Why did my colleague challenge his students to throw him into the ocean late at night? Whenever I think about it, I see Robert McInverlee, shoulder-high and horizontal, carried by eight bearers to the end of the Ruby Resort’s long jetty, one high light bulb illuminating a dark head and his long, pale back and legs.
“A ONE, A TWO, A THREE … HEAVE!” A splash. Water drops rise, reflect light briefly, then darkness fills the abyss beyond the end of the wooden decking. There’s the gentle bumping of small craft tied up against piles and the soft sploosh as each small wave breaks on the shore. I strain to hear the sound of someone breaking the surface or swimming. The quiet continues. Has Robert struck his head on something, broken his neck? Maybe he’s trapped or impaled and unable to swim to the surface.
“I’ll get the big torch.” Gavin dashes into the darkness. He and I are both senior lecturers. I find myself asking, with a sense of disbelief, why we made no effort to prevent this. NO SWIMMING AT NIGHT. That was one of the rules set down and agreed to by one and all before we left.
“Did no one in authority attempt to intervene?” I could imagine a coroner asking.
Enthralled, we had watched on without a word. The students had done exactly what each of my colleagues, on occasion, must have longed to do. An odd thought came to me then, and it returns to me now. Robert, a frustrated film star who taught film making, was a precise observer of body language. He would surely have been aware that some of us might relish seeing him come to grief.
Gavin returns with a huge flash-light, sweeping it across the undulating, unbroken surface. Inky waves shrug, withdraw and slurp around the piles.
I remember hearing one of the girls ask in a low voice, “What if we’ve killed him?” I began, even then, to thrash through the tensions that had led us to a chasm we seemed about to fall into.
I like the Marlborough Sounds, its small clean streams and waterfalls, its rowboats and beaches. Not sandy beaches or surf beaches, but calm water. You can swim way out in relative safety. For a bush lover, keen swimmer and expert rower – and I can claim to be all of these, even though I’m a grandmother – Ruby Resort in the Bay of Coves is close to perfect. Slopes rising from a little cove and a wider bay are thickly forested. A few windows belonging to permanent residences gleam, eyes scanning the bay for the launch that brings supplies and mail once a week, or a sleek yacht that sometimes slides alongside the jetty. For those turned in upon themselves, though, the beautiful setting would make no greater impression than a poster in a travel agent’s window.
I was one of four staff members to escape our Wellington campus for one week, with forty students of creative arts in tow. The best of mine chose to paint in water-colour. The others focused on collage, using materials found on the beach and in the bush. In addition to Robert McInverlee, there was Gavin Ray-Boyce, a fit energetic man of the theatre, who instructed a group that would write, workshop and perform a play incorporating a good many of his lines and ideas, and the gaunt, dreamy Genevieve Angus, who could be counted on to use the time to begin her next novel, leaving the muses to take care of her creative writing students. Robert’s strategy for the first few days was similar to Genevieve’s. He headed up a track through the bush, saying he planned to tramp along the ridges. “Learn from your mistakes,’” he told his group of ten. They could box on without his interference. At the very end, though, he’d be sure to find a flaw that demanded hours of extra work to fix. To save the project, he’d persuade them to add a scene in which he featured, camera angles amplifying his muscular physique, his intense dark-blue eyes and abundant graying hair.
The students stayed in five chalets tucked into the bush, with groups of eight managing their own cooking. Staff members occupied a sixth chalet. Each of my three colleagues was accompanied by a son. Genevieve’s Andrew and Gavin’s James, both aged twelve, were good mates, but the pair didn’t care for Robert’s eleven-year-old Alfie. A recipe for trouble, I thought. The students quickly came to a similar conclusion. On the ferry trip to the South Island, one of them proposed making a film: “The Drowning of Alfie”.
The students knew what they wanted to accomplish in six days and set out to make the most of it. They resented two disruptions to their work caused by Alfie. On the third day, he tripped over a tree-root and rolled down a ten-metre bank. Andrew and James had been trying to shake him off, sprinting uphill as fast as possible. Alfie wasn’t hurt, though he screamed and yelled until the other boys went back to where he’d fallen. They then had to find the film-makers and persuade them to put aside their work. Three of them had planned to use their expertise in abseiling for camera work, not for the time-wasting business of rescuing Robert McInverlee’s kid. And where was the father, anyway? Miles away tramping! No one was impressed.
Robert wasn’t popular with the students at the best of times. Neither was he popular with his colleagues. He was competitive and we resented his put-down remarks. He was especially hard on Genevieve Angus. Not only had she published two novels, but she had also won a prestigious British story award. We were eating our meal on the evening after the abseiling rescue, when the owner of the Ruby, Chester Pemberton, came with a message. The resort had a radio-phone, but there was no cell-phone coverage. Genevieve’s husband had sent word that she’d won another story competition, sponsored by New Zealand’s Sunday Express, with prize money of $5,000. Gavin and I cheered and slapped Genevieve on the back with shouts of, ‘More power to your elbow’. Only Robert was silent, until he remarked, “Many of us could write excellent stories if we shut ourselves in an attic room each weekend, neglecting our children.” Genevieve turned crimson. I was the first to answer. “I’ve enjoyed having Genevieve’s girls to stay so that she could write. They’ve been well cared for!”
Gavin added his support. “Brenda and I have always welcomed Andrew. He can come to us any time he likes. He’s a good lad, no trouble at all.” There was an edge to Gavin’s words. The troublesome boy was Alfie.
Robert was father to three boys. The two eldest had left home. One was excelling in medicine at Otago University and the other was a first-year physics student at Canterbury. Last year, he was dux of his school. The rest of us, with kids who’d bombed out of university, fallen pregnant at eighteen or who’d taken time out to live in a house truck on the West Coast, couldn’t understand why Robert’s hadn’t rebelled.
After four days, the perfect weather gave way to a cool southerly. Those who needed to work outdoors headed for sheltered places. Others chose the big common-room or the dining area of one or other chalet. We’d been working for two hours, when a cry went up from the beach. Shrill voices were calling for help.
It was Alfie again. His ‘drowning’ seemed about to become a reality. Rowboats were available to the boys, if they wore life-jackets and did not venture outside the sheltered inner cove. One rowboat, however, had left the cove and was being blown like a leaf across the bay toward tall rocks that extended beyond its western arm.
Chester Pemberton’s house was high above the beach and commanded a wide view. He had spotted the boy and was hurrying down the steep path to his launch, shouting to a couple of students to release the ropes that secured it to the jetty, and to jump on board. He fired up the motor and sped across a choppy surface toward the rocks. Nick and Edward, the two lads, later reported some choice language from Chester as he edged to close to the rocks. They threw Alfie a rope, in the hope of pulling the rowboat toward the launch. But the boy had no intention of catching anything, preferring to cling to the oars. In the end Nick managed to grab the dinghy with a grappling hook. Chester reversed the engines just in time.
“This is costing your father a heap of money,” roared Chester, as the boy was lifted on board shivering. “You broke the rules, boy. Could have drowned. And others could have been drowned, too, trying to rescue you. You’re just lucky my boat wasn’t smashed against the rocks. Time you learnt to do as you’re told. If you were my son, I wouldn’t mess about. Damn good hiding is what you deserve.”
Alfie was handed over to his father at the jetty. With strong winds forecast that afternoon, Robert had decided to check on the work of the group he was supposed to be guiding. No one spared him any sympathy on learning that the owner’s fee for an unscheduled dash across the bay was $450. He flung back his head, thrust forward his chin and led the way up the slope to his chalet. A shame-faced Alfie ran to keep up with his father’s fierce strides.
That evening, students had invited Genevieve, Gavin and their sons to dine with them. Alfie and Robert sat together at our table. “How are you, Alfie?” I asked.
“OK,” he said.
“What happened? What made you head out of the little cove and into the bay?”
“I’ve already asked him that,” said Robert.
“Did you get an answer?”
“No,” he said. “Couldn’t get any sense out of him.”
“Were you trying to escape the other two?” I asked.
Alfie looked up at me. “Did they tell you that?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I’m trying to guess. After all, they left you behind a couple of days ago.”
“They were really mean. They said I was a no-hoper, just because they always beat me when we raced our boats round the diving platform and back. I wanted to get away from them and everyone else, too.”
“Where were you planning to go?” I asked.
“Into the next bay,” said Alfie. “There’s a huge house there with a helicopter out the front. I saw it from the launch on the way in.”
“I shouldn’t have brought you. Wouldn’t have considered it, if your mother hadn’t taken off.”
“Is she coming back?” asked Alfie.
“Haven’t a clue,” said Robert.
I looked from father to son, each as miserable as the other. “Maybe Rachel just needed a break. She’ll be missing both of you.”
“Huh! She’ll be having a great time. Anyway, we’re better off without her. She doesn’t have the brains she was born with, that woman,” said Robert.
“Robert!” I said. “Your mother’s a first-rate veterinarian, Alfie. She’s developed a new kind of eye surgery for cats and dogs. She’s a leader in her field!”
“Not in our field, though. She’s always somewhere else,” said Robert. “Time you went to bed, lad,” he said to Alfie. “Just try to keep out of trouble tomorrow, OK?”
“I didn’t know,” I said.
“No need for the others to find out,” he said.
“Of course not,” I replied. Robert followed Alfie. I was pleased. The boy needed reassurance after the shocks of the day.
The others returned an hour or so later. We drank Milo and the boys said goodnight. Genevieve, Gavin and I relaxed and reflected on the merits and hazards of fieldtrips. We were ready to head to our beds when Alfie appeared.
“Where’s Dad?” he asked.
“I thought he was with you,” I said.
“Some students came to get him. He said he wouldn’t be long.”
“The man with red hair and the girl with the long plait.”
“What did they say?”
“They said they were sorry about last night.”
“You don’t mean sorry about today?”
“No. Dad told me they were horrible to him last night. He wanted to go home. He said we’d be off, if there was any goddam transport, but we can’t get out of this fucking place until Saturday.”
“Well, you go back to bed Alfie. We’ll check that your Dad’s all right,” said Gavin.
He and I set out together. We knew the two students. We paused at the uncurtained window of their chalet. Inside, lit by half a dozen candles, a gathering was cheerfully downing the beer they’d smuggled in. Sprawled on the one beanbag was Robert, his throaty laugh joining the merriment of the students. Perched on a spare bulge of the beanbag was the girl with one plait.
“How to win back lost friends!” said Gavin. “That’s the girl he reduced to tears a couple of days ago. She said he’d ruined her faith!”
“How could he do that?” I asked.
“No trouble,” said Gavin. “Kept asking logical and persistent questions about the virgin birth.”
“How about we ruin his evening?” I said. We marched to the door and banged on it.
“Er, Robert, you told Alfie you wouldn’t be long,” said Gavin.
“Right you are,” said Robert struggling to his feet. “Cheers guys. Thanks for the refreshments.”
A concert was arranged for the final evening. The drama students were ready to share their progress to date. The film crew had a series of episodes. The rawness of each unedited piece would entertain everyone. The writers had prepared a poetry sequence. A mime presented by Gavin would be the staff item. Genevieve, however, put it to me in the afternoon that she would like to read her prize-winning story.
“How long does it take?” I asked.
“It’s 2,000 words, so about ten minutes,” she said.
“That’ll be fine,” I said. “And I can give an item too. I know ‘The Highwayman’ by heart. Have done since I was twelve. My mother didn’t want to hear it then, and no one has ever listened to it since. I’ll have a captive audience.”
I prepared a series of cards with the words, EERIE WIND, GALLOPING, HISS, planning to begin with a quick rehearsal to produce a backing of sound as each card was held up. I could indicate ‘louder’ and ‘fade away’ with my left arm. Once that was sorted, I’d launch forth. I checked my memory of the old ballad and found it took just six minutes to recite.
By evening, the art group had mounted its exhibition.
The concert was superb. Genevieve’s story was received with enthusiasm and the students enjoyed adding sound effects to the ballad. What we hadn’t counted on was Robert’s reaction.
“Gavin was our item!” he fumed. It was hard for someone keen to be the best to be caught unprepared. Neither could he bear to be left out. After making his way toward the stage area muttering, he stood for a moment in silence, flexing his shoulder muscles and standing to maximise his six-foot height. The sound he made began as a low hum that became a slow chant, soon to be recognised as ‘The Stripper’. Some of the students joined him in low voices at first. To the deliberate beat, Robert eased his jersey over his head, hips swaying. More students joined the chant. The volume swelled. The jersey was tossed away. A skivvy was raised to shoulder level then flicked aside. One shoe, a second, was slipped off and given a neat kick. Each sock was removed. Then the sudden rip of a zipper. A dome at the waist sprang apart. A quick twist of the hips and a flourish of the hands saw the blue jeans fall to the floor. The chanting reached a crescendo as the trousers were swept aside with the toes of one foot. There he stood in ordinary white jockey underpants. A sudden silence. We held our breath, poised to howl with laughter that would demolish him.
“You can throw me off the end of the jetty!”
There was a shout as the film crew swooped on him. Four students on each side lifted him to shoulder height and bore him out the door and down the steep path to the sea.
What an inspiration! The assembly breathed out and followed those bearing Robert, chanting again ‘The Stripper’ theme and moving forward with a rhythmical stomp. The three children and I were the last to leave. I gathered the scattered clothes. “He’ll need these after a dip in the sea,” I said cheerfully to Alfie.
We seemed to have been standing on the jetty peering into the darkness for a long time, though it can’t have been more than ten minutes.
“Do you think he’s drowned?” Alfie was standing beside me, his tearful face catching gleams of light.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Robert’s a superb swimmer. I’ll bet he took a big breath and then swam under water like a giant stingray.” I astonished myself. Where there are children, one makes an effort to seem calm. I tried to believe what I’d said. “Don’t you worry Alfie,” I added. “I’ll check along the shore. Would you like to come with me?” Alfie didn’t hesitate.
At the beach end of the jetty, we strained to see, first one way, then the other. A sliver of moon gave a little light. I knew the shore-line pretty well. We’d been down there painting earlier in the week. Above the stones, there was coarse sand, broken shells and driftwood, and behind that a fairly uniform line of manuka brush. About fifty metres away, a shape like a rock jutted forward from the scrub. We trudged toward it, until Alfie raced away from me. It was Robert all right. He stood up, opening his arms. Alfie leapt into a bear hug.
“Thought you might need these,” I said thrusting his clothes at him.
He put on the pullover, slid his feet into the shoes, shoved the other things under one arm and set off up the hill.
Alfie turned to me with a grin. “He broke the rules, too.”
I nodded, returning the grin. Alfie ran to catch up with his father and I headed back to let everyone know they could stop panicking.
As I was saying goodbye to Chester Pemberton the next morning, Robert and Alfie arrived. Alfie handed Chester an envelope. “It’s a cheque for $450,” he said. “I’m sorry Mr Pemberton, for the trouble I caused. Thank you for rescuing me.”
“Did your dad dish out a decent hiding?” asked Chester.
“No he didn’t,” said Alfie. “He doesn’t believe in hidings.”
“Right,” said Chester. “That could explain a lot.” He glared at Robert.
“Thanks for saving him, Chester,” said Robert. “Good lad,” I heard him say as they left.
The students were unimpressed by Robert’s trick. In fact, the general relief at his survival gave way to indignation. Neither staff nor students bothered to speak to Robert on the trip back to Picton. He didn’t seem to notice, though. His arm was around Alfie’s shoulders as they stood together at the rail. I heard Robert explaining that the Sounds were drowned valleys.
“Why did they drown?” asked Alfie. His father embarked on an answer.
I moved with a couple of students to find seats out of the wind.
“Reformed as a father?” one of them asked.
“Don’t knock it!” said the other. “More time for Alfie, less aggro for us. This morning while we were packing the gear, I told him our final sequence is in place – and he didn’t argue. Just said, ‘What I saw last night was first rate. Showed flair and intelligence. You’ve got what it takes’.”
Stingrays are benign until threatened. I sat reflecting on a man who could swim underwater like an eagle ray. With a new focus, with father and son making a team, Robert would become less toxic.