We arrive at London Bridge Station to find a crowd amassing in front of the Jubilee Line gates -- closed for "crowd control" on the platforms -- and quickly decide to find another way. We struggle through the ever-growing hordes out onto the street, hail a black cab and speed our way towards Wellington tube. Next stop, the Houses of Parliment (and of course Big Ben)! From there it is a short ride to Heathrow followed by a long walk to Terminal 3. We check my bag in and say our tearful goodbyes at Security.
Once through to Heathrow's inner sanctum I check the departure board and head straight to my gate. There is already a line forming; I join it anxiously, all too aware that airlines routinely overbook flights, but soon the line is as long behind me as in front. Eventually the gate opens and we file down a long corridor, across a "sky bridge" and in to the 'plane to stow our carry-on and find our seats.
It's an uneventful flight. I watch five movies, play a little Nintendo DS and try to sleep. By the time we get to Hong Kong I've been fed three times, I'm mostly awake and halfway home. We descend, skipping across the white cloud peaks like a stone across water; as we dip below the clouds we see a calm ocean, dotted with islands and wrapped in fog. I press my face to the cold window and we zoom over small fishing boats and trawlers, lower and lower until I think we're going to ditch into the sea. At the last possible moment the coastline rushes by beneath us and our landing gear kiss tarmac.
It's a two-hour stop-over, which turns out to be just enough time to get through the security checks, decide I don't need $500 HKD ('though I'm tempted, just to see what the currency looks like) and find my terminal. There is free wifi Internet here, so I shoot off a quick email to Dee, then one to work to let them both know I'm alright. As our departure time approaches I'm up and stretching my legs, which means I'm close to the front of the line when the gates open -- lucky, as I'm in the final row once on board. This next leg of the journey, Hong Kong to Melbourne, is much the same: movies, games, a nap or three, then it's seatbelts on for the descent into Tullamarine (now rechristened Melbourne Airport). Our Aussie pilot tells us it's 29 degrees Celsius and I wonder at the logic of keeping the internal temperature of the aeroplane at a chilly 18.
The hideously coloured (but well-appointed) red-pink shuttle-bus drops us as Southern Cross Station on Spencer Street. Nothing remains of the old Spencer Street Station except, perhaps, the tracks: the wide, clean boarding platforms now point towards soaring glass walls, escalators shuffle you mechanically towards cafes, gift-shops, restaurants, the entire commercial microcosm -- asleep, for now -- safe under the multimillion-dollar frozen-wave folly of a roof. In short, an international train station. I wonder at the homogenisation of our cultural history -- the old Spencer Street, with dirty walls, worn floors and broken roof, nevertheless had a certain quality about it, perhaps not "charm" but at least a personality which Southern Cross lacks -- but on balance I think we've gained more than we've lost.
I wander the near-empty station looking for a way to get to Bendigo tonight. The departure board lists only two outward journeys, both to Geelong but no further, but I dutifully follow the signs towards "Information" hoping for a timetable or, God-forbid, a human being to speak to, but all I find is a replica of the same departure board that greeted me upon arrival. I step through the great glass curtains which, sensing my approach, draw back and admit the heat and smells of the city's streets.
Smells: petrol, bitumen, sunscreen, the wholesome decay of vegetation, the ocean and much more, blending expertly into that unique bouquet of "place". I recognise the smell, and begin snorting huge nostril-fills of it, attempting to trigger and strengthen the latent connections between odor and memory as I walk down a likely-looking street for little more reason than it is slightly downhill. Ah yes: King Street. King, William, Queen, Elizabeth. Collins Street, Bourke Street. Little arches under the raised trainline. Flinders Lane, with restaurants and trendy bars. A bare-chested young man in tan cargo-shorts -- backpacker's uniform -- sleeps away the balmy night on a great stone plinth outside an impressive office block. Not willing to emulate him, I walk into the second backpacker's I see, not having built up enough courage by the time I see the first.
I ask for a single room, but there aren't any. I ask for a bed, anywhere, but the unshaven youth at the steel-caged reception desk tells me they are fully booked. I wonder if a balding, slightly overweight 30-year old just isn't the look they are going for. Maybe if I had more wrinkles, the prematurely-old face of an itinerant wanderer, a career traveller.
So. What to do? I could return to the scene of my earlier cowardice and hope they have beds but I'm at the steps of Flinders Street Station now, standing under the familar screens and archaic-looking clock of the main entrance. The heat makes me sweat, and the sweat makes me stink. I feed a couple of tiny gold coins into a ticket machine and its issue to Platform 3 to await the Lilydale line train to Camberwell -- Grant will put me up, he's a good chap. Provided I can remember where he lives. And that he still lives there.
Perhaps forty minutes later -- forty minutes in which I find that the trains are clean, the drunk teenagers polite (in comparison) and that having a fancy Android-based smart-phone with Google Maps does you no good at all if you don't have a 3G Internet connection -- I'm standing at the door I hope is Grant's listening intently for any sound of response to my ever-less timid door knocks and wondering if I should step up the assault to doorbell-level. I do, and Grant answers, to his credit (and my secret disappointment), with little visible surprise at my presence.
I spend a blissfully stretched-legged night on the couch, and the next day Grant drives me to Southern Cross Station on Spencer Street. The drive unveils the parts of the city that were hidden by darkness and I remember loving this little city. As we take our leave I promise myself to get him something to say thank you for answering the door at half-past midnight to a dishevelled, smelly foreigner then inwardly laugh at the prospect of picking him up a nice souvenir in Bendigo. I make it on the 7:15am train to Bendigo. I'm not sleepy at all.