Carpe diem. Good advice, for you never know what tomorrow could bring.
Arriving in New Zealand as a young immigrant from England, Alton got her dream job, denied by the BBC, (probably enough starry-eyed ingenues waiting for so few on-air jobs ) Alton was the exception, knew she’d have to work, just needed a foot on the ladder. Shopping reporter in the bucolic, charming City of Nelson, New Zealand was that.
Adjusting a green beret on her auburn curls, she slipped on her Burberry trench coat, so perfect. It said professional, Elsie would notice.
Elsie Naylor, her boss from head office, Wellington, is in town for her first performance review. In the mid-fifties, married to the job, she’d risen from shopping reporter to head of women's programs. Alton would do it in five or six years. Imagining herself in the job, still in her thirties, she’d have that cozy holiday cottage in the Cotswolds, chintz, books, log fire, and an Irish wolfhound asleep in front. Marriage and children. not for her.
Chatting in her office, over tea and McVities chocolate digestive biscuits(Elsie’s favorite) she was friendly with that reserve used by superiors to junior colleagues. Alton was confident, all the merchants were satisfied, station manager reported a helpful, willing, and able employee.
There’s been a murder! Taxi driver Dave Brannon. The rope around his neck, head bashed in blood everywhere, who did it? The frantic technician almost broke down her office door revealing several people milling in the hall, talking earnestly. Elsie was already halfway up and off her chair. The little tea lady, Mahi, pure Māori and very superstitious, pressed the back of her hand against her forehead. The worst thing ever to happen in Nelson, all repeating the same line. Silent and troubled, Alton had taken his taxi just the night before.
Elsie decided to cut short the meeting. Everything looks good she said. All the merchants have renewed for another year. (The only thing concerning her.) “ Keep up the good work” she cooed, waltzing out with a goodbye wave.
Her daily session, due in about an hour, Alton was prepared. One minute ad-libbing for each of the 28 advertisers, one minute for each opening and closing jingle. She could do it in her sleep. Thirty minutes daily, Monday thru Friday, shopping report was essential for farmers’ wives in the ‘boonies, as we called those remote sheep stations. A once-a-month trip into the City had to be organized, and Alton got the grateful nod for her part.
Back in the office, the morning mail had arrived, with her daily order of freshly picked boysenberries, for energy. Introduced into New Zealand from California, blessed by the sunny mild climate they’d transformed into a super berry. A succulent mix of blackberry and raspberry picked fresh, the warm, globule caresses the tongue like velvet releasing a tart/sweet wine.
Slitting open the expensive-looking stationery of Harrods Dept Store, London, her contact offered first refusal on a Burberry trench, at a good sale price. Still, in excellent condition, her coat would last for years. Intending to decline with a nice chatty letter, that contact was worth cultivating.
Finished for the day, Alton wanted to get an early start on next week’s schedule. Feeling important, she always carried her yellow pad and felt tip pen, on view. Jotting down a few bold headlines describing whatever the merchant wanted to highlight, was enough to weave a minute of honey-voiced “tickle the fancy” ad-libbing.
Breezing into the Swiss restaurant/deli/butcher, the two rotund brother owners, greeted her. ‘Allo, Alton”. Gasbags, time wasters she thought, who loved town gossip. Half listening, but getting the essentials, …..veal chops on sale…….when…..
did he say something about wether? (a castrated sheep, dear reader)
“Sorry, what was that about wether.”
“You know”, interrupted the older brother with a gossip’s glee. “the taxi driver’s wife said if it hadn’t been for the weather, one of the new tv girls called him, he was finished for the day. Said she didn’t want to walk in the rain and spoil her hair. He did her a favor.”
Shocked by this news, she quickly stuffed a pen and yellow pad into her purse. Cordially wishing them and their families a pleasant and safe weekend, she left.
Outside, she paused to cool her flushed face. and collect her thoughts. That was no girl from the newly installed tv channel, it was she! Alton the shopping reporter. Worried about walking a few blocks in the rain, to meet one of the personnel guys for dinner, networking, as usual, she’d called Dave.
The station verified what she desperately didn’t want to hear. Sometime between nine and midnight, the murder occurred a few miles outside the city. Dave had dropped her off at 8.30 when the murderer must have hailed an empty taxi.
She needed to think, somewhere quiet, and disappear for the weekend. Nelson Travel was close by where the helpful agent sensed her need. A two-day round trip to Waikoropupu Springs in Tasman national park was suggested. The Māori people treasure the Springs, for their healing properties guarded by a spirit known as Taniwha, she said.
First stars were peeping through a faint veil of silvery mist when she arrived. Sleeping fitfully, rising early, she strapped on a backpack with trail mix and bottles of water. Wearing desert boots and a straw hat, she just wandered, no guide just walked amid the stunning natural beauty.
Eternal Spring, blue skies, and miles of pristine beaches. A place of endless space and majesty. Dwarfed by majestic towering cliffs descending vertically to the ocean below, she felt insignificant.
Those first English settlers must have been overwhelmed she thought. From the smoky drabness of factory towns in the U K to these breathtaking dreamscapes. Anyone would have to admit there’s a lot of dull beige in the Old Country, even the birds. Still, nothing could match the incomparable sweet sound of the first lark on an English early morning.
Fascinated as she was by so much color, she found the fairy penguins alone, worth the price of the trip. What a marvel of ornithology they are, squawking and cavorting on the beach. Bluest blue and grey, only 14 inches tall, and seriously monogamous. Together forever, the same pair, mating and hatching two or three little families, living from six to twenty-five years. Papa and Mama take turns hatching eggs, then feeding the brood for six weeks.
Idly fantasizing, she wondered what would happen if one died, or got eaten. Would the other perish of a broken heart, take to single bliss, or latch onto another singleton? Do they look different from each other, with a few feathers here or there? How can they know it’s the same one?
It was the voice, that’s it! Just as easily as she recognized each announcer’s voice, she reasoned, it was the squawk. It’s all in the squawk. Interrupting her reverie, it was getting late and she had a bus to catch.
Angry storm clouds greeted her return on Sunday evening. Opening the front door, the hall mirror reflected an image matching the desultory weather. Hair scrunched into a ponytail, no eye makeup, she looked like a boiled owl.
After torrential rain, a brilliant morning followed, and the air felt clean. With painful reluctance, she went to the funeral. sitting with several colleagues, Dave was known and well-liked. Jocelyn, his wife, and four children walked behind the casket. There are no words to describe a family’s grief of losing a Husband and Dad.
The youngest with the rosy face of a child holding hands with the eldest daughter who staggered a little, her balance affected when she took off her glasses to wipe the tears rolling down her face. About seventeen, she dressed like most women in the mild climate of Nelson, cotton frock, and knitted cardigan. Few people wore coats.
“Stopping to say a few words on the way out, she spoke to Jocelyn, Mrs. Brannon.
“My condolences, you won’t know me, she began”
“Yes, I do, you’re the shopping reporter. My daughter listens to you, she would love to have a job like yours one day.
“Really, what’s her name”
Standing next to her mother she offered her hand,
Shaking it firmly, she noticed her dark glossy hair with coppery tints, crimped with a curling iron. She looked young and sweet.
“It’s nice to meet you, Sally. When can you come to the station?
With deep wonder in her eyes, her eager reply:
“Next Tuesday, we have a school holiday”
Not able to guarantee a job, Alton felt she could, at least, advise how to nail an audition. and handle advertisers. It would be nice to have a companion, she liked the idea. No one in the head office would object, just the opposite, New Zealand in the sixties needed people.
Never having to admit being the girl taking Dave’s taxi that fateful night, no one ever asked. Nevertheless, it haunted her. Was this all her fault? She could not let go of the burden.
Needing to do something, she replied to Harrods offer and ordered the coat, a plan already forming.
Her coat, after a professional dry clean, looked like new, hanging in her office closet. When to offer the coat would be tricky. Not wanting to risk embarrassing Sally. she’d pick the right moment. Two young, smart professionals stepped out together in matching Burberry trench coats.
In time the murder was solved. Some low life, escaping the law in Christchurch, rode the bus into Nelson. With little money, he intended to rob a taxi driver, the rope in his pocket. He got a mere 27 NZ dollars. Angry and berserk, he hitchhiked back to Christchurch. Before leaving he cleaned himself up in the creek, stuffing bloody clothing in the bushes. Found by a couple of possum trappers the bloody jacket was identified.
Traced by a dry cleaner mark, he was tried and sentenced to life.
Taking long walks listening to the sound of waves beating against the rocks, Alton read everything from sublime to vapid, trying to assuage the heavy burden of assumed guilt. Nothing helped.
Busy tutoring Sally, and deliberately reaching out, making friends, she was aimlessly tuning the radio one morning, stunned by the plaintive, hauntingly beautiful tenor voice of Roy Orbison…….Dream, when you're feeling blue……Dream, that’s the thing to do…….. never are as bad as they seem……..
So innocent, so trite, but so apt. ……….
With the fullness of time, an overly ambitious, lost soul like Alton found peace, love, and reverence.🦤💁♂️💁♂️