Worst of Times, Best of Times

4 April 2019 Lorin Clarke

Worst of Times, Best of Times

On 16 March, I was standing in an Australian airport on my way to New Zealand. Everywhere, on the ubiquitous TV screens, with words running urgently along beneath her, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern held people’s attention even as they hurried past her to their international flights. Even as people said goodbye to loved ones, took selfies in front of the departures sign, or stretched and yawned in banks of chairs, they were united by one thing: the urgent pull of the news.

“Ugh,” said a woman next to me, tossing aside a copy of the newspaper while we both waited for our coffees. “Everything is just the worst.” It was, I had to admit, a fair summary of the situation. The news that day was, as it so often seems to be, saturated with horror and impossible to escape.

Gradually, though, over the next six hours, I witnessed enough kindness, enough tiny moments of human connection, to shift that absolute determination sideways slightly. Strange how, in that bubble, where everybody was waiting and watching, where the worst of humanity was being beamed in from the outside world, us in a state of compulsory stasis, able to control nothing, most of us alone, what happened was...people were good to each other.
It doesn’t undo what happened. It doesn’t mean bad things don’t happen, or that they won’t happen again. It does mean though: everything isn’t the worst.

On the way in to the airport, my Uber driver had told me how, when he was hounded out of his own country because he wrote things that were critical of his government, he had waited until the captain said over the loudspeaker that he was in Australian airspace, and then, immediately, he fell asleep. He had to be woken on arrival. He had been so stressed, so nervous, so exhausted from escape and the possibility of discovery, that he hadn’t slept for days. Now, decades later, here he was, in Australia, a professional with a PhD. I asked him about the people he drives in his Uber. He does it, he told me, because he can chat to people.

“Two, maybe three people? Bad. My whole time driving. Only three,” he said to me. “Most people: really great.”

At the gate lounge, a collection of men in their fifties was departing to a conference. “How’s Wendy, Dave?” one of them asked the other as they gathered together. Dave put his head to his side and thought about it. “You know, mate,” he said in an eye-rolling tone, and I prepared myself for an old-fashioned wife joke, “she’s a bloody legend and I don’t deserve her.” They had all laughed then. “It’s good that you acknowledge it buddy,” said his mate and they all tried to find their passports. That bit lasted for 10 minutes, but I’ll spare you that, for it’s too good to be true.

A bit further along, a little girl and her brother lay on the floor while their dad spoke on the phone, walking in slow, bored circles. The kids had a pamphlet advertising Hawaii that they’d evidently removed from a nearby pamphlet display. It was spread on the ground between them. “I live in this one,” the girl was saying, pointing at an idyllic beach hut near a jetty jutting into a turquoise sea framed by white sand. “I live in that one,” said her brother. “I come and visit you sometimes and we row our boat over here.” This went on for some time, the tone of it consoling somehow, little phrases reaching me like waves coming in to the shore. “Magic water park,” they said. “But the coconuts have lollies in them,” one of them protested. And my personal favourite: “you’re only allowed in the cave if you say a really bad word” uttered in such a prominent stage whisper that the row of adults who had been pretending to read revealed themselves, quietly smiling, and the kids’ dad did a sheepish “what-are-ya-gonna-do?” face to us all, slightly apologetic, slightly proud as punch.
I accidentally left my passport on the scanner. “Hang on,” a woman called out, chasing me and holding it aloft. “Oh,” I said to her, “aren’t you wonderful. Thank you.” She reached her arm out to touch mine. “Well,” she said, “we have to look after each other, don’t we?”

This has been a Public Service Announcement: everything isn’t the worst.

» Lorin Clarke (@lorinimus) is a Melbourne-based writer. Her radio serial, The Fitzroy Diaries, is on ABC Radio National. You can also find it on the ABC Listen app or wherever you
get your podcasts.

» This article was first published in Ed#584.