For Qi, who motivated me to actually finish the stories I begin.


Escape From Bali


I

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an Australian in possession of any fortune must be in want of a holiday.

The Indonesian island of Bali is an especially popular destination for these Australians due to its proximity to Australia and its richness of the quintessential Australian holiday experience: sunny, sandy beaches conducive to kicking back and relaxing with plenty to drink; indeed, the classic image is of just that, with a good book in hand and a tan on the way.

Shame we're only here for forty-five minutes, David rued; JQ117 inbound from Singapore had a quick turnaround in Bali before continuing on to Perth.

It was a quiet flight; quiet but not empty. The Australian winter holidays were a curious beast: both the schools and the universities went out at the end of June, leading to a crushing peak in outbound trips, especially to Bali.

It was quiet because of the time of day; it was an awful time of day to run a flight, with an ex-Singapore departure at four o'clock in the morning. The passengers on board were all too tired to do much more than snooze bolt upright in their seats; Jetstar's Airbus A320 was hardly a paragon of luxury at thirty thousand feet, not compared to full-service carriers, but if it wasn't good value for the price the airline wouldn't exist.

It was almost surreal to arrive at first light; leaving Singapore at o'dark hundred and landing in Bali's Denpasar airport shortly after sunrise. It was one of the least-favoured flights with the cabin crew, but somehow people still booked it and the flight continued to run.

Fools, thought David as he scanned the snoozing main cabin, the lot of them. It wasn't empty but it wasn't anywhere near full, but it would fill up in Bali.
More light began to stream in through the windows as the passengers began to shift restlessly in their seats. How was one to sleep on such a flight? If they had had any sense—always a weighty assumption—they would have arrived at Singapore's excellent airport the night before and slept in front of the gate.

"Would the cabin crew please prepare the cabin for landing," came the Captain's voice over the public address.

David leapt into action as he led his crew—himself and three other flight attendants—in preparation for landing, going up and down the aisle checking that seat backs were upright and tray tables were stowed and window shades were up and rubbish was collected and passengers at least vaguely aware of their surroundings; that everything was spick and span and tied down so it wouldn't fly around when they hit the ground.

"Would the cabin crew please be seated for landing."

The forward jump-seats are a curious place to sit; the leading flight attendant, the Customer Service Manager (CSM), faced the entire cabin and had the privilege of having the entire first row stare back at him. David had become used to it; the A320 fleet was the carrier's key workhorse and he was a cog in that machine.

The wheels hit the ground and the aircraft screamed to a controllable speed on the ground; the Captain made the usual welcoming announcement as passengers finally stirred and switched on their mobile phones; as usual, someone stood up well before the Captain had extinguished the seat belt sign.

"Would the cabin crew please disarm their doors and cross-check."

David stood up and disarmed his door, the first on the left; he then cross-checked the door opposite that was under the supervision of his colleague Penny. She was one of a number of fellow cabin crew he'd become acquainted with; but when you're trapped with a mere fire-team in the same uniform in the same metal tube charged with responsibility for a cabin of one hundred and eighty seats, you get to know your colleagues.

They pulled up to the gate; David peered out waiting for the jet-bridge to connect before opening his door and letting passengers off. "Thank you for flying with us this morning," he said in some way, shape or form about fifty times to disembarking passengers.

After everyone was deplaned, he was summoned into the cockpit. "David," called Penny through the doorway, "there's some bad news. We're not going anywhere."

"Why not? What's up?" David asked as he walked over and stuck his head into the cockpit.

The answer made him sigh explosively in frustration.


All hotels are equal; but some hotels are more equal than others. Every hotel offers rooms with some sort of sleeping and washing facility; but beyond that, cash is king.

The InterContinental Bali on the west-facing beach of Jimbaran is a resort property par excellence. Its vast wings and grounds and pools stretch as far as the eye can see; the rooms and suites are spacious and luxurious and would leave none but the most demanding guest wanting.

From one of those rooms on the fourth floor of the third wing emerged a young man in need of breakfast.

Breakfasts are as unequal as the hotels that serve them; naturally, money talks and in the case of this young man at this property, his room rate bought access to a buffet that would impress even the most jaded traveller: a spread of quality and not merely quantity, laden with the Occidental cereals and breads and breakfast meats and freshly-cut fruits; with the Oriental noodles and porridges and stewed meats and wilted vegetables. There was a coffee bar able to turn out flat whites and lattes and mochas and short blacks and long blacks, lovingly hand-crafted on demand and served directly to one's table. There was an egg station that worked a production line of eggs scrambled and fried and boiled and poached and made into an omelette; a guest could order anything as long as they could articulate it to the man behind it wielding the twin spatulas. There was a juicing station with a machine that could juice two hundred oranges in half an hour without needing a little button to be pressed by anyone's thumb two hundred times.

"Good morning, Sir. May I have your room number?"

He gave them his room number and swept into the dining hall; it was a vast room with high ornate ceilings and breathtaking chandeliers, able to seat scores of guests every morning and feed them to the very brim.

"Just a latte, please."

He accepted a small table in a quiet corner before he proceeded to collect his favoured breakfast items to be assembled into a sumptuous morning feast; nine o'clock in the morning was to him the best time of day to engage in such feasting.

As he sat down at his table and took his first sip of his latte, he brought out his smartphone; the perfect morning combination, coffee and connectivity. He fired up his usual morning news sources, and began scrolling.

He stopped scrolling when he saw the headline; all he could do was stare at it in shock.

A voice eventually jolted him; he looked up at a familiar male of East Asian appearance with a mildly amused expression on his face. "Good morning, Nick," greeted the other pleasantly.

"Morning, Konrad. You might wanna look at this," said Nick as he handed over his smartphone for Konrad to get a look. It wasn't good news; Nick waited for when the amused expression would be vanish.

Konrad whistled softly. "Well, we're stuffed."

"You'd think that of all days to have something like this happen, it'd happen on a day we weren't trying to get somewhere?"

"D'you think? We'll gonna have to think about it after some breakfast, mate."

Nick nodded, already tucking into his eggs.

After their respective third plates, they were ready to delve into the matter over their respective second coffees. "There are a number of options," Konrad sighed as his thumbs flew across the touchscreen of his smartphone, "none of which are terribly appealing."

"It's nice to have a choice of punishment," muttered Nick darkly; he was beginning to worry about how irregular operations would pan out.

"It is, but there's really no running away from the fact that the airport has been shut down thanks to this." Konrad sipped his flat white calmly. "Is there a prediction for when it'll open again?"

"None."

"If there's no prediction, it could reopen tonight or next week. Perhaps we should rock up and see how it goes today. After all, the worst thing that'll happen today is that they'll say, 'Oh, come back tomorrow.' It's Southeast Asia, Nick; one learns to cope." Konrad downed his flat white in one hit. "Let's think about it after a swim, shall we?"


David sighed; he'd stopped counting how many times he'd sighed already. "So there's seriously no prediction for when the airport will reopen?"

"No," sighed Penny; everyone was sighing that morning. She took a deep breath before continuing: "Volcanoes don't let people choose a convenient time for eruption."

"Very insightful, Penny." He looked up to see another familiar orange-jacketed colleague show up to their table in the cafe. "Hello, Sarah. Are we cancelled?"

"We're cancelled." Sarah flicked her strawberry blonde hair behind her and seized the menu. "Volcanic ash cloud blowing over from Java, we're told. Let's just say we're not going anywhere quickly. Is the coffee here any good?"

"Hm. What's your definition of good coffee?" inquired David, tilting his head.

"Let's just say I grew up in Melbourne."

"Then don't expect much."

"Pricing's pretty good compared to Melbourne, though. I'll give them a go."

David's local mobile phone rang; a hateful low-end model, it had been issued by the airline's duty manager about half an hour prior. "Good morning, David speaking."

It was their First Officer; she wasted no time. "Look, the flight's been cancelled. There's a volcanic ash cloud—"

"Yeah, I know. Sarah just told me. What's the go?"

"There is no go. Knowing the passengers, you should probably get out of sight while the whole thing blows over."

David gestured furiously to Sarah to stop her ordering her coffee. "Alright, where do we hide?"

"Station office. You'll need to come upstairs. They've got plenty of coffee while we sit this one out."

"I've got Sarah and Penny here."

"I've got everyone else up here."

"We're rolling." He hung up as he led them up to the station office, ignoring the parked aircraft and less-than-happy passengers at the gate.


II

Any good hotel will have at least a swimming pool for its guests to ease themselves into the water and perhaps swim a few or a few dozen laps; it is the ultimate holiday activity, to take the plunge. Mostly the guests would swim but some sit poolside and sunbathe and possibly even read; it is up to the guests to choose what fits their fancy.

The InterContinental had not a swimming pool but an array of pools; the pools were of varying depths and sizes and with different tilings and ever more exotic gargoyles and fountains regurgitating water into the pools adding colour and character to otherwise standard rectangular pools. Surrounding them were deck chairs and small tables and boys with towels and drinks. They all came together to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts; a centrally-placed facility for every kind of chlorinated watery recreation imaginable to relax the tension in any guest. After all, the overall raison d'être of the pool area is to provide a space for guest relaxation.

Scowling at a laptop with one's fingers flying furiously across its keyboard is not generally considered 'relaxation', regardless of whether a bright blue umbrella is above one's head or not.

But after their morning swim that is precisely what Nick and Konrad did.

Nick surfed various Australian online newspapers and news portals, all of which said the same sort of thing: Bali flights cancelled due to volcanic ash cloud, or wording to that effect.

"All the news channels are saying that there's still no prediction for when Denpasar airport will reopen to let people out of Bali. The volcano is apparently still spewing ash, so that's not going anywhere anytime soon."

Konrad grunted. "Our flight to Singapore this evening is already showing cancelled on all my flight trackers." He slammed his brushed-aluminium laptop shut.

"It's hopeless. We'll go see what we can wring out of them in person."

Nick exhaled loudly. It was going to be a real slog at the airport; he would've wagered good money on it already being slammed with delayed passengers. "It'll be a right challenge getting to the damn counter, never mind getting something from them."

Konrad gave Nick a funny look. "We're Australians. We're expected to say, 'She'll be right,' and then have another drink; at least that's the stereotype."

"Very funny."

"I'm going up to my room to give the Platinum line a ring and see what they can do for us."

"I'll come with you."

They retired to Konrad's duplex suite—rather grander than the mere room Nick had—and plugged in once again.

Forty-five minutes later, Konrad had the answer: "No dice. The Platinum line doesn't have any information and hasn't received authority to rebook us just yet."

"So after checking out, we head to the airport?"

"Yup. Let's convene at the lobby at midday."

"Done." Nick rose and left for his own room to pack; it was a short walk down a pleasant corridor. Everything made its way back into the one bag he would carry on board; like Konrad, he travelled with hand luggage only.

Having grown up in Australia, Nick despised taxis; they were hateful, constantly causing traffic trouble in his home city of Melbourne. But here in Bali, they were acceptable as local transport.

"Bandara." Airport.

"D'you ever find yourself only taking taxis overseas?" Nick asked.

Konrad laughed. "Yeah, I generally avoid them in Sydney as much as I can."

Nick let that sit; he enjoyed the silence in the taxi. But eventually curiosity got the better of him. "When I saw you at the last event, the brunch one in Alexandria, you weren't wearing that ring, were you?"

Konrad touched his platinum band lightly. "Yeah, it's new. I got it a few weeks back."

"Hitched?"

"Yeah, I proposed to Chrissy—you remember her, don't you?—before last summer's Asian trip. She's in Hong Kong with her father's family until tomorrow night; she was booked to get back to Sydney a day or two after I was."

"That's really nice," Nick said, inwardly cringing at how cliché he sounded.

"We're here," announced Konrad; he paid the driver the metered fare rounded up. They stepped out of the taxi and retrieved their carry-on bags.

"This is crazy," remarked Nick casually.

'Crazy' was a gross understatement; the place was a complete and utter mess. Passengers and their bags and their belongings were strewn everywhere and amidst the Bintang beer singlets and flip flops and tank tops and excessively large baggage lay hundreds of irate Australians quite obviously keen to leave.

"Good afternoon," said Konrad pleasantly to the check-in agent at the Jetstar counter, sliding his passport and black Platinum frequent flyer card across the counter.

"Good afternoon, Mr Wu. I see you were booked on this evening's flight to Singapore. I'm afraid the flight's been cancelled due to the volcanic activity."

"I know, I found out this morning. Has the airport released a prediction for when it'll reopen?"

"No, I'm afraid there hasn't been one."

"Can we go through and wait in the lounge?"

"I'll need to check with my supervisor," the agent said before scuttling off to check with the said supervisor; the answer was positive.

They rolled through to the immigration checkpoint and managed to get through to the airside area; a beeline was made for the lounge—a contract operation but a tolerable one—where they could hide from the great unwashed.

"This isn't bad, y'know," murmured Konrad as he opened a bottle of local iced tea.

"Could be worse."

"Could be a lot worse. We could be outside." Konrad rolled his eyes as he took another swig of tea. "Let's sit this out for a few hours."

"Sounds like a plan." Nick took a bottle of his own and took a sip; it was an interesting flavour, a sweet jasmine tea with plenty of sugar in it. "This is… interesting."

"It's an acquired taste."

"It's brown sugar water with a hint of jasmine."

"Perhaps you should stick to lemonade."


David threw his empty cup into the bin in disgust. They had been on the ground for hours and hours and hours and there was still no news. He was losing his sense of humour.

"We're officially over hours," announced Penny, eyes fixed on her smartphone lock screen clock. "Now what?"

"Can you go find out?"

"Sure," she said, sweeping away.

She was back in five minutes. "David, they say we can go up to the contract lounge and chill out because they don't expect us to need to do anything. If need be, they'll put us up in a hotel tonight."

"Let's head upstairs," he said, and so they did.

The lounge was a contract lounge but a very well-appointed one; lounge facilities were one of many things that improved substantially with the new terminal. The horror of the old terminal was still fresh in David's mind.

There were plenty of chairs to relax in and so David and his crew collapsed into them. They couldn't hit the alcohol, but there was none to begin with so that wasn't a concern; he settled for some cola.

"You would think," he overheard another lounge guest of East Asian appearance but distinctly Australian diction saying, "that in this day and age you'd have some bloody information."

"Not just that," his travelling partner said as he swirled his clear lemonade, "but you won't believe how many idiots out there aren't even insured; if their carrier doesn't cough up they're really stuffed."

David found the conversation interesting and sat down opposite them with his bottle of cola; the glass bottle had a nice weight to it. "Stuck here?"

"Aren't we all?"

"Yes, yes we are." David laughed mirthlessly. "Back to Australia?"

"Nah, Singapore and then back to Australia."

"Fair enough. I'm David, by the way," he introduced himself.

"I'm Konrad; this is Nick," the passenger said with his hand extended; and with that, the conversation began.

After the first bottle, they agreed that airports really ought to have better information systems for weather-related delays; that it was a right shame that people—both crews and passengers—would have to sit it out without even basic information on what was going on; that it was a right shame that even as developed and important an airport as this one wasn't able to handle such delays.

After the second bottle, they agreed that perhaps maybe they were being too harsh on the airline and the airport; after all, nobody controlled the volcano's eruption cycle; that in the end it was all what an insurance company might dismiss as an 'act of God'; that there was no choice in the matter.

After the third bottle, they agreed that one could never be too prepared for such an eventuality; that those like so many outside on the concourse who had gambled by not purchasing travel insurance were fools; that they had made their gamble and lost badly.

Halfway through the fourth bottle, word came through that the airport would be closed overnight.

"I'm going to look at getting an overnight hotel stay for our crews," announced David. He shook their hands once again and swept from the lounge.

"I honestly cannot be bothered going back for a hotel. D'you think we'd get away with camping here overnight?"

"Doesn't hurt to ask," sighed Nick. They'd been there all afternoon; the sun had gone down hours ago.

Konrad stood up. "I'll go ask."

Nick went back to his laptop and continued playing games to pass time; he'd run out of work to do, and that was most unusual.

"I pleaded that our case was special. They say we can stay overnight for tonight. Jetstar is handing out vouchers to premium passengers so I've managed to get them to give us extra vouchers in lieu of a cheap hotel stay I don't want."

"Wonderful." Nick slammed his laptop shut. "Time to hit the shower and change into something comfortable."

"You do that. I'm going to see if I can lean on them to get more food. Their buffet is stingy as," scowled Konrad.

Nick grabbed his bag and headed for the showers; he found a stall, collected a towel and locked the door behind him. Bliss, at last.

One of the greatest pleasures to be had while in lounges on the road is the simple act of taking a shower; to have hot jets of water come crashing down upon your body, relaxing muscles tense from hours bolt upright and cleansing a body uncomfortable from a whole day and possibly more in the same sticky outfit.

Nick let the water pour over him as he stood there, rooted to the spot, exhausted from a day of going nowhere.

The shower gel and shampoo were of some random scent clearly designed by somebody with an excellent understanding of esters but not the slightest grasp of aromatherapy.

After a very long time, Nick shut off the water and stepped back out of the shower; covered in a wonderfully fluffy towel, he was content to drip for several minutes in silence before drying himself properly and changing into fresh, comfortable clothes.

Eventually, he emerged from the stall and handed his towel to an attendant; he felt refreshed and ready to try to relax again.

He found Konrad snacking on another plate of noodles with some chicken. "Is that all?" he asked with no small annoyance; he had been hoping for some more appealing supper from the lounge.

"Yeah. D'you think we should try bribing one of the attendants to go buy something from a restaurant before they close for the night?"

Nick thought about it for a moment. The pricing outside the lounge wasn't terrible, with local dishes going for around fifty thousand Indonesian rupiah. "Let's do that. Let's each get a nasi goreng with all the trimmings and tip the bloke generously."

"I'm getting a nasi campur," Konrad announced before he scooted off to make the arrangements, quietly handing over some vouchers and a tip before sauntering back.

Half an hour later, dinner was served. Despite Konrad's tendency to behave like a typical Platinum tier frequent flyer, he was capable of carrying things out as if he was the one responsible for service. He expertly reassembled both dinners on lounge china beautifully and served them with drinks, cutlery and even napkins.

"Did you ever work in service, Konrad?" inquired Nick. "Like, in uni or something?"

"No, I taught mathematics to get through uni. I just know how I like things to be served to me. Let's eat."

"So what did you get?" inquired Nick as he took a stick of sate—local chicken skewers—and bit into it.

"Nasi campur. Literally 'mixed rice', it's a complete meal on a single plate consisting of rice, some sambal for heat, vegetables, some protein in the form of chicken and tempe," Konrad explained. Seeing Nick's bemused expression, he went on to ask, "This is your first trip to Indonesia, isn't it? It's pretty common; it's a thing, really."

"Yeah," Nick admitted.

They ate quietly with only the clink of cutlery on china to signal their presence. The nasi goreng was surprisingly good; Nick enjoyed the smokiness of the chicken fried rice itself as well as the accompanying chilli, fried fish fillet pieces and krupuk (prawn crackers).

When their meal came to a close they shoved the dishes somewhere else for the attendants to take away and began preparing for a night in the lounge. Bless the twenty-four hour lounge, thought Nick as he brushed his teeth and then arranged seat cushions into something close to a mattress; Konrad did the same.

"Mr Wu, Mr Lim?" A lounge attendant was standing next to their hideout.

Nick removed his eyeshade. "Yeah?"

"Your Jetstar flight to Singapore has been retimed to seven o'clock tomorrow morning. The latest news is that the airport should be safe to operate from by six o'clock in the morning."

"Great," grunted Konrad. "Would you be able to wake us at maybe five-thirty?"

"Certainly, Mr Wu."

"Excellent!" exclaimed Konrad. He rolled over and inserted his earplugs; he was officially out of action.

"Thanks," said Nick appreciatively before putting his eyeshade back on and rolling over. "G'night, mate."

"Night, mate."

Nick was vaguely aware of the surrounding lounge getting progressively quieter as he slowly drifted off to sleep, eager to wake up in the morning and escape on a flight.


III

In this modern day and age, where most communication is instant and most news is delivered immediately, it is difficult to stay out of the loop during waking hours. Typically a person will wake up and immediately check their devices for notifications and other such inbound signals.

Nick awoke to sunlight streaming into the lounge. He disconnected his smartphone from its portable charger and squinted at the time: eight-thirty.

Damn, he'd overslept!

He sat bolt upright in a blind panic. The flight had left over ninety minutes prior. He looked wildly from left to right and then back left again.

A familiar voice burst out laughing. "Oh my God, that is hilarious."

"What is?" demanded Nick as he jammed his glasses onto his face.

"You doing that," chuckled Konrad. "Calm down. The flight's been cancelled again."

Nick sighed explosively in relief. "No wonder."

"Yeah, it's ridiculous." Konrad dropped the amused look and turned dead serious. "Right, so if you'd look at the television over there…"

Nick squinted at it. The headline screamed the news: Bali airport to remain closed until tomorrow.

"Great. Just great." Nick flopped back down on his makeshift mattress.

"Yes, isn't it. I'm getting the guys here to see if they can snag us two seats overnight by surface to Surabaya, from which we can fly to Jakarta and then back on QF42. If they can snag us the seats, I'll call up and lean on them to have us moved to the Jakarta flight."

"You're joking."

"I'm not. You don't wanna be here for a week, right?"

"I'd rather not."

"So we keep all options on the table. Go wash up."

Nick grunted and got up. It hadn't been a fantastic night's sleep, if he was honest with himself. Seat cushions arranged into a mattress was no substitute for a real night's accommodation.

He took his time washing up in the shower suite. If they really did end up going by surface to Surabaya, it would be a brutal overnight journey that he didn't especially crave, but desperate times called for desperate measures.

He emerged fresh and ready to hit the road.

"Okay, the boys have outdone themselves. We've got the surface leg to Surabaya booked; we leave this afternoon at a quarter to three. We'll head out to the bus station at about midday. I'm going to get us moved to the Jakarta flight in a moment so I'll need your details. Leave them on my table. I'll get you to book the Jakarta sector after you eat."

"Sure thing." Nick left to collect breakfast.

The buffet at breakfast was as limited as at dinner, with some more nasi goreng, fried eggs and other assorted items to with it; there were juices and some fruits but little else; it was far from extensive.
He gingerly placed his breakfast on a table next to a chair near Konrad; he carefully re-inserted its seat cushion before sitting down.

Konrad was busy talking to the Platinum line through his headset with his eyes closed; it was as if he was channelling all his energy into dealing with them. It looked intense, more intense than Nick's usual interactions with the ordinary line even with Gold priority.

As Nick polished off his second round of nasi goreng and orange juice, Konrad uttered the final words, "Thank you, bye," into his headset and savagely clicked a red button on his laptop screen. He pulled out his headset and heaved a sigh of relief.

"Good news?"

"We're on QF42 leaving tomorrow night. We're on the afternoon run out to Surabaya, so we'll get in tomorrow morning. It gives us the daytime to fly up to Jakarta."

"Sounds good." Nick downed his orange juice. "What's an overnight bus journey?"

"Don't jinx it," warned Konrad as he ventured off in search of another coffee.


"This is ridiculous!"

David cringed internally at the sheer number of people on the concourse, camped out across the check-in area. He had been seconded to terminal duty along with all the other stranded air crews. Because of the news arriving that there would be flights that morning—which had all since been cancelled—the area was fuller than ever.

He had no words to describe how bad it was; it was truly indescribable.

"Sarah, d'you known when the guards change over?"

"In about an hour. Why?"

He ran his hands through his dark, slightly straggly hair. "I just can't shake this feeling that there's a riot building."

"Don't say that, David," Penny admonished him, "or you'll really incite a riot; that's the last thing we want."

"Open your eyes, Penny. They're getting more and more restless by the hour; I can feel it."

"Oh my God, David," Sarah rolled her eyes. "Worry about getting the authorities to give us something to say to these people and leave me alone to write this new letter about vouchers."
David went back to working the phones, calling various Indonesian authorities trying to get information for Jetstar passengers, but to no avail.

Eventually, he gave it up as a bad job; he walked over to the desks of the competitor: Virgin Australia (VA). "G'day, guys. Have you been able to get any information on when we'll be able to fly?"

"Nah, mate," came the reply from an exhausted-looking flight attendant in an unbuttoned black jacket and badly creased grey trousers; his purple tie was nowhere to be seen.

"Seriously? Nothing at all?"

"Nothing at all. Place is a shambles."

"They're gonna boil over. I just know it."

"Oh yeah, just you bloody wait. I've never seen so many Bintang singlets in one place. Is this orchestrated marketing or just New Kuta?" He referred to the beach infamously popular with Australians for their drunken debauchery.

"Probably the latter," David laughed harshly.

"Just you wait, mate; just you wait."

Sure enough, eventually an aggrieved male in a singlet of the offending variety ventured over to the counter; David judged that he was probably still in his teens. "Maaayte," he drawled, reeking of alcohol, "why can't cha fly t'daay?"

"Ash cloud, mate."

The young man swore loudly before going back to sit on his overly large bright blue suitcase.

David was certain that it would go downhill, that it would get worse; he could not shake the pressure in the back of his head telling him that somehow at some time at some place in the airport there would be some altercation.

When it did happen, it happened in a flash.

He was tapping away at a keyboard investigating if it was possible to put a particular passenger in Business on a fixed later flight a few days later so he could enjoy more holiday; and then in that instant, he looked up so quickly he might well have self-inflicted whiplash.

There was the sound of shattering glass; of a bottle that came crashing down on its target. There was then a great roar and the thrower was jumped on by a team of security guards yelling in Indonesian; they dragged him away as others tended to his victim.

"David," said the station manager, "it's probably not too safe for staff to be on the check-in floor."

He looked up at the station manager; he was a middle-aged Indonesian Chinese man who'd migrated to Australia in the eighties. "Mm. What d'you suggest?"

"I've talked to the other carriers' managers. We're all going to hole ourselves in the airside area since almost all of the passengers are all out here."

"Done. Let's all pack up and go up. Break time!"

Holing themselves up in the airside area in the comfort of operations offices and meeting rooms was a sensible if selfish response to increasingly agitated passengers left out on the concourse.

David stirred sugar into his cup of tea. He'd ended up in a meeting room that overlooked the concourse with Sarah, Penny and a couple of VA flight attendants.

"They look even closer to breaking point," muttered Penny.

"I told you so," said David tartly. "When it boils over, they will go berserk."

One of the VA crew rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "All crowds have to howl," he quoted. "Fitzgerald's May Day."

"Oh, they'll howl alright; especially the ones who aren't insured. I think we all need an escape from Bali now."

"You realise that the Australian papers are saying that something like two-thirds of the clowns outside aren't insured?"

They sighed at how foolish their holidaying countrymen were and proceeded to drink the office dry of coffee before anything noteworthy happened.


"This is a nice bus," commented Nick as he ran his hands across the armrest. "I'm actually pleasantly surprised."

Konrad rolled his eyes and sighed theatrically. "I've always found it surprisingly that other Asians look down on the Indonesians. Man, these guys have it all figured out."

"It's my first time," Nick said a little too defensively; he cringed at how lame it sounded, but it was true that before joining the Bali do, he wasn't really in the loop.

"Mm." Konrad buried himself in a paperback.

Nick plugged in his earphones and whiled away the afternoon with music and his own paperback; it wasn't audio and video on-demand, but it was refreshing as a change.

Near sunset, the bus—actually a rather substantial tour coach—pulled up to the ferry terminal. Bali as a whole is an island that is separate from Java, but the water crossing for road vehicles is a surprisingly short ferry ride on a double-ended boat; the passengers remain on the bus as it makes the crossing.

At a quarter past eight, the bus pulled into the railhead station of Banyuwangi.

"This is pretty civilised," commented Konrad as he took the printed tickets and had them stamped and validated. "It is much, much more civilised than some other stations on the network."

"I never actually asked, but which class are we in?"

"Eksekutif; effectively it's First."

"Sweet."

It had been nearly seven hours since their last meal so they began hunting for something to eat. "I can't face any more nasi goreng," Nick complained; and he really couldn't.

"There appears to be a shop doing soto ayam. Let's give it a go."

"What's that?"

"Oh, you'll see." Konrad let Nick to a shop inside the station that was serving bowls of a yellow clear soup.

Konrad ordered the soup and sat down; the bowls came steaming hot and had a wonderful aroma. "Local chicken soup with noodles; should be good."

Nick had never had such good chicken soup.

Shortly before ten o'clock, they piled onto the train and stowed their baggage on the overhead racks, taking their seats directly below. It was a well-appointed train, with reclining seats and at-seat power; but it wasn't luxurious by any stretch of the imagination, not least that of a flyer properly in the know.

"No sleeping berths?"

"Nah, the railway refuses to run them."

"That's a bit poor."

"It's not great, no," Konrad agreed as he plugged his laptop in and switched on his local internet hotspot.

"Not sleeping?"

"Not with how rough it rides."

It was indeed a rough ride; Nick was jolted repeatedly and soon gave up any hope of being able to sleep. Well past midnight, he returned from the lavatory—a squatting pan—to find Konrad swearing under his breath at his laptop and smartphone.

"What's up?" he whispered.

Konrad unleashed a quiet typhoon of vulgarities. "Flight pricing is ridiculous. We're bang in the middle of the peak period."

"How much do they want?"

"A lot more than usual. We might as well fly Garuda at this rate," Konrad muttered, referring to the Indonesian national carrier.

"We can book it when we get to Surabaya."

"Let's get a hotel; we get in at half past four so we ought to get somewhere to get a proper rest and shower and more food."

"Your pick."

"My insurance policy allows me to claim hotel stays; I know because I've done it before."

"Your pick?"

"Holiday Inn Express. No point going all flash. If you aren't queasy about room-sharing, we can do that given we're only going to be in the room for five or six hours. I'll book it online now."

By the time the train pulled into Surabaya at half past four, Nick was ready to collapse; he hadn't had a wink of sleep and nor had Konrad.

The taxi ride to the hotel was almost surreal. It wasn't just early in the morning, but completely dark but for the lights and all the people already awake, eating breakfast; it was the fasting month of Ramadan, where Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. The morning meal, sahur, is taken before sunrise; with the sunrise times in Java, it was very, very early; but so was iftar, the evening breaking of the fast.
Nick rolled over in the compact but well-appointed room, too tired to even think of having a shower until he'd had at least a three-hour nap. As the clocks struck five, he fell asleep to the bash-bash-bash-bash of Konrad's fingers flying across his keyboard.


IV

"Ah, it's good to be back at the usual hotel."

"You mean it's good to be back at the cafe next door that Sarah says you won't shut up about?"

"Well, yes," admitted David reluctantly as he ambled out the front door of the hotel; he was now out of uniform and comfortably attired in jeans and a T-shirt. "I could do with some local food."

"How is this a local experience?" demanded Penny. "The place is run by an Aussie bloke."

"He's Indonesian Australian."

"So? He's still Australian."

"He's Indonesian! His cuisine is entirely authentic. Sure, he does espresso coffee on the side as well, but the food is entirely legit. It's also a lot more reliable hygiene-wise than street food; which is important to those of us who actually have to work."

"Eh, I'll give it a go."

"How spicy d'you eat?"

"Not very."

"We'll get something milder," assured David as he picked up the menu and picked off a few reliable favourites.

They conversed lightly and watched Australian news on the cafe's flat-screen television while sipping local bottled iced tea.

"The Indonesian authorities have announced that Bali flights will not be allowed to depart for at least another two days. Passengers are stranded and many are increasingly agitated; some are even running out of money," blared the news.

"Ah yes, the uninsured sob stories again."

"How many d'you think went by land?"

"You'd have to be insane to go by land," said David mildly before he introduced Penny to the local delights around her nasi campur plate.

David watched her eat. It was a curious thing, doing all that flying and not really having time to immerse yourself in the local culture and atmosphere; the price of always being on the move. "D'you just hole yourself up in the hotel and not come out?"

"Yeah, pretty much," admitted Penny, flicking her dark brown hair back. "I prefer doing trans-Tasman anyway."

"You get less idiots on those flights, too."

"It's all relative, isn't it?" She continued eating.


There was a long, piercing scream of anguish; it jolted Nick awake, making him jump out of his sheets in panic. "What the hell, Konrad?"

Konrad shot him a pained look. "They've just cancelled QF42 for tonight."

"You're joking."

"Not at all. I just got the text message." Konrad waved his phone around.

Nick fell back into his bed. "So what now?"

"So my three-hours-of-sleep brain tells me the best option is to ring the Platinum line again. It's nine-thirty, so you'd best go grab some breakfast and let me sort this out."

Nick went to the ground floor to the Great Room where breakfast was well underway. The buffet was extensive but nowhere near as grand as the InterContinental Bali; there were heated trays of omelettes and sausages and noodles and rice and vegetables; there were racks of fruits and breads and cereals and danishes and donuts; there were jugs of coffees and teas and juices and milks; there was even a grab-and-go facility where guests could pick up a pre-packed breakfast to bring with them on the road.

Nick started with coffee. Although his idea of 'normal' coffee was a latte, espresso wasn't available at smaller hotels and so he had to make do with brewed coffee. He dumped a single sugar into the mug before walking over to the cereal station and adding fresh milk.

He then added a plate of fried noodles and eggs and a few other things; he ate quietly in the corner while reading news of more ash over Bali online. The meal was filling and he returned to the room satisfied.

"Man," said Konrad as soon as Nick opened the door, "the benefits of being Platinum."

"Did you get the seats?"

"Yep. We're now on this afternoon's Jetstar flight out of here to Singapore, connecting to tonight's QF82 back to Sydney. We're burning the Garuda ticket; we'll find a way to claim it on insurance."

"Beautiful. How'd you manage it?"

"I know the Singapore station manager."

"The Qantas one?"

"Yes."

"How?"

"Long story."

Nick didn't press the matter; he was just thankful that the seats had been snagged. "I'm going to hit the shower."

"You do that."

David was back at the airport and back on counter duty; there was a press conference going on. It was a dull affair with recycled news being told again and again with plenty of equally dull questions being asked by reporters on the scene, but the passengers being filmed were another matter.

"How long have you been stuck here?" asked the reporter. "Have you been here a long time?"

"Oh, I've been here for two days, yeah," replied an unsteady bogan flyer. "I got here just before the airport closed, I think?"

"Which airline are you flying with?"

"Oh, I was originally on Jetstar but I changed to AirAsia."

"Why'd you change?"

"We thought AirAsia might be able to get us home to Melbourne sooner…"

"But the whole airport's closed."

"Yeah, I know. My family's now about three thousand dollars out of pocket already. We're running out of money and we really can't afford to be stuck here any longer; we can't burden family with more transfers."

"Don't you have travel insurance?"

"The insurance companies all put an, I think it was an embargo? Um yeah, an embargo, on policies once the news came out so we couldn't."

"Do you think the airlines are giving you enough information?"

"They aren't telling us anything at all."

What an idiot, thought David darkly as he continued to eavesdrop on what was happening as the cameras were rolling nearby; if you didn't buy insurance in the first place you deserve to be stuck out of pocket.

"Excuse me," greeted a customer freshly arrived at the counter David was manning.

"Good morning, sir. How may I assist you?"

"Would it be possible to be moved to later flight this week? I'd like to head back to a hotel, honestly."

"I can try. D'you have a boarding pass?"

The man slid his boarding pass over the counter, letting David commence the rebooking process. The more people off the immediate exit list, the better. Within ten minutes, the man was off in a taxi back to a hotel, clearly satisfied.

Maybe they're not all morons, David mused a while later as he headed back up to the Jetstar crew rest area to snack on some more local food.


"It's a good thing that Surabaya's been redone. Place used to be a dump."

"What was it like before?" Nick inquired, given it was a glassy airport like any other; it was similar to the one they'd abandoned in Bali.

"It was terrible. Don't even ask how terrible." Konrad shuddered and took a moment to regain his composure. "It was bad. Let's go check in."

They rolled up to check-in on separate desks; they each did the usual sliding of passport, printout and frequent flyer card across the desk.

"Good morning, Mr Lim," the staffer greeted. "I see you're flying through to Sydney tonight. D'you have any bags to check, and if so, d'you need your bags to be checked all the way through?"

"No thanks, I don't have any bags to check."

"Alright then, here's your boarding pass for today; the flight will be departing from this gate,"—she circled the gate on the boarding pass—"and boarding will commence forty-five minutes before departure. Your Qantas Frequent Flyer Gold status will gain you access to the lounge; the directions to the lounge are on this card," she finished by handing him the said directions.

"Thank you," he said before stuffing everything into his jacket pocket and rolling back to Konrad.

Immigration and security were relatively swift by international standards and not long after they were happily ensconced in the contract lounge.
Konrad opened another bottle of that bizarre iced tea; bizarre because Nick still couldn't understand the appeal of cold jasmine tea with ridiculous amounts of sugar. He went for some lemonade and some noodles.

"Thank God for status, eh?" remarked Konrad cheerily as he put his feet up on an ottoman and ignored his laptop. "You've been to the Singapore lounge, haven't you?"

"No, actually; I normally fly in and out via Hong Kong. It's pretty similar, isn't it? As long as it's better than the zoo in Los Angeles."

"Long story cut short," sighed Konrad, "is that opinions differ; I say the Singapore lounge is ahead. There aren't any spa treatments or anything like that, but the food is good and the drinks are divine."
Eventually boarding was called; and then it was called again and then they finally ambled down to the gate and boarded last. There was the clack of overhead bins being slammed shut and the click of the seat-belts being fastened; the soft footsteps of cabin crew parading up and down the aisle in preparation for departure; and finally the satisfying slam of the last door being closed.

"Would the cabin crew please be seated for takeoff."

As he settled back in his seat Nick to watch the safety demonstration, he let himself breathe an audible sigh of relief as the engines spooled up and their Airbus A320 took to the skies at last.


V

The wheels hit the ground and the spoilers went up; Nick's ears filled with the roar of reverse-thrust as he steeled his back for the rapid deceleration of landing.

To arrive at Singapore Changi Airport is to witness the world's finest air hub; not merely an airport, it is a city of the air, a round-the-clock machine dedicated to keeping the metal birds in the air carrying people and carrying cargo and making money—money that fuelled the machine.

Certainly it has not the scale nor flair of the world's largest and busiest airports: there are no high ceilings and airy glassiness like Hong Kong or fancy satellite terminals like Kuala Lumpur; it lacks the sheer massiveness of Stateside fortress hub such as Atlanta or Dallas/Ft Worth.

But what it does have is clockwork precision and world-class passenger experience; function trumps form.

The first door on the left opened bang on four-thirty; in less than a minute Nick was following a high-tailing Konrad fleeing the commoners for the sanctuary of the lounge.

"One of the rules of Changi," pronounced Konrad as he sped along the carpeted terminal pier whizzing past the other gates, "is to avoid the moving walkway."

Nick nearly cricked his neck as he looked at the moving walkway; sure enough it was stacked to the hilt with the usual suspects with their overloaded trolleys.

They went up the escalator and slipped through the sliding frosted-glass doors; Konrad fronted up to a lounge dragon whose face lit up when she saw him. "It's a pleasure to see you again, Mr Wu," she greeted.

Nick went to the adjacent counter and slid his Gold card and boarding pass to gain access; they resulted in the correct (and extremely satisfying) beep. "Welcome to the lounge, Mr Lim."

They swept into a refreshingly familiar setting; the seats and restrooms were on the left and the bar on the right and the dining area just over there past the bar and the showers at the far end beyond that.
"I wonder what the July special is," murmured Konrad as he picked up a menu at the bar. "Ah, excellent!" he exclaimed, beaming at Nick. "They've brought back the awesome prawn omelette."

Nick was suddenly hungry. "Let's get that."

"We'll sit by the bar— oh, hello Cherry!"

The barista had returned from floor duty; she looked up at Konrad and the recognition flashed in her eyes. "Hello, and welcome back."

"It's good to be back." He turned to Nick. "D'you feel like an iced latte? Cherry makes the world's best iced latte."

She blushed a little. "Oh, come on Konrad…"

"Seriously, it's amazing. We'll go decaf, yeah? I'm going to pop over to the kitchen to get some food. Nick, d'you want the omelette or the minute steak?"

He felt like beef. "I'll get the minute steak."

Konrad sped off to the kitchen.

"Travelling together?" inquired Cherry as she tamped down on the espresso.

"Yeah, we just got in from Bali."

"How'd you do that? Isn't the airport closed?"

"Oh, Konrad and I went by bus and boat and train to Surabaya and then flew in from there?"

"Oh wow, that's impressive. I think Surabaya just got closed; the winds shifted or something. Bali's open again now, though." She commenced steaming the milk.

"Really? Wow, we're lucky."

Konrad returned and plopped himself on a bar stool. "What are we lucky for?"

"Apparently Surabaya is now closed because the wind shifted."

Konrad whistled softly but said nothing.

Nick accepted the iced latte from Cherry. It was a very grand drink; a tall glass of velvety steamed milk with cubed ice making it refreshingly cold, laced with espresso for a full flavour without superfluous sweetness.

"This is fantastic," he declared.

"It is, isn't it?"

"Yes, it—"

Further discussion about the beverage was cut off by the arrival of the food. Nick's own plate had a minute steak seared to perfection served with two thin stalks of wilted asparagus; Konrad's bowl had warm jasmine rice topped with a fluffy prawn omelette.

The food was demolished in five minutes.

Konrad's phone vibrated on the bar, signalling an inbound text message. Nick saw him pick up the phone and read the message; Konrad's eyes went wide and he sighed, "You're joking."

"What's up?" Nick felt a panic rise up within him.

Catching sight of Nick's expression, Konrad softened. "Oh, no no no. The flight's fine. It's just that Chrissy says the swimming pool is closed and that she's coming back up here in a bit."

"Chrissy?"

"My fiancee." He rubbed his face. "I totally forgot her flight was booked for tonight; she's on QF82 as well, if I recall correctly."

She was behind Konrad at the bar in less than five minutes; dressed in a casual checked shirt over a black tee and short, tight denim shorts Nick had to pull his eyes away from, she had chest-length black hair and a devious glint in her soft, dark eyes. "Hey Konrad!" she yelled in his ear.

The poor man nearly jumped out of his skin. "Oh my God, Chrissy, can you not?"

She sniggered as she straightened his jacket lapel. "Oh, you miss me. Anyway, what's for dinner? Oh God, you and your prawn omelettes." She rolled her eyes and turned to Nick. "I take it you're Nick, freshly arrived from the trip via hell and back?"

Nick shook her hand. "Yes, that would be me," he laughed. "Has Konrad told you all about it?"

"Live updates. Say no more."

"Good grief. D'you do that all the time, you two?"

"Oh yeah," muttered Konrad darkly. "I remember the time I got a text message from a certain Ms Li every time an announcement was made the time a typhoon hit Hong Kong the day she was booked to fly back."

"Did Konrad guest you or are you here on your own status?" she asked as she kneeled down to tie her sneaker laces. "He's always guesting people in everywhere."

"Start with the difficult questions, huh?" Nick allowed himself a small chuckle. "It's on my own Gold."

"Status is great, isn't it?"

"It really is," Nick agreed. "It's only my second year of any status; the Bali do was my first-ever."

"Welcome to the club," said Chrissy with genuine warmth. She turned to Konrad. "Right, you need a shower. Let's go. See you in a bit, Nick."

Nick waved and let them hit the showers; he would go in a little later, after hitting the buffet.

Like almost any other part of the travel experience, some lounges are more equal than others; indeed, the inequity can be staggering, particularly with catering.

Inequity notwithstanding the Qantas Singapore Lounge is an outstanding facility that outshines virtually all other business class lounges; indeed it even outshines some first class lounges in lesser ports.
Its excellence was exemplified by its buffet: it had hot trays of chicken and potatoes and vegetables and stews and soups; cold trays of fruits and salads and desserts; the self-serve drinks cabinet held soft drinks and mineral water and there was even a self-serve sparkling water dispenser.

Nick took some chicken and potatoes and demolished them in short order; the flavour of the chicken was spot-on.

He then hit the shower; in the spacious shower suite he let the hot water crash down upon him, soaking in the warm water vapour and delighting in the amenities—the shower gel had a hint of mint and the shampoo apparently contained seaweed.

He stood there in nothing but an enormous fluffy white towel, just thankful he was finally on his way home.

He emerged from the shower suite nearly an hour after entering feeling like a new human being entirely.

He sidled up to the bar and ordered a Singapore sling; he found them in a comfortable nook near the bar enjoying themselves. "Hello again!"

"Hello!" They invited him to sit down and rejoin them.

It was time to get down to business. "Besides the sling, what else is good here?"

"Ask the mixologists to surprise you," said Chrissy as she stirred her espresso martini, "just make sure they know you need to be able to walk to the gate."

After the first cocktail, the men loosened up and told Chrissy all about their journey from Denpasar to Surabaya, with a little embellishment for the sake of entertainment. It started with the airport closure and how that turned everything to custard; it had been a brutally long journey on vehicles far less pleasant than the one they were booked on that same evening; they were so relieved to be back in the air that the Jetstar sector into Singapore was almost luxury.

After the second cocktail, conversation moved to Nick asking about how Konrad had met Chrissy. He sipped and stirred his way through their story of how they met at a learning centre when she was still in school and he was still in university; Nick avoided asking any questions about what year she was in when they met.

After the third cocktail, they were discussing the finer points of award travel; on how points were almost always a better-value way to obtain seats than cash; what a shame that there'd been no award inventory for the Bali do; how awful it was to have to fly in Economy on a revenue ticket.

After the fourth cocktail, it was time for more food. Once again they were to be found cleaning out the buffet of anything that was edible: potato salad, leaf salad, chicken, roast potatoes, fruit, dessert yoghurt, etc. They consumed all this over a conversation about careers: Nick and Konrad on the ups and downs of the public service; Chrissy on the ups and downs of one-to-one tutoring on hourly rates in the Eastern Suburbs.

After the fifth cocktail, the clock struck seven-thirty; all devices were unplugged and camp was broken. Parting words were spoken to the lounge staff who had served them so well; the most heartfelt reserved for the barmen.

Security at the gate was a breeze; in minutes they were through and onto the aircraft courtesy of priority boarding.

"No bassinet infants tonight. Fantastic," said Konrad gleefully as he and Chrissy parked themselves in their assigned seats in the bulkhead row of Economy.

"Today you're flying on a Qantas Airbus A330. Before we take off…"

Nick once again felt that overwhelming sense of relief as the engines spooled up and the aircraft hurtled down the runway into the blackness of the night sky; it felt like home.


"Good evening, everyone; this is your Customer Service Manager David speaking," he spoke into the gate's public address. "As this is a completely full flight tonight, we ask that everybody board in reverse row order; that is, high row numbers will be boarded first. Thank you."

The flight wasn't just full; it was rammed. They'd been assigned the same A320 they'd abandoned when the airport had first been shut; with Denpasar now open again, fresh aircraft had been sent it to operate additional services, resulting in a bewilderingly larger contingent of Jetstar aircraft on the ground in Bali, one of which was their A320 that had been put on an extra flight to Sydney.

When all one hundred and eighty passengers—a load factor of one hundred percent—were on board, David slammed the last door shut and they got underway.

The nose lifted up as the aircraft rotated at exactly half past ten; finally, finally they were on their way home.

As they climbed into the darkness, he looked over at Sarah in the adjacent jump-seat. "I've never seen an A320 so full in my entire career."

"Me neither. I just hope they're too tired to do anything but sleep."

"They won't be able to sleep if the plane's this full."

"Whatever. They'll try. What d'you think we can do about it, feed them free beer from the galley?" She spotted the look in David's eye and said, "No, don't even think about doing it."

"This is going to be a riot job. I'm going to make some coffee as soon as we hit finish climbing out," he decided as he fought to suppress a yawn.


"Chicken or beef, sir?"

On the menu, the chicken was listed as Corn-fed Chicken in Rosemary and Thyme Sauce with Mashed Potato and Seasonal Greens; the beef was listed as Beef Stir-fried in Black Bean Sauce with Hokkien Noodles. "Could I get the chicken, please," was Nick's response to the question and so he received the chicken.

It was surprisingly good; juicy and tender and full of flavour. Economy food was never that great, but Nick increasingly found that it could be good; certainly good enough to eat. At least the plastic cutlery was usable.

He had his supper—it was marketed as supper despite being at dinnertime due to artificial 'meal windows'—with a lemonade; he'd had enough alcohol for the month, never mind the one night. It was a rather pleasant meal with his earphones in, listening to his preferred classical music.

He then brushed his teeth in the lavatory; it was a confined space but it did the job, although it was still a bit strange to him to spit into such a small sink.

He returned to his assigned seat to ignore the inflight entertainment; it was a terrible system, about a decade old.

He was reclined with eyeshade on less than ninety minutes from takeoff; two rows ahead, Konrad and Chrissy were already out cold.


The next thing Nick was aware of was being woken up by the rattle of a trolley somewhere next to his head. "Good morning, sir; would you like tea or coffee with breakfast?" the flight attendant asked the passenger in front of him.

Nick checked his watch: five o'clock Sydney time; three o'clock Singapore time.

The flight attendant came to his row next. "Would you like tea or coffee, sir?"

"Coffee, please," Nick pleaded; he needed it.

She obliged by pouring a coffee and handing it to him to go with his 'cafe breakfast': a cinnamon scroll, an orange juice and a strawberry yoghurt.

He finished it and went to brush his teeth again.

"Morning, Konrad; morning, Chrissy," he greeted them after making his way back. "Did you sleep at all?"

"Went out like a light," they said in unison.

"Same."

They avoided bloodshot glares from other passengers; it was blindingly apparent that they were a distinct minority, with most of the cabin looking quite shell-shocked from not sleeping on the red-eye.

The cabin was prepared for landing and before long the familiar, reassuring thud of the main wheels hitting the tarmac sounded and the aircraft screeched as it slowed down on Sydney's main north-south runway.

They were out the first door on the left immediately behind the Business passengers; they sped to the SmartGate arrivals immigration area, received the requisite beep and were through Customs in record time. The relative lack of sleep and the sheer adrenaline of early-morning arrivals—it was still barely past sunrise in Sydney—made the whole thing flash past in a blur.

It was only by sheer coincidence that they came out of Customs through Exit A at the same time as an oddly familiar Jetstar flight attendant.

"Oh, hey David! What a coincidence." Konrad was already next to him as they rolled out into the public arrival hall in Terminal One.

"Konrad! Oh, hi Nick," David said breathlessly, "it's good to see you both made it here in one piece. You weren't on my flight, were you?"

"No, we came back on QF82."

"Did you… did you go via Singapore?"

Konrad laughed. "Singapore via Surabaya."

David stopped dead in his tracks. "Wait, what?"

Nick indulged in laughter of his own. "We should step out of the way. Anyway, yeah we did—bus and boat and train to Surabaya and then a flight to Singapore."

The poor man couldn't handle it. "You're both insane," he said mildly.

"Tell me about it," said Chrissy sardonically as she idly examined her unpainted nails.

"Oh, please," snorted Konrad, "aren't you the one who spends her weekends staying up planning status runs?"

She stuck her tongue out at him.

"Are you heading to the City?" inquired David.

"We're actually going for breakfast at the Domestic Business Lounge in Terminal Three," said Konrad. "D'you wanna come with us? Between Chrissy and I, we can guest two people into the lounge; we only need to flash our cards to get in."

"I've got no program until tonight. I'll come along."

With that all four made the jump to warp-speed and hurtled towards the arrivals-level bus stop for the State Transit Bondi Junction 400 that would take them to the domestic side—so near yet so far—where they could have breakfast.

As all fourteen-point-five metres of the bus roared to life Nick leaned back in his seat, embracing the cold dry air of home; he was home at last.

The bliss was short-lived.

A random passenger on the bus with a spectacularly ugly duffel bag began screaming incoherently at David about being screwed by Jetstar in Bali.

"Mate, we did our best," he said tiredly.

The woman continued screaming and eventually they settled on ignoring her entirely; Nick noted that by the time the bus reached the domestic terminals, her voice was hoarse.

Terminal Three, the Qantas domestic terminal, is one to behold; with high ceilings and an airy open-plan design, the check-in hall is an impressive facility with an equally impressive departures board.

They walked past the replica Avro biplane and through security; out came the laptops and belts and smartphones and aerosols; and once again in mere minutes they were through and ascending the quiet escalators to the Domestic Business Lounge.

Konrad and Chrissy slipped ahead and whipped out their Platinum frequent flyer cards, gesturing wordlessly to Nick and David; the lounge dragon only glanced for a mere second at each card to check validity before nodding them all through. "Welcome to the lounge," she said.

It was a weekday; weekdays played host to the 'island dining' concept where a 'plate of the day' (which changed each day) was served to passengers from the kitchen.

"Would you like to try the frittata?" asked the lounge attendant by the island dining area.

"Yes, please," the four rang out in chorus; all of them were famished and ready to eat. It was time for a real meal with real coffee; they all knew it without needing to say it.

Finally armed with real, honest-to-God coffees in their hands, the moment presented itself: Konrad raised his flat white and declared, "I think we ought to have a toast, not merely a toasted sandwich. To a successful escape," he said; they brought all their coffees together.

"To a successful escape," Nick echoed with the others; and with that, he drank half his latte in the first gulp.

"It's good to be home, isn't it?" David leaned back in his seat and heaved a sigh of relief that Nick felt rather than heard.

Konrad nodded in agreement as he looked into the sun rising into view over the aircraft hangars visible through the lounge windows.

"Feels like home, too," said Chrissy dryly, eliciting some laughter from Konrad.

She's right, Nick mused as he sipped the remainder of his coffee and gazed into the morning light, it does feel like home.


A/N: A story that started out as an exercise at making light of the July 2015 ash cloud-induced shutdown of Bali ended up being this rather lengthy travel/adventure piece. I'd love to hear your feedback; please be brutally honest.