A Feud Before The Fiord

Random TSA checks aren’t random. “I’m 99% of the time randomly pulled up at the airport,” the old man said. “Why?” he asked the fubsy woman in uniform. Her answer? “It’s random,” the officer said sweetly with a fake smile that revealed a set of uneven teeth, denying that he was being purposely picked. His Mrs had warned him earlier in the cab about his scruffy bandit looks. “For goodness’ sake, just cut off your hair and shave your beard!” she said firmly and glared at him with cold snake eyes and seethed dragon breath that would have melted butter. The fubsy officer’s busy eyes scanned at the old man, from top to bottom, stopping at his crotch area, making him self conscious of his bulge there that had grown against his brain’s wishes. “Why me?” he asked again. “You’re the next to walk through,” she said, disarming him with her smiling eyes and explained that it wasn’t personal.

“Where are you from?” the old man asked the officer.

“Taiwan,” the fubsy woman said, her skin colour seemingly more brown the more his eyes rested on her face. After dabbing the contents of his backpack with a scanner, she checked her screen before giving him the clearance to go. The Mrs had just joined him after being delayed by a couple of officers. “Now, she knows how I feel,” the old man said to the officer who had allowed him to go. “She too will have to get used to being stopped all the time now,” he explained. The buzzer went off and flashed red lights as she stepped past the screen door. They made her take off her shoes. Still, the buzzer screamed. So, they made her check her pockets. “It’s my titanium hips,” she said but they didn’t listen to her as they shepherded her into the X-ray booth and forced her to surrender with her arms raised high and legs spread apart. If only I could make her do that, the old man thought, pitying himself for lacking such authority.

In Wellington, the odd couple went to the ballet. Celebrating their 70th anniversary, the Royal New Zealand Ballet, supported by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, premiered Shakespeare’s most loved love story, Romeo & Juliet. Despite the long-standing feud between the Capulet and Montague families of Verona, it is love at first sight for both Romeo and Juliet; neither realising until it is too late – they have already kissed – that their families are sworn enemies. The next morning, Juliet’s nurse passes a message to Romeo to meet her in the church and marry her if he truly loves her. After the secret wedding, as Romeo and his two buddies leave the church, they meet members of the Capulet family. A sword fight breaks out between the feuding parties and results in the death of Romeo’s good friend, Mercutio, who curses the senseless feud as he dies. Enraged by Mercutio’s death, Romeo does the one thing he knows he cannot do – it wouldn’t be a ballet otherwise – avenges his friend’s death and is banished from Verona, on pain of death. That night, the young couple consummates their secret marriage before Romeo prepares to flee Verona. Juliet accepts a plan to take a poison that will render her dead for 42 hours. Romeo does not get the message about this plan because the friar is suddenly quarantined in a house due to the plague. It is not known how Romeo knew to find Juliet in her tomb but he finds her dead and kills himself with poison that he happens to have. Juliet wakes up soon after and finding her husband’s body there, she stabs herself fatally with his dagger rather than live without him.

The old man shed a tear and choked in his own saliva despite knowing the story well. He explained to his Mrs he was overwhelmed by the amazing dancers and the choreography, not that he was a hopeless romantic. But, he was secretly admiring Romeo’s good luck to have found a woman who loved him so much she chose death rather than a life without him. “That’s true love,” he said to his Mrs. “That’s just a love story,” she said before adding that it must have been Prokofiev’s music that tugged at his heart strings as she busily dabbed her red eyes with an already damp tissue. Prokofiev feuded with the Kirov Ballet, they wanted to remain true to Shakespeare but Prokofiev insisted on a happy ending and sought out a more willing collaborator in the Bolshoi who were happy to premiere his version of the two young lovers living a completely happy and loving life forever. But, despite his best efforts, the Bolshoi later changed their stance and so audiences today have to endure the pain of the lovers and leave the theatre with heavy hearts. But for the old couple, given a programme booklet which cost $10 by a young lady seated behind them whose booklet they borrowed during the first interval, they left Wellington in awe of the people’s friendliness and generosity. The young lady had heard The Mrs’ story of their attempt to buy one but the card payment failed to go through and the man at the counter would not accept Aussie dollars even though they were worth more than their local currency. So, the young lady went out during the second interval and came back with one for the old couple. Where else would you find such a caring person who would bother to do that for a stranger?

The RNZB with the NZSO, performing Romeo & Juliet

After the feud at Verona, the old couple, sometimes also known as the odd couple, took off for Queenstown. They wanted to see for themselves the beauty that the South Island of New Zealand was famous for. Some of the awesome scenes in the Lord of the Rings were filmed near Queenstown, e.g. Te Anau and Glenorchy. “Why is Milford Sound called a sound when it is a fiord?” the old man asked their coach driver, Adrian. Adrian started work that morning at 7, so he merely growled an indiscernible sound that kind of sounded like who cares. Just call it by its Maori name, Piopiotahi, the old man told himself. The day before they set out to see the fiord, the couple caught a local bus from Queenstown to Arrowtown. The bee card bus fare for the hour’s journey was just a dollar! It was a dollar from the airport to their hotel in town also. It was cold and wet in Arrowtown. Arriving at five minutes before three, they were alarmed to be shooed out of the Thai restaurant despite the ‘We Are Open’ sign on the door. “But you are open,” the Mrs said to the Thai proprietress.

“Only till twree,” the Thai woman said. Her permed hair made her look older than her age, or maybe it was her business that aged her.

“Sorry, maybe you come back at sex,” she said, as she lifted her hand to check the time on her gold watch.

“Please, we will eat very quickly,” the Mrs pressed for a positive answer.

“No, no, it’s twree already,” the Thai woman said.

“Maybe we cook you your lunch and you sit outside to eat,” she compromised.

“No! It’s too cold out here!” the Mrs said.

“Let’s go,” the old man said, tugging at his wife’s hand.

“Don’t rush me, I’ll fall!”

So, the old man walked away from the Thai restaurant, his faster pace widening the distance from his grumpy and hungry wife. The sky turned greyer and started spitting bigger raindrops at them. The old man skipped up a few stone steps and looked up at the sky. His roving eyes spotted a sign that said Mantra and in smaller fonts below it, fine Indian cuisine.

“Doe!” he called his wife loudly, to let her know where he was headed.

It was just past the hour by then and despite knowing the restaurant was officially closed, he knocked at the door and was surprised it was left unlocked.

“Hello, are you open?” he stupidly asked a youngish Indian man who was fastidiously setting a table.

The waiter looked up but did not say a word before re-focusing his eyes on the fork as he placed it exactly inch-perfect on the table where it belonged.

“Hi, can we come in for lunch?” the old man asked again.

As if he had just decided to re-open his restaurant, the Indian man said, “Yes, of course, Sir!”

Guru Prasad turned out to be the owner of the joint. He turned on his charm and became the perfect host and had a long conversation with the Mrs whilst the old man combed through a thick menu. The Mrs soon forgot the old man was there and assumed her sovereignty over the dark-skinned chap with super white teeth. She had forgotten her hunger and cold hands as she delved into subjects about yoga and paintings, her pet topics of conversation. “Mantra means chan,” Guru said. The Mrs was bragging about her yoga knowledge and wanted to know if mantra had any yoga meaning. “It means chan,” Guru repeated.

“Chan?” the old man asked Guru, trying to help the Mrs understand the word.

“Yes, chan,” the Indian man repeated, his voice did not betray his growing impatience. “You know, chan for praying,” he added. In Sanskrit, the two words manas and tra literally mean a tool for the mind, to reach a higher place of divine grace. We want our customers to experience this through our exquisite flavours and quality service.

“Ah, chant!” the old man said, his voice raised in delight and his face shone with self satisfaction. The couple’s faces shone with more delight during their meal. The mango lasi was a pleasant starter to tease their already willing appetite. After having satisfied themselves with the ‘forever favourite’ the Mantra butter chicken served with basmati rice and the Nilgiri king prawns – a South Indian dish from Kerala, the Mrs asked for some naan to complement the generous servings after which the couple leaned back and stretched out their legs to relieve their heavy stomachs, totally pleased by the occasion. She had stopped complaining about the long walks they had been taking because she knew she had been over-eating. Pleased with her titanium hips, she was already a new woman, sure-footed, more spritely and less complaining, the improved version a vast upgrade from her old bones. A vast improvement on her old self, more importantly, said the old man to himself. The old man let the taste linger in his palate as he immersed in the afterglow of the grounded spinach, mint and coriander, green chilli along with coconut and secret spices. Mantra’s curries lifted the spirit of the diners and the quality of the food and generous servings reflected their spiritual mantra that bow to their customers with folded hands.

Guru (far right) with his chefs, Sunil and Baliram.

Queenstown proved that whoever created the world was a mighty talented artist. Rain or shine, hot or cold, bright or dreary, it didn’t matter. Painted with the vastest array of colours, a palette that showed no limits and an imagination that was peerless, this place was heaven on earth to the couple. Everything was sculpted and every imperfection turned up to be in fact, perfection. It was said the early settlers made their wealth off the sheep’s back and then they struck gold when Jack Tewa, a sheep-shearer found gold by the river’s bank. The true gold they found was on full display, neither coated in mud nor buried deep in basalt. Their natural environment was more beautiful and rich than all the assays of gold in the world. The gold rush soon attracted people from everywhere, including the Chinese. How news got to China fascinated the old man. It goes to show, you can’t keep a good thing a secret. With a couple of hours to use up before the bus arrived, the Mrs found her own way to the local museum and by the time she left it, the sun had retired into the darkness and the heavy grey clouds had descended and disappeared into the river. “Where were you?” the Mrs asked the old man, for once without a tinge of annoyance that he had abandoned her in search of beauty for his phone camera. She was pleased with her tale at the bus stop. Even the mozzies could not upset her mood. The old man was slapping and crushing them, oblivious of breaking some buddhist command about thou shall not kill, not even caterpillars or flies. His thought turned to the practising buddhist friends, many of whom were schoolmates in a previous life. What did they say about killing the coronavirus? It turned out the Mrs would by some strange twist in fate, be part of the town’s history. She had found a mistake in the museum’s glossary for their display of artefacts of early Chinese settlers. A name was incorrectly spelt, and to show respect for the dead, she felt compelled to right the wrong and pulled a couple of women with authority from unseen rooms to the public viewing area. “See, it should be a Y, not a T. His name was Yuan, you know, like the Chinese dollar,” her booming voice would have reverberated throughout the building.

Beautiful Arrowtown, where they found gold in 1862

The next day, the couple was up early even before the sun rose from its long sleep. See, she had told him not to waste their money! Why pay $60 for a room with a lake view when they will be out the whole day? It was still dark and feeling the icy cold, they knew the mercury had struggled all night to remain over zero. They got to the bus stop and were horrified that they were the only two people waiting for the bus. “Shit, are you sure we are in the right place?” the woman asked, in her usual tone of disbelief and distrust. The day before she had told him he was no longer the reliable man she married. She could have been blind and still felt safe when she was a pretty little thing in his arms. “Now I have to constantly check that you’re not wrong again,” she said without humour and without tact. Luckily for the old man, he was not at the wrong bus stop. They just happened to be the only ones at the first pick-up point. By the time the bus was full, they had used up forty minutes of the day. “Stupid shit system,” Adrian, said, throwing the manifest onto the dashboard. The old couple could see his real person, sitting on the first row, to the left of him. Wow, a narky bloke who didn’t want to be at work, the old man thought. But, the coach driver suddenly spoke on the PA system. His public voice changed his personality to one who was bubbly and chirpy. He told us about the day that laid in wait for us and assured us we would all have a great time. “Those who had ordered lunch, come see me when we arrive,” he said.

“Will it be fush and chups?” the old man asked, pretending to sound like a local. Adrian remained deaf or mute.

“Hi everyone, we will be getting off the coach in a short while. Those who are eager to try the frish Alpine water, please do be careful at the water’s edge,” he said. “See how the vigitation changes here, see to your lift and to your right, the Remarkables are now covered in bierch,” he continued, before the old man interrupted him. “Do you mean beech or birch, Adrian?” The remarkable Adrian didn’t reply, he was already in his own world caressing the sides of the mountain and zig-zagging the Devil’s Steps well past the speed limit. Remember to call him remarkable and you won’t forget the name of these mountains, he taught his passengers earlier. As the coach rolled gently to a halt by the side of a pristine stream that was showing the frish gifts from the overnight rain, he told us this was a stop for maybe sex or seeven minutes.

Eglinton Valley and Mirror Lakes on the way to Piopiotahi (Milford Sound)

On the boat, the old man said “G’day” to a woman of grit and substance. Her teenage daughter showed no interest in the old man, lost in her own world, transported far away by a pair of white Earpods. She smiled with her lips but her distant eyes showed her disinterest in her surroundings. The woman, from Te Anau, was a dairy farmer who rose at four every morning, hours before the lazy sun would make its appearance. “How many heads do you have?” the old man asked, relishing in the thought that the number would be a reliable indicator of her wealth.

“Four thousand,” she said, unaware that he was busily calculating her balance sheet as they immersed each other in light conversation.

“Is it true the cows are always pregnant,” the old man marvelled at the lucky bulls that numbered about sexty, she said.

“No, they have a few months off after they calved,” she said, “so, about five to sex months, they do not produce milk.”

“Is it true the male calves are quickly sold off as veal? How do you know if it’s a heifer?”

“Well, you ought to know the answer,” she said, making her two callused hands into two big round balls. Farmers are incredibly resilient, at times having to battle whatever force or pain the weather throws at them.

Many minutes had passed and the old man revisited the matter of the lucky sexty bulls.

“I am just curious, but how do they cope having to impregnate thousands of females in a small window of time?” he asked sheepishly. He knew that sheep had to be sheared just before winter set in so that the cold would encourage them to feed more eagerly, thereby fattening the females to improve their fertility in time for the spring slaughter.

“Oh, we make the bulls mount on wooden replicas, and collect their fluids in cylinders. A drop is enough to make a cow pregnant,” she said.

To all the women in this story, there is a Maori word for them. Mana Wahine, respect the prestige of women.

Clockwise from top left: Beethoven’s Emperor at the NZSO concert in Wellington. Overnight snow in Queenstown. A view of Walter Peak from Lake Wakatipu. The Mrs, mana wahine, boarding the TSS Earnslaw. A bite of the Fergburger double beef and double cheese burger, but the Swiss cheese were paper thin.

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