Around the World in 80 Hours
Jules Verne's challenge to travel Around the World in 80 Days is no longer difficult. So, we decided to up the stakes. Intsead of 80 days, what about 80 hours? We ran a Flightfox contest to find the answer and wrote our own tale with none other than Philleas (Phil) Foxx.
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"Let's make a bet," said my grandpa, William Foxx.
This particular bet started as all our other bets had — in the den.
It was February 29, a leap year, and we'd just finished eating dinner with Gran. My grandfather, Pops, in his usual worn armchair, was just about to settle in to one of his books for the evening.
"What's that you're reading," I asked him.
"Jules Verne," he answered, lifting the book for me to see.
"Around the World in 80 days," I read. "Is that how long it would take you to travel the world when you were young?" I asked jokingly. Pops was a pilot by my age.
"I'm not that old, Phil," he said, "but in my day it wasn't nearly as simple to fly as it is today — planes didn't fly themselves like they do now. It was an honour to even be a passenger, men dressed in their Sunday best."
"Funny how quickly things change," I said. "I bet today you could make it around the world in 8 days, and you could do it all in sweats, surviving off of pre-packaged buns."
"Are we making bets now?" Pops asked with a raised eyebrow. "In that case, 8 days is too easy, Phil. I could fly around the world in 80 hours, I'm sure."
"I don't think you should be flying anywhere," I laughed, "but even then, with check-ins, customs, delays, layovers, there's no way you could do it in just 80 hours."
"What do you know of customs and layovers?" asked Pops defensively. "You've never even left London!"
"I don't usually argue with former pilots," I said, ignoring his jab, "but I know that you can't just hop on a plane and circle the globe."
"Phil, the only way to learn is to try," he said. And then I knew it was coming, grandpa's four favourite words, "Let's make a bet."
"I bet that you can make it around the world in 80 hours, stopping in all the cities in this book," he continued, wagging his tattered paperback in the air.
"And what will we bet? Ice cream cones? Tickets to football? I'm not a kid anymore Pops, there's nothing you could give me to fly around the world."
I've seen my grandfather serious only twice in my life, once while my grandmother was sick in the hospital and the other time was right then, in the den.
"I'm getting old, Phil. I've saved my money over the years and I think now is as good a time as any to give it to you."
"What are you talking about?"
"I've got quite a lot of money, and if you do this for me, if you can make it back to London in 80 hours, I'll give it to you."
I didn't know quite what to say.
"Well? What'll it be?" Pops continued loudly. "Keen to follow Jules Verne's route for £2 million?"
"What! Two million pounds? Where the hell... are you mad? Do Mum and Gran know about this? You can't bet it all on me!" I argued.
"There's more money for them, don't worry. When you get to be my age you find that you have too much money and not enough energy to use it. Seeing you finally fly would be worth it," he said. And with that it was decided.
"I guess I'll give it a go..." I agreed, still unsure what to expect.
Pops contacted someone he called his concierge; his goofy smile was all I saw for days. I heard mutterings now and again. "No, he'll find you," and "Tall ginger, can't miss him," and a rather alarming, "Of course he likes whiskey, he's a Foxx!"
I've never drank whiskey in my life. I felt more nervous than the time I was chosen to give a 20 minute presentation in Mr. Hall's sex-ed class.
Finally, after all his private planning, he called me into the den to tell me how the trip was to go.
"I've bought all of your tickets, you just have to pick them up at check in. Here's your flight itinerary. You leave this afternoon and you get back to London at 7:40 pm March 4th, after 79 hours of travel. It should take you about an hour to get back home, so let's meet here in the den at exactly 8:40, that'll be our 80 hour mark."
This was a real Flightfox contest. The winning expert was 'Scibuff' whose itinerary circled the world, stopping at Jules Verne's original 80 Days destinations in exactly 79 hours and all for a cost of only $2,039.
"Phil...", he grinned. "You can do this."
I glanced over the pages he handed me, filled with numbers, names, dates and times. It was all gibberish. I remembered a few places the characters travelled to in the novel — India with the elephants and America with the circus. My mind was racing but hovered on the sobering reality that there was no backing out now.
"What? What if I miss one of my flights, or..err, what if a flight is delayed, or there's traffic getting home. What happens after 80 hours?" I stumbled, mad at myself for showing Pops how nervous I really was.
“Don't get caught up with ‘what ifs,'” Pops exclaimed, "Be confident, trust in yourself and in others, and most of all, have a little fun!"
"Pops, that doesn't even attempt to answer my question, what if I really can't make it?"
"No more of this rubbish. Now you better rush off," he said. "By the way, I've called a few friends of mine, people I met while travelling, and I want you to meet them along the way. Don't worry," he said as he saw my frightened face, "they'll help you along. I've given you a few clues to help you find them."
Clues, friends, 80 hours of flying. I couldn't see how this would end well. I needed someone who knew about flying (or meeting people) to come along. Suddenly, I thought of just the person, "Can I bring a friend, Pops?"
"Alright, my boy. But there's no time to waste, your plane takes off in a few hours," he said.
After handing me the first clue and my flight information, I gave him a quick hug goodbye and said, "Thanks, Pops, see you in 80 hours."
But that was the last time I ever saw my grandfather.
I arrived at Heathrow airport a few hours later, with my friend Tomas in tow.
It didn't take long to convince Tomas to come along, it actually didn't take any convincing at all. Tomas was a self-proclaimed "elite" frequent flyer and I figured having him by my side would help with navigating airports and foreign countries a little better. And as he said, this trip will get him "heaps of qualifying miles, enough to attain Gold elite status." Whatever that meant.
We each had a knapsack and a passport. I had never actually used my passport, but Pops insisted I always have one handy, just in case. I look like an absolute twat in my photo, it was taken nearly four years ago, in the peak of my acne phase. With my freckles and red hair I looked like the gawky offspring of Carrot Top or Ronald Mcdonald.
Tomas' passport photo, on the other hand, looked like a professional head-shot, no airbrushing required. It was taken a few months earlier, and with his baby face and brown curly hair he looked like one of those young boy-band pop stars.
We walked up to the British Airways ticket counter and asked to check-in for our first destination, Cairo.
The man behind the counter took my passport and started typing.
"Hmm, it says here you're booked for Rome this afternoon, leaving at 12:40pm, not Cairo," he explained, turning the computer monitor so we could see.
"Alright, check-in for Rome it is," confirmed Tomas, before I had a chance to say anything. “We’ll take another ticket along with it for me," he said sliding his credit card across the counter.
"What are you doing, we're supposed to go to Cairo?"
"Relax, this is what your grandfather booked for us. Have some faith in your old man!"
"I hope you know what you're doing," I said.
"Haven’t the foggiest," he fired back.
نم ن ر | ٢ ١ ٣
“It says it will take a minute to translate,” said my friend Tomas, as we sat in Heathrow airport awaiting our flight. He held his phone up to the very first clue from my grandpa and waited for it to translate.
The search wheel on Tomas’ phone disappeared and '312 | RNM’ appeared in its place. The clue was originally written in Arabic according to the magic app Tomas downloaded.
"Is that a postal code or a password to something?" I asked.
"Let me check," replied Tomas. Even without his computer Tomas always found an answer to everything. After a few minutes of searching on his phone he found that it was a license plate, "A taxi plate in Cairo. The owner's name is Karim Hassan."
"You can find all that online?" I asked.
"Well, you're not supposed to," he answered, "but you can." Tomas switched his phone to airplane mode. "Time to board."
Tomas sat down in his airplane seat as if he were sitting on his own couch, it seemed second nature to him. For some reason he didn't seem to ask too many questions. But I had heaps of them.
"Alright, so we've got seven cities to visit before we get back to London — Cairo, Mumbai, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Tokyo, San Francisco and New York. Pops said there's a friend in each city, so that's seven friends, one of them has got to be this taxi guy, Karim something. He'll probably give us a clue to the next person and then I felt sick. My stomach was in knots, "wait...why are we even going to Rome!?"
"Relax. We're just following the path your grandfather designed," reassured Tomas. "Rome is on the way to Cairo, it's probably just a faster route."
The plane started moving forward, driving along the runway. "It's just like a bus," I thought, "a very large, flying bus."
I felt pressure on both sides of my head, hugging my ears like earmuffs, as the plane ascended into the sky.
"And so, the 80 hour race around the world begins," said Tomas with a smile.
"What are you doing? You're not supposed to use your phone up here!" I asked, jerking my head towards Tomas' phone, which he was busy typing on.
Tomas, in a technological trance didn't bother lifting his head, "Cool it, there's wifi. I'm telling some of my friends what we're up to."
"What do you mean, what we’re up to?"
"I posted your story on Hacker News, about the bet to fly around the world in 80 hours," he said.
"Hacker News?" I wondered aloud.
"It's a news forum for tech guys,” Tomas said with a smile.
And that's all he'd say for the rest of the flight. He was lost in his virtual discussion. I watched as he kept refreshing the webpage. The words 'Around the World in 80 Hours' posted by 'Scibuff', which I guessed was Tomas' username, continued to ascend the list of posts ordered by popularity. It sat next to the number one spot, and even though I didn't realize it at the time, thousands of people around the world were reading about our trip, deciding whether or not they thought it was possible.
I hadn't honestly decided myself.
When the aircraft touched down I finally loosened my grip on the armrest. The flight had no turbulence, no delays, and we were even ahead of schedule, but I still couldn't kick this anxious feeling. Would I miss a flight? Would I miss one of Pops' friends? I was playing the what if game Pops hated so much, so I took a deep breath and focused on what was next — getting to Egypt, our first stop.
As soon as we were off the plane Tomas and I sprinted towards the ticket desk to get our next ticket. I remembered from the itinerary that I was flying with EgyptAir.
“We have a ticket here for a Philip Foxx headed to Mumbai, India, is that correct?” asked the man behind the counter.
"Oh lord, why couldn’t Pops have booked tickets to the places we actually need to go," I said.
The EgyptAir flight to Mumbai stopped in Cairo. Tomas gave me a 101 lesson in reading a flight itinerary on the plane so I could learn the difference between a stop and a stopover. Mystery solved! I spent the flight going over our destinations so I had it clear in my mind.
I was beginning to gain a little confidence about the whole thing. I figured I was going to be one worldly man after all of this--what girl doesn't want to hear about exotic locales?
Suddenly, the plane hit a wave of turbulence on its descent. Each dip the plane took shook out whatever confidence I had gained. I was instantly back to being the skinny, nervous boy who had never even had a girlfriend.
"Phil, are you alright? You're turning green," noticed Tomas.
"Mmhm," I mumbled and had just enough time to reach for the barf bag in the seat flap in front of me before I was re-introduced to my in-flight complimentary pretzels.
We bounced onto solid ground and my stomach released its last twist and groan.
"Are you ready to find that clue?" Tomas asked. "Have you memorized that license plate number?"
"Of course." Truthfully, I'd forgotten all about the first clue.
Tomas offered to track down the cab driver's whereabouts. He instantly whipped out his phone and starting typing away — he looked like a mad scientist. For someone that knows everything, he sure didn't know Pops very well. I knew that he wouldn't make things too hard for me.
"I'm going to check outside the airport where the cabs park. I'll be back in a few." I had a strong feeling that if I was visible, my grandfather's friend and the next clue would come straight for me.
“Okay. I’ll stay by the plane and try to stall in case you don’t make it back on time,” Tomas suggested.
There wasn’t much time to debate, so I nodded and ran off looking for the taxi.
I was convinced it wouldn't be hard to locate the cab — until I stepped outside the airport.
I'd never seen such a scene in my whole life. It was a mosh pit of honking cabs. They were aggressive, they were writhing like bugs enclosed in a jar, and part of me was intrigued by them. I was steps away from the familiar airport, but I felt transported to another world. I could have stood there watching for hours. Everyone's way seemed to be the right of way, yet somehow, one by one, the cabs were able to escape the jam and make their way out of the taxi pick-up zone and on to the streets of Cairo.
I did the only thing I could think of to find the cab: I thrust myself from the safety of the curb and hit the strip running. I began weaving through the cars, squinting at the plates as I passed.
"312, 312, 312, where are you?"
Drivers honked even more — something that seemed impossible — and their yelling voices increased in intensity. Each time I peered down to read a license plate, I was met with disappointment. There was no other option, where could this taxi be?
I watched as some security guards started to notice me, ready to drag me away from the traffic I was angering. But there was no other way, the car had to be somewhere in this infestation.
That's when I was knocked over.
I couldn't quite tell what had happened. I felt as if a shopping cart filled with cement rolled into me. I fell onto my side, hitting the pavement hard. I was in shock more than anything.
As I tried to get up I noticed the familiar numbers, "312" accompanied by some script. The cab I was looking for just hit me! I knew Pop's friend would come straight for me, I just didn't think it would be quite so literal.
The security guards were rushing over now, weaving through the cabs, but I was quickly hoisted up by the driver who said something to them in Arabic and they slunk back to their posts.
"Are you hurt?" he asked. "I'm so sorry, the cab behind me hit my bumper and suddenly there was this crazed pale boy right in front of my cab — what a way to meet, right?!" he said with a chuckle.
I don't think I smiled successfully, but I tried. My fingers were trembling.
"You're all shaken up. Come sit down," he said, this time more sympathetically.
The taxi driver was about a foot shorter than me and his back curled forward in a permanent hunch. He fiddled with the nobs on his broken radio and brushed some dust off the dashboard compulsively before helping me into the cab to sit down.
"I'm your grandpa's friend, Karim, by the way." The Egyptian's wild eyes flashed to the dashboard clock — it was 10:45 pm. "Looks like you're running late for your next flight."
His laboured manner, and the fact that he nearly ran me over, made me feel unwelcome. I had about half an hour until the next plane took off, Tomas was likely already boarding, I needed to get out of there.
I assured Karim I was fine and he searched his cluttered backseat for my next clue. I doubted he'd find it amid the mess of Styrofoam cups and crinkled bags but after a few seconds of scrabbling about he handed me a slip of paper, saying, "Okay, now go catch your plane! Customs can be nasty at this place. Oh, and nice meeting you, Phil!" I heard as I closed the cab door. I jogged back inside the airport, trying to wrap my mind around what had just happened.
I was so out of shape that after only a minute of jogging I was out of breath, puffing out my last reserves of air. I raced around the corner nearing the departure gate and slammed straight into a security guard. Something hard jabbed into my side as I collided into the hulk of a man. Attached to the biggest man I’ve ever seen was the biggest gun I’ve ever seen.
With a tilt of his head, he scanned me from top to bottom. No questions asked, the man grabbed my arm, squeezing it like a blood pressure cuff, and led me off in the opposite direction.
I sat in an empty cold room with several other sad looking travellers. The security guard asked to see my passport and told me I couldn’t leave the room without paying. Those anti-bullying ads from primary school reminded me to always give in; losing your lunch money is always better than gaining a black eye and post-traumatic stress disorder. I felt this man could kill me with a sneeze. I reached into my pocket and fished out whatever cash I had.
“What is this?” asked the guard, left eyebrow raised.
"20 quid, you said I had to pay,” I answered.
“I want dollars. US dollars.”
“But I'm from the UK, I don’t have any. I've never even touched a dollar bill."
“Then you must stay here," the guard grunted, and he left the room.
I was relieved to have the beast out of my sight, until I glanced down at the time on my phone. I only had twelve minutes before the plane would take off! Shit!
For three long minutes I waited, standing in one spot, looking at the other travellers for some indication of how long I'd be there. Their grim faces painted an eternity. I decided I had to kick down the door and run.
Almost as soon as I had visions of bursting through the door and running to freedom, the door flew open and another security officer walked in. The new guard, of reasonable size, asked for my name and passport and briefly looked at my papers. He let me go without any explanation. Phew.
I had no clue what just happened but I wasn't going to stick around to find out. The plane was taking off in five minutes!
As I ran towards the gate, I was forced to stop short. There was a long line of people waiting to scan their bags before passing through to the gates and I was at the end of it.
The line inched forward. As the moments past, I could feel the defeat setting in. It was 11:02, three minutes before the flight was set to take off.
What if I've blown this whole thing already? I thought as I fidgeted in the queue. But then I thought of Pops' words, “Don't get caught up with ‘what ifs'. Be confident..."
"Excuse me," I called out, pushing through the line, "My flight is leaving right now." To the dismay of every other person in line, but to my surprise, I was allowed to pass through the scanner ahead of the line. "Thank you, thank you, thank you," I shouted as I sprinted towards my gate.
When I got there it was empty except for a woman who had clearly long since finished scanning the tickets.
"I need to get on this flight!" I told her frantically, interrupting her application of lipgloss "Here's my ticket, please don't tell me I'm too late."
"Phil!", I heard Tomas call my name.
While I was getting mowed down by my Grandfather's weirdo friend Karim, Tomas was making sure the flight didn't take off without me.
“Let me off, let me off!!” screamed Tomas earlier from onboard, stumbling through the aisle towards the exit.
A plump flight attendant with the name tag ‘Marge’ was blocking him up ahead.
“I need to get off this plane right now,” he continued. His voice at just the right pitch to start worrying the other passengers.
With a cool, professional air, she escorted him to the closest galley and asked him what was wrong.
“I... I’m claustrophobic, I need some air,” he lied. It was the only thing he could think of to stall the plane without putting him on the no-fly list. In that moment I bet he was thankful for those two weeks he spent at theatre camp when he was eight.
Tomas was ushered out of the plane and into the jet bridge by Marge, whose reassuring demeanour never wavered.
"What happens to someone when they're claustrophobic?" he thought. He clutched his stomach, then his throat, then his head. He had no idea what he was doing, or more importantly, where the hell I was.
That's when he heard my desperate plea, “I need to get on this flight. Here's my ticket, please don't tell me I'm too late."
"Phil!" he shouted.
I could hear him running back up the jet bridge.
I'd never been so happy to see that baby face.
"That's my mate who I'm travelling with," I said to the lady unwilling to scan my ticket, "Can you please let me on?"
At this point, Marge caught up with Tomas and put her hand on his shoulder and said to the woman, “this one's with me.”
“And this one’s with me,” Tomas said, reaching up for my shoulder.
“Alright then, chip chop." the lady rolled her eyes, defeated.
On the walk to seats 12A and 12B, Tomas whispered, "Did you meet him?"
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t,” I answered. And we took our seats, ready for another leg of our journey.
We sat on the tarmac for half an hour before taking-off. The crew made an announcement saying that we'd missed our allotted take-off time and we had to wait for the planes that had queued up.
Tomas tried to keep my mind off the lost time by saying, “Let’s see the clue."
ग्रेट इंडियन पेनिनसुला रेलवे
"They're a bit predictable at this rate," he said, pulling out his phone to translate the symbols.
"Great Britain Peninsula Railway," read Phil once the image was scanned and translated.
Tomas did a quick search on his phone. "Apparently it was the first railway that directly connected Mumbai to Calcutta. It's been replaced with the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, but there's some plaque on the wall memorializing the old station."
"That makes sense, I was wondering why we had 9 hours in Mumbai. We've got to go to the train station to collect the next clue. Maybe there will be someone waiting for us by the sign," I said.
I can't remember which one of us ended the conversation or who fell asleep first, but the next thing I knew I was woken up with a sharp blow to my elbow. Breakfast was being served and I had an aisle seat.
The shock of waking up was one of the most disorienting feelings I'd ever felt in my life to that point. It felt as if my whole life lagged behind me and it took a minute for the reality of our situation to catch up.
We're on a plane, headed to India, racing around the world for £2 million. I reminded myself, but my excitement was tempered by grogginess, sweat and aches from Karim's bumper.
Once out of the airport we looked around for the taxi queue.
“You need a cab?” asked a man sipping some hot tea.
“We need to get to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus,” I said.
“This is Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus,” he said, not understanding.
“No the train station,” I responded, oblivious to the fact that the airport and the train station shared identical names.
“Okay, sure.” He guided us to a white striped car and we slid in the back. I quickly noticed that all cabs — no matter where in the world — smell exactly the same.
Tomas rolled his head to the side and fell asleep almost instantly. I looked out the window and for the first time felt a surge of energy. Everything about the city was different from London. The colours were brighter, the faces friendlier, the air thick with a warmth completely foreign to me. I forgot I was in a race and simply sat and enjoyed the view.
I watched as the streets narrowed and crowds of cars thinned. Suddenly, we pulled over in front of a shabby souvenir shop and the driver got out.
He opened my door, "You shop."
"No, sorry we don't want any souvenirs, we need to get to the terminus," I said. "Tomas wake up, help me."
Tomas was actually smiling. "This is normal, they do it to get some sort of commission from the shop owners. We just have to browse around and then we can leave. It'll only take five minutes."
Reluctantly we walked through the shop. There was a musty smell and I doubted the shop owner had bought anything new for his storefront in the past five years.
There were tiny ants crawling over the hanging shirts, bins of fusty scarves and figurines caked with dust. I couldn't see a thing I wanted to buy.
After a few long minutes we walked out. "Okay, we have to get to the train station now," I said to the driver. He got back into his cab without saying a thing. He looked upset.
"Maybe we should have bought a keychain," Tomas whispered.
I had a nasty feeling. The cab driver was turning down so many small streets and making too many U-turns. I didn't know where we were headed but I thought maybe Tomas was right.
We got into a heavy bit of traffic and our cab stopped dead for a solid twelve minutes. There must have been an accident ahead because people were walking out of their cabs and through the streets.
"Terminus just ahead. You get out here. This street. There," he said pointing forward.
We both got out of the cab, paid our fare, and walked down the street in the direction he motioned. At first we were relieved he let us walk, but as soon as we realized that nothing resembling a train station was in sight, we started to worry.
"Excuse me, where is the train terminus?" Tomas asked a local nearby.
After a few head shakes and shoulder shrugs, and even a woman who wanted to take photos of us with her daughter, we finally got a response. "Oh very far. That way," she said, pointing in the direction we came.
Just for good measure, we asked someone else. "You must take taxi, half hour."
I was beyond irritated. We hailed another cab and got into the back seat. We sat in silence as it putted towards the terminus, jammed in perpetual gridlock.
"Uh, I think we're headed back to the airport, mate," said Tomas after we'd been sitting in the back of the cab for what seemed like ages.
Of course, he was right. I started to recognize some of the buildings and streets outside from when we left the airport, and I was stabbed with panic.
"We're going to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus train station right?" I asked.
"No train. Airport, yes," said the driver.
"No, not the airport, we want to go to the train station!" I yelled furiously.
"Okay, okay." In an abrupt swoop he looped around into traffic so we were headed back the way we came.
"Jesus!" I said, after having a mild heart attack.
"Take three," Tomas said calmly.
I couldn't tell you how long it took to get back to the exact same spot where we sat in traffic the first time, even with our insane taxi driver. He weaved through bikes, cars and scooters without ever shifting his head. His rear view mirrors were folded into the car and he didn't seem to make any full stops. It was a nauseating ride to the train station, and as soon as we could see the massive building ahead of us we made our way on foot.
The moment we stepped inside the building I was met with little relief from the chaos. It looked as though there were more people in that station than the entire population of London. Finding the small monument felt impossible. I didn't quite know where to begin.
After our experience with the cab drivers we didn't really trust anyone's advice when it came to directions, so we went looking for the monument on our own, picking a direction at random.
After running around the station for what seemed like a lifetime, we finally gave up being independent and asked everyone we could where it was, but no one knew what we were talking about.
There was a lot of swearing, a lot of circling, but finally we found the plaque.
It was just a sign on the wall. Tomas tapped it, half expecting it to spring back like something in an Indiana Jones film, but nothing happened.
"Maybe we should ask her," I said, gesturing towards a lady at the makeshift information desk behind us.
And so we waited in the queue.
I noticed the woman behind the counter looked cold and stern, with thin lips and coarse black hair slicked tightly back in a knot. Each customer who walked away from her desk looked more unhappy than the last. She was a brick wall of unresponsiveness, unwilling to offer returns or refunds and pointing to other lines and service representatives for information she refused to share. This is pointless, I thought.
Then it was my turn. Almost immediately it was as if a mask was lifted from her face.
"Phil," the woman behind the counter said, the gentle tone she spoke with seemed like a ventriloquist trick. "Glad to see you. I'm Parvati."
"I'm guessing you know my grandpa, but how did you know who I am?" I asked, realizing it was the same for Karim back in Egypt.
"You're pretty easy to spot," she said. And with my height and ginger hair she was right, I was attracting quite a few stares.
She handed me an envelope. "Sorry I can't chat, there's a queue," she said, nodding to the people waiting behind me. "But good luck."
I squeezed away from the information counter and ripped open the envelope. Inside was a boarding pass to Calcutta. It was set to depart at 5:05pm.
"One step closer, mate," said Tomas, "Only 60 hours to go!"
"Sirs, Sirs, please," called out a man at the train station as we were set to leave. "Need you for Bollywood movie. Handsome boys like you, very good. We pay!" He grabbed my arm and started pulling me in the other direction. I had a flashback to the guard in Egypt and shuddered.
"No thank you," I said, instinctively. Tomas on the other had started asking him questions.
"What kind of film?" he asked first.
"Big movie, very very popular. Meet big Bollywood stars," the man said.
"We don't have much time, can we do it quickly?" he asked.
"Yes very fast, very close. One hour, very fast. We pay 500 rupees."
"Why not?" Tomas said, grinning at me for an answer.
"Why not? Are you serious?" I said, "We don't know this guy, what if he steals our money and drives us in the wrong direction?" I ask, bewildered by Tomas' excitement.
Tomas was having none of it, "We've seen some shady characters so far, but they're not all bad. Just have some fun, it'll be a good story for when we get back. And we have heaps of time."
I knew I wouldn't win this one, so we followed the man out of the station and into yet another taxi.
I had a few stabs of fear when the cab ride lasted longer than half an hour, but my nerves calmed down when I recognized some of the same buildings near the airport. From what I gathered we were only ten minutes away from our plane if we needed a quick getaway.
As soon as we walked into the airport Hyatt Hotel, where the movie was being filmed, we received VIP passes and were both ushered into a room with a buffet table. I didn't realize until that moment how hungry I was for non-packaged food.
We stuffed our faces with crispy samosas and hot curries, abugobi and dahl, alongside other dishes I couldn't pronounce. Everything was delicious, I almost got full from just their scent. It was a full twenty minutes before we started wondering why no one had come back to get us. I was deliberating whether to grab one more samosa and tell Tomas we're heading to the airport when our new "manager", the man from the station, swiftly led us into the dressing rooms.
There were racks of clothing set up in outlandishly bright colours and women ready to do our hair and make-up. Tomas and I were pulled in opposite directions, he to clothes, I to makeup.
I sat down in a chair with my back to the mirror.
The woman grabbed a piece of what looked like dental floss and came towards my face. Before I could ask what she was doing there was a sharp pain between my eyes, as if I'd been jabbed in the nose. I immediately started tearing up.
"Bloody hell! What is that?" I screamed.
"Eyebrows," she said, looking sad and shocked.
"No eyebrows," I said. I never thought I'd have to say that in my life. Tomas was laughing at me, but he didn't look too much better.
He had stepped into some bright orange pants and was slipping a long dress-like gown over his head.
She worked on my face and then whipped me around to show me the finished product. She'd darkened my eyebrows, somehow lightened my already translucent skin, added eyeliner and glued a gem to my forehead.
"Ravishing," I said sarcastically, but she had no clue what I meant.
We were bustled around for another while, then we watched as another group of young tourists came in and got all dolled up for the scene.
"So what do we have to do?" I asked Tomas, "We don't even know what type of movie this is, what if it's an adult film?"
"Come on, this is India. Haven't you ever seen a Bollywood movie?"
We found out from the others that they had come here by choice, it was a type of package tour for tourists. And after chatting with everyone in the room, which was a grand total of five, I was getting antsy.
"We better leave," I told Tomas, "We don't have time to film, it's already been ages." But as things always do, that was just the moment we were escorted onto the set.
In the scene we were supposed to be at a wedding and we were divided into groups to learn some of the choreography. We had to step right, jump left with lotus hands, clap — something like that. I looked like an idiot, but Tomas was picking it up like a champ. They even gave him a line in the movie and put him in the front row of the dance number.
I could tell this was some sort of secret wish Tomas had, but I didn't want to tease him about it while he looked so ridiculous in his outfit, I figured I'd wait until we were on the plane.
The plane! What time is it?! I thought. There weren't any clocks around and I wasn't allowed my phone on set.
I walked over to the bin where the phones were held and checked the time, 4:35pm.
Tomas was on screen, saying his line, when I ran over and grabbed him.
"We need to leave now!"
He didn't need an explanation.
With everyone calling after us, we stripped our clothes off, quickly dressed in our own, and ran out of the hotel.
"Airport, Please," we both said when we sat inside the cab. "Hurry."
We had 14 minutes to get on our plane.
I ran to the airport monitor straight away to see if our flight took off already.
There, the word "delayed" gleamed angelically next to our flight number. It was delayed by half an hour.
It was a bloody miracle.
Something came alive inside of me, a newfound confidence, a confidence that Pop's would be proud of. I grabbed Tomas and pulled him towards the IndiGo Airline check-in area.
We got to our gate when they were calling the final boarding and walked straight onto the plane. I was ecstatic that we had made it aboard, but somehow knew we would all along. As mad as I was at myself for losing track of time, I couldn't help but feel the rush of getting to the plane just in time. It almost seemed as if the plane was waiting just for us the whole time.
Not long after the seatbelt sign flickered off, one of the airline stewardesses approached me and said, "The pilot would like to speak with you in the galley. Please follow me."
As soon as I saw the pilot, who looked as if he should have retired years ago, I was met with an enthusiastic roar.
"Phileas Foxx," he announced in a raspy voice fit for radio, "I was starting to think you'd never make it on the plane. I had to take an extra few minutes smoking my pipe to delay the flight."
"You held up the plane?" I asked.
"Of course, I'm betting on you! Quite the chunk of change too," the old man said candidly. "Not everyone can stall a plane for you, you know. You should try and be more punctual." The man laughed, which quickly turned into a hollow cough.
He introduced himself as Jasper and we chatted for quite a while about how he knew Pops. Apparently my Pops had been making bets long before I was born.
"We nearly lost it all back in '72, don't tell Gloria!" the man said.
Gloria? It was odd to hear Gran's name like that, it made her seem less like grandma.
Apparently he and Pops worked together at British Airways.
"But what are you doing flying this little plane all the way in India?" I asked.
"British Airways is for young pilots, no one wants an old man flying a plane. Well, no one except IndiGo, bless 'em," he said looking up to the roof of the plane.
"Why are you still flying? Pops retired years ago," I asked, I wasn't sure where my curiosity was coming from.
"Flying isn't just a job, boy, it's your life. If it weren't for flying, I, I..." he trailed off into silence. He sounded exactly like Pops when he talked about flying.
"But wait, if you're here talking to me, who's flying the plane?" I asked, realizing how long we'd been speaking.
"Ah yes, my co-pilot will be wondering where I am, I better head off. It was a pleasure to meet you, son. You seem like a good kid. Oh, and remember, my money is on you for the win." he said with a wink, handing over the next clue.
I accepted the envelope but wasn't able to say so much as a thank you before I was ushered back to my seat by one of the flight attendants. The seatbelt sign had turned back on.
I opened the envelope to find a photograph of Pops when he was just starting out as a pilot. It looked as if he was in an Asian airport somewhere, with his arm wrapped around the shoulder of a young man with an airline name tag that read 'Yu Lin.'
I flipped the photo over and on the back there were two small Chinese symbols.
I felt my ears pop and I knew we were descending.
Once the plane landed Tomas and I took seats in the main terminal and Tomas switched on his phone to translate the clue.
"Well that's pretty vague now isn't it?" he said when he saw the translation.
But I wasn't paying attention. I switched on my phone and saw that I had twenty three messages and ten voicemails. Something was wrong.
It only takes an instant for panic to smother all the senses, and in that moment I was gone. I was reminded of my old nightmares, when I first moved in with Gran and Pops when my Gran got sick. I would go to sleep every night afraid she'd leave us. The fear gripped my torso, squeezing me like a tube of toothpaste until tears came spilling out of my eyes. "She can't go," I'd mutter in my sleep, and I'd wake up counting the seconds until my heart caught up with my mind and learned it was all just a dream.
A phone call from my mum came almost instantly.
"What's wrong, what's happened?" I asked, fearing the worst.
Her voice was shattered, I knew she was trying hard to hold back the tears.
"Where in the world are you? We've been trying to reach you for hours?"
"Don't worry mum, everything is fine."
"No sweetie," she said through her tears, "It's Not. It's Pops. He had a heart attack."
I sat speechless, feeling my own heart had stopped.
"What? Why? How? What happened? Is he ok?"
"He's gone, love..." She kept talking but those are the only words I heard.
The clock stopped. The countdown ended. I lost control of my arms, legs and fingers and just let the tidal wave of feeling take me over.
I wanted mum and Gran to be with me so I could hold them and say it was going to be okay. I wanted to tell someone it was all right, but I couldn't say it in my own mind. It wasn't okay. It bloody well wasn't all right that Pops was gone. He couldn't have done this to me, not now.
Tomas was talking, looking at me for answers, but I was having trouble getting air into my lungs. I could only take in really short breaths. The room was spinning and my vision was hazy. I think I was having a panic attack. I don't remember ever feeling that way in my whole life.
I shouldn't have left him. I shouldn't have taken the stupid bet in the first place. I felt all my sadness, pain, shame and guilt all mixed up into one. Swallowing was a shot that burned on the way down.
"I need to go home," I managed to say. "The stupid race is over."
Tomas grabbed my phone. I'd forgotten about my mum while I was having a mental collapse. He spoke with her for a minute about what happened and explained where we were and what we were doing.
In that moment there was nothing around me that I could cling onto. Seconds and words and the people around me slipped by and I couldn't grasp any of them tightly enough to follow them forward in time. I was stuck in the past. Stuck listening to words in my mind I'd heard before. Mum's "He's gone" Pop's "Let's make a bet." I couldn't stop hearing them in my head.
"Sorry, I'm so sorry." I wasn't sure if it was my own thoughts or not. It turned out to be Tomas repeating the words.
"We'll have to go home," I said.
"Absolutely, whatever you want, sit down, I'll get you a glass of water." Tomas walked over to the water fountain and filled-up his crinkled bottle.
He gave me a while to catch my breath, but then he said, "I know you want to be back home with your family right now, but I think we should keep going."
Seeing my eyes widen, he continued, "Hear me out. Your Pops wanted you to travel more than anything, it was the most important thing for him. He was probably happy he lived to see you fly to another country, despite everything. If you leave now, every time you look back on this trip you'll feel that same feeling you do now, you'll hate yourself for ever leaving because it was all for nothing. If you keep going, and we make it back in 80 hours, every time you think back on this trip you'll feel a sense of pride knowing that you fulfilled his last wish."
I imagined myself at home and Tomas was right, I wouldn't feel any better. If finishing this 80-hour bet would help me get rid of some of this guilt it was the only option that made sense. I would do it for Pops, or the memory of him. I couldn't let him down.
By the time we checked in and passed through security it was already time to board.
I wasn't just tired from the day in India I was tired from feeling so much. I needed to leave my mind and pain behind, so I took a sleep aid Tomas had with him and fell into an induced nap.
One of the strongest and most vivid memories I have of the whole trip was my dream on that plane. It was not so much what I saw or what was said in the dream, but it was the feeling I had when I woke up. I felt hope.
In my dream I was back at home in the den. Pops was there sitting in his chair, looking exactly as I remembered him, but I knew he was dead. Not because he looked lifeless but because something inside of me had already accepted his passing.
I watched him read his book and he noticed me come in. "Back so soon," he said, disappointed.
"I couldn't —" I started, but I wasn't able to finish the sentence. Pops returned his eyes to the pages of his book and we just sat together in the den without speaking. I kept thinking how alive and well he looked for someone who just died.
In my dream it made sense to accept his death. It seemed so illogical, I wondered, in my oddly lucid dream, why people get so upset about death in the first place.
When I woke up, for one lagging second I felt the same could apply in real life. I thought for the briefest moment, It's okay that he's gone, because I can still see him and speak with him as I always have. And then I realized, that's not how things work. He's gone — his cheery face, his toothy smile, his crackling voice, his adventurous life, it's all extinguished. And that's when I really lost it.
"He's gone, it's all my fault," I whimpered, trying to keep quiet, but it hurt a little less to cry loudly, so I did.
Everyone around me stared at me with disgust. Crying babies were acceptable but for some Godforsaken reason, I was not. Tomas helped me to the washroom, then the galley, but after fifteen minutes I was told by a flight attendant that I was upsetting the passengers.
"We're very sorry for your loss Mr. Foxx, but the passengers are disturbed. If you can't contain yourself until we land we'll have to take emergency measures."
I couldn't pull it together, I didn't even have the heart to try. "He's gone. It's over."
After several more attempts to pacify me, nothing worked. Tomas was politely told that the plane would be making an emergency stop in Guilin where we would be asked to disembark.
And that only made me feel worse.
It was 5:30 in the morning in Guilin when we were "kindly escorted" from the plane. I felt like such an imbecile.
Everything was closed. The airport was completely deserted and we had no way to get to Hong Kong. What had I done?
We sat in silence until the kiosks opened around 6am. I was grateful for the quiet. Tomas never even mentioned us getting kicked off the flight, nor me blowing this whole thing. That in itself, made me feel a little better.
The next available flight to Hong Kong left at 6:00 that evening. But we had to get to Hong Kong before 3:30pm to catch our next flight to Tokyo, so we needed to find another way.
"There has to be something earlier," reasoned Tomas.
"There's a fight at 7:45 this morning and another at 11:30, but they're completely booked. I can put you on standby, but there's no guarantee," explained the clerk.
"Yes, please do that," I said handing over my credit card. But after a moment the man behind the counter handed it back to me and said, "I'm sorry, sir, but it's been declined." I did some quick calculations and although I'd spent some money, I was nowhere near my limit.
"Did you tell your bank you were leaving?" Tomas asked me.
"No, should I have? It was sort of a spur of the moment thing, if you don't recall."
"Yeah, but you've probably set off a fraud alert because they know you never travel anywhere," Tomas smirked, "I'm sure it's hard to believe we paid for one thing in India and another in China all within the same day."
"But it's no big deal," continued Tomas, "We'll just use my card." And he handed over his flashy Platinum Visa.
There wasn't much we could do but wait. So we sat down at the sterile airport restaurant and had a warm-ish meal.
"Almost at the half way mark," I said. And Tomas just smiled. "Do they usually kick people off planes for crying?" I asked quietly.
"Not usually, otherwise babies would be banned, but I've heard of it happening once before."
Great. I wondered if Pops would have been disappointed or if he'd laugh. I think he would have laughed. I'm sure he was excited to hear all the stories of my trip. I felt a tug in my throat.
7:45 am came and went. We didn't make the first flight. At 11 the next plane began boarding, and at 11:17, just when I'd given up hope, we heard the sweet sound of our names on the intercom. We boarded the plane within minutes and took our seats.
I was finally feeling hopeful. The worst is over, I thought. But boy was I wrong.
We arrived in Hong Kong at 1pm. Just as we disembarked the plane I realized — the clue!
"What was the clue, what did it say?" I asked.
"It just said Hong Kong." revealed Tomas.
"What's the point of that?" I asked. "What a waste of a clue, what a waste of my time." With a sudden surge of anger I kicked the nearest bench.
"Phil don’t do this to yourself. That photo of your Grandpa with the other pilot must be part of the clue too. There's someone named Yu Lin waiting here for you, I know it. We just have to find him. You just have to relax and trust, like your grandfather wanted you to."
"I've been hit by a car, kicked off a plane and my grandfather just died! How am I meant to relax? This was such a mistake."
"Do you want to turn back?" He asked, defeated. The pity in his voice was new to me, I've never known him to ever give up.
"No. Let's get our next ticket, we're halfway there." I was determined to finish this, even if it cost me everything.
At the ticket counter for Japan Airways there was a ticket waiting for me, to San Francisco, California with a stopover in Japan.
"Oh, sorry. No more ticket," said the woman behind the ticket booth to Tomas. He had tried to get himself a ticket for the same flight, but apparently it was full.
"You'll have to go on your own, mate," Tomas said, looking at me with concern.
"There are no other flights?" I asked the woman, who looked blankly back at me.
"NO OTHER FLIGHTS?" I slowly repeated to her, trying to mask my annoyance.
At that moment a man walked up and said something to her in Mandarin. Judging by her reaction, he was her superior. The man looked much older, but it was not because of wrinkled skin or greying black hair, it was because of his wise eyes that looked right into me. It took me a moment to realize this was another one of Pop's friends.
"Phil," he said in perfect, unbroken English. "I understand you're upset and I don't blame you. I'm Yu Lin, and I want to help. Your grandfather was a brilliant man and a dear friend of mine."
"You're the one from the photo" I said, cooling my temper. I took out the photo and showed the man.
"Wow, this was nearly thirty years ago," he said, nostalgic. "It's nice to see us back in our prime."
"I wasn't sure I'd see you here after what... happened. I'm so sorry." Yu Lin said, putting the photo back down on the counter for me to take. He waited a beat and then said, "But I think your grandfather would be very proud. He wanted to see you fly more than anything."
He checked the system and punched a few keys, "I'm upgrading you to first class, which will open up a seat in coach for your friend. Here are your boarding passes."
"Thanks," I said, feeling guilt over my rudeness just a moment ago. "I really appreciate it."
We were about to leave when he said, "Don't you need your next clue?" He disappeared for a few minutes and returned with two passes to a VIP lounge in San Francisco.
"This is our clue? It seems more like a gift," said Tomas.
"Well it's both, I think you'll enjoy it," he said, "you've earned it."
I felt better knowing that I had support from this man whom Pops called a friend. It was a sign, letting me know continuing on was the right choice.
We boarded the plane and as I took my seat in first class Tomas continued to the back until he disappeared behind the curtain.
Before we'd even taken off I was given a warm towel for my face and a drink. For the first time since the whole trip began I started to agree with the way Pops always described flying. It was luxurious, thrilling and I had to admit, enjoyable.
The minutes ticked by and the plane sat still. Ten, fifteen, twenty. I was enjoying the peace and quiet at first, but I was getting a little unnerved. Then the pilot announced that there was a problem with the engine and we'd all have to disembark and get onto another plane. Why can't I catch a break!
After slowly filling up the next plane, I took my seat near the front again. Some of the novelty of first class had worn off and before we'd even taken off I was anxious to arrive in Tokyo.
After the delay I was hyper-aware of how much time there was left. I had less than 33 hours to get home...if we had this much trouble so far, what would happen next?
"How was first?" asked Tomas once we met up after the flight.
"As good as flying can get unless you're in the cockpit" I said. "It'll be hard to go back to coach."
"Well I'm glad to see you're feeling better. I won't lie, I'm pretty exhausted from all the flying myself."
"Good, so it's not just me," I said, and we both laughed.
We kept laughing as we waited in line for security. It was nervous laughter, from being so exhausted, but it felt good to let go.
I lay my backpack on the conveyor to get x-rayed and walked through the body scanner. The red light flashed. An older Asian woman hastily checked my body with a handheld metal detector, and even though I was sure it didn't beep I was ushered into a side room for "more check" as she explained.
As soon as the door to the closet-like room closed, the woman's serious expression vanished and she wrapped her arms around me, crushing me in a hug.
"I'm so sorry for your loss," she said. "So so sorry."
"Thanks?" I said taken aback.
"I'm your grandfather's friend Kayo. I've known him for a long time. He was one of the nicest men I've ever met."
"Yeah, he was," I said, holding myself back from breaking down.
It seemed like it was already too late for Kayo. Her eyes were watering and she started rambling about late night coffee and how they'd get so caught up talking he'd nearly miss his plane.
"I probably shouldn't be telling you all this," she said.
"No it's fine," I said. "Nearly missing his plane, sounds a bit like me, actually."
"I'm sure you're very alike. He talked about you in all our letters."
I got an oddly intimate vibe from Kayo, and although I'm sure they were only together in the past, I felt like somehow, being there with her and not Gran was a sort of betrayal. I felt my heart quicken, I was panicking again...
"Phil, I was asked to get this to you, it's your ticket to London. It's just about the last plane you can take that will get you back in time. Don't lose this ticket and make sure you're on that plane."
"But what if I can't get back in time?" I said, spiralling out of control, "What if I left everyone — I left Pops — for nothing. What if I could have helped Pops, maybe even saved him, if I were home."
"Don't get caught up with ‘what ifs’” she said, hugging me again, "They make you worry for nothing."
"Pops used to say something like that," I said.
"Yes, he used to say it all the time, bit annoying I thought. But he was right," she said more to herself than me. "He died a happy man, I'm sure," and her eyes began to swell again.
Though hearing the word "died" was a blow, by meeting Kayo I somehow felt closer to Pops. With each person I met I began to see just how many lives Pops touched and I understood the man he was before I even came along.
If I could just be more like Pops, maybe I'd actually be able to make it back on time. I needed to stop doubting myself, or to use his words, I needed to "have a little fun".
Our time in Tokyo was actually quite the laugh. We browsed the shops, sampled some airport sashimi, and even posed for a few tourist pics. But each time I caught myself smiling I felt guilty and instinctively mourned Pops again.
"You have to stop," Tomas said. "You have to let yourself have a little fun. It's the best thing."
He was right.
But the flight to San Francisco was hard to enjoy, or pretend to enjoy. It was nothing like the flight to Hong Kong, it was just nine hours in the same cramped seat with nothing to do but think.
I was ecstatic to touch down in America — the last country we'd have to visit before heading home. With just less than 20 hours to go I was finally feeling optimistic about the whole thing. I needed to get home to be with my family, and finally face life without Pops.
Once Tomas and I had checked in to our flight to London it felt like things were foolproof — I could finally relax. We decided to do what most travellers do after a long plane ride and a long layover. Drink!
We walked up to the Delta Airlines Crown Room and showed our VIP lounge passes courtesy of Yu Lin. When we got inside we felt slightly out of place with our smelly jeans and backpacks. We hadn't showered in days and we hadn't even changed into the spare clothes we had packed, so that was the first item on our agenda.
Feeling marginally better after a run to the loo, we walked into the main area of the lounge. The room was filled with business travellers, except for one. There was a man who sat alone drinking what looked like whisky on the rocks. He had grey disheveled hair and was wearing a horrible multi-coloured sweater, somehow he looked even more out of place than we did. Naturally I knew he must be one of Pop's friends.
"Cornelius," said the man, extending his hand. "Join me for a drink? My treat," he roared with laughter.
"Of course," said Tomas, mesmerized by the open bar.
The next three hours passed in a blur. There were champagne toasts to Pops, whisky shots in his honour and we shared our stories of the man we loved.
"After school, when I moved in with Pops and Gran, I couldn't sleep for the first month. Pops snored from 9:00 at night until 6:00 in the morning, I didn't know how Gran could stand it, so one morning I asked her, and do you know what she said?"
"What?" asked Tomas.
"Exactly! She's as deaf as a doorknob! Without her hearing aid she can't hear a thing!"
And we all laughed and poured another round of drinks.
"I knew William when we were young lads, well before your time. He was my first friend," started Cornelius, "We grew up right next to each other. We used to walk to school together right by the train tracks and saw the train pass every evening on our walk home. One day, your granddad decided to ride the train home — by jumping onto it. He ran up and grabbed hold of the rails as it passed and he rode it all the way to his house. Here I was thinking the guy was a genius, hitching himself a ride nearly to his front door, but when it was time to jump off he let go and started barrel rolling off into the rocks. I couldn't stop laughing. He told his mum he fell off his bike. The best part was, she didn't say a thing even though his bike was in the driveway that whole day."
And we shared another drink. "To Pops, the barmy plane flying, train jumping, kid." Cornelius slurred.
"Alright, my turn," said Tomas. "Now it may not be as good as your stories, but the first time I met your Pops he was sitting in his armchair reading. I didn't think he noticed me, but then he said, out of nowhere, "you're the one who likes to travel, right boy?" and we spent the next half hour discussing all the places we'd seen around the world. He's actually the reason I visited Morocco, he said it was one of his favourite places to watch the world go by."
The stories kept coming and so did the liquor.
The next thing I remembered I was waking up on a bench outside the lounge with throbbing temples and a dryness in my mouth.
Where am I?
I checked my phone — 7:25 in the evening. No, this can't be right.
Just to be sure, I rushed through the airport, forcing myself forward through the fogginess in my head. I got to the gate and sure enough, it was empty.
Our flight had left without us.
I felt an invisible fist grab hold of my intestines and twist. I was alone on the other side of the world with no money and no clue how to get back. Where was Tomas? And how could I have messed this one up?
I watched another plane took off from the fuel-stained runway. I was in total disbelief. We had just used up the last of our chances — our final 'get out of jail free card'.
I had to find Tomas.
By missing the flight to New York we would also miss the connecting flight to London, surely. There were 14 and a half hours left, but it was a 13 hour flight back to London. How did this happen!? I tried to focus, but my mind was blank.
I went back to the lounge to try and sort it all out.
"I'm sorry, your lounge pass is a one time only use before your departure, I can't allow you back inside," explained the woman I originally handed my lounge ticket to.
"You don't understand, I just need to find my friend, I'm not sure where he is. My name's Phil Foxx, do you think you could call out for him in there, say I'm out here waiting for him?"
"Umm sir, you and your friend left the lounge together almost an hour ago. Judging from your condition, you were likely restricted from boarding the plane."
"You are not allowed to fly while intoxicated." She stated distastefully, "Now I'm sorry but you can't stay here Mr. Foxx."
I turned around, ready to walk off, when I nearly collided with a man standing behind me.
"Phil," said the man, "How's the race around the world going?"
"Come again?" I said before vaguely recognizing his face.
Is it another of grandpa's friends? Did I meet him when we were drinking?
Then it hit me. I'd seen him from images and articles in the news. He was some crazy-smart engineer, one of America's wealthiest.
"Whoa, you're the real life Iron Man guy," I said. Clearly, still drunk.
"Haha, not quite. I'm Elon Musk, I read about your little adventure on Hacker News. I actually bet quite a bit of money on you, so you better make it back," he joked.
"Well, we've just missed our flight to New York and I've lost my mate, so it doesn't look promising." I admitted.
He checked his watch, and took out his phone, "If you find your friend in the next couple of minutes, I might be able to help you."
Come on Tomas, where are you?
I'd left Elon waiting by the lounge promising to be back in less than five minutes as I raced through the airport to find Tomas.
He wasn't by the gate or in the washroom or the shops. I went to information and begged them to call out his name on the loudspeaker. They said it was for emergencies only.
In a moment of half-drunken liquid confidence, I held down the loudspeaker button and screamed out "Tomassssss, come to informa--", before they angrily lunged for the microphone. Just as I was rushing away, the little baby-faced rascal came sprinting around the corner.
"Thank God, Tomas, come on!" And we raced back to the lounge.
"Bloody hell, it's Elon Musk!" Tomas said as the lounge came into view.
"Alright boys, it's all worked out," the billionaire said as soon as we were back in earshot. "Sorry I won't be able to fly with you," he said looking at his watch "I've got to meet someone, but by the time you get to the airport the plane will be ready to take off."
"Wait, what airport? We're at the airport." I asked.
"You have to head to Palo Alto, where my private jet is fuelling up." he said.
There was a driver waiting for us outside the terminal, ready to take us to Palo Alto Airport just twenty minutes away.
It may have been the lingering effects of the alcohol, or the fact that we were headed to a billionaire's private jet, but for the first time, I was genuinely happy to be on the move.
When we arrived at the small airport twenty-three minutes later and stepped onto Elon's plane, I was in complete shock. His plane made first class flying look like riding in a Campbell's soup can. Tomas and I each ran for the plump silk couch. I threw one of the stiff decorative pillows at Tomas, hitting him square in the head.
"Well you seem to be right at home," Tomas smirked, rubbing his head. "You look nothing like you did on your first flight."
The plane started racing down the runway.
"I've come to like flying, actually," I said. "I hardly feel my ears pop anymore."
And Tomas just smiled.
The jet took off less than an hour later than the flight we were originally going to take. We were up in the air headed to New York with still some hope of making our connection.
It was meant to take five and a half hours to get to New York, but the ride felt like a quick drive to the grocery store. The pilot told us that we'd arrive at Newark airport thirty minutes ahead of schedule.
The news was both reassuring and alarming.
"Newark?" I asked, "Is that another name for the JFK airport?"
"We can only land at Newark. Mr. Musk wasn't able to reserve a spot at JFK on such short notice."
"Newark is only a 40 minute drive away from JFK, and at this time of day the roads should be empty," clarified Tomas. "Don't worry, just enjoy the flight."
I didn't answer.
We landed in Newark just ten minutes after our original plane landed at JFK. There was an hour and a half before our final plane to London. Tomas was right, at nearly 6 in the morning the roads were still clear.
"Thank you so much," we both said as we left the car when we arrived at JFK. "I'll pay Mr. Musk back, I swear. Send him our thanks!" I said just before shutting the car door and running into the airport.
"Here it is," said Tomas. "the last plane we'll have to fly before getting home."
"Quit it, you'll jinx it," I joked.
We got to the Virgin Atlantic Airways counter and showed our connecting tickets. We were allowed to pass through and were even given priority check-in.
As we sat by the gate, waiting for our next and final flight, nothing happened. We barely spoke to each other, scared that if we did something, anything, we'd slip up and miss the plane. When it came time to board my passport didn't trigger any alarms, I didn't fall over drunk, and we simply walked on the plane and took our seats.
There was no turbulence, no heart to heart with the pilot. No more clues. No more countdown. It was nearly through.
"Have you thought about what you'll do when we're back in London," asked Tomas.
"I'll probably just stay with Gran for a while, she'll need me to help out at home as much as I can."
"I meant about the £2,000,000, have you forgotten about it? Do you think you'll still get it?"
"I doubt it, I didn't tell anyone about the trip and I don't think Pops did either, all of our bets were always just between the two of us. Mum didn't even know where I was when she called. It's probably the last thing on people's minds right now anyway."
"Well that's not entirely true. The post I wrote on Hacker News is still on the first page and we're getting floods of comments every hour. Everyone wants to know if you'll make it back in time, it seems like the whole world is betting on you."
"That's exactly what Elon Musk said, apparently he bet a lot of money we'd make it home. And actually, so did Jasper the pilot."
The plane landed, we touched British soil, and I was so grateful just to be home. It felt like I'd been gone for ages. In reality, I knew that things would never be the same as they were before.
According to the pilot, it was 7:45pm and unseasonably cold in London when we landed. I couldn't believe it, there was still a chance I could make it before the 80 hour mark. I was so close.
Without checked baggage, Tomas and I squeezed our way to the front of the plane and ran the never-ending sprint towards immigration and customs. When we arrived, the line was minuscule, and we breezed through to the front.
"What was the reason for your trip?" The immigration officer asked,
"Leisure," I answered.
"Are you bringing anything back with you? You haven't declared any goods."
"Nothing to claim, we didn't buy a thing."
He handed our passports back and we walked over to the customs desk.
Everything was stamped and looked over for Tomas, they seemed a bit puzzled by our whole trip, but they let him pass. When I walked up to customs my passport triggered some alarm.
"Excuse me for one moment, wait here," said the woman at the desk.
I waited for five long minutes before a middle-aged man came up to the kiosk. His grey hair and searching eyes told me it was another one of my grandfather's friends before he had a chance to.
"I'll handle it, open kiosk 7 and pass the rest of the passengers, please." the man instructed, and she did as she was told.
"Phil, I'm glad to see you made it. I wasn't sure I'd see you here, but your grandfather would be thrilled to know you made it back in time."
"Well, almost, I still have to get back home and meet him —" but I caught myself a second to late. It left my lips and we both looked sadly at each other, sorry it happened.
"I mean-" I began, but he interrupted me.
"Don't worry about it. Here, this is for you."
He handed me a hand drawn sketch of the den, and by his armchair, in my grandfather's neat handwriting, were the words, "I'll be waiting for you, hurry home."
I had tears in my eyes but I wasn't going to let myself get overwhelmed again. I thanked the man and left customs, without even learning his name.
We ran through the arrivals gate, past all the incomplete families waiting for their missing members. We got to the line up of taxis and managed to get one without waiting.
"We need to get to 7 Saville, Beckenham before 8:40," I told the cab driver.
Without wanting to, I checked the clock. It was 8:20. We only had twenty minutes to get forty minutes across town.
After everywhere we travelled and after everything we did there was no way I was going to let 20 minutes beat me.
I told the driver I'd pay him an extra £300 if he got me there in time.
The cabbie jumped at the bonus and we sped away from the airport. It almost felt like we were back in India the way the cab driver was weaving through the streets. I couldn't see how fast we were going, but I could tell it wasn't the speed limit, or even close.
8:35pm. I started to recognize the houses in our town. We were still a few kilometres away but there was still a chance we could make it. We could actually make it! And just as I had that thought, as if on cue, I saw the red and blue lights flash behind us.
"Oh Christ!" shouted Tomas.
"No, keep going," I screamed at the driver.
He started to slow, but I jumped at him, "We'll pay your bloody speeding fine, just keep going!"
He stepped on the gas, but he slowed again right away.
"No, I have to stop, I'll lose my license," he said, pulling to the side of the road.
"I can't wait, Tomas," I said, already antsy to jump out of the cab. "I've got to get back, even if there's nothing there I need to know that I did it."
"You're two and a half kilometres away from home, you better run like hell," he said. "I'll figure this out and meet you there."
The car came to a complete stop and I opened the door and rushed out. With my bag flapping against my back and my chest tight, I sprinted through the streets and ran on towards my house.
I've never been much of a runner, but I entered some sort of a trance. Pushing against the pavement, I was seconds away from the deadline.
Nothing would change whether I came back at 8:45 or 8:40. There would be no one waiting in that chair. But for some reason I kept running faster.
I was too afraid to check my phone for the time.
There was something liberating about running the final stretch — I wasn't waiting for planes, I wasn't getting led around in circles by taxi cabs. If I didn't make it back it was because my legs couldn't take me there fast enough. It would be no fault but my own.
What if it's already too late? There's no way I can run all the way home in less than 3 minutes. It has to be past 8.
No more what ifs. Just go! I told myself as I ran, and I kept moving forward even faster.
My legs were wobbling, and each time I breathed it was a choking pain. I didn't think I would make it back at the speed I was going but then I saw the outline of my house in the distance and I sprinted forward all the way to the driveway.
My legs nearly gave out. I reached into my pocket to check my phone, I had to know before going inside.
The numbers on my screen read 8:39pm.
“Bloody unreliable cabbies”, I smirked to myself realizing his clock must have been off. And I raced up my front steps and through the front door.
I could hear the noise as soon as I walked inside my familiar kitchen. It only amplified as I walked through to the den.
The second I burst into the room there was a chorus of alarms. There, around grandpa's empty armchair, stood my entire family: aunts, uncles, cousins and all. Cell phones, watches, wall clocks, everything was set to ring at exactly 8:40pm, March 4th.
I made it! I actually travelled around the world in 80 hours.
"I think we all needed something to celebrate," said Gran when I asked why she set the whole thing up. "Your grandfather would have done the same."
"Thanks, Gran," I said.
"I'm proud of you, Phileas," she continued. "And William was too. You're all he could talk about. It was about time you flew!"
"I know, I'm just sorry the way things worked out," I said.
"Don't be sorry, we're all happy you're back and even happier you made it the whole way through, it was what he wanted."
I just held her, there were no words.
"Phil," she said when I pulled away, "he wrote you this," and she handed me a check, in Pops' writing, for £2,000,000.
"No, I couldn't," I protested.
"You earned it." she said.
And with that I'd won the bet. I was £2,000,000 richer. But standing there with Gran, with my family and Tomas mixed in somewhere in the crowded den, I felt richer than I could have ever imagined and it had little to do with the money.
XXX - Epilogue
Mum, Gran and I stood next to the casket and shook everyone's hands.
"My condolences," they'd say and I'd nod my head.
The funeral hall was jam-packed, and not just any kind of jam-packed, but the kind that upsets venue owners because it's a fire hazard.
The first face I recognized among the crowd was Karim, the Egyptian cab driver. He looked at me and jerked his head, I think it was his version of a nod. I saw that he was speaking with Kayo, the security check woman who hugged me in Japan, she was as friendly as ever handing out hugs to everyone within arm's reach. I saw the man from customs, who gave me the drawing from Pop, and Parvati from the Mumbai train terminus. Of course I met Cornelius near the bar with a whiskey in his hand and I spotted all the others too. They were all there, all his friends from across the world, and I couldn't help wishing someday my life would turn out just the same.
I walked up to Jasper, and asked him a question that had been on my mind since I returned home from my 80 hour trip. "So," I said, "What advice can you give to someone who'd like to become a pilot?"