One Stroke of the Pen
(November 12 2011)
How is my uncle today?
NURSE: I’ve only just come on duty. I hear he is much better. His blood pressure has recovered. 115 over 90. I’ll take him the phone …
Good afternoon, Sir Peter. I hear your blood pressure has improved.
I’m doing well. The body feels more cheerful when the pressure’s on. They keep a sharp eye on that sort of thing, and every morning they do the rounds — the doctors and nurses come and have a chat, and they find a few reasons for a bit of alarm, you can see it in their faces, and they roll out some pills or tests, whatever’s the current thing.
They’ve all the gadgets and things, and they connect you up, wired in, for a series of tests. And they draw their lines on the charts. It’s all a bit organized.
Do you want to talk?
I can listen. What’s on your mind?
I’ve heard a lot about your Leyland ancestors, but not so much about the Polish side. What can you tell me about your grandfather’s brothers, Otto and Julius. I was …
Well, they were there all right, at Halcombe, but we didn’t have a lot to do with those old ones, they were a bit distant. There was contact, but not always on a friendly basis — a few differences of opinion in the family perhaps. There were boatloads of them — a whole tribe you might say.
I remember that letter I found, by your second cousin, who just signed themself as Natzke, and …
Natzke, they were Mum’s friends, close friends, well known to her, and there were lots of such people. Very sociable. And the interesting thing to me, as a kid, to my childish mind was the similarity of many of their names. They might start their names with different arrangements of letters, but they always bally well ended them with the same sound — ‘ski’. WischnowSKI. PalenSKI. DodunSKI. NatSKI. It sort of distinguished them out a bit, a difference from the rest of the usual names. SKI — a sort of tailpiece, but what did this bit mean? It puzzled me. They didn’t ski on skis, but they had this appendage. But, anyway, what did Natzke write about? Remind me.
Natzke discovered that the Halcombe lot had originally planned to go to America on the Fritz Reuter, but the whole lot of them were sold, on the quiet, like stock, for 5 pounds a head to an agent who shipped them to New Zealand. One stroke of a pen …
I’ve reflected about this kind of thing since I was a youngster. The stroke of the pen. Someone sits behind a desk in some place like Wellington — a woman, with a pencil perhaps, whose job it is to draw some lines on a map or chart — to make plans — or decide where some development is to take place, and they shuffle things around and IT DOES HAPPEN. It all comes to pass and it influences people’s lives — OUR LIVES — stroke of a pen, and sometimes with no regard for the suitability of the land, or the feelings of the people — no concern for its ups and downs. Just a line on a chart.
When Old Phil’s father took the family to Great Barrier Island in 1867 it had just been subdivided by naval architects in England. They’d accurately mapped the shoreline, then just drew straight lines so it looked nice on the plan. Very different on the ground. Cliffs and gullies.
The method’s probably changed a bit since then. A bit of learning’s gone into it. Like this hospital system. At least they check you out, get some facts together before they draw their lines. It’s not like someone in a Wellington office is scrawling something with a pencil, drawing lines and changing your life completely without checking the facts.
There’s another good example up the Whanganui. The Bridge to Nowhere. Bureaucratic stupidity. They planned the road, and bridge, and subdivided the land, and got people all excited to go there, but when the settlers got there it was completely unfarmable. You can bet your life there was some blooming official in Wellington with their pencil and their map, and as a result a whole mob of people get re-organised and disrupted. It’s worried me for years.
Phew, I’m getting tired boy. I’ll have to say, ‘bye, bye’. Oh, John, wait, the nurse has come back. She wants to have a word with you., I’ll hand the phone over.
NURSE: (quietly) Are you there? Hey, I thought I’d better tell you, I picked up the wrong patient’s chart … sorry … your uncles blood pressure isn’t up where I told you, it’s still quite low — but it has improved from what it was. Thought I’d better tell you. I’ll hand you back to your uncle.
Hi, Peter, I’ll go now.
What was that about? Is everything okay? What did she want?
She told me your blood pressure had improved from what it was. Everything’s okay.