Monday, January 01, 2007

Sartorial Splendour (3)

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In 2005 David Paton, good friend, mentor, example, and inspiration died after experiencing an aggressive cancer. I flew to New Zealand to attend his funeral. On the flight back I started writing some notes that were intended to capture something of what David meant to me. Taking a deep breath I thought I would share them more widely here on this blog. They are less coherent than I would like but they tell a story of what a difference one life, honestly lived, can make to those around them. These notes are offered up in 15 chapters which I will post out over the next fortnight.
And in order that you can put a face to a name, here he is, on the Stewart Island ferry, catching some "zeds". Or "zees" depending on what part of the world you hail from.

He took the same mix of earnestness and provocation into his teaching. On Sunday evening he would lead a Bible study class in the refrigerator chill of a room that is the so called vestry of the church in Palmerston. There we busied ourselves with the golden tassels which edged the Presbyterian blue crushed velour of a table cloth and tried to pay attention. For a long period we were being walked through the Old Testament during which he once shot at me the question “What is circumcision?” I knew the answer but stumbled around – it was a mixed group. Deciding I did not know the answer he proceeded to tell us in excruciating detail what was involved in the removal of the foreskin. With such effect that I am sure girls in the group refused in later years as mothers to have their boys undergo the procedure. And a Bible Class lesson that is etched into my mind.

In the early years of the Bible Class a group of older teenagers would meet in the manse in the evening, before church. David would usually squeeze with Butch and other young men onto the couch but as the group got bigger they would sit on the floor and give over space to the girls. Some of the girls would play guitar, later Philip would play saxophone, and Mum always played the piano. In the confines of the manse lounge room that group’s singing seemed thunderous. Maybe it was really more subdued than I recall it but the hearty, bellowing singing led by David and Butch is most vivid.

But not as vivid as the bright orange/red suit David appeared in one evening. I bet that ended up in a bin sometime shortly thereafter. David was more well known for his plain, functional dressing, not for flared, lurid, sartorial splendour like this. How long he managed to wear that suit I am not sure but it certainly left an enduring impression on us. More typically he wore loose woollen clothing, including woollen shirts and woollen pants. Makes sense given the climate. The loose pants were famously held up by baling twine and that even made it in to church. Loose woollen clothes made for creating interesting habitats. The kitten of a possum killed after running foul of David’s dogs was nursed with a dropper and wrapped up in an old sock and kept in the hot water closet in Mrs Paton’s house – David and his brothers were living in a badly run down but exciting place that he would renovate later and turn into his family home. It had no mod cons like electric hot water so this little marsupial, eyes still swollen shut in purple lumps, lived in a sock in the closet a short walk up the road. Hand fed warm milk via an eye dropper, it rapidly grew into a wide eyed little creature that clung closely to David. We loved sitting behind him in church while he had this lodger. We would watch a little lump move along under David’s shirt and make its way to, say a collar, after which a small head overwhelmed by marble black eyes would peek out. Then it would move down his sleeve and appear from under the sleeve cuff. Sometimes it would climb out altogether – up onto his head, or down a trouser leg to sit on his foot. Too marvellous for words really. As an adult possum it hung around Mrs Paton’s house and was treated like no other possum before or since. I seem to recall Mrs Paton telling me it had finally been caught by the dogs which had long been driven mad by its tame presence.

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