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EWB Third Place Winner

Practising for Antarctica

by

Madeleine Tingy

 

Reg sat on the front verandah in an old chair comfortably moulded to his shape. He pulled his jacket collar up, speculating on whether the day could possibly get any colder. His tiny front garden was misted with the chilly rain of midwinter.  Reg was waiting for the minibus that picked up a group of local seniors once a week and took them on an outing for morning coffee followed by lunch, the meal definitely the focus of the trip.  Sometimes there was time to stop for an ice cream on the way back. If anyone had asked he would have struggled to recall where they had travelled, but it was usually along the coast or up in the hills.

 To start with there had been six people in the group but now the number was reduced to four. Poor Bill Evans had suffered a heart attack and died and then the little lady, whose name Reg always forgot, had gone to live with her daughter. But that would be the same with any group of elderly folk, he reflected. Someone was always missing. That was called life. Reg’s philosophy was that at his age you had to make the most of what was on offer. He wasn’t sure he would use the word enjoyable to describe the outings but the lunch was usually good; better than sitting alone in his tiny kitchen waiting for his cup of soup to cool. And he enjoyed having someone to talk to.

At ten o’clock precisely the bus pulled up and Reg manoeuvred his way cautiously down the slippery path juggling his stick in one hand, umbrella in the other. He was glad to see that Ken was the driver; he was a good bloke and loved a joke.  The door slid open with a clatter and Reg struggled up the step and sat down heavily, nodding to Dave who was sitting alone as usual and calling out good morning to Doris and Elsie.

“You look like a circus act,” Ken joked, turning up the volume of the Slim Dusty CD as he pulled away.  The familiar lyrics filled the bus and everyone sat back and relaxed. This was their outing and they intended to make the most of it.

‘I think you should have worn a warmer jacket, Dave,” Doris commented. She was a large lady with a knowing smile and a sharp tongue; she always sat with her friend Elsie who lived in the same retirement village. Elsie was small and birdlike with enquiring dark eyes. She wore a pink plastic headband which made her seem girl- like. They both regarded Dave as a source of amusement and their pattern of teasing him followed the same pattern on these outings.

“A bit of rain and cold is nothing where I’m going to, “retorted Dave.

“Ooh, where would that be?” asked Doris, as if she didn’t know since it was Dave’s only topic of conversation.

“Antarctica,” said Dave, wishing his wife Mary was still alive and seated beside him. She would know how to handle these silly laughing women. He held up the cover of the magazine. It showed a large expanse of snow and ice dotted with upright penguins looking like old-fashioned waiters.  “The Antarctic Peninsula. I will be cruising through iceberg-flanked passageways. I have been planning this trip for years and am training daily.”

‘Oh, that cold old place,” remarked Doris. “You’re always talking about it Dave. Give me a bit of sun any day, don’t you reckon Elsie?”

 “Did you know that the big penguins, The Emperors, can live for twenty years whereas the little ones only live for six years?” Dave ignored their comments and continued relating the facts he had memorised and was fascinated by.

 “Well, the things you learn,” said Doris.  It makes me shiver just looking at the picture.”
“Training is the answer. I’m in training for whatever climatic condition are flung at me,” Dave announced.  “The ship will cruise amongst ice floes. There’ll be humpback whales and seals...” his voice trailed off as he realised no one was listening.

He bent his head over the page trying to control the excitement that built up in him when he thought about his dream trip.  After all, it was still a good six months away.

“We’re stopping for lunch at Waterfall Tavern today,” Ken announced cheerfully after the coffee stop. “Some of you have been to this place before and will remember the view”.

 ‘Not that we’ll see much today,’ Reg thought, watching raindrops stream down the windows of the bus. The rain was relentless.

The Tavern was a glorified cafe that had been built back in the sixties when people started going for Sunday drives in their newly- acquired cars and wanted a place to stop for lunch. It exuded a dated, brown atmosphere. Pushing open heavy glass doors you entered a warm steamy interior with a conglomeration of metal tables and chairs. It smelled stuffily of yesterday’s dinners. The seating area was an open noisy place. Chair legs scraped painfully on the tiled floor, footsteps echoed and mixed with the clatter of cutlery and chink of thick white china.

  The soup of the day was always pumpkin.  Reg wondered if this was a tradition or did they simply grow a lot of pumpkins out the back? Cakes were displayed in a grubby, finger-marked cabinet along the counter, mainly custard tarts and lamingtons.

“I like a nice custard tart,” Doris said to Elsie as from habit they looked for a table with a view.  “I might treat myself to one.”

On this a wintery day the place wasn’t busy; the group more or less had it to themselves. Reg was drawn to the big windows that allowed a watery grey light into the room. Immediately beneath was the car park and he spotted their driver having a cigarette and reading the paper in the bus. Soon he would join them. But if you looked across the narrow road to the thick tangle of bush and twisted trees you could see where the steep embankment plunged down to the torrential water far below. Through the glass the noise of the waterfall was muffled but was still a threatening roar like some wild animal concealed in its lair. It must be spectacular, Reg thought, to create that sound. The trees crowded in, heavy with water, their branches thrashing in the strong wind; he felt as if he was sheltering on the small dry island of the cafe.

He joined the others who were studying the seniors menu with deliberation. It always took an age for them to make up their minds.

“They tell me the fish and chips are always good,” he said.

“We like the lasagne.  It’s always nice with a bit of salad,” pointed out Doris.

Reg ordered the fish and chips meal of the day and wandered over to look at a row of sepia brown photographs hanging on one wall. They were taken around fifty years ago and showed the falls before there was a car park or sealed road much less a viewing platform. The dense bush flowed down the hillside like an animal pelt.  The banks of the creek were deserted apart from a couple of boys swinging out across the water on a rope.  No one ever worried about danger and duty of care then.

One picture showed the opening of the tavern. A line of shiny Falcons and Holdens were parked in the shade and women in flowery dresses and men with Beatles haircuts made their way into the new building. A wooden sign near the glass door announced, in old-fashioned writing, that lunches and afternoon teas were served daily.

“Where’s  Dave?” he asked as he came and sat down with the others.

They all looked at each other.

“I think he said something about looking at the waterfall before lunch,” ventured Doris. Reg looked at them and saw unease on their faces. He got up and crossed to the window.

Dave had disappeared into the rainy murk of early afternoon. The damp greenness of the bush looming from the mist looked menacing in its density. Reg pictured Dave testing himself, crossing the sheets of water on the bitumen road before plunging down the gravel track to the seething creek. He noticed the driver coming up for his lunch. A car pulled in briefly then drove off as if the people couldn’t be bothered to stop on such a wet day. There was no sign of anyone else.  The water would be flooding the banks, immersing the huge granite boulders where on summer days children scrambled and families picnicked.

 He pictured Dave slipping and sliding down the steep track, crying out as he missed a foothold, grabbing at prickly branches to arrest his descent; then daring to cross the foaming brown water as it flowed at speed past his sodden, mud-caked shoes. Surely he wouldn’t have tried to cross the torrent, feeling in vain for footholds, imagining stepping stones to support his weight? Reg could visualise him, placing one foot cautiously in front of the other, practising for Antarctica, until finally he missed his step and fell into the cold rushing water. Maybe he had banged his head, possibly...

The meals sat in front of them on the table, the chips congealing on white plates, the coffees cold in the cups. The wind whined round the corner of the building and the old roof rattled.  Huge banks of dark cloud pressed down on the sodden landscape. Reg crossed to the window again.

“Stop doing that,” snapped Elsie. “It won’t bring Dave back any sooner.”
“If he comes back,” Reg thought darkly.

He had watched as the manager and the young man who served in the bar pulled on warm clothes and set out to search for the missing man. It seemed a long while until they returned, soaked and beaten. They looked shocked, shaken.

“We found him but I am sorry to have to tell you that your friend is dead. He was half in and half out the water. He must have slipped and hit his head.”

“Or suffered a heart attack,” said the young bar manager, unable to control the agitation in his voice.

The group huddled in silence until the ambulance arrived. Then, after an agonising wait, the body, covered by a white sheet, was brought up on a stretcher. At last the ambulance drove away. Everything was strangely quiet and unreal after that. They were a sorry little group that straggled out to the bus and climbed on.

Reg felt in his pocket and took out the carefully folded sheet of paper Dave had given him the previous week. He examined the drawing. The creases were scoured into the paper as if it had been looked at many times. He saw a kind of map, a picture of a snowy wasteland and icy waters superimposed with animal life. Tracks were marked in the snow and above was scribbled a child’s blue sky with an eagle soaring high on magnificent wings. The cruise ship was drawn in one corner, berthed like a miniature boat in the vastness. Reg realised he was looking at Dave’s private dream.

He shifted uncomfortably in his seat and swallowed. Poor Dave. Another one gone from their group of day trippers. He wondered who would be the next. It was like one of those murder mysteries where someone disappeared with improbable regularity.

“Everyone okay back there?” the driver called over his shoulder.  “We’ll soon get you home.”

His voice was hard to hear above the squeal of the wipers and the constant spattering of rain against the windows.

Reg turned the Antarctica picture over. On the back Dave had drawn a penguin and outlined the shape with a black texta. He had added glasses and a scarf and coloured it in carefully like a child trying hard not to go over the lines.  The penguin seemed to smile lopsidedly at him and Reg smiled back.


 

 

 

 

Updated 9th July 2024