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Sport 28: Autumn 2002

Owen Marshall — The Language Picnic

page 109

Owen Marshall

The Language Picnic

Prof Carver Glower was there, Assoc Prof Teems, Dr Padanovich, Dr Johns, Dr Fell, and Eileen the Dept secretary. Only Dr Allis-Montgomery refused to come, because of a vendetta going back seventeen years. The Language Department had just that week completed the fourth and final volume of Antipodean English: Growth of a Variant, and Eileen had suggested a picnic. Prof Glower had appropriated the idea as was his wont and prerogative, and put it to the facutly. ‘What do you reckon?’

‘Cracker,’ said Assoc Prof Teems.

‘Bonzer,’ said Dr Padanovich.

‘Yeah, why the heck not,’ said Dr Fell. ‘Out in the boohai, eh. As long as us sheilas aren't expected to bring all the grub.’ She preferred not to socialise with her academic colleagues, but knew what was politic in establishing a career. Also she found something generically plaintive in picnics: they reminded her of the desperate efforts her mother had made to placate family disharmony by such occasions.‘We should have Eileen along.’

‘Bingo, already come up with that,’ replied Prof Glower.

From the carpark amidst pine trees the track led down to the beach of black sand. Because the sand was easily kicked out, the track was almost a ditch, and Assoc Prof Teems stumbled. She couldn't recover her balance because of the open basket she carried, and after wild oscillation she tumbled into the heart of a small gorse bush. Her apricot muffins were shaken into the marram grass, and the blue gingham cover she'd had over them caught in the gorse and became a taut pennant in the ripe sea breeze and beneath an effulgent sun. ‘Bugger,’ she said.

Solicitous as ever, and rendered clumsy by his concern, Dr Padanovich scrambled down to assist her.

‘You did a real header,’ he said. ‘Arse over tip.’ He began to pluck page 110 the gorse prickles from her pale arm and cheek, his fingers long and nimble from subtle play on the computer keyboard.

‘Crapped out badly there,’ said Dr Johns, who couldn't disguise that elementary human relief which is a response to the misfortunes of another. He was a small, neat, waxy man, rather like a Belgian detective. ‘Come a real greaser all right,’ he said, and gave his quickfire, harsh laugh. Dr Johns was not essentially a malicious man, but he was suffering form an uneasy conscience, and attempting to assuage it by some acerbity towards his colleagues. Within the department he was normally a somewhat devious, and not fully disclosed, ally of Dr Allis-Montgomery, but he'd not had the courage to join him in boycotting the picnic. It was too unequivocal an alignment for him to commit to, but he half despised himself because of his decision.

Prof Glower picked up several of the muffins in a lordly, offhand manner, and shook them free of sand. ‘No probs, she'll be jake,’ he said. ‘Nifty kai, I reckon.’ In his heart, though, he was a disappointed man. He led the way down to the beach, and with his fingers combed the remaining long strands of grey hair across the pale luminosity of his head. Already he could feel sand grating there from his hand. Most of his staff were amiable enough, but he had academic respect for none of them, except perhaps Dr Fell, and all the time he felt his leadership under insidious siege by Dr Allis-Montgomery. Prof Glower told himself he should be satisfied with a chair in a New Zealand university, but he yearned for a vice-chancellorship, even more for a professorship at a name overseas institution. Antipodean English was his final play for scholastic distinction, and the first three volumes had received only qualified critical reception. ‘Let's find a pearler possie out of the wind,’ he said in his falsely jocular tone, and looked over the empty, black beach.

The faculty set up with their car rugs, baskets and chillybins in the lee of the last dune before the beach. Assoc Prof Teems was immediately absorbed in removing the remaining gorse prickles; Dr Fell and Eileen caught each other's eye and had a long, exclusive smile at the mismatched socks revealed as Dr Padanovich awkwardly sat down and crossed his lanky legs. ‘Just as well we're not wearing our best mocker,’ he said. ‘Old dungers for the beach I say.’ Prof Glower page 111 talked to all, and nobody in particular, about the need to leave their offices occasionally, and Dr Johns rather pointedly yawned and lay back with his hands behind his head.

Assoc Prof Teems was an intelligent, gentle woman increasingly buffeted by the winds of change through tertiary education. Her passion was the poetry of Robert Herrick, but that was treated with boisterous derision by stage one students, so she proffered it only to the occasional postgraduate, and even more occasional Herrick conference. She was English, and her interest in the New Zealand vernacular was entirely a reflection of the department's focus. She disliked gorse, lupins, and the coastal smell which made her think some great kipper was rotting out beyond the swell. But she was loyal by nature, and had a strict sense of duty, and so although seventeenth-century English poetry was her spiritual home, she tried to find a place to stand in a new country. No chance of a place of subtlety, of nuanced reflective comment, or classical allusion, she thought wryly, and ran her hand over her skin to check for more thorns and found none. ‘Well, here's one pommie who's ready to take a gecko at the friggin’ beach,’ she said.

‘Yeah, let's give it a burl,’ said Eileen. ‘Maybe there's a bronzed lifesaver there.’

‘More like a cockie with pig-dogs who hates loopies,’ said Dr Johns, but he went with them rather than listen to Prof Glower.

Dr Padanovich untangled his legs and stood up too, but not to go down to the beach. Already he sensed the familiar rifts and indifferences within the group becoming apparent: at least that sardonic Lucifer, Allis-Montgomery, wasn't with them, yet the taint of his eternal bitterness seemed impregnated in their congregation, as the fish-splitter carries always some olfactory reminder of his trade. Dr Padanovich retained an idealistic wish for a professional life of mutual support, respect and effervescent enjoyments. ‘I'm going to get a bit of a fire going,’ he said. ‘I reckon you can't have a dinkum feed without a snarler or two.’ Maybe a fire, that ageless symbol of communal gathering, would bring them together happily. Dr Padanovich went off, stooped even more than usual, as he fossicked in the marram grass for driftwood.

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‘Good on you, mate,’ announced Prof Glower, and then in a lower voice to Dr Fell, ‘The tight-arse didn't want to cough up for more than supermarket bangers, and now he thinks he deserves a bloody medal.’

Dr Fell permitted herself a knowing smile, but said nothing. She considered Dr Padanovich a sweet simpleton who carried far more than his share of the academic load, and always he topped the students' assessments of their lecturers. On the other hand, she knew she was the Professor's favourite, and although she refused to play on that, neither would she deliberately jeopardise the career advantages which might flow from it. She alone was in his confidence regarding his increasing sense of disillusion, and that knowledge mitigated for her his public and empty pomposity. Dr Fell herself was young, had long legs, and professional prospects of even greater extent.

‘I was knocked back by East Anglia for visiting prof again,’ said Prof Glower. ‘No-hoper pricks didn't even bother to tell me until I sent an email giving them a rark up.’

‘That's bloody crook,’ said Dr Fell. ‘It's not on.’ The black sand was warm through her fingers, and her bright red toenails glittered in the sunlight. Though a cleavage in the dunes she saw her three colleagues walking the surf line, breaking into a scamper up the beach sometimes to escape the seventh wave. Assoc Prof Teems and Eileen were close together, their heads inclined towards each other. Dr Johns attempted to relax, giving his metallic laugh from time to time, but at a distance his essential self-consciousness and uncertainty were obvious in everything he did. It occurred to Dr Fell that maybe when Allis-Montgomery was present, Dr Johns felt more at ease, because he knew he was then not the most unpopular and isolated person of any group.

‘You can bet your arse it was a jack-up anyway,’ said Prof Glower. ‘Some Nigerian Hausa woman wearing curtain material will have been appointed, and rabbit on to packed bloody halls about the poetry of political dissent.’

‘You're not shook on African poetry?’

‘Poetry my arse. Everyone's got too bloody windy to say what they really think about post-colonial literature, that's for sure.’

‘The new Dean of Humanities … ’ began Dr Fell.

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‘Effing commel,’ said Prof Glower. He realised he had struck a sour note, and promised himself not to allow his inner melancholy to be so obvious, even to Dr Fell. ‘Need a bit of old man manuka, eh,’ he shouted to Dr Padanovich, who was encouraging the first flames from beneath arabesques of driftwood.

‘Nah, she'll be a bottler,’ said Dr Padanovich. He took a black and greasy skillet from a supermarket bag and began to lay pink sausages in it.

Walking back towards the picnic spot with Assoc Prof Teems and Dr Johns, Eileen saw a thin wisp wafting from the fire, barely smoke from such dry wood, more a heat distortion like the thermals in boiling water. She knew that Dr Padanovich would be doing all the work, while the other two watched and talked. Eileen had no degree, but often she felt exasperated with the academics she served: their tetchy self-regard and social naïvety coupled with powerful intellects and obsessive interests. During the years most important for learning to relate to others in a diverse society, they had spent their time in libraries, isolated cubicles, and, less often, with small intense cabals of people like themselves. Often she felt like an ordinary mother with gifted, but difficult children.

‘What's it like down there?’ asked Dr Padanovich.

‘Pretty nippy round the pippy,’ said Eileen, ‘but we're getting fit.’

Assoc Prof Teems let herself fall back on the warm slope of the dune. ‘I'm knackered,’ she said.

Dr Johns came last of the three. He was carrying his black shoes, had rolled his trousers up, and the dark sand clung to his wet legs. He wondered if Dr Allis-Montgomery was working alone at the university, and felt a twinge of guilt. He wished he had brought his own car so that he could have thought of some excuse to go home immediately after the picnic lunch, but then doubted his resolve to carry out something so temerarious. ‘Time for tucker, eh,’ he said. ‘I reckon Paddy's a real gun with them sausies; you can put a ring round that.’

‘Yeah, bog in, mate,’ said Dr Padanovich. He experienced a sudden, poignant moment of déjà vu. The smell of sausages, burning driftwood, and the astringent fragrance of the sea, occasioned a memory that rose like an ache in his heart: his last fishing trip with his father before page 114 the latter's death. Maybe it was an omen that even his father's fishing skills had been unavailing that day, and he'd cooked sausages on the very same skillet. His father had been emaciated by radiation treatment, and although he laughed with his son, he had tragic, imploring eyes.

‘Who's for plonk?’ said Dr Fell. She took two bottles of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from her chillybin. She had forgone an afternoon of flagrant hedonism with her personal trainer to be with the department, and thought she deserved at least a single pleasure at the picnic.

‘Could I effing ever knock back a gargle of that,’ exclaimed Prof Glower. Alcohol was increasingly a solace for him, though he found single malt whisky a more rapid release than wine.

So the Language Department, minus just the physical presence of Allis-Montgomery, settled with somewhat self-conscious bonhomie to their lunch: al fresco academics ill at ease in a shifting landscape without books, or a dais on which to stand. The contribution of each was a significant reflection of character. Dr Fell's medal-winning white wine and cheese twists; Assoc Prof Teems's apricot muffins and Earl Grey tea; the fresh and sensible club sandwiches brought by Eileen; sherbet trumpets fashioned by Dr Johns in his modern and lonely flat; Prof Glower's salmon and broccoli quiche made by a wife complaisant as to his absence; Dr Padanovich's supermarket sausages and six-pack of Lion Brown.

‘Is this good chow or what,’ said Prof Glower.

‘Monty,’ said Assoc Prof Teems. She felt a brief frisson of despair at the thought her life provided no better option than this, and recalled her poet Herrick, driven by lack of congenial company to train a pig to drink wine with him in his vicarage garden.

‘Things are cracking up big time,’ said Dr Fell. The weather was in sudden change: scudding clouds driven by a building southerly, and the sea, cut off from the sun, turning leaden. The temperature fell quickly; the driven sand scurried in the lupins and grass; the wind made sad orisons along the arc of black beach; the first large drops splattered on sand and foliage, and the spread picnic of the language department.

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‘Turning real pear-shaped,’ said Dr Padanovich. ‘I think we'll have to flag it.’

All of them hastened to gather possessions as the southerly storm came upon them. They looked to their own welfare, except benign Dr Padanovich, who offered to carry Assoc Prof Teems's basket and Eileen's thermos. They straggled back up the entrenched path which wound steeply to the carpark through marram grass, gorse, lupins, and the soft flanks of black dunes which flinched beneath the heavy rain. Dr Fell, immediately behind Prof Glower, heard several rain pellets strike his balding head with the sound of a kettledrum. Dr Johns experienced a perverse euphoria, for the picnic was ending in disarray, and he'd be home by early afternoon. ‘Send her down, Hughie,’ he cried, and gave his barking laugh, not noticing one of his shoes fall from his bundle and roll to lie hidden in the lupins. How Dr AllisMontgomery would enjoy the day recounted with the sardonic delivery of Dr Johns.

‘Get your arse into gear up front,’ shouted Eileen, impatient at the academics’ lack of athleticism. ‘What drongo's holding us up?’

Prof Glower at the front refused to be hurried. ‘Shut your trap,’ he said sternly. Eileen was an indispensable secretary, but still a secretary after all. ‘You're a bunch of sodding sooks. Wankers the lot of you.’ He strode on, refusing to hunch into the gale, professorial to the last, yet in his heart he felt an irrefutable regret that he had ever abandoned his love of Proust, and taken on the New Zealand vernacular.