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A Traveller's Tale - part 1

16th September 2008

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To cut a long story short, I'm in Sydney for a girl I abandoned six months ago when my working holiday visa ran out.

At the time I just thought to hell with it all, I'm going home to London. Only I never moved on, regretting the decision to leave the moment I stepped off the plane at Heathrow. And so five months later, determined to put things right, I quit my job in England and flew out to Sydney win her back.

Of this she had no clue, no idea I was in town to surprise her. Only she beat me to it, spotting me on the ferry the morning I arrived. "What the hell are you doing back?" she blurted as she came bounding towards me like a wrecking ball. "I'm here for you," I pleaded before she flattened me with her handbag. She had every right to be pissed off, remember it was me who abandoned her six months earlier.

But that was then and this is now, a month or so later and the relationship's back on track. We're girlfriend and boyfriend again and the Wrecking Ball's even doing my laundry. The real problem now though is cash, or the lack of it. With tables for two and bills for the gentleman the bank balance is on its knees coughing blood. Get a job people tell me, and I would if my temporary tourist visa would allow it. Begging, borrowing, busking... I'd considered it all, until one day, flicking through a backpackers guide, my eyes are caught by an advert for medical research. "Healthy volunteers wanted," it reads. "We pay cash." I'm curious...

"It's eleven days trialling a new cholesterol drug," the doctor at the medical facility tells me over the phone. "You'd have to be in Melbourne next week," he continues.

"Melbourne, that's 500 miles away, I'm not sure if it's worth me coming," I respond. He leaves me to chew it over for a minute, pondering if it's worth the journey, until finally he adds, "You will be reimbursed $3,500 (£1,750) for your time." I stop chewing.

"Book me in. The sooner the better."

A week later I board the overnight train to Melbourne. It's cheaper than flying I reason and the less time spent in the sky the better. I'm not good with heights you see. And so, with eleven hours to kill I flick through the leaflets they've sent me on the trial.

'Risk of death, drug never tested on humans', reads the top line. My eyes widen, my bottom tenses, I reason it just a precaution, the same as you sign for falling out of aeroplanes and such like, but still, dead at 25 on a cold surgical slab in Melbourne is not how I want it to end, not when things are going so well with the Wrecking Ball. But to be honest death is the least of my problems right now. On a tourist visa I can only stay three months. To stay longer I need to find an Australian company to sponsor me. If I don't do that I'll have no choice but head back to England, the relationship in tatters and this journey of redemption a waste of everyone's time. Damn this eleven hour train ride. Damn you arseholes in immigration.

This worry keeps me awake all the way to Melbourne, where the next morning I board the tram without paying. Three dollars is better in my pocket than theirs I reason. I sit there all smug, cocky even, imagining the happy face of my bank manager when I wire him the $3,500. And then all that joy is blown to smithereens when a stout women dressed in civvies flips open her notebook and introduces herself as Transport Police. Fuck. "Sorry officer, I do not have a ticket..."

Her: "I just need to take down some details, what's your name and where do you live?"
Me: "My name's Nathan Millward and I don't really have an address."
Her: "You must live somewhere, what's your address?"
Me: "I'm sorry, I don't have one. I'm a traveller you see. On a tourist visa."
Her: "Okay, but where are you living in Melbourne?"
Me: "I don't live in Melbourne, I've come down on the train to test cholesterol tablets."
Her: "I see, so where do you live in Sydney?"
Me: Mostly at the girlfriend's, but also at the hostel. When she wants her peace and quiet you understand."
Her: "Sure, but what's her address?"
Me: "Balmain, Sydney, but I don't remember the street or number." (I genuinely couldn't)
Her: "I don't believe you. Unless you tell me the truth I'm calling the police."
Me: "Alright, I'll call her and find out."

The Wrecking Ball answers and I explain, jotting down the address and feeding it to the moody Officer. "I would like to speak to her to confirm the details myself," she barks. I pass her the phone and stand well back. Bad move lady. The girlfriend's a real firecracker. A straight shooting son of a gun who doesn't suffer fools lightly. It's what I love about her. And judging by the Officer's sudden silence I assume the girlfriend's given her a blast from both barrels.

"I'm sorry, she wasn't very cooperative," the Officer splutters as she comes off the phone embarrassed. Everyone on the tram is now watching. Silent, absorbed, sniggering slightly until the Officer regains her composure and swings her retaliatory blow; "If your girlfriend's not going to cooperate and you can't give us another address then we'll just let the police deal with you."

Shit. Thanks babe.

Desperately grovelling, I trawl through the whole sorry saga of abandoning the girl six months prior and now being back, homeless, to give it another go. In front of a packed tram of commuters I try desperately to chisel some warmth into the Officer's heart. Finally, after ten minutes she concedes.

"The letter's going to your girlfriend's; you can sort it out with her." And about the punishment, I plead with watery eyes. "I don't know, the magistrate will deal with you."

And with that I limp from the tram and flop down on a bench, a broken man. How could I have been such an idiot? I've come all this way, sacrificed a job in England on the gamble that the Wrecking Ball would take me back, she has, and now I've risked it all for a silly crime that could sour any application for a permanent visa. What a fool. What a plonker. At least there's the $3,500 to cheer me up I reason…

At the hospital I'm given forms to scribble signatures on and pots to wee in. The place isn't how I imagined it to be. I was expecting monkeys in spacesuits and hollowed out backpackers carrying their kidneys in jars. But no, the research facility's all white-walled and clinical, looking every inch like a regular hospital and operating, as I soon learn, with equal incompetence...

Dr: "Ohhh... wait a minute Mr Millward... you haven't given us a Melbourne address"
Me:"No, I don't have one. I've travelled down from Sydney for this."…
Dr: "Oh, well sorry you have to live in Melbourne to take part."
Me: "WHAT? I explained I was coming from Sydney to the doctor last week. He said it was fine."
Dr: "Sorry sir, but it's our policy... for safety reasons you understand."
Me: "Oh fuck off and die you bastards...."

Alright, I didn't really say that, but how I felt like it. Boy was I angry. Livid. RAGING.

But being English that mattered not one jot. "Oh it's not a problem, these things happen," I forced through gritted teeth.

They even wheeled out the doctor responsible for me to confront, to slug with angry words if I so wished. But no, that's not the English way; "Don't worry about it; it's not your fault... just one of those things," I whimpered like a wet paper bag. But damn right it was his fault, he knew it, I knew it. But there was no changing the outcome now. No point us both having a shit day.

And so with that I stumble from the hospital, volcanic and swearing. What a day. I've travelled all this way, spent all this money and upset the transport police for nothing. And don't even get me started on this stupid visa issue. Eleven hours on a train back to Sydney isn't what I need right now, I'm flying.

It's dark and wet when I touch down in Sydney that evening, the sky is as angry as my mood. Outside the airport I fall into the passenger seat of the Wrecking Ball's car and start spitting feathers at the day I've just had; the train, the tram, the toss-pots at the research clinic. Driving through the rain she humours me sweetly, successfully, until just one block from home she turns and levels me with the day's final blow...

"Hey I've had an idea about your visa; what if we got married?"

With that I faint.

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