Sunday 23 Oct 2016

Ultima Thule
Sjef Frenken

I hadn’t seen Jack in months.

I had already found a table when he joined me, looking for all the world as if he’d just stepped off a cruise ship – with a tan on him that looked as if it would never quit.

“Where have you been all this time?” I asked.

“All over the place,” replied Jack.

“Any chance you could be a bit more specific?” Jack, as you know, is an inveterate traveler who has seen most of the world. He has a map of the world at home with little push pins stuck in all the places he’s visited; in many areas you can’t even see the country for all the pins in it.

“I realized that I’d never been to Australia and New Zealand. I‘ve been to several countries in Northern Africa, but never sub-Sahara. I’ve never been to Russia or Outer Mondolia.”

“You mean to say that you’ve gone to all those places in the last, what is it, four, five months?

“Yes,” said Jack, “and Iceland and Greenland too.”

“That’s cramming a lot of sightseeing into a relatively short time.” Jack has sometimes taken six weeks or more just to visit one country. “So why the rush?”

“Why not?” said Jack. He had me there.

“Is there any part of the world you haven’t been to?” I asked.

“Not many,” said Jack. “I’ve never been to Antarctica. Or Iraq – too hazardous to my health, I figured, but who knows, maybe I’ll take a look-see soon.”

“So you’ve been to Africa, Russia, Mongolia, Australia and New Zealand. You must have picked up your tan in Africa, New Zealand or Australia. You certainly didn’t get it in Iceland or Greenland at this time of year.” It was April in Ottawa.

“Yes, I took the trip eastward, First Greenland and Iceland. Then to Africa, Russia and Mongolia. Finally New Zealand and Australia. That way I could gain a day. Every chance you get to gain a day, take it.

“I don’t understand?”

“Think ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’,” said Jack.

It took me a second. “I got it,” I confessed. “So what places on your map don’t have any pins in it?”

“Apart from all those “stans” along the Russian border, not many. And apart from all the little islands in the Pacific, and a few in the Caribbean. And Easter Island. And Madagascar. Small fry, really. I won’t feel bad not having visited them, as I’m sure they won’t miss my absence.”

With what little remained of my loyalty to the Kingdom of the Netherlands, I asked whether he’d ever been to Surinam.

“No,” said Jack, “I’ll put it on my list.” And with that he put his hand in his coat pocket and took out a folded piece of paper. It had printing all over it, but in the margin was enough room for Jack to write “Surinam”.

I recognized the paper as a church bulletin from St Remi parish near Bayshore, a French parish. That made sense.

“You’ve been going to church?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Jack somewhat reluctantly.

“Why?” I asked.

“For a good time,” said Jack. “Actually, it’s a good place to pick up women. If you’re a man and you go to church, the women think you’re honest and clean-living. Best cover I ever had.”

It struck me that Jack hadn’t talked of the women in his life, not for a long time. I recognized the bluster in his voice. Something started clicking, falling into place: rushed travels, the church. I felt a chill going up my spine.

I said “Jack, what’s going on; no horseshit.”

A long pause.

“I’ve got melanoma. Metastasized all over.”

I thought of Jack’s tan. “If you’ve melanoma, you should not be out in the sun.”

“Too late to worry about that now, so I enjoyed the sun as much as I could. My doctor and his team of experts give me six weeks. I guess this would be as good a time as any to visit Iraq. It can’t be much more hazardous to my health now, considering …”

A good friend of mine died about seven years ago. From melanoma. His doctor had told him he would probably live for another two months. He died in three weeks.

Jack died in four. He never made it to Iraq. Nor Antarctica. Nor Surinam.

Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.

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