Random Crossed Paths Karen Lethlean

TRAVEL ESSAY: Probably the shape of my bags attracting their attention, at first. Over my shoulders were two unconventional long sausage-shaped bags, connected by webbing. After selling an Auckland purchased bike to a hostel manager in Christchurch I’d laced my bike panniers together, atop a smaller back-pack giving a turtle like appearance to my baggage construction. When Mike Cogswell, surrealist and miniature ceramic artist, initially gave me a lift into Coromandel Peninsular, he’d certainly remarked my bags were a curio. Stopping in his beat-up little blue car, before the infamous precipitous water edge road skirting Firth of Thames. Such a nice guy, and so helpful. Right up there with a parade of boy-scout-types dotting my New Zealand solo adventure.

‘Where are you going to stay?’ He’d asked

‘A friend told me to show up at Barry Brickell’s with a bottle of wine.’

‘Right. Do you know anything about him?’

‘No, except my boss spent an artistic internship staying in an old railway carriage while studying art at Uni. Said Barry might accommodate me in those same carriages, if I promise to share traveller’s tales and come bearing a gifts, specifically wine.’

Wandering back down Barry’s driveway, sans wine bottle; unceremoniously rejected, I smiled at Mike’s car still parked beyond the gate.

‘Did he answer the door?’

‘Yes, but basically sent me away.’ I’d thought being greeted by a sarong-wearing clay-streaked artist would be genesis for a hospitable apprenticeship helping Barry show tourists around his new mini-railway.

Blissfully ignorant of forthcoming artist tantrums while Mike drove around the snake of a road into Coromandel, I contemplated how power poles were constructed in water because road met water on one side, steep hills on the other. And what about global warming impacts? While my driver, Mike wore his welcoming artist’s hat and pointed Castle Rock, half hidden in mists so synonymous with this – land of the long white cloud.

‘When we came here, this was taken as a sign.’

Unfamiliar with his symbolism, I asked, ‘Something set in stone?’

‘We’d all walked away from establishment and rejected mainstream. Fresh from all sorts marches and placard waving, we were enraptured by ambiences of protest enshrined in this fist-monolith.’

Meantime Castle rock emerged as symbolic to hippies, alternative or artistic types who arrived in Coromandel during the 1960s, building a reputation for a region of creative works, produce and even drug culture communes.

This being my first time in a living, breathing, functioning artist’s studio, I likened my experience to visiting a hallowed place. And hovered in doorways, feeling like an intruder. Mike displayed giant surrealist canvases, I might get lost in, similar to sinking into a dreadful nightmare. These images of throats contrasted with tiny ceramic pots daubed with fish, reminding me of Siamese fighting fish trapped in tiny aquariums. Being surrounded by in progress art produced a euphoric effect. Even now when I recall drifting aroma of ceramic glazes, oil paints and brushes soaking in linseed oil, stains of Chris Issac’s A Man of Colours can drift down. With a whole new meaning because I lived, for a short time, in this studio.

Those perfect few days spent mostly lazing on Mike’s new deck or earning my keep by bottling and cooking warm, sun-dripping Nectarines fresh picked, by my own hands, from Mike’s, slightly downhill orchard. Scents of jams and pies seeming complimenting various artistic aromas.

‘I’m coming out of my cave dweller phase,’ Mike said.  A phase clearly recognizable by partially constructed decks around his tiny A-frame. This coming out also meant my amicable host became impromptu tour leader, willingly taking his charge to studios, museums and bookshops, I’d never find. We explored hidden galleries.

As Barry didn’t feel like opening his Driving Creek railway that week, due to his being engrossed with work on giant terracotta figurines I’d been shown as justification for his unwillingness to entertain an unpaying guest. Back then Barry Brickell’s 15 inch gauge, miniature railway wasn’t so well known, so he choose when to welcome tourists, no regulated opening hour’s style. You only got to ride, if Barry felt like opening his gate! Besides carriages and fittings still functioned as a clay transportation device, rather than being set up to move tourists about.

Mike even showed me tempestuous east coast surf beaches so contrasting with low, flat pale greenish-grey Firth of Thames waters. One cold, windy day, I admired his confidence sprinting out into mountainous waves. Tourism hadn’t yet become a big-time Coromandel invader so impossible to secure such insider’s perspectives no matter how much I’d been prepared to pay.

All this pleasure resulted from randomly crossed paths.

Chatting in the pub, I became an eager listener to tales of Barry’s gossip worthy moments. Every small town benefits from having such noteworthy individuals. I giggled at Barry’s drunken, midnight naked walk down the town’s main street. Much less frightening than my experience in company of another man who disrobed after dark, and strolled nonchalantly along a suburban footpath, ‘to prove I can.’ I silently thanked whatever kismet granting Mike, not Barry as my host, and thought someone ought to write a book about Barry Brickell. People openly called him Barry, Mad Potter of ‘Mandel.

But now, unfortunately wistful times concluded. I am departing Coromandel Peninsular with my thumb pointed toward faster transport.

Dave slowed, to get a closer look. Wasn’t until he’d almost overtaken my thumb registered as a ride request.

‘Will we stop, eh?’

The other two grunted affirmations as soon as they saw a female backpacker-hitchhiker.

Their old station wagon pulled over into dusty road edges. At some stage a white car, now mostly grey, pitted by salt spray, daubed by half-finished panel beatings and pink automotive undercoat. Three boys shuffled to make space for a newcomer and bags.

‘Where you going?’ one asked. Obviously in the same direction, it’s really a question about how far.

‘Trying to get back into Auckland.’

‘We’re going as far as Hamilton, that’s our best offer.’

‘Great, that’s a big help, I can probably pick up a local bus service from there.’

Once moving again I scanned my new situation and took in some details.

Each of these boys are giant Maoris, likely to tip metric scales at 150 kilos, more than double, 330 pounds. All Blacks front row forward style, wait – man-mountains, a viable description. My driver wears jeans, blue at some stage of their life, now more a shade of greyish-brown. A distinct fishy smell permeates, therefore stains likely to be mud, grease or fish-gut remnants.

‘We’ve been getting mussels up ‘mandel’.’ One passenger says.

I feel embarrassed, maybe these guys saw my unsubtle response, to their bouquet of marine guts, foreshore, jetty pylons, weed, damp and lingering salt mixed with unwashed body odour. So I attempt to blend in with car contents, and attempt to establish personal-space boundaries. When I notice arcs of half empty beer bottles up to their lips. All three are taking occasional drafts from brown paper wrapped, long-necked brown bottles carefully stashed between their legs.

‘Wanna a swig?’

‘Oh, no thanks.’

These three cheerfully talk about their catch, great weather and terrific day. While my glances register general flotsam of at least a day’s work of a male-bonding fishing. Bare, sandy feet; old weathered shirts, wind ruffled hair; plus rubbish and dirt, this vehicle doubles as a general receptacle. Aside from a lack of neatness and their stink, starting to be less noticeable, nothing too bothersome. Getting a lift has a way of negating major discomforts.

Then a crunch came with an announcement – ‘Better get more beer, eh?’

‘Yeah, there’s a pub here, bro, next right.’

I tried to broach driving drinking dangers, but all that comes out is a half-hearted mumble accompanied by a barely noticeable head shake. In my capacity of a freeloading hitchhiker I’m not really in a position to make a negative comments about social alcohol consumption. I chastised myself for being enough of a snob to think a glass of wine fire side mixed talking art, books and local scenery any different from this car cocktail. By now we are in a neat parking area, surrounded by low two plank white fences.

‘Wait here.’ Two of the three occupants leave. My company now, big boy sharing, really I am squashed into a back seat fragment. He remains silent, grabs another couple of mouthfuls of beer bottle, staring straight ahead.

After a few moments he too leaves. ‘Wanna take a pit stop…’ his parting words.

Sitting for moments but seemed like ages, I contemplate options. Continue to be given this lift and possibly get to Hamilton by early afternoon. For the first time during this whole five week New Zealand hitching and cycling adventure I feel unsafe. What could go wrong? Rape, car accident, abduction…. just a few possibilities crowded in on a lengthening list. Possibility of a collision, festers as option 1.

How much alcohol have they consumed? How much energy expended dragging up nets of mussels, packing, and toting? Alcohol and fatigue – a toxic mix. I’ve seen anti-drunk driving advertisements, I know the risks. Even if there aren’t those mind-numbing open, straight roads synonymous with road trips back home in Australia.

My driver did seem in control. He might be used to driving with a booze buzz, even under the influence of a little dope. I’ve heard locals are partial to a smoke of good-stuff, impossible to detect any aromas of evidence, up against seafood tangs.

For all my seeming confidence I am still one small, slim, foreign girl compared to these three. Yes, they’d been perfect gentlemen, but I cannot guarantee this will continue. Who’d know if I vanished, out here on coastal back roads between Coromandel and Hamilton? During these moments I remembered some hitchhiking rules, like never get into a car crowded with drunk men; never hitch late at night; always have an out…. It’s now or never.

As I left the car and semi-ran to nearby roadside, I am sure a muffled, ‘Where ya going?’ blows back towards me. I spent following legs of my journey looking over my shoulder to see if these boys pursued their catch. Congratulating myself for having averted some dreadful scenarios.

What might be the worst thing? I confused a group of guys watching dust settle around a weird hitchhiker trying to run away, lumbering sausage shaped bags over her shoulders. They may expect my flight, or been excited by sight of my panicked departure. All possibilities. Most extreme likelihood, my bloody carcass buried in a shallow road-side grave. Such an outcome just as likely to result from sleeping in Mike’s little weatherboard shack high above Coromandel Town. Even now I ponder depths of trust granted my artistic friend simply because we shared something ethereal.

BIO: Karen Lethlean is retired English teacher just finished 15 years teaching students in their last two years of secondary education. Black, Red and Yellow was runner up in Wild Word’s 2015 Summer solstice writing competition. Karma published in Pendulum Papers, Bum Joke commended in #22 Best of Times competition. A flash fiction piece Cenotaph runner up for the Ink Tears, UK. The Almond Tree received an honourable mention in the 2017 Lorian Hemingway short story competition, and has been published in the fall edition of Pretty Owl Poetry. In her other life Karen is a triathlete and has done the Hawaii Ironman championships twice.