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In the middle of a five-week run of pantomime during the run-up to Christmas, my plan is to do the following:

  • Fly to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on 22nd December on behalf of my university employer, to attend a 90-minute exam board meeting on the afternoon of 23rd.
  • Fly back to London on 23rd and be home for breakfast on Christmas Eve, do the washing up, and wrap Christmas presents.
  • Drive to Essex in time to play drums for two performances of Peter Pan in the afternoon and evening of 24th.
  • In the meantime, dep out my panto obligations on 22nd and 23rd to a colleague, and have her go on ‘stand-by’ for the following three days, in case my flight back from Malaysia is delayed.

My mum tells me this is mad and unworkable. I think it’s brilliant and flawless. I plan to do tons of work on the 12-hour outward plane journey, and while in KL I want to make use of the hotel’s excellent gym. I have a Skype call lined up for the evening from my departure gate, with a colleague in Canada for whom it will be 13 hours prior. At 11.59 pm the night before the trip, I receive news that a revised article of mine has been accepted by a major journal in my field. This excellent news sends me to bed happy, and excited to finish the cosmetic adjustments necessary to prepare the paper for publication. I bring my news to my sleeping wife, who diplomatically mutters something that means I should have waited ‘til morning to tell her.

I arise at 6.05 am, go out for a nice 4-mile run in the mild December morning, and am back in time to complete a few sets of push-ups and crunches before the baby wakes up. I get some breakfast, and pack quickly (with, I suspect but only later discover, an insufficient number of socks). My wife and daughter drop me at the tube station, and a train takes a Christmassy 15 minutes to arrive. On the tube I go to write down the address of my hotel, so I can show it to a cab driver in KL. In the same email as the hotel address is my flight itinerary. I feel my face and whole upper body flush with panic as it registers that my 12.25 flight departs not at that time, but at 10.50 (I had noted not the flight’s departure time, but its duration). If I remain on this train I will arrive at Heathrow airport shortly after the plane is due to take off. I stand up and wait with mounting anxiety as the driver announces we are being held at a red signal. Five minutes later, the train creaks into motion, pauses again, and eventually rolls at stoner speed into Arnos Grove station. I sprint up the road to find a taxi office, miss, and sprint back again, this time finding one. Wheezing, I order a cab, am advised it will arrive in one minute, and wait a long, desperate six minutes for it to come. It is 9.30, and the gate for my flight will be closing in an hour. The cab stinks of cigarette smoke, and the driver seems unusually slavish to the speed limits, especially considering the obvious desperation in my voice and manner. I tell him we need to stop to get cash, which irks him. I try to check in using my phone, but online check-in isn’t an option and none of the advertised phone numbers for the airline seems to work.

We stop for cash at a petrol station, and the ATM there refuses both of my cards. The driver, now deeply suspicious, pulls off our route so I can use another cash machine, that turns out not to be there. We continue to drive in the opposite direction from the airport terminal, and I spot a branch of Barclays Bank. We pull over, and I wait behind a short, white-haired man who is staring minutely at the screen, collecting receipts. Five minutes passes, and my first card is accepted this time without hesitation. I give the driver much more money than he asks for, and he redirects us once more towards Heathrow Terminal 4.

The taxi pulls up hard outside the terminal building, and I leg it inside. The Malaysian Airlines counters are free of queues, and the guy behind the desk tells me to relax. I have 34 minutes until take-off. I have only carry-on bags, so I run to the security queue and prepare – belt off, laptop out, pockets empty, liquids bagged – only to find three groups of people in front of me who apparently can’t read, or who think the instructions about jackets, pockets and electronic devices are only meant for others. I wait ten minutes behind these seven people, whose bags are also held up in the scanner because they’ve left water bottles and shampoo in there. It’s now 10.35, and my gate is closing. Head bent, I charge to the gate and the last eight people boarding the flight. Sweaty, wheezing again, and incredulous, I board the plane and head for the loo to freshen up. The flight is fantastic – I finish revisions to my article, draft a blog piece (not this one), watch The Dark Knight Rises, and sleep for 90 minutes. The Malaysian Airlines economy breakfast is sensational – delicious spicy prawn curry with rice and an omelette. The coffee is appalling.

Arriving at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, I am amazed to be here and not home instead in a massive deep sulk, pissed off and to blame for missing my flight and the exam board meeting, and trying to think up excuses to tell the university why they spent £3000 on not flying me to Malaysia and to explain to my wife why I’m paying someone to cover a show from which I could easily be earning some money. I try to withdraw cash, and am intrigued to note that my debit card doesn’t work. My credit card works fine, so I head for the train, to find the ticket machines don’t accept the cash I withdrew. The credit card triumphs again. My taxi from KL Sentral train station gets me to the Renaissance hotel just before 9.30. Checking in, my debit card again fails. (In an intriguing twist in the tale, I will learn the following evening that while I was mid-air over central Asia, someone in Asda in north London successfully defrauded me of £653.01 using a clone of my credit card.)

In my room I change into gym clothes and briefly imagine what the inviting king-size bed would be like to lie in. Having been boxed up for 12 hours on the plane I am gagging for a run. I first throw myself at the free weights – I’ve been excited for weeks about the dumbbells here. I then hit the treadmill hard, making a fast 5-K, and go back to the weights. Feeling pumped, tired, hungry and drunk, I head out to the pool – which is actually the main reason I agreed to this trip. The cooling water feels amazing. I slowly swim a length, and stand up at the far end and just take it all in – I am in Malaysia, alone in a big hotel pool, there’s a guy preparing drinks at the swim-up bar, it’s 31 degrees and sunny, and I feel good. I relax for maybe 60 seconds, and swim a few more lengths. By the lifts, there is incense burning in the corridor, advertising a special massage spa treatment, which I fleetingly consider as an entry on the University’s expenses claim form.

I iron shirt and trousers, sink two bottles of water from the minibar, shovel down a bar of chocolate, take a gorgeous hot shower, check for wallet, laptop and phone, and head to the lobby past the fake gingerbread house and epic five-star Christmas tree. Despite the taxi driver not believing that the college I am visiting actually exists, I help him find it, and we roll up four minutes early. After a brief friendly chat with a colleague, I am shown to a warm, stuffy work room, where I turn up the air con to “so cold it’s guaranteed to keep you awake” and help myself to a mocha-flavoured muffin-kinda-cake and a horrendous Necsafé three-in-one instant “coffee” with sugar and milk. I take in submitted work, make notes, and attend the exam board meeting (during which I drop off to sleep just seconds before having to make my pronouncements as External Examiner to the entire room and to those who hire me and are Skyping in from Birmingham). Too tired even to try to gauge how badly I mask my somnambulant state, I nonetheless overhear myself making superciliously sincere pronouncements about “quality” and “standards”.

After the meeting I read a handful emails, mark them as unread, and make small talk with a secretary before being whisked off to dinner in a steak house dating back to the 20s. Despite the weighty postcolonial guilt that this place inspires, the meal is lovely, and the coffee the best I have yet to drink anywhere east of Germany. I make it to the hotel and the train and pass out, waking up just in time to dive on to the platform at the airport before the train doors close. The Skype call with Canada happens, and I dash to a toy shop to buy the contents of my daughter’s Christmas stocking for tomorrow. On the plane I watch Man of Steel, enjoy a better-than-average curry, drink one can of Tiger beer and two glasses of wine, and fall into deep, seated slumber. I awake next to breakfast being served (4.30 am UK time), and after three more flying hours, one 90-minute tube ride, a 4-mile run, breakfast with the family, and an hour’s drive later, I am pulling up outside the theatre ready to help Peter Pan to defeat Captain Hook all over again…

2 Responses to “Day Trip to Malaysia”

  1. Liz said

    14 hour flight, 16 hours in Malaysia, 14 hour flight back again. What could go wrong…?

    Funny as ever. 🙂

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