Garvan Laing - Misfortune and Mobility


Late January, 2003

Ernst and Helga, two visitors from Germany, e-mailed me asking if they could call in on me. They had booked themselves into a motel and intended to stay a few days in the district, having a look around. What were they doing about dinner that night? Would they like to go to a restaurant with me? They would, and we went to a good Asian one in the town. We had a long chat over our meal and later at my small flat, over maps of the region. What, I asked, did they want to do while in the town? They wanted to see as much of the country as possible – the usual sightseeing and touristy things, and especially the scenery which they said was magnificent, what they had seen so far on their way down by car from Auckland.

Next day, I took them for a drive – a local museum, a sheepskin tannery (where they each bought fleece-lined winter boots) and some local crafts shops. What about a visit to a working sheep farm? They hadn’t been on a working farm of any kind before and expressed great interest. On my return home that afternoon I rang a friend who had a small sheep farm.

“Hi, Duncan. What’s doing on the farm these days?”

“Nothing much. Just shearing a few sheep in the morning. Why ask?”

“I have two friends here from Germany who haven’t been on a working farm. They had a look through a tannery today, and are keen to see where the skins come from. Would you mind if I brought them out to have a look?”

“Sure! But you should warn them we won’t be dressed up.”

“Don’t worry. We won’t be, either.”

We arrived at Duncan’s 1250-hectare farm to find both him and Mary, his wife, busy at work in the shearing shed, shearing the last 20 of the sheep. Mary, acting as a shed hand, was able to tell Ernst and Helga about some of the facts of life on the farm, and Duncan showed them just how much help a good dog was as he shifted the sheep from the yards to a sunny paddock. Over a light lunch (cold roast mutton and salad) Duncan was able to explain about farming under present conditions. Low wool prices. The high cost of casual labour. Bank fees always climbing. Increasing costs right, left and centre. Not like the old days when shearing was done just once a year. Nowadays, it was necessary to shear a few sheep – say, fifty or a hundred at a time – at intervals through the year to get the cash flow.

“Is yours a typical sheep farm?” asked Ernst.

“Fairly. Actually, it is a bit larger than the average in this district. Most are around 700 to 800 hectares. I have considered converting to either cattle breeding or deer; the returns from those, ‘specially deer, are much better.”

“And you do all the work yourself,” asked Helga, “or do you have some help?”

“No, Mary gives me a hand when she isn’t working on the farm accounts, or tending to the house and garden. Otherwise it’s just me and the dogs.”

We thanked Duncan and Mary for their time and hospitality, and Helga gave them a box of chocolates as we left.


Early November, 2003

Late one afternoon I had a phone call from a clearly worried Mary. Duncan had been admitted to hospital and was likely to be there for several weeks.

“Why? What happened?”

“Duncan was taking a load of fencing materials out to the back of the place and the quad rolled on top of him. He has a broken and crushed leg.”

“Anything else?” I asked.

“They suspected some internal injuries, but everything else seems to be OK. Thank God for that! But I’m afraid we’ll have to get in a farm manager for a while until Duncan is able to get around again. I just thought you’d like to know.”

“Thank you for telling me. Is there anything I can do to help?”

“No, thanks. We’ll manage. Andy and Jock are going to give me a hand when they can; it was them who found Duncan and they called the rescue helicopter on the cellphone.” The first I knew was the chopper coming over just as Jock got to the door to tell me.”


Ten days later –

Mary rang again. Better news this time. Duncan was on the mend, and was getting physiotherapy. But it was doubtful if he could return to the active life he had previously enjoyed. She told me that for the first two nights, she stayed at the hospital in a guest room, but now she was going in by car every second day, and the farm manager was doing a good job working the farm. Just as well, she said, that her car was economical to run – not like the GMC truck that Duncan had!


Two weeks later.

Mary had an accident while helping the farm manager press the wool ready for shipping out. Distracted by the phone, she had her hand in the way when the press started down. She had lost the tip of one finger and two others were crushed. Ouch! The farm manager bound up the hand and took her in to the hospital. No more driving for a while for her! She was able to get the rural mail contractor to take her into town every second day, and back in the late afternoon, on her visits to Duncan (and later, to her physiotherapist as well).


Mid-December, 2003

Duncan had made reasonably good progress, considering his age – well, he was then 71 (and Mary was not much younger, at 65). He would be discharged to home on the condition that he avoided all heavy work. His injured leg was shorter by two centimetres, but with a surgical boot, he was able to walk around with the aid of a pair of crutches. As luck would have it, too, the children would also be home for Christmas. Timothy had completed his Bachelor’s degree in computer science and was going to go on with a Master’s in programming and animation. And Patsy, who had been working in the city, would bring her new boy-friend for a short summer break.


December 23rd, 2003.

Timothy, who had spent most of his time in his room, working on his laptop, had appeared only for meals and a very few hours in the evenings. Duncan thought Timothy could do more to help his mother and father around the place. Timothy retorted, “Look Dad, I know I haven’t done much around the place lately. But I have this job to do for a special effects studio, and they reckon it would be at least three weeks’ work. The deadline is January 15th, and I will be hard put to it to get it done in time. But as soon as I’ve finished it, I promise I will do some work for you and Mum.”

Meanwhile, Patsy and “Tiger” had usually surfaced some time after the rest had finished breakfast. Admittedly, Patsy was a help for Mary around the house, and “Tiger” had been some help for several hours a day to the farm manager, doing some light labouring work. Two days after Christmas, the pair dropped their bombshell – they would be returning to the city for New Year, and would probably stay there. So, Duncan and Mary would be left to care for the farm by themselves – with the assistance of their manager. (Or should that be the other way round?) Patsy and :”Tiger” would be in the city, but just where would they be living? And in what circumstances and conditions? And Timothy’s work would obviously require that he go to meet his employers and clients. Perhaps he could do much of his work from home, from the farm, by tele-working. In any case, he would be at the farm for an indeterminate time, during which he could help out around the place.

Mid-February, 2004

We must credit Duncan with a large amount of broad-mindedness. On a trip into the physiotherapist he met, by chance, an old school friend who was now in the Police force. The two got to chatting over a glass or two of beer. Ian, by then a plain-clothes Sergeant attached to the Youth Aid section, asked how things were at home. How was Mary? And the children? Timothy’s name had been one he remembered in the newspaper – in the list of recent graduates. How was he getting on?

“And what about your daughter? Patricia, isn’t it? How is she doing?”

“I don’t really know. She seemed to be living with her boy-friend in town. But she doesn’t keep in touch, and I don’t have her address or phone number.”

“I should tell you – in confidence – that her name has come to my official attention.”

“Is she in some sort of trouble, then?”

“Oh, no, at least not so far. Did you know she was pregnant? She has visited a midwife who is a close friend of my wife, which is how I knew. It seems she is in a de facto marriage with a known gang associate.”

“Do you think she will be OK?”

“I think so. At any rate, her partner has a worthwhile job. And the only reason he has come to our attention was when he was questioned after a pub brawl which he witnessed. But no known criminal actions, you’ll be glad to hear.”

So, thought Duncan, it was unlikely that Patsy would ever return to the farm except for a weekend from time to time. No use counting on her to take Mary shopping. Just as well Timothy was home – well, more often than not. And he was a great help – around the farm between spells of his computer work; and he was always willing to drive him or Mary into town. Mary had found that she could not adequately handle her little car – the hand brake and gearshift were rather more than she could manage. As for himself, his bad leg made it extremely awkward to drive anything. Why, even getting around the farm, to the shearing shed and around the gardens, was impossible without a crutch. And even then, it was very exhausting. But for how much longer would Timothy stay at home? Perhaps it was time for retirement? Sell the farm and get a place in town. He would have to have a talk with Mary about it.


One week later.

After lunch, Mary asked Duncan just what he had on his mind.

“You’ve seemed unusually thoughtful over the past week or so. What is it?”

“I’ve been wondering how to put it to you, but what would you think about us selling the farm and moving into town. Neither of us is in the first flush of youth. And we are both disabled to some extent.”

“I must admit that the same thought had crossed my mind. In fact, on his last visit, I asked the stock agent to ask around for me. And he got the real estate man to send me some information. There are some good-looking places available at prices we could afford.”

“Great minds think alike, eh? Let’s get him to show us round and see what we both think.”

So it was that Duncan and Mary were paid a visit by the real estate manager and the valuer who appraised the farm. Land, the house and other buildings, farm tracks and other improvements, stock (by this time, half sheep, half deer), and came up with an estimated sale price.

“When,” they were asked, “would you like to be shown some of the places that might suit you in town?”

“When would be convenient for you”

“What about the day after tomorrow?”

So it was that one morning was spent taking a quick look (from the comfort of a car) at half a dozen places ranging from a 3-bedroom house to a couple of pensioner flats. Some of them, either Duncan or Mary did not like the look of, for various reasons. But there were three which did appeal, and they were shown through those after a light lunch. One was a 2-bedroom flat with easy access and a pleasant outlook. A second was a semi-detached place with the other home occupied by a newly-retired couple. The third was a bungalow with two bedrooms, a pleasant living room with French doors opening onto the sheltered back lawn, and a country-style kitchen-dining room. The bathroom, too, was more spacious than usual. “Let’s go home and think about it. I know Mary and I want to have a talk about it by ourselves. Can we let you know in a couple of days?”

Timothy was very supportive, and said he would like to stay on at the farm for a month or so – until the place changed hands. By that time he would have a place of his own in town and he could easily work from home.

Finally, Mary and Duncan agreed on the best, the most attractive to their eyes, of the places they had been shown. It was the bungalow. Space enough for them and their hobbies; a very gently-sloping section, and the gardens were mainly perennials with a few fruit trees. More important was the ease of access. It had evidently been designed with the needs of the partially disabled in mind. Ramps rather than steps. Wide doors. Hand grips in the bathroom. Good drive-on access for a car, furniture van – or ambulance. And although the main views were partly rural, partly overlooking a small park, it was only three hundred metres from the main shopping area of the town. Next day, the agent brought the documents and accepted Duncan and Mary’s conditional offer, and also filled out the details of the farm on the sale notice. He told Duncan that he had already been asked if there was anything like their place on the market, and indicated that a quick sale was a definite prospect.

Two days later, the agent brought a prospective buyer to see the place. He was shown round the farm by the farm manager and liked what he saw. So much so that he asked if he could bring his wife and family out to see it next day. Events moved rapidly after that. Offer for the farm, some bargaining, and a cash offer was made at a reasonable price. Possession date was arranged, and Duncan and Mary’s offer for the bungalow was made

Within a week, the packers had come and packed everything wanted for the bungalow – dining table and chairs, bedroom furniture, bookcases, entertainment centre. Some new living room furniture – easy chairs and a convertible sofa-settee – were bought and delivered. For the three nights necessary, Duncan and Mary stayed in a motel. Then came their big day. The house-warming party. Timothy was there, and so were the neighbours, the pastor, Duncan’s physiotherapist, Ian (the policeman friend), even Patsy with her new baby. A surprise gift for Duncan was an electric mobility scooter, a four-wheeler, from Timothy who had quietly gone and bought it with instructions that it would be delivered on the afternoon of the party.


What a change!

In less than four months, Patsy had gone away to “shack up” with a gang associate, although things had turned out well for them, “Tiger” had a steady job and now preferred to be know as Jeremy. Timothy had gained his degree and steady employment in computers, but it was something he could do from home, wherever that was. Mary had had to adapt herself from driving her own car to being driven around, and she found it very difficult to help with any of the outdoor farm work. Duncan had that accident, getting his leg crushed when the quad had rolled on him. That meant he could no longer play any part in the farm work, but had to rely on his manager, and could no longer drive his own truck. From being active farmers, in the process of converting from running sheep for the wool to raising deer for the meat, velvet and skins, to settling into retirement. From Duncan driving his 2-tonne GMC truck to piloting an electric mobility scooter. From living in a wholly rural area to being in town. From being faced with a 30-kilometre drive to town (and 30 kilometres back), through having to get a ride from someone or having to pay a $40 taxi fare each way, to being within easy walking (or riding, for Duncan) distance to the shops. And from being owners and masters of a 1250-hectare sheep farm to having slightly less than 1000 square metres. And even the lawns, they hired a contractor to keep mowed. No longer would they be self-employed, with all the bureaucratic hassles that entailed, but they would be drawing the old age pension But of even greater importance, at least in the short term, was the chance to see something of the ”old country”. During the winter, they would fly to Britain to see some of the relations they had been in touch with only by letter and a few phone calls on special occasions.

Yes, their joint misfortunes had meant much adaptation affecting their mobility.

Did the lack of regular public transport really affect them? Not really. In any case, apart from the few busses to neighbouring cities, there was none within the town. Even for their flight to Britain, they were driven to and from the airport by a close friend and neighbour. And once over there, they were either driven around by relatives or used those wonderfully high-roofed London-style taxicabs to get to the railway station.

Garvan Laing, November, 2002. ©

(The characters in the foregoing are entirely fictitious, but the incidents described are based on actual events known to the writer.)


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