09 July 2018
PASSANG TOUCHED HIS NUMB CHEEK as he left the dental surgery. He felt no connection with his own skin, as if his hand floated on the cold surface of someone else’s flesh. Passang’s name in Sherpa meant ‘Friday’. He was born on Friday, same as his older brother, Passang, and his younger sister, also Passang.
A taxi swerved into the kerb next to him. A startling manoeuvre, but since the car was a taxi he was unsurprised. The passenger door flew open, and alcohol fumes wafted out from the dank interior of the vehicle. A drunk white man with dishevelled red hair and ratty teeth slurred and cursed at the driver, a man of indeterminate racial heritage, maybe North Indian, Western Turkish, Northern Chinese or Croatian. He sat impassive, his tweed cheese-cutter meeting the edge of black horn-rimmed glasses.
‘You are a Muslim prick,’ said the passenger.
‘Why?’ said the taxi driver.
‘Because you come over here and ... why don’t you just fuck off back to where you came from?'
‘The camera is recording you.’
‘Don’t you threaten me, you prick!’
‘I’m just saying there’s a camera in here recording you.’
‘You just blither out crap ... you Islam filth.’
‘Are you from New Zealand?’
‘I told you. I’m not from here.’
'So you’re here to infiltrate our country.’ The taxi driver’s tone remained gentle, exasperated.
‘Seven dollars. If you want to pay me now it’s good. Okay?’
‘Why can’t you just fuck off and go back to where you came from?’
‘I will go. But first pay me, okay?’
‘I’ll pay you seven bucks when you tell me that you’ll piss off back to the country you came from. You shouldn’t be in New Zealand in the first place. We don’t require your Muslim bullshit.’
Passang saw the passenger pull a hunting knife from his jacket and wave it at the driver. The driver left the engine running and ran onto the footpath next to Passang. The drunk passenger fell out of the cab and onto his own knife, stabbing himself in the chest.
Passang forgot his anaesthetised face and rushed to the man, much as he’d reached out two days ago to the woman who’d tripped over her crampon ties and cartwheeled her arms trying to right herself on the ice. In mid-flight she’d spun her elbow into Passang’s face and broken his front tooth clean in half. Passang fell to his knees next to the man and held his hands on each side of the knife to stop the bleeding. Deep red blood pulsed over his splayed fingers, spattering the gold letters on the knife handle: ‘Helico Hydraulics’.
‘What’s your name?’ Passang asked him.
‘Malcolm Buttworth,’ he said, and passed out.
Passang kept the pressure around the knife wound until the ambulance arrived.
The taxi driver was Bilal Dareshak from Pakistan. Bilal showed the police the camera footage of Mr Buttworth’s abusive tirade in the taxi, followed by his fall onto the knife, followed by Passang saving his life.
‘He should get a medal,’ said Bilal, jabbing his finger at Passang.
THE FOLLOWING MORNING Passang drove out of Queenstown on State Highway Six towards Fox Glacier Township. He slowed down on the dark road through the Kawarau Gorge. Traffic signs emblazoned with the words ‘Black Ice’ shone iridescent orange in the car’s headlights. Passang knew to concentrate on the road ahead and not get distracted by the turquoise river glowing in the gorge below. This stretch of road had seen many vehicles slide out of control, smash through the barriers and plummet over the bank into the icy water. He peered at the road for any glossy sheen of black ice. Approaching the end of the gorge, he spotted a change in the asphalt. The tar smoothed out, and tiny shadows disappeared. He felt the car pull into a spin, and turned the wheels into the skid. The car fishtailed and slid back on course.
As he drove into Fox Glacier Township, shadowy mountains rose above him. He steered the car straight to the office of Blue Glacier Tours.
‘HEY DADDY SHERPA, you’re famous! Good to have you back. We’ve got a full book today,’ said Bernard Galway.
Passang was always respectful of the owner’s youngest son.
‘Not such a great day for it, Bernard.’
Outside the rain had started to fall, and clouds had settled over the summits of Mount Tasman and Mount Cook. The guides in the boot room busied themselves preparing for the first group of the day. Andrea was at the counter putting the sock bins out. As Passang bounced into the room, she straightened her lean, tall frame and tossed her brown hair to one side with a laugh.
‘Hey hero Sherpa. We saw you on TV saving that jerk’s life. How’s the tooth?’
Passang flashed a smile, showing his new crown. The guides gathered round, laughing and ribbing him about Malcolm Buttworth, about the tooth, about his star appearance on television.
ANDREA DROVE THE BUS up to the glacier. The tourists were split into two groups of six so that each group had at least two guides. She took one group into the carpark with Passang for a safety talk, and Bernard, Hans and Gunter took the other six to a large information sign for their safety talk. The two groups came back together, and Andrea led everyone on the track up to the ice. She wore a wide-brimmed leather hat leaving her ears uncovered. When they arrived at the ice, she listened for rocks, water, cracking ice: any indication of a safety risk to their charges for the day.
On the glacier, the two groups split once more. Bernard walked ahead with his group of tourists and guides. Andrea led her group, with Passang following close behind her. She stopped occasionally to survey the ice, reading the signs for hidden crevasses, and scouting for holes. Passang pointed out secure routes to the icefall and spotted ice caves and a pool of milky blue water surrounded by ice columns, photo opportunities for the tourists.
Bernard appeared on the ice face above Passang and Andrea. He hurled schist rocks into the pool, making loud splashing noises.
‘What was that?’ said one of the tourists in a Geordie accent.
‘It’s Bernard. Must be a boy thing,’ said Andrea, and led the tourists to the next sight, a blue ice cave.
AS THE END OF THE TOUR drew near, the separate groups headed by Bernard and Andrea converged at the foot of the icefall and crossed behind a large schist boulder the size of an armoured tank. Bernard held his ice axe in one hand as he approached Andrea. The sharp metal ends were the same browny orange colour as the old algae-covered rocks in the valley. She edged past him.
‘You’ve got mushrooms,’ she said, eyeing the pick.
Passang laughed behind her, the group of six tourists following in a line behind him. Bernard’s eyes changed from blue to dark grey.
‘If I put this axe into your head it wouldn’t make any difference,’ he said, looking at Passang.
‘Sherpa skull is pretty strong,’ said Passang.
Everyone laughed, except Andrea, who looked uncomfortable.
The Geordie tourist asked Passang, ‘Is that her boyfriend?’
‘Yep. Boyfriend and girlfriend.’
A grey cloud lifted off the ice as they walked down the glacier. Bernard’s voice stuttered on Andrea’s walkie-talkie.
‘Where’s Daddy Sherpa?’
‘He’s here with me,’ said Andrea.
There was silence on the other end.
IN THE BOOT ROOM that evening, the tourists removed their packs, raincoats, rain pants, socks and boots and left them in wet piles in blue plastic bins. Their faces were bright and energised as they thanked the guides and trickled out of the building into a dim evening. Passang helped Andrea put socks into the washing machine and hang boots up on the racks.
‘We should go to the pub tonight,’ she said.
‘Yes, we toast the Sherpa hero,’ said Hans in his thick German accent.
Gunter, his countryman, agreed with him, and they spoke emphatic German to each other.
‘Yeah, let’s go and watch the game,’ said Passang.
Bernard emerged from the office with a cordless phone.
‘TV3 again,’ he said, handing the phone to Passang.
It was a producer from the newsroom. The taxi camera footage had gone viral.
‘We’d like to interview you,’ she said.
‘People are interested in how a Nepalese Sherpa feels about saving the life of a drunken racist ranter.’
ALL BLACK SUPPORTERS filled the pub, with a few Springbok followers huddled in small groups. The Geordie tourist sat hunched over a large glassof beer. Black bunting and silver fern All Black flags dangled over the bar, and large New Zealand flags hung on either side of the television. The crowd applauded Passang as he entered the room.
Andrea took Passang’s arm and they were ushered, with Bernard, Hans and Gunter, to a table laden with handles of beer. People shook Passang’s hand.
One old man grabbed his shoulder and said, ‘That bloody Invercargill bastard made me ashamed to be a Kiwi the way he talked to that taxi driver bloke. Not like you, mate. You are a top-shelf Kiwi Sherpa.’
‘Ah, it was nothing,’ said Passang.
When the All Blacks scored the match-winning try, Passang jumped up and punched the air. Andrea jumped with him, and then placed her hands on his chest and kissed him. He guessed she’d acted out of impulse in the heat of the moment. But her eyes had lingered on him far too long, and Bernard was watching them. assang turned away from her and walked to the bar.
He could see Bernard and Andrea locked in stern conversation. Hans joined him at the bar, shaking his head.
‘They arguing over there,’ said Hans.
‘I’m going home,’ said Passang.
‘Me too,’ said Hans.
As Hans and Passang walked through the car park, Bernard ran out, grabbed Passang by the shoulder and spun him around.
‘Hey, what are you doing?’ said Passang.
Bernard jutted his chin out and shouted at Passang. ‘You don’t know what she’s like.’
‘I wasn’t doing anything with your missus,’ said Passang. Bernard punched him in the face.
Passang’s head jerked backwards. The new crown flew out of his mouth. He stumbled against a car door and collapsed onto the gravel. As he lay on the ground he saw people spilling down the steps from the pub. Andrea ran to his side and helped him up.
‘My tooth,’ he said, holding his mouth.
Andrea scrabbled about in the gravel and found the white ceramic crown.
‘Come with me, Sherpa,’ she said, holding his arm.
Passang tried to bat her away, but she fussed over him.
‘You’re hurt,’ she said, watching Hans shuffling Bernard to the office.
PASSANG SAT AT THE kitchen table in Andrea’s flat holding his jaw.
‘Does it hurt much?’ she asked.
‘Just a bit bruised. I’ll have to go back to the dentist,’ he said, moving his jaw from side to side.
‘This will help,’ she said, dabbing arnica on his bruised face.He winced in pain. ‘Look, I don’t want to get in between you and Bernard.’
‘We broke up while you were away in Queenstown. We’ve been growing apart for a while.’
‘I didn’t know.’
‘Bernard didn’t want to tell anyone.’
‘So why did he punch me?’
Andrea put her hand on Passang’s leg. ‘If we didn’t tell anyone then I guess he could pretend we weren’t breaking up.’
‘Why did you kiss me?’ he said.
‘Why do you think?’ she said, laughing.
‘I love my job, Andrea. He could fire me.’
‘His father does all the hiring and firing. He won’t fire you, his best guide, his famous Sherpa.’
‘I better go home.’
‘Don’t go,’ she said, and kissed him again.
THE NEXT DAY at Blue Glacier Tours, the guides scattered into various corners of the building. Bernard burrowed himself away in the office. Passang hid in the back of the boot room with Hans and Gunter, nursing a large purple bruise on his cheek.
‘That’s ugly,’ said Hans.
‘What happened to them while I was in Queenstown?’ said Passang, trying to hide his broken tooth.
‘What do you mean?’ said Hans.
‘She told me they broke up.’
‘Not as far as I know.’
TOURISTS ARRIVING for the first booking forced Bernard out of the office. He mumbled a grudging apology to Passang, offered to pay or the crown and blamed the drink. Over the next few days the pressure between them settled down. But Passang dreaded the close confines of the boot room gatherings, and was relieved to get away into Queenstown to visit the dentist. On his return, he kept to himself.
‘Why are you avoiding me?’ Andrea asked him.
‘Why did you lie to me about breaking up with Bernard?’ he asked in return.
‘I didn’t lie.’
‘Don’t you know Sherpas mate for life?’ he said, half joking, but half not.
DESPITE HIS BETTER JUDGEMENT, he began to look forward to Andrea’s banter. He noticed a shift around the region of his heart, some movement inside, although he didn’t want to lose control. He saw her whispering in the office with Bernard and tried to put it out of his head, but it was all wrong.
With the continuous effort of trying to rein in his emotions, he’d forgotten about the incident with Malcolm Buttworth. Then one day after a tour when the tourists were leaving the boot room, saying their goodbyes and taking photos and buying souvenirs, Passang looked up from a bin of jackets and saw a man with shaggy red hair.
‘Are you Passang Phurba?’
‘Yep, that’s me.’
‘I’m Malcolm Buttworth.’
He’d lost weight. His face looked haggard, and there were dark rings under his eyes.
‘I didn’t recognise you,’ said Passang.
‘I’m sober now.’
‘I won’t invite you for a beer at the pub then,’ said Passang, laughing.
Malcolm glanced around the room. Gunter averted his eyes. Bernard stood at the counter in front of the boot racks, sucking in his cheeks. Andrea and Hans sorted socks in the corner.
‘How’s your chest?’
‘I still have more surgery to go. I just wanted to say thank you,’ said Malcolm.
He looked uneasily at the other guides in the room and then looked down at his feet, rocking from side to side.
‘I’ve been hounded by everyone. We’ve lost business. I tried to apologise to Mr Dareshak. But he won’t talk to me.’
‘Well, we all make mistakes we’re ashamed of,’ said Passang.
He looked over at Bernard, who was leaning on his forearms on the counter and peering up from under his hair. Passang turned back to Malcolm and placed a hand on his arm. Malcom flinched.
‘Let’s go next door and have a cup of tea,’ said Passang.
‘Sure,’ said Malcolm, arranging his arm on Passang’s shoulders.
A camera flashed somewhere, and Passang felt the weight of Malcom’s arm lift off his body.
‘Look. I just I wanted to thank you. I have to go now,’ said Malcom.
He shuffled out of the boot room and into the waning evening light.
‘Good riddance,’ said Andrea.
‘At least he’s sorry,’ said Bernard, glaring at her.
‘Only because he got caught,’ she said.
Passang followed Malcolm into the car park to a white four-wheel-drive truck with ‘Helico Hydraulics’ in gold lettering on the side. The lights switched on one by one in the pub next door. Malcolm heaved himself into the cab of the truck and wound the window down to look at Passang. Another man appeared from the direction of the boot room and climbed into the other side of the truck.
‘Got the pics, boss?’ said Malcolm.
‘Yep,’ said the man.
‘Where are you heading?’ said Passang.
‘Back to Queenstown.’
‘Take care on those roads.’
Passang waved farewell as Malcolm started the engine. Malcolm did not return the wave.
‘Bloody bungas. They’re even here in the snow.’
Malcolm’s words reverberated in Passang’s ears as he drove away. Andrea walked up to Passang in the car park as the light went out of the sky. He stared after the speeding truck. She cuddled into him and pulled her jacket tight.
‘It’s so cold tonight,’ she said.
Passang kissed Andrea’s head.
A quiet misty rain was falling, smudging the edges of the streetlights. He put his arm around her and led her back to the office.
I don’t know how you could even speak to him. I’m not surprised Bilal refuses to have anything to do with him,’ she said.
Passang hadn’t seen Bilal since they’d appeared together on TV3 News. He’d rung him a few times to check how he was though. Bilal had stopped driving taxis. The anxiety attacks were too much for him. He’d found a new job working from home analysing online surveys for a research company.
‘Bernard wants the fuel taken up to the helipad tonight,’ said Andrea.
‘I’ll run it up now,’ said Passang.
‘Thanks. See you when you get back, Sherpa.’
Andrea handed him the truck keys and ran into the boot room. He pulled the hood of his jacket over his head as he walked to the truck. On the glacier tour that morning he’d decided that he wouldn’t carry on the charade with her any more. But he knew he might feel differently in the morning.
He fumbled with the keys, and dropped them on the icy gravel. As he bent over to pick them up a light came on in the office. Must be Bernard working late with the books, he thought. He drove to the petrol bowser and filled three cans. When he drove back past the car park, he glanced at the Blue Glacier Tours building. Two people stood silhouetted in the office window. They merged into an embrace.
Passang drove out towards the helipad. He had his foot on the accelerator, and was too distracted to feel the slight tug of the back wheels beginning to slide out as he drove around a gentle curve in the road. When the truck started to spin he realised he was on black ice, and overcorrected the steering wheel. The vehicle swerved out of control. He tried to right the wheels, wrestle them back in line, but it was too late.
The truck flipped over into a ditch and smashed into a tree, exploding in a ball of fire.
The rain fell softly on the people running from the pub, from the restaurant, from the store, from the motel, from the car park, from the boot room, from the office.
Copyright © Gina Cole 2016