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THE BLIGHT

 

The pale blue microlight of David Peters was a familiar sight and sound to the inhabitants of the Paiwara district.  Anything that sounded like an airborne lawn-mower was immediately assumed to be David pressing his Nylon Wings against the Paiwara skyscape.

 

The light green lines of grape vines crawled caterpillar-like, and in parallel lines, across the flat, and the undulating, landscape, their new-season’s young fruit burden not yet a lure to the sky’s feathered brethren.

 

David Peters obviously enjoyed the flying of his flimsy machine.  His flights were likely to be audible early morning, evening or midday.  And so late-risers were not at all surprised to hear the drone of his two-stroke engine somewhere above them whilst they were still contemplating throwing off their bedclothes.  In fairness to David, he had done more than many other pilots of similar contraptions to reduce the noise it produced.  He had put time into the development of a more efficient muffler system so he never received any complaints from his neighbours, and after the initial novelty, when he first arrived, his embrace of the heavens seldom caused an upcast eye.

 

The dew was heavy on the myriad ropes of vine patterning the land beneath him and the air quite cool, the sun not yet lifted above the eastern hills.  The region’s vintners were confident of another productive season.  Their previous four vintages had each received higher and higher accolades at the world’s wine competitions.  Paiwara was becoming internationally envied as a site, that for reasons of freedom of disease, soil type and climate, produced high quality grapes.  Top quality vintners had been lured to the area’s cellars and the results were manifest as consistently outstanding wines.  The world’s top hotels, winesellers and restaurants were being requested to supply wines of the labels known to come from this region.

 

Land prices in Paiwara had risen about as high as Peters himself, as the demand for the lucrative potential vineyard sites developed, so that by the time American financier, Paul Whitfield, had decided to diversify and purchase a hundred and fifty hectares of stony river terraces in the heart of the location (but a site prone to more severe summer draughts) the asking price for the land was over four times what its elderly owners had been offered eight years previous.  Conventional meat and wool production had become a rarity, receding to land less suitable for the grape.

 

A place, once the stomping ground of the world’s largest flightless bird, the Moa (now extinct) was now perforated with hundreds of thousands of timber grape-support posts and kilometre after kilometre of wire and plastic irrigation hosing, not a comfortable landing place for David Peters’ vulnerable aircraft.

 

Anyone watching from the small village of Paiwara would have barely detected the small delta that was David Peters’ support as it banked gracefully close to  the fringe of the forest that lay draped darkly on the Paiwara hills.  Rows of young vines arched the buttress ridges below the maturing pines.  The carpenters stepping out of the caravan that served as their accommodation about to commence a new day’s labour on the cellar facilities they were constructing, gazed with interest as the microlight turned and gained altitude.  Its almost triangular form contorted as its nose rose.  It flashed a sudden pale blue and a silver glare as it snapped out of the hill’s shadow into the brightness of the infant day and the warmth that grew with it began to expel a little of the chill from David’s fingers.

 

The new day was glorious and cloudless, a bright innocence that supported all hope.  It was not one that people could now, or later, concede as the beginning of their woes.

 

No suspicions were likely but David Peters was careful not to suddenly reduce the number of flights he made.  Over the next two weeks he flew less frequently and tended to do so during the warmer part of the day.  This was flying for the pleasure of flight, but he cast his eye to the ground in quest of grim satisfaction of a job well done.

 

Signs of the success of his previous flights was slower to manifest than what he felt he had been led to believe.  He could have judged the state of things more quickly from the increase in road traffic than from what he could perceive from the air.  An influx of Ministry of Agriculture vehicles, horticultural advisers and agrochemical sales representatives betrayed to the observant that something was happening.

 

Then, one day, Peters was sure that the skeins of rampant vines below him were beginning to yellow!

 

A strong wind a day or so later kept him from the air but millions of grape leaves took his place.  The ground was soon recipient to the flurries of anaemic former foliage that scurried into drifts against grape stems, support posts and the rows of shelter trees.  Specialists, from the first reported signs, had been intent on identifying the manifesting malady.  The severity of this latest development kicked them into greater urgency.  The ramifications for the rest of the country’s wine areas dictated the quarantine of Paiwara.  All vineyards around Paiwara became off-limits to members of the public.  Precautionary measures, such as trays of fungicidal chemicals in vineyard gateways, for the boots and tyres of owners and visiting Ministry of Agriculture officers, were quickly in place.  But from the first suspicious faint blue swelling at the base of each vine leaf-stem, it was apparent that a new and unknown range of symptoms were beginning to stage themselves within the ancient physiology of the vine among vines.  I suppose that something like a war was raging within each of those stringy-barked berry-bearers but the vines were the losers.  Each leaf was strangled, garrotted till the tissue holding it was a dry weakened thread thence the victim of the wind.  The plants were starving, Robbed of all photosynthetic area they mobilised root and stem reserves into the initiation of new buds and subsequent leaves but these too succumbed.  - war takes many forms!

 

Scientists cultured the pathogen, identified as an absolutely new fungus and determined its gestation period.  From this and the date of the sighting of the first symptoms they pinpointed the likely days of its arrival and the weather attending those days.  Ground-parties combed the surrounding countryside for windborne samples of the same organism that should have been deposited randomly around the wide vicinity.  Grapevines grown as single homegrown specimens (usually table) were searched for symptoms in Paiwara village and any other location in line with the direction of the negligible breezes known to have been wafting during the days of suspected infestation.

 

This was detective work!  It was one of the very first times that police detective expertise and strategy had been applied to such a civil occurrence and strange facts were emerging.  Traces of the mysterious fungal spores were never found in even the minutest quantities at distances greater than a kilometre from the vineyards in which their lifecycle was exhibiting itself.  Domestic table grapes grown by households along the theoretical line of wind-distribution, though now known by cultured tests to be equally susceptible, were totally unscathed on all sites, bar one!

 

Nearly all cultivars of grapes held at the nation’s viticultural research and development station were found to be equally prone to the disease.

 

The amassing evidence and police assistance, led to another surprising discovery; the nursery of a contract propagator, one hundred kilometres north of Paiwara, was found to have been given the job of bulking up (via tissue culture techniques) two million new grape clones, clones that tests soon proved were totally resistant to the new plague decimating the Paiwara district.  Genetic assessment disclosed that these new rapidly growing progeny, though identical in every other respect to the famous cultivars providing Paiwara’s almost equally famous sensations, possessed a remarkable gene, carefully inserted in just the right sequence of the plants’ D.N.A. to provide absolute defence against this new killer fungus.

 

The photographs that Ministry of Agriculture officers displayed to the nursery proprietor were immediately recognised as possessing all the features of the client for whom the multitude of entwining juvenile plants were being grown, but not by that name.  Wasn’t he Boyce Robinson?

The paddock behind the house that David Peters rented served as his air strip and his microlight when not in use, he stored in the garage, hard up against Pat Tuwhata’s back-yard fence.  Sometimes, we can live close to something and yet not even notice it.  Maybe it was because its spindly growth was so wan in the scant light of the dark garage that David hadn’t recognised it.  Pat had trained an Albany Surprise (a variety of table grape) along his side of his high fence.  A sucker or whip of low growth had found its misadventurous way under the corrugated iron that formed both the near wall of David’s ‘garage’/hanger and part of Pat Tuwhata’s garden fence.

 

A year previous in a country I shall, for the purpose of this narrative, refer to as Kwahriz other events connected with this account were enacted.  Lucia Gerbiere, herself a Kwahrizian, worked for a Kwahrizian Government agency (K.I.N.), a body charged with functions ubiquitously described as ‘for the national good’.  The K.I.N. had, like any other government arm, to seek its budgetary requirements by way of parliamentary approval.  The role of K.I.N. was slightly shadowy and its presence vaporous to the perceptions of both parliamentarians and the general public but it was recognised that something beyond the fickle whims driving the democratic process were needed to preserve the long term aspirations of the nation.

 

The ‘dayglo-desperados’ was a public euphenism for an increasingly well organised amalgamation of environmental activists.  They were becoming a Western phenomenon and were as active within Kwahriz as anywhere.

 

Long suspecting that they were viewed by existing governments as a threat to the status quo and were probably the victims of government-agent infiltration the ‘dayglo-desperados’ silently fought back with initiatives of their own!

 

Lucia Gerbiere’s acceptance by, and infiltration of K.I.N. was one of the ‘dayglo-desperados’ early initiatives and, who knows, maybe one of their success stories (for a while!).  It’s certain that Lucia Gerbiere’s dual capacity completely evaded national security screening.

 

She became surprised and I suspect alarmed that it was her forte in the realm of biology that K.I.N. were most eager to utilise!.

 

Genetics was recognised as a key field for the investment of private capital as genetic-engineering’s earning potential began to dawn.  It was the application of this new technology that concerned many environmentally alert civilians, mainly because of their fears regarding forthcoming engineered food-crops.  Genetics as a serious military tool or in any other ways deliberately employed against human welfare was an anticipation that lagged behind its more utilitarian utilisation.

 

Prolonged exposure to ideas alien to one’s own have a profound effect upon one’s attitude.  I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at that, it is after all an aspect of brainwashing!  Lucia’s protracted involvement with K.I.N. and its personnel and projects, you could say, sharpened her to the processes and machinations of ‘the real world’.  Some of her gullible idealism either atrophied or was supplanted by the realisation that the laws of the jungle have not really been repealed.  They are still on the statute books, enacted in more sophisticated ways!

Lucia Gerbiere met  Clayton Dewhurste at a barbecue held by a friend.  This friend had picked up Dewhurste as a hitch-hiker.  For Clayton Dewhurste this was his first sojourn away from home, New Zealand on the other side of the world, and the hospitality shown by his host had greatly enhanced his stay in Kwahriz.  His command of Kwahrizean was virtually nil and when his host introduced him to Lucia, whose English was very good, their common tongue allowed them to discover a lot of other shared attributes and aspirations.

 

Clayton Dewhurste found lodgings at a cheap local boarding house and he and Lucia met frequently.  Their hopes for their individual futures began to weave together and when they ultimately acknowledged their desires for a shared life Lucia responded to Clayton’s ambition of establishing a vineyard by confiding her work for K.I.N.

 

Their preparation for this joint venture took a form that no outsider would recognise as appropriate preparation for such an undertaking.  In a bizarrely, serendipitous decision K.I.N. decided to action one of its strategies.  The economic impact of the last four seasons’ wine production from an area in New Zealand called Paiwara had decimated earnings from Kwahriz’s formerly top selling wines.  Conditions for some Kwahriz growers were becoming severe.

 

At Lucia Gerbiere’s trusted advice K.I.N. supervisors enlisted Clayton Dewhurste’s services and Dewhurste received technical advice and substantial payment.

 

K.I.N. was prepared to enter a quite tangible economic war; to utilise a specially bred biological agent to sabotage the economic advantage achieved by the antipodean winemakers.  The organism engineered several years previous, had been subject to elaborate laboratory tests to ensure its performance under various environmental conditions and to determine its resistance to current and anticipated fungicide formulas.  Such enterprises, to be successful, require the looming of a fabric of diverse but relevant industrial and scientific contacts, threads of communication between disciplines and research establishments and the transfer of normally sensitive data and procedural logics that would, in the everyday business world, be considered industrial secrets.

 

The cutting edge of international agrochemical knowledge and ‘drawing board’ formulations needed to be assessed to ensure the successful survival and spread of their ‘baby’.

 

Precautionary strategies (self protection) had to be considered, developed and deployed (he who pisses into the oncoming wind better wear protective wet-weather leggings)!  And so biological engineering expertise needed to be applied to the creation of robust acceptable grape-clones resistant to the very organism planned for proactive deployment.  All these things had been achieved.

 

The gun was loaded and the finger close to the trigger!

 

Diplomatic mail is not subject to the usual Custom’s inspection.  K.I.N. arranged for canisters of the fungal spores (in liquid suspension) to be packed in unassuming fashion and these were despatched as consular artefacts to the Kwahriz’s embassy in New Zealand, where Lucia Gerbiere would act as a Kwahriz national and courier the contents south to rendezvous with Clayton Dewhurste.

Adopting one of several new aliases Dewhurste arranged the lease of a house on the fringe of the village of Paiwara and mastered his new avionics toy.

 

Secondary contents of the diplomatic dispatch (other genetic material surreptitiously spirited there by Gerbiere) were off-loaded by her and Dewhurste at a contract nursery 100 kilometres north of Paiwara.  This material was plant-tissue from the newly developed wine clones resistant to Phycomycetes Vinifera K Augmentum which K.I.N. held in stock, least the earlier-mentioned disease somehow threaten Kwahriz’s own industry.

 

It was a dangerous game, to play both for and against K.I.N.  On the one hand, Gerbiere and Dewhurste planned to decimate New Zealand wine production (for the spores of Phycomycetes Vinifera K Augmentum would certainly eventually spread nationwide) and on the other they now possessed and had arranged massive bulking up of the stolen plant material to be the lucrative nucleus for the future restoration of those ruined enterprises.

 

Dewhurste, and thence Gerbiere, were only ascertained to the culprits for the dissemination of the attacking fungal spores because of what Ministry of Agriculture officers unearthed consequent to the discovery of that one affected private Paiwara table grape.

 

Pat Tuwhata’s dying vine was one of the keys to unlocking the riddle of the blight ravaging the region.  The mind of chief coordinator of the investigation, Julian Crowe kept returning time and time again to the wilting, then naked, Albany Surprise that had formerly hung heavy with darkening clusters of swelling grapes.  Crowe had paced that length of fence half a dozen times pondering the import of this one example of infestation.  He was quarter way back to Christchurch when he suddenly decelerated, swung a U turn and retraced his passage.

 

He walked down David Peters’ overgrown driveway.  The house was devoid of occupants for the day.  He had heard in passing conversation with people about a microlight in the area.  This had never even been remotely implicated, but now as Crowe shaded his eyes and peered through the garage’s dusty window pane, and as his eyes adjusted to the dim interior the faint sheen of aluminium tubing betrayed the outline of parts of Peters’ aircraft.  He returned to the car and fossicked for the vehicle’s meagre tool-kit.

 

Using the wedge-shaped end of his wheel wrench he prized open the garage’s wooden side door.  He stood in the splash of cintilating dust-laden light and cast his dilating pupils around the twenty square metres.  A prostrate strand of lifeless vegetation lay close to one of the craft’s rubber tyres.  He snipped it off and slipped it into a plastic bag.  He scanned the microlight and taking a special brush and receptical swabbed various areas of the machine’s frame, especially at the rear.

 

Technicians in the lab were astounded at the concentration of spores of the fungal strain later to be known Phycomycetes Vinifera K Augmentum.

 

Photographs of the microlight, analysed by engineers detected the sites where brackets for holding ancillary equipment had been positioned.

 

Crowe had returned the tampered garage door back into an unsuspicious place.  His force of entry only detectable to already distrustful eyes.  He had departed with what he anticipated as incriminating evidence.

 

When Clayton Dewhurste (alias David Peters, alias Boyce Robinson) and Lucia Gerbiere answered their Paiwara doorbell three days later, a chill falling wind of consternation swept from head to foot draining all resistance.  The police formally arrested them, immediately quarantined the section and Ministry of Agriculture officers and detectives began an intensive search of the house, property and garage.

 

Despite later admission by the two in custody, the Kwahriz ambassador, with complete conviction, could only deny Kwahriz involvement in any part of ‘What would amount to a shameful violation of the sovereignty of our southern friends’.

 

Needless to say the silent K.I.N. remained so!

 

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