Some years ago, when I was pretending to be a beekeeper, I got a ‘phone call from the policeman’s wife. She said her neighbour, Toby Martin – The Oldest Man In Portobello, wanted to spend his last years in the company of bees. In Portobello, when the policeman’s wife speaks, it is prudent to listen.
So I arranged to meet with Toby. He was 88 at the time and slowing up after a physically tough life. He told me that he had a great fondness for bees. They had featured in much of his life and he wanted to be able to sit on his deck, in his twilight years, hear them humming, smell the beeswax and smell the honey.
He funded the hardware. One hot spring afternoon, down by the marae at Otakou, I captured a swarm that was graced with a magnificent queen. It was this swarm that provided the core bee stock for Toby’s hives. We located the hives against the warm North-facing wall of his house, close to his deck. We were in business and by the following summer we were in the honey. It was a special drop – probably the best tasting honey I ever produced. A background of rich kanuka, with highlights of zingy blue gum, pip fruit and garden flowers and just a suggestion of the salty harbour that his garden overlooked. As complex and enigmatic as a fine malt whisky. Toby was delighted when I delivered a 5kg bucket of it. He said that he wouldn’t need anymore in his lifetime and the rest was mine.
During the spring and summer I would visit Toby’s every fortnight or so to carry out beekeeping duties. He would insist on me coming in for a chat. We would drink extra strong instant coffee and sample his latest batch of baking – usually rock hard scones. He loved to tell stories from his long and busy life. He had at various times been a bushman, a teamster, a conscientious objector (2 years hard labour), a shopkeeper, a possum hunter and lastly a market gardener in Portobello. One of his stories kept recurring. It changed subtly over the time that I knew him, as if he was trying to make sense of it for himself. What follows is my interpretation of that story. Toby called it The Man In The Blue Suit.
As a young man Toby spent time working as a bushman deep in the south of Southland. It was hard, tough work, breaking virgin native bush with axes, 2-man bow saws and dray horses. The men would set up camp in the bush and work all week until Saturday lunchtime, when they would saddle their horses and ride to the nearby farm. There, by arrangement, they would have a good meal, have a bath and launder clothes in exchange for doing odd jobs for the elderly farmer and his wife.
One Sunday the farmer told Toby he had a big favour to ask. He said that his faithful old dog was in a great deal of pain with rheumatism. The dog needed shooting but the old farmer couldn’t bring himself to do it. He asked if Toby could oblige. Shooting a dog didn’t bother callow young Toby and so he agreed to help and went outside to fetch his rifle. He took the old dog into the paddock at the back of the farmhouse. Told him to sit. Loaded his rifle. The dog looked at Toby. Toby looked at the dog. Their eyes locked, and Toby paused. He said that the dog seemed to be able to see inside him. The dog knew that it was the end of the road, he knew that Toby didn’t care. The dog was resigned to its fate. Toby felt that the dog had judged him, that the dog had insight into his character. Toby shrugged, thought no more and shot the dog. He dug a hole and buried him.
But the look in the dog’s eyes just before it died haunted Toby for the rest of his life. Appearing at odd moments, ruining happy times, sobering up drunken sprees and waking him in the night.
Many years later Toby bought some land out on the Otago Peninsula at Portobello. He turned the land into a successful market garden, built a house and settled down. On a Friday night he would head to the Portobello Hotel to catch up with his mates, drink a few beers and get up to date on the local gossip. On one of these occasions, out of nowhere, through the thick fug of cigarette smoke a newcomer appeared. He propped himself at the other end of the bar. He was tall and distinguished with a proper haircut. He drank spirits from the top shelf. Most striking of all was his immaculate blue suit. It was of a material and cut never before seen in Portobello. Toby and his mates were deeply impressed. The blue suit fascinated Toby, he yearned to have one himself but realised that it was beyond his means.
The newcomer kept to himself. He was always polite and courteous but gave nothing away. Nobody knew where he came from or even his name. He resisted all enquiries. To the locals he simply became known as the man in the blue suit and after several weeks his novelty faded and he became an accepted, albeit slightly glamorous, fixture of Friday nights in the Portobello Hotel.
One day Toby was driving into Dunedin in his truck to pick up supplies when he saw the man in the blue suit waiting at the bus stop. Toby stopped and offered him a ride, which he readily accepted. Toby realised that the man in the blue suit was not his normal composed self, he seemed agitated and he looked unwell. Toby asked him why he was going into town. Blue suit replied that his doctor believed that he might have cancer, that he had had several tests and was now going to the hospital to get the results. Toby wished him luck and said that his own business in town wouldn’t take more than a couple of hours and that he would swing by the hospital on his way home to see if he was there and if so give him a lift back.
Sure enough on his way home Toby saw the man in the blue suit outside the hospital and he stopped to pick him up. Blue suit got in and said nothing. Just sat staring straight ahead. Toby drove back to Portobello, glancing across at his passenger whenever the road allowed. He noticed the pale yellow complexion, beads of sweat trickling through his sideburns onto his collar and the grim set of his mouth. But most of all Toby noticed the suit. The quality of the fabric, the brightness of the blue, the impeccable stitch work and cut of the cloth. Surely the work of a master tailor. Toby wanted that suit.
A stop-go sign at Broadbay at last allowed Toby to look across and ask Blue Suit what the hospital had to say. Without turning Blue Suit said “I’ve got a month to live”. And without thinking Toby said “Can I have your suit?”
The man in the blue suit slowly turned and looked at Toby. Their eyes met and Toby said that it was like looking into the eyes of that old dog, all those years ago on the Southland farm. The man in the blue suit was also resigned to his fate and like the old dog saw inside Toby, saw his character and knew him for what he was. The stop-go sign changed and they went on to Portobello. The man in the blue suit got out of the truck without saying a word and walked off. Toby never saw him again.
In 2012, at the age of 91 Toby became unwell. A brain tumour was diagnosed. He went into a hospital level care home. I went to see him one afternoon. When I arrived I was asked to wait whilst a nurse dressed Toby. I sat outside his room almost gagging at the stench of shit and death that pervaded the place. In distant rooms I heard howling and sobbing. The door to Toby’s room caught a breeze and swung open. I had a glimpse of the nurse pulling up adult nappies over Toby’s withered thighs. I felt ill. Toby, who had so loved the outdoor life, the broad Peninsula skies, fresh air and sea views was now a frail, decrepit old man waiting for death. I saw for the first time the horror that awaits us all.
We went into the day-room and sat in a quiet corner. I had been told that he probably wouldn’t remember me but I am pleased to say that he did. Well, to be exact, he remembered that I was the keeper of his bees. So we talked about how the bees were doing, prospects for the next season, that we both knew he would never see. It was deeply painful for me to see someone so fiercely independent reduced to this.
He grew tired and I made my excuses to leave. I said that I would come and see him again. Toby looked me in the eye and just as the old dog and the man in the blue suit had read him, he read me. “No you won’t, and I don’t blame you” he said. He had the insight of the dying, seeing me for the coward that I am. He died a couple of weeks later.
Toby's bees are still there, against the sunny wall of his old house. They are looked after by a real beekeeper now, who kindly provides me with a pottle or two each season of what I still consider to be the best honey on the Otago Peninsula. The taste of the honey always reminds me of Toby and his stories, especially the one about the old dog and the man in the blue suit.
Results of our pest control activities for 2016.
When there is a big rugby game at our shiny new Forsyth-Barr stadium we often get rugby fans staying at Possums' End accommodation. We always enjoy talking rugby to them. At its very best rugby is a beautiful game where the line between sport and art can blur. On these occasions it can bring the country together. At its worst it is legitimised thuggery which brings the worst out in people and society. The following short story highlights the issues NZ rugby has in its relationship with alcohol. Warning - Contains colourful language.
Our main interest at Possums' End is the conservation of native biodiversity. But we recognise that there are other sorts of conservation, including social, cultural and historical. Perhaps this short story falls into those categories. Perhaps it doesn't.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that anyone can go out at night and take an aurora photograph good enough to grace the pages of National Geographic – that probably needs to be left to professional photographers with very expensive kit. But I am suggesting that just about anyone with a bit of nous and a Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera can quite easily take very satisfying pictures of the Aurora Australis.
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