Sacrificial sparrows and cryptic plates

20:46, Sep 29 2013
Joe Bennett
Joe Bennett is an English-born travel writer and columnist who lives in New Zealand with dogs. His columns are syndicated in newspapers throughout New Zealand.

Sunday afternoon and I am sitting in drizzle outside the airport at Palmerston North. Settings don't come more romantic.

I have an hour and a half to kill before a plane takes me back to my dog.

The last time I came to this airport a small crowd had gathered some 20 feet from a motorbike.

The bike was the sort I hate, the big, throaty sort that overtakes unexpectedly with a noise that makes my spine leap and tingle. Though of course it's not the bike's fault. Technology is morally neutral. It's the owner I hate, the sort of man who needs a leather jacket, a military helmet, a missing silencer and 1000cc between his legs to broadcast the news of his manliness.

I was pleased to discover that the crowd was staring at a swarm of bees. It hung from the handlebars of the bike, it looked like the beard on a West Coast miner and it was thrumming.

And I was even more pleased to discover that the owner of the bike had arrived on the same plane as I. He had a shaven head, a leather vest and sunglasses. When he beheld his mechanical beloved he too stopped 20 feet away and stared. A thug stilled by insects. It did one's heart good.


I was disappointed when my host arrived to collect me. I could hardly ask him to wait to watch misfortune, but I would have liked to know what the thug did next. Ring the police? The SPCA?

As we drove off I muttered, "well done, bees".

No swarm of bees at the airport this afternoon. Only a sparrow, sheltering like me under an awning, and on the misty hills beyond the town a swarm of wind turbines, like wild white giantesses gesturing to the world in a semaphore we cannot understand. Apparently birds often fly into these turbines and are swatted to death by the swinging blades. Each feathered corpse is a sacrificial offering to our great green god. Someone should tell them they fell to heal the world.

A car draws up at the kerb and a young man emerges from the passenger seat, fetches his bag from the boot and disappears into the airport. But the driver doesn't drive away. The car has a personalised number plate, the letters done in red. It puzzles me. But then all personalised plates puzzle me.

Imagine a plate saying Droopy. Why does it exist? It cannot be to help Droopy find his car. If he can't recall which car is his he probably can't recall his nickname. I can only presume that Droopy is seeking to stamp his identity on the world by associating it with his car.

Droopy may be tubby, bald and cursed with a wilting prostate, but the plate inflates him. Here I am, says the plate, sleek, powerful and laden with technology. My name is Droopy, king of kings, look on my car, ye mighty, and despair. Similar, in other words, to the thug with the bee-laden bike.

Joke plates puzzle me too. I like jokes but I try not to go around telling the same one all day. The heart of any joke is surprise. And what about those mornings when the joke's owner feels at odds with the world, or when bees have seized his darling machinery or he has to attend a funeral? Does the joke still make him laugh?

The plate at the airport, however, seems different. If it tells a joke I don't get it, and if it spells a nickname I can't pronounce it. The plate reads, and I write it down to be sure, BNK GDR. Is it some sort of riddle?

And partly because I have nothing to do and partly to distract me from the thought of the pretty feathered corpses falling in showers beneath the distant turbines, I set my neurons to work on the riddle like a thrumming swarm of bees.

The first solution they reach is the obvious one. But what is this man doing in Palmy? And why isn't he driving a Mercedes? Any representative of a financial institution in the German Democratic Republic would want to be seen in - and should be able to afford - something more substantial than a Holden hatchback.

Benk? Bink? Bonk? Bonk Gooder, an illiterate boast of sexual prowess? Bunk Grader? Bangkok Gardener? The neurons strive, fail and wilt like a prostate. The riddle wins. The drizzle falls. Dusk falls. The sparrow flies home, avoiding the turbines. And soon, I hope, so will I.

The Southland Times