him. He pocketed the tip and drove away. He'll remember her, and never let her in his cab again. She then commented about how immigrants would always drive you the long way around in order to earn a larger fare, and how she would have preferred a proper Australian driver. She hadn't even seen the huge, colourful "detour" signs.
We were in front of the car hire place, a reputable international mob who have been around for decades and have a great business reputation. I steeled myself to walk in. I just knew this was going to be awful. Don't ask me how - perhaps I'm psychic. I just knew. She identified herself, and told them she had booked a car online. They checked their computer and said yes, there was a booking. But they didn't have enough of the model car she had ordered, and would she like a larger, more expensive one for the same price? The obvious answer was yes, especially as I was the designated driver. But no, she tried to insist on the smaller car. I pointed out that the car they had was probably more expensive to hire normally, and only then, when we had established that we were getting an effective discount of twenty dollars per day for the whole weekend did she subside. Then she thought of something. She turned to me. "You can't drive four wheel drives."
"Yes, I can. I have before."
"You've never owned a four wheel drive."
"No, but I've driven them before."
This was starting to work up into an argument. The girl intervened. She said that it was a very easy four wheel drive, and I looked like a responsible driver, and my driver's licence was valid, and would I like to practise for a while in the lot before going out onto the road?
Finally my mother doubtfully accepted that perhaps thirty years' driving experience in all kinds of vehicles might help, and I might actually be able to drive the four wheel drive. That settled, it was time to pay for the vehicle. My mother fished a wad of notes out of her handbag. The girl looked uncertain. "Sorry, Madam, we don't take cash." My mother insisted. She only liked to pay cash. The girl insisted. It was unsafe for their employees to walk to the bank with large amounts of cash, so they only took cards. Did madam have a card? Madam did, but Madam wasn't going to use a card to hire a car. Why, what was to stop the car hire people putting a second transaction on her card after she left? The girl was by now nearly in tears. My mother asked to speak to her supervisor. The girl came back with a man in his late thirties or early forties. My mother sneered, and said she didn't want to talk to little boys, she wanted to talk to the boss. The man tried very hard to be polite, insistent and firm. Finally, with me on his side, he managed to persuade her that this was company policy in all their outlets in Australia, and that they had been around for over fifty years, and that in all that time there had never been any allegations of credit card fraud.
Still muttering darkly, she finally agreed. They quoted the agreed price for the cheaper car that she had been given online, plus an $80 deposit in case of accident or non-return of the vehicle. She bridled. She told me that she had known all along they were going to cheat her. I told her I was sure they wouldn't, I had dealt with the same company in my home town a few years earlier, and I had had no problem with getting my deposit back. She wasn't mollified. The supervisor explained that for the deposit they would take a second imprint of her credit card, but that one would be kept on-site and would only be used if we did not return the vehicle. He was sure we were honest people, and would return the car, and if we did, the imprint for the deposit would be destroyed and never presented to her bank for payment. Nonetheless, she insisted on speaking to the "real boss", someone with a bit of experience. They immediately pulled an old codger out of a cubicle somewhere. She immediately relaxed at the sight of pre-retirement wrinkles and white hair. He explained that the credit card imprint would be stored in a locked safe until the car was returned, then destroyed according to company policy.
All this had taken an hour, and the girl was close to breaking down. As we walked out to the car outside, she shot me a "protect me from your mother!" look, a haunted, desperate look. The two gentlemen looked pretty desperate, too, and infinitely happy that we were actually climbing into the vehicle. Remember the deposit. It will become important later.
It was early evening now, and the next stop was the hotel where she would be staying. We got into the car, and I asked what the name of the hotel was. She didn't know. I told her to find out. Her booking papers were in her luggage, so we had to climb out of the car again, open up the back, pull out her suitcase, open it up and rummage around. She found the bit of paper, put her bag in the car, and we got back in. I asked what the address of the hotel was. She looked at her print-out of the booking details. "It doesn't have an address", she said. Great, fabulous. This was going to be a wonderful weekend.
In the taxi we had passed a tourist information booth, so she asked me to drive back there to find out the address of the hotel. We did. It was now after six, and it was closed, with no one there to help us. She complained about how nobody was prepared to work any more, and how you couldn't get service any place. I asked her to recheck her booking papers. Nope, still no address. I snatched them out of her hand. Yes, there was an address - in bold type!
So we climbed back into the car, I thrust the street directory at her, and told her to navigate. After all, she was a supposedly intelligent woman, and I was dealing with two new things: an unknown city and an unknown car. We wandered aimlessly around for a while, turning what seemed to be random corners. We passed several places multiple times. I kept silent, and drove according to her directions. We were whistling down a major road and she had just told me how many streets ahead to turn, when I saw a hotel sign. It was her hotel, where it shouldn't be (according to her). I did a U-turn at the next legal point, and pulled into the hotel's carpark. She was immediately flustered - she wasn't booked in yet, so I had no right to park there. I absolutely wasn't going to unpark the car, park it on the road, then come out and park it again - I grimly told her that I had the keys, and the car was staying wherever I damn well put it.
We walked into reception. I just wanted to flee by now, and escape to Cooma, where I knew friendship, food and low-maintenance, enjoyable conversation awaited me. Behind the counter were two young Australian people in well-pressed uniforms, a man and a woman. And yes, you guessed it - they had South Asian features and fluent English with native-born Australian accents. Immediately she switched on her non-racist, Indian-loving, loud, slow voice. I mean - damn! They were probably born here, she herself was born overseas! Why so judgemental?
She confirmed her booking, then set about booking a room for me. I immediately demurred. I wanted to go to Cooma, and some kind of a personal welcome plus relaxing down-time and probably a feed at Niall's favourite place, the "local Chineesie". The strain had been going on all day, and I just wanted a break. But no, she told me she couldn't trust me to be on time (me, who has a lifelong habit of being early for everything) and I was going to stay in the hotel that first night and I couldn't possibly refuse because she'd pay for my room. $149, and I never heard the end of how she had to pay for it for me. So I finally acquiesced with very bad grace, rang my friend and told him I'd be 24 hours late and yes it was a terrible shame as I'd been so looking forward to staying with him, making sure she heard the whole lot. My last hope was that perhaps the hotel could only find a vacancy on a different level to her room, but no, the room directly across the corridor was free. By now, all the spirit had been whipped out of me, and I didn't even protest. I collected my key, we went out to collect our bags, and went upstairs to our rooms.
Alone at last, I dropped my bag at the end of the bed, took off my shoes and lay down on top of the bed, closing my eyes against the strain. A few minutes later, there was a knock at my door. Before I could get up and open it, the door flew open - her. I made a mental note to consciously lock the door every time I came in. She wanted to know what I was doing for dinner - the hotel restaurant was too expensive, she thought, having not been down there. I gave her the rest of my packed sandwiches and fruit, and told her she was welcome to it.
She didn't go away. Instead, she asked me how I was going to find my way to the parade-ground the following morning. The way everyone else did, I suggested, by reading the street directory. She didn't think that was good enough. I had to go downstairs and get the hotel staff to help me, and it was better to do it right now. And when I went down, mind, I was to ask to talk to a proper Australian.
At least she didn't come down with me.
I went to the reception, and I did in fact speak to a proper Australian, one of the ones we had just dealt with, probably someone far more Australian than she was, who happened to have Indian features. Strangely, he was far more relaxed and inclined to smile now that she wasn't with me. I told him that we had to find this location straight after breakfast and she didn't trust the street directory, and did he know where to go? So he googled the directions for me and printed them out. This was better - I could prop a piece of computer-paper up on the steering-wheel and do my own navigating, easier than with a book-type map.
I went upstairs again, to my own room. I locked the door. I'm not a big fan of air conditioning but there was no other form of heating, and it was getting a bit nippy in the room, so I turned it on and adjusted the temperature. The room warmed just enough. I turned on the TV. It worked. I have no idea what I watched - it was about emptying my mind and persuading myself to relax. Although I am a morning-shower-person I went and had an evening shower - hot water is so healing. Got into my daggy 'jamas. Alone at last. Starting to feel human. Guess who knocks on my door. Yes. I wasn't best pleased. Confirmed I had directions for the morning and yes, I'd got them from a "proper Australian" so they were probably correct. Got rid of her. Ate everything solid in the mini-bar since she was paying - I've never been a big drinker. Crawled into bed, set my alarm, and went to sleep.
In the morning I woke to a glorious flood of sunlight. Got up, had a cup of tea with cow's milk - well, nothing's ever perfect. Made a mental note to bring a litre of soymilk next time I was planning on staying in a hotel. Had another shower. Got dressed in my special being-a-respectable-mother-fitting-in-with-society clothes. Looked at the time, went and knocked on my mother's door. She was also already dressed. We went down to the hotel restaurant for our breakfast, had our names and room-numbers checked off, then went and had a feed at the buffet. There were bacon and eggs, a toaster and fresh bread, yoghurt and fruit, cereal, very good coffee. No soy milk. Oh well, I thought, and made a mental note to bring soy milk next time I stayed in a hotel. Nothing's ever perfect. I don't think my mother's a morning person - she didn't talk very much, which was frankly wonderful.
After we ate, she started talking. The air conditioning in the hotel didn't work. Her shower ran cold. The service at reception when we arrived was horrible. She couldn't see how they had managed to get four stars. If there's a problem with the shower and air conditioning in your room, I told her, tell reception. My air conditioning worked fine, and I had just had a lovely hot shower. The staff will never know to fix the problem if no guests in that room ever tell them about the problem. No no, I couldn't possibly do that, they might think I'm a nuisance. Listen you, we will be out all day. They can get their maintenance people in. And if they can't fix it, they can relocate you to another room, perhaps mine, where you are certain the shower is hot and the air con works. No, no, I'd hate to ever complain about anything.
So I left her sitting in the foyer. With some relief, I noticed that the morning shift had white faces - and one of them had a thick European accent. Far less "proper Australians" than last night's shift, but at least they were white. At least she wouldn't complain about these ones. I told this person, who had no prior experience of my mother, that the sweet little old lady sitting over there was my mother, and we had spent last night in the hotel. She had been in Room Number Whatever, and she told me this morning that her air conditioning hadn't worked, and the only water that came out of the shower was freezing. I was vacating my room this morning but she was staying two more days, and she was elderly and I'd like her to have a room with air con and a working hot shower please. Could they perhaps move her into my room?
They looked up the register. No, Madam, your room has a prior booking, and in any case is a cheaper room than hers was. But we could upgrade her for free into the penthouse, where a senior staff member spent last night. It is being cleaned right now. We know the shower and air con is working. There will be no extra to pay and she will have a nice little balcony overlooking the park. Would your mother perhaps like that for no extra charge? Certainly she would. So I organised it and checked myself out of my room at the same time, took charge of her key, and we moseyed on upstairs to check out her new room and move her baggage. She picked through the room carefully, checking for dirt, and found none.
It was lovely. And the balcony did overlook a park, as well as the hotel carpark. There was still some time before we had to leave if we wanted to be excruciatingly early for the official parade, so she invited me in and offered me a cup of tea. There was no soymilk. I made a mental note to bring a litre of soymilk the next time I stayed in a hotel. She opened the door to her balcony so that we could sit out there at an elegant wrought-iron table and have our drinks. A fly flew in the open door, bumbled around the room a bit, and flew back out a few minutes later. She was horrified. Now she went off again, saying that not only could she not understand how they had four stars, but she couldn't understand how they had any stars at all. For freak's sake, it was just a fly doing what flies do! She could have shut the balcony door and kept it out. Three months after the trip became a bad memory, she was still whining about the bloody fly. Australia is full of flies. She ought to know - she's lived in the continent for well over half a century!
Soon we decided that it was time to leave for the parade-ground. I didn't let her navigate this time, and following the instructions, I found my way to Duntroon, next door to ADFA where we should have been. A nice young boy in a smart dress-uniform not a lot older than my daughter gave us directions - he'd obviously been posted there to redirect lost parents. We parked outside the ADFA complex, and started walking, after she complained about me wearing my characteristic hat. I refused to take it off. After all, it was often the only way my daughter could find me in a crowd. I was in heels - I never wear heels. I could barely walk. The ground was untamed, all nubbly and irregular and stony. I walked slowly. My mother whinged and whinged about how unfit and unhealthy I was and how in her whole life she had never seen anyone who walked so slowly. I sped up, disregarding the pain. She complained that she was only elderly, and I was leaving her behind and I should have more consideration. I slowed down again.
We found the parade ground, a large patch of manicured grass a few hectares in size. There were tiered stone steps, obviously intended for observers to sit on, a small marquis full of people in dress-uniform covered in gold braid, and a couple of rows of plastic chairs. It was summer, and the sun was getting intense. My mother opened an umbrella. "Did you bring an umbrella?" she asked. No, I hadn't. Apparently my daughter had told her we'd be sitting in the sun (which was more information than I'd got), and told her to tell me that we'd both need to bring umbrellas. Mine was many hundreds of kilometres away, standing behind my backdoor at home. Great time to tell me that now, Ancient Parent.
Speeches happened. Music and marches happened. Speeches happened. It got hotter and hotter. I was very grateful I had insisted on keeping my hat - it was affording me a little shelter. My mother waved her ridiculous little umbrella around, helpfully sharing it, knocking my hat off my head or poking an umbrella-rib in my nose without actually managing to give me any shade at the same time. Eventually I got up and moved into the shadow of a nearby building where I could still see most of what was happening, and fell into conversation with an army-wife and her brood of four lively, energetic, friendly pre-schoolers, one of whom was marching stiffly up and down pretending to be Daddy, who was apparently one of the guys covered in gold braid in the marquis. A delightful family - I enjoyed their company a lot.
After a couple of hours of drilling in heavy uniforms in the boiling sun without any shelter, they marched the kids off the field. As they left, one collapsed, obviously heat exhaustion, and an officer and some paramedics ran out to them. I hoped it wasn't my daughter, but it was hard to see. There were announcements over the loudspeakers to stay in the quadrangle until your uniformed children located you, as you weren't allowed in the catering building unaccompanied by military personnel. My daughter had us to collect, as well as my ex Lyndon and his partner, who was the closest thing to a father she'd ever had, and one of her school friends. She made phone calls and sent texts everywhere, gathering us up, then went upstairs in a building and looked out for us, identifying my mother and I immediately from my hat. She said she would never have found us without it. I'm so glad I didn't let her make me leave it in the car. It was the only shelter I'd had from the sun, and it was the only way she found us.
She gathered us up in a little group, and I was dreading how my mother would behave. Suddenly, though, with Lyndon and Camlyn around, she was the soul of civilisation. She was pleasant and polite. It was like being in an episode of "Twilight" or a chapter of "Sybil". I was probably more taken aback with her sudden impersonation of a mainstream human than I had been by having spent so much time with her being nakedly Herself whilst we were alone - any family member will know exactly what I mean.
We left as a group, and spent much of the weekend together, after my daughter established that she had formal leave for the rest of the weekend. Almost the first thing I did was change my shoes - no one complained about my being the slowest walker in the world after that. I was glad of the four wheel drive vehicle - I ended up doing most of the driving, with the whole group of five in the car. We went to Mt Stromlo, where I was greatly impressed with the ruins of the burnt-out circular observatories: like most ruins, they had a poignant and intriguing energy, and some day I would love to take my meditation group out there to either meditate or do ritual in the circular space of one of them in particular.
That second evening, there was no way I was going to stay in the hotel again. I made it abundantly clear at the end of the day that I was just dropping her off, and driving out to Cooma to stay with my friend in his ramshackle little old house. We had a wonderful time: we talked and laughed and ate and talked and laughed some more. At the end of the night he dropped a single mattress on the floor, I pulled out my sleeping-bag, and I effectively camped on his living-room floor, within reach of a wood-fired stove to take the edge off the alpine chill.
My mother and I had agreed on a time in the morning, and I breakfasted with my friend and set off in plenty of time. Sadly, on the long country road to Canberra, someone had rolled their vehicle, and by the time I came over the rise there was a fire crew, hosing all the spilt fuel off the road. There was nothing much I could do - I switched off my engine and sat it out. I was too far from either town to have mobile coverage, so I couldn't ring. Eventually they let me pass, and I sped onwards. When there was a phone signal again, the old lady rang me. She asked when I'd be there. I estimated that I was about twenty minutes away, if I made good time once I hit the urban traffic. I didn't. I took over half an hour.
So I arrived, and got roundedly yelled-at for being late. Then she demanded that I ring my daughter to make sure she was ready to be picked up - and on the phone, I got roundedly yelled-at for being three hours early! She wanted to spend some time with her younger friends before seeing us, and who could blame her. Talk about meat in the sandwich - in the wrong for being too late and in the wrong for being too early, in one fell swoop! I got yelled at by everyone!
A couple of hours later on, we arranged to meet at the National Art Gallery: my daugher and her friend, Lyndon and Camlyn, us, and the friend's family. We had coffee and spent some time together as a group, some time as sub-groups, and some time as individuals. I was particularly impressed by the exhibition of photographic portraiture and by one individual statuette of the Hindu Goddess Durga, whose likeness now adorns both my bedroom and my living-room as a direct result of that weekend. I still light her candles and pay her respect.
A lot of driving happened. Some time in the weekend, my daughter noticed that the registration sticker on the windscreen appeared to be a few months out of date. My mother threw a huge fit - I think she was visualising my being thrown into gaol or worse, all of us. It was a hire car - I wasn't responsible for its registration.
Lyndon and Camlyn went their own way. My daughter went her own way. Eventually it was the two of us again, and the paroxysms over the registration only got worse. Talk about time ruined! So we drove to the car hire place, to find it was closed. We rang the emergency number, one of their other branches, only to find out that the car was registered to one of their branches but hadn't actually been returned to that branch, that the sticker was waiting there, and that the car was definitely legal. Any random policeman had inboard computers which would have shown that in an instant, and I was driving too well to attract police notice, anyway. All of this took hours and hours of super-stressful time which we could have spent pretending to enjoy each other's company, but I suppose that was too much to hope for. I spent a second night at my friend's place, unwinding and regaling him with the stories, which afforded him much amusement. Laughter is a great defusing technique, and I felt a lot better.
The train back to Sydney was going to leave at lunchtime the following day. Early that morning, I packed up and bade my friend and his great big dopey malamute Kia a fond farewell - I don't get to see either of them anywhere near often enough, and I had really enjoyed staying. I loaded my stuff in the car. I drove to my mother's hotel. She checked out. We drove around for a while, then filled the tank as per the contractual agreement with the car rental mob, and headed back to their premises.
Now. Remember that deposit? The credit card imprint that they hadn't used? Keep that in your mind. Fortunately, those same staff members weren't on duty - it was a whole stack of fresh faces.
Firstly, my mother was hugely offended that they went and looked at the vehicle to make sure I hadn't dented it and to make sure the tank was filled. Her word should have been enough - she wasn't a member of the criminal classes, after all. They were very polite to her and assured her it was only policy and they really didn't think it was necessary. They did it anyway, though. Then I handed over the keys and signed the car back to them. Then my mother tried to get her deposit back, the extra eighty dollars that she had paid in cash. Dammit, she remembered paying it in cash, and she wasn't mad! She wanted it back, and she wanted it back in cash, and she wanted it back now, as we only had a couple of hours to catch our train. She didn't believe that the company would employ such dishonest and obstructive staff, and she was going to write to the manager when we got back home. And her husband was a lawyer (also, he was twenty years' dead), so they'd be well advised to return her money.
Another young woman, in her middle thirties, was reduced not to tears, but to being very red-faced and swollen. Another man of about the same age was referred to as a little boy, and was thunderously angry but felt he couldn't even raise his voice, let alone say what he thought (they really, really train their staff well!). Eventually, they actually showed her the credit card imprint, and tore it into little pieces in front of her eyes before she was satisfied. She didn't apologise, though, that would have been too much to expect. Instead, she stalked out of there in high dudgeon, muttering about incompetents and frauds under her breath - but not under her breath enough. I dawdled slightly. I didn't dare say anything audible because I would never have heard the end of it, but I made eye contact with everyone in the room, and mouthed the words "I'm sorry" behind her back. It was the best I could do.
Remember the torn-up credit card imprint. It will become important later.
We caught a taxi to the train station, fortunately without incident so the driver was probably white, I can't really remember. Checked in our luggage two an a half hours early. Went looking for coffee, which involved a walk of a couple of kilometres in the rain. We were only so early because she had insisted that we would be late. Then we had to walk back in the rain, get on the train, wait for it to leave. And all this time, she hadn't stopped talking about the terrible service and unregistered car (it now was properly unregistered, apparently), the dreadful hotel room, and the fly in the hotel room, how unhygienic it all was. I pretended to sleep - I was too wound-up to sleep. Five hours later, the train pulled up in Sydney. She had a short trip home - I had another hour and a half in an inter-urban train plus an hour's bus-ride ahead of me, so no thank you, I didn't want to hang around for coffee, I wanted to get on this train over here, heading my way. But it doesn't leave for twenty minutes, we could - I'll get on it right now if you don't mind!
And I did. For months, every time she spoke to me, she talked about the bloody fly. And half a year later she rang me up for one reason and one reason only. "Do you remember the deposit for the rental car?" I did. "Did they ever give it back to me?" Don't worry, they didn't cheat you. "Because it hasn't come up on any of my bank statements. I can't remember them paying it back in cash, did they pay it back in cash? Or did they give you the cash? If they gave it to you, you should give it to me." They never took cash. They took a second credit card imprint, which they were only going to use if we damaged the car. "Oh. Well, I'm just going to have to keep watching my bank statements, to make sure they don't use it in the future." They destroyed it, they can't use it. "You can never guarantee that - they [the criminal classes] are very clever."
What's the bets that she'll ask me again in another year if they cheated her on the deposit, or if I kept the cash. And keeps moaning about the fly for the rest of her life, and how that hotel shouldn't have any stars.
And she wonders why I don't enjoy family reunions.