Malcolm White
An Australian writer - October 2001.


In another time I was a pilot. My office was a small aeroplane that plied between Launceston and the Furneaux lslands to the northeast of Tasmania.

While others looked out on concrete and asphalt, my view was of frothy caps on blue waves, of green islands with high mountains and white clouds marching on their journey from west to east. The west wind was my partner and the east wind my enemy, as with it came tentacles of sea fog to hide my way.

The people who came to my office would not be at home in the city. They were folk apart, people who lived close to nature in splendid isolation. They were characters and they became my friends.

The memories of people and trips and weather patterns all meld together now as decades pass and I am no longer a commercial pilot. But one trip remains with me still, of a dash to pick up a little boy terribly sick with asthma. How quickly the beauty of a remote island home turns to anxious isolation when there is no doctor and a child is in distress.

His family lived at the west end of the island where the roaring winds of spring are reconciled in the sighing she-oaks. The airstrip sits in a clearing nearby, carved from the coastal bush on the flat land between the sea and the rocky hills to the east.

He sat on his tiny suitcase beside the airstrip, doubled over in fits of coughing and wheezing. He looked to the east frequently, watching the small plane as it battled the blusterous wind, rolling and yawing wildly as it made its final approach. He heard the engine noise go loud, then quiet, then loud again. Finally he saw the plane settle on to the ground. He wished his mum would stop fussing. He knew she had been worried that the plane would not be able to land on such a windy day.

As I taxied slowly towards the edge of the strip I saw the little fellow upon his suitcase, looking ill but somehow brave. Soon he was in the aircraft and out over the sea we flew. Over Cape Portland with sweeping waves and mountains of sand, then green Scottsdale and through the mountain gap into Launceston. The waiting ambulance took my small passenger to hospital.

My office is more conventional now; it is a corner office on a large and modern campus. It is filled with Blackwood furniture and is quiet except for the hiss of the air-conditioning and the distant ring of telephones. I receive at least 40 e-mails each day and often 10 hours go by without me leaving the building. The clouds still dance across the sky but I am only vaguely aware of them. My focus is necessarily elsewhere.

Recently, as I arrived at work, a young man was waiting in the main foyer looking lost, which he was. The start of the academic year can be confusing for new students as they search the labyrinthine buildings for their classes. In the pleasant early morning we walked across the campus in search of his class. I guessed he was in his early 20s and I asked him what he had been doing since he left school. He proudly showed me his strong hands and said he had worked as a farm labourer. He told me that he grew up in the Furneaux Islands and about his life there, and he told me about his family.

We found his class and said goodbye to each other. I walked back to my office reflecting on the circles in our lives. The sick little boy with his tiny suitcase sitting beside the airstrip 20 years ago had grown up strong and well.