I Curse Thair Geise and Thair Hennys

I want to tell you how things ended up for Bill and me after he allegedly blew a gasket and/or cracked a head, but first I want to tell you about my favorite piece of public art ever.

Last year when I was recombobulating in northern England, I visited the city of Carlisle, which is near the Scottish border. While using a modern pedestrian subway to get under a motorway and to the castle, I noticed all these surnames carved into the floor. In the middle of the subway was a large polished boulder engraved with more words. I started reading them and thought “Holy crap. I need to find some interpretational signage.”

So I did… seems back in the old days, the good people of Carlisle were victimized by the dastardly Border Reivers, thugs from across the border who treated the city as their own personal piggy bank of plunder, raping, pillaging, looting and generally causing misery and wanton destruction wherever they went (though this is the English side of the story… I’m sure the Scots have a different slant on it). This went on, apparently, for centuries, begging the question “why didn’t you people just move?” but no matter.

The names carved into the subway floor are Reiver surnames (so that they will be trod upon in perpetuity, or at least as long as the subway is around… I like the bitterness of the sentiment behind that, something you don’t usually see in public art lest someone be offended). The words on the boulder are those of the old-time Bishop of Carlisle. They are a curse. And oh my, if you’re ever going to curse someone and want to do it right, let him be your example.

After he finishes cursing the Reivers, their children and their children’s children, cursing them sitting up and standing and sleeping (really), he goes on to curse the soil of their land, their plows, their cows and horses and “thair geise and thair hennys.”

You have to really hate a man to curse his chickens.

Species by species, gender by gender, the bishop’s cursing of livestock reads like the schedule of a 4H show. When I started reading it, I got goosebumps. You can feel the enmity still oozing across the centuries.

The bishop’s words were on my mind as Bill and Alf and I undertook our journey to Christchurch.

Who is Alf? Patience.

First I must retrace my steps back to the lair of the racist hillbilly mechanic, who on Thursday pronounced Bill dead of a blown gasket or cracked head and offered me “fifty or a hundred bucks” to buy him for scrap. Selwyn, the mechanic, also promised me that I would be murdered at some point somewhere in New Zealand because of the country’s “astronomical” crime rate, largely the work of “slanty-eyed foreigners.”

Suffice to say, if Selwyn were on Facebook I would not friend him.

Even before Selwyn made his first racist crack, I despised him. There was something about him from the get-go, even though he came recommended as a mechanic. I didn’t like the cut of his jib. He reminded me of a Dickensian villain, like if Bill Sykes lived to be 60. Big, barrel-chested guy with strong black eyebrows, a mostly bald head and extravagant amounts of wiry gray hair coming out of his ears. He had a mean smile, too, and I’m guessing pulled the wings of butterflies as a child. But the worst thing about him the first time I met him was how often he said “I’m an honest man, I’m not trying to have you on” or “I’m not lying to you, I have no reason to lie.”

The more someone tells me he’s honest and not lying, the less I believe him.

I’d gritted my teeth back then and convinced Selwyn to order something called Chemiweld, which he said wouldn’t work and would leave me stranded on Hope Saddle (the only way out of the area, up and over a modestly high but supersteep mountain saddle) where I would of course meet my doom at the wrong end of an axe, rifle or meat hook (his sentiment, my embellishment).

Monday the Chemiweld was supposed to arrive around noon. His son, also a mechanic, told me to check in around 2 pm. So I did. I walked up to the open garage door with a “hello, how are you today” polite sort of smile because I didn’t want to piss off the only mechanics within an hour’s drive.

Selwyn sneered back. Actual quote (I can’t quite forget it): “I’m gonna wipe that smile off your face when you hear what I have to say about your car.”

Now, I am, despite what some of you think, a reasonable person. I may see the negatives in someone right away, but I do try to ignore them and give them the benefit of the doubt. I actively try to work on my temper and patience, lengthening both of them.

Just don’t push my buttons and no one gets hurt.

Selwyn pushed.

“It’s buggered! The Chemiweld didn’t work!” he chuckled.

I’m sure he’s the kind of guy who picks fights just because he enjoys confrontation, throwing his weight around and making people uncomfortable. So I gave him my poker face, my famously flat affect which I’ve been told is “intimidating” and “frightening” and even “soul crushing,” one of the coolest backhanded complements ever paid to me by an ex-boyfriend.

Come on, “soul crushing?” How badass is that??

I looked at Selwyn. He frowned. How sweet the sight. Who wiped the smile off whose face now, jackass?

“I told you it wouldn’t work!” he bellowed.

“When did you put the Chemiweld in, how long did you idle the engine and who took it for a test drive and what was the result?”

He didn’t like that. Oh, but I did.

He actually stammered a couple times, telling me the whole alleged process and that Bill had overheated a mere eight kilometers (five miles) away. He said when his son (doing the test drive) brought the car back it was shooting radiator fluid and Chemiweld everywhere and as proof pointed to an ugly red and pink puddle just outside the garage door. I said nothing and just kept watching him.

He repeated it was “buggered” and that I wouldn’t make it 5km, nevermind 500. I remained silent, letting him wait. He fussed with it a bit, opening and closing the radiator cap, dusting off the edge of the battery. Then I said “I’m still driving it to Christchurch.”

He laughed at that and said “you won’t make it. You’ll never get it over Hope Saddle-”

“I’m not going over Hope Saddle.”

Dead silence.

I wish I could give you a picture of his face, all its bluster sucked inward like he’d eaten something bitter. Oh, it was delicious watching him. I said nothing more and that only disconcerted him further. The night before, the campground owner and I and Alf (his story is coming shortly, promise) gathered around my road atlas and plotted a course using minor back roads that followed river valleys and would spare Bill from almost all the hills, all the way out to the main highway which was largely flat and straight. It would take longer, but we hoped it would reduce the strain on his crippled engine.

Selwyn finally composed himself and told me that’d be $200 (the price he had told me it would be on Thursday, so I wasn’t surprised).

“Where’s my itemized bill?”

He did not like that either, but grudgingly went in the office and had his wife type one out. He overcharged me for labor, I’m sure, but what can you do? I can’t prove he and his son didn’t spend three hours on my car. In any case, while I was paying the bill, he went and got an old 20-liter sheepdrench* container and filled it with water for me (for free, no less). Then he told his wife to write their home phone number on the bill for me and added that I should call when I broke down.

Nice gestures, but too little, too late, Big Guy.

“You shouldn’t have given me this. Now I can crank call you whenever I want,” I said, giving him my own mean smile.

As I walked out I looked over my shoulder and smiled again and said “I’ll send you a postcard when I get to Christchurch.”


*sheepdrench is worming medicine for, well, sheep, something I did not know until coming to New Zealand, where tv commercials for various brands of sheepdrench are sandwiched between ads for fast food and cheap airfare to Fiji. It is also, I think, an excellent name for a black metal band.

I headed over to the village’s tiny store to see if I could buy a large Phillips head screwdriver. When adding to a Subaru’s radiator, you need to unscrew a cap that bleeds the line to prevent air bubbles, something I learned the first time Bill got a little too excited back in Te Anau. They didn’t have any screwdrivers but they did have an intriguing can of something called One Shot, which allegedly sealed radiator leaks and cracked engines. For eight bucks.

I took it back to the garage. Selwyn wasn’t around (oh, I flatter myself, but I like to think he was in hiding) but his son was. I asked if it would be ok to put the One Shot in the radiator that still had some Chemiweld in it and the son, who was cute but had that same mean look in his eye, said sure, but not to bother because it wouldn’t work anyway, since it wasn’t made for the problem my car had.

“It can’t hurt, though, and eight bucks is cheaper than three hours of labor here, isn’t it?” I said with what I’ll always call “my Selwyn smile” and walked out again. In the end, unable to find a screwdriver, I used the needle-nosed pliers in the 17-in-1 survival tool I carry in my pack when hiking to get the cap unscrewed.

I got Bill back to the campground and shared my tale of woe (leaving out the bit about the sadistic joy of confounding Selwyn) to Alf.

And now, at last, to Alf.

Alf is in his 70s and has been staying at the campground since January, doing odd jobs for the owners, who basically took him in when he had no place else to go. He trained as a sniper in the NZ Army and then spent years shooting rabbits, goats, deer and other sweet and furry non-native creatures that destroy the New Zealand ecosystem for the Department of Conservation. Eventually, he ended up repairing farm equipment in a little cottage for years and years. The land the cottage was on changed hands and the new owners booted him off within days with little notice. Alf is almost completely deaf and a chain smoker, repeats himself and was never in a rush to actually do any of the odd jobs he was given, but I bonded with him during my six days at the campground.

For starters, he and I liked to watch the evening news on the tv in the kitchen. Because of his hearing, or lack thereof, he turned the tv up, WAY UP, almost to maximum volume. You could hear the news at the other end of the campground. Now, it didn’t really bother me, but some of the other people passing through the campground were jerks about it. Like the old Irish guy who had that hyper-extroverted “look at me! look at me!” personality that I can’t stand and who outshouted the tv with his inane commentary, or the snobby Quebecois cyclists who mocked Alf loudly behind his back for being deaf. I mean “behind his back” literally. They stood behind him while he watched tv and made cracks about how he couldn’t hear them, in English either to show off or for my benefit, though I never laughed.

He would give me the remote to “guard” when he went out at commercial breaks for his cigarettes. At first I didn’t want to get involved, but the cyclists and Irish jerk, the worst offenders, put me over the edge, and I started taking my role as Keeper of the Remote seriously. Most of the other people were decent, however, and I would tell them at about 5:58 that Alf would be coming to watch the news and he’s deaf so be ready for what he does with the volume control.Most people understood. I mean, the guy is nearly deaf and just wants to keep up on the weather, the rugby and New Zealand’s astronomical (or not) crime rate.

When Alf found I did not balk at his mention of firearms, he started showing me all his rifles and different ammunition and how he could reload shells to save money. He would shake his head at my vegetarian meals (he ate about a pound of meat a day) and one day asked me why I didn’t eat animals. I told him that since having cancer and going through chemotherapy, the smell of raw meat often made me sick and my digestive system just couldn’t handle it. I tell people this when they ask why I don’t eat meat because, in addition to being true, it usually shuts them up and I don’t have to suffer any “but you still wear leather, hypocrite” comments that you get when you cite animal welfare as your reason for not eating meat.

Anyway… it turns out Alf’s daughter died 18 months ago of cancer and pretty much, after that, I became his surrogate child. I don’t know where the rest of his family is, only that he’s divorced and doesn’t get along with any of his nine surviving siblings. He told me he liked driving around the country wherever he wanted, without a mortgage or job, but that sometimes he got lonely.

So, anyway, when I got back from Selwyn’s lair, Alf was waiting and wanted to know what happened. He said I’d been ripped off (ya think?). I showed him the can of One Shot and asked if he’d help me put it in the radiator, which was still warm from Selwyn Junior’s little escapade with it. He went to work on it, eventually adding too much water to the radiator and causing fluid to bubble and spray everywhere. I ducked and ran to the back of the car to get a towel and when I returned Alf was giving my car mouth-to-mouth. He had his lips wrapped around the radiator opening. I shrieked and he looked up, face covered with the pinkish-red radiator water and Chemiweld.

He thought it was funny that I would be so horrified and claimed he was only blowing back the air bubbles. Well, I guess if six packs of cigs a day don’t kill you, nothing will. We got the One Shot in, let the motor idle for 15 minutes as recommended and then let Bill get some rest.

That night, while watching “Band of Brothers” together, Alf turned to me suddenly and said he had a mate he’d been meaning to visit outside Christchurch and did I want him to follow me there tomorrow? He claimed he was going to go later this week anyway and that there’d be no harm in going a few days early. I don’t know if he hatched the idea himself or if Colin, the nice British expat campground owner, had nudged him in my general direction, but it was pretty clear Alf was set on it.

So, Tuesday morning, with 22 liters of water and four liters of motor oil at the ready in the passenger side footwell, I set off in Bill with Alf in his battered Toyota pick-up behind me.

To be honest, I was freaking out on the inside. There are few things that perplex and frustrate me more than how cars work. Everytime I ask someone to explain all I hear is LALALALALA in my head. I didn’t want Bill to die for many reasons, financial, emotional, practical and, yes, because I didn’t want to give Selwyn the satisfaction of asking him to tow Bill back to his lair. The first ten km or so were fine. Then the needle, usually at just below halfway on the temperature gauge, started creeping up.

It got about 2/3 of the way up and I pulled over. Alf pulled over too, popped the hood and checked the radiator, which wasn’t even hot. He told me not to pull over again unless it got 3/4 of the way up and to just keep my speed at no more than 90 kph. I did. It wasn’t difficult to keep things slow on the back roads we were using, but the needle was going crazy. Staying within the middle third of the temperature range, it bobbed up and down almost like a metronome. And then… it settled. Right where it usually is, just below halfway.

Selwyn had told me that when the radiator was out of water the temperature gauge couldn’t be trusted because it had nothing to measure and I’d keep driving not knowing my car was out of water until the engine seized and then I’d be stranded all alone without even a mobile phone signal and didn’t I know the murder rates in New Zealand are astronomical…..

I pulled over again to check the radiator. Full. We kept driving. The needle stayed put. We pulled over again in Blenheim “for a cuppa” as Alf put it, which he let me buy for him only after much hemming and hawing and insisting he was going to Christchurch anyway, it wasn’t like he was doing me a favor (yeah, right). We checked the radiator and the oil. Perfect.

On the winding coastal road from Blenheim all the way down to Christchurch, I pushed it a little, taking Bill to 100kph. 110. 120. The needle didn’t budge. Then Alf passed me suddenly and stayed ahead of me the rest of the way, chiding me later for “flogging” the engine and going too fast.

I’m sorry, Alf, but there’s one thing I have in common with Sammy Hagar other than a deep distrust of David Lee Roth: I can’t drive 55. Or 90km.

As the kilometers rolled by and it became clear that Bill was, once again, going to see me through, I started stewing.

Maybe it was a miracle. Maybe all the crossed fingers, good wishes and prayers of friends and family were the wind beneath Bill’s wings, so to speak. Maybe my guardian angel, who I imagine as prematurely gray and self-medicating to reduce the stress I bring him, sat on the engine the whole way down using his wings as a fan to keep Bill cool. Maybe Bill was as pissed off as I was by Selwyn and rallied himself for one last hurrah. Or maybe Bill was responding to my gentle petting of the steering wheel (really) and quiet urging for him to be “a good car.”

Maybe Bill really does have a rare, bizarre mechanical problem that would perplex even a mechanic the intellectual equal of Dr. Gregory House. Maybe Selwyn, distracted, perhaps, by how he could solve world poverty or safeguard the planet’s kitten population, didn’t read the instructions on the Chemiweld and poured it in wrong, or accidentally poured it on the ground instead of into my car.

Or maybe Selwyn doesn’t know shit about cars. Maybe people think he’s a good mechanic because he interrupts them, full of bluster and bull and people interpret his overconfidence as actual knowledge. Maybe he wanted a Subaru Legacy wagon on the cheap to give to one of his kids. Maybe he just wanted to be the big Kiwi know-it-all macho man making the American tourist cry.

I’d like to give Selwyn the benefit of the doubt but, well, I’d sooner trust a roofer (and don’t get me started on what I think about roofers).

Alf told me he was going to turn off at Waiau to see his mate but, and I’m sure you’re not surprised, he drove with me all the way to the campground, where we both shook our heads and marvelled at Bill’s miraculous recovery.

I had begun to think of driving Bill to Auckland as originally planned, but Alf put that idea out of my head.

“First thing tomorrow, you sell that car to whoever you can, first joker that comes along, for whatever you can get for it and you don’t say nuffin’ about no engine troubles and then you get the hell out of town where they can’t find you,” he advised me before driving off to what I hope is better fortune for him. As I told him when I shook his hand, he’s a good man and I wish him the best.

In truth, the first thing I’m doing tomorrow is mailing the post card I’ve already written out to Selwyn. It reads:

Hi Selwyn! I made it to Christchurch without any problems! My car never overheated! The needle never even moved above halfway! Wow, that $8 can of One Shot I bought after you and your son couldn’t fix anything must have worked! Golly, I’m glad I didn’t sell my car to you for $50 for scrap! [drawn: smiley face. implied: raised middle finger]”

Also implied: I curse your geese and your chickens.

Sidenote: while doing a quick online search to confirm that I remembered details of the Carlisle art correctly, I found this fascinating site all about the Cursing Stone, by “a Christian who cares” and who is most definitely not a fan. Ooh, I like it even more now.


11 thoughts on “I Curse Thair Geise and Thair Hennys

  1. Alf’s my new hero. If you have a pic of Selwyn you could blow it up and use it as a dartboard. Hitting a bulseye would be so satisfying.

  2. I always loved your travel stories, and they just keep getting better, although this is one adventure I do not want to try.

  3. OK, I’m completely obsessed now. I thought that the “geise” spelling/pronunciation and the “thair” spelling/pronunciation seemed like Scots dialect and wondered why a Cumbrian would be writing in Scots (they’re close, but the dialects are/were different). Anywho, turns out the curse wasn’t written by the Bishop of Carlisle, but the Bishop of Glasgow, Gavin Dunbar (c1490 — 1547) and sent around to all the parishes of the border lands. So it’s a *Scot* cursing the Reivers, which makes it all the more interesting.

    And it’s part of a bigger cultural/literary tradition, too. Scots poetry from the late Middle Ages and early modern period had a traditional form of invective, known as “flyting” (sometimes spelled “fliting”). Another Dunbar (not sure if there’s a relation), William Dunbar, a 15th/16th c. Scots poet, is the subject of “The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie,” which is a ritualized war of words between two poets full of *awesome* invective. My favorite lines are: “Dirtin Dumbar, quhome on blawis thow thy boist, / Pretendand thee to wryte sic skaldit skrowis?” It means: “Beshitten Dunbar, to whom do you make your boast, claiming to write such scabby scrolls?” You can read the rest here (click on text 83): http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/dunfrm4.htm.

    In other words, the Scots were doing it Old Skool long before the gangsta rappers were facing off! Word.

  4. I think “beshitten” is my favorite new word… I just wished I’d known about it before mailing Selwyn his postcard. Thanks everyone for the comments… Bill is still running, by the way!

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