Thursday, 7 July 2011

In the Bag

My stepfather was married to someone else before he married my mother. Sadly, his first wife died. The family were living abroad when this happened and so my stepfather had to travel home with two small children on his own.

The whole experience must have been very miserable but, typically, my stepfather managed to extract some humour from the trip. The story he told about it went like this.

On his arrival back in Sydney, the airport authorities took pity on him, a lone man with a baby and a toddler, and rushed him through passport control, customs and quarantine, ahead of the rest of the passengers on his plane. As they whisked him along, my stepfather was vaguely aware of a sharp-elbowed bloke behind him, who had managed to get himself swept up in his wake. When my stepfather stopped to have his passport checked, the man behind him did too. When my stepfather stopped for the quarantine people to look into his suitcase, the man behind him did too. When my stepfather handed over his customs form, the man behind him did too. When my stepfather walked out of the airport earlier than almost all the others, the man behind him had already vanished into the bright Sydney spring morning.

It was only when my stepfather got home and unzipped his Qantas airline bag to unload the baby's journey's worth of dirty nappies (we are talking about the 1960s, before disposables had appeared), that he realised that a mistake had occurred. For inside, he did not find a heap of dirty nappies; instead, he found a heap of shiny, colourfully-wrapped presents. He remembered then that, just for a second, as he and the pushy individual had stood side-by-side, their bags had also stood side-by-side together, on the floor beneath the customs table. The next moment though, while my stepfather was till grappling with pushchairs and dolls and milk bottles and  a weeping toddler, the other fellow had snatched up his belongings and whisked off into the arrivals hall, ahead of my stepfather at last.

And then my stepfather realised that, possibly at the exact same moment, as he stood staring down at the pile of enticing gifts contained in the bag he'd been left with, that other stranger was somewhere else in the city, opening the Qantas bag that he'd been in such a rush to make off with. Even now, perhaps, he was plunging his hand into the dark interior, ready to lift out the first surprise it contained with a triumphant flourish. In his mind's eye, my stepfather pictured the scene, the man's nearest and dearest all there, clustered round him, bright eyed and expectant, eagerly awaiting the dazzling booty he'd brought back for them from abroad.

I thought of this incident on my last night in Budapest when I was sitting in a rather touristy restaurant, waiting for a friend. I was listening to two American girls who were at the next table. They were both young, each with very long straight hair, unblemished skin and the air of those who have no idea that youth and good looks are not possessions that last forever. Like many foreigners in Hungary, they were talking loudly, apparently under the misapprehension that, because the local language was incomprehensible to them, theirs must be equally impenetrable to everyone around them.

'I told him I used to be that person,' one of them announced and she placed both her hands on the table, way off to her left. 'Now though, I'm this person', she said then, lifting her hands and placing them way off to the right, 'and that's why it's not the same any more.' 'What did he say?' her friend asked, tossing her hair back and sucking on the straw in her cocktail, her eyes on her companion's face all the time. 'He said, 'Are you saying you don't love me any more?' The girl who was speaking tossed her hair back in turn. 'And I said, "No - you shouldn't take it so personally."' Her friend raised an eyebrow and carried on drinking. 'I said - I told him, "I think you've got so much to offer,"' the first girl continued, 'it's just maybe what you've got to offer is more what that person I was then needs, rather than what the person I am now really wants.'

It was then the image of that Qantas case full of nappies and the guy trying to pass it off as a bag full of presents came back into my mind. It struck me suddenly that my stepfather had been wrong. The man's loved ones would not have been standing around full of hope and interest as he opened the bag wide. They'd have been reeling back immediately, as soon as the zip started moving. Because there's no disguising some things - it doesn't matter what kind of bag you put them in or which words you use to wrap them up with: as soon as you undo the zip or open your mouth to speak, their rank odour is unmissable. It's just unavoidably there.


  1. Your stepfather makes a great story about what must have been a terrible time. He sounds like quite a man.

  2. He was so wonderful. I loved him very much - he died ten years ago on Monday.

  3. Your stepfather sounds like he was a man in the truest sense and he is (as you clearly know) the perfect foil for that kind of narcissistic, anemic, pseudo-intellectual, affected sense of self-importance that is so particular to the American mentality -- a tendency that I try to at least expose in the high school classroom day after day. Hopefully, I never taught these girls. At any rate, you honor his memory here with a typically insightful post. Beautifully done.

  4. If you are in Washington before inflation goes much further, $10 in bus fares will make it clear to you that such persons do not talk loudly because just they suppose that nobody around them speaks English.

  5. Chris, George, I don't really blame those girls. I think girls these days are bombarded with the idea that a) being young and pretty is an achievement in itself and b) that you should maximise the power your looks give you, with no balancing advice about being careful how you wield that power. It's no wonder they end up insensitive and thoughtless.

  6. From your account, I see in them what I also see as a trend here in both young and older Americans. A lot of the things that were rare and maybe refreshingly cheeky ten years ago(a certain amount of arrogance that is just a tad north of self confidence; the courage to end a relationship for one's own good . . .) are now commonplace behavior. Just a day ago on a radio show, they were discussing whether it is "okay" for women over fifty to wear bikinis. A woman called in and said "I am fifty and I look fabulous." That statement might have been plucky in the past, but it is so boringly commonplace now. These girls -- you are right -- are bombarded with "attitude" from TV and elsewhere. They are playing parts they have studied in magazines and on soap operas. They are also the wielders of a canned type of talk show relationship psychology that drives me batty.

  7. And yet everything you say in this comment proves that you are not batty at all.