It is important not to destroy the mystique of a story – show and not tell is the mantra but if compression is too great, density will render writing inaccessible. Backstage will add a little bit of fat or sugar to low calorie writing – or sometimes a splash of vinegar! All the posts below can be found in the archives.
Postliminary (posted July 21, 2017).
Postliminary is the antonym of preliminary – to occur after.
Colour (posted July 12, 2017).
was originally published as Colourful in the volume Death on April 8, 2016. It is not so much a second bite at the same cherry, as second thoughts. Death was published between February and July 2016. Its theme was loss, or more specifically irreversible loss – people, places, notions and beliefs gone, and gone forever. During my growing- up and adolescence, New Zealand was a manufacturing country. University vacation employment invariably involved some kind of manual or processing work. Modern New Zealand is largely a consultancy and service economy. Students take loans (the government paid during my time) and part-time work mainly in hospitality. When I wrote Colourful I believed the opportunity for students to encounter people such as Morrie had been lost and lost forever. But much of the pathos was also lost on me. Colour is a slight revision to better reflect the story’s nucleus : an employer’s concern for his employee – that the money should not be squandered. He did pay well. And each week it did seem like a large amount of money. He knew that. He also knew temptation could waylay a young person with a hefty pay packet.
Engaged (posted May 25, 2016).
Children grow up quickly and slowly. Be absent for a few months and a baby is walking. Be absent for a few years and a child is going to high school. But cognition doesn’t keep pace. Neither the just learned to walk child, or the just begun high school adolescent understand emotion and its layers – a hard shell can have a soft centre. The woman in the story was a friend of my parents. I first encountered her when I was a young child. I last encountered her when I was 14 years old. A stern, gruff voice disguised a warm and generous person. On that dreadful afternoon she undoubtedly had her mind focused on any missing detail, something that might make her son’s wedding day more memorable and more joyful. A wedding and a funeral – long before Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Snapped (posted May 6, 2016).
Before the iPhone and social media committing murder was easier – much easier -no inconvenient or accidental cyberspace witness. It was all circumstantial, the police knew the young hitchhiker had been seen getting into a dark blue sedan. Enquiries placed an owner of a dark blue sedan in the area at the time the murder was thought to have occurred. Police appealed for sightings or photographs. Arthur’s friend, motivated more by civic duty than suspicion, handed over his holiday snaps. The police were excited, very excited. Whatever forensics, magic and skill they applied, nothing could quite capture the registration number. 30 or 20 or 10 seconds; the time taken by patient father to reassure a hot child was time enough to get away with murder. In the mid 2000’s the prime suspect in this cold case died and much of what had been suppressed by potential libel was revealed. The authorities was certain he had done it …. certain he was photographed driving from the scene.
Stage Fright (posted May 5, 2016).
It must be part of growing up : learning of the restless romance. The soldier, the sailor, the rambler who, when this night turns to morning, must be moving on. Sexual politics would approve this story; it was the woman who had to move on. Her visa had expired. She had to leave New Zealand. I was 24 at the time. Ten years before the British pop/ rock group the Hollies had sung, “all I need is the air that I breathe and to love you.” For the week of our romance it was even more straightforward – we could have done without air. The fire and intensity can in certain light still be recalled. “Come with me,” she said. “With me,” being Australia, Asia …. then home to England.
Last Resort (posted May 2, 2016).
It was last week of summer holidays, a time when thoughts turn to what relaxation has tried to keep them away from. On the beach I was aware of urgency and a quad bike carrying surf lifesavers speeding to the scene. I saw oxygen being administered and semaphore reassurance that more detailed assistance had been dispatched …. the next morning’s paper had a piece at the bottom of page 5.
Courage (posted April 29, 2016).
Then, I was 24, she 57. Fifty seven, I thought it old, thought she’d had a good long turn at bat. The next anniversary of my birth turns me 57. Thirty three years has passed in the blink of an eye ….. and 57 seems young, tragically young.
Close (posted April 27, 2016).
The landscape of a funeral and a life. A country graveyard swirled by a warm wind and beginnings of summer. Blue sky. Green grass. Black soil. The sun yet to fade, dry, or bleach. A farmer outliving his friends and contemporaries being returned to the earth adjacent to fields he once ploughed. The priest spoke quietly and respectfully – he had known the deceased, his thoughts were eloquent and soothing, almost hypnotic. The benediction, while not attempting to disguise the pain of loss, captured the peaceful consolation of a life well lived. Interment was completed in total silence. Not a sound. We all felt drawn in. An intimate experience.
Unrequited (posted April 22, 2016).
Friendship or ideas can catch or tear on the slightest snag. Two men were in a New York subway one mercilessly hot July afternoon – “imagine if you could get a Coke down here,” said one. Asked to repeat, he did. From the, “what did you just say,” came the potential realising, coin dropping, gold forming idea of vending machines.
Unrequited is an old story. It takes place in the austral summer the year 1984 became 1985. I was managing a backpackers hostel, John arrived late, unusually in the age of hitch hiking, in a self drive car. I noted his address …. “last stop before Mount McKinley/Denali,” I proudly recited. Following the ritual two almost strangers finding themselves alone together engage in, we chatted small talk as I wrote a receipt and found his change. He seemed pleased I knew something of his town, telling me he worked in an outdoor’s shop; a business supplying first and last requirements to Mount McKinley/Denali climbing parties – big or small.
Earlier that year the fabled Japanese climber Naomi Uemura disappeared attempting the first winter solo ascent of the mountain. He was seen on the summit and descending; then never again. A long lens photograph placed him two days from base camp. Probability concluded he fell into a crevasse, being too experienced and too determined to be captured by exhaustion or hypothermia. Conditions during the climb were brutal – winter, with temperatures of minus 50. To save weight and fuel he ate mainly cold food.
Handing John his change I said, “so sad about Naomi Uemura,” expecting either casual agreement or query of identity. He looked at me for a long moment, measuring the might be listener, then told me the story.
Half life (posted April 20, 2016).
For 40 years New Zealand didn’t change. Phlegmatic homogeneity of society and hierarchical patrimony of workplace ruled uninterrupted between the years 1945 – 1984. Apart from more informal dress and a lengthening hair, tertiary students in the late 1970’s were treated very much as those of the 1950’s. Kept at a distance with minimal contact, we were addressed as “Mr..” or “Miss…” – no one used the term Ms in any of the science departments! The instructors introduced themselves as “Doctor…” or “Professor ….” and referred to other staff members as “Doctor….” or “Professor…” The man in the story came into my first year chemistry class, said “good morning I’m ” and used his first name. Three hundred students almost fell over! There is a double sadness and the story – he died so young – about a year after I graduated – and the loss of a staff member with a genuine connection to students.
Heart and Soul (posted April 18, 2016).
I wasn’t looking for this story, it found me. I was cycling in a (for me) less travelled part of the city and took a shortcut through a park – when something caught. The players were having such fun. One of competitors scored – obviously something only distantly associated with him, his teammates broke into applause, the opposition joined in, so too both sets of supporters…. he raised his arms to crowd and players like a gold Olympian. Team uniforms were cheap, their physiques hand-me-down, the facilities squat and un-handsome but the joy of participation- priceless.
Compact (posted April 15, 2016).
Compact is a sequel to check out (posted March 14, 2016. It is about my uncle. After his death I spent several few weeks preparing his farm for sale or lease. Time was split by symmetry, precise and contrasting. Half was unemotional and mechanical, selling the stock, the winter hay, the machinery, divesting the short and medium term factors of production. The other half was introspective and cognitive; emptying his house, archiving a life. The books especially were moving. They were indices of his life and polymath intellect. Treatises of algebra, trigonometry and calculus. Monographs on magnetism and electricity. The novels of Dostoevsky and Dickens. Shakespeare’s plays, Keats’ sonnets. I found a copy, a first edition, of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, brought from a local bookseller at time when the farms around were Hiroshima clouds of DDT. I realised his prescience, and heard his voice. Oil won’t last for ever he told me. We can’t just continue to drill and expect to find it. The same with water, people think there will always be plenty. But there won’t be, he said. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. He practised and preached. Life in six cartons. Hard to reduce to much less.
When Absent (posted April 13, 2016).
When Absent was written in August 2010 – winter in New Zealand. I was grieving at the time. Stevie Nicks, sensual centrepiece of Fleetwood Mac, all poetry of appearance, motion and lyrics, wrote of loss in the song Dreams : “In the stillness of remembering, what you had….. and what you lost.” My loss felt bottomless. In an attempt to take an echo sounding I took to going to a cemetery, more specifically a children’s cemetery. There under graphite skies, amongst the disintegrating toys, rain acned photos, lichened headstones and aching disbelief, I felt as fat person might standing next to an obese one; my grief instantly diminished. It didn’t miraculously vanish, it was present… and still is, but by the mathematics of comparison, scale is found, and the magnitude of absence – of what others once had. And lost.
Medicinal (posted April 11, 2016).
Just before he died Hubert Humphrey US Vice President 1965-69 and Democratic Presidential Candidate in 1968, a close-run election he lost to Richard Nixon, spoke his valedictory to Congress. He talked about government men coming to South Dakota in the 1930’s, not to impose bureaucracy, but to help, to offer advice and assistance to farmers stricken by drought and soil deficiency. Where did the notion of service go? People who saw themselves as duty-bound to use their skills as a service foremost. I have no doubt many small towns in the New Zealand of my growing up had a GP like the doctor in this story. Men, almost invariably men, who made early morning house calls to the elderly, infirm, those without transport, all-day clinics, and evenings two or three nights a week.
Colourful (posted April 8, 2016).
Memory, so often snags on a favourite – a top 10 song relentlessly universal. Think of student vacation work and I always think of that one summer I worked as a painter. Late 1970’s and the city of my education is on the move. People were moving back – and up. Newly returned from overseas travel they brought images of reviving inner city London, New York and San Francisco. They had seen the future, that what had become thrift shop real estate was actually gold.
But they weren’t the only ones with a crystal ball. Morrie could read the stars better than Nostradamus. He had seen the future too. But understood that for the coveters it could not be now; travel and adjoining hedonism had depleted their savings. He knew the returnees’ freewheeling ways were behind them, but the moneymen would remain sceptical. They needed two or three years of solid fiscal imprisonment before the banks would offer the parole of mortgage. In the mean time of Morrie: Win Win, he could buy up the properties do a little titivation and add a margin to the already rising margin.
Etiquette (posted April 6, 2016).
I began working life as a trainee agronomist, monitoring the well-being of crops – a variety including tobacco – taking their pulse, making sure they were eating properly, staying hydrated and checking for signs of ill-health. My boss was a young fogey, only mid-30s but patronising, paternalistic and conservative. Very conservative. Short on praise and long on self eulogy, he was nevertheless extremely competent and I was wary and respectful of him. More than three decades later I still use some of what he bequeathed. He told me to watch and listen, never to overlook the little things when seeking the big picture, that the man who ploughed the field before the crop was planted, might have noticed something; a stronger smell, altered texture, deeper colour. And, if the ploughman sees you as valuing his work and opinions, then, he told me, he’ll make an effort for you.
In this story I am 35, a department head in a medium sized organisation, the woman was another department head. We had never really engaged, more a time issue than any other -although I suspect we didn’t have much commonality. I saw her as distant and no doubt she saw me as tense. The Christmas tart was an opening. It was the opportunity my first boss had told me to look for. I failed to recognize it. The big picture remained unsketched.
Guilty (posted April 4, 2016).
I came of age as the summers of love – those who swung in mid-1960’s London, tripped in late 60’s San Francisco, lived in communes and off the land in the early 70’s – struck the winters of divorce. Men and women 10 to 15 years older than me. People for whom magic had dribbled to a house in the suburbs, mortgage, jobs, bills and drudgery. And then like song explained, “love don’t live here anymore.” They separated in brutally high rates. The motor camps and budget accommodations of my youth were filled with young men and young woman, 30 to 40 years old, single, lonely, temporarily child free, looking for distraction.
It was pride, cockiness, I suppose, it seemed like a real belt notch for an early twenties man to have a lover 12 years older. It was inevitable. She was still young herself, not fully tamed at heart and wanting an arrangement where she called all the shots. Full figured and attractive – almost pretty, she knew she had what men wanted – and they could, as much as they could – on her terms. More than once she said, “some people get too big for their boots.” Although always referenced to a third party, unspoken knew she wasn’t speaking only of the past, or those not present. And that the present could become the past, without regret or delay.
Nostalgia judges her kindly, but reflection sometimes hears the prosecution of selfishness; she had what she wanted – others had to comply. Her son almost certainly knew and perhaps even he heard. It is difficult now to believe her flicked aside, he didn’t and hadn’t.
Ghost Story (posted April 1, 2016).
My growing up was intensely Catholic: home, education and sociology. Everything was an offering from, or to God – even the hedgehog a pyjama clad seven-year-old was sometimes allowed out into the night to view before bed. But, there was always space reserved for superstition, knives, ladders, black cats, sounds, could in certain alignment be codified to omen, and if encountered, careful attention should be paid. At university I was taught by faithful rationalists, there was nothing science couldn’t explain. Everybody knew and repeated the mantra. Still, the department and faculty had its rituals. They were present and accounted for – just not spoken of. Somewhat like a commuter at peak hour without rush or destination, the calm sometimes more attention gathering than alarm.
The woman in the story was impish, sexy, quirky, intelligent and outrageously but genteelly outspoken. She held back nothing. Nor did she leave anyone not uplifted by speaking with her. I never knew anyone to be so flippant and so uninhibited about death. Her father died somewhere in the Midwest; winter was stalking – arrangements needed to be brisk – before the big snows. She instructed the funeral home, adding it was to be as inexpensive as possible. Deprived of the opportunity of a full priced service, the undertakers sought to add value, increase their margin, spin a little more gold from grief. Interrupting sales patter with guilt as the destination she said, “honey, I just want to get him in the ground as soon as possible, with as little expense as possible.”
Whenever she spoke about death so dismissively, as some titular monarch without powers, I sensed a presence that shouldn’t be taunted, the hushed, deliberate wing beat of something that may have been in the room, but no longer was. Fact and fable. She did die many years too soon, and I really should know better.
Poetic License (posted March 30, 2016).
Plus ca change … Somewhat like a person stating they don’t want a present or surprise party and then sulk when their ‘wish’ is complied with, most people claim to dislike hyperbole as statement of personal credentials …. contempt on receipt… it’s not new ,dating back at least to King Lear’s daughter!
Trimmed (posted March 23, 2016).
Everyone, even the most casual and austere, has some vanity. Mahatma Gandhi almost certainly wore his best loincloth on Independence Day. Appearance, tended like a garden, and in just as many ways, pedantically, quixotically, routinely, expensively, occasionally. There is even irony in how some people prepare for how the world sees them literally, spending large sums of money to look carelessly and care freely unkempt. I have never really paid much attention to the external, a haircut every six or seven weeks, a flurry of clothing purchases in the January sales. If asked to offer an expression of vanity I would rather be thought intelligent than handsome or well-dressed. Still, vain or not, I like to think myself as young for my years. It was a shock, and deflating, to be thought ancient.
South Equinox (posted March 21, 2016)
So much of life proceeds with caution. Conducted under the safe lighting of the dark room. Images and memories are negatives and prints, monochrome, or black and white. But recall a summer and the sights are full-colour. South Equinox is called for the date on which it is published – March 21 – the Southern Equinox – the day on which the sun makes its intentions clear. It is leaving. Off to its other job – on the other side of the world.
Summer the season of the young. Youth, thought to last forever and then it is gone. An exodus that redefines as contemptible what was once high spirits and exonerated with a sighed …. “oh young people.” Earlier this year, a holiday weekend in the first days of February – the hottest month of summer in New Zealand – I was walking a beach – away from the main crowd, but certainly not wilderness – day dreaming as I is so often am. A young woman was preparing to swim, I hadn’t seen her, then I did. She turned away and continued removing her clothes all the while cheerfully engaging me in conversation. Someone my age, male or female, doing the same thing would be thought a provocateur.
Renounce (posted March 18, 2016).
Sometimes fate intervenes many years too soon, leaving observers wondering. Would rising genius prove to be a briefly brilliant flare or permanent floodlight? Could Buddy Holly have been bigger than Elvis ? Or found in the discount rack somewhere between Bill Haley and Little Richard? Is a bully always a bully? Does DNA issue inviolable instructions to oppress and torment? Did Joseph Stalin and Saddam Hussein terrorise playmates when very young?
There is profound sadness to this story. Before an adolescent bully reached the age of reason, neurology swooped – a hostile takeover, devastating at any time but especially so ages 14 – 15, teenagers are so self-absorbed, so acutely aware of image, both desired and perceived, and contemporaries not the least inclined to sympathy or understanding. After high school we attended the same university, but in different faculties. Still the boundaries were not so rigorous that I would not see him from time to time. Nothing remained of his swagger. Not a trace. He may have been quieter and wiser, transformed by maturity. Or he may have been diminished and isolated, self-imprisoned by illness.
Terminated (posted March 16 2016).
Young adulthood promised to last forever. Between the ages 15 to 23 look at a member of the opposite sex in the same age group and and they were looking at you. Maybe first. A Darwinian calibration perhaps – measuring and assessing potential as a vector for species continuation. It was as reflexive as breathing, as quick as a heartbeat, evaluation: looks, body type, desirability. Acceptable/unsatisfactory, meagre/inviting, yes/no.
I was a thin and callow youth, looking two or three years younger than birth certificate. The story is set when I was 25. I was cycling and stopped for coffee. It was late afternoon, the proprietor had already gone, leaving a young female employee to clean up. She had just finished high school, was a few months off going to university. Strictly she shouldn’t have served me as the place was already closed …. but what the owner didn’t know. She bustled about her duties, chatting all the time, half flirt, half caution. I didn’t know at the time – this would be the last time. Suddenly women of her age stopped looking at me. She was mopping the floor when I left. She stopped and stood, hips at a jaunty angle, breasts thrust forward and waved, a wave that had it been a laugh, surely would have been a giggle. She might well have been waving goodbye to my youth.
Check Out (posted March 14, 2016).
I wonder where they have all gone – unmarried men – or unpartnered men ? In the small provincial city of my childhood there were at least half a dozen boarding houses. Men without women lived there, surrounded by others from the same sociological cohort, but keeping the company of loneliness, bitterness, rejection, or bafflement – why me? Still mystification would not feel to put upon – so many others too had never been encircled by the arms of love, or known an always warm bed.
This is my uncle. He was never married. Nor did he live in a boarding house. People called him a bachelor. Bachelor : a man of marriageable age without a wife – even when well past what was considered the permissible range of marriage age. I was in Australia when he died – after out living most of his contemporaries – en route to England. In the days before cellphones and the Internet finding someone in transit was often a frantic scramble of calls to friends, to likely accommodation points, to airlines. I made it just in time.
Fall (posted March 11, 2016).
Fall is a sequel to Salvation, January 13, 2016. Blink and life can change. A car runs a red light. An accidental bullet. A moments lapse of concentration by a surgeon. That look across the office water cooler. A familiar face coming up the drive …… followed by the police. He fooled them so completely she told me, they presumed the police were pursuing him. Pursuing him for failure to stop, or driving a stolen or unregistered vehicle. It took a few seconds to realise. He wasn’t apart from the police – he was a part of them.
How many times is one person punished? She spent 30 months in prison. Would never again be employed in a position of trust – voiding career experience and choice. Her fiancé abandoned her. Friends either disowned or avoided her. Of the few didn’t, the majority regarded contact as penance or charity – dishevelling even more already ragged self-esteem. Quite quickly she found it easier to break with her past – the bonds either severed or strained. It was best to start again. She was exiled to low-paid, low status, low regarded employment. And a low rent life, in a low rent neighbourhood. Crime and punishment. Crime lasted two or three years. Punishment, forever.
To be successful, disguise must be a costume worn so well it raises no questions and answers even the quietist misgiving. The undercover policeman in the story looked the part, by not looking remotely authoritarian. Slight, unconfident, thrift shop clothed, he hid nothing and presented exactly the right blend of furtive and naiveté. His arrival time completed the perfect camouflage – just on dark, and always with one headlight that never worked.
Indelible (posted March 9, 2016). A lifetime ago – the frequent response to a dusty relic of memory or faded anecdote. For Indelible a lifetime seems too proximate, too understanding, too superficial. Travelling time backwards to arrive at this story requires crossing the frontiers of several lifetimes. Those of career, youth, optimism, idealism. The central act takes place so far back it seems at times the actors are not so much strangers, as characters not yet born. It opens in the early 1980’s – but the lounge in which occurred – was that of couple come of age in the 1970’s and remaining there, sequestered by time and spirit.
I remember the prediction as if spoken this morning, the pause and quiet intensity, the finality of it –“some people.” It was a colleague, a workmate, (see Apology, June 12, 2015 ). 17 years later I went back, back in a new decade, a new century, a new millennium. I learned of of our colleague’s passing, in passing – conversationally – my friend speaking of him in the past tense. “ Is he .. dead?” I asked. “Oh yes, a long time ago.” He had no recollection of his prescience.
Appraisal (posted March 7, 2016).
The lyrics of Dan Hill’s wonderful song, Sometimes When We Touch, the capture alive the dilemma of honest opinion : “I would rather hurt you honestly than mislead you with a lie.” The wriggling, squirming, dilemma of the jury of one. I think Dave knew what I wanted him to say, his pause betrayed temptation, to point to the flimsy loophole rather than the solid evidence.
The silence that followed was confirmation. Silence that sounds harsh to itself, the silence that is quality control, peeking into the future and reading back to the past, measuring, indexing, deciding ….. confirming. No.
I only ever saw him again once. I was walking along a quiet street – he was driving towards me. We both recognized each other and waved cheerfully. He was too tactful to stop. The point had been teaching, or rather my teacher training. And now there was no point. My wave was absolution. It told him I understood – he had made the right call.
Excommunicated (posted March 4, 2016).
Is regard of people and accomplishment a function of morality or zeitgeist ? 500,000 Germans expressed opposition to Nazism and were sent to the camps, enduring incarceration, punishment, opprobrium and often death. Their friends and families attracted suspicion and resentment, living lives eyed with shame and disgrace. Now, the free world, which in the 1930’s pretended not to see, is proud of them. The New Zealand I grew up and was insular, complacent, phlegmatic and homogenous. There was very little diversity, economic, social, cultural or even geographic. And no celebrities.
Where there is no champagne, sparkling will do. The man in the story was prominent in our national game when rugby was still King. I’m sure my parents were flattered his life briefly overlapped with theirs. The conflation of circumstances, a son who was terminally ill at the time, and subsequently died, and his culpability in the death of an innocent driver were ineffably sad. It could not have been an easy case, or decision for the Judge. I think most thought the right decision had been reached – although others wondered as to what value was placed on human life.
In the third stanza of the story – the reunion photograph – my parents’reaction may not have been so much outrage, as a point of inflection in time. Attitudes to alcohol were changing. The drum of public opinion was beginning to beat for strong penalties for those causing serious injuries or death while driving under its influence.
History (posted March 2, 2016).
Coupli Specialus most commonly distributed between the ages 17 to 21. Wider habitat is defined by the years 16 to 26. Occasionally found in much older specimens but only if both have been Singluli Longtermus. Love was invented by Coupli Specialus. No one else had been there before. It is incumbent upon them to set an example to the world – to convert the world to their world – a world turning on an axis of magic. Yours can to – just don’t expect it to be quite so perfect, so ecstatic, so special so ….
This was based on a couple in my final year at university.. They would have been 21 at the time. They married shortly after graduation. An extravagant wedding and profligate honeymoon. Disharmony followed all too soon. Then came separation. Divorce called by within four years.
Abroad (posted February 29, 2016).
By the second law of thermodynamics everything tends to disorder. Ice will melt. Steel become rust. Youth whither to age. Age, always so despairingly unidirectional – downhill. It’s impossible, resolutely impossible, to imagine someone stooped and wrinkled chasing a football, illegally purchasing beer, stepping from a dance hall into the night for more than just a cigarette.
My grandfather didn’t need to lie about his age when going to war. He was 19 when he volunteered. 20 when sent abroad. 21 at Passchendaele. Passchendaele, thousands dead : gas, cholera, typhoid, mud drownings and bullets and shells. We didn’t know how many. He never talked numbers. Speaking of what he saw only once. Marching back to the front for what was the October assault, past a tennis court. Those exempt from active service, doctors, civic officials and others considered essential were playing. Whites, ball boys, jugs of barley water, languor – “good luck chaps,” they called. He turned and waved. It must have worked. Very few returned, but he did. Only when he died in his late 80’s did we learn of the boundlessly free-spirited young man. He survived the Somme, those murderous fields whose production line slaughter his rural colonial growing up could never have imagined. But his youth didn’t. It is buried there alongside the bodies of his buddies. It never came back. He was old at 22.
Opaque (posted February 26, 2016).
This year (2016) marks 20 years since the ending to this story. Some things remain impervious to the cortisone of time. This is one. The passage of two decades has not dulled or diminished. Nor has it been able to resolve or delete. It was shocking then. And it’s shocking now. The wound must have tried to heal itself, for although elegy often raises its hand, her name is slow to answer.
Memory cannot fix the exact date of our cafe encounter. Subtracting the known from the unknown, it had to have been in the last year of her life. Verifiable. Obituary retains confidence; it may have been as close as seven months to that forlorn Friday. Whenever this story plays in my mind, I try to be objective. To read the script, not recite the ending. Was there an intensity lighting the blue of her eyes? Was self-deprecation intended to be diversion rather than humour? Was that the last time she laughed? If so, was my presence a flare in the awful darkness that was enveloping, or had enveloped her?
There is powerful and bleak equivalence in this story. She was clearly unhappy in the last months of life. As was I. My unhappiness was work-related. I had inherited a complacent, under performing workplace. I was unable to implement the efficiency that was needed. Change was like squeezing a soft rubber ball – it didn’t resist, complying briefly to pressure and then reverted, changing its shape but never its form, always remaining the same. I often felt like the chairman of the board whose shareholders would not invest.
The more I tried, the greater the resistance, and the despair. Essential to the evacuation of the Saigon in 1975 were the Vietnamese firemen. They provided the safety at the landing zone which allowed the helicopters to operate. In exchange they were promised places on the last flight. The last flight wasn’t, the penultimate was. To avoid panic overloading and incapacitation, the last flight was simulated; helicopters approached, but didn’t land. The firemen were left behind – to non mercy. On learning this, Colonel Harry Summers, the person who had made the promise, said “I was too tired to yell, and too mad to cry.” When I resigned from this job that was exactly how I felt. Thelma’s death preceded my resignation by only a few weeks. And her 16-year-old daughter would now be 36 – the age I was then.
Sideshow (posted February 24, 2016).
The loneliness of the sole practitioner writer has been raised previously in the pages of Backstage.The silent, impartial companionship of the screen and keyboard is soothing and often hypnotic : white to the black of a so frequently blaring, unprincipled world, but solitary and inert. Not belonging a workplace is to be orphaned of opportunity – the poignancy, screw-ups, confrontations, and trysts of the staffroom – all seeds, bulbs and cuttings that can be grown to stories.
I have always kept one eye open for a part-time work to finance writing with both cost (computer, paper etc) and ideas. 12-20 hours per week that would provide routine, variance and a small cash flow.The job in the story was perfect. 25 hours per week in a high school – term time only – leaving 12 weeks of the year completely free. The interview went well – very well. I thought, no, knew, the job was mine. We just clicked – both with humour and work intent. It was mine. I have seldom been more confident about anything. I had no doubt – sign here. He told me he had one more person to see – transmitted the etiquette of required formality. It must have been them. The perfect candidate. I bet it was a vivacious woman. There was liveliness in his eyes and once called gaiety in his voice. He wouldn’t have minded one of them to spar with.
Unknowning (posted February 22, 2016).
Unknowing is a sequel to Symmetry (posted February 19). Although a literal nexus, it is a sequel of life place rather than narrative. It was written on my 40th birthday. Forty – that outermost limit of youth. At 39 years 364 days membership of the younger generation is still valid – the next day it is not. Cancellation is mandatory and without grounds for appeal. You are no longer young. Move on. The afternoon of my 40th birthday instinct, God, the universal mind, the cyber designer took me walking – through our neighbourhood – 1000km from the city of my growing up – then further afield. I walked as a magnet finds North – to a cemetery. There, amongst the dress uniform trees, City Park lawns and sombre chronology of sun puddled headstones, I thought of that day almost 20 years prior; and a life ended many years too soon – about what might have been. The things he hadn’t known. And the things it was better not to.
Symmetry (posted February 19, 2016).
Symmetry is bracketed by the ages 17 ½ and 20. That span of years, which comprise the last of exuberance and beginnings of expectation. Although our behaviour at the cemetery was offensive – by any standards – in any culture, but while identifiable it was not visually proximate. Given our age, most forums could probably have been persuaded to excuse it as a profane display of peer pressured immaturity. Any older and tolerance would not have been exercised.
I had turned 20 a few days before the funeral. Our friend had drowned in a, beginning of the tertiary year, raft race across the harbour. He had fallen off, his fellow competitors thought he was faking – he wasn’t. I remember his asthma from schooldays so perhaps this was triggered by trauma, causing intake of water or impeded self rescue. However it happened his death was sobering beyond believe.
Three high school friends had decided to attend the church service, but not burial. Something about the light, the late summer early autumn sunshine lit consensus in all three of us. It didn’t feel right to walk away and leave him in the churchyard. Not going to the interment was a failure of duty, of obligation. An abandonment of the hours of touch football, pickup cricket, of complicity in pranks, of schoolboy omerta – “thou shalt not inform or defect.” I remember the conversation – a three part harmony – first voice – “I think” – second voice – “we should” – third voice – “go to the cemetery.” All speakers in unison.
We hadn’t checked the details – intention wasn’t – so just joined the cortege. I sometimes think I can bookmark my adulthood to this day . . . standing on a slight rise amongst the trees, a pile of fresh earth, bowed heads, intoned prayers, murmured responses. And conscience.
Secular (posted February 17, 2016).
Given the almost compulsion to speak their disbelief, many atheists and agnostics appear to think more frequently of, and about God, than those whose naiveté they scorn, belittle, question, and challenge. The woman in the story didn’t. Not believing in God was as innate to her as left and right; and only discussed when asked for definition or explanation. She knew my background – Catholic education etc and never diminished or provoked it. Her, “do you still believe in God? Was completely without confrontation or one-upmanship, almost permission to look away – to relieve myself of duty – a policeman not seeing theft driven by need, or hunger.
Field Trials (posted February 15, 2016).
By its nature art is less rigorous than science. Perhaps it is this infraction, this carelessness, which makes origin less traceable. So often an acclaimed pioneer is not the founder of a new movement, but a meteor bright follower become usurper. Patty Smith, feted as a rock poet progenitor, but Lou Reed trod the same boards several years earlier.
Lou Reed, under the radar hip and New York cool, wrote songs about the underbelly : misfits, drug addicts, transsexuals, domestic violence and unhappiness, but turned his unfiltered gaze of life to compose two soft songs: ‘Perfect Day’ and ‘Coney Island Baby.’
‘Coney Island Baby,’ opens with melodic yearning : “ You know man when I was a young man in high school ….. I wanted to play football for the coach.” Me too. Before adulthood and the blindside – the despair sequenced from the betrayals and treachery of life, this was disappointment. Being cut from football team. Or rather the training squad from which the team would eventually be comprised. The world collapsed, parties, girls, status, all vanished away by a ballpoint pen and a clipboard. It seemed that life could never be this cruel again. Oh, the very young! ‘Coney Island Baby,’ is a great song – have listen!
Bygone (posted February 12, 2016).
In his beautiful and elegiac story ‘Speaking of Courage,’ Tim O’Brien identifies the anaesthetic to the pain of unexpected and devastating loss as often just being the simple need to talk – to have someone listen. In many ways this story is a time capsule of the country I was born into, but grew out of. It is about men expected to be strong and silent – to be permitted to six weeks of grieving and then to answer with “ not too bad now thanks.” To respond to the death of a spouse as if just recovered from influenza, a broken leg, minor surgery.
He spoke to me with well over an hour – a young man on a bike whom he had never seen before. I guess he felt his friends wouldn’t have been interested, had had enough, or was anxious of losing face. 29 years separated my two visits. The fields had been cleared. There was a maze and a playground, parents could sit in the cafe or the tables outside and watch their children play. I walked around. Shadows and sunshine chased darting children, mothers and fathers and grandparents smiled and waved. I felt a quilted, eiderdowned peace.
Bookends (posted February 10, 2016)
Ross Island was claimed by New Zealand under the Antarctic Treaty of 1959. As such, New Zealand, despite the much bigger and more well resourced American program, held coronial, law and related authority in the McMurdo Sound area – which included the right to be recognised as an approved centre for public and university examinations.
In my first season I was doing exams. On my second day in Antarctica I went to Scott Base to check the papers had arrived and confirm arrangements. No one was at the front desk – ‘ Command Post’ in base speak, so I asked a man standing nearby dressed in New Zealand programme uniform and received the reply about not being the receptionist. No one else was around so I had to leave and come back another time.
The man in question was a long-term permanent employee of the New Zealand programme. Why he wouldn’t assist me will never be known – perhaps it was disdain of such an obvious greenhorn, or perhaps he disagreed with the policy. Before that season all New Zealanders had been welcome to this little part of their country at the bottom of the world. I remembered his surly reply when I learned of the helicopter crash – could hear it almost voicing over the National Radio newsreader. I knew the area, could picture the weather which had been the cause, the urgent muster of rescue and slow march of recovery. And, as readers of Ward Round (posted January 27 2016) and Departure (posted January 29 2016) will know, was familiar with the procedures used by the McMurdo medical facility to confirm death and repatriate victims.
Antarctica didn’t strike the popularity I had hoped. I had thought it might capture readers -something that most only see through the viewfinder rather than the arrival lounge. It didn’t really, not looking at the readership numbers, but it is a theme I might return to later – there were so many stories I might have used. Ending Antarctica as ending any kind of writing is difficult. I know the ending I chose is sombre, but I wanted something that traversed my time; and something that captured what it was about Antarctica that could never be tamed. I think this story does. The inability of an old hand to be civil and no matter how much money is spent, how willing the resources and sophisticated the equipment, Antarctica will always have the last word.
Black and white (posted February 5 2016).
This really is a tale of black-and-white. The anarchic demonstrativeness was vastly humourous, even when spontaneity had become predictable. It wouldn’t have been if Mad Dog had been a skinny white guy.
Beneficiary (posted February 3 2016).
Beneficiary is a sequel to Bequest. The first conflicts of what well may prove to be an 18 year war between parents and children take place on three battlegrounds. Food. Bathing. Bedtime. Theories abound as to the first two, but consensus exists on the third. A bedside story read or extemporised aloud coaxes the most recalcitrant beneath the covers. Two broad categories of story have been proven reliable by time. A fairy tale involving a transformative process in which the downtrodden is elevated by belated regard, goodness, or chance, to the kingdom of their dreams.
Or a fable in which the central actor endures the consequences of abandoning principle to self-interest. Politicians, captains of industry, Supreme Court Judges are often voluble about log cabin to White House transitions. The question is not how they became, but do they remember or care about their humble origins? And given the opportunity to exercise transformative power would they do so?
Beneficiary is definitely a fable. Did the woman in this story remember being an about to be unemployed cleaner? And would she advocate on the behalf of one who was? “NO.” And “NO.”
Bequest (posted February 1 2016).
The first 8000m peak to be climbed was Annapurna by the French in 1950. In his epic account of that path breaking and gruelling expedition Maurice Herzog ended the narrative with an indelible sentence. “There will be other Annapurnas in the lives of men.” To be able to regard one’s achievements as ephemeral and ranking of equal merit to those which will follow, is the mark of a very secure person.
The director in this story had been in charge of the New Zealand Antarctic Program for over two decades. He was sometimes referred to as the Emperor – a descriptor that was partly fiction and partly fact, and one I imagine he would have publicly deprecated but privately was rather pleased with. His reign began in the mid 1960’s and immediately curtailed much of the buccaneering exploration that had characterised his own Antarctic apprenticeship. Like most apostates he was afflicted not by lack of nerve, but imagination.
It’s not what is inherited but the transformation of inheritance to bequest that defines tenure. Given the chance to take a fledging little more than logistical presence, he kicked for touch – developing a cautious paradigm fostering stolid archiving. Boldness could wait, it could turn prove to be a badly behaved genius drawing the wrong sought of attention. For many years the New Zealand programme was a 9- 5 boy’s club – meander though the day, then hit the bar – drinking games, profane stories and juvenile rituals. He wanted to be remembered; adding a woman to the winter staff was thought to be daring and innovative. It was 1988.
Departure (posted January 29 2016).
This story is not entirely truthful. Like the vast majority of the world I am right-handed. The injury was to my left thumb so I was able to complete the remaining three weeks of the season. Washing dishes was out (not planned -honest) but most of other tasks could be quite managed quite easily. So I wasn’t on the flight but a friend was. When she returned the next year inevitably it was one of the first questions asked.
Making direct eye contact she said,” you know what the pilot said,” and repeated the words as they appear on the post. She told the story so well I felt I was there. In a way I was. Without ever being announced many people at the airfield went and stood on the apron and solemnly witnessed the body being loaded onto the Hercules. I don’t know how we knew, that escapes memory. What I do remember is the ambulance reversing up, a group of six cargo handlers, gathering slowly around the open door, lifting the burden on to sturdy shoulders and marching slowly across the snow and up into the rear of the Hercules. Everybody present removed head coverings and observed silence.
Ward Round (posted January 27 2016).
Sick call was 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. per night shift. I had fallen the previous day, going to bed expecting to wake up cured. Early the next morning, very early – the swollen thumb woke me up. Because my injury was very obvious -sticking out like a sore thumb – I was taken straight through to have it cast. The medical facility at McMurdo was quite small. Some consulting rooms and six bed infirmary. I was being worked on when everyone was ordered out. The nurse (corpman in Navy terminology) attending to me and said it would be difficult. The curtains surrounding were all pulled tightly closed. I felt I was on an island of polished linoleum with green cliffs. The voices were low and serious. I distinctly heard “0815.” And the comments about contacting the CO. The rebound of ballpoint pen on the board the resonance of the signature on life’s final warrant stayed with me forever – I can still hear it. This is part one of two-part story. The The sequel is on Friday.
The road between McMurdo township and Williams Airfield is open from early October to late February (end of the summer season). Although built for transportation it was authorized for recreation – running, skiing, mountain biking. In the cold of late spring and arriving autumn the surface metamorphosed from packed snow to frictionless glass – in these conditions cross-country skiing could become cross-country skating. Skating on a 210 cm matchsticks, light and skittery, but with practice, obedient to the command of edge on ice, each transfer of weight a momentary flick of ankle and poles. With a chasing wind the 7 miles could be covered in 15 minutes – a quarter hour of exhilarating bliss.
Portrait (posted January 22 2016)
I am in my early 20’s in this story, an age of no thoughts about consequences – no second thoughts – just jump – plunge into gratification. Ecstasy. And sadness. The sadness of a woman ejected from the familiar by divorce and finding fleeting fulfilment in beneath her station liaisons she could control with total mastery – a currency trader offering rates no one could refuse. Despite her take charge, live for the moment, don’t die wondering resolution, there was a whiff of recrimination – the scent of ‘should know better.’ Perhaps this explains the exhaled “go on …. have a look.” Plausible redemption – not so much absolution as amelioration – a school prefect joining the smokers behind the bike sheds and telling the authorities no one was sighted.
After Hours (posted January 20, 2016)
Irregularity, thought to be jarring and discordant and not fitting with what is orderly and harmonious. But irregularity can be spontaneous, vivacious and delighting in its departure from the expected. Irregularity extends beyond the workplace and into leisure time. We are all accustomed, indeed almost immune, to images of the President, the Prime Minister, the Secretary of the Communist Party skiing, scuba diving, wood chopping in their downtime. But the notion of a man spending his day making cuts of meat and then at night being delighted by mathematics is just so joyful.
Loophole (posted January 18 2016). “ The past is another country, they do things differently there,” wrote L. P. Hartley in perhaps the best opening sentence ever to a novel. New Zealand, in the mid-90s was different country to one in which I first entered the workforce in the early 1980s. Monetarism had thrown the money changers out of the temples – currency had been freed from exchange mechanisms, trade liberalized, farming subsidies banished – government intrusion in industry and commerce eliminated – a brave new world – quivering in fear – of unemployment. Things were tough – employment no longer an interview – it was a process!
The woman in this story was outrageously colourful, the type of character, that while never commonplace, we have all met and have a story about. Sadly such individuals have been quietly culled by an increasingly monochromatic world and now are almost extinct. Dry, cynical, frumpy, audaciously opinionated, fiercely intelligent, partial to the risque; she was a devout smoker.
Flung by divorce into a business she could control, (hours 9.00 am –3pm ) – no weekends – no public holidays – no after hours – and no being exploited by “shitheads,” self employment gave free range to self expression. A former HR manager turned CV writer, “now I create the lies rather than reading them, ” she primped and manicured – an undertaker preparing a body for viewing. Photograph: she laughed her head off at my naïveté. Strategies: evolution and counter evolution, governments enact Equal Opportunity laws – corporations find a mechanism of continuation.
One For the Road (posted January 15 2016).
Friendship – a process like combustion – sometimes slow, reluctant, smouldering with little or no heat. And at other times bursting into life like a firecracker. Every year, on the second Saturday in February, (height of summer in New Zealand), Westport a small town of 4000 – oddly enough located at the western extremity of New Zealand, hosts a marathon race. It is a wonderful event, embraced by the whole town, the course, undoubtedly the best in New Zealand – perhaps the world, follows a narrow road along a river gorge to the ocean. 2000 runners take part (plus supporters).
The first year we competed numbers were in excess of 2500 – all accommodation facilities were booked – organizers broadcast an appeal for townsfolk to offer billets. Con took us in. We loved him. It was that simple. And he loved us. We stayed with him every year. Pre-race and race day were busy, but Sunday was for catch-up. This year – the last year – we stayed an extra day going for a drink. The year before he had been in some slight discomfort, telling us his shoulder was sore.
The returning bounce of memory can be erratic, falling short, or veering at tangent – this one returns straight and true. The day was perfect in every way, temperature, colour, mood and time. The bar’s bifold doors, open to summer, looked over the road, past a playground to breakers, waves rolling all the way from Australia, dissolving on the sands of New Zealand, releasing whatever burdens and hopes they carried. We lingered, having a second and then third round. When we offered our farewell, shaking my hand, he held it for three to five seconds longer than necessary. He knew.
Salvation (posted January 13 2016).
This story, acquired from a holiday job when still in high school, was my first sighting of the dark side of life, which up until then had been school, church, and sport. Indelible and impressionable – perhaps beginning the Velcro snagging of stray threads that would become the cloth of Orphaned Islands (Un)poetry.
She was aged 34 when I was 17 – this rather tangential symmetry and the fact that neither she nor I smoked, when smoking was ubiquitous, seemed to create some kind of bond. She had been the ‘bookkeeper’ in a group convicted of prolonged large-scale theft. For her role she was sentenced to four years in prison – serving two and a half. I can still see the look that preceded her laugh in response to my question – that someone could be so naive as to think disclosure of imprisonment was optional, something revealed to employers and other agencies when on more comfortable and familiar terms.
Triplicate (posted January 11 2016).
I can never think of this story and not smile. Whenever the word disingenuous is inserted into a sentence as a descriptor or qualifier it invariably carries pejorative overtones. But Cynthia was so optimistically and disingenuously unselfconscious. A thrice separated person offering blue sky relationship advice is somewhat like a cheerfully obese nutritionist waving aside concern about fries or doughnuts, a short breathed fitness instructor good-naturedly dismissing aerobic exercise, or an architect extolling the virtues of living in a caravan.
Literally (posted January 8 2016).
I include this story in ‘Greatest Hits’ not because I consider it an especially good (un)poem but because it marks a moment in my life where understanding, which had be complacently perpendicular, metastasised to parallel. I had never denied or pretended domestic violence didn’t exist, but thought it confined to the hardscrabble suburbs. The woman is the story was comfortably – terminally middle class – Head Girl – private school – solid career. People like her married well and lived quilted, predictable lives. Wrong.
It takes place in Antarctica. She was a first year and I was her supervisor. We were employed on the American base at McMurdo – in the kitchen washing dishes, serving meals, preparing salads and cleaning There were no training schools for supervisors in Antarctica. Those whose performance in previous years had been considered above average, and demonstrated workplace knowledge were promoted. While pride would like to think the exemplary were selected, sometimes necessity intervened. The lifecycle of kitchen and cleaning staff and McMurdo was typically three summers. (see Post-dated posted Oct 7). Often it wasn’t the cream, but the less spoiled milk who became supervisors.
When a teenager I had been captivated by Gordon Lightfoot’s chronicling song : The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The music and lyrics seemed to syncopate the wind and waves of Lake Superior in that terrible November storm – the tone – words and tune dropping to a frightening lull before death – “does anyone know where the love of God goes, when the waves turn the minutes to hours.”
Her admission, in response to my asking if something was wrong, did turn the minutes to hours. She told me her love story – I think she felt compelled to. Travel completed, career settled, then she met him. Oooh, the perfection – the congruency of magic – the infinitude of joy. A dream, small hometown coming, wedding. Marriage. It lasted six months. The violence began on her honeymoon. She thought it would stop she said. And then one day she just knew. It never would. She turned 30 that summer – still young enough. I never saw her again. Whenever I see advertisements for Women’s Refuge, or discouraging domestic violence, I think of her. I hope she found love – not the parabolic, gravity free soar of euphoria – that she already knew. But the linearity of increasing intimacy that comes with each passed milestone.
Then and Now (posted January 6 2016 ). Oh the very young. When my form master spoke with me I had just become familiar with the legend of Scott, his disappointment at the South Pole. I thought I knew how he felt. Response as time capsule. I was told not to tell anybody and I didn’t. Perhaps in the cyber addictive world of the now I might have vented my frustration on Facebook or Twitter. I admired my form master the time – I remember how anxiously we sought his attention – how special we felt when we captured it. I admire him more now. It was a fee paying school and I suspect that John was leaving because his parents could no longer afford to – the street he lived in did not emit the aroma of prosperity. For a Christian school some of the figures of authority could be irredeemably spiteful and vigilantly small-minded. Many, most, conveyed an unspoken, non negotiable, “he “who is not with us, is against us.”
One of the wicked delights of an adulthood is chatting with acquaintances from school and mentioning prizes for behavior and or prefect badges and watching them squirm – offering excuses – apparently they never wanted to – felt compelled to accept. My form master’s decency relieved me of that.
Disclaimer: He never actually said the winner came second. That is my interpretation of his actions.
Presumptuous (posted January 4 2016).
An index measurement of performance can be divided into five categories.
For most aspects of life the first and last categories describe the outer limits of the bell curve. The vast majority of in people are contained in the three inner groupings. And anxiety is greatest amongst those in the fourth category. A Performance grade of ‘good’ is stratification’s equivalent of the middle child. It is the unremarkable of the in between – those whose performance is significantly above average but considerably below excellent. Sportsmen, musicians, politicians, academic’s, doctors, nutritionists, managers who would all be scored 7.5 out of 10. Good, but exceptional is a distant and unachievable mark.
The director in the story fell into this category and encapsulated its anxieties. He was the man who nearly did, and almost was. He had done well – but hadn’t quite made it. He had been parked in his present position to serve the last three years of his career – a Bishop elevated to Archbishop because they would never be Cardinal. We knew, he knew, everybody knew. Most days, life offered him the contentment of a man who had achieved his success – but other times voices whispered in his ear, arousing the Alpha male into stamping and snorting around his territory.
He was a short stocky man with a wide face, heavily creased and worn, a visage that brought to mind an old baseball glove. He had white hair, thinning and long – somewhat like the professor in ‘Back to the Future.’ When angry he turned a shade of purple – resembling a plump aubergine. Notices issued by him had his signature and the word Director in bold typeface. After the incident with the tea lady any such notice displayed in a public place would invariably find Director crossed out and replaced with the hand written words ‘Tea Lady.’
Luck (posted Jan 1 2016)
This story occurs at the same, precisely the same location as Parental Guidance – a table on a deck overlooking the lower most reaches of the Pacific before it runs away to become the great Southern Ocean. I was callow, just turned 25, I had never seen wist – but could recognize it when I did. This is not a story of age and youth, the camera or novel panning between porch and living room of life – spring and autumn; they were both in their late 30’s so, more early summer and summer’s zenith. Whenever I hear Judy Collins sing Stephen Sondheim’s beautiful song ‘Send In The Clowns’ – an aching paean of acceptance and remorse, I think of this day, and see ocean becoming shore, becoming hills smudged with the light of a tiring sun.
The couple were still clearly very fond of each other and my presence on both occasions acted as a bridge filling ‘what if’ silences. Even so, some of the pauses in conversation and exchange of eye contact were….. wistful. When the drinks arrived something enclosed us – a bespoke blending of contrast – a casual reverence or solemn lightness – he lifted his glass and I’m sure hesitated before saying “good health.” Perhaps he was thinking of a safe toast. Or perhaps in that moment premonition was.
The ship wrecked was a vessel linking the North and South islands of New Zealand. At the time the Wahine sank it was the largest vehicular fairy in the world and 734 passengers and crew embarked on that fateful journey. At the entrance to Wellington Harbour (which is extremely narrow) it encountered a cataclysmic confluence of extreme seas (20 metre waves) and fierce winds (in excess of 250 kmph).. the conditions were so severe that for much of the time the vessel was more surfboard than ship. One of these surges thrust it against a prominent reef. Lies …. passengers were told they were in no danger, for five or six hours the vessel drifted- the order to abandon ship took everyone by surprise and then many were left to fend for themselves. The spite of fate, he survived this tragedy only to be captured by another – cancer in his early 40s.
Parental Guidance (posted December 30).
Memory chronicles summer more than any other season, assigning a unique identifier to each and every one: the year of The Pino Colada song, the year we went to Golden Bay, the year of water restrictions, the time we had cherries for Africa; this was the year we drank South Australian Claret. Just that one year. We thought we had discovered it – it was our secret.
Win Win, beloved by marketers and advertisers and found in every management 101 course. This claret was – blending the not up to vintage red varietals into a smooth, easy drinking, widely selling wine.
The woman in story had looked over our place when we had been away – checking the mailbox etc. We took her a bottle of this claret as a thank you. Immediately I passed it over I knew moment of magic was about to break. She said we must have a glass – now. We did, and she spoke of the house’s construction and her father. This was the wine they had drunk when building the house. It had been used as an endorsement of their efforts. A glass was a reward for a good day’s work. If productivity was not considered sufficient, then no reward was measured out. It became a ritual. She poured the drinks, took two or three measured sips, and told us the story.
Disclaimer. Truth is not complete in this story. In the interest of brevity I had to modify the ending slightly. To convey succinctly to the reader the bottle was from her father, I added “ love Dad.” There was no message. He knew she would know it was from him. Connecting the drainage was the last thing he did. He knew it had not been done properly – he was too ill to focus clearly. I can still hear her sigh, “If only there had been a note or card with it – even something written on the bottle.”
Fairytale (posted December 28). I don’t know the origin of the quote, but I read it of Peter Tchaikovsky: “life is a comedy for those who think, and a tragedy for those who feel.” Humour, as essential as breathing, as cloud banishing as sunshine. It is surprising over the years how frequently the opportunity to recount this story has presented itself. It is not carried around as an at ready torch, or Swiss Army knife, but many times late at night, when the room has sighed into the quiet following a good story, and seems to want more, it becomes a raconteur’s nexus – or risque’s encore. Every retelling has produced loud laughter, gusting laughter, laughter without restraint – laughter that is transformational. Instantly the audience are all nine year old children again, conjuring the absurdity of what has just been heard. And then, tumbling back through to adulthood – suddenly forensic ……..”I wonder if “
Out of Character (posted December 23)
There is something dispiriting, almost despairing about this story. It is a tale of expectation fulfilled – not of career, sporting, or service but of Central Casting. The New Zealand winter contingent needed a wild boy – it was position to be filled – every year had one. Four decades of honour’s board winter group photo displayed the archetype – prominently. Cheery, cheeky, boozy; a hirsute ruffian casual about dress, protocol and rank. Iconoclast’s need not apply – the successful applicant only required to urinate on the boundary fences – not break them down.
The burden of inheritance or expectation. Imagine being Joe DiMaggio’s son, or Elizabeth Arden’s daughter. Perhaps offspring feel compelled to pick up the mantle. Hank Williams Junior, Arlo Guthrie, Julian Lennon, all did so, and with lesser distinction.
Where there are no champions a pretender will emerge. I think Peter felt he had to be the winter larrikin. Tradition demanded a court jester. If the lead actor was not present, then an understudy must.
One night, or rather early one morning, late in the winter, noise emanating from the corridor woke me about 2:30 a.m. I flung my door open ready to deliver a four letter command to vacate the premises – I knew it had to be an interloper, our own staff were aware and respectful of shift hours. Peter was standing there – the source of the noise. Before I could speak our eyes meet. In that moment I knew, as did he. “Sorry sir,” he said. “Sir” – I have been called that except by service workers – wait staff, airline cabin crew, etc. There was something ineffably sad about the utterance, a dog expecting a beating, a child the removal of privileges, a worker redundancy.
Timing (posted December 21).
Often as people age, or are elevated by achievement or social mobility, they reinvent themselves – either with fabrication or revision. While not unknown, it is uncommon for amendment to increase humility or flatten attainment; exaggeration with respect to self and accomplishment is the natural voice of recall. Perhaps there is a wish to eliminate shame or embalm memory – to rebalance the balance of probability in favour of an irreproachable form of self. However it comes about, and irrespective of extent, reconfiguration can only occur when ties are cut – the ties that connected agnostics to religion, black sheep to families, musicians to rock groups, lovers to each other.
The Black Americans – which was the preferred self description, I worked with in Antarctica never cut the umbilical cord to their brotherhood. Black men and women congregating together would converse, josh, move in a manner inaccessible to anyone who wasn’t a Black American – and always would be. They were egalitarian – their high-spirited cryptic sass was entirely without invective or malice, and directed at the Navy, the scientists, Antarctica, the world, and themselves. I sometimes wonder if it was a defence – the contemporary equivalent of the spiritual songs of plantations.
I have never heard five hens simultaneously laying an egg, I imagine the noise would be similar to the the laughter which broke out at the end of this story.
Detente (posted December 18).
I have never seen this ritual before or since. Perhaps it is specific to the military and evolved as immunity to insubordination – a serious misdemeanour in the Armed Forces. There was irony in alcohol, so often an inciter of chaos, moonlighting as an imposter. Counterfeiting lack of inhibition, resentment played dress ups – as itself. Artificially freed from the boundaries of rank, rancour was able to speak its mind. Although this artifice was most commonly observed between NCO’s and the enlisted, I did see it occasionally between officers, and once between an officer and and an NCO.
The ritual didn’t require someone to drink much, but did require them to simulate drunkenness. And it was a requirement to manufacture next day, hazy recall and disingenuous apology. I think the practise was tolerated, sanctioned even, because it was disinfectant. A verbal astringent applied to social puss – neutralising the antigens and preventing the spread of infection.
I followed a ritual myself the years I worked at the airfield. Almost inevitably the introvert had to work the late shift on Saturday. When finished for the day I would go skiing then swing by the bar for a scotch (just one – honest) before heading to bed for the early shift on Sunday – another reward for being unsocial. I would arrive about 11pm and could guarantee.
1) Serious drinking was underway
2) This ritual was being played out somewhere in the barroom.
Expert Witness (posted December 14).
This speaker was the living embodiment of the cheerfully intelligent, anti-intelligentsia character beloved by cartoons and the makers of television family shows. Rotund, hirsute and extroverted, with a scientist’s eye and press conference soundbite. The first year, the “starfish stuff,” was interesting and absorbing, and unlike most, he had very good slides – this was before before data projectors – and an MC’s banter – possibly from years of teaching undergraduates. The five minutes of nostalgia was the excellent dessert following a very good meal.
The second year his retro view master gave full range to his considerable abilities as a raconteur. The questions at the end, were endless, and eventually the chairman had to close the lecture. He was only there those two years. I kept looking for him – hoping he might return. Perhaps he did, but not in my remaining five years. Sadly the cranial archives will not yield his name. Starfish man if you are reading this, you were gold. Five stars. Do not miss.
Unscheduled (posted December 14).
I grew up in a very, no intensely, no terminally Catholic community. It was like the mafia. We went to Catholic schools, the Catholic doctor, the Catholic pharmacy, not for contraception of course, used Catholic tradesmen and voted for the Catholic candidate. A joke, or a variation of it, got told at all gatherings. A young man confesses to the priest of premarital or extramarital intercourse. For reasons essential to the narrative the priest asks the identity of the woman. When told it is the Presbyterian Minister’s wife, he absolves sin with, “boys will be boys.”
In McMurdo it was the National Science Foundation who ran the program – the Navy provided hired help and transport assets. Keeping the customer satisfied – politicians mainly – was very important to NSF or at least budget procurement. The Navy, from the second level down – the top knew the importance politicians as well, acted rather like a teenager seeing a rival with a date they wouldn’t mind having themselves – not exactly engaging in sabotage, but not identifying potential hazards either.
This was a big deal. CINCPAC was very important – and very influential. I don’t know that he ever knew. But then, a Nelsonian eye can be a useful and well used attribute for the ambitious – military or civilian.
Breakdown (posted December 11).
The mind makes its own rules for recall. I don’t actually remember signing mortgage papers when first buying a house. If I strain, I remember meetings at the bank, and with our lawyer where papers were signed. But I can’t separate the signings : The Sale and Purchase Agreement, transfer of funds, Mortgage Protection Insurance, and mortgage papers. With effort, I can remember parts, making out shapes through fog and mist, but I can’t identify the moment. And it never returns spontaneously.
This story does – at least once a year. Rather like an advertisement on YouTube preceding a clip, the mind cannot be restarted until it has been played. Perhaps because it was like witnessing a serious accident where everyone walks away physically unharmed. Shocking – crash test dummy shocking, no one was physically harmed – enforcement arrived before that could happen. But shocking nevertheless. Shocking in a U turn away. Pollyanna takes a screen test – gets the role – in ‘The Shining’. It was like ‘The Shining’. A depraved maniac trying to break a door down.
She was 19 then – 27 years ago – 46 now. Old enough to have a 19 year old herself. Imagination sometimes conjures the hypothetical and wonders if children’s or young adult curiosity ever asked about Antarctica, or old boyfriends.
Foreplay (posted December 9). John Steinbeck, author and fortuitous Nobel Laureate,* wrote powerfully and evocatively. From the Hemingway School – lean sentences, obese with meaning. Consider this from Cannery Row : “Lee Chong’s grocery while not a model of neatness, was a miracle of supply.” And. “Mack and his friends approached contentment casually, quietly and absorbed it gently.” Perhaps writers are like parents, claiming not to have a favourite – all creations are equal. But readers, like friends, uncles & aunts, and grandparents are permitted a favourite. Which of Steinbeck’s would be someones’s favourite? ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ with its soaring indignation? ‘Cannery Row’ with its high-spirited larrikinism? ‘The Pearl’ and its strong commentary on social inequity? The heartwarming redemptive collusion of ‘Sweet Thursday’? From a personal perspective it’s impossible not to award first place to, ‘Of Mice and Men’.
However this book is dissected, recurrent dichotomy seeps through all 88 pages. It offers hope, and is irredeemably sad. Beautiful, and dark. The characters are free, and imprisoned. Their world generous, and malevolent.
Perhaps nothing expresses the dichotomy better than the swamper’s assessment of Curly, the ranch owner’s son and serial aggressor. “Never did seem right to me. S’pose Curly jumps a big guy and licks him. Everybody says what a game guy Curly is. And s’pose he does the same thing and get licked. Then everybody says the big guy oughtta pick on somebody his own size, and maybe they gang up on the big guy. Never did seem right to me. Seems like Curly ain’t givin’ nobody a chance.” When something went right with the food service division at McMurdo Station it was because the Navy was a champion. And when something went wrong, it was because the contractor was a chump.
* In 1962, the year Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize, the committee considered none of the nominees fully deserving. Serious consideration was given to making no award for literature that year.
In Character (posted December 7). The OIC (Officer in Charge) was officially entitled Commanding Officer Naval Support Force Antarctica (Winter Detachment). Unsurprisingly this cumbersome title was never used, and he was universally called the OIC (oh I see). He was intelligent. He was serious. He was diligent and shy. And he did look like Fred Flintstone – an exact likeness. We didn’t know he had promoted himself – until the captain returned – expecting to be welcomed by Lieutenant X and was surprised to find Commander X waiting to greet him.
End of the line (Posted December 4). The end of every line – longitude. They all pass through the locus of the South pole. Standing at 90° south a person can be anywhere – at any time. The military has patois for everything – this was a space A flight – space available. A passenger in Antarctica was considered 200 pounds freight equivalent – so if the cargo weight was not fully utilized passengers could be taken – seniority derived priority i.e. time on the ice – whoever had been there the longest got to go soonest.
Space A flights had never been popular with the aviation detachment – a waste of space literally – as one said to me, “we’re here to haul cargo not ass.” In 1989 there was a new captain – at some point he raised the possibility only to be told the season, “was too far gone and we’re behind.” He raised it again in the first week of the 1990 season – receiving the same answer, to which he supposedly replied, “I swallowed that bullshit last year. How can you possibly be behind when the season has only just started.” He considered space A flights good for morale and insisted they commence again.
The flight I went on was a real treat. Because it was so early in the season the crew had been tasked with conducting a reconnaissance of the Beardmore Glacier – with the intention of identifying a site suitable for a geological field camp. The pilots took the LC-130 Hercules down to 100- 200 feet and flew over sections of the glacier searching for crevasse free areas. It was quite an experience.
At the South Pole, apart from the essential boast – walking around the world – it was the slowly forming contrast, coffee, cinnamon roll, warmth – waiting to be to teleported back to McMurdo – with Scott’s doomed party – dehydrated, hungry and frostbitten.
I have been able use my Pole flight in those dreadful introduction rituals – the type where we are asked to nominate – four statements about ourselves – two of which are true and two false. Two of my selections are constant.
1) “I have walked around the world.” – always pronounced false.
2) “I am divorced.” – always pronounced true!
Oates, Captain Lawrence Oates, walked from the tent,“ I am going outside, I might be some time,” at 80° south, the location of One Ton Depot as mandated by the expedition’s plan. The previous summer, the horses of the depot laying party had struggled in difficult conditions. Scott, sensitive and sentimental, and appalled at the animals suffering, made a unilateral command decision to stop at 79° 25.5 minutes south – 40 miles – 4 days march, north of 80° south. Oates entreated him to adhere to the original plan, maintaining it was too far for the returning polar party to reach safely. Scott listened, responding he, “had had enough of this cruelty to animals.” Oates famously replied, “Sir, I’m afraid you’ll come to regret not taking my advice.”
Flight time McMurdo to South Pole is 3.5hrs. The return flight was longer because of the Beardmore reconnaissance. I arrived back at 10.00am – in plenty of time for lunch.
Toast (posted December 2). Well who hasn’t done something similar. In the New Zealand of my growing up, vegetables, nearly always brassica’s, were placed in water with a shovel full of salt and a block of butter, or so it seemed, and boiled for three hours until the consistency of macerated newsprint. Upon leaving home and convinced of being a chef genius in the making, I saw an interesting vegetable at a weekend market. “Ober jean . . . egga plant,” said the woman with a funny accent – “tasta great.” She looked great, dangling earrings, gypsy skirt, hair the dark of liquorice. I took one home and cooked it up as per my background. Tasta like shit.
Gratitude (posted November 30). Five of my summers in McMurdo were spent at the airfield, Williams Field, located 10 miles northeast of McMurdo township. Being at the airfield in the 80’s and 90’s was like being a fortune seeking immigrant given finite access to El Dorado – a Wet Back with a visa. Obviously different – tolerated – not engendering hostility, or dislike, not even suspicion but unmistakably and noticeably different. Different in a different way than people are normally different. Not different by ethnicity, or religion or education. But clothing. Of the 200 living at the airfield, and extra 50 working there, almost all wore a uniform. Military. Signed up. Boots on the ground, well ice. But not quite.
There were some civilians. Seven New Zealanders worked for a NZ catering company and 18 Americans for a US contractor providing utility and maintenance services – water, electricity and heavy equipment needed to maintain the snow road. The Americans, 16 men and two women, lived in their own building. Kept their own company, made their own rules. And worked slightly different hours – half an hour out of sync with the rest of the airfield. This caused problems at meal time. Inevitably the most popular items quickly depleted. Hence no raisin toast. One of the female civilians had asked if some could be set aside.
Affinity might have been expected between the two groups of non military. If not bonding, at least empathy. After all we were T-shirts in a khaki community. “Come over sometime.” Definitely not. Burly, bearded, Budweiser fisted, scowling – do not trespass. Do not even think of coming in here. I knew that, but thought delivery of a desirable item might elicit if not warmth, then no frost. Wrong.
In the year of the story there were 6 women living at the airfield. With the familiarity of the script beget by repeated retelling over the time, and the safety of the vicarious, I often add declared fiction to my audience – the film moment, when the protagonist’s wit transcends insult. “No, actually she’s the cocksucker . . . that’s why I’m here.”
Most of the inhabitants of Hut 5 were from the South or Mid West and spoke slowly, protracting their words – so “cocksucker” was actually cockkkkkkkkksukkkkeeerrrrrrrr. The utterance really did build to full volume like power applied to a chainsaw.
On Paper (posted November 27). I once read a definition of a tattoo: permanent proof of temporary insanity. Perhaps a book dedication should be treated with caution. It may well become indelible corroboration of temporary infidelity. Some things travel in the air we breathe. No explanation, clarification, addendum or annotation is required. Got it. Undoubtedly. That look. The look of a person expecting to see an acquaintance, colleague, relative and . . . no, it couldn’t be . . not here. He’d been before and written a book. I was intrigued – what was it like? The library had a copy. I read it. All the essential elements were present – history, narrative, diary and inevitably – being the 1980’s, magic realism. It was okay – 6/10 – but not impressive or memorable. But the fontispiece was.
Artists in residence were the coolest people in town – and the luckiest – helicopter trips, aircraft flights, tracked vehicle journeys to where ice ended and water began.
Mutual. The authorities showed them Antarctica’s best face. In return they were expected to write, photograph, paint . . . soft focus. If not most glowing, then least critical.
God has special affection for irony. So often something without progenitor, creativity that not so much demands attention, as leaps up and grabs attention by the throat; is never replicated, or even approximated. Harper Lee with To Kill a Mockingbird, and Joseph Heller with Catch-22, head a long list of authors whose birthright status was inherited from their first work.
In the early 1970’s the United States Antarctic program hosted Charles Neider as the first Artist in Residence. His resulting book, Edge of the World: Ross Island, Antarctica A Personal and Historical Narrative of Exploration, Adventure, Tragedy, and Survival*, became an instant classic and essential accessory to every Antarctic library. A quarter century later, when I left the program, nothing had come close to this seminal work.
*Survival because Neider survived a near fatal helicopter crash on Mount Erebus in 1971 while artist in resisdence.
Gift (posted November 25). There was something gloriously innocent about her concupiscence. Spying a handsome man she would stare with the same open mouthed, openhearted blend of knowing and desire of a child in a sweet shop.
the act or practice of calling the public’s attention to one’s product or service.
She did. Everybody knew. She loved sex, and proclaimed her love. It was like a bookmaker cheerfully confessing to fixing the odds – and declaring themselves unrepentant and uninterested in redemption. Yes, two young men were procured as birthday gifts.
Backchat (posted November 23). Antarctica 24 hours light and so much dark. The more people I got to know in McMurdo, the more I came to realize were on the run; from romance, from failure, from dissatisfaction, from misunderstanding, and chillingly, hatred. Hatred, such a strong word – perhaps the most emotive in the English Language. Most People who hate the world do so indirectly, rather than directly. They hate a world whose emotions, ceremonies, and patterns they find bewildering and inaccessible. Such people, despite entrenched resentments, are not beyond salvation. Every workplace of a reasonable size has someone rehabilitated from a point thought beyond redemption. And then there are those for whom the world can only feel hatred. People so distant from morality, absolution can’t, and won’t. This man was one.
It’s a big call. And one made with the cooling of twenty years. With time, the singeing scorch of the flames have diminished to ember, and then ash. Still, despite the dispassion of the acceptance of that which cannot be changed, of what is irreversible and inerasable, I classify this the most frightening moment of my life. It was frightening. The most frightening thing was not the evil, or the near violence, or the absence of humanity. It was the control. The knife’s trajectory was precisely calibrated to pass so I would feel the wind rush. The chilling, silent retort : this could strike you with GPS precision. And the unspoken, insolent, but mutually binding defiance : “go on, tell the authorities you shat your pants – that I frightened the crap out of you.” This is my second year. He wasn’t there after that. Rumour said he later went to prison. There were tales of violence to a partner. They were never confirmed, and Antarctica was full of whispers.
Literally (posted November 20). When JFK selected his roundtable knights of Cabinet he had the choice of the nation’s best and brightest – not so much who would be selected, as who wouldn’t. Still, two positions were problematic – Secretary of State and Secretary of Defence. State went to Dean Rusk, by way of advice from Robert Lovett, by way of opinion of General George Marshall. Defence was offered to Robert McNamara who initially declined, saying he didn’t consider himself suitably qualified. Kennedy replied he, “didn’t know of any training schools for Presidents either.”
There were no training schools for supervisors in Antarctica. Those whose performance in previous years had been considered above average, and demonstrated workplace knowledge were promoted. While pride would like to think the exemplary were selected, sometimes necessity intervened. The lifecycle of kitchen and cleaning staff and McMurdo was typically three summers. (see Post-dated posted Oct 7). Often it wasn’t the cream, but the less spoiled milk who became supervisors.
When a teenager I had been captivated by Gordon Lightfoot’s chronicling song : The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The music and lyrics seemed to syncopate the wind and waves of Lake Superior in that November storm – the tone – words and tune dropping to a frightening lull before death – “does anyone know where the love of God goes, when the waves turn the minutes to hours.”
Her admission, in response to my asking if something was wrong, did turn the minutes to hours. She told me her love story – I think she felt compelled to. Travel completed, career settled, then she met him. Oooh, the perfection – the congruency of magic – the infinitude of joy. A dream, small hometown coming, wedding. Marriage. It lasted six months. The violence began on her honeymoon. She thought it would stop she said. And then one day she just knew. It never would. She turned 30 that summer – still young enough. I never saw her again. Whenever I see advertisements for Women’s Refuge, or discouraging domestic violence, I think of her. I hope she found love – not the parabolic, gravity free soar of euphoria, that she already knew. But the linearity of increasing intimacy that comes with each passed milestone.
Credentials II (posted November 18). This is a sequel to Credentials (posted Sept 16 ). The original boss – manager emeritus returned for a few weeks at the start of my second season. He promoted me. I became a supervisor at the airfield kitchen. Located 10 miles northeast of McMurdo township, the airfield was the wild west – complete with single street and buildings on either side. On the first Saturday I went (cross-country) skiing after work. I returned, skiing down the main street. As I did the bar door opened and a fight spilled out across the street forcing me to slalom around the brawl. The airfield was home to aviation detachment. Aircraft, pilots, egos, testosterone – to its face the squadron was VXE 6 – away from it, “VXE sucks.”
The boss was intuitive, vigilant, and a superior fortune teller to any gypsy. I thought his laughter the wry acknowledgment of a card shark failing to spot deceit – fair cop. A new trick. Haven’t seen that before. Chalk it up to experience. Mea culpa.
Antarctica was difficult to eliminate from the blood. It could be quite addictive. Even now, more than 20 years since I felt the slam of a heavy, inside out refrigerator, door, skied through bright sunshine at 2am, or watched an icebreaker toss 6 foot thick ice aside as if sand, my memory often snags and speaks out loud.
Nostalgia. Refuge. Waiting room. Windfall. One of the above. Some of the above. All of the above. Five years later, Steven re applied. He was not accepted. The words, “he knew it was his last season,” were those of someone who understood the habit. Someone who had seen the future. It’s not seeing the future that’s difficult – we all have at some point, and been right – it’s believing. Prescience = patience : eventually two perpendicular lines will cross – even if at infinity – just wait long enough. The man who said, “he knew it was his last season,” had prescience and patience in abundance.
Expired (posted November 16). Expired is an, out of chronological sequence, sequel. I didn’t find out until quite some time later – it is an appendix to In Person (posted November 13) as it refers to a person in that group. A form of Omerta applied in Antarctica – it was okay to tell, but not until later, after you, or they, or both had finished and gone from the continent. A very similar tenet is observed for small towns. After graduation, the place I lived was tiny. Often genial, free-flowing conversation would trickle to . . . “but you know.” I didn’t know. And they knew it unlikely I knew. But that’s the rules. After I left, people were open about, if not fully disclosing of, the towns darkness’s.
We live in a world where meretricious often pushes meritorious aside. The order of importance is reversed. Presentation is ascendant to performance, style to substance. Antarctica in winter is no place froth; it is the body of the beer that counted. Lite will be found out. He was.
In Person (posted November 13). Disappointment, especially instant, plunging disappointment is often disproportionate to consequence. Not making the school football team, being turned down for a date, not getting the job. The way to make money in Antarctica was to go for 12 months – winter over. Our contract was mainly summer – only a skeleton staff in winter – six in total. We knew three, possibly four of the positions had already been pre-decided, leaving 30 – 40 people competing for two positions – not six. Not naturally an optimist, I was about this. Somehow I thought I would get one of the positions. I don’t know why. I had never felt so confident about something. Perhaps it was the boss. Or rather the new boss. The first weeks of my first season were an interregnum – the last days of the old boss of 12 years. He was leaving, only present to train the new one, whom I had misread. He asked me to work Sundays – only 3 worked Sunday morning so productivity was vital, to swap shifts at sort notice, saying, “I need someone who will just get on with it.” I had worked Thanksgiving & Christmas, both big heavy days, when he asked I could work New Year. “ I need someone I can rely on,” he said.
I took that to mean if someone could be relied on and was what was being sought for winter. I was really disappointed not so much to miss out – but who was preferred. The story is about being told I hadn’t been selected. Some things are forever remembered. And some are never forgotten. Delight and despair – ecstasy or eulogy. I could get back and draw an X on the spot. Neither was good at it. Hindsight now reveals his brusqueness to be discomfort. I think he felt awkward – concerned I might have questions, or a challenge, and relieved I didn’t. I did go back the next year and was selected for winter. But it wasn’t the same. I had been the reserve the first year, so was almost guaranteed a place next time. It seemed like an honorary award – no striving, no triumph.
I don’t think he would find his real name appears, because the hubris, the free-falling ego, is mine. Young Norris listened to my defeat and then read me his rites of absolution : “mate, you’re just what they’re looking for.”
Secure (posted November 11). Almost every entity has a defining moment. Even when success has been prodigious and stellar something from the catalogue is formatted in bold. Led Zeppelin sold millions of records, wrecked countless hotel rooms, filled stadiums many times over, but think Led Zeppelin and think the enigmatic transaction : “a lady who’s buuuuuuying a stairway to heaven.”
This was a man who’d been successful in all aspects of life. But remaining above the fray in Antarctica was his greatest achievement. McMurdo was a difficult operating environment. So many people were ill at ease with themselves and the place. The mood of the base was often tense, sometimes venomous, occasionally frightening. Some days it was a burning match looking for arson. From behind the serving lines it seemed like a zoo, caged and wild, feral and controlled. Throughout all, our boss was always calm, always measured, always polite, and most notably always respectful to his workers. He once sacked someone who came back and said, “fair enough.” And gave him a rock from the summit of the mountain he had been dismissed for climbing.
Fable (posted November 9 ). Some things need to be taught and others are acquired without any prescribed instruction. Speakers of a new language must be taught the formal and informal, the acceptable and the profane, the vernacular and the offensive. Visitors, or new immigrants learn shortcuts without ever remembering when they first found out – one day they just knew.
When I did year three chemistry there was a book – a book from previous years with all the experiments and expected results. Before then, I didn’t know – I can’t recall when I learned of its existence, perhaps in response for clarification or corroboration – then I was inducted. In the 1980’s, at a youth hostel in the small Belgian town, was a man adept at altering Eurail pases. Buy two weeks, get the rest free – it was knowledge carried by the airwaves backpackers heard.
In McMurdo everybody knew about our storeroom. There were boxes of sponges, 1 gallon cans of detergent, shakers of scouring powder, green nylon scouring pads – shelves full, a kitchen feeding 1200 4x times daily got through a considerable volume of cleaning materials. If theft could be considered genial – it was . . . “just need to clean my room, my. . . . . ”. And out the door with a single item.
People often arrived with a paper cup, decanted some scouring powder, or poured a little detergent. Then someone officious found out. An order in red pen. No exceptions – which included the storemen. Boxes stacked up in the hallway. Because of the risk people didn’t bother to open and remove a single item – they took the whole box. Straight out of Catch 22.
Folk Law (posted November 6). Antarctica was full of stories. Some unlikely, some preposterous. There was a strange nexus, the more absurd a story seemed, the greater likelihood it was true. A bar caught fire in McMurdo township, the fire department was at the front confronting the fire and a group of opportunists was at the rear loading beer and spirits onto a pickup. True or false? A Russian helicopter from a Soviet icebreaker flew over circling the township. The captain rushed up to the galley (kitchen) seized the recipe cards and began destroying them. True or false? Both were true. Heavens only knows what the captain was doing. If he had wanted to win the war he should have given them the recipes – the food was wretched. But Folk Law was both true and false. He probably had climbed Mt Erebus. But he was officially dismissed for a repeat offence following a formal warning. As the boss said the actual misdemeanour was not unauthorized mountaineering, or even sleeping on the job, it was stupidity.
Out of Sight (posted November 4). When a truth is established as a social tenet, it is startling to learn it is not always. At high school we studied the Great Depression – being told of Wall Street’s collapse, mass unemployment, unprecedented privation and hardship, FDR’s New Deal, and John Maynard Keynes economic policies. At 16 I worked as a printer’s assistant during my school holidays. Catalyzed by circumstances I can’t now recall, one told me of his neighbour, a boat builder, who hadn’t lost a day’s work during The Depression. No reduction of wages. No diminution of living standards. Nothing. Zip.
Antarctica, we all yearned to go, dreamed of going, stood in the queue and elbowed others aside for the chance. Everyone was desperate for the opportunity, and knew by heart the history and heroism of the continent, right? Wrong.
This is a story that comprises the writer’s dilemma. Retelling dilutes credibility to almost unbelievable – the sort of tale that emerges after drinking, or makes the rounds. Sadly, the military often recruited from the intellectually uncurious. Frequently they were people without initiative, or from areas of high unemployment, regions decimated by change and economic restructuring. Needing a job? The Armed Forces have got one. Invariably the recruits came from upbringings that placed no importance on higher education or encouragement to explore. I never understood Vietnam, how the war became such a mess until I went to Antarctica and worked with the military. Since then I have not been surprised at shambles that is Iraq and Afghanistan.
Apostasy (posted November 2). It is surprising how a hierarchy emerges – even amongst the elite – a self-appointed elite will emerge – orthopedic surgeons, fighter pilots, nuclear physicists. We were far from the elite, but the highest status kitchen job was a linebacker. Not the blockbusting professional footballers, but one who raced around during mealtimes, replacing juices, salad, hot food, desserts, cutlery, plates – fast, nimble, prescient and strong. Refilling the cool aide dispensers necessitated lifting a five gallon container up over shoulder height and pouring into the tank.
No, it couldn’t be balanced on the machine – it tipped, tumbling forward, vomiting its vivid colours over the incautious worker and onto the floor. The bright orange, yellow, purple, green of the day’s flavour offsetting the burning red of the unfortunate linebacker’s face – the dining room seated 500, so mistakes never went unnoticed, with the more impressive drawing applause. Control had to be maintained by pure strength – a lesson that didn’t have to be learned twice. Linebacking was number one, numero uno, because it was allocated to the fastest, and didn’t involve any dishwashing.
But even the full moon has a dark side. For linebackers it was the roar of the crowd. The mood of the base of the base had a horoscope aligned with food. With popular meals – pizza or Mexican it was like the last day of high school before summer vacation. When it was barbecued beef cubes or pork adobo, pork adobo being the most reviled and avoided of all food choices, it was like arriving home to find an unexpectedly large invoice.
Skuas were bigger, stronger, less scrupulous seagulls. People said if there was was an accident in Antarctica, Skuas arrived before medical help. They weren’t joking. They wintered at sea, migrating to Antarctica year in late October or early November, departing in early February.
Eternally foraging and scavenging, dexterously opportunistic – capable of snatching a loosely held hamburger or hotdog; Skuas were fearless, aggressive, resourceful and cunning. They constantly raided penguin rookeries snatching chicks and eggs. Yep, every fried chicken day new people pointed and said “skua.” They always laughed and always thought us sullen when we didn’t.
Yes, JB – an old friend – really was 6ft 5 with red hair – the red hair only Irishmen have. He entered university aged 35, sitting in class alongside petite, just left high school, girls, and 18 year old, not yet needing to shave boys.
Smokescreen (posted October 30). There was an irony working on the United States Antarctic Program. Evolution took one look at Antarctica and decided it wasn’t for people – the only landmass on the globe not. But McMurdo station seemed to comprise an eternal fun fair in summer. There were always parties. So many it seemed some people came to work only between parties. Toga parties, Halloween parties, Mojo parties, Beginning of Season parties, Thanksgiving parties, End of Season parties, Christmas parties, New Year parties, no milestone was complete without a party.
But parties just weren’t for fun – they could be cure. The homesick could be jollied out of it by a party, the lovesick cheered up by a party, stranded love rats might get lucky at a party. If that wasn’t enough there were four bars, humming most nights – stadium rock on Saturday night. People sometimes forgot that not everybody was at a party or a bar on Saturday night – most never made it to 7.00am breakfast and had no idea it required staff. The couple coupling in the story, did so every Saturday night with ferocious punctuality – about 30 mins after I had fallen asleep. No blame could be attached – apart from neglecting the basic precaution of checking for no-choice eavesdroppers – our accommodation had partitions not walls – screening from view, but not sound.
In many ways McMurdo in summer was like teenagehood – lots of hormones – lots of desire – and …. finding a place. Just as teenagers frequently have to wait for parents, friends, roommates to disappear – passion in Antartica had to patient – and then unleash. Because were living in canvas tents, with wooden floor and wooden partitions, with 0% humidity, and a 300 litre heating oil fuel tank, fire was an omnipresent and unforgiving menace.
The buildings were old and dry, the wind strong and constant. A building such as the one we occupied, once burned end to end in 90 seconds. Smoking was strictly forbidden. A cigarette fallen asleep from, or a dropped glowing tip not retrieved in time by alcohol slowed hands, would certainly have resulted in fire. The couple in the story had audibly been drinking – loud voices, laughter, giggling, firecracker flatulence, which catalysed more laughter and giggling and general absence of inhibition.
It was a dilemma. To inform, almost convicted me of being a Peeping Tom. Elimination would have quickly mustered an identity parade of one. The woman in the story was all on other occasions, polite, demure, and by the standards of McMurdo, prim. Every Sunday morning I resolved to talk with her, or the boss. By each Sunday brunch time I had relented to giving it one more week.
Expertise (posted October 28 ). When she was good, she was very good and when she was bad, she was horrid wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He might well have been describing the U.S. Navy. Mechanically efficient and lampoonishly extravagant. Coin counting frugal and greenback flinging spendthrift. Shylock and Pollyanna. In over 1400 days, of three meals a day, four in summer, not once was a meal late. Never. Ever. At 5:30 a.m, at 11 a.m, at 5 p.m, at 12 midnight, food was ready. People were always waiting, but only because of boredom and insufficient purpose. Sick of sitting in your workplace with sweet FA to do – head over to the galley for chow and less stale company. There were always queues, but not because the kitchen was tardy it never was. All for $4.26 per person, per day. When the season ended the $ balance of the food bill was exactly zero, b – (a x c) = 0 where b is the budget allocated, a is $4.26 and c the number of person days in a season.
Every February the base was closed out and resupplied with fuel, food and all the materials to support 1200 people for 12 months. South Pole was closed out with food sufficient for three years and fuel for five. No problem – not a beat missed, apart from weather and machinery tantrums.
And when she was bad. Everything heard about the military purchasing $300 impact combat drills (a hammer), 50-cent plastic buttons represented as $20 and three people to do the work of one, was true. One summer I befriended an aircraft mechanic. He was a specialist. Very specialized. His specialty was ejector seats. All the aircraft at McMurdo were transport type. Not a single one was fitted with an ejector seat – they are the prerogative of fighter jets. He didn’t know what he was doing there either. Unsurprisingly his ‘workday’ comprised very little work.
The incident in the story occurred in my first summer. Apparently during the previous winter this impressive machine had been installed. It had replaced the pot wash sanitizer – designated out of date and therefore unhygienic. That year there was something even less hygienic – no sanitizer. Everything was washed by hand, rinsed and put away. For reformers seeking clear English, language removed from jargon, technical impenetrability, and legalese; was there ever a more coherent, more concise, more accessible, more definitive and less prevaricating explanation than, “it’s fucked in the guts.”
Dehydrated (posted October 26). Much of the world is indentured not by slavery but economics. Imprisoned by the absence of choice in manual, repetitive monotony by wages barely sufficient to pay the essentials of physiology: food, clothing and shelter, protest is silent. Satire unthinkable. Satirising, sending them up, taking the piss, yanking their chain. Perhaps nothing confirms the power of democracy quite like this ancient ritual. Everyone is fair game – The president, The Queen, the CEO, the foreman, insubordination doesn’t even think, it just does – try that in China or Nigeria.
The central character in the story was a very bright boy – and endearing – he had a sparkling innocence – but occasionally his hyperactive IQ slipped off the leash and urinated on the lampposts of conceit. It was impossible to take offence – he was too likable and besides it was so cleverly done, most would have had no idea they were being sent up. There was a problem with the laundry that year, it seemed to add rather than remove dirt from our clothes – rumour said it was some cheap generic washing powder that wasn’t up to the task. Peter tie dyed one of his work Tee shirts pink – the boss expressed his horror. “Don’t worry,” Peter replied, “the laundry will turn it back to grey.”
He was there only that one time. I suspect he would not have been reemployed. His absence was a loss of wit and colour, and while a dissident, his dissidence contained no spite or rancour, it was humour founded in the promulgation of the absurd. The humour of Catch 22 and Monty Python. Yes, dehydrated water – just add water!!
Thieves Honour (posted October 23). The collective award, beloved by trade unions, altruistic, egalitarian, well intentioned and commendable. But there is a loophole. Equal remuneration does not require equal input. Until three years before I commenced in Antarctica, rates were paid at the point of source: an employee working nights, weekends, early mornings, public holidays earned considerably more than one working Monday to Saturday, (McMurdo was a six-day operation – Saturday was Friday ) 8 – 5. Some employees were taking home twice as much as workmates doing the same work, in the same workplace, on the same day. Returnees were assigned the most lucrative shifts, so a form of promotion applied, nevertheless there was much resentment.
The problem was the meagreness of the base rate, around $7 per hour in the mid-1980s, it was only the penalty rates that were worth having. The solution adopted was to aggregate all the hours worked and divide by the number of employees – striking an equalized and universal hourly rate. All workers were equal. No workers were more equal than others. Collectivism takes no account of human nature or rat cunning. The mathematics of the quotidian daily output were not difficult, and many quickly calculated the solution. Most weren’t smart enough to work out the absolute minimum, adding cautious and redundant units of output, but Eddie’s calculations had it figured to the 26th decimal point.
Ours was a small shift. If someone was having a bad day, the rest just had to suck it up. If someone was absent sick, we went without – there was no agency to provide a temporary. It was these times his attitude really hurt us. The group’s reaction was interesting. Without ever it been spoken of, unanimity formed. We all turned out backs on him. Still, he was safe – no one wanted to be an informer. It was somewhat like a husband and wife experiencing marital difficulties and sleeping in separate rooms. We knew, but the outside world didn’t. And wouldn’t.
Backwash (posted October 21). Even agnostics find the stirring resonance of Ecclesiastes impressive : “A time to kill, and a time to heal. A time to love, and a time to hate. A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” Was there ever a more eloquent binary testament? Theology’s mission statement extends a hand in absolution, raises a clenched fist to crush. Frequent guest performer at weddings and funerals, Ecclesiastes serves to warn and encourage, offering fulfilment and regret, predicting a time for everything, and its inverse.
There is a time to be proper, and a time to be flippant. A time to quip, and a time to be silent. A time to be careless, and a time to be contrite. Everyone who has spoken to a gathering knows that feeling of attempted humour falling flat. And everyone has been in an audience, a seminar, at a dinner party, a conference, a public meeting, and thought : “my God did he, (always he in this case), really say that!!”
Ever since my gaucheness in the shower I carry a default pardon for the first offence. I have no idea why I said what I did. It was an out of office, automatically generated response – he is not here at the moment – let me speak on his behalf. Fortunately the recipient was a scientist who was there for that one, single summer. I never saw him once it ended. The possibility I might have encountered him for following six years too awful to even contemplate.
Explanation (posted October 19). Chaperoned by geography and non satellite media the 1960’s only brushed New Zealand. The assassinations and the riots, the sit ins and the marches headline news – literally. Three day old news reels somehow unreal, and euphemistic, soothing a one eye open nation back to sleep. Montgomery. Birmingham. Selma. Watts. The age was defined by white police batons, fire hoses, snarling dogs and black resistance. Never give up conviction absorbed the brutality, not once yielding the struggle, winning the right to equal citizenship.
How many blows do peoples take before they are free? And how would they present at the end? I never expected to know anything of this world and the men and women from it. Many of the African Americans I worked with in Antarctica were my age, or thereabouts. Their growing ups soaked in prejudice and pursued by penalty. But that soaking could never wash out the individuality nor pursuers capture the spirit of Black Americans. The beat, the tempo, the rhythm that scored the tune of their being, always there, always clicking its heels, tapping its feet, sometimes marking, but always keeping time.
Even as Ray broad shouldered his way to explanation he did so with graceful muscularity. The words, despite their profanity, unfolded like a singer practicing scales – “where’s it at, where’s it at, all them other god damn greedy assed motherfuckers ate it, that’s where it’s at,” – clear and ascending. I could see how Black Americans had survived – slavery, brutality, discrimination and belittlement. One told me about his enlistment and first day at boot camp. The drill sergeant bellowed, “your soul might belong to Jesus, but your ass belongs to me.” It didn’t. And never would.
NSF is the National Science Foundation, based in Washington they administered and paid the bills for the US Antarctic Programme.
Honesty (posted October 16). Honesty is the best policy, so it is said. If, in the autumn of 1972 or winter of 1973, Richard Nixon had addressed the nation, denying knowledge of the break-in at the Democratic Party’s National Headquarters but accepting responsibility, it is very likely Watergate never would have been.
Nothing deflates righteousness or anger quite like admission of responsibility. I was once driving with my father when he was pulled over by a patrolman. The motorcycle cop asked if my father knew he had gone through a red light. “No,” he answered, “but if you say I did, I must have.” The policeman, surprised at this unquestioning verification of his authority, shifted from authoritarian to avuncular. “ There wasn’t any traffic but red lights are important. You need to pay attention, if only for your own safety, and that of your boy. Off you go.” No penalty. No resentment.
The Chief’s* reaction encompassed absolution and empathy. Candour expunged rancour and who hasn’t done something similar. Someone who didn’t need a spin doctor or mediator, once said : “He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.” Still, the iconoclast in me is often amused by forgiveness which would engender outrage if seeking permission, imagine : “Would you mind if I neglected to pay attention, burned the morning’s baking annoying the hell out of a whole bunch of people, who then turn on you…”
*Chief is a Chief Petty Officer – a non commissioned officer, the naval equivalent of a sergeant
Backdoor (posted October 14). All the King’s horses and all the King’s men. The manager of a contract providing cleaning and kitchen handing services would seem no match for the best the U.S. Navy and National Science Foundation could provide. But he was. And then some. Before the e revolution, before the two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, joined the keyboard to the screen, computers were unlovely, needy beasts. Erratic and fragile they were used mainly to undertake sophisticated, stochastic calculations. To do so, they used data fed by programmers, fed with the same patient caution employed to feed nutrient adverse infants. Just as a parent who has prepared, anticipated, adapted, is rewarded with an empty plate, so too the programmer, with the cyber child relentlessly calculating, selecting and rejecting algorithmic possibilities until only one was left standing.
Our boss was exactly that, inputting all the variables and variants, running the data until a single, unequivocal strategy emerged. Impressive as his plan was, it would have counted for nothing without the stellar performance of the accomplice actress. Attractive, vivacious, intelligent, with sparkling good humour and a wicked sense of mischief, she played the role with finesse, zeal and verisimilitude. The boss thought the tears a tour de force, “even I felt sorry for her,” he said.
Fire was a danger. Antarctica is extremely dry and very windy and the buildings erected in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s were not at all flameproof. The Fire Department was ubiquitous and powerful and its jurisdiction was felt in another very direct way. Regulations required McMurdo Township have available 34,000 gallons of water at all times for firefighting purposes. This often meant restrictions for showers and laundry and even sometimes for the kitchen. The reconstruction in the 1980’s saw implementation of full fire safety engineering – sprinklers, smoke detectors, hardwired alarms etc. The tents we lived in were known as Jamesways (for a description read Backstage September 30). A Jamesway once burned end to end in 90 seconds!
Landscape (posted October 12). The first to establish settlements in Antarctica were explorers, men of ambition and self, adventurers and legacy seekers, building bases to mount treks to the South Pole. They brought the commitment of teenagers, playing until their gratification was complete, or attrition or failure intervened, then jettisoned or fled, abandoning their presence to the blizzards and ice.
Construction of McMurdo Station began with International Geophysical Year in 1956 and continued throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s. The program kept expanding as did accommodation required – they’re coming, so build it. They did, including a nuclear power plant which operated from 1962 until 1974 when it was decommissioned and thousands of cubic meters of earth were transported back to the USA for decontamination. Through the 60’s, 70’s, and early 80’s, environmentalism was a timid bystander, one for which the authorities had little tolerance and no respect. Construction waste – used transformers, obsolete vehicles, unrepairable machinery – were placed on the sea ice – summer thaw – vanished – magic.
Of the two stimuli responsible for altering human behaviour, penalty is far more effective than inducement. Charges, fines and exposure, the guns to the diplomacy of subsidy, encouragement and persuasion.
In the Austral summer of 1986/87 Greenpeace established a permanent presence in McMurdo Sound – observing and reporting. Unsurprisingly this was the last season waste was dumped at sea. In 1988/89 a full recycling program was implemented, with all glass plastic and metal, cleaned and repatriated to the United States.
Over the years increasingly stringent environmental protocols have been enacted. Nowadays nothing can be imported without approval, and everything must be taken out. Sewerage sludge is processed and removed. Wind turbines are used to generate electricity. McMurdo in 2015 is much cleaner and greener, bearing little resemblance to the settlement I first came to in the mid 1980’s. Antarctica and the planet are much better for that.
Evensong (posted Oct 9). Although McMurdo station functioned 24/7 in summer, about 70% of the population worked Monday to Saturday 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday was a holiday and had its own routine. The dining room had different hours, serving brunch and a steak and lobster evening meal. Everybody and their sister did come on Sunday night – steak, lobster, corn on the cob, baked potatoes, salad and cheesecake or strawberry shortcake. 1200 people, eat as much as you want!!! I once challenged a man taking 7 steaks. He was affronted, “I’m only having 3 now, the rest are for later.”
For the workers it was a big, heavy shift. I forever remember this day – my last on changing shifts – before moving permanently to mornings. Every Sunday night there was a science lecture, always informative, often enjoyable. Because we were finishing up, I missed the start, when the MC announced two were missing. I had just sat down when he walked directly to the lectern, took the microphone, saying, “they’ve found them and they’re alive.”
Two civilian employees of the National Science Foundation contractor, bypassing the flagged route had walked down the eastern ice cliffs of Ross Island – intending to regain the route on the ice shelf. The crevasse field – still covered with winter snow – a shortcut – inviting and innocent. Throughout the night and next morning progress reports were issued, as eagerly followed as election results or Apollo 11 mission updates. At first it looked as if chance had excercised the prerogative of mercy – both were removed from the crevasse alive – both died within two hours of extraction.
For the mountaineers and medics working to save the second man, the news of the first’s death was devastating – I knew one of them casually – even at the season’s end he couldn’t speak of it. A memorial service was held in the dining room three nights later. It was filled to overflowing. Permeating the solemnity like smoke from a campfire – unanimous and lonely, piercing and silent – it might have been me. During my time the US Antarctic program had an annual budget of $140 million, still Antarctica could never be fully tamed, some things remained beyond the control of the continent’s biggest spender.
Post-dated (posted Oct 7). This story could be about hypocrisy, but it’s not. And it could be about retribution, but it’s not that either. Contrition might have been a candidate as well – nope – not interested. Nor is redemption, absolution or apostasy.
Writers are watchers and collectors, watching characterization and collecting the scraps of personality that escape down the street, turning them over, seeing if the unrehearsed contradicts the script, hoping for a story. Most times there isn’t. Occasionally there is. This is one.
Someone besieged by the absence of intimacy didn’t seem to belong in Antarctica – many things cannot be prefigured vicariously, but surely this could. I began to watch him, casually at first with a kind of suspended disdain –“ what did you think it would be like without your girlfriend?” And more carefully as the puppy too timid to sleep outside became the dog roaming the neighbourhood. Someone no longer surprisingly maladjusted, the fretfulness of a infant newly at school replaced with a salesman’s freshly pressed good humour, and determination to be centre stage – every social event, forefront every photo opportunity and parade his most envied success – the rare and coveted bed for two.
This is a tale of narcissism. Of entitlement so self destructive, it’s almost a fable. It is the story of a modern day Icarus. Of a young man working as a cleaner in a building from which a prized item was stolen – an item of value, status, and desire. Although it was ‘found,’ and the investigation terminated …. access, knowledge, familiarity, cover…. the dots had been joined. The file was closed – but not quite – a postscript was added – NOT FOR REMPLOYMENT. He didn’t appear to understand the distinction between stay of prosecution and acquittal and was shocked not to be.
I don’t think he was so much upset at the absence of communication from his girlfriend, as the thought he was no longer important to her – that was unthinkable.
Affidavit (posted Oct 5). The best writing skill is compression – the ability to collapse a paragraph to a single sentence. In the novel Jaws, the biologist explains shark behaviour to the town police chief : “all these things do, is swim, make little sharks and eat.” Evolutionary programming: concise and brutal. In Antarctica all many did was work, eat, and drink. This Saturday, the first night the bars had been open for the season, had seen 12 fights in one hour. Trouble is never distant when the scheming duo of cheap liquor and boredom couple, but a dozen rounds before the night began to run, was greedy even by McMurdo standards.
Captain’s Mast – a hangover from the days when McMurdo was staffed entirely by military personnel, was a council, chaired by the Captain, of the senior representatives of each organization present in McMurdo to adjudicate disciplinary matters. It had the power to censure, fine, demote or deport. It met weekly in summer – first thing Monday morning. The Captain’s reaction exhibited both a sense humour and a wink – the wink which so often excused alcohol sponsored mischief. Boys will be boys. And girls, well they want to have fun too.
Roads (posted October 2) Every avenue in life – career, travel, romance, adventure, has this moment – brief, fleeting, transient, sometimes terminal – that moment we wish to click undo – Control – Alt – Delete. And flee. Every year for seven summers and two winters, early in the season the knowing, delighted demon crept up, tapped my shoulder, not to frighten, but taunt, to murmur – “you’re not up to this – you’re not good enough – why don’t you run home to mummy.” “Go on, you want to.” This day – my first year – was exactly what was happening when the man walked by. Nine visits. It never failed to appear. My confidence never failed to take the bait.
Vacant (posted September 30) Just as people fail to see something right beneath their nose, I was looking for the prank that wasn’t. Convinced this was a ruse pulled on the new boy – the Antarctic equivalent of the long stand, or left handed screwdriver – I manufactured good-natured contrition. Fair cop – walked right into that one – but where is the right room. Wrong. It was my room. And when shovelled clear, perfectly serviceable.
In the 1980’s McMurdo Station underwent major construction with extensive new accommodation being built. During this time many of the summer work force designated the lower ranks – kitchen workers, cleaners, construction labourers, trade assistants – were housed in Quonset Hut shaped, double skinned, canvas tents known as Jamesways.
Erected on a pre-fabricated stage-like wooden floor and heated by a diesel stove, the Jamesways were surprisingly comfortable. Partitions had been built – toilet cubicle style – not full floor to ceiling. A room had space for single bed, a locker a shelf and not much else. Small? Although two people often spent a night in a single room, they would have to dress at separate times – it was that tight.
Despite, or perhaps because of the density, residents were extremely considerate. In summer, McMurdo ran 24 hours a day and all of us were working shifts. New Zealanders are by nature gregarious people, with fondness for company and a party. We were well-liked, diffusing through after hours Antarctica by osmosis and choice; and although always included, never lost the belonging of the minority. We might have been the last to leave every party, but visitors to our accommodation were greeted with “Ssh …. people are sleeping.”
The Jamesways did not have bathrooms. We had to go outside and down the street for toilet and shower facilities. In my last year, by which time construction had been completed, we lived in college dormitory type buildings – two people per room. New staff members complained of having to walk down the corridor to shared bathrooms. They considered this inequitable as the newest buildings had en suite facilities. Whenever I heard this, it was a cue to recount my snow filled room story.
Stark (posted September 28). The world rushed by those first few days. No travel was permitted outside the base in the first two weeks – weather conditions did not cooperate and safe travel routes had yet to be marked. Life was work, eat and sleep. Sleep – I kept being moved – as did others – it brought to mind the Andrew Lloyd Webber song ‘Another Suitcase In Another Hall.’ We were working different shifts but for this night living in an open plan tent with no individual lights. Someone thinking that the switch by them was for their area, flicked it on. The woman in the opposite bed was preparing for work. In the mornings I am somewhat like an old car starting – reluctant, ungainly, sputtering and only reliable after 30 mins of warming up. This morning I was wide awake – instantly.
Technical Assistance (posted Sept 25). The kitchen in McMurdo was large and intimidating. It took time to learn where things were and how they were done. New people almost always ended up in scullery or pot wash – minimal orientation and instruction were necessary – “see those dishes, those pots, wash them.” Early in October people arrive – 120 per day – often before the designated workplace is fully operational – but everybody has to eat – it’s a chaotic time and new people were sent to the front line – literally. The two I was working with had been before. Both were forklift operators waiting for their real jobs to commence.
Introduction (posted Sept 23). The boss my first season in Antarctica was a very impressive individual. He had that rare talent of making people feel special – that nothing was, or could be more important than the person with whom he was speaking. He was courteous and intelligent, thoughtful and modest, and in an extremely plainspoken world, notably diplomatic. He was careful with people, respectful, almost too considerate with some – some, whom I thought should have been told to pull themselves together. But none of this could hide a resolute, fearless, and deeply certain individual.
He was the walking embodiment of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous maxim: “talk softly and carry a big stick.” On that first day, the rules were listed and explained. No doubt existed as to the consequences of any violation. None at all – not a trace. As the weeks passed I came to understand here was a man who could solve that almost impregnable quadratic – able to be compassionate and ruthless – a judge who could pardon, commute or wear the black cap. He was universally liked. And deeply respected.
Truth is diluted in this story – the person opening the beer wasn’t employed by the same organization as me – it was early in the season and we were sharing transit accommodation. Still, drinking was endemic in Antarctica. It was a big problem. And cause of much trouble.
Entry/Exit (posted Sept 21). All writing embraces disappointment. For the writer, words will not find the right sequence, or impart the right nuance, or allow the full range of possibility. For the reader, metaphor is laboured, phraseology convoluted, narrative intrusive or indecisive. The disappointment in chronicling Antarctica is the inadmissibility of the best material. Much of what happened, although true, when spoken or printed seems so beyond unlikely as to invite ridicule. The stories that defined Antarctica, the anecdotes which captured the uniqueness, the zaniness, the fucked upness of the place, can only be repeated to a very small audience – those present, witnesses who know such tales not only plausible, but verifiable. This one falls on the self-imposed margin of believable. It was my first season and bad weather delayed flights – the first landed on schedule – then none for eight days. The man in the story had been waiting to leave after 12 months of canned food and stale company.
Passengers were transported from the airfield in high, large tyred vehicles known as Deltas – unwieldy vehicles which bounced and jolted frequently. They always jolted one more time after stopping – that was in the rules. Old-timers knew to wait until the door opened before standing up. If coordination was right, bags would be waiting, or about to arrive. If not, go and eat and come back later.
Food – an army marches on its stomach, but in McMurdo food was more than fuel, it was a compulsory soap opera – addictive and despised – something people wanted to cease but couldn’t help watching. More than being the universal topic of conversation and vector of discontent, food was the comma on the page of routine, it provided a pause, punctuating the day. McMurdo – summer population 1200 – was a small town. It needed all the services of a small town. And the regional city, because there wasn’t one. Many of the population were just in case – linesmen just in case the electricity failed. 15 minutes before mealtimes people began drifting to the dining room like dairy cows to the milking shed – it was a Pavlovian response to boredom. 1200 people – 90 minutes – despite the frequent descriptor “shit”. There was always a queue.
Bipolar (posted Sept 18). Arriving in Antarctica was anticlimactic. Bad weather struck, delaying departure. Early October, the beginning of the summer season, is prone to storms. Eventually, after checking in each day for eight days, the flight was airborne. It arrived to a cold, slate grey day. Until the first week in December, when it begins to break up, aircraft land on frozen ocean – a 10,000 foot runway planed from the sea ice – planes touch down and roll until sufficiently slowed to brake without skidding. Disembarking the aircraft is to step into the workings of an airport – auxiliary power units are belching smoke – forklifts shifting pellets of freight and baggage – fuel being pumped into thirsty tanks. Except this is the military, so passengers who don’t know are told – none too politely – to get over there – “there,” being the awaiting transport.
It’s distinctly Antarctica all the same. From the airfield, all the landforms and monuments are visible, Scott’s memorial cross atop Observation Hill, Hut Point, home to his first expedition, the torso of Ross Island clearly distinct rising from frozen ocean. Standing over everything, like a Duke viewing their estate, is the 3,794 m (12,448 ft) active volcano Mt Erebus.
Antarctica in October is invariably cloaked in graphite, East Berlin skies. It’s not gleaming, pristine and adventurous. It’s dull, sullen, and for most of my returning and conscripted fellow travellers, not worth a second look. There was a cliched predictability in re-encountering people in the new season. So often, “this is my last time,” accompanied greetings. There was always one more year. And always the same testament – always with the same blend of defiance and weariness.
Credentials (posted Sept 16). Antarctica was simultaneously egalitarian and plutocratic. Returnees had no need to be furtive or cunning, or engage in any negotiation, they openly seized the best jobs, most comfortable accommodation, least unsociable shifts – moving up the queue for any perks. New people, no matter who, or what they had been in their other life, started at the bottom. Someone could have been a rocket scientist, but in Antarctica they began by washing dishes, or cleaning toilets. At the time I thought the introduction was a form of showing off – been there done that – 4X. Wrong. It was establishing the pecking order. Others did too – some subtly, others less so – right up until my sixth season – by about which time someone is considered to have sufficient skin in the game and able to wear the epithet OAE : Old Antarctic Explorer.
In the 1970s and early 1980s drug use (mainly marijuana) had been widespread in Antarctica. To combat this, stringent procedures were used before embarkation. All passengers and baggage were vetted by a sniffer dog – bags were placed in front of a red line and people stood behind – it was surprising the feelings of ill ease and guilt this induced. On one occasion the drug dog’s attention on me was immediate and acute. For several seconds I suspected planted contraband. The handler recognized the dog’s reaction- something was amiss but not urgent – he told me to lift my foot – cat or dog droppings were squished into the boot tread.
When check-in procedures were complete, we were driven to foot of the aircraft – held in the pens – the type used for sheepdog trials and watched over by MPs. After entering the sheep pen no contact was permitted with anyone outside. The time spent in the sheep pen before boarding the aircraft varied. Typically it was 20 – 30 minutes. One occasion was two hours. Attempts to thwart the drug use were only partially successful. There was a plentiful supply of marijuana in McMurdo. Rumour said it was grown hydroponically at the South Pole. But Antarctica was full of rumours.
Teeth Marks (posted Sept 14). From the mid-1970s until November 28, 1979 Air New Zealand operated excursion flights to Antarctica. Clever marketing saw only a few flights each year – seats eagerly sought – difficult to obtain – and for the time expensive. $350 for a 10 hour journey in 1979. Flight TE901 departed Auckland with 257 crew and passengers. None returned. All perished when the DC-10 they were travelling in struck Mount Erebus. TE901 may have been the world’s loneliest aviation disaster but it is amongst its most documented. A body identification of 83.4% was achieved – many by dental records. Mount Erebus towers over McMurdo township and the Ross Ice Shelf. In the 24hr daylight Antarctic summer I saw it every day. I could never do so without wondering if the passengers had fleeting comprehension, if in the moments between collision and explosion, those last few seconds, that single second, the milli or micro second, when the brain processed what it had never felt before, or ever expected to, did it text … O FK.
The dentist in the story is the same as in Decay (posted July 22 ), this story can be found in the archives.
Mercenary (posted Sept 11). George Bernard Shaw opined, “youth is wasted on the young.” I don’t mind growing old, so much as being forced to hand the title of younger generation to a group who seem much less deserving. Perhaps nothing is corralled so fiercely, so spitefully, or treats interlopers so sneeringly, as the cohort of youth. A forty year old trying to pick up late teenaged and early 20’s women was something the now generation found unthinkable. And unpardonable. Men and women who wouldn’t have given one another a second look joined forces in condemnation. This went beyond promiscuity or hypocrisy. It was sleaze. 40? It seems frightfully young these days.
Pen Portrait (posted Sept 9). information travels by rules of its own density. Bad news has no need for GPS it will find the right address unaided. Extravagance too, it is carried by the air we breathe. Everybody knows about Imelda Marcos’s shoes, Elizabeth Taylor’s jewelry, the price of a Fifth Avenue penthouse. I knew Antarctica paid well without ever being told. But thought it was only for those able to coax and cradle technology and machinery, diesel mechanics, engineers, IT specialists. A man in the town I was living had been several times – I assumed he was a skilled tradesperson on the tiny New Zealand program. It turned out he worked for the Americans at McMurdo. They employed 50 New Zealanders to do the work they found difficult to recruit and troublesome to morale – kitchen staff and cleaners. The pay was sensational. The expenses zero.The US military routinely hires local labor for what economists call hotel services , catering, cleaning, laundry etc. etc. In the Philippines, many Filipinos find work on the American air and naval bases. Likewise throughout Europe. Although the wages are generally high, it is cost effective in the long run – no benefits , superannuation, transport etc. etc. New Zealand was the closest local port to McMurdo.
So what was the military doing in Antarctica? Logistics was the cover, aircraft, medical units, ships etc. etc. – but the real reason was preparation for Arctic warfare. The Cold War was named because in the 1950’s it was thought the next world conflict would be conducted in the Arctic. Learning how to support a garrison in polar conditions, and the techniques for troop movement, building aircraft facilities, ice piers for shipping, and sustaining advance units in remote locations, was mandated urgent and essential.
Remand (posted Sept 7). Immediately prior to going to Antarctica I was living in an alpine village managing budget accommodation – sole charge – no assistance except the occasional free night in exchange for help with cleaning etc. In the mornings I would check guests out, clean the premises, and if the weather was fine, cycle 40 minutes to a point high above the river. Here, tarseal and water parted company – the highway turning inland There was a crash railing and behind that a shelf of grass extending approximately 10 m before freefalling 200ft to wide free-spirited currents of snowmelt and alpine storms. It was a spacious, elevated eyrie – and safe – traffic forced to tip toe by an almost 90° bend. I was low enough below the road to be invisible, but high enough to enjoy 270° views of mountains, river and bush. Subtracting the railway line and freight siding it was a postcard view. But they had charm, I could see the trains approaching from far, their mournful prospecting available to my ears long before they found each other. Time created its own measurement – the units of hours and minutes superfluous – a chapter read was a good approximation – one that could be relied to complete the return journey and a cup of coffee – then to work. All these years later I remain deeply sympathetic to anyone working split shifts. They divide the day into two diminished halves leaving scant free time. This is the second of the ‘scene setting’ posts.
Faded (posted Sept 4). Tragedy, a parabola rising from, and falling to, flat shoulders. Before and after the wake is ordinariness – the ordinariness of everyday life. I once read an anthology piece of voices present at that fateful Dallas day. One witness spoke of using his lunch break to catch a glimpse of The President. Before the shots – before the Warren Commission – before the grassy knoll and conspiracies, his impression was, “what a lovely day.” I wasn’t at the wheel when my career was involved in a hit and run. But I was an outsider, and the culprit popular. Those who could have provided corroboration elected to remain silent, or refused to testify. Afterwards I faced opprobrium. I couldn’t get a job in the town or that field. I still had to eat. I went someplace where I could, and my back story of no concern. People always seem surprised to see me performing such work – that there wasn’t a career. This is one of three scene setting posts – how and why I came to be in Antarctica.
Sojourn (posted Sept 2) At 16 I read 1984 – George Orwell’s stygian prophecy of the consequences of unchecked Communism. The unredacted history of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Soviet Russia, proved Orwell’s prescience, valid methodologically, if not technologically. Had the Iron Curtain not rusted before the iPhone, his prediction of a ubiquitous, all knowing Big Brother would have been chillingly accurate. This frighteningly intolerant world was a world far removed from the one of my teenhood in the southernmost South Pacific. In 1984, aged 24, I lived the Orwellian year.
Flung by circumstances into nomadic piecework, I washed up in an alpine village, working and mountaineering. I led a life not dissimilar to fighter pilots during World War II, treating each day as if it might be the last. Mortality makes for interesting company. Witnessing the treachery of its two faithful missionaries, bad luck and bad judgment, intensifies living to magical. Life becomes astonishing. The suffix ‘er’ is added to everything. The grass is greener, the sky bluer, the day sunnier, people friendlier. Casual conversations become acquaintances, acquaintances friends and circumstantial intimacy, love. We enjoyed a heady interlude – coming down to the city the night before her departure. We wrote briefly … before time and distance brought inevitable levelling. Lies?? None really, just the illusions of ephemera. As Paul Simon wrote in Old Friends/Bookends
“Time it was and what time, it was
a time of innocence, a time of confidences
long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.”
Somewhere, I do have a photograph. I wonder if she does too?
Close to home (posted August 28). I was in my early teens when this happened. Shocked? Everyone was. Now I wonder if he suffered from a mental health issue. In the weeks and months preceding his arrest, efforts were under way to apprehend the perpetrator. He must have known. It seems inconceivable that a person in his position could not have been aware. Or perhaps he was of a narcissistic personality – thinking himself superior to his pursuers, his offending too clever, too sophisticated to be detected. He could well have been right – not his methods, his status. So often serial, long lived offenders are uncovered by the those still to be indoctrinated by folklore – the office junior, the young cop, the new neighbour – people who have not yet learned to be impressed, or unquestioning.
Copyright (posted August 26). Presentation versus performance: I had been in charge of the food service division of a private, surgical Hospital – not quite 24/7 – more like 17/7. Still, it was no place for turned backs, always busy, often manic, sometimes frightening. Controlled could become uncontrolled very quickly – occasionally the throttle would jam and uncontrolled became out of control. I worked 8.10 a.m. to 5:40 p.m. – the extra (unpaid) hour easily refunded by lower stress. Should I have known, when at 7 a.m. on day two, my replacement marched in the front door – we used the service entrance – bid a loud good morning to reception – came to the kitchen and made herself breakfast!! Lists ?? Nothing compared with what followed. The chefs and bakers clenched toothed at the number of times their works were hung and signed – with her name.
Lies ?? Several – two intertwining. Whenever I met former workmates they wanted to tell tales about my successor – apparently they remembered my regime with affection and respect. My recollection is that they considered me ineffectual and incompetent – if not, they did a marvellous impression of conveying that impression.
Yep – I disavowed any responsibility. An absorbing deceit, in hindsight, was the subterfuge my successor employed at the interview. Questions that might have raised concerns – or led to further questions – were batted out of the park with buoyant, vigorous humour. Humour that turned out to be a fickle and infrequent companion. Question: given how many subsequently proven dud employees shine at an interview, should a selection panel choose the candidate packaged in brown paper?
Then and Now (posted August 24). Oh the very young. When my form master spoke with me I had just become familiar with the legend of Scott – his disappointment at the South Pole. I thought I knew how he felt. Response as time capsule. I was told not to tell anybody and I didn’t. Perhaps in the cyber addictive world of the now I might have vented my frustration on Facebook or Twitter. I admired my form master at the time. I remember how anxiously we sought his attention. How special we felt when we captured it. I admire him more now. It was a fee paying school and I suspect that John was leaving because his parents could no longer afford to – the street he lived in did not emit the aroma of prosperity. For a Christian school some of the figures of authority could be irredeemably spiteful and vigilantly small-minded. Many, most, conveyed an unspoken, non negotiable, “he who is not with us, is against us.”
One of the wicked delights of adulthood is talking with acquaintances from school, mentioning prizes for behavior, and or, prefect’s badges, and watching recipients and former wearers squirm – offering excuses – apparently they never wanted to – felt compelled to accept. My form master’s decency relieved me of future, yet to be, cringe.
Disclaimer: He never actually said the winner came second. That is my interpretation of his actions.
Coda (posted August 21). Ernest Hemingway – the great contradictor – a man who acted as if he took triple shots of testosterone with each meal. Muscular. Machismo. Masculine. But his writing was fluent, flawless and feminine. The two anti-parallel strands of his life would eventually entangle so inextricably they formed the noose – the noose that ended it. But before the stalking doubts escorted him to the point of no return, he bequeathed the most beautiful prose. He once said the greatest crime was indifference. Indifference. Guilty. I let the woman in this story down. I let her down in a way that divides gender with precise symmetry. The way that only a man can let a woman down. And only a man would think years of unacknowledged indifference could be rescinded by time acquired synchronicity.
Inside job (posted August 19). Civil Service, Public Service, Federal Service. Government jobs. Chapter 1 verse one: all jobs shalt be advertised. Law = loophole = creativity. Before a reforming government in 1984, New Zealand was an almost Soviet economy. The rail network (government owned) had monopoly rights on the transport of all goods if the freighting distance was greater than 70 miles. A trucking company circumvented this by using flatbed trailers, driving 70 miles, disconnecting the trailer and attaching it to another rig – replicating the process as many times as necessary. No one truck pulled a single trailer more than 70 miles. No law was broken.
Required to advertise a position? Do so boldly. Select candidates. Find reasons for lack of suitability. Appoint temporary employee currently performing other duties. I was disappointed, it would have given a small cash flow to offset expenses of writing – computer upgrades, printer, paper etc. – and some sociability. Writing can be fiercely and scarily lonely. And I really liked the interviewer – I’m sure we would have worked well together. The crime is not my deflation, or loss of convenience, but the fervent hopes of some who may have really needed the job. Perhaps a beneficiary, or at home mum, bought a new outfit, got a not yet needed haircut, purchased some new shoes – deferring car repairs, dental treatment, or night out as an investment in employment. For a job that wasn’t. Then the subterfuge goes beyond crime. It’s inhumane.
Rule of Thumb (posted August 17). In the late 1970’s and early 80’s the New Zealand Government funded the Student Community Service Programme. Councils, churches and community groups could employ tertiary students for summer vacation project work. Despite the potential for rort most projects were bonafide, and most students pleased to undertake fulfilling work that otherwise would have fallen outside fiscal priority. Church halls were painted, turn of the century cemeteries restored, village greens landscaped. The SCSP had an unplanned benefit – the chance to live and work in another part of the country. In cities and towns thought out the land groups of students arrived and took up shovels, hammers and paint brushes. It was like being at university – without classes.
I was on the fringe of the group the woman in the story belonged to – 12 people living in a 6 bedroom villa. She told me about the money one night – memory is unable to retrieve the catalyst – I suspect I was the only one who knew – I wasn’t one of the 12 apostles – just a follower – eager and deniable. The wonderful, anarchical band Dragon had a hit song,’ Are You Old Enough.’ When is old enough? The dishonesty of children, the lies, almost endemic to growing up, the mendacity used to avoid punishment, obtain rewards, shift blame, is outgrown by what age – 10,13,18,21? Is deceit cellular or social? Is it banished by cognitive morality or continue as default command of DNA? A national representative sportsman, later convicted of serious fraud, was known in age group teams by the nickname “Slimey.” The woman in the story was 19. Was this the last gratuitous opportunism? Or the turnpike to a lifepath of mercenary selfishness.
Evidence (posted August 14). Finding out it’s real. I once spent an afternoon in a Pub (Bar) near Murchison on the West Coast of New Zealand. I was cycling and it was raining – West Coast rain – solid driving walls of water. Another cyclist had sought the same refuge. We traded life story. He spoke of his work, he was a draughtsman for the Department of Main Road in New South Wales, Australia. Every election cycle, draughtsmen would be instructed to draw plans for roads unlikely to be built. “But……” He twanged aside my doubts. “Nah mate, everybody knows it’s bullshit – the opposition can’t – the government might. If transport improves, then property values rise, our jobs are safe and everyone’s happy. Afterwards they just make up some reason as to why it can’t be done – now. But it will be – in the future.” An ambush can be resolved by negotiation or combat. The paradox of farmers : rugged, strong, resilient, unsentimental but fearful of losing face. Cooperative complicity: crop growers impersonating bafflement, the expert joining them on stage delivering the expected lines. Finding a way out by truce. No surrender. No gunfire. My boss understood that.
Imprest (posted August 12). Abbreviation, makes something accessible, memorable, friendly even. Rapacious multinationals known only by their initials – like a friend from high school, JB, or JD, or BJ. Banks bent double by bad debt, hedge funds revealed as illusion, near collapse of Western Economies. Global Financial Crisis? GFC is so much better sounding – cheerily serious – sombre optimism. The GFC nee Global Financial Crisis came about because all profits were paper-based and fictitious. Fictitious and fraudulent – looked great on the screen, or printed, but were creative deception. As is this piece of research. Plus ca change.
Judgment (posted August 10). The fantasies of humankind – sometimes incorrect, sometimes risible. Sharing ancestors, sharing chromosomes, sharing ownership of family property, even sharing surnames, doesn’t equate to commonality of aspiration or sympathies. Dreams of my grandfather : New World dreams. A grandson of an immigrant becoming a member of the judiciary – an immigrant put to work building the railway to the place where he would make his home. The town where his children would be born. The town that became the city of his grandchildren. I had just been declined a place on an elite postgraduate course. It was a hard blow. One that pierced the armour of life’s setbacks and struck right at the core of self-esteem. I just wanted to hide and emerge when ready. All those messages – I had to front up. With the passage of years, the smoothing of memory’s jagged edges and desire for harmony, or what would rather not be known, I suspect most people would tell me I was mistaken. I was being overly sensitive. “He’s not like that.” To be fair, he was very busy when I visited – but my visit was in response to his call. That feeling: pain in the butt. Loser. It’s never forgotten. Indelible. Inerasable.
Humble Pie (posted August 7). One of life’s most interesting experiences – two people who know, pretending not to. Before that day, we both knew we had seen each other somewhere – that feeling – words missing from a poem – lines from a song – a town once stopped at – an archived face with no title – something that won’t come – almost, but not quite. It was the light – the smoky, student Italian 1960’s cool banished by full glare of walls removed construction. During renovation she closed the café seating and continued to operate, serving baking and coffee across the counter – take away only. The first time we had seen each other in full daylight since her interview. Both ashamed. She for begging. Me for callousness : “I continued to come by she continued to be pleased to see me . Both pretended we didn’t know.” This is a sequel to Confession – published August 5.
Confession (posted August 5). Time is often able to rearrange memory – careful editing pans away from awkward moments – close-up for accomplishment. And then there is the footage that wounds – is, and always will be shocking – clips of reality confirming the unflinching honesty of the camera. The interviewee was agitated and distraught – a drowning person desperately trying to attract the helicopter. If we had either, told her the job was already filled, or put her at ease saying there was a preferred applicant, but that was before now – what happened is not your fault – take a deep breath – this is your chance to shine. We didn’t. I always feel complicit in this. But worse, after the interview concluded the other two interviewers – one of whom had been with the present employer 22 years and the other 15 years – were merciless, sneering at what they thought was subservience – one saying, “you’d think someone would have more pride than to beg for a job, ” – but which I knew was sickening dread of a captured escapee. The contractors were not going to re employ the staff in her workplace. They never do. They bring in new people. New conditions. New awards. New penalties. And slashed wages. She needed to get a job while she still had one. Someone without a job – someone unemployed at a job interview is sentenced unemployable – don’t let the door strike you when it slams shut. Confession has a sequel – to be published on Friday August 7.
Appetite (posted August 3). Anglo-Saxon culture, a lion when abroad, a mouse at home. In an old horror film I once saw, Christopher Lee played Dracula confronting a priest attempting to drive him back with a crucifix and command to withdraw*. Hearing the edict the thespian vampire sneered with marvelous camp, “oh it always sounds better in Latin, doesn’t it.” Despite the unquestioning certainty that Third World countries should have the Western electoral system, Western immunization programs, Western education syllabus – we always find Eastern food, Eastern Gods, Eastern philosophies superior when living in our own countries. No courtesy, or desire to avoid offence could disguise the food Francisco served. It was salty, greasy and not fully cooked. I often wonder how Henry Kissinger might be regarded if had John Kerry’s accent.
I had done my undergraduate years in Auckland – New Zealand, a city which began life as a Pacific seaport and never quite lost the vitality of a sailor ashore looking not just for provisions, but some fun. The faux Englishness and reserve of Christchurch came as a surprise – chilly in both senses of the word. * “get behind me Satan” – in Latin
Grace Notes (posted July 31). Packaging can make the most dismal offerings irresistibly attractive. During the 1981 New York garbage collection strike, one enterprising taxi driver, sprayed his rubbish with expensive scent, put it into cartons, wrapped the boxes in gift paper placing them on the rear seat of his cab. Whenever he needed to leave the car – getting a sandwich, or ringing a doorbell – he contrived distracted rush. Invariably when he returned, the packages had been stolen!
My tutor was plantation daughter pretty – physically and socially. Social prettiness?? Her manners and speech were beautiful – that voice – I can still hear it – low and sensual – vowels perfectly shaped, each word handmade, as if by an artisan baker. Travelling time, neutrality is an elusive destination, nostalgia and disdain being the usual arrival points, and on occasion, resignation. Her practical experience in its entirety comprised “a few years” in a junior high school! Most of the time since had been spent what doing she called “in service” training and now she was doing “pre-service” training. It was the first and only time I heard teacher training described as pre service. Her best quality was her weakness : refinement. I always felt high school teaching struck her as distasteful – a Southern Belle volunteer nurse suddenly discovering blood, faeces, and death.
Capitalism (posted July 29 ). Time reveals what personality conceals. The businessman in the story – still going 30 plus years later – seems on first meeting, dreamy, absent-minded, ethereal, being in this world, but not of it. Truth could not be more incorrect. Hard – nosed and mercenary, he has been through many staff and seen off much competition. To call him a wolf in sheep‘s clothing is to defame wolves. This boy wouldn’t share anything with the pack. Ruthless, cold-blooded and cunning, a crocodile in dress up is a more apt metaphor. Loyalty – sometimes discarded as casually as the wrapping of a stick of gum, and other times infinite and impregnable. I spoke with two former employees. The first in my mid 20’s, the second in my late 40’s. The former was aggrieved and silent. The latter aggrieved and amused. Both discussions were the conversational equivalent of a striptease, they would hint, titillate, convey unseemliness – but not reveal.
Self Portrait (posted July 27). Perhaps as the genome is fully catalogued, what is thought acquired or personality will be revealed as embedded code – genetically preordained – God’s plan – slam dunk – no way back. The woman in the story, almost was, and nearly did – arriving in New Zealand as immigrant poor, trained by the NZ Government as a teacher she displayed an aptitude for teaching and advanced quickly. She married a minor celebrity and enjoyed status far removed from her obscure, humble origins. Luck – she could have remained in her birth country, a land not excited about educating or promoting women. Fortune brought her to a fork – the future could choose – copy the past, or adopt the present, become philanthropic or pitiless. She chose to forget that the green had rubbed well for her. There was an edge to her tongue that was visceral. Or perhaps I should give absolution – she was only following orders. DNA orders.
One For the Road (posted July 24). Friendship – a process like combustion – sometimes slow, reluctant, smouldering with little or no heat. And at other times bursting into life like a firecracker. Every year, on the second Saturday in February, (height of summer in New Zealand), Westport a small town of 4000 – oddly enough located at the western extremity of New Zealand, hosts a marathon race. It is a wonderful event, embraced by the whole town, the course, undoubtedly the best in New Zealand – perhaps the world, follows a narrow road through a river gorge to the ocean. 2000 runners take part (plus supporters). The first year we competed numbers were in excess of 2500 – all accommodation facilities were booked – organizers broadcast an appeal for townsfolk to offer billets. Con took us in. We loved him. It was that simple. And he loved us. We stayed with him every year. Pre-race and race day were busy, but Sunday was for catch-up. This year – the last year – we stayed an extra day going for a drink. The previous February he had been in some slight discomfort, telling us his shoulder was sore. The returning bounce of memory can be erratic, falling short, or veering at tangent – this one returns straight and true. The day was perfect in every way, temperature, colour, mood and time. The bar’s bifold doors, open to summer, looked over the road, past a playground and clambering children, through trees to breakers, waves rolling all the way from Australia, expiring on the sands of New Zealand, released of whatever burdens and memories they carried. We lingered, having a second and then third round. When we offered our farewell, shaking my hand, he held it for three to five seconds longer than necessary. He knew.
Decay (posted July 22). Retirement from the workforce. Most have no choice – compulsorily evicted by mandated age. In my first ‘real job’ the director retired after 40 years service – he was 56 – having joined as a 16 year old cadet. A presentation. Plattitudes. Laughter – real or manufactured. Time and choice don’t always coincide with certainty – temptation often runs interference. For sportsmen, one more season – another championship. For politicians another election – one more bill. For self employed, another year – one more tax return. Had my dentist been an employee, I have no doubt his bosses would have allowed some slack – a period of compassionate tolerance – a time of parole, then; a verdict – the verdict of farmers when stock cease to be productive. In his heart, he must have known his skill was an unframed print of the portrait it had been. It is one of life’s most despairing sights…. watching talent that once soared, struggling to remain airborne.
Application (posted July 20). Imagine an employer’s reaction to receiving application four months outdated. Or an interviewee spraying bad breath over the interviewer. What disdain might greet a job seeker arriving 25 minutes after the scheduled start – with no acknowledgment, apology or explanation. Would a curriculum vitae submitted with a coffee cup stain receive even a second look? Since taking up writing I have periodically sought part-time work – something that might offer a little cash flow, a break from the loneliness of the keyboard, and a ticket collector’s window to further stories. In each of these four examples, the person advertised for needed to be to be, “cooperative, conscientious, methodical, fastidious and have attention to detail.” How the other side interprets things. And fellatio from a 22-year-old intern does not comprise sexual relations either.
Presentation (posted July 17). At a state function, when he was prime minister of Australia, John Howard introduced media magnate Kerry Packer as, “a person whose success epitomised the free market. Packer, all 6.7 ft of him, stood up and turned to Howard saying, “son,” to the prime minister of Australia: “son, I don’t believe in the free market, I believe in monopoly!” The woman in the story, whom I once worked with, and whom I thought the most negative person I ever met – someone I could imagine responding to praise of a sunrise, or full moon with, “I can’t afford the moon or sun doesn’t like me.” She never missed a chance to sigh or self persecute. Sometimes she seem to forget her lines and like Kerry Packer clearly wanted what was best for her.
Unspoken (posted July 15). Some things cannot be contained, quarantined, made impermeable, they leak through whatever seal is placed around them. Prejudice: just because someone arrives on a UN sanctioned, New York applauded, Head of State photographed with flight, doesn’t mean a life lived happily ever afterward. All he wanted was a job. All employers saw was a funny little Asian man – I tried to tell him not to be so eager – it made him look desperate – when I was able to convey the meaning of the word desperate, he told me he was. The Prime Minister in the story was appointed to a senior United Nations role shortly after the electorate evicted her from office.
Talk (posted July 13). There is a line in Richard Bach’s wonderful book ‘Illusions’: “we teach best what we need most to learn.” Perhaps by extension we admire most, what we are not. Loss and gain. This story is one of respect lost and realization gained. At 22, I thought my first boss the most intelligent, go getting, decisive, individualistic, high achieving person I had ever met. Now I realize he was just a blowhard. Looking back through the Viewmaster, I see a little man compensating for his lack of stature with big opinions. Short and stocky, with an exaggerated testes descended gait, he might otherwise have been a figure of ridicule, or invited a head pat. His, tell it like it is, salty, take no prisoners – or consider surrender voice, was the voice giving him access to the muscular nirvana he craved, and allowed him to pull up a stool at the bar with the other deep voices.
Double Act (posted July 10). Some lies are good – or at least have good as their intention – enhanced testimony to help unemployed get a Job. Some neutral – inventing reasons to avoid a dinner party or wedding. Some bad – salesmen not informing on terms and conditions. And some evil. This one is. A violent, controlling man gendering public praise and sympathy – the sympathy of victory snatched from fingers – all while acting out a fantasy. This was dishonesty at its most deceptive.
Outcast (posted July 8). Just as some people who become prominent, notably politicians, rewrite personal history to a life without reproach, others seek to revise complaisance to rebellion. I attended a traditional boys’ school in the early 1970’s, a time when sport was king and science crown prince. The Head Boy in the story was neither. He was Head Boy because he was their boy. Perhaps he did experience apostasy later and regret his former station – discovering photographs of a younger self in flares, lilac shirt and long hair – “my God, I didn’t!” Or perhaps he was feral cunning – pocketing status, knowing it could be a useful step ladder in life beyond high school.
Victory (posted July 6). Amundsen: ruthless, skeptical, meticulous, brilliant, rigid and unsentimental. The Norwegian’s trek to The South pole was executed with brutal precision. He didn’t countenance emotion or nationalism as fellow travellers – this was him making his mark – becoming indelible – a figure time would not forget – a legend. Scott: sensitive, trusting, diligent, indecisive and romantic. His lumbering ill-fated expedition was doomed by inadequacy of planning, favourtism of personnel and ineptness of decision making. The glorious, gasping failure made Scott and his venture legendary. The media of the day made much of “the race to the South Pole.” When told of Scott’s death, Amundsen foretold posterity, “so he won after all.”
Win Win (posted July 3). Discovery, frequently perpendicular to intention – scientists, inventors, fund managers, seeking silver often find the roadblock detour leads to gold. Panning the galaxy of hopefuls for a new employee plotted planets revolving in bright predictability slowed by invisible, ancient dark – long retired from explosive ascendancy, residual, not redundant – racism. The woman I wanted to appoint – by far the most impressive applicant – a candidate whose credentials were almost too good – was Polynesian. The year was 1996! Just as literacy reigns in several realms, numeracy, reading, technology, both independently and interdependently, perhaps racism, operates in overlapping or mutually exclusive spheres, personal, community, corporate and national.
Certainty (posted July 1). An ill wind blows no good, so popular wisdom says. This story was born from an ill wind figuratively and literally. I was stood up. I had arranged to meet a friend for a beach walk – I thought he was late – so I ducked into the café to escape the freezing wind. Seeking shelter while waiting for my companion who never showed, I overheard the table behind me. Eavesdropping? Technically yes, but their volume was so unconcerned, choice wasn’t required to make a decision. I could have moved, but would have lost the vantage point necessary to spy my defaulting date. As I listened to the voices, unmuted and unquestioning, something arose in me – a feeling I recognized as envy – envious that they were unconstrained by the procrastination and doubts that encircled my actions – this was God’s work they were doing, sacred and precise – the possibility of being wrong not merely incorrect but unthinkable. Lies – two plump, well-dressed middle-aged women being paid to eat cheesecake and sip espresso while discussing programs for at risk youth. All the time bemoaning inequity and lack of funding.
Training (posted June 29). So much of learning of the very young learn is lies, myths created to explain what cognition is not yet able to – brothers and sisters couriered by the stalk, grandparents who have “gone to heaven,” uncles “not feeling very well” at family gatherings. My mother’s response to my annual request operates in two dimensions – deflection – brushing aside of the inequality she was unwilling to explain and I unable to understand – why the doctors’ sons in my class had train sets. And immunity – my parents could have afforded one expensive present but not five – my brother and three sisters would have seized upon my good fortune and ratcheted up their demands. The mother of a seven person, one income, household is somewhat like the Chancellor of the Exchequer – everyone wants more, is convinced they are more deserving – a higher priority, but funds are insufficient to provide many of the wishes, but prudent management will cover all of the needs.
Friends (posted June 26). The teacher is my high school mathematics teacher – a man to make educationalists weep. In the early 1960’s General Paul Harkins led a US military unit in Vietnam – before the full war erupted – its mission was to prevent the spread of communism by “winning hearts and minds.” When a pesky journalist suggested burning villages and terrorizing people didn’t win hearts and minds, Harkins replied, “if you get them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.” My maths teacher was the progenitor of this philosophy – he taught Noah and scared the hell out of him too. In the interest of truth it should be recorded he was a teacher of the highest calibre with results that prompted head shaking disbelief and then envy (fellow teachers), and gratitude (pupils), leaving both to quickly pack away any reservations. To paraphrase Yogi Berra: classroom management wasn’t the main thing it was the only thing – I was in a class of 35, when he was teaching it was possible to hear your own breathing! Despite being in a Catholic Boys School, and despite most of the teachers being Brothers of the order of St Mary, spirituality was barely addressed outside the four classes per week of religious education – lesson times were a precious commodity to be consumed wisely and without waste. Except for mathematics – trigonometry, algebra, calculus, statistics always prefaced with prayer. When freed from high school by university I learned my martinet maths teacher had another life – an after hours vocation dedicated to combating illiteracy, injustice and inequality. This day he asked for our participation was the single lifting of the curtains and peek at a deeply compassionate man. If the wrongly convicted youth from the mid-70s is reading this story and received a lenient sentence, it could have been prayers of 32 adolescents – they were sincere and fervent – we captured his anguish at this moral wrong.
Loophole (posted June 24). “ The past is another country, they do things differently there,” wrote L. P. Hartley in perhaps the best opening sentence ever to a novel. New Zealand, in the mid 90’s was different country to one in which I first entered the workforce in the early 1980’s. Monetarism had thrown the money changers out of the temples – currency had been freed from exchange mechanisms, trade liberalized, farming subsidies banished – government intrusion in industry and commerce eliminated – a brave new world – quivering in fear – of unemployment. Things were tough – employment no longer an interview – it was a process! The woman in this story was outrageously colourful, the type of character, that while never commonplace, we have all met and have a story about. Sadly such individuals have been quietly culled by an increasingly monochromatic world and now are almost extinct. Dry, cynical, frumpy, audaciously opinionated, fiercely intelligent, partial to the risque; she was a faithful smoker. Flung by divorce into a business she could control, (hours 9.00 am –3pm ) – no weekends – no public holidays – no after hours – and no being exploited by “shitheads,” self employment gave free range to self expression. A former HR manager turned CV writer, “now I create the lies rather than reading them, ” she primped and manicured – an undertaker preparing a body for viewing. “Photograph?” she laughed her head off at my naïveté. Strategies: evolution and counter evolution, governments enact Equal Opportunity laws – corporations find a mechanism of continuation.
Itinerant (posted June 22 ). Divorce – backspace key for marital disharmony, confusion or foolishness. Highlight – delete – rewrite. How is it that was intoxicating becomes irritating, then infuriating? By the laws of thermodynamics energy cannot be created nor destroyed only transformed – light becomes heat, nuclear potential, radiation – dammed water, electricity. Perhaps romance is bound by an identical precept – emotion is conserved – breathless becomes ridicule, as life becomes headstone.
Unforgettable (posted June 19 ) Ghosts – lives without the body they once inhabited. What happens when a person passes from a life regarded as good to one less so? Once sought, now awkward – avoided. As a child growing up in a devoutly Catholic community, priests sometimes just vanished – the biblical thief in the night – disappearing into jobs, marriages, less monastic living. Occasional winds of gossip would blow through, Fr X was now Mr X – living up north – working as a teacher – accountant – farmer – married to – “you know I always wondered about him and her.” If encountered, former parishioners pretended not to know. Not to be known – or want to be known. What is it like? I found out when my career struck a previously uncharted rock (see Testimony posted May 22). Sitting across from someone who “couldn’t , didn’t, hadn’t” – we both knew he was lying. He didn’t want me – that was his prerogative. I have no problem with that. But with the the barefaced, about face, I do. I don’t know quite what the lie is here. Pretending not to know me – or the firecracker bonhomie projected at our first meeting. The former is a transaction of convenience – no knowledge – no obligation – no guilt. The latter is more sinister – an executioner’s hood pulled over the soul. Perhaps this story encapsulates the human condition at its most mercenary, someone rapidly calculating the odds and concluding that a person is unlikely to met again, or believed – the type who make successful fraudsters and con men.
Trust (posted June 17). Balance – by Newton’s theory for every force there is an opposite. Do people ever think someone who has appealed beyond anyone ever before, or imagined subsequent, will lead to trust being questioned and the lawyer’s office? Balance – weighing up what was gained and what will be willingly abandoned. Those times of bliss, ecstasy, happiness that evicted all regret and doubt, leaving only exuberance – against loss – vanished magic, distracted attention and creeping suspicion. I’m not sure what rating Standard & Poor’s would put on marriage – I suspect it would come with a heavy caution – blue sky potential – might soar stratospherically or sink like a stone. Trust – one of those things which is. Or isn’t – can’t be partial or intermittent, only whole and present.
Double standard (posted June 15). Humankind survived and prospered reaching the top of the evolutionary pyramid by adaptation, natural selection and supremacy over predators. It was cognition, the ability to think, to counter brute strength by strategy that allowed the human race to outwit species that might otherwise have annihilated it. Outwitting – it’s in our DNA – as is the emotional satisfaction obtained from subversion. The woman who gave me this story passed it on gleefully. Apparently an earnest service manager – “who couldn’t boil an egg,” – arrived one day with a kitchen policy manual – including a requirement for all refrigerator temperatures to be recorded.
Apology (posted June 12). The most critical decision – does looking away from wrong prevent a greater wrong? I have no idea why I raised this topic. I was young and extremely naïve. Even now, the default emotion is surprise. Surprised I asked. Surprised he confirmed. Surprised at the sincerity of his answer. He was right, if in a small-town, a new employee a few months into their career knew, then the authorities must of. The police and social service workers had after hours lives in the bars, sports teams, PTA’s and hobby clubs – groups where the bush telegraph is active – hyper active. I don’t know if the older man was right – revelation would only make things worse – but what I do know is he genuinely believed in what he was saying. More than 30 years later I can still hear his voice – a mixture of world-weary and 24 carat compassion.
He was a wonderful man, someone who reminded me of the marvelous ‘Doc” in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row – wide-awake to slight of hand, but possessing a loving manner concealed by raffish exterior. A person who liked to do good, but was no do gooder. I never got to say goodbye to him. He died during my exile. The coordinates of death : “when?”…. “After the extensions … before we separated …. about the time Liz started school.” Mathematics in reverse – subtract the known, add his age then = 48. He was 48 years old when he died. Perhaps that explained the tiredness.
Out Manoeuvred (posted June 10). Everybody at some point in life is captured by placid opportunism – not the bold pejorative which defines opportunistic, but the quiet chance sitting patiently – one not begging to be taken, or waiting to be seized, one that doesn’t seem to mind – lets us reach our own resolution – the lower-priced model invoiced for, the mistaken upgrade, the incorrectly counted items – it’s up to us – we can help ourselves, or pass it back. I had been asked to deliver a package by a friend and was invited in for coffee – probably more social etiquette than social, which became dinner which became an opportunity. Interesting how perception changes with time. As a young man (23) I thought her (45) unimaginably and frightfully old. As the evening lengthened I began to see she was an extremely attractive woman – then the night had its own thoughts. Diplomacy – defined as stepping on someone’s feet without affecting the shine of their shoes.
Recruitment (posted June 8). Self-deception – the space swum between the flags of hope and reality – things fiction can pass off as possible success but fact knows to be probable failure. There are two lies in this story – the small(er) one of self-deception and the large one of academic fraud. The people training high school teachers are not, and in many cases have not been for many years, practitioners of high school teaching. And like generals conducting a war from air-conditioned, temperature controlled soundproofed, sanitized, headquarters far distant from the battlefront, have long since lost empathy and understanding of the front-line soldiers. The tutor observing (and grading) my teaching practice looked terrified of some of the classes I taught.
Dressing down (posted June 5). Myths – we always think the distortions of the interview room belong only to the applicant. Just as a candidate may present an image more aligned with perception than fact, so to an employer. The ironies went beyond the room and cloaked both interviewers and interviewee – three middle-class, tertiary educated individuals competing to have the greatest empathy with the dispossessed! It brought to mind a line from the Dr Hook song, ‘The Cover of the Rolling Stone’ : “we sing about beauty and we sing about truth, at $10,000 a show.” The song was first recorded in 1973 so $100,000 would be the likely equivalent these days. $100,000 – the probable value of the car she was driving – a full-sized, this-year’s-model Mercedes Benz – a beautiful specimen – very expensive wheel estate.
Sweet and sour (posted June 3 ). Every workplace has someone whose comments always have an edge – an edge cunning and precise – sharp enough to sting but not constitute offence or bullying – needling under the cover of teasing, able to be retracted by, “can’t you take it or I was only joking, ” – or by feigned surprise that a person could be so “thin skinned or precious.” Recipients normally have no choice but to suck it up and hope that one day, two lines will intersect. The woman in the story was different – at some point before my time she had acquired a reputation (possibly by being a former policewoman) as someone not to be messed with. She felt compelled to live this – like the enforcer on a sports team marketed as someone who takes no shit – aggression is expected – in advance – by default. Because of this image needing to be upheld, Helen would look for opportunities to be confrontationally cutting. She was a charge nurse and I was overseeing the hospital kitchen – mealtimes were tense – there were many variables to be watched – diets, allergies, intolerances etc – on one occasion after we had implemented a new menu she said, “ not a bad effort tonight – only 6 complaints rather than the usual 12.” Typical.
Credulous (posted June 1). Nothing is ever free – someone pays or incurs an IOU.
Well Married (posted May 29) Antarctica – full of tales – many so preposterous that can only be repeated to those who were present. To do otherwise would be to earn a reputation for unreliability and hyperbole. Still, anyone who was there in the mid 1980’s will remember this – for two or perhaps three summers the man and woman in this story came to McMurdo Station from America, from their other lives, their jobs, their marriages and lived and behaved as husband and wife – which is what they were – but not for each other. Almost everybody knew and in the days before phone cameras Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook etc. etc. such deceptions were possible, indeed easy. Lies … the obvious one of course and the hypocrisy – they were quick and fierce in response to anything perceived as less than full entitlement. Yet at the same time there was fey and reluctantly admired honesty – there was no subterfuge about status or anything clandestine about their relationship – any disapproving looks were stared back – and down – adultery with attitude.
Taught (posted May 27). I’m in my mid-50s and this was the most prolonged and professional bullshitting I have encountered. Almost 20 years later I still have some kind of disdainful envy for his proficiency. It was my first day as a trainee high school teacher. After induction, I and the other 19 who comprised the group to which I had been assigned, were taken to our homeroom to meet our tutor. We arrived at the room at 10 a.m. and apart from a brisk rollcall he spoke, without repetition or break, until midday …. about his ancestors, his education, his home, his travels, his hobbies, his school days, the town he grew up in…. and of course the unparalleled prowess he brought to his present position. His delivery was very clever – not the high velocity droning of a power boat or lawnmower that can be shut out, or the torrent of a waterfall gushing so much volume no single drop is significant or able to be recalled, rather the slow steady painting of a blank wall – top to bottom – side to side. This was one of the occasions in life when it is possible to experience twin, but precisely opposite emotions. I was impressed and appalled. Lies….he had been away from high school teaching so long he had a dim and faded understanding of the present-day chalk face.
Disingenuous (posted May 25). The paradox of the common descriptor. All ‘unputdownable books’ turn out to be dead boring. Any speaker “who needs no introduction,” is preceded by an overture the length of a Russian novel. People whose “door is always open,” prove to be the most rigidity inaccessible individuals God ever created. And of course the switch blade tongued who love to speak their mind – believe in telling it like it is – think frankness is a virtue ….. absolutely hate it in return. This was a New Year’s Eve we had decided to stay in, the phone rang about 8.30pm … I was still on it at midnight. They were doomed and had been for some time – I didn’t have the courage to tell her that – their marriage was a garden without autumn excision, winter nutrition and spring preparation – sustainable for a few years – the flowers becoming reluctant, then less – then not at all.
Testimony (posted May 22). Another tale from the dark ages – my early to mid 20s. I had been a contract employee in a government research station expecting to be transferred to permanent staff when my employment was not renewed. The circumstances (which form another volume – currently being written) were murky. I appealed – a process lasting about 10 days. As Scott’s party approached the South Pole they followed Norwegian tracks – they hoped that in the last miles Amundsen’s party had collapsed or made an error and not precisely located 90° south. During the appeal process I held similar hope – hope that proved not to be merely false but fantasy. I’m not convinced my boss tried his hardest, still at the end of this period he was exasperated, wanting the matter to go away and me to be gone – saying he “would take this opportunity offer some advice. Life wasn’t always fair. The unimaginable could happen.” Five years later the very worst suffering that could befall a parent, befell him. His 19-year-old son was killed in a motorcycle accident. Lies … so much had been taken from me. I had lost my livelihood, my career choice and my reputation because of one man’s indifference and unwillingness to fight wrong. Forgive and forget – yes. And no. It seemed to betrayal of the human condition not to write – a deceit of decency – but resentment counselled against appeasement – thinking he might see this as annulment. I wrote the letter by hand – computers yet to be ubiquitous – filling one page quickly and 2 or 3 lines on the second – producing something that didn’t look right and couldn’t be shrunk to fit – so I penned a paragraph about him being an example to his son. This space filling addendum had an ill ease then – and now – more than 25 years later, when the moon is just right, the wolves of truth still howl. He wasn’t a cowardly or dishonest man – just not a very brave or honourable one.
Undercover (posted May 20) At each level of increasing complexity fabrication becomes harder and detection easier, sportsmen (and sportswomen) able to hide flaws in small leagues are found out in the big, politicians find secrets hidden in national and regional elections quickly discovered on the national stage. Playing bluff and absconding narrowly often has the counter effect of encouraging amplification, not caution. I would have been all right if I had covered the background work I lacked. But of course I didn’t. Lies…… we know best….. it should be okay – this time …. we’ve got the world sussed. And the delusional arrogance of the ‘now’ generation, we are the smartest, the cleverest, the sexiest, everyone knows shit – except us. The man in the story had been supervising laboratories for over 20 years. It was foolish to think I could conjure a trick he hadn’t already seen.
Colleagues (posted May 18) The reality of difference. The difference between what raises no eyebrows and what raises doubt, that considered worthy or commendable and that considered wasteful or contemptible. I decided to leave work and give myself 12 months full-time writing – to see if I could make it. Follow your dreams the self-help manuals say. I was. Success came early and false dawned with a story published in a national magazine – then nothing. 12 months became 15 – I decided to return to the workforce – a different workforce – one affected by black economic moods. A year is an acceptable time of absence, for maternity, for postgraduate study, for travel but anything greater casts doubt – suggests indulgence and lack of application. I asked my friend if she could see it my way. If she could connect two facts and contract 16 months to 12. The human condition – response is a derivative of experience. No empathy : no sympathy.
Luck (posted May 15) There are so many layers in this story. The couple were still clearly very fond of each other and my presence on both occasions acted as a bridge filling ‘what if’ silences. Even so, some of the pauses in conversation and exchange of eye contact were….. wistful. When the drinks arrived something enclosed us – a bespoke blending of contrast – a casual reverence or solemn lightness – he lifted his glass and I’m sure hesitated before saying “good health.” Perhaps he was thinking of a safe toast. Or perhaps in that moment, premonition was. The ship wrecked was a vessel linking the North and South islands of New Zealand. At the time the Wahine sank, it was the largest vehicular fairy in the world and 734 passengers and crew embarked on that fateful journey. At the entrance to Wellington Harbour (which is extremely narrow) it encountered a cataclysmic confluence of extreme seas (20m waves) and fierce winds (in excess of 250 kmph).. the conditions were so severe that for much of the time the vessel was more surfboard than ship. One of these surges thrust it against a prominent reef. Lies ….. passengers were told they were in no danger, for five or six hours the vessel drifted – the order to abandon ship took everyone by surprise and then many were left to fend for themselves. The spite of fate – he survived this tragedy only to be captured by another – cancer in his early 40’s. Luck is the same character and same location as Parental Guidance (published January 12). Drinks were served on the deck of the house she had constructed with her father. Readers can find this story by typing Parental Guidance into the search function at the top right of the homepage. Poignant and well worth a read – but I would say that!!
Perfection (posted may 13) I guess the lie here is a really old one – it dates back at least as far as Snow White and “mirror mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of all?” Every workplace, club, family and wedding has someone like Michael. Vanity – the chromosome that carries the gene for self-delusion.
Postscript (posted May 11 ) just before the subject of this story went to Nepal and found love I had read an article tracing such relationships and concluding the chance of long-term success being 1 in 12 – odds that would almost certainly lead any insurer to rescind a contract. The writing was a quirky piece of sociological prophecy – somewhat like The Economist’s Big Mac index- thoroughly unscientific but surprisingly reliable as predictor. “Peasant”… what is it that causes us to say exactly the wrong thing to the surprise of everyone including ourselves. I was once speaking to a Russian friend (a new immigrant) on a line making loud crackling noises… she asked what was wrong with my phone and I replied, “it’s the KGB!!” I have no idea why I said that. God’s sense of sociological balance – relationships from the third world – young women bring home same aged husbands – middle-aged men bring home much younger wives. I guess the lie here is that people often feel a marriage into another culture is somehow more meaningful, has greater depth, that their love is launched on a slipway of mysticism that is enduring and magical. With love, it is not the ecstasy of the extraordinary – that’s the easy part – the real magic is the comfort of the ordinary – and that has nothing to do with culture.
Out–take (posted May 8) comprises a writer’s dilemma – the act of retelling can be interpreted as implicit agreement. This was not an easy story to write and the decision to publish required much thought. It is a dark tale from a dark time in my life. I had been navigating the vessel of my expectations when it struck a previously unmarked reef with swift, unexpected and brutal consequences. Ejected from the expected, anger filled the spaces from which ambition had been evicted. I found myself living a life of abandonment – abandonment which lasted over two years, embraced considerable vice and much bad behaviour. My morality was switched off. I knew what he was doing was wrong, but I wasn’t going to be an informer. The code of (un)ethics which I had adopted at that time rated informing as the very worst of offenses. There are so many egregious lies in this story, I wouldn’t know which was the worst. If asked to be dispassionate and ignore the fact that a crime was committed, the most vindictive deceit was the regard with which he was held by her parents – they thought him an excellent employee.
Accomplice (posted May 6) I was 33 when I began this job – the age people begin to think about the future and permanency – this workplace was – most of the staff had been there 10+ years. An air of self congratulations circulated throughout the building, the majority of the people in it were self-serving and self entitled. I would have left after a month if it hadn’t taken so long to find. It had been nine years since I had sought work in the country of my birth. I was without contacts and recent experience. The economy was at that period in history, (early 90s), a three-time loser – high interest rates, low growth and an overvalued currency all of which conspired against export economy. Looking for work and finding 50 – 70 applicants for the same position had been a searing experience. The lie here is not what was said but what was withheld. Perhaps all dishonesty descends from the same two parents: self-interest and loyalty.
Legends (posted May 4) The woman in the story had already retired before I began, our working lives never overlapped, but I had heard about her – several times. A large number of staff attended her funeral leaving the workplace very shorthanded – not everybody who wanted to go, could – it simply wasn’t possible. An employee slighted by exclusion told me this story during their absence. Lies? There are so many in this story. Principally that a person who was held in such high esteem and regarded as an exemplary individual had caused the death of a person – not through negligence, or misfortune, but recklessness. The central character was a charge nurse – a person whose profession was based on saving life, had ended one. The transfer of blame to the cyclist – that by some twist of time or location he was responsible for her irresponsibility. And the narrator’s ill ease, almost guilt. Spite, catalysed his disclosure. Under normal circumstances he would not have exhumed this lethal disgrace. Even so the tone that carried the story was a thirty pieces of silver blend of identification, and misgiving. I had no doubt that in telling me he felt he had committed heresy. Shock and then a kind of quiet, calm contempt sought corroboration. I asked someone I trusted. Confirmation was effete : ” I think so.” And condemnation reluctant : “Drinking and driving, was it a one off?” “She drank a bit.”
Blind Date (republished April 29) This delightful story was given to me by a friend. To avoid any unintentional distress to the family, I have substituted the name of the central character with an uncle of mine – actually a great uncle and a great character whom I can easily imagine giving the same answer.
Literal (republished April 27) who hasn’t hissed or shouted ‘can’t you read’ or had those words hissed or shouted at them – my exasperation got as far as “can’t you…” when his face adopted the defeat of a child or animal that has been beaten too much.
Eternity (republished April 24) This was the summer I finished university. The days were long, the weather warm and I felt successful – a time I remember with deep nostalgia – perhaps because life would never again be so uncomplicated ever again. The farmer in the story was deep and intelligent. Everything he did was like a big, powerful car accelerating – no strain or effort and without apparent pace. The hay bale tottered like a child learning to walk or ride a bicycle – headed for the ground – inevitable and wobbling – slow – more folding than crashing. I couldn’t get out of the way so it would have brushed me. It was only my dismissive, “it wouldn’t have done any harm,” that lead him to recount what happened that morning. In typical rural understatement he said the driver “took a while to get over that.”
With any story it is normally the listener or reader who is surprised – the narrator already knows the outcome. In Touched (posted April 22) my listener saw herself as a minor Margaret Thatcher – all chill and efficiency – her sympathy and warmth for my confession was completely unexpected. Likewise my reasons for leaving struck her from completely left field.
Performance Appraisal (posted April 17) This story occurred the before succession of Pope Francis and the refreshing honesty and humility he is bringing to the Catholic Church.
Prudent (posted April 15) I’m 21 in this story – it is, as Peter Sarstedt sang in his memorable song ‘Where Do You Go to My Lovely’– “a very desirable age.” I was fortunate, or unfortunate to complete my final year with a group of talented misfits faithfully dedicated to vice, hedonism and the avoidance of study. It was an interregnum, adolescence had gone and gone forever, adulthood not yet fully arrived. A time I remember with affection. Wank is a socially acceptable colloquialism for masturbate – somewhat like ‘bonk’ – it seldom causes offence.
Annulled (posted April 13) The story as written is a prequel. The real narrative is the sequel – the ability of the human spirit to turn 180°. The central character, a good friend, was shocked – almost dismayed at hearing her loved ones’ first reaction. Subsequently she has turned it into an hilarious one woman play, voicing her role and their’s with exaggerated gravity and avarice.
Portrait (posted April 10) I am in my early 20’s in this story, an age of no thoughts about consequences – no second thoughts – just jump – plunge into gratification. Ecstasy. And sadness. The sadness of a woman ejected from the familiar by divorce and finding fleeting fulfilment in beneath her station liaisons she could control with total mastery – a currency trader offering rates no one could refuse. Despite her take charge, live for the moment, don’t die wondering resolution, there was a whiff of recrimination – the scent of ‘should know better.’ Perhaps this explains the exhaled “go on …. have a look.” Redemption – the absolution of finding a purpose for a frivolous, impulse purchase.
Ecology (posted April 8) In the early 1980’s I worked in horticultural research and was co presenter at a seminar attempting to persuade farmers to renounce DDT. DDT, long outlawed, but still permitted for tobacco under some ancient clause negotiated by the local lobby. Pressure was mounting – synthetic pyrethrins had just been developed and proven effective – apart from being very unattractive – hence the need for disguise. The Silent Spring is a book written by scientist and author Rachel Carson. This seminal work, published in 1962, linking the blanket use of pesticides to the loss of bio diversity is widely considered the genesis of the environmental movement.
Blind Date (posted April 1) This delightful story was given to me by a friend. To avoid any unintentional distress to the family, I have substituted the name of the central character with an uncle of mine – actually a great uncle and a great character who I can easily imagine giving the same answer.
Blank (posted March 25) is set in Antarctica, in the 1980’s. The airfield in the story is Williams Field, located 10 miles NE of McMurdo Station, (the large US base) and used by ski aircraft. Flo Jo was Florence Griffith Joyner, an athlete who won medals at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics. She was svelte and extremely attractive. Pictures and posters of her were ubiquitous. She had long hair and outrageous fingernails – fanged and vividly coloured. The woman in the story bore more than a passing resemblance and mine were not the only eyes to follow her.
Found and Lost (posted March 23). I am in my mid thirties in this story, it was a very busy workplace and mine was the rubbish bin job – like geography for science – anything that doesn’t fit into geology or chemistry or biology or physics is tossed into geography. Consequently I was always rushing from one task to another – a bee landing briefly on a flower – then moving to another – giving the air, not of inattention, but ephemeral attention, brief and fiercely monogamous – probably creating the impression, “he won’t notice.” I never saw the office manager at work before 9 a.m. or after 3:30 p.m. – and often wonder for how many years did she work 60 hours per fortnight in exchange for 80 hours pay?
Presumptuous and Consistency occurred in the same workplace – my first job – or as my mother called it, my ‘first real job’.
The director, Presumptuous (posted March 11), was a short stocky man with a wide face, heavily creased and worn, a visage that brought to mind an old baseball glove. He had white hair, thinning and long – somewhat like the professor in ‘Back to the Future’. When angry he turned a shade of purple – resembling a plump aubergine. Notices issued by him had his signature and the word Director in bold typeface. After the incident with the tea lady any such notice displayed in a public place would invariably find Director crossed out and replaced with the hand written words Tea Lady.
Consistency (posted March 13) is set in the early 1980s. In university vacations I had worked in factories, warehouses and killing plants – often doing the jobs the regular workforce shunned. Such work was hot, dirty and manual. I was never not grateful – it paid for my education – but always felt I had earned my pay. The first ‘real ‘ workplace was plump and complacent – things didn’t move, they waddled. I think the moral of this story is an ancient one: lie with dogs – get up with fleas.
Salvation (Posted Feb 13) and ‘Brotherhood’ (posted 16 Feb) were workplace stories acquired from summer holiday jobs when still in high school and were my first sightings of the dark side of life, which up until then had been school, church, and sport. Indelible and impressionable – perhaps beginning the Velcro snagging of stray threads that would become the cloth of Orphaned Islands (Un)poetry
The woman in ‘Salvation’. was aged 34 when I was 17 – this rather tangential symmetry and the fact that neither she nor I smoked, when smoking was ubiquitous, seemed to create some kind of bond. She had been the ‘bookkeeper’ in a group convicted for prolonged large-scale theft. For her role she was sentenced to four years in prison – serving two and a half.
In Brotherhood the death of a man from alcoholism was dealt with as death was in those days – seen and not heard – never spoken of again.