I may have mentioned a couple of months ago that I'd taken delivery of a new wheelchair. Well, it was hard to use at first - I had trouble using the controlIs. I could only creep around very slowly and I couldn't get the chair to go straight. I figured it would take time to get used to it, so I persevered for the next three days before I gave up. It turned out that the problem wasn't me. The control box was mounted lower than it should be and its internal workings were out of kilter. It took two full months to modify and adjust it, because the wheelchair agent/repairer lives 50kms away and seems to never have time to do the job in the one go.
Today I'm trying the new chair again and its still bad. I'm going to put this post online right now and do battle with this beast.
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Benalla aerodrome, September 20, 1989
I was acting unconcerned until now by looking straight out through the perspex hatch at the horizon far far away, but the pilot has taken to banking so sharply the ground below us is now where the horizon should be. There’s concrete and hangers way down there. I’m dead-scared of heights nowadays and I can do without this reminder, thank you very much. Thank Christ the passenger seat is in front of the pilot’s seat in this machine or he might notice the - um, absence of joy - on my face.
My original plan for Clown Day had been for the all the clowns to land on the school football ground in a hot-air balloon, but I was told trying to gauge it to land there and not on someone’s roof was too tricky. We opted for fire trucks with bells and sirens, but ballooning stayed in my mind. When I sold the story to the TV station I knew it was worth them paying for it. I had no idea what they pay for this sort of thing though, so I asked for a fourteen hundred-dollar hot-air ballooning weekend for Butterfly, Gemma, Bedou and me. At the time that was fine by Rainbow, but over the last three weeks there’s been two heavily publicized ballooning accidents in Australia that cost five or six lives. Naturally, I half admit, Rainbow’s motherly side then thought it was too dangerous for Gemma and Bedou to go with us.
Carly and Ben were meant to be with their father this weekend, but he let them come with us instead. We were on the airfield at first light today to see the balloon being inflated. The big roar of the gas cylinder fires for the hot air scared the kids and gave them cold feet about going up. That’s a pity, because Carly told us later she really wished she’d done it. Of course, quiet little Ben just wished he was somewhere else.
The balloon ride was OK, I suppose. A bit tame, but it’s the tameness that attracts many people. I didn’t mind being up there too much. We were in a big heavy cane basket and I was sitting in my wheelchair, so my head wasn’t much higher than the basket. I could see straight out, but not straight down to be terrified by the height. Not like now in this bastard glider with its perspex lid letting me see the drop below us the whole bloody time.
I’m up here enduring every long minute because people can’t help being nice to me. When we were landing in the balloon there was a gust of wind at the exact moment the basket touched the ground. It blew the balloon ahead a few metres, which dragged the basket forward slowly, tipping it over gently. It was so gentle the others were able to walk forward and keep their feet. The wheelchair slowly tipped over with the basket and I went out onto the grass. Naturally the ballooning guys were a bit flustered in case they’d hurt the fragile quad (everyone has that misconception at first), but eggs wouldn’t even have broken in that gentle fall.
We reassured them half a dozen times, but when we arrived back at the airfield one of them said he’d make it up to me.
‘I’ll get you a go in a glider.’
Up in the balloon hadn’t been too bad, but that was enough high stuff for me for one day. I bent my head to type on my little communicator, but he was gone already. He went over to the glider club (Benalla is the place in Australia for gliders) and asked the guys there to take me up for a ride.
‘It’s forty bucks a throw. Which one is it, anyway? - Him in the wheelchair? - He’s quadriplegic? - Can’t talk either? Christ! Look, don’t worry about the money, Mate. I’ll take him up.’
So here I am with all sorts of shit in my stomach because I can’t snub someone by refusing what he thinks is a good turn for me. I just want to get back on the ground as soon as possible, but the pilot is saying isn’t this great and would you like to stay up for a while longer? I can tell from his tone that he thinks I think it’s great. I know he’ll feel like he’s failed me somehow if he hasn’t given me the best time ever, so I’m nodding hard that it’s great great great and that yes I’d loooooove more.
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April 1976 - Nenita, Chios, Greece
I'm back in Nenita. I’m at my typewriter as usual, as usual for this time of night, 12.05. I’ve been working on the novel I planned out back home in Campbells Creek, but I’m taking a break from it for an hour or so. I'm about four pages into an ouzo-driven letter to Innocent. She's at Oxford Uni in England right now doing her Phd on a scholarship she won in Australia. It's her doctorate in Psychology. She's dazzling her world and I'm getting pissed in Nowhere-ville. Ah well - each to his own, I say.
I'm way down near the end of the island, down near Komi. I'm going cross-country, short wiry grass. A few minutes ago I spied a small village a mile ahead. It must be Komi. I can see the coast off to my left about a mile away too and there's a track near it to Komi. It's not far, just a stone's throw, but there's a barb-wire fence first. Its really well made, but it's like no fence I've ever seen. It's a triangular shape with two wires about eight feet apart near the ground, two a bit closer together above them then ditto, ditto, ditto and ditto and then a single strand at the top. It's hard to get through it, bloody hard. I'm battling my way through, getting caught on the barbs, and I'm having that bad dream again.
Soldiers are spewing from Komi. A never-ending stream of soldiers - hundreds, I swear. All with rifles and pistols and Greek shouting, and it's all aimed at me. Actually there's just the one young soldier. He's running along the track shouting and waving. He is carrying a rifle, but it's not aimed at anything and his shouting doesn't have that familiar threatening ring.
‘Napkia. Napkia. Napkiaaaaaa’ he's shouting.
He reaches me, huffing and puffing, just as I clear the fence, and he tells me something urgent, important, pointing at red triangular napkia signs on the fence.
He squats in the track, pulling me down too, and with a stone he draws in the dust. He's better off as a soldier, because he's a lousy artist, but with his finger and arm and looks and expressions explaining as he draws it all becomes like crystal for me - the track to the village, the barb-wire fence, the stick figures carrying rifles on the far side of it, the explosions blowing them up. Napkia's some word - I think it means, I know it means, used by him and coupled with his scratchings ‘You dense bastard. You've just walked through a minefield.’
We walk back to the village and I'm certain he's muttering over and over in Greek ‘Fuck me, you're fucking lucky to fucking-well be alive.’
As we approach the one and only cafenion, Komi not being an extra large metropolis, an officer drives up in a jeep. He asks the soldier what's up. The soldier tells the drama dramatically, but it's not concern for me that's in the officer's voice afterwards. In fact, I get the distinct impression he's peeved I was where the mines are. He asks me questions in Greek and he drives me home and checks me out with the local cops and then he leaves.
It's an hour later. A black car has just now stopped outside and Sinister's getting out from the driver's side. He's alone, a solitary sinister dark suit. The donkey's checking him out through the stable's half door, a half-eaten straw hanging from its mouth and in its eyes the question `What now?' - in Greek, of course. Sinister doesn't bother to answer. I doubt if he even registered the question, all his thoughts being bent to me.
He breezes through my open door like he's welcome here, except he's not wearing a smile with his suit, and instead of ‘Ti kanis?’ he asks abruptly What and Why. What was I doing in the minefield today? - a rhetorical question, that. Why was I mapping a safe way through it? Is that what I was doing??
He pauses long and sinister for effect, and it's an effective pause, then he makes a Catch 22 observation - either I'm a very amateurish spy, so often getting caught out, or I'm an extra-professional spy using these high profile `innocent' incidents as the perfect cover. I call that a Catch 22. A Catch 22 like in the Salem witch hunts - dunk the accused in a dunking chair and if she drowns she's not guilty, but if she lives she's a witch and we've got to kill her quick. Does Sinister really think I was born yesterday?
I proclaim my innocence and their blame, but today he looks at his watch, impatient for me to stop. (I don't, though.) If they weren't so good at hiding military stuff, and keeping minefields secret from me with signs in Greek and not even signs from inland of the field, I'd know to keep well away. He has to go, so he drops his sinister face, or maybe he just covers it with a fake, and looking fatherly-friendly he says, with rounded edges on his voice `I know you are not a spy, it is not possible, but I get so many reports and queries about you. You are everywhere and they cannot see why, because there are much better islands than here. I have to be seen to be doing my job, just in case'.
He turns to the door and his sinister face is back on, and there are sharper edges on his voice too.
‘Be ready to leave in the morning. My men will take you to the ferry and you will leave Chios. You will leave the Aegean. You will go to Athens - or Crete - anywhere far away from this island and far away from Turkey. Make sure you are ready.’
He pauses getting into his black car and he throws me a bundle from the seat, a bundle of letters all addressed to me and all opened, torn envelopes. He's been intercepting my mail in Chios, intercepting it and reading it and only forwarding it to Nenita about once a week. The bastard. With no reference to it he nods next door.
‘The whole village knows you creep to her every night. She cannot keep a secret and her husband he is coming home in two days.’
You lying bitch, Raucous.
He drives away and, with sautéed gonads swimming before my eyes, I'm packing. My first thoughts are to leave here quick, to leave before the husband comes with the knife. My next thoughts are that I needn't leave the island. I can just leave Nenita and go to the north of the island and stay well clear of here. But I remember Papadopolous Day on TV, the torture cells with the bloodstained walls, and I'm conceding that Sinister has won. He's not to be taken lightly.
He's not to be taken lightly, but I hate it when I'm beaten without a whimper, without a fight, without salvaging something however small. Georges asked my plans one night in the cafenion and I said I'm off to England next, because Innocent's there and, would you believe it, I thought the look on her face when I `accidentally' bumped into her at Oxford Uni, her momentary panic that I was invading her niche again, I thought that this would be worth going all the way across Europe for.
Georges wasn't so sure about that. He suggested I go east instead, India via Turkey.
‘Yes, Turkey,’ he said. ‘We hate the Turks and they hate us. It has been that way for hundreds of years, too long. We are ready on Chios in case they invade us like they did in Cypress not fifteen years ago, but we are not at war with them yet. You can go there from Chios; it is only four miles. The fishing boats take people for two hundred and fifty drachmas, I think it is. I have been there with my wife, to Efes and to Constantinople’.
I’m in the cafenion for the last time. Methinks big farewells and lots of retzina are on the cards tonight. I’m just off the phone to Mum. I rang her that I mightn’t be in touch for a while because I’ll be on the move from tomorrow. There was one thing Mum said that just won’t leave my mind.
‘Older Sister’s husband rang from New Zealand just before. He wants me to post you a message from him. He said he saw your name on a Greek intercept or something. He wasn’t very clear. You know how he doesn’t like talking about his work. He said to tell you to get out of Greece. What’s going on, Love?’
God! Turkey it is.
Older Sister left the army after three years, but her soldier husband stayed in for two full six year terms. In nineteen sixty five and sixty six they were living on the Australian army base in Singapore while he and his unit did regular stints in Borneo. It was during the time of the communist insurgency. I remember him telling me how he tracked an Indonesian patrol through the Borneo rainforests for almost two weeks, two weeks in which it was caught by Australian hit-and-run ambushes time after time until it ceased to exist. He was some hundreds of kilometres away at a forward base all this time. He was tracking the Indonesians’ radio signals and directing the ambushes.
During his remaining nine years in the army he became expert on increasingly-sophisticated surveillance equipment. The moment he was Out the New Zealand government snapped him up. They wanted him for a hush hush unit in their defense department. He isn’t allowed to tell us about his job. Most of what I’ve gleaned has come from a New Zealand magazine under the headline NZ’s Top Spies. There amongst the short list of names was Older Sister’s husband. Sadly for the magazine’s future credibility it had to admit, fleetingly, that it hadn’t unearthed any information about real spies, but it had been passed a current list of employees of the super secret electronic surveillance division of the department of defense. The bread-and-butter work of this small unit is to eavesdrop on military and civilian intelligence from countries around the world.
No matter that I told Mum it’s nothing – Older Sister’s Husband saw my name on a Greek intelligence traffic, so I’m out of here. Still, I could get one back on Sinister here. He's kicking me off the island even though he doesn't believe all that `spy' crap, so how about I do go to Turkey and I post him a card from there. Actually, I'll post a card to me in Nenita from there - that way he's sure to get it. It'll say ‘Up yours, Sinister.’ and he'll always wonder if I was or wasn't.