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Stories From My Life & Travels

I hope on this page to post some of the stories, anecdotes, little scraps of memoir and other similiar things that have been inspired by my life or travels. I must admit, that outside of my Journal, there isn't much. I hope to change that as I go along. In the meantime, I will just put things up as I come across them, or as I remember them (or more often exactly where I've put them). Please feel free to comment or talk to me about what you read here. Thank  you.

I CAN DIG IT

Kaitaia. The word has a ring to it; it is a name to conjure with. Pronounced Ky-ty-ah, it is the last major town before Cape Rienga, the northern tip of New Zealand. These days Kaitaia is little more than a service centre catering for tourists heading to the cape or to the magnificent 90 Mile Beach a few kilometres west of town.

   I was there in 1980 when Kaitaia was even more remote and a great deal smaller than it is now. Hitchhiking in a daze around New Zealand after a personal trauma, I landed there on a chilly September day. The Youth Hostel was a small bungalow and, with Mrs Harrigan the warden (as managers were called then) and a few fellow travellers to share the place with, I found a cosy retreat for a few days.
   Mrs Harrigan was a widow and had run the hostel for years. While passing travellers provided a transient kind of company, Mrs Harrigan’s only true companion was her cat, who seemed even more elderly than she did.
   Heading back one morning after some sightseeing, I looked forward to a cup of tea in front of the log fire in the hostel common room. But when I arrived, the air inside was as chilly as that outside. The place seemed deserted, so I went looking for signs of life. I found Mrs Harrigan kneeling in the back garden staring at a bundle on the grass in front of her.
   Moving closer, I realised that the bundle was her cat. It lay there very still, clearly dead. For a moment, I had no idea what to do: should I retreat quietly and leave Mrs Harrigan to her grieving? Or should I offer some ... well I didn’t know what I had to offer. Mrs Harrigan looked up before I had a chance to do anything. She smiled through her tears.
    ‘Ah Paul. Look what’s happened’. She pointed to the cat. ‘I found him on the road. Some idiot must have run him over’. Funny, I thought, there’s no blood, no obviously broken bones.
    ‘Mrs Harrigan’, I squatted down beside her, ‘I’m so sorry. At least it looks like he died quickly’. God, I thought, what sort of thing was that to say? ‘Is there anything I can do for you? Do you need any help?’
    ‘Will you bury him for me?’ Blimey, I didn’t expect that. Funny how, when we offer to help someone in these terrible situations, we have our own ideas of what they need—like a nice cup of tea or something.
    ‘Of course I will’, I responded, in shock now myself. Before I could add anything else, Mrs Harrigan struggled to her feet and went to the garden shed, coming back with a rusty old shovel, which she handed to me. I stood there like a stunned mullet, waiting I guess for her to make the next move. After all, it was her scene, her cat.
    ‘Let’s put him under the apricot tree’, she suggested. Being winter the tree was bare, save for the odd brown and shrivelled leaf. I remember thinking that, come the spring, the tree would come back to life and poor old ... what was the cat’s name? I don’t think I ever knew. Anyway, it would be a nice place him to return to the Earth.
    We went down to the tree, Mrs Harrigan cradling her cat as if he were merely sleeping. She had wrapped him in a shawl, a kind of paisley print I think. She laid the bundle down, and looked around.
    ‘This will be a lovely spot for him to rest, don’t you think dear?’ Rest? The cat was dead. Still, what did I know? Who was I to judge? It hadn’t been my cat. ‘Why not dig a nice hole here?’ She pointed to a patch of grass at our feet, just clear of the tree trunk.
    So I dug the shovel blade into the hard ground. And then I stopped. I was digging a grave. I’d never done that before; this wasn’t just any old hole. We were going to put poor Mrs Harrigan’s cat into the ground. And then she’d be alone wouldn’t she? Then it hit me: this is important; this is a big deal. I have to treat it as such.
    I started digging again, but with each shovel full of dirt, I said what you might call a prayer. No, that’s not it. I think what I mean is that I dug that hole, that grave, prayerfully. I did it slowly, carefully, keeping in mind the meaning of my work. It occurred to me later that I had made a ritual of it, a proper funeral.
    Finally, after twenty minutes, we had a metre deep hole. Mrs Harrigan signalled to put the cat into the grave. So I did. It was a heavy old thing, but it lay easily at the bottom.
    Mrs Harrigan stooped and gathered a handful of dirt, which she let fall gently through her fingers onto the shrouded body. She straightened, looked at me and nodded. I knew, of course, that she was asking me to fill in the grave, but I had expected some time for prayers or something. But, as I said, it was her thing, so I filled in the hole, once again trying to do it prayerfully. Once I’d patted down the last shovelful onto the small mound, Mrs Harrigan turned and walked inside.
    I stayed, looking down at the grave, and thought about how just that morning I had seen evidence of other, earlier digging that had gone on in Kaitaia and surrounds. I had spent a couple of hours in a cold and dusty shed looking at shelf after shelf of lumps of gum. Kauri Gum to be exact. Formed when resin leaking from damaged trees hardens, the collection of this material had been big business for thousands of years. The local Maori people had chewed it mixed with the juice of a native thistle. They’d also used it for torches and to light fires.
    Europeans used it in varnishes and paints as well as for fire kindling. At one time in the 1890s, 20,000 people from all over the world were employed digging in the swamps and hills for the gum. In fact, the historian C E W Bean believed that the term ‘digger’ as applied to the Anzacs, might have originated with these gum diggers. But the specimens I had seen that morning were special. Ranging from the size of marbles to that of a watermelon, they had been saved because either they were of special beauty or they held the remains of insects and plants swallowed by the resin as it poured from the flesh of the tree.
    This was long before the movies gave us stories of DNA extracted from mosquitoes trapped in resin, to recreate long extinct dinosaurs. Bur, for me, the cold and dust of that old shed fell from my consciousness as I had wandered enthralled. And now, I was burying an animal in a hole I had dug in the same ground from which those ancient life forms had been pulled. I have to tell you that, for a normally cynical twenty-something this was a profound moment.
    Maori people tell us that Cape Rienga, not far from where I stood that day, is the place from which the souls of the dead depart for the underworld. I never did make it there, but I reckon that, on that day, I helped at least one soul on its journey.