Don’t panic, she said dryly, I’m alive. Obviously you all know me as well as I know myself, and knew there was no cause for alarm even before I did. I’m fine. The headache went away, the exhaustion cleared, and quite frankly I generally enjoy the health of a prize bull. I think it’s age that’s making me such a baby (ha ha, there’s an irony). Yes, I think that increasing awareness of mortality (oh come on, you all know what I’m talking about – doesn’t flying bug you just a little more these days than it used to?) is keeping my hypochondria on a hair-trigger. But you get that. The main thing is, I now feel perfectly jim-dandy.
But I did want to tell you about the two annoying bastards on my trip. There were only two, and they appeared separately, right at the end. In fact, one of them was bugging the absolute shit out of me in Australia, not Vanuatu. But he’d just come from Vanuatu and boy, didn’t the whole train carriage into town from the airport have to hear about it.
Because he’s a nerd gone native, and now he’s a big man about town.
What is it about that particular breed of man who’s probably never really been so popular with the ladies, never particularly debonair, never entirely comfortable in groups of men, that they move to the tropics or become a permanent backpacker and suddenly think they have the oratory power of Winston Churchill and the charisma of Don Quixote? What is with that?
My first Nerd Gone Native (NGN) ruined my final breakfast in Vanuatu. First, he was sitting in my seat. I was a little dusty, so at first I thought evil black-hearted thoughts about him simply because he was innocently sitting at what was, undeniably, a free table. No, my name wasn’t on it. I had no claim. So after cursing and hissing at him under my telling morning-after breath, I sat at the exact opposite table, so that our backs faced each other across a perfect expanse of space. I sat, and I opened my newspaper.
The chair scraped loudly and this Lilliputian pest verily LEAPT out of his chair and across the room in one frightening movement.
“You’re having breakfast alone?” he said, already on his way.
For a moment I didn’t answer. I couldn’t. I was frozen in horror. And then once I managed to reluctantly whisper “Yes” (as in, that is not an invitation to join me, pal), I found him already pulling up, sitting down, spreading out and saying, somewhat redundantly, “Mind if I join you,” carefully minus the universal inflection that would identify it as a question. No, there was clearly no question in his mind. This is typical of the NGN, because they always know everything there is to know about everything.
I was, in a word, spewing.
I didn’t want to make small talk, I didn’t want to dine with a stranger, I didn’t want to listen to his travelogue monologue. But what I wanted didn’t enter the equation. The NGN was a man with a mission.
He’s a Kiwi. An ex-chartered accountant (oh for Christ’s sake, I thought, aren’t they all??). He’s a do-gooder. And a permanent backpacker. He’s been to South America. He’s on his way to China. He “knows Oz,” having been around and through it I forget how many times. He’s sponsoring a child in Vanuatu (which is admittedly a very cool thing to do, although it wasn’t cool of him to then proceed to lecture me about “You Sydney types” who “spend more on a night out” than it costs to put a Melanesian child through school for a year. For a start, he was in no position to know anything, not one single thing, about the state of either my charitable donations or the price of my nights out. For another thing, people have the right to make up their own mind about these things, especially when they haven’t even had a coffee and who the hell asked you anyway?). He knows all the customs, he’s been coming to Vanuatu for 15 years, he’s part of the old crew, he remembers it before blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.
SHUT UP, annoying little man, just SHUT UP!!!!!
A monsoonal downpour actually trapped me there in the breakfast hut with this guy. I was really close to screaming. I’m not great in the morning anyway, but this was the limit. I was tired, hungover, hungry, in need of caffeine, and until that morning my accommodation had been one of the most idyllically silent places I’ve ever been in my life, and his gnat like buzzing in my ear was ruining it for me. His breakfast arrived. There were two mugs on the tray. Dear God, I thought, they think I’m here of my own free will.
As the rain bucketed down and the wind lashed, I looked around wondering if the croissant on his tray was actually that which I had ordered. And then came deliverance. I glanced up at my villa, and an angel stood there, sheltering from the storm. She sang a sweet song down to me, music to my ears, and she said “I brought your tray up here.”
I have never moved so fast in my life. I was out of that chair, round the pool, up the steps and through my door carrying my tray into the blessed quiet before he could say “Jandals.”
He loitered at the bottom looking up at my villa for quite some time, lost and forlorn now his unwilling audience had made good her escape, but I ignored him, and it wasn’t hard. In fact, it was delicious, feeling the silence, the peace and quiet, return.
All was well until I was back in Australia and on the airport train into town. I was reading my book when I heard the unmistakable public service announcement talking style (and volume) of my second irritation of the day. “Hold on tight,” he shouted, “This is the first train I’ve been on in 15 years! FIFTEEN YEARS!! Imagine that! This ought to be WILD. I suppose everything’s changed in FIFTEEN YEARS. I can’t believe I’m back after FIFTEEN YEARS.”
Fuck, I thought, here’s another one! What are the chances?! I glanced over and sure enough he was a prime specimen, all right. It was all over him, right down to his stupid khaki shorts. Just arrived Germans to his left were just then studying the Cityrail map, muttering about “Central” in increasingly troubled tones. Mr Bowl Cut and Long Socks, our second NGN for the day, leaned in, inspected the map and then sagely announced “This train does not stop at Central.” German panic immediately ensued.
There was nothing else for it. I had to get involved. “This train definitely stops at Central,” I interjected. Not rudely, not loudly, super mildly. My very best “Welcome to Sydney” voice, in fact. I even smiled kindly at the Germans. Everyone swung around to look at me, and then over at the NGN. His eyes narrowed, and he marched over to the map and said “Not according to this, it doesn’t.” I won’t bore you with the details of the legend on the map, but I showed him where he was going wrong in reading it, and I was tempted at the same time to suggest where he might put it. I didn’t, though, and once my job was done, I returned to my book and tried to drown out the sound of him shouting about “the village” and “the natives” and “the customs” and what they only sell “to the tourists.” I started gritting my teeth.
Then a lady asked if anyone knew what platform at Central would take her to Wollongong. That small, small, small little man shot me a look and said snippily “Why don’t you ask her, she seems to know everything.” Wow, there’s another symptom of the NGN. Total gob-smacking immaturity and petulance. Ego easily wounded. Does not accept a challenge to their psychotic know-it-all-ness at all well. I wanted to smack him in the head, but instead I fixed that mild look on my face and said “I don’t know everything, but I do know this train stops at Central.”
He smiled a vicious smile at me like he’d won some kind of point in whatever little battle was being fought in his tiny mind. Naturally it involved the natives from the village, and it had been raging for fifteen years.