We end up calling him “Two Phones”. He’s pale and besuited, flustered and harried. His problem is that Qantas flight QF 626 is delayed, although really it’s our problem. QF 626 is meant to be ferrying Rita and myself to the Australia versus Qatar World Cup qualifier. A hit and run fan expedition to Brisbane. Depart 4.05pm Wednesday. Return 10.15am the next day. Rita Zammit is my number one football watching buddy, and quite simply we’ve become addicted to World Cup qualifiers. It was only the threat of excommunication by families and employers that ruled out Uzbekistan. Even then we were still torn. Neither of us had ever seen a silk road.
We think we’ve timed our run well. Queensland farmers don’t like to milk cows purely by feel and as a result the 4.05pm flight touches down in Brisbane at 5.10pm. Two hours and twenty minutes before the 7.30pm kickoff. Time to drop our bags at the airport motel, and possibly snatch a pre-game pint at the Pig ‘n’ Whistle. We have it sorted.
Then the gate one service desk announces ‘engineering difficulties’. The pilot of flight 626 apparently doesn’t want to fly with them, which Rita in her hyped-up pre-game mania describes as ‘soft’. We run to the departures board. The next flight to Brisbane leaves at 5.05pm. It’ll cost us sixty precious minutes, but if things go our way, it’s all still okay. It’s time to have a chat with Two Phones.
‘Hi,’ I say, approaching the service desk in my Socceroos shirt.
Two Phones looks nervous. ‘Hello sir.’
I explain our timetable to Two Phones, who at this point is not holding any phones. ‘We need to get there by kickoff.’ I try to look vulnerable.
Two Phones knows the party line. ‘We can’t give you a definite takeoff time. It will be assessed again in ten minutes.’
‘The thing is,’ I say sadly. ‘The thing is that the whole reason we chose to fly with you is that you sponsor the team. They are the Qantas Socceroos, after all.’ I look up at the Socceroos posters and then sadly down at Rita. She is doing well too, curling her bottom lip into as good a little-girl-lost as a forty-six year old is ever likely to do. Two Phones doesn’t need to speak for us to know what he is thinking —‘you’ve got to be kidding.’
‘We better let them change flights,’ the female attendant next to Two Phones says. Relief floods through us. We’re still a chance. It’s then over to pale, worried Two Phones to assign us seats. Before he undertakes the task, a phone rings on his counter. He answers and then stands there, weary eyes, shoulders sagging under the weight of instruction. Then the other phone rings. The female attendant answers, speaks briefly, and then leaning into her colleague’s field of vision, says that it’s for him. Two Phones holds out his free hand, accepting delivery. Now he’s leaning forward, scanning his screen for our seats, putting as much effort into the task as a man can humanly be expected to muster when he’s got two phones pressed against his ears.
‘We don’t have to sit together,’ Rita says, as we nervously watch half a dozen other travelers successfully change flights.
‘Okay,’ Two Phones says, which might apply to any of his three conversations.
Five seconds later we have our boarding passes. Rita hands me mine. ‘I would have gone without you,’ she says, somewhat unnecessarily. ‘If there had have been only one seat left, I would have let you let me take it.’
QF 628, our salvation flight, seems to be going really well until it flies into an electrical storm. The pilot is phlegmatic, he sounds like he’s seen this sort of thing before, but he tells us we’re going to be a little behind schedule. ‘We have to fly around the storm front,’ he explains. I turn around to catch Rita’s eye. She mouths one word. Soft.
We lose twenty minutes on the detour, meaning we touch down at Brisbane airport at 6.20pm local time. While we stand stooped under the overhead compartments, observing the age old maxim that a watched pulse effect never pulses, we discuss the equation. 6.30pm now. Sixty minutes to kick-off.
A Brisbane local overhears our nervous murmurings. ‘If you’re under time pressure, don’t get a taxi. It can be an hour getting out of the airport. Grab the Skytrain. It’s twenty minutes to Roma Street, change there for the Ipswich line, then go one station to Milton. There’s a walkway bridge to the stadium. Forty minutes max.’
Finally we disembark and break into an urgent trot, winding our way towards the Skytrain depot. The station announcer must see us running, and tells us off like we’re children at the public pools. ‘The train on platform one is a city-bound train departing in twenty minutes. There’s no need to run. I repeat. There is no need to run.’
I look at Rita. If we’re going to add automobiles to our planes-trains misadventure, now is the time to act.
‘Let’s wait for it,’ she says, calculating our chances. ‘It leaves at 6.58. That gives us thirty two minutes until kick-off. I mean at least we know we’ll get there. Short of derailment or a cyclone, at least we know we’ll get there.’
Eight minutes later, we are sitting in a dark carriage, fifty metres above a busy suburban underpass, totally stationary. The train driver makes an announcement.
‘As a result of today’s cyclone, we are experiencing difficulties with our electrical supply. We apologise for the delay. Technicians are currently working on the problem.’
I throw my mobile phone into the seat and swear. Rita laughs, and says over and over that ‘you’ve just got to laugh’. I don’t think you do, and we have a debate about this, until both of us work out that the bigger problem might be that lightning is crashing all around us, and that we’re perched fifty metres in the air on an electrified metal rod.
Rita checks her shoes. ‘I’m wearing rubber soles,’ she laughs.
I do the same. ‘Me too.’
The thunder storm does it’s best to live up to the $500 we’ve ploughed into the evening’s entertainment. It’s sheeting rain, and the lightning is so constant that any Hollywood horror-film director would be critically lampooned for heavy-handedness.
‘Do you think the game will go ahead?’ Rita asks.
I call my father in Melbourne who starts by saying that we are ‘pretty unlucky’. Given he doesn’t yet know we’re fifty metres up in the air in a lightning storm on a stationary train, this worries me.
‘They’re having a pitch inspection in five minutes. It looks like they might reschedule the match. Possibly play it tomorrow night.’ I relay this to Rita and she howls with anguish. She has a real job as a partner in a law firm. She has meetings the next day. I’m an author. I don’t.
‘I want you to know that I’m happy to go without you,’ I say, staring into the rain.
At 7.28pm, two minutes before scheduled kickoff, the miracles start flowing thick and fast. First, the train starts moving. Initially backwards, retreating towards the airport. Then inching forwards. Secondly, Dad calls back with news. ‘They’re delaying the start by half an hour. Kickoff’s at 8pm.’ Unbelievable! In the history of watching football, I can’t remember a postponed start. It’s as though FIFA has heard about our predicament and cut us a break. ‘Pim, Lucas — there are two fans stuck on the Skytrain who left home five hours ago to watch this match. We might just wait until they get here.’
People in the train carriage start taking an interest in getting us there on time. Strangers are wishing us well, giving us pep talks on getting off at Roma Street and really nailing the connection to Milton. The train announcer tells us at Central to ‘change here for the Ipswich line’. Rita and I hover at the threshold of the electronic doors. The whole carriage is yelling advice, like they’re a Price is Right audience. Get off here! Stay on till Roma Street! We jump off, check the station screen, then jump back on. The Roma Street supporters applaud our faith. At 7.44pm we’ve disembarked at Roma Street, ready to connect.
The 7.35pm Ipswich train finally nudges into view at 7.51pm. We are now amongst fellow fans, latecomers one and all, watching a suburban train limp into the station like something from the steam era. We pile on, travel one stop to Milton and begin to stretch our hamstrings. Rita and I look at each other. 7.55pm. The doors open. Now is our time.
We hit the station steps at pace, me climbing three at a time, Rita limited to two by her small Italian legs. Already we’ve given away the lead to two teenage kids. Their legs are long and rangy, their faces Ethiopian. I was there to watch Craig Mottram at the Commonwealth Games, know that if we can tuck in behind them, we might just be able to make our move in the shadows of the stadium, but with each stride, we’re losing them. Mottram didn’t sacrifice his knee cartilage at the altar of AFL.
‘Owwww,’ I moan to Rita. ‘My knees hurt.’
She sounds like she’s dying. ‘Is … it … bloody … hot … here … or … am … I … having … a …menopausal … hot … flush.’
I know she’s in real trouble when she fails to spot the stadium. ‘How far?’ she pants.
‘Just across there,’ I say, pointing across the road. ‘That stadium sized thing.’
The Qatari national anthem plays as we hobble across the overpass. The Ethiopians are now distant dots across at the turnstiles. Each step is a dagger in my joints. Rita shuffles on, the sweat shining on her forehead. ‘God I hope we make it.’
I can’t tell if she’s referring to kickoff or her cardiovascular system.
‘If you don’t, do I have your blessing to go in and watch the game? Or will you want me to hang around for the ambulance?’
A misty rain falls, no longer heavy tropical drops, more what the Irish call ‘soft’. Somewhere somebody presses play on the Australian national anthem. ‘Gate D this way’ I wheeze as we shuffle right, taking our direction from a Gate D arrow. A barrel-chested security officer takes pity on the two staggering wildebeest looking for the watering hole. ‘You can go in Gate B. Just go in there and walk around inside.’
We scan through, the beeps of the machine accompanying the last of the joyful strains. We’re in, the saturated green is in front of us, and all that is left is to cover the length of the field to find our aisle. ‘Aus-stray-lee-aaah’ the home end sings, accompanying our victory lap. Rita jogs the last hundred metres, one eye on the pitch, doing a roll-call of the final team as selected. ‘Chipper and Lucas and Jason and, yes, there’s Timmy.’ When we arrive at our aisle, the players are poised. When we arrive at our row, the referee is checking his watch. We shuffle along, our overnight bags poking into the faces of our green and gold brethren in row 12. Sorry, excuse us, excuse me sir. The whistle blows and Rita and I fall into our yellow plastic seats. We smile at each other and deliver a purposeful high five. We’re five seconds late.