Monckton tried to blink. His eyes were gritty and he could barely focus on the scribbled formulae on the pad before him — his crucial contribution to the redesign of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. The tiny screen of his Osborne transportable computer blinked lazily at him. His back was sore. The air in No 10 was very dry, and there was a racket going on outside the Cabinet Room. It sounded as if the functionaries were running every vacuum cleaner in Whitehall over the new dark blue carpets the blessed Margaret had installed. The scruffy red shagpile left by Callaghan was in a skip in Downing Street, and the Laird was glad to see the back of it. He was rather pleased with the shade he’d chosen, and even happier that Margaret had liked it. The shining light of modern conservatism entered the room, her bright halo and blue crimplene dress throwing a magical illumination onto the oak panelling. She strode to Monckton’s side and put her hand on his shoulder. A frisson of almost erotic excitement coursed down his spine and disappeared down a trouser leg. He dressed to the right.
“Chris. Wake up.” He opened his eyes and the recurring dream turned into the stuff of nightmare. The whiskery face of Bryan “British” Leyland, his devoted minder on this barnstorming tour of New Zealand, leered beerily into his face. Every bump of the ageing Toyota ute brought Leyland’s face ever closer to the Laird’s nose. He recoiled, elegantly.
“You feeling alright?” Leyland asked. “You were looking a bit peaky, and moaning.”
“Fine, thank you,” Monckton sighed deeply. “How far to the next barn?” He was becoming rather fed up with the succession of shearing sheds he was being required to storm. Bloody smelly places, acrid with sheep piss and stale shit, and bereft of decent chairs.
“Not far. Bit more than a barn this time. You wait. I’ll tell Henderson to step on it.” Leyland’s face cracked into what passed for a smile in NZ climate sceptic circles.
Up on the back of the ute Scrotum, Monckton’s wrinkled retainer, clung on to the roll bar for dear life, legs akimbo, bracing himself against the brutal bumps delivered by the rutted rural track they were hurtling along. The wind whistled past his large ears, and what was left of his silver mane streamed out behind him. Leyland’s dog, a miniature poodle with a shaved head called Rodney ((It can run, but it can’t Hide.)), normally a restrained and refined little thing, was channeling every huntaway it had ever sniffed and barking blue murder. The wrinkled retainer gave it a swift kick, but it wouldn’t shut up. Two weeks of travelling down the length of New Zealand had woken atavistic memories in its tiny brain. They’d had to pull it off Gibbs when it had fastened its teeth into his crotch at the wine and sculpture party, and that tedious bearded scrivener had looked none too pleased when it had pissed on his winklepickers at the Auckland yacht club.
The ute pulled up outside a long, low, undeniably stylish stone building, a relic of the days when young British men came to New Zealand to sow their wild oats and make a fortune off the sheep’s back. Some who got it the wrong way round were forced to stay, and went on to lay the foundations of New Zealand conservatism. Dunleavy was at the door, waving a bottle of red wine and a glass. Monckton jumped down from the ute, instructed Scrotum to set up the laptop and projector, and walked unsteadily over to the grinning doyenne of NZ wine journalism.
“Gidday, Chris. Enjoy the ride?”
Monckton smiled wearily, and took the proffered glass. “What’s this stuff, Terry?”
“Waitaki pinot noir ((Hot Topic strongly recommends the John Forrest Collection Waitaki pinot noir — absolutely nothing to do with any Dunleavy, and almost as good as the Limestone Hills pinot.)). Limestone country, cool climate. Going to be the next Burgundy, if we can stop the wallabies eating the grapes.”
“Wallabies?” Monckton started, and looked around nervously.
“Local pest,” said Dunleavy. “Not going to bother us tonight, though. Much too shy.”
Monckton cantered through his usual repartee, carefully tailored to the local market, honed and refined by weeks of constant repetition. Slides came and slides went — there were even a few stifled laughs at his witticisms. Gone were the Gillard and Flannery jokes of his Australian tour, replaced by elegant barbs about Salinger, NIWA and the Greens. The elderly audience looked suitably horrified when he told them that Helen Clark was plotting to have them all rounded up and placed in concentration camps on Waiheke Island, and there were none of the dreadful Green Nazi youth pretending to be the Flat Earth Society hanging around the door tootling on strange instruments to upset proceedings. Their dress sense was terrible. Almost as bad as the audience’s.
The Laird had prepared carefully for this trip. Leyland had assured him that his fans would be dressed in moleskins, so Scrotum had perforce spent a muddy few months hunting moles around the stately lawns of old England until sufficient skins had been assembled to make a serviceable pair of trousers. He cut a fine dash in them, Monckton thought, stroking the fur clinging to his shapely thigh before taking the stage at his first gig in Matakana. There was some laughter, but no sign of mole skins anywhere. Dull brown trousers and check shirts, yes. He’d been set up, he decided, and it took the best part of a week before Leyland could calm him down. Eventually, Scrotum had suggested that he should write a letter of complaint to the purveyors of said “moleskins”, Messrs Rodd, Cannon and Ball, pointing out that they were in breach of the trade descriptions legislation, and that if they did not immediately cease the misuse of the proper name of old mouldywarp, Talpa europaea, in relation to nondescript, if admittedly hard-wearing trousers much beloved of the farming communities of New Zealand, he would bring an action for consumer fraud, and possibly lay a complaint with the police.
Scrotum sipped at a glass of wine and looked up at the splendid array of stars arching from coast to distant alp. Inside the hall, the Laird was waxing lyrical about world government and ponds in Wagga Wagga. A gentle vibration at his hip jerked him from his revery.
“Yes. OK. On the island. Not tonight?” Plans were being rearranged. The New Zealand climate science cabal, controlled by the infamous triumvirate of Boston, Frame and Renwick ((More degrees than NZ vodka, and vicious when cornered.)) were plotting a special send off for the Laird.
Applause echoed across the valley. Monckton stepped out of the hall, snatched Scrotum’s glass and downed the wine in an eager gulp. A big old harvest moon was rising above the ridge behind the grand shed. The man in the moon was upside down, he reflected, running through some astronomical calculations in his head, stopping only when he’d disproved the theory of gravity and became nervous about falling off the planet.
Silhouetted against the orange orb was a row of bouncing marsupials, looking cross. The Laird coughed up the wine, gave a little scream, and ran back indoors.
Te waka-a-Brash was bobbing at its mooring in Bluff harbour. The southwesterly wind was whipping at little waves, make them froth and foam in excitement at the gale to come. Scrotum watched from the shore, guarding the Laird’s fashionably battered leather luggage, hand-sewn from red deer hides sustainably harvested by his grandfather ((Affectionately known to the Tannochbrae staff as “Machine gun” Monckton because of his propensity for carrying an old Gatling gun when stalking stags on Rannoch Moor.)). On the back of the yacht, a tall, bald-headed old man greeted the dinghy with a merry wave. The Laird looked a little pale, Scrotum thought, as the curse of hereditary seasickness struck his master. Monckton erupted explosively all over Brash’s trousers, but still managed to scramble onto the transom without getting his spats wet.
The sail over to Stewart Island was… exciting. Brash cut a fine figure in his yellow souwester and smock, gimlet eyes peering into the spume whistling past the bow as his spatulate hands kept the great silver wheel under control. Leyland, Dunleavy and Henderson had joined the Laird at the lee rail. All were being copiously and loudly sick.
“You’re OK, Scrotum?”, Brash asked. “Sailor, are you?” Scrotum thought he detected a note of admiration in the old banker’s voice.
“Brought up on boats, sir,” he said, “but don’t get out much these days.”
“Good stuff. This is going to be fun. This is the real thing. Blue water, big wind, none of that Hauraki Gulf wine and wheezy-breezy nonsense. Out here it’s man, man’s man, and ocean.” He started singing a shanty of great vulgarity. Scrotum made his apologies and retired below to fry some bacon rinds for the Laird.
The swell dropped away as Te waka-a-Brash swept in towards Oban. Monckton recovered his composure within minutes.
“Oban, eh!”, he pronounced triumphantly. “I’ll bet none of you buggers have been to the real Oban, in Scotland, bonny Scotland, where men in kilts eat haggis and deep-fried Mars bars.”
“Sounds like Dunedin,” said Henderson grimly. “They’re all called Jock there.”
“Sad excuse for an Oban if you ask me,” the Laird continued. “Where’s the ferry to Tobermory and Tiree? Where’s the Bank of Scotland and the granite-clad walls of the Bonny Prince Charlie pub?” He sniffed, and wiped a tear from his eye.
Scrotum took Monckton gently by the elbow and sat him down in the cockpit. “Won’t be long now, sir. We’re staying in the pub over there.”
“Fine place,” said Brash. “Full of stout menfolk who know the meaning of liberty, fraternity and the price of fish. It’s going to be a fun few days.”
Brash touched a button, and rusty chain spooled out of a hatch on the deck and splashed into the turquoise water. Leyland, who had been reading the collected works of Fred Singer on a beanbag in the bow, was taken so much by surprise that he had to retire to the poop (as he called the blunt end) to recover. As the anchor bit into the white sand full fathom five below the keel, Te waka-a-Brash swung round in the wind and settled down to quietly ride the swell. Surf crashed on the white sand beach behind them, and the bush clad slopes of the little island glistened as the night’s rain dried off in the insistent, interminable, damnable breeze.
Monckton thrust his head out of the cabin and looked around. “What’s this place, Don?”
“Codfish Island. Great fishing spot, good beaches, plenty of parrots.”
“Parrots?” The Laird looked uncomfortable.
“Kakapo. Ground parrots. Parrots that think they’re rabbits. Very rare. This is their last refuge, paid for by the long-suffering NZ taxpayer. Terrible waste of money, if they can’t cut it in the modern world they should be allowed to…”
“What Don’s trying to say,” Dunleavy interrupted, “is that the Department of Conservation is so strapped for cash that we’ve been able to slip the DG a wodge of used notes and got permission to take a few trophies, if you get my drift…” The wink transformed his roseate face into a grotesque leer.
“I’ve got the taxidermist all lined up,” said Henderson eagerly.
“Lets go stick it to the Green fascist conservationists,” Leyland urged excitedly, a gleam in his eye and a .22 in his hand.
The parrot hunt wasn’t going well. Every time they got sight of one of the pudgy green birds poking its head out of a burrow, a nonchalant DOC warden would emerge from the bush, and apologise profusely for spoiling their fun. It was a full two hours before Brash was able to line up a shot, but all he succeeded in doing was winging a foreign volunteer camouflaged as a flax bush.
Monckton was finding it all a bit boring, and had taken to carving crude lettering on to tree trunks. He was on his third UKIP when a loud toot rang through the forest gloom. The sceptic troupe immediately stood up, dusted themselves down and started back to the beach.
“What’s going on?”, Monckton asked, struggling to keep up as Brash bounded over fallen trees with gay abandon.
“Lunch,” Dunleavy replied. “Barry’s brought it round from the pub. Can’t hunt on an empty stomach.”
When the little party regained the beach, they found a second boat bobbing in the bay. A fire had been lit on the beach, and NZ’s senior climate inactivist was busying himself by frying fish. Camp chairs had been arranged in a circle, bottles of finest sauvignon blanc were chilling in an ice bucket, and a picnic hamper stood ready to disgorge crusty bread and pickles. Monckton plonked himself in a chair. Dunleavy handed him a glass of wine, and Brill passed him a plate of sizzling fillets. Things were looking up.
“This fish is good,” the Laird said, his mouth full.
“It’s brill,” said Barry.
“No. You’re Brill. What’s the fish?”
“The fish is brill,” the verbose old lawyer snapped.
“You’re a fish?”
Monckton was confused. Scrotum refilled his glass from a fresh bottle of Cloudy Bay, then retired to the edge of the bush, consulted his watch and sat down to survey the horizon to the north.
It had been a most excellent lunch, a welcome respite after the Laird’s grand tour of the land of the long white cloud. Sitting round the driftwood fire the men began to tell tales of their great battles against the global climate conspiracy. Monckton entertained them with the story of the night when Bast and the Heartland team, after rather too much bourbon at Bankroll Barry’s expense, had accidentally set fire to the pool table at Fred Singer’s secret Kennebunkport lair. Brill bored them all with a recounting of his interminable legal fight against warming in New Zealand, but British Leyland saved the day by singing the Ballad of the Lonesome Pine ((Trad., arranged McIntyre and McKittrick.)) in his quavering tenor. As the last rousing chorus of Hang the Mann, hang the Mann, hang the Mann slowly, drew to a close, a strange rhythmic chanting could just be heard over the sussuration of the surf sucking on the sand. Around the headland to the east a long narrow canoe appeared, being paddled furiously by a dozen or more people, all yelling in time as their paddles splashed.
“What the hell’s that?” asked Monckton.
“Maori war canoe, a big waka.” said Dunleavy tersely. “God knows what it’s doing down here.”
“Maybe the tourist board have laid it on for our honoured guest,” Leyland offered, spotting the nervous glint in the Laird’s eye.
“Scrotum! Bring me my stab-proof vest and pith helmet immediately.” Monckton jumped to his feet, but his manservant was nowhere to be seen.
From his vantage point just inside the forest, Scrotum smiled, and set the video camera to record.
The elaborately carved prow of the waka ran up on to the beach, the staring eyes of a huge carved Polynesian Wratt ((A mythical beast, brought with the first waka from Hawaiki.)) looking fiercely down on the sceptic band. Scrotum recognised some of the faces of the paddlers. That was Salinger in the bow, his yarmulke looking a little out of place amongst the moko and full body tattoos of his fellow scientists. Frame was brandishing a mere of finest pounamu, his tongue extended so prodigiously in challenge that it almost reached his chest. Renwick was crouched over baring his bottom at the beach, while Hunter, Mullen and Manning were leaping up and down shouting incomprehensible imprecations. Boston was taking notes in the Stern, the sun glinting off the terrible shapes tattooed on his pate, while the fearsome female climate fighters Robyn Malcolm and Xena the Warrior Princess shipped the paddles.
Within moments, the war party had jumped through the surf and formed a phalanx in front of Monckton and the coalitionists. Frame began a terrible yell, and the others began to beat their chests and arms and jump up and down.
“It’s a haka. A challenge, a welcome, a celebration. Nothing to be worried about,” Leyland hissed into the Laird’s ear.
“From where I’m standing, it bloody well is,” Monckton barked. He began to move backwards, pushing Leyland between him and the stomping warriors. The others held their ground, but their smiles were not entirely unforced.
The haka ended. Monckton’s backtracking turned into a full blown backwards sprint until he caught a heel on a piece of driftwood and collapsed into the sand. Leyland stood over the prostrate peer, his bearded chin thrust out and his arms crossed defiantly, but he was no match for Lawless and Malcolm. Within seconds they had him on the ground, gagged and trussed. Manning and Hunter threw a rope around Brash and the others, and tied them up into a sheaf of angry denial.
Frame and Renwick pulled Monckton upright and manhandled him roughly to the waka, where Salinger was waiting. Within minutes, the task force from the rational world were all aboard and the great canoe was heading out into the bay.
“Not my boat,” Brash cried. “Not my beautiful yacht.” Te waka-a-Brash had been scuttled by Salinger, and was settling down into the cold southern ocean.
Scrotum emerged from the bush, went over to Leyland and undid his gag.
“What was all that about?” Leyland asked. “Where are they taking him?”
“I have no idea,” Scrotum replied, “but I think he may be some time…”
Everything in this story is true, except the bits that aren’t. No endangered birds were harmed in the making of this tale. Stewart Island is not at all dangerous to visit. In fact, it’s a very nice place indeed, if you like rain, wind, fishing and NZ native flora and fauna.
This is the seventh tale in The Monckton Files.