by Luke Otley
Some said he reigned from somewhere in the South Pacific, though none knew definitely, as he never spoke. His only verbal expulsion came in the early hours, when squirming atop thin embalmed sheets, he groaned incoherently as he thrashed fitfully in the grip of night terrors. None knew his name, though many experienced his smell, a pungent odor that mewled through the thick ever-closed door to his chambers. When I myself was led to this hovel I strained against the ever increasing urge to retch, I swallowed through gritted teeth, my nostrils flared and my eyes balled and rolled. This was my room for the night, and my travelling companion’s too. We could hear the rhythmic rolling of insects’ scurrying legs as we sat, almost in shock, on our appropriately bald and stained mattresses. The window could not be opened, no, for his bed lay underneath it – I say bed, though nest would probably be more fitting- and there was an animosity in the air that one feels when confronted with a dog that is reared to bite. For a second I studied him; I saw the droplets of oil on his dark arm, the long, wiry black locks made heavy and shapely with human grease, the blemished face, the dull black eyes. I was afraid.
We left our bags in that stagnant pit and stumbled to the street, hands clutched to our throats whispering ‘Wine…wine…please…the horror…’, and I say I didn’t really regain consciousness fully until I felt the warm slug of Merlot pushing the bile that lay in my throat back into the confines of my stomach. I only had thirty dollars left, of which the wine had cost seven, but I regretted nothing. We sat in a dark corner of a cathedral courtyard and drank in near silence, occasionally glancing up at the sky-lit clock face and murmuring, spluttering through wine stained teeth ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!’ spitefully and ironically. The dark presence in room five of our lodgings epitomized the past few days of struggle; our increasingly desperate attempts to find work, our vanishing funds, the seedy comfort of drink and bad food, the discontent of dirty clothes and dirty bodies, a crushing fatigue embodied by our heavy packs, the sadness in our eyes that stared back, rueful, from each public bathroom’s cracked and misted mirror.
Not for the first time I asked myself how I had warped and buckled the ideal of backpacking in New Zealand so thoroughly and with such finality. Though, (clutching my almost finished bottle tight, and smiling) a word pushed itself from my red lips – sui generis –