Red faces

A short story by Bob Collins (Stumpy)

Stumpy was leading a group of thirty conservationists on a day long walk through the forest, bored, as he had been on countless other walks of a similar nature. These walks were always the same. Dull and tedious. Like most groups that take on this sort of walk the people were, on the whole, decent, friendly types but they had no idea at all of where they were going or what they were seeing. Stumpy could accept, tolerate, even enjoy the company of these people, but in these groups there were always the humbugs.

Like the bow-legged old biddy who was all the time yakking at his elbow telling him what he should be doing in his forest; or the fanatic, five people back in the line who kept referring to him as “the tree butcher” just loud enough for him to hear; or that university botany buff who demonstrated his superior education by repeatedly referring to rewarewa as “Knightia excelsa”, convinced that Stumpy didn’t understand him, until in pantomime, Stumpy pulled his glasses to the tip of his nose, put on his most moronic expression, and in slurred slow words had said, “Ohhhh – I – thought – that – tree – was ….honeeee – suckkkkle.”

This walk was slow, all day to do what he alone could have walked in three hours. Normally Stumpy enjoyed tramping in the forest but always at speed. That was the way to tramp. Not this super slow wander, punctuated by stupid repetitive questions, and ‘the obligation to be polite, pleasant and charming even when he didn’t feel that way at all. If only something would happen to relieve the boredom, but that was too much to hope for on a trip like this. Nothing ever happened on these trips.

But this time Stumpy was wrong, and when it did happen Stumpy wished it hadn’t. It was downright embarrassing, and though he realised it was happening there was no way he could stop it!

It happened at lunch time. Stumpy chose a small sunny clearing under a large rimu tree on a stream terrace for lunch. The rimu tree had pushed back the heavy undergrowth of horopito – pepperwood. Now pepperwood had growth characteristics giving it a clean thin spindly stem for the first three feet, then branching out into a heavy, bushy top up to ten feet high.

Lunch was pleasant enough in this small clearing, walled in by pepperwood, everybody facing the sun, backs to the gently rising ground. Of course it was pleasant, full mouths can’t ask stupid questions!

As time passed by, a sweet- young thing – there is always one of those in a group like this – became quite fidgety and restless, proving beyond doubt she had things on her mind. Finally she decided. With downcast eyes and modest discretion, she nonchalantly wandered into the pepperwood directly in front of the whole assembly. Stumpy could see what was about to happen but what could he do about it – except watch like everyone else.

Though the sweet young thing’s top half disappeared into the undergrowth, her lower half remained clearly visible below the branches. The audience saw her feet stop about thirty metres away, turn around to see if she was out of sight, which at eye level, and only at eye level,she was. Then, down came the smart green slacks, which she stepped out of, down came the white briefs to the knees. She then did the expected knees bend, finding herself looking under the shrubbery, eyeball to eyeball with thirty very red faces.

Stumpy had to give her her due. Man! the speed she could get those pants back on! Unbelievable! Stumpy had a burning desire to comment, “Annie Oakley be damned! This one’s got the fastest draws in the West!” But he knew that nobody present would appreciate the remark.

He did the only remaining thing possible. As red faced as the rest, no longer bored, but wishing he was, he called, “Lunch is over. C’mon, let’s get going.” The party, still red faced, moved off.