A Little Bit of Me

Jottings and Writing, miscellanous misgivings

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The Hunting Party

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The boy didn’t know if he had woken of his own volition or the hand that gently shook his shoulder. He blinked and tried to focus his eyes in the gloom of the pre-dawn light. The man, his father, whispered to him,

“Its time. Get your things together. I have some breakfast on the go. See you in five minutes.”

He closed his eyes and then jerked awake fully, guilty hoping that it had only been seconds, not minutes that the first awakening had happened. He knew his father would be furious if he didn’t get up in time and it would be likely that he would leave without him.  He could hear the clinking of plates in the kitchen and he could smell cooking bacon so he guessed that time was on his side. The boy rolled out of bed and his feet hit the cold planks of his bedroom floor. He shivered as he struggled into his underwear, a new pair of long johns his father had paid for but his mother had gone to the menswear shop to buy for him. His father would not have the time to spend on such frivolities as shopping for his son but he was adamant that he had to be properly equipped for his initiation into manhood. This morning’s excursion was the first time the boy had spent any time alone with his father who was usually distant or absent. It wasn’t that his father was a monster, he was just away from home at his work or immersed in something in his study. He pulled on a heavy woolen shirt, then a woolen jersey over that, then struggled into a crispy new pair of denim trousers. He felt like a monster and his mood lightened as he saw himself crashing through the countryside, arms outstretched and frightened girls screaming and fleeing. He heard his mother’s voice rising in urgency and he hurried into the kitchen. His father looked at him and then the big clock on the kitchen wall and the boy could sense that he was annoyed with him. His mother, still in her nightwear but concealed beneath a bulky red dressing gown, pushed a plate of eggs, bacon, toast, and fried tomatoes, in front of him.

“Eat up. You’ll need your strength,” the whispered sotto voice “and hurry.”

He didn’t feel hungry but forced the greasy food down. It was rare that he had a proper breakfast just like he imagined his father had every morning and he liked the idea. He looked across at his father as he hovered on the doorstep, alternately looking back into the warmth of the kitchen, casting a warm light in the morning light, and the gloom of the morning. His father was dressed in a tweed hunting jacket with a jerkin over the top, which had ammunition pouches around the waist and breast pockets. He had his navy cap, pulled tightly (and to the boys eyes uncooly) down his forehead, and trousers with sharp ironed creases. On his feet were a pair of new boots, which he had highly polished, and obviously a great source of pride to their wearer. The boy gulped down his glass of milk and was amazed that he was allowed to leave the table without a stern reminder to brush his teeth and comb his hair. His father just tossed him one of his old woolen caps and the boy, almost with reverence, put it on. They murmured good-byes to the mother and then hurried down the drive to the waiting car.

The car was stifling hot. Dr Steven, the local doctor, and Mr Middlemiss sat in the front seat and the boy and his father had the spacious back seat to themselves. The old and cranky doctor had the heater cranked up to maximum and he still fiddled with the thing, murmering obscentities, as if that would coax more heat out of it.  Outside the morning was crisp and the boy was grateful for the cars heater but it also made him feel sleepy and the greasy breakfast sat heavily on his stomach. The men talked about the weather and then passed a silver flask around the car. They laughed as his father took a drink and then looked uncertain about where to hand it next.

“Be a few more years before the boy takes his full part,” Mr Middlemiss laughed and the three men laughed together. The sweet smell of alcohol permeated the car and the flask did another round. The level of conversation suddenly increased and the boy nodded off as he tried desperately to keep up with what was being said. He jerked awake at the same time as the car came to a halt.

Doors closed with hollow thuds and the boy could see two other cars with men standing in groups, passing around flasks, talking in soft voices, shotguns under their arms. Dogs yapped around their feet and it looked to the boy that some of the animals were reacquainting themselves after a year’s absence. The men moved toward the back of Dr Steven’s car and started sorting out their own guns. He saw his fathers new Beretta for the first time as he unzipped it from its leather case and the boy’s breath held for an instant. It was beautiful. The blue-black of the steel glowed in the light and he could make out the beautiful wood grip and the intricate silver scrolling on the bright metal bits. His father broke open a box of cartridges and started inserting them into his ammunition belt.  Dr Stevens made some remark about new fanged contraptions as he broke his Bernardelli in two and inserted two orange cartridges into the barrels. Mr Middlemiss lowered the flask and looked over at the boy and winked.

“Nothing beats the old Browning and you don’t have to walk around with your thing open.” He giggled as he reflected on his last comment and the boy looked at him trying to fathom what he had missed. The men ambled toward a low-lying punt that was tethered to the wharf. Within minutes they were looking back at the misty shore as the silenced motor whirred away at the back of the punt. The boy was forced to squat on the floor of the vessel with the two dogs, and quickly found himself wetted as the water sluiced around the bottom of the boat.  He could only see the forest of rubber and leather booted men and the quiet conversation and the occasional cough. Then he heard a series of load blasts coming from up ahead and he sensed the tension in the boat.

“Cheeky lowlifes,” he heard Dr Stevens mutter and then a general agreement from his father. Mr Middlemiss was noticeably silent and the boy recalled his father talking at the rare dinner when he was home of the new group of men who had taken up duck hunting in the past years and who had cheapened the sport. The boy could recall words like ‘lower class, uncouth, ruffians, new rich’ but they had little meaning at the time. Now her could place it in context and possibly would be able to put faces to names. He started shivering just as the boat bumped to a stop and the men scrambled over the gunwale of the punt. He felt a hand on his shoulder and his father’s stern voice urging him to get a hurry on.  The dogs leapt form the boat and rushed and they scrambled through some prickly bush, which clung to the boy’s jacket, and he had to stop twice and extract himself from the thorns. They settled into a small mai-mai and the boy closed his eyes as he listened to the racking of shotguns and the clunk as Mr Stevens put his gun together and flipped off the safety catch. He was also aware that he felt cold and when he put his hand to his head he discovered that his hat had gone. He suddenly felt much colder than the outside temperature as he realised what fury this could arouse in his father. Perhaps he could creep back and find it on one of those branches. His thoughts were suddenly interrupted.

“Just watch where you fire and keep your safeties on until we see birds,” whispered Mr Middlemiss and the other men grunted but seemed more intent in peering out into the dawn which had got just a little brighter. He looked across at his father and despite the turmoil inside of him, he couldn’t help but feel a twinge of pride at this tall elegant man, intently peering out into the morning with his new gun. His eyes scanned down to the ground and he saw that his father’s new boots were covered in a thick steaming layer of sticky mud which had splashed up over his newly creased trousers.  Just then there was a flurry of activity and three guns roared in unison. The boy almost wet himself as he had not been warned of the loud sound of the guns and he fell to the ground and put his hands over his ears.

‘Damn! All missed. How can three of us all miss at the same time?’ grumbled Dr Stevens and then the boy looked up and saw his father turned in his direction with a look of disgust on his face.

“What the hell are you doing down there, like a little girl?” he asked in a loud and sarcastic voice, “and where the hell is my hat?”

The boy gulped and was about to say something when Mr Middlemiss chirped in,

“The boy gave it to me to hold. Give him a break Donald. He’s never been hunting before. Can’t you remember your first time?”

The boy heard his father’s sharp intake of breath and waited for the inevitable explosion that would result if it had been his mother who spoke in such a way. Any thought of that happening was suddenly shattered as a screeching and quacking sound was accompanied by a flurry of feathered wings.

“Birds, birds, reload-snap it up,” shouted Dr Stevens and the three men turned and scanned the horizon in front of them. The boy lost count of the number of shots but he could hear cries of triumph from the doctor and Mr Middlemiss and, after what seemed an eternity, he heard them counting. “Five or six I reckon,” “three at least-how many for you Donald?”. There was a silence and that tension in the air again, which was only broken by the sounds of the dogs bringing the killed birds back.

It was obvious that his father had not shot any birds and he was now looking down at his new boots and trousers and the boy could almost see the rage rising in him.

 

 

 

 

The boy held the gun to his shoulder. The smell of cordite, gun oil, and rubber filtered back to him. He felt like sneezing but he knew that would infuriate his father. They had been bird spotting before and his allergies had overtaken him and that disastrous outing had ended in tears and slammed doors and silence. The sun was just starting to show its colors over the horizon and the boy hoped that no more birds would take off before the morning was over. He was terrified of firing the gun although his father had shown him how to hold it and what to do when he fired to minimize the kick. He started daydreaming about being at home when Dr Stevens gave a startled cry.

“Swans. A dozen of them. Coming in low. Perfect shot. Can’t miss.” The boy looked down the barrel of his father’s shotgun at the group of beautiful black birds gracefully slicing through the thick morning’s air. He heard the click of Dr Stevens gun and the obscenity he uttered, He heard his father tell him that it was down to him and his eyes started to tear as he lost sight of the swans but he had the presence of mind to swivel the gun away from where he had sighted them last, and he pulled the trigger of the under and over shotgun. He was thrown about four feet back from where he was standing as both barrels exploded and the gun flew out of his hand and he vaguely saw it landing in a patch of mud then slide into the deep water surrounding the mai-mai. His ears were ringing, his shoulder felt as though it was broken and he couldn’t work out whether his trousers were still wet from the boat journey or he had soiled himself. He could hear his fathers swearing and Mr Middlemiss’s attempts to calm him, which were largely going unheeded.

He couldn’t explain to his father about the ugly duckling or the beautiful pictures of swans he had drawn in art or about his nature study project on swans. His father sat in a silence full of threat, regret, and malice all the way back to the house. Dr Stevens seemed equally as angry but the boy didn’t know what that was about. Mr Middlemiss tried to cheer him up but the boy felt more embarrassed than cheered.                                            

     

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Father & Son sail together

title1SUNDAY SAIL AT PORTOBELLO     6 September 1992

As I write this with my bloodied and blistered hands – a sure sign of a brilliant and punishing sail, I am both physically and mentally fatigued.  What a pity it started so early in the morning.  Unfortunately I didn’t sleep well last night because I forgot to open my windows and so I was awoken, at what seemed an inhuman hour,  with my cup of tea in the infamous Stewart Island mug.  My only reply to this generous and loving gesture from Graeme was ‘It’s too bloody calm to sail, what are you waking me up for!’ without even looking out the window.  He smiled his all knowing smile that adults seem to have perfected and said,’ Fifteen minutes!  Get up, come on, it will be great.’   For once it was me who needed the convincing and after I had my cuppa and listened to some music I was rearing to go – only I acted is if it was an inconvenience so as not to let Graeme know that he was right and I was wrong!  I complained about the empty teapot, the last person who folded the genoa, how close the Alfa was parked to the Triumph, the state of the weed on the boat , how short crewed we were (me, Graeme, and Val) how much work I had to do, how slow Graeme was in winching in the Foresail, the halyard tension on both the main and the foresail, the new sail and how it just didn’t look right and generally anything else I could think of!   Despite this we managed to motor over to the start in Lower Portobello Bay underneath an oppressive grey morning sky with little sign of the long awaited spring. Amid the largish fleet of yachts there is a friendly  camaraderie that only the factors of Dunedin and people mad enough to sail in winter can produce.   Luckily the wind was almost perfect for Faith’s new sail, about fifteen to twenty knots, the lee rail was just occasionally dipping under water, the woollies were all flying straight as arrows and the helm was as light as a feather.  The log was steadily whirling and showing an average five knots of boatspeed.  The start is usually a great strain on the friendly camaraderie that precedes a race.  Suddenly boats are crammed together as the top skippers and the people who think they are the best skippers vie for the best position on the start line, unfortunately twenty boats won’t fit into ten metres of water and with monotonous regularity boats exchange french kisses and skippers exchange something far removed from kisses!  We tend to try and start apart from everyone else but today we were on the outskirts of a scuffle between a twenty foot trailer sailor, a forty foot ketch and a Laser sailing dinghy – guess who won?  We watched astonished as the trailer sailor tried to pass in front of the ketch without actually being ahead.  It was quite comical to watch the crew of the trailer sailor try to push(!!)  a rather large and solid bowsprit out of their cockpit.  We have an uneventful first beat and get to the first mark and it’s time to launch the spinnaker – a hard enough job sometimes with a full crew.  We weren’t to have an easy time with this sail all day, a lion tamer and Edward Scissorhands would have helped in some of our moments of woe.  We launched it with a wine glass that would not come out, (instead of looking like a balloon it looks like a figure of eight) and so while it was fighting like a caged animal we were losing ground to corinna .  A complete and utter waste of time launching the spinnaker because we only have it up for about five minutes before we have to drop it again to go around the bottom mark and reach off towards the start again, the reach was really good for us though, by continually dallying with the sails all the way down this leg we managed to overhaul earenya who just set their sails and pointed for the mark – lazy buggers!  The second beat into the wind was magnificent, the wind was very kind to us and as we approached the buoy it continually lifted us higher and higher, much to the dismay of our fellow competitors!  At this stage in the race when everything was just beginning to come together in perfect harmony the sun knifed through the evil sky to fry the hapless sailors who dared defy the sun’s tyrannical rule over the temperature.  It is a hard life sailing every weekend!  So another successful beat and then a shocking spinnaker hoist again, no excuses – I didn’t do it!  Despite the bitching and carrying on by our usually (when fully crewed) well behaved spinnaker (blood frenzied demon from hell) we manage to get it under control for half the leg but the Demon had another chapter to write in it’s book of spinnaker mishaps.  As we rapidly approach the mark it becomes time to drop the caged terror (we were hoping it would get itself down and into it’s bag!) and even though the genoa is up inside the spinnaker, blanketing it, it is a monster on steroids.  After the pole was taken off it was time to lower the spinnaker to deck – this may sound easy but this is only thought by the truly naive!  Spinnakers have minds of their own and when they decide to cause mischief they can bring obscene language to even the most gentile crew member who has the misfortune of trying to tame the beast.  (Usually the youngest or unluckiest!)  As I held on to the foot of the sail for grim life, almost going overboard, I was heard to exclaim ‘ You @*!!@*! !@#^ *& a @*!!@*! %$#&@ of a sail!!!!!!’  Before my poor shoulders were about to finally break the halyard was released and instead of being wrestled over the leeward side of the yacht I was on my back on the windward side under a mountain of now tamed sail and all the thanks I get for it is ‘Quit playing around Demian and get back and bring in the genoa!’ and an extremely large bruise on my shoulder.  Unfortunately even the sheeting in of the genoa turns out to be a major chore.  The cockpit was a mass of slithering snakes of sheets which made it impossible to do anything major like tacking so while I was taming the serpents the skipper was muttering about ‘wrong way’ and ‘nobody else is going this way’ and ‘running out of bloody water’ and ‘have to tack soon.’  Finally we tacked and although nobody else was anywhere near us it soon became apparent to the delight of us and the utter disbelief of our rivals, that we had miraculously passed our nearest competitors and rounded the mark well up on our proper place in the fleet!  Ha!  Suck!  ‘We did that on purpose’, ‘Why did all you guys go the wrong way?’  The grins on our faces did nothing for the now exasperated skippers of faster boats behind us, nothing however could remove the evil and despised U’s that marred our faces that were usually pictures of pretended concentration.

The buoy now rounded we were again in the wild beasts territory, only an executive decision saved us (thank goodness) so we run under main and genoa alone. I don’t know if my hands and shoulders could have taken another beating!  Two places back and two legs later we roared over the finishing line quite spectacularly as the wind increased so we finish with masks of concentration on our faces (so as to look good for the committe boat) and the log hits eight knots!  After a splendiferous sail back home with me on the helm (only to stop me from complaining I think!)  I even managed to do a perfect piece of marine manouvering and have the boat drift on to the mooring and stop practically dead on the buoy as the wind opposed our forward motion.  Ha!  What a great day, although I’m not admitting it to anyone (‘just normal mundane average sail’ I’ll say to anyone that asks!).  Demian. (the son)

A word from the skipper (the father)

Despite the lads protestations he was successfully roused from his slumber in plenty of time for the race. His sister, however, was a different matter. Lying in bed has become something of a habit for Naomi and this disgusting habit is not helped by staying awake until after midnight watching sweating, overmuscled men throw a piece of leather and each other around a paddock. Naomi had been up the night before to watch the league semi-finals on the box and there e was no way she was going to rise to the occasion.

Sailing shorthanded on a day like this does not allow one to either make mistakes or to relax. The spinnaker has been described as something on steroids , but I can assure you that the genoa is also virtually uncontrollable when the wind gets into the 10-15 knot region. Trying to put the spinnaker up alone is also rather difficult and in the switching wind ( from the North mostly but occasionally going into the Northwest) it is difficult to predict which side of the boat the pole will go, out and I was more often than not, launching the spinnaker inside the genoa . This resulted in more than a fair share of snarl ups , crossed lines, tangles in the jib hanks and other assorted nightmares.

Death of a friend

There were images of dead infants and toddlers, lovingly dressed and photographed for posterity. Although some of the children were shown simply lying on their beds, others were carefully posed with dolls or personal belongings. One picture taken by an unknown photographer was particularly haunting: a young girl had been propped up and made to hold drumsticks. In a small, hand-coloured daguerreotype framed in velvet, the little girl played with her favourite toy, even in death.

These family keepsakes may strike contemporary viewers as odd and perhaps even grotesque. Producing and circulating pictures of dead relatives or famous people is no longer an acceptable, everyday practice, even as there is a fascination with dead bodies in films and on television. When photographs appear at funerals today, they are more likely to replace the corpse than to image it. Typically placed atop a closed casket, modern pictures feature the deceased individual in life, often at a younger age or before illness struck

I don’t know if it was the light but he looked as though he were made from alabaster. His head was stretched backwards as if he had been straining to see something on the roof of the room. His mouth was open, jaw slack, and a fine line of spittle had spread down the left hand side of his chin. His face was stubbled with grey and white hairs; the nurses must have forgotten to shave him that morning or, figuring he was close to death, left him alone. His wife gently tried to close his mouth but, encountering pressure, her gentleness turned to anger as she forced his lower jaw shut. She wept inconsolably and, looking around her at the silent and unmoved gathering, she expressed loudly that he didn’t look good in death. His previously large vibrant body was parked now. Its engine had finally stopped, position at top-dead-centre.  His pyjama top was open to waist level and his singlet barely covered the matt of grey hairs that grew form his chest. The bottom half of his body was discretely covered with a red hospital blanket, concealing the tubes and drains that punctured his body. He had not died peacefully. He appeared as though he had to be have been wrenched from life, unwilling to commit to this final ignominy.

So it was a shock to see the room where he lay the next day. He had been stretched out, dressed in his best suit (and underwear) and a thin smile had been carved on his face. He was wearing the blue shirt that he hated so much in life and what had the wife been thinking when she matched the suit with his cross trainers. He, who had been so conservative in life with clothing, was going to his final resting place dressed as bizarrely as the pet dog they dressed up and photographed when they had several gins on board. The coffin lay open and the lid was propped up incongruously on the nearby sideboard. A series of photo’s showed the man as he had been in life. Here he posed on his retirement day, hair brylceamed; tie gracefully tucked into his service jacket. Here he reclined on a bench in what must have been his trip to Italy to revisit his wartime haunts. Here, he playfully held his partner in a death lock while grinning at the camera. And here, on the front of his funeral eulogy was the same image. The ultimate revenge.

They spoke of him. Here was a man I didn’t recognise. Had I grown so distant from him that I had forgotten the tenderness he could show to a young grandchild? Had I grown so distant that I didn’t believe the words he said of his son? I didn’t recognise the man or myself.

 

Then I find myself working in a rehabilitation hospital where a large part of the client group are males with strokes. I wander down the ward and look into bright, airy rooms, some with beds surrounded by deep blue curtains. I see men, not much different in age to myself, bent over feeding trays, arms dangling uselessly mouths dribbling as they try to move neglected limbs and muscles to give a greeting. A cold, icy fear grips my chest and I hurriedly complete the tasks I have and return to the haven of my room. Did I notice cards and balloons? Did I notice the one litre bottles of sugar filled drink? Did I not detect the faint whiff of cigarette smoke and, in one instance, alcohol?