One would have thought the whole population of Melbourne was on the beach that day, except me, as I kept driving, going to my next call.
Feeling decidedly victimised, I turned the air conditioning a few degrees higher in my car. The last thing I needed was for my dark business suit to become soaking wet with perspiration, with a crumpled shirt sticking to my back. Even the silky appearance of my tie changes with the heat, and looks as if I had just escaped a hanging.
The last impression I wanted to give was that of a wretched creep when I was standing in front of a client.
Eventually I arrived at my destination and as I got out of the car, the heat hit me like a fly swat. I quickly got my business paraphernalia together and sprinted to the building. I let out a gasp as soon as the swing doors closed behind me and felt the cool air surround me in the air-conditioned building.
Somehow, when I entered the architect’s offices, I found the rooms colder still. I wondered whether it was because they didn’t sweat, at least not from the heat. They are always struggling with deadlines, builders, and, of course, like today, because of the heat, the building workers were sent home from the building sites.
When I had concluded my business with my client, I had to step outside into the heat again, and as I quickly stored my belongings back into my car, a tourist approached me.
‘I am terribly sorry to trouble you, but would you mind telling me how I get to the airport?’ the tourist spoke in an English voice, sounding honest and desperate.
‘Do you have a car?’
‘Oh no, I am a visitor’ the young man smiled.
‘Well, the airport bus would take you there. There is a stop right here on the beach road. If you want I can walk you there! Or you can take a taxi, they are everywhere.’ I said.
‘I’ve tried that, but they don’t take any money, I mean British pounds.’
‘No, they don’t, maybe you could exchange them at the bank! ‘I tried to minimise his problem.
‘The banks are all closed, everywhere!’
He was ahead of me! ‘Ah, yes, there is a bank strike on, state-wide and even their head offices in the CBD have closed. We do like to strike here’ I smiled and tried a bit of what I thought was British humour. ‘But what is your hurry? Bad news from home? I mean any international hotel will accept your credit card or even exchange your currency. At a slightly higher rate, of course.
‘I cannot understand why nobody wants my British Pounds. In Europe they accept them everywhere.’ He said.
‘I wouldn’t say everywhere but, yes, it is widely accepted! You see, they do not know that money here.’
And suddenly, I had the feeling that there was something else that was troubling him and I may be the only person listening to him in a foreign place. I had a few minutes spare before my next visit and made a decision.
‘I tell you what, let’s go into that nice café over there, where we can talk. I know I can help you but it’s too hot standing here! By the way, my name is Peter, and it’s my shout.’
He introduced himself as John. I think he sensed that I may have a solution to his problem, just so long as I was properly informed in order to help.
Sitting in an air conditioned café, on comfortable cushioned seats in a quiet nook, he revived a little bit. And I think he sensed that I knew Europe a bit, and started to confide in me,
‘As you know, back home, there is now snow and ice, the trees are stark and devoid of leaves, with the rest of the nature dead or dormant. Some animals are hibernating; others leave the country for southern climes. That’s when there is this terrible Christmas rush, getting more and more hectic every year. People have no time for anything except for Christmas preparations, which they do with their tongue hanging out. There is frenzy everywhere. At work, when shopping, and over-drawing on credit cards.’
John took a grateful sip from his iced coffee, soaked in the coolness of the shop and was increasingly more at ease as he opened up to me.
‘And what really got my goat were these family obligations! Aunts, Uncles, cousins, Grandma, Grandpa, neighbours etc. I hated all of this, they are phoney social obligations as insincere as they are trite. And for once, I wanted to experience Christmas without any of that. Just to be by myself, relax for once, and the hell with everybody else!’
I could clearly understand his sentiments and sensed what he was leading up to.
‘So, I booked a flight to Melbourne, settled in a nice hotel in the inner city, ready to experience something pleasantly different.’
‘What went wrong, John?’ I was ahead of him.
He started to swallow heavily, his eyes suddenly had an embarrassed look and he closed his mouth firmly, not to say anything wrong.
‘You found things very different here!’ I stated.
‘I panicked!’ He burst out. ‘The first few days went all right as there was so much to see, especially the lovely beaches, the friendly people I soaked it all up. But when I saw Santa in shorts and sweating under a palm tree, all the outdoor advertising for lawn movers and the surfers riding the waves, everybody in thongs, a kind of panic came over me and I just had to get back to the Christmas I know.’
‘Say no more, John, I fully understand. It’s your world, and if you haven’t got your family, what have you really got?’
He nodded eagerly and continued, ‘I have this sense of unreality, I feel like a fish out of water, and now I am suddenly stranded without dollars and have already vacated my hotel.’
‘That’s no problem, John, because the banks at the airport are always open and you can also arrange for your return flight there’
‘Yes, Peter, once there, I would not need to go anywhere and simply stay there till my departure.’ He saw the solution and liked it.
‘But how do I get to the airport if nobody takes my British pounds, could you change it?’
I laughed and shook my head. ‘No, John, but since it is Christmas I will shout you the taxi to the airport. It’s important that you get to the airport and once there, you will be able to solve all your problems.’
At the airport, you will be calmer and relieved and there will be nothing stopping you from going home.’
He tried to get up to hail a taxi, but I laid my hand on his shoulder. ‘We do it from here, John,’ I reached for my mobile phone.
John wanted my address to post me the money from back home ‘in Australian dollars’ as he emphasised, but I declined.
‘Consider this your first Christmas present this year!’ I explained.
It was not long before the taxi arrived. Wishing him a pleasant trip home and a Merry Christmas, I suddenly felt very mellow. Whilst John walked round to his passenger side of the cab, I gave the taxi driver the fare to the airport and they were soon out of sight.
The last thing I saw of him was a smiling young face and I pictured a mother welcoming her son back home and just in time for Christmas.