by W.S. McCallum
Penetration. Of the mind. A shaft enters the slitted cyclopean eye of consciousness. Reality's abrasive edge tears through tissue and fluid, crushing and deforming. It is a destroyer of true vision, a crippler of foresight and discernment. It thrusts into the visual pit until halted by the bony base.
A twist tears and maims, displacing the ruptured fabric further, marring it permanently. The crushed and twisted pulp may one day heal, but will never be as whole. Vision will consist of little more than blurred forms and shifting shadows, the true nature of which the brain will strain to interpret. But that day is far away. Just now, there exists nothing but burning anguish, frenzied agony and despair over the loss of the irreplaceable.
The shaft has displaced light with bloodied blackness. Eventually, the blackness will thin to a rust brown scab, a gauzy shield filtering the incoming world into an uneven sepia tone. The clotted black of still blood will be muted with age, distorted and shifted in hue. The mind's prism will be limited to the reception of just one shade of reality, a sort of quintrex TV on the blink, with the faded stain of blood and decay etched thereupon.
The twist develops into a pull. A mighty heave drags back the concave, grasping fabric the shaft has punctured. The impulse for release pulls it out of the bloody tomb, wherein the corpse of vision lies transfixed, grasping with the steel grip of the dead. The grasp is merely reflex; a reaction with no motivating will behind it. The clutching tissue is rent even further, distorted yet again in the painful third phase.
The shaft's exit leaves a gaping tear. For a moment a hollow imprint remains behind after it has gone. Seepage in the walls of the wound accelerates into an explosion of blood from the entry point.
The mind lets loose an inward scream, pushing the body to jerk convulsively, all in vain. For the reaction is a subconscious one, momentous yet unperceived beyond the brain's inner core. True sight has been banished from the mind's eye.
Few would notice the power was there to begin with. The rape of the senses commences when we are pulled howling from our mothers' bodies. From the moment air enters the lungs and is expelled to release that first fricative scream, gaseous particles begin eroding the throat's lining. Light pours into blinking, bewildered eyes, photons pounding the retina. Sound echoes around the ears' inner labyrinths, and grasping adult hands rub the first few million particles from the newborn's skin as reality's new arrival is swaddled to protect it from the elements.
As the body matures and ages, it is pounded relentlessly, externally and internally. Vision, hearing and smell fail, teeth decay and fall out, bones weaken under decades of the earth's pull, and once-soft skin becomes an encrusted bodily casing, rough, wrinkled and raw from accumulated cuts, abrasions and everyday wear. The mind struggles valiantly to keep this corporeal edifice from collapsing under the strain, and is inevitably unequal to the task, leaving the world as it entered it - dazed, quivering and gasping at the battering of its senses. And after the last wisp of consciousness has passed, the erosion continues, wearing flesh down to bone, and bone to dust.
Yet the mind has its own inner eye, one that, having no corporeal form, can be guarded. Kept sheltered from the world, furtively protected, and nurtured with carefully filtered thoughts and perceptions, it may grow from the vestigial organ to one that might shape reality to its will, impose its own pattern on chaos, or merely sit passively as the world goes stampeding past, all the time noting its minutiae and futile contradictions, its bloody-minded muddling ways, and its chimeric shape-shifting as it struggles to transform itself into some permutation of what has already been and what will one day come to pass once more.
Overexposed, the mind's eye becomes pummelled and battered, torn every which way by conflicting, maddening perceptions, or crushed under the weight of a single truth. Left unprotected, reality will leave it crippled from infancy and hanging like a broken limb, even while the lesser senses strengthen and develop against the onward rush of the world. Thus vanishes the inner light of childhood, giving way to adulthood's mental serfdom, and the cowed apoplexy of old age until at last that too is surrendered.
Green grass. Green grass smell. Intense sunlight and deafening cries all around. Feet thud thud thud thud thud on baked summer soil. Lungs heave as legs pound harder and harder, sandal soles stinging, slapping agonisingly against encased bare feet. Teeth grit under the will to run faster, harder and harder, but they are still all ahead, even fat Jamie, the chocolate bun muncher. Blood pounds through the head, which drops to observe the running feet below, pleading with them to move faster. The approaching leg, outstretched from the side of the track, is spotted too late. The straining runner runs straight into the cruel trap, flying forward and crashing tremendously, as only a five-year-old can, into the dusty grassless soil of the inside lane.
Now they are all laughing. Merciless infant laughter, with the inevitable pointing fingers, pointing him out to the world. He knew from kindergarten that other kids held no sympathy for losers, none at all. In the primary school there existed the added problem of big kids as old as twelve, adding weight to the mockery. Coming last in a race, and then falling flat on your face before managing to cross the finish line was asking for it. An open invitation saying "here I am, do your worst". And there they were, trying their best to do their worst.
The teachers are laughing too, although in that more subdued adult manner, draped in the condescending wisdom and worldliness reserved for the childish chump, ritually cultivated through decades of classroom living.
"Get up! Get up!" They are all screaming. What's the point? Why cross the finish line if you're last anyway? To what end - to be awarded the booby prize? To be laughed at for days to come?
Trembling legs raise the body nonetheless, but the mind is screaming "NOOOO! I WON'T! KEEP YOUR STUPID RACE!” Turn their stupid game on its head, show them you don't care.
The runner steps off the inside edge of the track, into infinity, weeping at a brilliant, uncaring starscape that encompassed more than he could, or might ever, imagine. He had left them all behind, although in exchange for what? Tears dissolve before a wave of terror as the runner realises he has gone too far this time.
Running away was no good if you found yourself all alone and unable to get back. Mum would be coming around to pick him up from school at three o'clock. His brown leather school bag would be hanging off the back of his miniature wooden seat in Room Nine, and his useless winter raincoat that mum always forced him to carry around would be hanging forlornly on its hook in the smelly cloakroom, waiting for an owner to claim it.
No maternal love exists for the little boy who strays too far from home; only loneliness, surging in invisible waves out of the speckled void, crashing on to emotions until they crumble into pieces, washed away to return in another life, all too late for the boy. For mum is the centre of his universe; the benevolent creator's eye watching with care over her creation, scolding where need be and sometimes where it is not, heaping praise and affection too. One day the boy will avert his trance-like gaze from the creator, notice with surprise the unilluminated void to which his back was turned, and tentatively explore it, except not before he has willed his release from the childlike hesitant trepidation inculcated within.
It was unfathomable how one could walk on a void. No, there is no motion. The runner's legs were going through the motions quite fruitlessly, having no purchase on any firmament. He pranced with the gait of a marionette, legs waddling as he moved from nowhere to nowhere. Some time later wonderment turned to considering how breathing might be effected in a vacuum. Those astronauts wore space suits. They had tanks from which to breathe. Too late to think of that now, as the last breath from that other world was exhaled. The runner felt pop-eyed, as one of those deep sea fishes might. His head might explode at this rate. And it did.
Out in the neon night world, with two hundred dollars in pocket. Not much of a take for a Thursday night, Friday morning, or whatever you called that crossover point between two days. Somewhere between midnight and 12.01 another day had died. With it went pain, joy, and mundane suffering. Not forever would these be things of the past, but they were absent for the time being. Absent only until they occurred in this new thing, the new day. Today. Today, as yesterday, two hundred dollars wasn't much of a take for a Thursday night.
The first was a farmer, up for the weekend from Ashburton, with its broad streets and narrow minds. His was about as wide as a footpath. Mid thirties, fat face, beer belly. Said he was married. Three kids. She was back alone at the farm, having put the kids to bed for the night. He was supposedly here on a business trip. Maybe that was true. Maybe it was a pretext. Men really are bastards, and loneliness is no excuse, although it could be made into a source of income. He paid well enough.
A warm wind blew along Hereford Street. It would change soon enough, and the early morning cold would set in. Fishnets and a black leather miniskirt would be no good then. If you had no bed for the night before the wind changed, it was best to go home. Give it another half hour.
There goes that scrawny no-necked runt again. He comes along to gawk and never pays a cent. Same old clothes. The guy is a walking fashion disaster. He must be either colour blind or a victim of his own tastes. Yellow polyester trou, red and white check shirt, with a skinny grey tie and white shoes. He wears an old raincoat over most of it, but even with that it all leaps out at you. Probably a mummy's boy, and never recovered from her imposed dress sense.
And there go a couple of strays. Respectable thirty-something career people, walking back to their Japanese car after dining at Brogues and staying out late for drinks. They wear the same colours as most of the girls out here - mainly black. Him in his suit, her in her evening wear. Give them the right hats and they could be Dutch Reformed Church parishioners off to Sunday prayer. Black - the colour of both sin and respectability. How had that come to pass?
One other girl is on this particular stretch of the street, down by the BNZ. Or could you call Angie a girl? Bit of a grey area that one. She wears women's clothes and surely has the legs for it, having fooled more than one carouser.
Cars cruise. That Holden station wagon is a regular. Round and round he goes, running up his petrol bill. He circles a dozen times before he makes his mind up. He should try the parlours and cut his costs. There are three hoons in a Ford Escort. You can slow down and ogle all you like boys, gang bangs are not my scene. Yes, well spotted, I am walking away from you. Observant aren't you? Too bad if you're pissed off. Three on one is bad odds. Always one on one - a basic rule. Tip the odds and you become more vulnerable. Just common sense, like not getting in a car with someone who looks like he has escaped from a psycho ward.
Yeah, I'm thinking about you, you fat bastard. You can sit there on the other side of the road all night for all I care. I wouldn't drive away with you if you paid me. Well, you know what I mean. In the parlours there is no choice. Out here it's different - you can pick and choose just like the blokes. No point in putting your only asset in danger by having it battered and bruised by some basket case with a screwed attitude.
Ahh, a taker. His car is not too run down. Looks like another family man. Neatly dressed. Might be good-natured. With luck there might be an invitation back to his place for drinks. Here's hoping. He is winding his window down now. Smile.
"Hi, want some company?"
Cystic fibre gyred and gimbaled, shifting hue from purple to green, spouting grey ooze in the jelly jungle from every pore. The pestiferous roots had, in their writhesome rampage, splattered the wobbly jelly bushes into shards. Slimy gelatine remnants splattered onto the tapioca trees, knocking bits off here, and dissolving pieces there, as the blocks melted on the leaves and branches. The micemen shrieked in despair, and caterpillars fled, swimming away furiously through the liquid orange sky.
A metal bar doinged on the submarine shell of his skull, sending tonitruant shockwaves through the cabbage implanted within. Bugs jumped in multitudes through his cauliflower ears. Startled by the impact and preferring the less immediate if larger danger out in the jelly jungle to the smaller, but more immediate upset of the skull's seismic waves, the multi-jointed multitude boinged and sprang forth from his aural recesses, tickling maddeningly as they scuttled out on to his lobes before jumping into the rainbow roots.
The ticktock man bellowed from the station platform with the aid of strawberry loudhailers. "The night train is leaving platform nine in five hundred seconds! I said five hundred seconds! All aboard or you shall be changed into fruitcakes!"
Nutty as, maybe. But why should one board the night train at thirty-seven hours past the minute? And with the jelly jungle being gyred and gimbaled it was no time for jolly excursions to the depths of Hell. Hail all ye sinners, we salute you in your glory, and eternity must wait for the moment. The trifle shrubs were about to be strangled and oozed on by the terrible cystic fibres. Their remains would join those of the jelly bushes dripping down through the cracks in the floor.
The ticktock man tapped him on the shoulder.
"Sorry madame, but I shall have change you into a fruitcake anyway, as you are Scorpio in extremis. And besides, you haven't changed your underwear in days! You should be thoroughly ashamed of yourself!"
However the blob of jelly which lodged on his minute hand prevented further action. He screamed as it devoured the once shiny strip of copper.
"Help me man! For time is of the essence!"
Unfortunately, time stopped with the seizure of his springs as the jelly blob ate its way though his clock face. The alarm bell atop his head fell off, and a spring protruded awkwardly, pointing south south-east. The ticktock man had ticked his last tock.
And the jelly jungle lay in waste. Before he knew quite what he was doing he found himself on his knees, singing "God Defend New Zealand". The sinners boarded the night train regardless, looking forward to the cheap alcohol available on board, drinking with the gusto of the condemned. Who knew what lay ahead in Hell? Like the King Country of old, it might be dry.
356d Gloucester Street. Home at last! A single pad for a single girl. My haven, my retreat from the world. Switch light on, dump handbag, kick off those shoes. Recline in comfort. It is so good to get off those feet! Streetch! Ahhhh... Best thing I ever bought, this sofa. Worth its weight in gold after a night out.
It's cold out, and not so warm in here. A cup of coffee? Nah, just bed. I could do with some sleep. Used to be, I'd be dozing already by this time in the morning. Then up at seven to toddle off to work. Two hundred and fifty - used to earn that in a week. Oh happy days. Down in the factory. Good riddance. Lots of money now, so long as I avoid banking any of it. It keeps the DSW at bay, that. So long as there is nothing on paper, the bastards can't touch you.
The place needs a vacuum. Do it when you get up. Say, two in the afternoon? Why not? It isn't as if you have a real job or anything. Keep whatever hours you want. Friday night is going to be a longer one than tonight. No reason for not being well rested.
Haven't written to mum for a while. I could do that after the cleaning.
Cars rushed hither and thither. Vehicular anarchy spewed smog and noise. Horns tooted, honked and parped, engines roared and whined, exhaust pipes spluttered, brakes squealed. The motorway was a free-for-all: those motorists not risking their lives by driving perilously fast were doing so by driving ridiculously slowly. The least patient souls amongst them forsook the road altogether, driving up the low grass embankments along either side of the four-lane tarseal strip, then zooming around snarls and the more hazardous knots of racing vehicles. The varied drivers enjoyed one common denominator - the housewife driving with two kids in the back seat of her Honda Civic was just as frenzied as the young hoons in their Ford Cortina; both drunken businessmen and crazy traffic cops careened their vehicles across lanes.
Periodically, the paths of two cars would intersect, resulting in the crunch of metal and the shattering of glass. Those cars unfortunate enough to find a collision occurring in their immediate paths slammed on their brakes and made attempts to steer clear. Some fortunate ones were successful. Most ended up contributing to the pile-ups, to the point that the highway was developing into a semi-connected series of vehicular graveyards. The truly lucky drivers managed not only to crawl free of the wreckage, but to run, stagger or crawl free of the wreckage, over the only slightly less dangerous grass surrounds, and climb up and over the embankments to safety. Their numbers were few. Those who didn't succeed ended up like the hedgehogs so many of the motorists had uncaringly killed on the road in the normal course of their automotive careening: squashed and flat.
Trafficman watched this scene from the safety of an overpass which, for some reason, had no traffic traversing it. His sense of horror at the car-wreck tragedy beneath him brimmed over, filling him with dread. He pondered the thousands of hours of labour that had contributed to the motorway's construction; the protracted lobbying which had preceded its construction; the careful toil which had been involved in surveying its route; the sturdy engineering which had been incorporated into its design; and the monumental excavation and clearing that had laid waste to vast tracts of virgin countryside in the name of rapid transit just so this futile orgy of mechanised destruction could roll across the landscape, crushing lives under wheels, and encasing corpses in metal coffins.
A solitary tear trickled down his pocked cheek, curled under his jaw bone, then rolled to his chin, where it dripped on to his grey one ton coat. Soaked up by the fabric, the tear ceased to exist as a separate entity, the last sign of its brief independence being the moist trail it left. This too immediately started to evaporate in the warm afternoon air. The sun's rays vaporised the slick trail in a matter of seconds.
Trafficman knew that somehow he would have to impose order on this chaos. He had a beautiful vision of an orderly procession of late afternoon commuters, driving home from work, smiling with pleasure at their trouble-free progress along clear lanes. Some listened contentedly to their car radios or stereos as they drove. Others contemplated the imminence of the happy sight of their spouses and children, waiting at home to greet them. Engines hummed and shiny chrome basked in the sun, sparkling under the bright October rays. Drivers and machines merged in harmony. Nature's biological engineering and human mechanics united through smooth interfacing to form cybernetic platelets flowing from the concrete heart of the city, circulating out to its periphery. The platelets would surge back to the heart in the morning hours, to be pumped out again the following evening.
It was imperative that this circulation continue in an orderly manner. The mayhem below represented rapidly spreading clots in the metropolitan circulatory system. The creation of the financial protoplasm and bureaucratic membrane necessary for urban cellular growth would slow to the point that it would no longer sustain the city. Through lack of functioning entrepreneurs and bureaucrats, the great beast would become beset by spasms. With the city's arteries clogged and haemorrhaging, people wouldn't arrive for work in the morning. Ambulances, fire engines and police vehicles would be unable to reach trouble spots to tend to ills. People couldn't live without the certainty of being able to drive down to the dairy to buy a loaf of bread and a newspaper. In the absence of council rubbish trucks, non-biodegradable rubbish bags would pile up outside gates. Milk, cream and FM wouldn't arrive to be deposited in and by letterboxes. Social breakdown would occur as citizens wandered about, dazed by their lack of services and mobility, looking for a place to insert their car keys, and witness instead to streets piled high with wrecked vehicles. For without a set of keys, what is an individual but an inept snail on the face of a monstrously pitted sphere of immense proportions?
Trafficman refused to allow such terrestrial anarchy to continue spewing forth unchallenged across the landscape. As only he could perceive the cause and implications of this strange automotive malaise paralysing the metropolis, the responsibility for curing it devolved upon him. He would stride forth, exhibiting the power of the individual in the face of tribulation, the moral force combined with courage that could tame continents and dominate the world.
Such was the stuff of Trafficman's dreams. He was determined to transform his reverie into reality. Adjusting his cap, and his glow-in-the-dark arm and leg bands, his mind buzzed frenetically with his plan of action. He ardently picked up his soft leather briefcase.
"Order shall be imposed! The traffic will flow!"
A heavenly choir began singing his praises as he marched determinedly over the flyover, turned down the off ramp and descended into the chaos, an island of sanity amid bedlam.
Carmen plummeted, screaming in the face of any icy upward-rushing wind. After falling for hours through the chill grey clouds, only then could she distinguish land below. While she was still tens of kilometres above it, the surface below already invited comparison to some devilish version of Rotorua, with lunar elements and hundreds of belching Krakatoas thrown in to inspire awe and terror. That was no terrestrial landscape.
Mum had always said it would come to this. In fact she had said it many times. From the day Carmen had started crawling, mum considered her to be a naughty girl, a label which later received wider confirmation from her teachers when she was bundled off to various Catholic girls' schools. The nuns were clear in their stern warnings about what happened to naughty girls. Now it was finally happening to her, and there was nothing to be done but plummet further, beyond all hope of redemption. She could see them all now - her mother and the nuns - nodding their wrinkled noses and rambling on in smug satisfaction"I told you so"; "Nothing good comes of wickedness"; "We always knew where you would end up, my girl"; "'Tis the will of God, mark my words!" She didn't care - they were still stuck-up old bitches as far as she was concerned. One day they would get theirs too. Come their Judgement Day, all their double standards and lies would land on them like seagull shit dropped from a great height.
This offered no consolation just now. Maybe in a few decades when she was down there, raised to the rank of pitchfork bearer and assigned to prod all the new arrivals into submission. It was a thing of wonder that the descent took so long, with all that sin to weigh a person down. There was no way of measuring time or of telling the distance the fall involved. The tiny topographical features laid out below might actually be more immense than they seemed, in which case she might be higher up than first supposed. Usually a person falling from a great height with no way of surviving the ineluctable hard impact at the end of the drop screams in panic all the way down. Carmen had felt this urge subside before too long. Her lungs had collapsed from the strain and demanded rest, incapable of emitting further sounds. She gasped for air, exhaling sobs at the same time. In the absence of screaming, the air rushing past formed a deafening sonic wall defying breaching from something as flimsy as human vocal cords. Her body was burrowing an invisible tunnel through the hundreds of kilometres of air that lay above the ghastly ground. The miniscule tube she burrowed as she displaced air was so long that no sound could escape from the top, and so narrow no sound could echo around inside.
A body dropped from such a great height was bound to make a bloody mess when it hit the rocky, volcanic surface. She would be transformed from a three-dimensional being with independent thought and movement to an only slightly-more-than two-dimensional puddle of crushed bone, splattered blood and pulped flesh. If what they claimed was true, and it really was that hot down there, she imagined her flesh would fry and her blood would boil, vaporising into the blood red sky. The sinner would get what was coming to her after all. She should have listened to all those virtuous women.
Carmen decided to face her destiny with a wicked smile on her face. She hadn't wanted to be a good little girl, back when she had the choice, and felt no belated urge to repent. She would face it like a woman, for women faced things better than men, except that innate sense of male superiority prevented men from admitting it. Death was hurtling toward her, and it would be squalid and miserable when it came, but then it always came anyway, so there was nothing to rage over really. Death didn't give a bugger what she did, so she would give it a big shit-eating smile.
Dropping further, Carmen noticed that she was on target for a volcano. A blood-red cauldron of lava bubbled in its caldera. She was going to land roughly in the middle of it. Her impact was not going to be a bone-shattering splat at all. Instead it would be a loud plop, after which her flesh would burst into flames. Hell looked a bit different from what the nuns had portrayed. Where were all the demons with whips, flailing naked mortals; or the succubi, devouring them? She could see none of the armies of sinners labouring at Sisyphean tasks that were the stock-in-trade of the Catholic hell. The landscape looked the part, with the problem remaining that it was empty, with no trace of roads, or buildings, or rivers. True, it was a vast infernal wasteland; ugly but not necessarily evil-looking. Was it that hell was just a dumping ground for sinners, and that once they got there, they met a grisly end and their souls expired, never again to feel anything, good or bad? If so, the Catholics had got it wrong.
Still the falling went on. Her grin fell away. Grinning death in the face constituted a response to a sudden demise. The way things were dragging on, a stifled yawn might be more appropriate. That could be the key to understanding her punishment. She had always abhorred boredom. Livening up things at any cost was what others saw as wickedness. For her stifled inaction was the greater sin. To live your whole life, scared to do what you wanted for fear of what people would think, or for fear of breaking some rule, that was true hell. The nice girls always envied that freedom. Outwardly they made an act of deploring lack of morality and responsibility. They might receive the same reception down here, if only for the sin of hypocrisy.
The falling was going nowhere, it seemed. A descent with no end. The devil's helpers might be at work twisting the fabric of time and space to keep her up there, falling in a loop through some other-dimensional continuum. The bastards would enjoy that sort of punishment.
Then all the lights went out and blackness prevailed. No wind buffeted her body. No clouds hung around her. Somewhere someone was laughing. Carmen rubbed her eyes and blinked at the sight of her bedroom, in the middle of the night. She swivelled her head to look up at the Sex Pistols poster above the bed. A reassuring sight was needed to confirm she was really back. She tried to read the lettering in the dark then gave up. Her eyes turned to the bedclothes. She must have been rolling around a lot as they were all over the place. It didn't matter. It was stinking hot in the bedroom anyhow.
Carmen rolled over and wondered which was worse - being in the bedroom or back in the dream. Her mouth tasted sour. She wanted to gob but had nowhere to hurl it. A dull throbbing rose in the base of her skull. She was going to feel like shit in the morning.
3.09 am: Martin
Dark, grey night filled the bedroom. Fuzzy eyes scanned the fog of night. Friendly daylight shapes had changed into shadowy, sinister things. The wardrobe loomed in the corner, a black magician's box with all manner of horrors lurking within. The normal animals had all run away into the night, for loathsome creatures stalked the earth when the sun went down, some of which liked to hide in cupboards to frighten little boys. A plastic sword lay discarded near the bedside. It was useless as the horrors sometimes breathed fire that could even melt real swords. Then the little boy would be grabbed by great hairy hands with ripping claws and carried away into the wardrobe. A secret opening in the back led to monster land, where hundreds of thousands of children were held prisoner, used to do nasty housework, or beaten or eaten. Some of the monsters did none of these, instead spending their time running around, chasing stray kiddies with big whips, with which they lashed the seats of ripped pyjama bottoms. This left the kids with cold bums, because there were no mums in monster land to mend the tears. If the kids complained too much about their cold bottoms, the monsters would tire of chasing them, and simply gobble them up, after which they belched loudly, and did enormous farts, some of which they lit with torches to create big gas explosions.
These things were frightening to think about in the fuzzy grey dark. Little electric rays floated across the dark, threading through the golfball-sized blobs that filled the room with faded blackness. The electric rays always shifted when you blinked, sometimes rising, sometimes falling, so you could affect their movements with a cold stare and concentration. At times, they went in a different direction to the way you wanted. And they never stayed in the same spot very long, working their way to the edge of vision, where they would disappear in the golfball blobs.
Monsters were not from storybooks, or dreams, they were real things. They lurked everywhere in the world, being forced to hide during the day because they melted under sunlight, leaving behind a purple stain on the ground and little frothy bubbles. Adults didn't believe in monsters unless they were nutters or mad professors. Monsters were too smart to reveal themselves to adults, because they knew adults would hunt them down and trap them and do experiments on them. Kids didn't frighten monsters as they were easy to pick on, and no adult believed a kid crying out that he had seen a monster. You could just leap out of a corner or a cupboard, and carry that kid off to monster land and no one would care about the noise and hollering.
The wardrobe mum and dad had bought had a door which never shut. No matter how hard you pushed it, it always swung open a fraction. It was open now, revealing a thin strip of pitch blackness inside of which some ugly thing could lurk and spy out of.
"MUUUM! Can I have a glass of war-ter?"
A long silence followed.
"MUUUUM! CAN I HAVE A GLASS OF WATER?!"
Mum sighed from the other end of the hall. Dad never got up in the middle of the night, no matter how hard you yelled for him, so mum was the one to yell for. Bedsprings shifted, then two feet clumsily hit carpet. Tired feet thumped across the bedroom floor, then out into the hall. Mum's dim form, clad in a nightgown, appeared framed in the open bedroom door. For some reason, all the electric rays had vanished.
"I'll get you a drink of water, just keep quiet or you'll wake your sister."
The footsteps quietened as mum trudged the rest of the way down the hall to the kitchen. She didn't want to wake Larnie up, as she would stay awake for ages, grizzling. Typical stupid girly thing to do. Glass chinked, followed by tap water pounding on the stainless steel sink. From there, a full glass of water floated through the dark until it was at his lips. Mum held the glass herself, as she was always scared of it being spilt in the dark. That had only happened once before, but mum had never forgotten it. The spill had left a huge puddle on the bedspread, even worse than when you wet the bed. Mum had landed a quick clout, adding that this would be the last time she bloody well got up in the middle of the night, and "you can get your own drink in the future, and drink it in the kitchen!"
Mum was ugly when she got angry, so there was always danger involved in asking for water in the middle of the night.
Middle of the night. Did night have a middle? It must have, otherwise people wouldn't say it did, would they? But how many people had actually gone looking for the very spot at the middle of the night? And if it was dark, how did you find it? Was there a sign, right in the centre of the night that said "MIDDLE HERE". And how could you read it? If it was the middle of the night it would have to be so incredibly dark you couldn't see in front of you.
The water was cold to swallow.
In the middle of the night. Did the middle move? Because it was never around during the daytime. The night must be like a big blanket that falls out of the sky, covering everything from the sun, like fog. Just like fog it fades away after a few hours so it can be light again. It would be horrible if you did find yourself in the middle of the night, because that would be the last place every night to see the sunlight in the morning. Or maybe the middle of the night never went away, but lifted itself back into a huge lump of dark again, until it had to drop out of the sky, because it was so heavy the air couldn't hold it up.
Mum pulled the glass away.
"Well, I'll tuck you in and then you can go back to sleep. You've got school in the morning."
School. The place where boys were forced to live in grey. Grey shirts. Grey jerseys. Grey socks. Back at kindergarten you wore all sorts of colours, and could play in the paint, even paint your face a different colour. School was just grey. The buildings might be brick red, and the girls might wear red uniforms, but for all that the feeling was one of greyness. All the boys from kindy had been turned into grey, cold statues of themselves. And wearing shorts in winter, they were often cold. Mum said you have to go to school till you are fifteen. By that time the grey will have rubbed in, right through the skin, so you will be grey both inside and out. And then, when you leave school and get a big important job, you have to wear a grey suit. Why don't they just let kids stay at home and play for ever and ever?
"Where's the middle of the night?"
"The middle of the night - where do you find it?"
"Don't be bloody silly Martin. Have you been having funny dreams again?"
"No mum, I just wondered."
"Get some sleep."
Mum trudged away through the golfball blobs.
What if this was the exact middle of the night, and it sucked everything up into the sky?
The electric rays began sparkling once more.
The middle of the night might not be all that bad if you didn't have to go to school again.
Lost in the middle of the night.
11 Chester Street North was an old house, or what was considered to be an old house in a country as young as New Zealand. Its present inhabitants lived unaware of the structure's exact age, but it had been built in 1893. Over the following 96 years, the house had weathered well. The roofing slates were considerably grimier than they had been on the sunny January afternoon when sweating, mustachioed builders had put them in place, before knocking off for the day and sampling a brew down at the Star and Garter. Moss encrusted the slates, as did a thick coating of grime, which had accumulated in the cracks and folds between slates. During the house's history its spouting had been replaced three times, and the arrival of a fourth generation was long overdue. The last lot had been installed some time in the late sixties, as evidenced by the fact it was constructed of metal and not plastic. Rust had crept the length of the spouting's perimeter, to the extent that in several places rainwater could fall right through the rust-encrusted gashes, sometimes onto the heads of unsuspecting visitors who stepped up onto the verandah to knock on the front door, or who perhaps walked along the little shingle path, squeezed between a buckled wooden fence and the right-hand side of the house, which led around to the kitchen door at the back. But it was mid-October, so few visitors were troubled by leaky spouting at this time of year.
Sound weather boards had weakened with the progression of the seasons, year after year, but still maintained their structural integrity. They had experienced 31 coats of paint, mainly slightly differing shades of white, beige or anaemic yellow. It was unlikely there would be a day when they were subjected to more vivid hues. Arty hippies had come and gone in Saint Albans, and some of them had even stayed, settling down to raise families and daydream about the revolution that never came, except none had ever lived in that building. It had been the abode of a succession of working class families well into the fifties, following which it had housed four or five dozen spotty students into the early seventies. By that time the university had completely relocated from the central city to its new Ilam site, and consequently the student population dropped in Chester Street North. The city's student transients began looking for accommodation either closer to or on the other side of town. The number of students at 11 Chester Street North dropped to zero in the summer of 1973, after which a young bikie and his girlfriend moved in. The over thirties and various government agencies called such a circumstance a defacto relationship in those days, while the two in question referred to it as "shacking up". The couple had a kid before either of them hit twenty, and moved on to larger housing; something with more of a garden, as 11 Chester Street North was an old-style inner city property, with barely enough back yard to fit a clothes line in between the kitchen window and the rusting corrugated iron fence out back.
From 1975, the house experienced numerous transients, most of them young and working class, although they did on occasion share with a polytech student or two. Eric moved into the place in November 1987, just back from several years of continuous travel between Australia and various parts of South-East Asia. He was an altogether new breed of occupant; one the house had never sheltered before.
Clients, the trusted ones, periodically came to visit Eric, at any time of the day or night, but usually by prior arrangement. They slouched up the narrow, curved concrete footpath which ended abruptly at the foot of the house's front verandah, itself but four metres from the low, green corrugated iron fence that stopped wind-blown rubbish from being distributed across the overgrown patch of undergrowth that was once a well-trimmed lawn. Most of the furtive visitors would glance over their shoulders before knocking quietly on the panelled door at the front of the house. Someone may be watching. The ones who didn't cast their glances were too far gone to care.
No one stood at the door just now. All the lights in the house were out bar one. From the front room window to the left of the door, a placid glow shone dimly through a crack in the thick purple curtains. Had anyone been walking past at that hour of the morning and bothered looking through that particular window, he or she would have guessed that the glow emanated from a single candle rather than from a lightbulb.
It is not altogether impossible that our hypothetical passer-by might have stopped outside the gap in the corrugated iron fence where there had once been a wrought iron gate, paused to think for a moment, and then decided to creep up to the window. Those who wander around inner city suburbs in the early hours of the morning are usually up to no good. Our individual may have had malevolent motives, for burglaries are not unknown in that part of town. Neither are rapes and assaults in people's homes, as intruders find easy access through louvre windows, which are comparatively easy to remove without creating a great deal of noise. Creeping up to the verandah to see who, if anybody, was home, our intruder would have bespied a curious sight.
A chunky, aqua-blue candle sat on a saucer in the middle of the room. It didn't flicker, as candles are wont to do in pulp horror tales, burning strongly and steadily instead, undisturbed by draught or human hand. Its flame did however cast long shadows around the room, their grey edges silhouetted by pale light rebounding off the upper walls and ceiling. The room reflected the age of the house. A bulbous black light switch protruded from the wall beside the cracked panel door. The room's door, like the front door, was of wooden construction. Absent from the house were the flimsy plywood creations much favoured by local builders since the early sixties - the sort of doors that strong drunks could put a foot through in the late stages of an all-nighter. The doorknob, like the nearby light switch, was also bulbous; a copper-plated creation, still shiny after decades of repeated contact with human hands. Its height from the floor was a mere two feet and five inches, a position causing considerable inconvenience for its lanky contemporary users, more than one of whom must have wondered, as they stooped over to turn the knob, whether the original inhabitants of the house were descended from a race of pygmies.
The wallpaper dated from the sixties and had faded slightly, although still had a respectable feel to it for all that. Its pattern consisted of a series of intertwined brown floral motifs, repeated several thousand times over the length of all four walls. The wallpaper did not stretch from the skirting boards to the ceiling, as it tended to in modern interiors, instead occupying roughly two thirds of the height of each wall. The lower third of the wall comprised wooden panelling, topped off by a narrow ledge that ran right around the room at waist height, except in those places where its progress was interrupted by windows, a cupboard and the doorway. The top of the wallpaper ended in a second skirting board, around fifteen centimetres below the once-white, yellowing ceiling.
The room had originally been intended for use as a living room, or rather, a "sitting room", in the parlance of the day. There were three other main rooms, paired on either side of the hall running through the length of the house. The hall ended at a small space in the back used for a kitchen cum dining room. In the days when students filled the house, the front room was used as just another bedroom, a situation which continued with many other tenants in the seventies and eighties. The ones who could afford to left it as a living room. Those who wanted to cut down their expenses used it to house an extra occupant.
Not that our prowler would have known that. His or her eyes would only have noted the room's present use as a lounge area. Large scatter cushions were spread about the room; the only form of seating apart from a bright red bean bag, occupied by the room's solitary inhabitant. The cushions varied in design. Some were of Thai origin, complete with intricate embroidery. Other fitted a style best described as "hippy-gypsy". Still others possessed a plainness not befitting description. The cushions were thrown around the floor in a haphazard fashion; as if a good dozen people had been intermittently sitting on them all day. Eric had been their only user that day. He had received a couple of visitors, but they stayed only as long as it took to pick up some supplies before departing. Not for them the comforts of the assorted scatter cushions.
Latter day icons gazed down from the walls a Hendrix poster here, a Led Zeppelin one there, over there a black-backgrounded wall hanging from Thailand, with a tiger leaping out of a bamboo thicket. The posters were blue tacked, and the wall hanging nailed. A rubber plant lived in the back corner, just beside the leaping tiger. The wall hanging, the rubber plant and the Thai cushions represented a little piece of South-East Asia transplanted to a southerly latitude. The two posters reminded Eric of his younger days, when he had wanted to be a rock guitarist, all knobbly-kneed and bepimpled in his fourth form year at Shirley Boys' High. Dreams had come and gone aplenty over the years, but that one was still his favourite. He had an acoustic guitar propped up against the wall to prove it.
Our prowler would not have seen the stereo as it sat under the window, but would have heard it. From its speakers strange sounds spewed forth at a volume that might not have been excessive for a tolerant neighbour during daylight hours, but was at this early hour of the morning. Ghostly gothic chanting accompanied by freaked out guitar and banging drums. They didn't fit the surroundings, emerging out of the shadows to bounce around the room before dissipating.
Smoke did likewise, rising from a stick of burning Indian incense in a strand that stretched out into a cloud. The smoke swirled about while ash silently fell from the stick onto a brass tray under the incense holder. Beside the incense lay a small sheet of paper; A5 to those interested in such things. Embossed on the sheet were a number of purple hearts, repeated in neat rows across the clear white. Two hearts were missing from the bottom row. Near the sheet of paper was a copper-plated ashtray, holding the cold remnants of three roll-your-owns, smudged into it.
The long-haired figure spread out on the bean bag wouldn't have noticed anyone peeking through the curtains. His mind was elsewhere, its vision cast loose, free to float in any direction it pleased. While his imagination soared in transcendent joy, plodding reality dwindled to a pin point below. Gone was the room and its surroundings; before him lay whatever he willed himself to see. He sat for a short while in the purple velvet interior of a giant padded cube which grew larger and larger until it had grown so big that its walls had backed off into infinity, leaving behind darkness and huge expanses to travel in, provided he could find a source of illumination. He willed the darkness to dwindle and a kaleidoscope pattern painted itself across the heavens, illuminating a vast landscape before him. Hills, fields, jungles, mountains and plains, bathed in variegated light, all lay ahead for him to investigate, or he could ignore the ground and try to fly so high that he would hit the mushy purple interior of the mega cube's topmost surface.
The snoop would not see any of this either; only an inert, shoeless, bejeaned and tee-shirted type lying on a bean bag. Had the room been better lit, he or she might have noticed the heavy tan on the man's arms, and on his bare feet. In colder weather he might have worn a denim jacket, something not needed in October, although a chill had descended outside. He had a tattoo on his left upper arm, not easily distinguishable in the low light. For all that you could see his moustache and his shapeless hair, grown too long to be described as anything much in particular.
Noticing his presence in the room, most would-be prowlers would have been inclined to back off the porch, sneak back along the short path, out of the gate, and continue on their way. A more daring burglar would have decided that a druggie wasn't going to notice anyone breaking in, and would have cased the place further while three moths banged themselves senseless on the window, attracted to the dim rays within.
Walls of wah-wahed freak out guitar descend from the heavens, enmeshed with the word of God. Aye, religion is hallucinogenic my friends, with Latin mass dwelling on the edges of the surreal in the realm of the Electric Prunes. Purple glows the sky, not hazed by the shimmering of wild vibrations from beyond, pulsating energy cascading onto large peanut butter earlobes.
Dow dow dadadowdow DA DA DOW!
Wild notes from distorted strings of steel drum their way into the inner ear.
A celestial voice cries from the outer edges of space, calling, calling out to me.
Dow dow down dadadadada dow DOWWWWW!
The music fades and the heavens part. A face appears. A huge, looming malevolent face. A familiar face. A face with normality enshrined in its features. Only two eyes, neither of them glowing red in the dark or turning things to stone. A nose free of carbuncles, with two nostrils. Flesh and not dripping putrid slime. Brown hair and not purple thatch crawling with vipers and beetles spitting poison. A mouth devoid of either fangs or dripping blood and gore. A young face, unweathered by age. The face blots all else out, casting its touch on the upturned face of mortal man, displacing the psychedelic electric waves from beyond, and engulfing the bounds of perception. It is an angry face, seeking retribution for some deed, some earthly failing, some twisted mishap.
Reality's face breathes hot vapours onto the prickled cheeks of callous, wasted youth.
It is the flatmate's face.
"Eric, turn that shit down, it's three in the morning!"
Down down down down down down down down downer!
Can the skull be shaken back into consciousness? You can only try, and the hands on his shoulders are shaking it vigorously.
"Pull out of it Eric! Wake up!"
Huhhh! Expelled air pours into the room. His lungs contract like an emptied hot water bottle.
"Aww, leave me alone will ya!"
It's the febrile voice of shattered dreams and narcissism cast asunder. The awakened sleeper croaks and groans.
Bleary eyes clear and focus on the darkened room. Karl, the flatmate from beyond, is squatting in front of him, staring into semi-vacant eyes.
"About time. You looked like an upright corpse when I came in here. Look, can you keep the noise down? I've got to work in the morning. I know you hold the lease and all that shit, but give me a break will you?"
Words tumble from the vocal staircase. His body feels like it has been pushed down the steps. All feeling is numbed after rolling on sharp-edged stone and landing on the grubby floor. The worst part of tripping is the heavy thud when you come down. Karl had caught him in mid-flight and sent him tumbling. His throat felt like dried crap caked on sandpaper.
"Pass me the wine will you?"
This isn't going to fuck you up is it?"
Nah, I'm down now. A bit of wine isn't going to do anything."
Karl passed the bottle.
"Sorry to wake you Karl. Just switch everything off and I'll go to sleep.
"You're not going to bed?"
"No, I'll just lie here on the bean bag."
He handed the wine back to Karl as the table was out of reach and he couldn't have reached it had he tried.
Karl turned off the stereo without saying a word, blew out the candle and all was black. The LED lights faded in the darkness.
"So how did you get started in all this?"
It always came back to the same old question. Everyone asked it, for want of something better to say. It got to you in the end. There were lots of different answers that could be given, lots. You could tell them almost anything and they would believe it. That you might be lying wouldn't even occur to most of them.
"I was going to be a nun but discovered I like sex too much. I had to leave after the Mother Superior found me with Monique, my room-mate."
Or "My boyfriend needed the cash for a new motorbike, and didn't want to work nights, so he sent me instead."
Too unreal? It can happen.
Or worst of all, you could just giggle with a silly little girl look and say "Well I don't know, I just thought it might be a bit of fun!"
Why do they expect the truth in answer to a question like that? Do they think that just because they can penetrate your body for money they can do the same with your mind?
The hardest answer to give, and it seldom was given, was the real one, if only because it's not easy to explain. Having gone back over what happened repeatedly, lain in bed, gazed at empty coffee mugs for hours, wandering around in a daze thinking about it, it's hard to say exactly how I got into it. The moment when it no longer meant something others did, and became something I did, was hard to pin. When I first thought about trying it, it was like there was this exclusive group of women not many people knew about, and they got up to this stuff that was illegal, but some of them must be enjoying doing it, and weren't some of them earning loads of money? I thought I could try this thing out, sort of like you do with one of those introductory offers on mail-order merchandise. Try it for a couple of months, and if you don't like it, send it back, no obligations. It turned out not to be that much fun the first few times, but it was a bit of a buzz, an adrenalin rush, thinking "what if so and so could see me now?" The money didn't hurt. It helped wash the disgust and the loathing away.
Saying one thing led to another somehow sums up the path into this life, if not very well. I still can't decide if I really started all this when I lay awake wondering what it would be like, on the first night, or a few months later when I realised it was going to become a permanent thing. You can try and pin it down, point to one part of what happened and say "this is how I got started". Once that was done though, your thoughts would turn to other things, and speculation on them - isn't that where it all started? Because you knew in your head you had left out heaps in that original summary. The more bits you tried to add to your simple answer, the more the answer changed into something that wasn't really very simple at all.
So there you were again, thinking "Just how did I get started on all this?" And thinking about it further you realised you had gotten into the same old confusing mess as the other times you had tried to sort it all out. That realisation reached, you would decide to chuck it all away again, until the next client raised it for you, a grating reminder. And while you rolled a pat answer off your tongue, inside the confusion and uncertainty would come back to gnaw at you.
Remembering the sequence isn't all that hard. Eighteen, out of school, working for shit pay in a shit job, flatting for the first time. Up in that flat overlooking Cuba Street, feeling like you had come a long way from home, when home was only as far away as Porirua. There was at least some difference between the flat and home. No bussing into town in the weekends any more, for one. Instead you only had to walk down the stairs, open that big blue wooden door, and step out into the night life. No more rushing back to the stop to catch the last bust before the night was half over. No more putting up with bull shit from mum if you had missed that bus, or had decided you and the girls would have a better time of it if some guys gave you a ride back instead. Now you had Paisley Park and Claire's just around the corner, along with all those restaurants and takeaways if you didn't want to cook, or had some guy who wanted to take you out.
There was no such thing as a quiet weekend when you lived in Cuba Street. If you couldn't afford to go out, or had had enough of it for the moment, all you had to do was pull up a chair next to the window and watch the city stroll past below. Every night of the weekend had its own flavour.
Fridays the street's stores were filled with shoppers, walking up and down till nine o'clock closing. Drunken old boys in blue suits liked to make gits of themselves on Friday night, veering along the footpaths, shouting out things that only drunks could work out or laugh at. The poor buggers did their best to make up for mundane lives spend pushing paper across desks in glass towers by letting rip every Friday night with the lads. They would go down to the pub or grill after work, usually only a few minutes' walk away, and would be well tanked up by about seven or eight. I've been to various places on a Friday night, but I've never seen anything to match those Wellington blue suits. Not down at the Rising Sun on K Road, or at the Captain Cook in Dunedin, or even in a few country towns where you expect the knuckle scraping men to spend their all the time at the pub that’s left once they’ve finished with the sheep. There were still plenty of people hanging around Cuba Street after the shops shut too. School kids let loose for the weekend, stuck around till eleven or twelve. Most of them hung out in the Manners Street Mall, checking each other out as they cruised between MacDonalds and Kentucky Fried. There were always buskers down there. The main ones were these three Maori jokers who played some mean blues and a bit of reggae, stopping now and then for a beer or two, or a chat to their bros. Sometimes they played till well past midnight. Less hot were those white boys singing stuff like Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan and all that. They didn't stick around much after nine or ten. Some of the kids watched the buskers, but mostly they were too busy watching each other. Manners Street on a Friday night had to be the hottest teen pickup place in town, so most of them dressed their best. The place sweated sex and hormones, dripping onto the pavement and dribbling down the gutters and drains, like the animal fat disposed of out back of the takeaway joints.
A year or two back and I used to be the same as those kids, getting up to the same stuff. What else was there to do? If you're under eighteen on a Friday night you're usually too young-looking to sneak into the pubs and clubs, even if you could afford it every weekend. Your only other options are the pictures, or cruising around the shops, which will last you till nine or ten, and then you have to hang around, looking for action, because there is nothing else. Except the spacies. For all that, most of them still end up riding home on the bus with their mates, just like I did. Some people look back on being that age and paint a real rosy picture of it. All I can remember is that being sixteen in Wellington and coming from Porirua sucked.
Being eighteen, that was something else! I had plenty of guys once I shifted out. Me and Janine, my flatmate. We used to go from one club to the next, but Claire's was my favourite. Fewer check-out girls and service station attendants. Not that I'm any better or anything, but you met more interesting people there.
Saturday was a real full-on sort of night in Wellington. Me and Janine used to eat out, sometimes with friends, sometimes just by ourselves, in one of those Chinese restaurants down Courtenay Place. Then we used to go off to a full night of raging till three in the morning.
It didn't pay to stay home in the flat on Saturday night. Even if I couldn't afford it, I used to go out rather than face a night at home, watching everyone else walking by my window and enjoying themselves while I got depressed. Up at the flat we never held parties or anything like that. There was no need when you had most of the city nightspots in the neighbourhood.
I wish I could get some sleep. I'll be awake all night at this rate.
Anyway, I used to spend most of Sunday just trying to recover from Saturday night. Maybe not get up till one or two in the afternoon. Then takeaways for dinner on Sunday.
Six months of that and I had gotten fed up with the day job. Partying was more fun. It ended up so it was all I lived for - going out, having a good time. It chewed up my bank account and spat it out in soggy bits. That's when I started thinking about other work. Nothing in the weekends mind, just weekday nights. I used to see the girls out on the streets, or the boys, or whatever some of them were. Their clothes always seemed over the top. The drag queens were the worst. It made you wonder whether they could give it away, let alone convince someone to pay. As for the girls, a lot of them looked like druggies. Going off to the pub I used to see them, standing on the footpaths around Cuba and Vivian Street, and wonder what it was like. Yeah, I used to wonder... what...it was...
Day grey. Almost raining. Don't wanna go out today. No, too cold mummy. Don't wanna go. Have to go? Why mummy? Wanna stay at home with you. Let me stay at home. Too cold. Don't wanna go today. Tomorrow. Go tomorrow? Let me go tomorrow mummy. I will, I'll go tomorrow! No! Don't wanna go today! Don't wanna. Drag Me? Mummy can't drag me - too heavy. I'll go tomorrow. Pleeeeasee!
No, I don't like it there. Hate school! Cause I do. School's horrible!
Friends at school? No friends at school. We shifted remember? Don't know anyone here. Knew lots of kids at the old place. Then we shifted. Don't like Christchurch. I want to go back to Blenheim. Can't we go back to Blenheim? Like Blenheim. All my friends are there. None here. None in Christchurch. Why can't daddy get his old job back and we can go back to Blenheim?
Have to go? Why hafta go? Don't hafta go. Don't wanna go. Go tomorrow. Mummy, let go my arm. Let go. You're hurting me! Hurr-ting! Ow!
Look mummy! No arm! Can't go now mummy. Mummy, don't cry. Can't go now with one arm and blood everywhere. It's not my fault mummy. You did it mummy. No, it's your fault!
There's blood on my uniform. Can't go to school now. Mummy'll have to mop up that now, before daddy gets home. Daddy doesn't like mess. You're always telling me to clean up my mess. This is your mess now. Yes it is my arm, but I didn't pull it off, did I mummy? I didn't drop it on the floor.
Teachers will be cross if they see me like this mummy. Ripped uniform - against the school rules, ripped uniforms. And my jersey's all ripped mummy. You have to mend it mummy. I'll get detention if I turn up like this. Then you'll have to wash off all the blood with the washing machine on full drive.
Mummy, don't cry. There's nothing to cry about. I'm not crying - I don't have to go to school now. I'm happy! I don't like school. It's grey and yucky. The teachers are horrible, and the big boys. They're horrible too. They pick on me. I'm not lying!
Mummy. Timmy's standing in the blood! Sniffing my arm! Mummy, he's got my arm! Naughty dog! Give it back! Mum, Timmy's growling at me!
Hey come back!. Mum, Timmy's gone off to the garden with it! Get it back mummy! I need it! Kids'll laugh at me with only one arm. I deserve it? Me? I didn't do anything! I'm a good boy. Just get me the arm back mummy. I'll get beaten up with one arm. Pleeease!
Stop laughing mummy! Stop it! Stop! Stop it! Stop!
It was dark again. The morning scene had gone. Martin was back in bed, in his bedroom, in the middle of the night. He remembered having a glass of water. He didn't remember getting up though. He can't have, it was still the middle of the night. Both arms were still in place. He stretched them and tugged on each hand to make sure. The sheets were white not red. And there was no sign of any Timmy, because mum and dad had always said they couldn't afford to look after two kids and a bloody dog.
It was a nightmare.
Funny word. Night-mare. Mummy always asked about nightmares. When she mentioned them, she gave the impression they were scary things, monsters even, to be avoided. Mary at school had told him a mare was a sort of horse. Her dad owned horses and so she knew all about them. Night mare. Mary had sorted him out on that one. She wasn't thick that one. But horses could come to you in your dreams. It must have happened to someone or we wouldn't have the word. He could see a dark horse. It galloped through empty fields on a misty moonlit night, spreading fear and terror in people's dreams as it raced over hills, and through villages and forests. The sort in the fairy tales - beautiful, rolling green landscapes, not the brown ones out on the Canterbury Plains. The villages were fairytale villages, with stables and shoemakers shops, and houses shaped like boots and made out of gingerbread. And the forests were huge, dark clusters of tall pines, sheltering wolves and bears and unicorns in their shadows, until they saw the mare coming and ran away. It neighed and sometimes reared, its red eyes gleaming like coals.
Whenever Martin had an ugly dream he knew that even if he hadn't seen it in his dreams, the night mare had something to do with it. He could feel its evil presence, lurking somewhere out of sight, but always around the corner or on the other side of the wall. His suspicions would be confirmed when, after waking up with a start and dozing back off to sleep, the dream sequence with the galloping black horse would return, a mental rerun being replayed yet again. And if, by some chance, the sequence didn't come back to him that night, it would be waiting there for another time.
No such vision would come when he was awake though, that he knew. Instead it was quiet. A leaf scraped a little on the concrete drive outside, pushed by a gentle night breeze. A ceiling beam somewhere in the house contracted, creaking just a fraction. Martin wondered about these noises. He never noticed them during the day. Did they only happen in the still of night? He used to be frightened by the creaking of the beams, and had prompted a laugh when he asked dad if the house could be haunted. Dad had explained what caused the noises, but Martin still wondered. What did dad know! He was always fast asleep in the middle of the night. He never got up for anything, not even to go to the toilet, like mum sometimes did. She would wake Martin up as she shuffled along the hall and shut the toilet door. He would listen from his bed, waiting for here to pull the chain and shuffle back to her bed so he could drop back to sleep.
It was still the middle of the night, And there he was, wide awake again. The middle of the night didn't want to let him go, to let him travel on his way till his sleep broke in the morning. Lying in bed, staring at the patterns in the dark, Martin listened for creepy sounds and worried about the monsters in the wardrobe.
"Lost in the Supermarket". That was the name of an old Clash song. For a group like the Clash, it was a sweet, soft piece. It caught the muffled ambiance of shiny, ammonia fresh, enamelled shelves, and white and yellow and black tiles arranged in an asymmetrical pattern across the floor of a suburban concrete barn. It was an adult vision of seventies plastic consumerism, jaded dreams and encircling housewives. The creeping paranoia of the mass market mixing with urban neurosis.
The Clash had never actually been lost in a supermarket, unlike me. I wandered around in circles, looking for my parents, then burst out crying when I couldn't find them. It sounds silly but then I was only two years old at the time. Losing your parents at that stage of life is very scary. I wondered with my infantile mind how I would feed myself without my parents, where I would sleep at night, how I would buy new clothes. Overcome with the enormous complexity of such considerations, and feeling totally unable to meet them, no, knowing I was totally unable to meet them, I bawled even more. I cried unashamedly, as only little children can, lost and bewildered. I cast my head down, perceiving only the rubber tiles under my shiny gumboots. My body felt hot and shaky, and I wobbled along unsteadily. It hadn't been so many months since I had learnt to walk, and even that elementary skill was failing me. The supermarket was immense from a two-year old's perspective, though it would be considered tiny compared with latter day retail giants. Still, such concrete and whitewash visions lay over twenty years in the future, and this particular supermarket was the largest building little old me had ever stepped into. It was much bigger than the corner IGA store, just down the road from home. It was way bigger than home. And it totally dwarfed the kindy that mum used to walk me past but that I wasn't yet old enough to attend. The supermarket played piped music - British mainly - 'Step Inside Love', 'Downtown' - and stuff like Tom Jones and Englebert Humperdinck. Normally this had a certain novelty value - I used to wonder where the singers were hiding - but just now the sound scared me. They carried on like nothing was wrong. I felt disorientated by their glee.
All the big people around me didn't pay much attention. The view that children were to be seen and not heard was still surprisingly prevalent then, over sixty years since Queen Victoria's demise, and more than one must have asked themselves why the brat didn't shut up, and what was a little boy like that doing wandering around the place anyway?
A young woman in a blue smock stopped her shelf tidying when she saw me toddle past. I can't remember what she looked like, or what she said to me to calm me down. She spoke very softly, and dried my tears with a soft hanky. I do remember she asked me where my parents were. Of course, I replied "don't know". Then she asked me where they lived. It wasn't a silly question, except that two year-olds aren't generally privy to such knowledge, or at least this two year-old wasn't. Where did I live? Wondering blankly, it didn't take me long to realise I didn't have any notion of the name of the street, or the number of our house. Another "don't know" followed. Saying something along the lines of "never mind, I'll find your parents", she took me by the hand and lead me off to the manager's office. Time has wiped away any memory of where it was located, or what happened there, but I do remember them saying something over the intercom about me being lost. My reunion with my parents - a huge relief - came a couple of minutes later.
It was a minor wonder the folks hadn't noticed me wandering off, but I suppose they were busy trundling their shopping trolley around, hunting for groceries. Anyway, kids are terrible for things like that. You turn your back for a second and they're off. In those days child abductors and molesters weren't a social issue, so they probably weren't as panicked as I was. Years afterwards I still had neurotic flashes about being lost and alone. Even though I had never really been lost, in the sense that my bewilderment and disorientation only lasted for a few minutes, the incident scared the shit out of me. Going off to play at the park on the swings and the roundabout, or visiting a friend's house was no huge deal, but the minute it was something out of the ordinary, I used to freak out. My first days at school were utter hell. I didn't know the routine, even if I knew some of the kids from my kindy days. The way the whole day was suddenly structured, from morning till mid-afternoon, took a great deal of getting used to. Get to school before nine every day. Have morning break from ten thirty till eleven every morning. Have a one hour lunch break from midday to one in the afternoon, with twenty minutes for lunch and the rest for play. Then the little break from two o'clock till five past two. That one struck me as really weird. Why did we only have five minutes play time? Whose stupid idea was that? Only an adult could ever imagine that kids would be happy with five minutes' play at that time of day. I was too young to realise that those five minutes were a short breather for the teachers, to stop them from slitting their wrists with the nearest sharp object that came to hand. The routine was ground into me with the precision that only tedious repetition can instill.
The sort of dreams remembered in the morning failed to disturb Sandra. Hers was a deep slumber, from long, demanding hours of activity. She used to dream, before the exhaustion of working life came along and threw her into visionless sleep. Previously she used to be left wondering what meaning her dreams had, as they were so confusing. There was a pattern of sorts, discernible through the jumble of images and the chaotic, arbitrary rules which governed the unfolding storylines of each of her dreams. Making sense of that dimly perceived pattern always eluded her.
Her dreams left her with the sort of sick, gut feeling her stomach had produced back in fifth form science class, when all this confusing, poorly explained raw information was thrown at her, for regurgitation onto a piece of paper in order to display mastery over it. She used to struggle in attempts to master chemical equations, the rules for the refraction of light and other morsels of gobbledegook. Repeatedly obtaining incorrect answers to the textbook questions, she used to try and understand where she had gone wrong, then would give up and fly into a rage over her incomprehension. After she had calmed down, the textbook would still be there on the desk, waiting to throw her another perplexing, maddening puzzle. Sandra hadn't done badly at science in school, but she could never fathom it. The run of the mill questions, stuff like multiple choice, or answers which just relied on memorising select chunks of the textbooks, were what enabled her to gain pass marks. The situation left her feeling unsatisfied. There was more to it all than answering simple questions, except she never succeeded to the point of answering the hard ones. Temperament, was that why?
As it had been with those school science questions, so it was with her dreams. The obvious bits presented easy answers. Beyond the easily understandable pieces of symbolism lay an impenetrable jumble of mental garbage - old friends, funny objects, places she had once visited or had never visited except in her imagination, geometric shapes, invisible monsters which frightened her, visible monsters who ran away, mum, the wind, and falling stardust. The rules of the science class seldom applied to this strange assemblage. Often she would scurry through it, while things scampered to and fro at outrageous speeds, as if they were in some fastforward version of an old Keystone Cops flick. Night might inexplicably fall in the middle of the day. Or she might find herself trapped in some endless cycle, going down to the dairy to buy milk and a loaf of bread, over and over until she wanted to scream and woke up with a jolt.
The last dream was unravelable though. Going down to the dairy to get milk and a loaf of bread must have been something she had done thousands of times in her life, and which must have occupied hundreds of hours if you counted up all those periods of fifteen to twenty minutes spent walking to the various dairies she had frequented since she was old enough to perform errands for mum. All that time, all that energy, and all she had got back for her efforts were however many thousands of bottles of milk and loafs of bread. She had nothing much to show for all that time and effort: the bread and milk had been digested, either by herself or those she lived with, including the family cat in the case of the milk, or by birds of various descriptions if the bread had gone stale before it could all be eaten. All that simple, basic food had sailed down the digestive tract and, in the case of its human consumers had, some hours later, sailed down the city sewers out to the treatment farm. From there it went who knows where. Sandra knew very little about what they did with all that gunk out at the sewage works And, though she had wondered, it wasn't one of those burning questions to which she urgently required an answer. As for the milk and bread's ultimate destination in the case of its more primitive animal consumers, that was easier to summarise - it had ended up deposited wherever the creatures excreting it had done their business.
As for the paper bags, cartons, plastic wrappers and glass bottles, they had gone off to the tip. Some of the glass bottles had been recycled. If all that material had been piled up, it would have made a huge pile, a monument to modern consumerism and disposability. Yet the only evidence she had on hand to prove her lifelong consumption habit consisted of a half-eaten loaf of bread out in the kitchen, a frozen loaf in the freezer, plus two refrigerated bottles of milk.
It made you wonder about life - busting a gut to no real end. That thought led to feelings of depression.
I hold the certitude that the mind is conditioned and ultimately caged by the limits of its environment. My time spent in various "small" parts of the world, whether in provincial France, Tahiti, New Caledonia, or here in New Zealand, has done much to confirm this long held prejudice.
A corollary of this is that the smaller the human society, the narrower the outlook of its inhabitants. Today of course, small communities are no longer as isolated as they once were and their members can learn more about the outside world, whether from television, radio, magazines or newspapers freighted in. But the rules still holds, in spite of the way its effects are diluted by the forward march of modern communications technology. A Tibetan monk living on the roof of the world doesn't change his mindset or his cultural values just because he reads a copy of Time given to him as a gift by a passing CIA agent. The trappings of the modern world might encroach on formerly isolated enclaves of humanity but such influences only infrequently change the face of human parochialism. Only when forced from their isolation by forces such as war or famine do isolated communities have to change their values, and they will persist in clinging to as many of the old ways as they can.
Take the Caldoches, those white inhabitants of New Caledonia, born half a world away from Mother France yet constantly in touch with the mainland through satellite TV, radio and the press, only a few days out of date by the time it is airfreighted from Paris. They follow French politics, fashions and catch up on the latest films and videos when they come to town. But they still retain their nineteenth century, frontier colonial values. They revere a rural lifestyle most of them have abandoned. The Canaques have had the vote since shortly after World War II, yet the Caldoches still treat them as if they were cannibals from some prehistoric age, little better than monkeys. They rely on educated people from metropolitan France to keep the economy running - engineers, administrators, doctors, all the rest, yet they distance themselves from those "outsiders" because they don't share the same values. Any change to the Caldoches comes with the incredible slowness of those who do not really see why they should have to change.
I have witnessed evidence of similar, although less regressive parochialism in New Zealand. Less regressive because of the greater size of the population here. I am as yet reluctant to draw too many conclusions, having only spent three days since my arrival in this country. It will be interesting to further my observations upon walking when I venture out to explore Christchurch for the first time.
I close this diary entry at 5.35am, Friday 13 October 1989.
Some crazy journey was taking place. To Marlborough? The Sounds? The train followed a familiar route north as far as what resembled Kaikoura, passing through the brown, rolling hills of North Canterbury, along the coast to where the track crawled in and out of tunnels metres away from crashing surf. The trip was an accelerated one, as if what passed was recorded on video tape being fast forwarded by some mysterious being beyond the dreamer's ken. Daylight came and went in flashes; the effect of going in and out of the local tunnels. Sitting in a worn NZ Rail seat, watching the light flash on and off came to resemble being in some gigantic strobe chamber. Kaikoura passed in a blur, and then the train started to gain radical momentum. Not even the chance to stop for a greasy mince pie, with those quality welded crusts, but then food never really existed in dreams anyway. There is little need to eat when you're in the middle of a dream.
Beyond Kaikoura, the scenery turned strange. If it were the real world out that carriage window, there would have been more brown rolling hills, followed by a descent down into sunny Blenheim, perched prettily in its green valley. Instead the sky turned overcast, and the railway track threaded over a long, narrow, box girder bridge, beneath which flowed an extremely wide river, at least two kilometres from bank to bank. Such a width was not too unnatural for the larger rivers of Canterbury, but the banks of this new river contained none of their empty expanses of shingle, through which half a dozen or more water courses would meander. Instead the river, from bank to bank, consisted of a solid sheet of deep murky brown water flowing steadily out to some alien sea, the South Pacific having departed to who knows where. Out near the river's mouth, two humpback whales were swimming, surfacing frequently due to the relatively shallow depth of the water.
On the far bank there lay a large town, not quite a city, stretched across low hills that ran down to the sea. The hills at least had not changed, but appeared out of place by their excess of typicality. In this world, normality could be just as disconcerting as the abnormal. The railway line passed nowhere near the town. Its buildings vanished from sight as the train entered another tunnel seconds after crossing the bridge.
The train never left the tunnel. Once it had entered the black hole of the tunnel's mouth, a lacuna in the dream ensued. Some compression device was in action, chopping chunks out of the narrative sequence so that the dream might not become too boring for its subject. The mind seemed capable of mastering only the most rudimentary plot devices once in the throes of sleep. This lacuna formed the most advanced element in the stock of tricks and, although advanced, it was seldom used with much deftness or subtlety. Often the lacuna would be dropped in just before the dream's climax, merely a second or two before some terrible or wonderful thing was about to happen, and then all the pent-up emotion suppressed in the dream environment would spill over into reality as the body stirred, jolted by the shock of being cut off in the middle of its reverie, prodding the mind back to consciousness,
This time there was to be no awakening. The express train did not crash into a freight train coming the other way. No earthquake occurred which caused either the tunnel, or the hill on top of it, to collapse on the train, entombing the burrowing metal worm and its microscopic passengers. The dream sequence came instead to an unheralded end, and the brain hurried on to another crazed sequence of visions.
The scene was that of a provincial town, more Australian in appearance than anything else. The dreamer stood at an intersection, wondering which way to walk. Unexpressed, but felt, was the knowledge that this was an unknown town. One of the street names looked familiar, although, for some reason, when you looked at the signs on the corners, your eyes failed to focus on them sufficiently to read the letters inscribed upon them. The street signs were modern and functional, but for all that, what they said was impossible to make out. One of the streets which passed through the intersection was very wide - two lane, but very wide. A row of shops stood about fifty metres down the road. Looking the other way, suburban housing stretched off into the distance, its monotony somewhat relieved by the presence of an abundance of trees growing on the road's verges. As big and impressive as this road was, a powerful urge moved the dreamer to shun following it in either direction. At a right angle to it was another road which ran down a gentle slop and curved to the right at the bottom. This was the route chosen.
There could be no explanation of why it was necessary to walk down this road, or any idea of where the road went, until progress was made along its length. At the bottom of the slope, the dreamer followed the curving tarseal around into a bay which would have been beautiful, but for the invasion of urban sprawl some two or three decades before. The houses were upper middle-class residences, dating from the sixties and early seventies, judging from their reliance on concrete blocks, mock Mediterranean arches, aluminium window frames, split level layout, and subterranean garages. At the far end of the bay, the road passed over another gently sloping hill which reached out into the sea to form a peninsula. The dreamer kept walking, feeling that this was the way to travel, but wondered what would happen if he deviated from the predetermined course of the dream. It would be exceedingly easy to turn up one of the asphalt drives intersecting the footpath, and knock on the front door of one of the houses. But there could be no free will in the world of dreams. Were the dreamer to knock on one of those white panel doors with the mock Victorian brass door knockers, the dream was sure to end, and it would vanish, perhaps never to return.
Uneasiness welled up in the thoughts of the dreamer. Other dreams seldom worked like this. Reason and thought were elements absent from them. Gut feelings might be wrenched from the observer of these mind games - fear or elation, often boredom - but little in the way of reasoned reactions to the cascade of onrushing scenes ever took place. The mind wrestled to develop its paradoxical thoughts within thoughts, and they could fragment if pressed.
The walking was over, Now the dreamer was in a car. With whom it was impossible to say, because the dreamer could not turn towards the driver. Could it be there was no one in the car and that the dreamer was the driver? The view was that of the left hand side window as seen from the front seat. Unless the vehicle was a Continental import, the dreamer could not be the driver. Whoever the driver may be, the car's identity was no mystery. He was sitting in an electric blue Ford Fairlane. Dad had owned a Fairlane at one time. Was this a sign? Was it dad driving? But his car wasn't blue, and they had never driven to this place together. Dad had sold the vehicle in '73.
And never did dad drive like this. As with the train, everything outside the window began whizzing past faster and faster. An old childhood illusion resurfaced - that it wasn't the car moving, but the surrounding landscape. It felt like a car in a Hollywood movie, the sort with a large screen on the back, upon which a projection of a moving landscape had ben cast, while some smoothie like Cary Grant conducted witty scripted repartee with an immaculate co-star. This illusion went one better. It felt like a rerun of an old Sunday drive, or perhaps a holiday drive, yet the setting still seemed unfamiliar. The car engine rumbled; the warm chrome glinted, and the side window rattled slightly in its frame while trees, telephone poles, houses and hills merged together outside.
Another lacuna arrived, as the car failed to reach any destination. The dreamer passed from the vehicle's confines while looking out across some unnamed bay. The bay had never been named, or sailed upon, having been constructed only for the imaginary gaze. Somewhere in the world there might be a similar bay. If so, the dreamer had not stood on its shores before. It might be the regurgitated memory of some pretty photograph seen in a book flicked through many years ago. Stored away, the image of that photo might have spent years stowed in neurons, fulfilling no real purpose other than to occupy a split second or two in a meandering dream in years to come.
Motion was absent now. No movement disturbed the dreamer's vision as he stood on a broad, flat beach, watching the tide to go out. The sand beneath his feet was a dark sludge, only just beginning to dry out after the waves' passing in the late afternoon sun. To his right, a concrete pier jutted out into the receding waves. To his left, some 60 or 70 metres away, stood a dark rock. A big, volcanic bubble of ancient dried lava, the rock bore a slight resemblance to Sumner's Cave Rock. Try as it might, the imagination had its limits.
A group of people were emerging from the waves, dragging a white clinker-built row boat. Surf life savers? Survivors of some shipwreck? The dreamer could not distinguish what they looked like, these people, or how they were dressed, due to the sun setting over their shoulders as they heaved the row boat up the beach. Exhausted, some of them collapsed around the boat once it had been dragged clear of the surf. A woman came running toward the dreamer, carrying some object in her arms. She wore a yellow life jacket, dripping salt water. She handed over the object she had been cradling.
"Here, look after him will you? He's yours to take care of now - I've got to go and tend to the others."
A surprising bundle. A porcupine, quite soaked, gulping for air, but very much alive and as well as could be expected. Its quills did not prickle as he took the animal in his arms. It was warm to hold and radiated life.
Another lacuna. A brief one.
And the dreamer was back in the car, or at least a car. It might have been the old Ford, except the visual field was playing tricks again. The dreamer looked down at the porcupine, wrapped in a jersey. The porcupine radiated joy. Here was something to look after, an uplifting experience.
When the dreamer awoke, it was not for very long. Later that day, he would recall nothing of his brief waking state, held for just a few seconds after his dreams receded, before he plummeted back into sleep.
This next dream was a subterranean one. No sunlight entered the rooms in which he bustled around. All the lighting was artificial, provided by dozens of light bulbs hooked up to ornate chandeliers. Are electric chandeliers possible?
The underground complex (he did not know how he knew it was underground but it felt underground) formed some sort of library. A large library, with shelves on nearly every wall, crammed with old and new books, the old books predominating. There were people strolling around the library, pulling tomes down from the shelves, glancing at them, sometimes putting them back, but mostly hanging on to them. Some of these people had baskets and backpacks to carry around the books they had chosen. One hunched over old lady he encountered in a hallway was pushing a shopping trolley loaded with books.
Out of all the people in the library, it appeared that the dreamer alone was not carrying any books. He strolled around trying to work out what was going on. He looked at the books on the shelves, hoping they might offer some clues. None of the books had any classification numbers on their spines, and none were specially bound; nor had their dust jackets been wrapped in plastic, somewhat abnormal for a library. They were not filed according to the normal logic of a library cataloguing system. There were books on vaguely related subjects, but they were not systematically arranged. A nearby shelf supported books on the Pacific. One or two covered the Pacific War of 1941 to 1945. Others were the works of oceanographers, while others still were tourist guides, or travel books, all dating from the 1940s. Such a lack of systematic filing pointed to the conclusion that the collection was the product of the interests of some private individual, who would have been familiar with the collection's contents to the point of not needing a rigid cataloguing system. It could therefore be assumed that this immense repository of paper was some private collection. However which bibliophile in his or her right mind would permit a disparate bunch of strangers to rummage around such a collection's shelves? Was the owner dead?
Hoping to find out more, the dreamer stopped some people to question them. They were far from polite when stopped and questioned, saying things like "get out of my way" or "can't stop, there’s still a bundle of books I want to grab". Shocked by the rudeness of those around him, the dreamer gave up trying to ask them questions and went off in search of some authority figure. Someone in charge who could answer questions.
While his shoes clicked on the parquet, the dreamer strolled about, scanning for evidence of an exit. Down a long corridor with seventeenth century old masters, there was an arched portal which led into a sunken chamber, badly lit. In that corner, he noticed in passing, hung an old sea chart of the Pacific. Yet more people stood in the chamber, rummaging through the shelves, not really caring about any books they knocked down onto the floor in their searching. Having descended three marble steps, eleven paces got him to the other side of the chamber, where he ascended three similar steps, and found himself in a foyer.
There were no ceiling lights here, and the plaster on the walls was chipped. A desk stood in an alcove to his left, and to his right a staircase ascended somewhere. The dreamer decided to investigate the upper level.
"I hope your realise that once you've gone out, you can't come back in again sir."
The dreamer turned around. A man was sitting at the desk. He had been sitting in the dark, but had clicked his desk lamp on to make himself and his immediate surroundings visible. An aged man, he was dressed up like an old-style museum warden, in a navy blue suit and a battered old cap which should have been retired some years before.
The dreamer hoped that here, at last, was someone who could answer some questions.
"Why can't I just leave and come back?"
"We're closing in about 15 minutes. The porters upstairs have orders not to let anyone else in so that, come closing time, we'll be sure of clearing the place more easily."
A big sign hung above the desk, suspended from a nail. It was a price list of various sorts of books.
Drumming his fingers on the top of the cash register beside him, the attendant looked at him suspiciously.
"How come you haven't found any books?"
The dreamer wondered what he could possibly give as an answer that would make sense. How about "Well, it's only a dream, and I couldn't work out what on earth all this was in aid of, so I didn't pick any books at all"? Somehow, he could see this going down badly. People don't like being told they are not real. There would be a nasty confrontation and the dream would dissolve into reality, with the dreamer none the wiser as to what this intriguing scenario was really all about. Or he could give a non-committal answer and traipse up the stairs. Again the dream would unravel into nothingness without its puzzle having been solved. On the other hand if he turned back and went to look around the labyrinth with its varied titles, he might find something of interest, even if it was just a dream book.
The old man was still waiting for a reply to his question.
"Uhh, I forgot to bring my bag, and there are so many interesting books I saw that I think I'll need one to put them all in."
The man smiled.
"Never mind son, here's a cardboard box for you to put them in." He lifted up an old soap box from behind the desk and passed it to the dreamer.
"You'd better be quick though - you've only got fifteen minutes!"
The dreamer retreated back into the labyrinth, realising that he hadn't asked the man any of the questions he had been meaning to ask. He was frustrated with himself for becoming sidetracked by the questioning he had received and completely forgetting about why he had sought him out in the first place. If he went back now to cross-examine the man, he would look like some sort of weirdo. If he didn’t know why he was here, then what was he doing here in the first place? That would be the retort the man would offer. And the dreamer would have no answer.
Worse dreams had happened than this. What better way to spend slumber than browsing through interesting old books in strange circumstances? It beat being chased by purple creatures from outer space, like last week. And if there was no real purpose in browsing around the shelves, turning dusty pages, and dropping interesting titles into a box that would dissolve when the dream was over, the same might be said of real life. He collected books there, knowing full well that one day the waking dream known as life would come to an end, and he would have no further use for the title he had spent hours and hours collecting and reading. He wondered if the whole of life could be compared to this dream, where he found himself in strange circumstances, governed by rules he could not understand, experiencing dimly perceived peregrination he half understood.
And with that realisation, the dreamer opened his eyes.
6.10 am: Carmen
Another sunny day. And those birds! Can’t they stop chirping? Stupid animals. Nothing better to do than wake me up. Pain. No darkness, no rain, no lightning, just happiness and warmth. Another fucking day!
The dream was freaky. Falling, falling down. Wish they would hurry up and take me away. Summer is on the way. Everyone will be going to the beach, to get bronzed and beautiful, pick up each other. Shame I have to live so close to all that - just blocks away, a few minutes’ walk. A couple years back I used to like that stuff, back in the teenybopper days. Hanging out with the guys. Dickheads. And I loved them. Laughing at their dumb jokes, their crap pick-up lines, putting up with their macho bullshit. Just to be one of the gang and fit in.
At least I grew out of it. I saw the light, or the darkness. I found the devil! Sin and Satan. Just what the nuns used to tell us to steer away from or we would lose our souls.
I hated them.
Forget them! That has all been left behind now. You left, remember?
No, you don’t leave that stuff behind in a Catholic family. You can leave a school but you can’t leave Catholicism. Mum hates me for it. What I would have done if sis hadn’t taken me in I don’t know. And now she is starting to get fed up with me. On at me all the time about not having a job, how I’m lazing around the house, not doing housework and anything else she can come up with to rub in. What happens to people over the age of twenty? Is there some thing that automatically screws them in the head, leaves them twisted, and wanting to piss other people off all the time or what? Try as I might I can’t see myself as screwed in the head as them when I’m their age. And I’m not getting married or pregnant.
This town is warped when it comes to accepting people who are different. You can’t walk down the street without some arsehole passing some shitty remark, putting you down, calling you names. They’re scared of anyone different. They don’t like that one little bit. Everyone has to be normal, or at least, just like them. Too bad if you don’t want to be like them. Just too bad. Leave and go to Australia if you don’t like it.
Loud noises seldom disturbed Eric when he was sleeping. The depth of slumber, accentuated by the effects of alcohol and sundry other drugs was such that nothing short of being physically shaken or slapped in the face two or three times would rouse him. Then his most likely response to these external stimuli would be to mutter “fuck off” and fall back into a doze.
Thus the heavy thumping on the front door of 11 Chester Street East passed unperceived by Eric, as did the noise which ensued when his flatmate Karl stomped angrily out of his bedroom, hurling the door shut behind him as he stomped to the front door, pulling on his trousers. Whoever that was, he or she was going to get an earful.
Karl heaved the door open and snarled at the uninvited guest, looking a fright with nothing on but a pair of old jeans, hair pointing to the four corners of the earth, and a face which badly needed a razor scraped across it.
“What the fuck time do you think this is making all that noise at this hour of the morning?”
Being a rhetorical question, its lack of coherence mattered little.
A startled, malnourished woman, the source of the racket, stepped back in fright. Her emaciated body was covered in a long crushed velvet dress that fell down past her knees, and covered some of her bony shoulder blades. Her face was ashen, and black rings encircled her eyes. What little could be seen of her legs was covered by black tights, revealing two strips of pallid flesh around ankle height. Her feet were encased in kung fu shoes. It was difficult to tell if her sunken eyes resulted more from lack of sleep, substance abuse, or smeared eye liner. The effect was that of a reject from the Munsters show. Karl felt an instinctive dislike for the woman the moment he set eyes on her. She looked how he felt. If it wasn’t Eric up all hours it was his freako friends calling at odd hours preventing him from getting enough sleep to face the working day at the panel beaters. They were all wrecks - human scrap - screwed up by too much junk and turned into junk themselves. Some of them wouldn’t know the date or their names if asked.
“I got-ta see Eric,” she stammered. Her eyes, although urgent and staring, nonetheless succeeded in wandering as she spoke. Drug addicts were usually casing a place at any moment to see if there was something not nailed down they could make off with to sell to buy more junk.
“Eric is asleep, and I was until a few minutes ago. Piss off!”
“I gotta see Eric!”
“Come back later, when I’ve got some sleep!”
Karl slammed the front door shut with a mighty heave. Had there been paintings nailed to the walls of the hallway instead of blue-tacked, tatty rock posters, they would have wobbled out of skew from the shock waves passing through the walls.
Karl was on the verge of storming back to his bedroom when she started thumping on the door again.
“Jesus fucking Christ!”
Karl was on the verge of exploding. He had never been very good at repressing anger. A tempestuous upbringing had helped that. Flinging the door open once more, he screamed and ranted with the fury of a man possessed as he jostled the stumbling woman back from the door, down the step, back along the narrow, curved concrete path, out onto the footpath.
“Didn’t I tell you to piss off!? What are ya? Deaf or something? Do you get the message now?! Go away! Do you want to hear it again? Go A-WAY!!
Too dazed for any coherent response, the woman just wobbled along the footpath, trying to regain her balance. Karl remembered how Lisa, his sister, used to pout when they were little kids, after he had grabbed a crayon or some other treasured item off her. This woman had the same expression rippling across her face. She was trying to force herself to cry, to make him feel guilty, but the situation wasn’t upsetting enough to provoke tears. Her mind was attempting to coax her body into a negative emotional state so the waterworks would start cascading down her cheeks.
Karl left her there on the footpath, under the nosy gaze of inquisitive eyes peeking through the gaps in the neighbours’ curtains. He stomped back inside, took a deep breath and, this time, closed the door gently. The last thing he wanted to do was have to fix that. Breathing deeply in and out, slowly, Karl regained some more of his composure. He would need it to snatch back some last moments of sleep before getting up again to go to work. He stood waiting behind the door for another thirty or forty seconds, just in case she decided to come back. Seeing she had no intention of doing so, he resolved to go back to bed, and wondered if it was time to shift flats.
Regardless of the early hour, the sun was well on its way upon its daily climb to the top of the sky when Trafficman stepped out the front door of his Addington house. Sunshine always made him cheerful, and he couldn’t help but smile at everything he looked at as he walked along. His sprightly gait, his whistle and his glinting teeth startled more than one cat guarding the masters’ front gate at that early hour, prompting them to run away and hide at his approach. This made Trafficman sad, as he was a great fan of cats, even if they retained a distrusting disposition that never permitted strangers to approach them, lean over, and give the fluffy things a pat on the head. Trafficman put it down to the fundamental wickedness of people. If people were not so nasty to cats, then logically, cats wouldn’t be afraid of people. Yet people persisted in brutally torturing them and abandoning them. It was only a few days ago that there had been an article in The Star about a sackful of kittens that had been tossed into the Avon. What sort of monster could even contemplate such an action? Only a mindless brute could stoop to such barbarity. Those innocent, trusting kittens, bundled into a sack and tossed into the river! Fortunately a man out walking his dog had noticed the sack floating downstream, with panicked mewling coming from within, and had jumped in to save them. If only the bastard who did it could be found. Hanging wouldn’t be good enough for that sort. Getting tossed in a sack and thrown into a deep river would be appropriate.
Punishment wouldn’t stop the brutality. There will always be someone doing nasty things to unsuspecting animals. Little boys and yes, even little girls, are the worst of the lot. The deviousness of infantile minds! Untrammelled by any moral considerations, some of which might rub off onto them later on in life, the horrors could get up to all sorts of wickedness. A good thrashing used to put paid to such horridness, but nowadays beating children had fallen out of favour. Too bad if at least some of them deserve it. Saying “naughty, naughty, don’t do it again” has no effect. They will do it again and again and again because they can get away with it, and you end up with the likes of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and all the rest. Rampant egotists, sating their desires for power and control over others by committing monstrous crimes.
Trafficman was aware from an early age that there was little or no justice in the world. Orphanages, bullies and sadistic teachers had left old but not forgotten scars. Victims of such acts seldom forget. And the more they remember the more bitter school reunions and chance encounters with old faces become. Then there are those who might murder to resolve a twenty-year old grudge. Can justice ever meaningfully be imposed on the uncaring?
Such musings caused Trafficman to ignore the urban landscape unrolling beneath his feet. Lincoln Road lay empty. Heavy traffic would not arrive for another hour or two. Then the road would fill with noise and smog. Children trying to cross the road to school would feel the frustration of having to wait five to ten minutes for any motorist to stop and let them pass over Lincoln Road’s pedestrian crossings. Those on bicycles would try to dash across the heavy, uncaring traffic, playing a contemporary form of Russian roulette. Some might get hurt or killed, as periodically happens when schoolkids and heavy traffic meet. As for those cyclists commuting to work, they would experience the thrill of inhaling diesel exhaust fumes from passing trucks and buses, or the joy of being bumped into the gutter by uncaring drivers who believed that a bicycle’s place was locked up at home in a garage.
The horrifying aspect of it all was that the motorists really are unaware of what callous arrogance they display. Many of them really do think they own the road, and when such arrogance causes mishaps, it is always the other party at fault.
Trafficman passed by a shopping mall, car sale yards, rows of run down shops from another time, grimy red brick industrial buildings, and the occasional house squeezed between them. Lost in his thoughts, he could do nothing else. It was not a rare situation; someone ignoring everyday surroundings. Few people can describe in detail the houses they drive by every day on the way to work. Such trivia is of no concern when they are rushing to arrive before nine. Their world is tunnel-like, with anything outside the narrow tube of their immediate preoccupations curved and beaten into a seamless surface that occults scrutiny. Their lives roll on cyclically, day after day repeating the same rituals of driving to and from the workplace, without ever looking at the terrain through which they pass. Not that the buildings or their creators cared, for they shared a certain drab uniformity of content and style that defied the close attention of anyone other than rare birds such as architects and artists, amateur or otherwise. Were the locals to take OE for a long stretch, they might pause upon their return from a similar tunnel-like existence in London to notice how quaint the kiwi urban landscape looks.
Trafficman did notice the railway crossing, recognising in it one of the few forces before which an arrogant motorist would yield. Multiple iron tracks cut right through ripped tarseal, which had buckled under the weight of thousands of tonnes of passing rolling stock. Here, where the RAILWAY CROSSING signs themselves crossed, red lights shone and bells clang clang clanged to the accompaniment of rumbling, rusty wheels, motorists had to stop. Advertising merchants knew the power of rails. The level crossing was a place of ambush where waiting motorists would be caught in the crossfire of billboards unleashing their promises to improve life as we know it with better beer and better petrol. Beer and petrol. A sad combination, but then advertising merchants care little for the road toll, their immediate task being to fabricate images which their customers believe will instill in the public the uncontrollable urge to purchase more beer and petrol. Never mind that some of the people subjected to these unsubliminal roadside bombardments might decide that the simultaneous consumption of beer and petrol is not at all bad, and get themselves killed driving into a train at a level crossing or by smashing into a mesmerising billboard. Responsibility for such things could not be traced to advertisers, and if there happened to be a few with consciences, they would assuage those parties with a few low budget quickies for the Ministry of Transport and rest easy with the thought that their sense of social responsibility had been met.
Trafficman stopped in the middle of the level crossing. Not exactly in the middle of it, as that would have ben a silly thing to try, even at this hour of the morning. No, he stood midway in the crossing at the point where the footpath crossed it. Looking westward, his eyes followed the railway tracks to the spot where they intersected the horizon. He tried to remember how far that would be from where he was standing. Twenty-six kilometres? Or was it 26 miles?
They were good things, trains. They followed predestined paths. They didn’t veer all over the show and smash into things like anarchic motor vehicles. Shaking his head and mumbling chastisements to himself for such pointless mucking about, Trafficman hurried on his way. Much remained to be done, particularly as there was only one man to do it all.
It was odd to be lying awake in the early hours of the morning, particularly for a varsity student. Varsity student. There was a time when you could use the word “student” with the assumption that it meant “varsity student”. This was no longer so. Someone, somewhere in New Zealand had decided to redefine the rules and allow “student”a broader definition; one including secondary and even primary school pupils. It is an abomination to elevate children at that age with the appellation “student”. If you can consider a high school kid a student, you might as well take the term all the way down the educational line and carry it to its logical conclusion. Infants yet to enter kindergarten could be designated “prestudents” and the Government could have a field day announcing how it had multiplied the number of students in New Zealand overnight by X thousand percent.
Not many uni students would be awake at this time of morning all right. The ones who had eight o’clock lectures would be up and about and into their morning routines. There are others who work morning shifts to earn the money to make the study possible.
Tedious internal diatribe is a mental tendency I should somehow suppress and have not worked out how. There is a step involved in stopping your mind wriggling around in argumentative circles, over things with next to no importance, when you might be sitting in the library with a 2,000 word essay staring you in the face. Intellectual perversity of that sort feels just as bad as an uncontrollable urge to scratch your bum in public. Homo sapiens - thinking man? What’s Latin for daydreaming, do-nothing man? It would be a more apt description. I wouldn’t be surprised if the man who came up with “Homo sapiens” was some bespectacled old palaeontologist who spent most of his life daydreaming about this that and the other in some musty museum cellar.
“Thinking man”. It makes you think. There’s a bit of bias involved in the name. We’ve decided to portray ourselves as the heady intellectuals, the implication being that all the other animals, hominids included, were a bit dense. Neanderthal Man didn’t get a dignified moniker. It’s synonymous with brutishness. How about that for racism? Racism in the true sense that these beings actually did belong to another race and weren’t a downtrodden subset of humanity, victimised for their skin colour, the set of their eyes, or something else that set them apart. It’s a bit hard to get a fair deal when the only ones writing history are the ones who wiped you out.
It’s like that in human history. The losers usually get bad press from the winning side, or their supporters and descendants. History is cruel to those consigned to the scrapheap.
There’s this dream that keeps coming back to me, about living in this giant complex, The complex resembles a cross between NORAD’s mountain HQ and some sci-fi city. It’s a self-contained community, with all of its needs fulfilled through its own resourcefulness. There are subterranean hydroponics plants so the place can fed itself. Their power comes from nuclear fusion generators. Everyone wanders around in high-tech jump-suits, giving the place the feel of a sort of 21st century Olympic village. And of course they all look immaculate, the perfect products of some Hollywood casting company.
Outside the community lies wilderness. My dreams have yet to get around to revealing why this super-city is plonked down in the middle of wilderness. From my piecemeal dream images I get the impression that the rest of the world has resorted to barbarism as a result of a nuclear war, plague, or combination thereof. The countryside is nothing like New Zealand. It’s somewhere in North America. I could have recycled it from some old TV show.
I thought that was where I might have swiped the whole dream from - an American TV show. There was a series which screened in the late 1970s about a post-holocaust community which relied on underground bullet trains to zoom out of its HQ to salvage lost technology and trade with the barbarians. I could have picked up the concept from elsewhere, as could the Hollywood producers of that TV show.
In my dreams I spend a lot of time wandering about this place, as if I were an outsider who had come to visit. In one dream it appeared I was being considered for membership in the community. I felt like some waif from the outer reaches who had come banging on their nuclear blast-proof doors one day. I was left to sit in on a lecture. I paid no attention to what was being taught, preferring instead to watch the golden youth seated in the amphitheatre. The architecture of the chamber was imposing; almost too impressive to be coming from the mind of someone who had not progressed beyond fourth form technical drawing classes. A slender flying buttress arched over the amphitheatre, bending away from an exterior wall crowned with a curving glass window which hung over the seated students until it met the ceiling midway across the width of the chamber. Where I conjured that image from is a hard one to answer. I am not in the habit of reading architectural reviews.
Waking in the early morning hours is not something I am accustomed to. In winter’s cold mornings I doze like a hibernating bear until nine or even later. And having fully woken I feel no incentive to climb out of my cosy bed into the freezing morning air. In high summer the effect of the climate is just the opposite. The muggy heat forces me awake. My sweating body, drowning between clammy sheets, feels no hesitation in getting up. It tends to be a blessed relief. October is not so bad. Here I am though, awake. All I can do is lie here staring at the ceiling, thinking vapid thoughts and inwardly rebelling at my body’s laziness.
Such heat at this time of the year is untypical! Back in Paris the air is chilly, and autumn is increasing in intensity, slowly progressing into winter. Fewer people sit at sidewalk tables outside the boulevard cafés. Apart from those tourists who wish to feel the full Parisian experience, heedless of the reluctance of actual Parisians to share it. The pretty young girls one sees around the Sorbonne start wrapping up in less revealing clothes. The clochards realise that soon they will have to start sleeping in the Métro again, for those that do not may not survive another winter. People in general begin dreaming of the next summer, hot August days, and holidays.
Here everything is around the other way. The main holidays are in January! When travelling you miss many things you take for granted otherwise. French newspapers for instance. The local rags are not worth the paper they are printed on, such are the low standards of their reporting. Something like the standards of the regional press back home. Despite warnings offered in Nouméa, the food is not so bad, provided one seeks the right restaurants. But then in France one would not have to make an effort to find them.
Not all that one misses may be assumed bad. In a way, I miss seeing the down and outs, and I miss seeing the pickpockets and the thieves who are a permanent feature of the urban landscape back home. These are perhaps not necessarily bad things to miss. I miss the narrow streets and the traffic too. The landscape here is wild and untamed, and the inhabited parts seem empty by comparison.
New Zealand has many things in its favour. The locals are friendly compared to many of my compatriots. Many Parisians are so fed up with arrogant Americans that they sniff at the sight of any foreigner. Being stopped in the street and asked directions by someone who speaks little or no French is assumed to be a nuisance.
I could not imagine that here. Perhaps if I asked for directions in French I would be told where to go in a different manner, but for me there is no language barrier, unless confronted by some type with poor diction. Before my arrival in Auckland I was wondering what the reaction of locals to a Frenchman would be. The Greenpeace Affair is not yet history. For some reason I expected greater scrutiny of my passport at Customs.
Soon I should get up. I have a new city to explore, but I am a lazy sort of man. I will lie here a little longer.
Boring boring boring boring boring boring boring!
Either I lie in bed and sleep in doing nothing.
Or I get up, mooch around and do nothing.
I’ll leave off getting up till Trace and Bry-an bugger off to work, otherwise I’ll be on the receiving end of another earful of “Why don’t you get off your backside and get a job?” or “How about you doing some cleaning around here?”
They’re robots those two, in the morning. Rushing around - bathroom, breakfast and bugger off to work. Real robots. They’re jealous because I don’t have to rush around like a headless chook, so they have to take some of it out on me. Unless I don’t get up. Then they have to make a special effort of coming in here to wake me up, which they usually don’t do, because they’re too busy trying to get their tails to work on time. They’re so bad they expect me to feed Muttley, the crazy spaniel, all the time. When I go into the kitchen in the morning there is usually a note there for me telling me to feed the dog because it wasn’t hungry before “but it will be by the time you read this”. They know I can’t stand the dumb animal. It drives me round the twist with its barking every night. When a car goes past that’s enough to set it off. And whenever a cat or a hedgehog shows itself the dog goes off its nut. Dogs - they don’t have a brain in their heads. The most they can manage is chasing things, drooling and crapping on people’s lawns.
What to do to avoid all that crap, the nine to five stuff, for the rest of my life? The dole’s no good. Once you’re on that you get the welfare people on your back all the time as well as the whingeing rels. And if they can’t rush you into taking some shit job then you get stuck on some training scheme so you won’t show up on Government employment statistics. Schemes to teach you skills for jobs that aren’t there.
Marriage is out. Who would want me? And there’s no way I’m getting barefoot and pregnant to go on the DPB. Fat chance of that. No way.
Sell myself? About as likely as getting married.
“You wait till you get out in the real world, you’ll have a shock or two waiting for you my girl!”
That’s what the nuns used to say. They were wrong. I had a better idea of what was coming than they thought. They used to think I was thick. The problem was I wouldn’t play their game. And now I’m out of school I still don’t want to play their game.
The thing is to work out what other game there is to play. I’m looking without any results up till now. Thieving could be a way, except you usually end up in prison with a girlfriend to protect you from the dangerous ones.
What to do.
I’m out here and I’m doing it! I’m really doing it! I’m going to set things right and everyone will be happy!
“Get off the fuckin’ road you shithead!”
The lime green Vauxhall Viva was going past too fast to catch a good look at the driver’s face, although Trafficman was sure he would remember the car, and mentally noted the number plate. Should he ever encounter it again, parked on a street somewhere, or up someone’s drive, he would leave a little note clipped under the windscreen wiper, informing the stroppy driver that such excessive speed on central city streets could be dangerous. Such people had to be taught these things or they would go through life never knowing any better. This was a sad thing to contemplate.
Besides, no one deserves to be called such a thing when all he wants to do is help his fellow humans.
A lorry roared up from behind, blaring its horn at the last minute,
I will not jump. I will not be provoked. They want me to look at them scared, They want me to hurl back foulmouthed abuse at them. I will not descend to their level, Homo automobilicus. Automobile man. The modern savage. The barbarian of the roads. He must be tamed for his own sake. There is no other way to decrease the road toll. No other way to save all those victims from oak caskets, and their friends and relatives from grieving over the thought that the accident could have been avoided if only someone was more careful. Someone has to stand up and be counted and say that enough it enough.
Trafficman gripped his cardboard sign and clenched his jaw tighter. He attempted to emulate this image in his mind of a steadfast rock, unmoving in the face of waves crashing all around it. He too would be like that rock: weathered but unmoved. Let the cars race by - the median strip would be a tiny isle of calm and stability in a tide of passing traffic.
His sign’s message was simple: PLEASE DRIVE CAREFULLY. Its maker estimated that three words were about all a passing motorist would catch anyway, so it was futile writing anything longer or more complicated. The stout laminated corrugated cardboard that the helpful words were painted on had been acquired from a rubbish skip out back of the local supermarket. Waste not and all that. The red paint was left over from a bicycle painting session. The bicycle, an old Raleigh of 1938 vintage, was sitting at home, leaning against a patch of flaking wall in the hallway of Trafficman’s Addington cottage. There was no need for the bicycle this morning. Not when the traffic needed taming.
“Slow down, you’re moving too fast!”
The grey-suit in the Mercedes did not hear a word of Trafficman’s plea. Steely Dan was thumping sedately out of the car’s quadraphonic stereo system and all the automatic windows were up. All that the driver perceived was a passing glimpse of a funny-looking man in a blue raincoat with read and yellow luminous visibility bands on his arms and legs and a cap with a ring of red bike reflectors. He was noticed for only three or four seconds as the Mercedes zoomed past the spot on the median strip where he was wildly waving a crookedly cut piece of cardboard.
“Bloody nutter! Sunnyside must have shut another wing...”
It was to be an early start today. It’s alright for some though. Nothing else to do except stand around.
Trafficman watched in despair as the Merc accelerated past him and sped off into the distance before turning into Colombo Street. Another speed freak. He would come to a sticky end some day, and that flash car would end up crunched up like discarded shrink wrap in some scrap yard. The waste! The waste of it all!
And still the traffic kept coming. It was building slowly. Most of the Friday morning commuters were still at home at this hour, preoccupied with the usual preparations for another working day. Others, fewer in number, started earlier and had already left home to head for work. Few people have the knack of arriving to work relaxed and on time. For most it is a case of waking up a bit too late for comfort then frantically racing through the motions until arriving at work just in the nick of time, stressed out before the working day has even started. The start time, early or late, has little to do with it. Give a person the chance to start work at midday and the same belated rush would still occur in most cases. Human nature is such that things must always be hurried and done just in the nick of time.
But the road should not be the place for such behaviour! Tired drivers, barely awake, driving full tilt - accidents can happen.
Was the task of stopping this too much for one person? One man against the insanity of the world. Hope could not be abandoned, for without hope all is lost and life would collapse into pointlessness. Jesus must have thought such things. Trafficman did not however hold himself to be another Jesus. A blasphemer he was not. No, he drew strength from the Saviour’s example. Jesus was a man who had preserved faith in the face of outrageous adversity. No other man could hope to do better, although that was no reason not to try.
“Slow down! It’s dangerous!”
Trafficman paused, inhaling carbon monoxide and diesel fumes, watching expectantly for a reaction from the unresponsive traffic.
“Please, take care! For the sake of common humanity!”
If only they would listen! Take heed of what was good for them. They are children, naive children who don’t want to listen to helpful advice, who think they know it all. They’re riding for a fall. They’ll see. One day they’ll end up as statistics, casualties just like the thousands of others over the decades since the first motor vehicles started trundling around dusty New Zealand roads.
The tap on Trafficman’s shoulder came as a complete surprise.
“Excuse me sir, would you accompany me to the footpath over there?”
Trafficman whirled around, having been caught unawares. A traffic cop! Kitted out neatly in leather boots, brown trousers, and a heavy motorcyclist’s jacket. He was a motorcycle patrolman, and didn’t appear to be in the mood for any nonsense. Trafficman could se the man’s big Japanese motorcycle parked by the spot on the footpath where he was pointing.
“Sir, you can’t stay here in the middle of the road. There’s a good chance you might be sideswiped once the traffic gets heavier.”
The patrolman’s voice was firm and persuasive. His inert, bushy moustache reeked of masculine authority and he had the look of an experienced, calm sort of bloke.
It would be silly to argue with the voice of authority when this struggle was in the name of its respect. Will he be angry at me because I’m trying to do his job for him? Members of the public aren’t meant to do this sort of thing. That’s what they’ve said before.
Trafficman’s anxiety increased as they made a dash across the road through a break in the traffic. A dressing down was in store.
The traffic cop, however, was the patient sort; not the type at all to fly off the handle.
“It’s ahh, Mr Laverack, isn’t it?”
Trafficman nodded. The name from another life. The one that had been so difficult to get rid of. Some people still used the old name. Official sorts of people. The ones who weren’t friends yet who nonetheless provided at least some regular contact with the human race: the nice people at the DSW, the staff at the Addington Trustbank, the officers of the Ministry of Transport...
The motorcycle patrolman continued.
“I believe one or two of my colleagues have had cause to have a talk to you before. Am I right?”
Trafficman nodded his head regretfully. They hadn’t understood either. They were men with a job to do, they had said, and they didn’t need unqualified interlopers. One of them had gone red in the face and got a bit angry.
“So you’ll understand when I say I’m surprised to see you playing this stunt again. Standing out in the middle of a busy city road with a tatty piece of cardboard isn’t going to prove anything. All you’re doing is possibly putting yourself in the position of getting hit.”
This time the dressing down didn’t feel so bad. There was only one traffic cop. It was more intimidating having to face two. They ganged up on you verbally so you couldn’t answer them, and left your head spinning with rapid fire comments.
“I could fine you for what you’re doing. You could cause an accident. What’s your problem? Did you fail the MOT entrance exam or something?”
“Do you think you’re going to stop accidents with a piece of painted cardboard? We spend hours and hours out on the road, thousands of dollars on advertising campaigns on road safety and you somehow think one piece of cardboard and getting in the road is going to change things?”
The man’s voice calmed a little and levelled out in pitch.
“Give me the sign. It’s for your own good.”
He firmly tugged it from Trafficman’s hand. It took no great effort. The offending object was only held limply, with one edge trailing on the cracked asphalt footpath.
“Listen, my advice to you would be to join a community group if you want to help people. There are plenty of voluntary organisations that are always looking for a helping hand, and it doesn’t have to be anything demanding. You can do some good.”
Trafficman was not really paying attention. His head was crowded with other words, echoing around inside to the extent that any exterior activity or noise constituted no more than audiovisual wallpaper on the walls of the little room in which his thoughts lived. In this mood he could stand motionless and not notice a thing, while his brain hummed with activity, growing ever faster and faster, until reflections and recollections began crashing into one another like the rolling stock of two freight trains colliding on the main trunk line.
Life at these times did not feel like a rich tapestry, rather it assumed the texture supplied by a Bernina knitting machine run wild, spewing forth multiple weaves in senseless, ever-changing patterns.
Trafficman thought about how much he had liked trains when he was a lad. Some of that affection remained. Watching trains was soothing. They always knew exactly where they were meant to be going as they rumbled along on their rusty iron rails.
“I think I’ll walk down to the station and watch some shunting for a while.”
The remark hit the officer unexpectedly. Caught off-guard in the middle of his lecture, the brief announcement gave him pause to realise that the silly beggar hadn’t been listening. Even as he realised this, Trafficman was already walking straight past him, and past his big Japanese motorcycle parked by the side of the road. The path ahead was clear now. Solace could be found at the railway station.
I hate getting up in the morning to go to school. I’m glad it’s Friday.
“I’m up mum okay? You don’t need to keep on at me!”
Clothes first. Mum always lays them out. Otherwise I have to look for them. She can never put the same thing in the same place in the drawers, so I end up throwing things all over the floor trying to find a pair of school socks or something. And she thinks I am the messy one.
It’s hot outside. Shirt weather. But there are sports this afternoon and it will get windy, so I’ll have to cart my jersey around with me all day so I can wear it riding home on my bike. The bike. Tyres were a bit flat going down to the dairy last night. I’ll have to find the bike pump too so I don’t get a flatty going over to the park for sports.
“Hello Goldy! You want some breakfast?”
Feeding time for the fish was early morning just after getting up. Otherwise you forget and Goldy goes hungry. Goldy must have a boring life. All he gets to do is float around in circles all day. Going to school and coming home is like that too. Round and round in circles.
It used to be that I would say “I can’t face them today. I’m throwing a sickie.” Now I’m self-employed, it’s not a problem.
Work is something I can’t take that seriously. And I don’t.
I used to put up with their shit all day. The endless criticisms, the gossip, the rivalries, the backstabbing, all so that at the end of the week I could take home a slim little pay packet with about as much as I now normally earn in a good night.
Sometimes I wonder which work involves the greater prostitution. The night work I do for myself. Or the day work done for someone else’s profit. Profit that resides in the coffers of the company, as directed by the directors, who used to direct me from 9 to 5.
For them I was a production unit. As low as any whore turning tricks, I turned around product for them to sell. Product I didn’t care about. Men’s shoes of all things. Objects I couldn’t wear and can’t use. I made them day after day after day.
I pity the others. I have a choice, a way out. For them, the shoes are it. That and going home to hubbie and the kids. In the majority of cases he doesn’t earn so much that they can afford to stay home minding the house. They worry about the company closing down, what with all the cheap imported shoes coming in now the so-called Labour Government has lifted import duties. Our firm couldn’t compete with sweatshop labour from India or wherever. The people in the shops don’t care - they’ll buy whatever’s cheaper, regardless of whether it will last as long as something a bit more expensive. There is talk of lay-offs. The women on the shop floor knew how unlikely it was they would get other work if laid off. Employers always have a reason for choosing someone else when you are a middle-aged woman and have children. And somewhere in the North Island, David Lange is sitting around now, thinking about all the good deeds he and his mates did for the working class of this country.
Cause it’s a class struggle as well as a colour one. That’s what dad used to say, before the heart attack. He had worked in enough similar factories to know. All his life from the age of fourteen. Working in nowhere jobs for middle-class white people. He didn’t want that for me, and look what I have become.
In search of solace at the station, safety at the station, solitude in the shunting yard. Silly thinking thoughts thus. Allow an attitude of insouciance. De-stress your demanding dreams. Watch the wagons rolling past.
No, it simply wouldn't work. Try as one might, keeping an alliterative or assonant train of thought is too demanding. It might be better to think nothing, to contemplate things empty-headedly. Perhaps, except that there are already too many empty heads in the world. Too many addled brains, too much muddled thinking. How everything still manages to keep going despite it all is something to wonder about. How, just how, does it happen? The chaos of it all should overwhelm us, send us crashing back into the Dark Ages. It's a wonder some psychotic in a missile silo in the Urals or some doper in a control booth in Nebraska hasn't pressed the launch button that would send the last few irradiated mutants left alive afterwards screaming back into the Ice Age, trying to eke out an existence in the tundra of a nuclear winter.
The Colombo Street flyover gives a good view of the rail yards. Only the rush hour traffic served to distract, but it's better to leave all that alone. The traffic would have to wait. You could see the Port Hills from up here; brown, scarred and bare, except for suburban Cashmere climbing up one stretch to meet the TV tower on the Sugarloaf. Funny name for a hill. The overpass was just high enough to allow a rooftop level view of Sydenham; a view which used to be dominated by the looming presence of the Kiwi Bacon kiwi, that metres high monument to inventive advertising. Addington's crowning glory. The sight of it left generations of kids gaping. At first sight their eyes used to pop out of their heads. But after having seen it a few times, maybe from the back seat of dad's car, it just became an accepted feature of the local topography, none the less spectacular for all that. Who was the bastard who decided it should be dismantled? The act was little short of criminal. The bird had been perched up on the roof of its building for decades, and then one benighted morning some grubby workmen came along with an ugly crane and unceremoniously hauled the proud bird away. Another triumph of economic expediency over art, however commercialised its intent. And let's face it, the bird hardly induced thousands of enthralled consumers to immediately rush off down Sydenham Road and lay siege to the local butcher's shop. Instead it represented a glorious, if slightly overstated, symbol of national pride. But not any more.
The advertising which remained in the vicinity was less inspiring than the old Kiwi had been. A collection of billboards crowding the foot of the overpass, for the attention of rail passengers heading for Greymouth, Dunedin or Picton. Big rugby brutes clutching beer cans and wiping froth off their bushy moustaches. Slinky models draped around the latest model imported car. Giant depictions of exotic, high-tech containers, bursting at the seams under the force of the energy-drenched motor oils they contained. The posters looked impressive when glimpsed from a passing carriage, but were less so viewed from a stationary and close vantage point. Then you could see the join lines of the different sheets which had been stuck together to make the whole. One billboard, extolling the virtues of a German beer made in Christchurch, had a sheet peeling off in the bottom left hand corner. The lithesome creature sprawled over a German car was slightly disfigured by a substantial swathe of dried seagull excrement that had been splattered across her face. The same poster could be seen to have other flaws - the bill sticker who had glued it up had left large air bubbles trapped under the now dry sheets of paper. The world's imperfections were ineluctable, even in the glossy, packaged world of advertising. Happily, few of the marketing executives in Wellington actually stopped to take a close look at what had become of their creations in situ.
There was as yet no-one to watch the billboards. The morning train to Greymouth had not departed. People were still busily hopping on board. On the tracks below there wasn't much to watch except the oily stains between the sleepers. Some activity could be seen down the other end, with NZ Rail staff pottering around a line of idle, empty coal trucks. They were probably going off to the West Coast too, a return trip so they could be loaded up for the umpteenth time with Reefton coal.
Calm reigned over the rail yard. The scruffy shingled expanse was not vibrating with activity, although a slow gearing up might be sensed if you stayed on long enough, resulting in a calm rhythm which would be maintained until some time early in the evening.
If you jumped from here, it would be a high enough fall to cripple or possibly to kill. There was a good drop of twenty to thirty feet down on to the shingle-strewn tracks. If you were still breathing when they found you, you would probably live, maybe on crutches or in a wheelchair, as Christchurch Public Hospital was only a few minutes' drive away. If you were really single-minded, such a setback would be no deterrent. There were always the hospital windows to propel yourself out of. Some of those wards were up three or four floors, with good hard concrete to meet you coming down.
No, enough. Banish these thoughts. Cast them out and trample them to dust. Death is no resolution, no response to things been and done. Hang on to your life force for it's all you have. Your one response to chaos is to face it unflinchingly, cling tenaciously to life, grasp it with your last remaining force, find a handhold and don't let go.
Overhead the sky is calm. No breeze disturbed the rail yard. It is a beautiful morning.
The Greymouth express slowly pulls away from the station platform. Friends and relatives wave goodbye from the track side. Porters trundle empty baggage trolleys out of the way. The platform would lie idle for some hours before the arrival of further passengers and people waiting for them. The days of suburban rail commuters taking the morning train into the city centre were long over. Instead they drove or took buses. In most parts of Canterbury, railway tracks were a thing of the past, either ripped up or overgrown.
The death of the provincial branch line was assured as far back as the 1960s. NZ Rail claimed it was for want of demand. Too many people were using cars, they had said. Only the main trunk lines remained, and they hardly did a roaring trade in passengers. Some continued to ride the rails. They rolled underneath the rush hour traffic traversing the flyover. Arthur's Pass, the Otira Gorge, Stillwater and Greymouth lay ahead.
But what awaits me?
Outside all was glowing. A million times brighter than a colour photo. And it was hot out there, although the kitchen was still nice and cool. Mum hung out the washing on the rotary clothes line while Whiskers, the neighbours' cat, brushed up against her ankles, hoping to mooch a free feed in exchange for these passing affections. The grass was coming up thick on the lawn. That'd have to be cut come Sunday. Some pocket money there. Better get up early then or it'll be too hot to finish off.
Whiskers was the most persistent of the neighbourhood moggies. They all trooped through the property in the hope of mooching off mum. No cat could pass up a free feed and she was a pushover. A meow and a pleading gaze from the back steps were enough for a chunk of meat. The pushy ones strolled in through the sliding door that was always left open to inspect the kitchen in case there was some morsel lying around.
Dad called it the spring growth, when the lawn suddenly put on a spurt of growth. In a couple of weeks the grass could push itself up higher than it had in the preceding four months. If it was left long enough it got so tall and thick you couldn't push the mower through it.
Skippy cornflakes for breakfast. A glass of Quik to wash it down. Sis had already cleared off to school. She never stuck around for breakfast on school days. Her friends and all the silly girly teen magazines she read had told her she was too fat. She would walk off to school with just a crust of bread and some jam in her stomach, then come home after school and pig out on anything she could lay her hands on. Then the next morning mum would have to practically prise open her jaws to get a crust of bread into her again. Stupid girl.
Girls are thick. Always hanging around at school, giggling away in little groups. They fight among themselves more than the boys, and they do things a boy wouldn't do. Like tearing each others' hair out, or spreading catty rumours about some rival. They all think they're sexy too, with their flat chests stuck out for all they're worth, and baring their matchstick legs to gain attention. Always talking about make-up and clothes and haircuts. Some of them lust after some of the more sporty boys. A few even kiss them.
The cornflakes were going soggy from all the staring and thinking, unaccompanied by any arm or jaw movements. No hurry. School didn't start till nine. Sis always toddled off early. Sick it was. Only girls and goody-goodies hung out at school any longer than they had to. What do you do all that time? Claw each other, jump skipping ropes and gossip. BOOOO-RING!
The lawn always looked great in October. All the blades were a rich green. Repeated exposure to bright light hadn't faded them yet. The lawn turned to straw in February, all yellowy brown, scorched and wilting.
A crowd of sparrows had settled on the grass where mum had thrown some not so old bread. Fat baby sparrows waggled their wings and tail feathers and opened their beaks wide to induce the mummy sparrows to feed them. Whiskers wasn't paying them any attention. It was too much effort chasing birds when soft old mum was on the verge of offering a hand-out of processed human grub, free of feathers, beak or bones. Whiskers thought he was the lord of the jungle, but he was just a big pussycat.
Mum had left the kitchen radio switched on to ZB. She didn't like anyone changing it. Ads, ads and more ads. Hardly any music, maybe three songs an hour between news updates. Boring music. The same jingles day after day. Dad called it the housewives' station. It must be if mum was a typical listener. She hardly really listened to it at all, even though she'd get shitty if someone turned it off or changed stations. She'd say "One day when you've got your own house and radio you can listen to whatever you like. Until then I'll listen to whatever I want to hear."
Adults are stupid.
There is this song I always hated. It’s by Manfred Mann. No, it’s actually by Bruce Springsteen but they had a hit with it in the mid-seventies. It has these freaky lyrics that don’t make any sense if you listen to them yet seem quite profound it you’re out of it and just hear snatches here and there. And there’s this intense production work that gives the whole shebang a dreamlike quality that’s really overpowering. Musical nectar distilled in its most potent form. I keep thinking that song is a metaphor for my life. Superficially it holds together. Get any closer and it dissolves into mismatched nonsense, held together by psychedelics. I sometimes think I’m a sorry son of a bitch. It doesn’t last. I keep seeing people who make me think just how worse it could be.
In Asia there were people like that. For all the shit I went through then, I never had to sleep in doorways, walk barefoot or beg for a pittance to get by. Quite the opposite. I had the material trappings and lifestyle to go with it. At a price. The price of ending up in a river or a festering hole of a cell if I made one wrong step.
I could have stayed here and lived the straight life. It wasn’t to be. Four years of conformist crapola in high school was enough for me. I learnt how the game is played there. Kiss arse and suck up, cultivate connections. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Particularly in Christchurch, the antipodean mirror image of 19th century English class structures. You could say I did similar things in Bangkok. I had to get in on the scene there. Be nice to shits who would screw you over real good without a moment’s hesitation if it suited them. I did it well. Soon there were trusting me with the big jobs. Reliability was my middle name. And I wasn’t on the shit, which always helped. Trustworthiness and a level head. Not common qualities in that line of trade.
I was going to head on to London to work in a bar. Just as well I never got there in a way. I can see myself bored with England, in a nowhere job, thinking about home. I never thought about home in Asia. I had far too much on my mind. I still do.
It was a short walk to school across the park. A good five minutes before the morning bell rang. Plenty of time. Maths was first up, with Mr Sommersby and his short temper. Everyone watched out in his class, as he was only too happy to inflict pain and humiliation on the pre-adolescents in his care. Consequently maths was not a popular subject. Miss Alenseni, the class teacher, didn't teach maths. Probably didn't know anything about it. She preferred English, odd since she had a foreign name. Was it Italian? Somewhere in Europe. It was an exotic name. If she wasn't Italian she had to have been there. She sometimes put on airs and waved her arms about, fuelled by passion for some thing or other.
The clacking sound of roman sandals on asphalt felt very seasonal. The chequered brown rubber soles, not yet worn smooth after only a few weeks' wear, had no spring in them. They hurt your feet if you ran too fast on concrete, and you had to be careful to lift your feet to avoid coming a cropper from a scraped sole.
The narrow concrete path cut the playing field in two. A cricket game was in progress in the larger portion of the grassed area. Some fellow standard threeers were engrossed in emulating Richard Hadlee or whoever else their fathers and older brothers had told them was worth worshipping.
Cricket is boring. The boys who played it were shits. A tight in-crowd which never let the lower social echelons do any batting or bowling. A couple of days standing in outfield were enough to destroy any nascent interest in the tedious game. Nigel Lanyard was the head of the clique, the biggest wannabe Hadlee of all. It was best to ignore them. Cricket always ruined TV viewing over the summer holidays. All the kids' programme got replaced by day after day of men in white clothes twiddling their thumbs and scratching their crotches while they stood around waiting for something to happen, and the announcer rambled on about some thing or other.
The field was public land, but as it was adjacent, the school used it for additional playing fields. No-one objected. It would have been unpatriotic to deprive the children of extra playing space. Soccer fields were provided in winter, courtesy of a local club which put up goal posts that they only used on Saturdays and for practice sessions at night, long after all the schoolkids had gone home. Cricket pitches and softball fields were likewise provided in summer. Boots ripped up the grass and churned the ground to mud by July. By the time it got to recover in September, the wearing down of the spring growth started almost immediately under the scraping of bats and the coming and going of batsmen clocking up runs or reaching home base. The ground started going bald by November, thereupon it cooked hard, unprotected from the rays of the sun.
Mum said the field used to belong to a farmer. Just before he died he left it to the council to develop as recreation land for the newly-arrived suburbanites who had invaded the formerly rural area. There were still a few fields remaining a few years back, but they had since been subdivided and built on. Playing in vacant lots on giant mounds of cleared topsoil used to be a favourite pastime. This field had had its own particularly high mound for a while. Providing abundant ammunition, it acted as a stage for huge clod fights after school until some busybody neighbour rang up the school. The headmaster himself had driven around in his Mercedes so he could yell at everyone to go home or face suspension. Clod fights were supposed to be dangerous, but no-one had been hurt. All that had been back in standard two. A bulldozer had cleared the dirt away a couple of months later. Dad said they sold topsoil, but didn't say who to or why.
The cricketers did not have much in the way of company in the field. Three or four other kids were also walking along the path to school, but they were all. Not many kids could be bothered with organised sports before school. There wasn't that much time then. You would just be getting stuck into it and the bell would ring. Lunchtime was best for sports, although a few diehards stuck around after the last bell to fill in the hours before teatime. Their parents worked, so they weren't missed at home.
That lot had better shift themselves soon. They'd have to put the gear away before they could go to class and the bell was going to ring soon.
Changi International Arrivals. Queues, Asian men in khaki uniforms with British military caps. "Why are you visiting Singapore?" "How long are you staying?" "Where are you staying?" "Where are you going to?" Questions snapped out while they rummaged through the day pack, hoping to find something incriminating that wasn't there. The same inspection, sight unseen, was being carried out on the big back pack they had just offloaded from the Qantas 747. They knew your sort. Under 25, travelling alone, unshaven, long hair. There's a death penalty if your sort gets caught with drugs in our spotless city state.
No worries though. It was just a part of the game. The buggers could search all they liked, they weren't going to find anything. Changi was a pain, but necessary. They always thought they were so fuckin' on the ball too, the little pricks, but they didn't know diddley. Changi was the perfect entry point to Asia precisely because it was wall to wall with these busy little uniformed pricks. From here on in, you wouldn't get hassled so much 'cause you had run the gauntlet and been passed. Drug free. Must be. Says here in the passport that Changi passed him.
After that, the only heat was the real sort. You played tourist. A couple of nights in the big city, then take the bus up the Malay Peninsula and admire the jungles, paddy fields and mountains. Listen to the squawking birds as you swatted insects. Just another Kiwi backpacker exploring the back roads. All the way to Thailand.
On to Bangkok - chaos, bustle, bad roads, worse pollution, cheap sex with anything on two legs or four (even three if you wanted to pay a bit extra), the seediest night spots on the planet, and an abundance of suppliers.
The dark backroom was safe only as long as you kept your back to the wall and the Vietnam War surplus Colt well concealed. Old friends were hard to find in this particular trade, and that trio of scumbags on the other side of the table had destroyed more than a few lives to stake out their tawdry piece of empire in this city. The merchandise was exchanged for an electronic funds transfer. The head bandit smiled sagely, hung up the phone confirming the transfer, and shook hands. They were happy this time so they wouldn't worry about trying to kill you.
The work of getting the stuff home fell on lesser beings - mules. You used to be one until you built up an impressive enough number of runs to move up a rung in the organisation. Some of the couriers went by air. Often they got caught, but they had no idea who you were, so that wasn't going to hurt any. It would hurt them plenty. At best a stretch in prison keeping their arses to the wall, at worst an execution after months of futile appeals and staring at the walls of some stinking South-East Asian jail. Some off them tried to bugger off with the goods. It was a risky undertaking. When they were eventually traced, someone would arrange a misfortune to befall them. Weeks, maybe years later, the cops might find a dismembered corpse buried outback in New South Wales or on the Gold Coast. The standard view in the trade was that such instances were regrettable, but business is business.
The trip home was usually unexciting. A series of antiseptic airport lounges while you waited for your transfers. And at Auckland there would be more questions, but what did those fuckers know? Aotearoa; the smuggler's dream. More coastline than the continental United States and a tinpot navy trying to police it.
The glory days didn't last particularly long. A few years were enough. All that toing and froing, via ever more indirect routes, through the Golden Triangle. Such movements were noted in official records for some zealous official to piece together. The circumstantial evidence mounted slowly. Maybe someone photographed you in a public place with a contact. Maybe there was a bug in that hotel room. Looking over your shoulder started becoming a reflex action. Wondering if someone was watching became a pervasive question. Somewhere, someone was making inquiries. Maybe back on the edges of the Tasman Sea, or perhaps an Asian cop had been paid enough by a rival supplier to convince him to put you out of business. Informers abounded, and a word or two under pressure down at pig central could send a magnificent supply system crashing down.
The flunkies who did the carrying were the first to go. Then word got around to the suppliers that your days were numbered. Prices went up. Meetings were postponed indefinitely. Business became slow.
Time for a change of scene. Others might have stuck with it, but they never lasted long and there was little reason to believe your case would be any different. Time to settle down for a while and let someone else take the heat. The big men didn't mind. It was an occupational hazard. You stayed on good terms, and kept in touch. Enough to ensure a regular supply of the hard stuff, to supplement income from dope growing on the West Coast. It wasn't the big time, but it would do.
Forays to South-East Asia were replaced by drives over the Alps to Westland. The Colt was substituted by a .303. Blackball wasn't Bangkok, but sometimes the locals made trouble. A few wide shots got the message through to anyone who trespassed on the patch and if anything was reported it was a case of mistaken identity while out deer hunting.
The futon was comfortable enough. There were vague memories of falling asleep in the lounge. This must have been followed by a zombie walk ending with crashing in the bedroom. The pillow felt spongy and soft, and the duvet was thin enough to keep you cool in the morning, but sleep would not hold. It had dispersed to a state of semi-conscious rumination. The brain was replaying the record of past life and felt no inclination to jump to another topic. The only interfering thought was the one that all this had been replayed time and time again to no effect. You know you were there. You know you are here. You know you are pointlessly reflecting on the facts but your brain refuses to stir.
The other option was to get up but there, no physical urge existed. Dope and alcohol had worn it down. Sleep deprivation had broken it. The bones wanted to lie there, stay on the mattress, where the wearing pull of gravity was more evenly distributed. No material need required the body to move. The bladder was moderately full, but not to the point of needing release. No pressing errands needed to be run. It was going to be one of those formless, semi-empty days. A few people might visit. And there were some appointments to be kept. Nothing resembling a frantic schedule however.
What day was it? Friday? Yeah - last night was Warner's night. Out with the mates for a beer on Thursday. Listen to some live music, have a yarn. Come home at one in the morning. Fall asleep a couple of hours later.
Friday involved seeing in the end of the week for those who lived the nine to fiver lifestyle. For those who didn't, Friday night held the same meaning in any case. The nine to fivers dictated the weekly calendar. Friday - social drinking with workmates, going out for dinner, going to a film or hitting the nightspots, cruising up and down Colombo Street looking to pick up some babe. An excuse to get pissed, if you ever really needed one.
Not being a nine to fiver, you could ignore these conventions, but then you felt like you were missing out on something. So it was best to throw yourself into it, and come away pissed and dissatisfied with the limitations of human experience.
"Aww stuff it, put the radio on."
Sometimes it had the ability to send you back to sleep. The radio/alarm clock was within arm's reach of the futon, perched on a sizeable wicker bedside table, covered in discarded change, broken watches, unanswered letters, loose matches and other sundries. The flotsam of everyday living. A letter had to be brushed aside to switch the beast on.
Student radio. Radio UFM. Some of it was too trendy, but it was more listenable than the commercial stations. Occasionally they played some older stuff that sounded familiar. The sounds of the seventies and early eighties. And not the Eagles or bloody disco music - Lou Reed and New Wave. The new sounds had their moments - The Sisters of Mercy, The Stone Roses. Some of the specials were always worth a listen - blues, sixties and reggae music. Not bad for a bunch of amateurs, but some of the DJs were shite. They sounded like they hadn't woken up. Cock-ups abounded - records on at the wrong speed, microphones they forgot to switch off or on. Sometimes the morning DJs slept in, leaving avid listeners to listen to static. There was even one silly girl who forgot to switch on the transmitter one morning, and then, realising, burst on air an hour and a half after playing music to herself.
This time things seemed to be working. The Velvet Underground, old favourites, were coming across clearly but not very loudly. Other songs by other artists followed, but they were not noted. The urge to think shortly diminished and slumber recommenced.
Entering the station building was a trip into the past, a step back into mid-century New Zealand. The tiling on the floors, the cold metal trimmings, were in a loosely Art Deco style. Footsteps echoed in the cavernous booking hall, with its faded posters of selected South Island scenic spots somehow still managing to inspire. The scenic nature lands depicted therein clashed against one another. Franz Joseph Glacier spilled out of one poster, a tumbling slow river of ice, overwhelming the golden swaying poplar trees of Arrowtown in autumn, which in turn failed to mesh with the majestic summer glory of Mitre Peak reflected on the surface of a southern fiord.
They drew your attention, those posters, forced you to dream of faraway places while waiting for a ticket. Better places where humdrum daily problems seemed the small things they were. You only had to go there to wash yourself clean of any worldly concerns and become reinvigorated by life.
That the posters were so old was troubling. On the opposite wall from the ticket counters was a shot of the glow worm caves of Lake Te Anau. A boatload of tourists were peering up at pinpoints of light like stars in the night sky. The woman in the bow of the aluminium dinghy wore a red checked coat that looked very fifties. Having noticed that archaism, your eyes were drawn to the picture quality. There was something about the colour tones which looked antiquated. For whatever reason, colour posters just didn't look like that any more. The developing processes used must have changed, or the printing techniques were different, or something.
So much time had elapsed that there existed the possibility that these scenes captured in fading glossy colour no longer looked the same. The water level in the caves at Lake Te Anau may have risen or fallen. The glow worms might have migrated to other spots. Or might things nevertheless have remained the same? If the station building itself could hold out unchanged this long, there was no reason why nature may have seen fit to transform these scenes.
Footsteps echoed in the booking hall. Every noise in the chamber was amplified. It would be a good spot for live music, assuming the railway personnel would ever have allowed such a disturbance. It definitely was not a modern piece of architecture. Eighties architects abhor high ceilings and such wasteful use of floor space. The hall might have been busy once, but it had not been so for decades. Most of it stood empty. A few seats occupied the middle of the room, which could comfortably have housed a basketball court.
The women at the booking counters all seemed oldish - 50 years plus. They must have come with the station, or have been acquired in the years immediately after its opening. There were several windows along the row of counters, but only three were in use. No queue was to be seen, nor was it easy to imagine one. The thought of buying a ticket was tempting, but where could one go that would make any difference? Travel was a state of mind, giving the illusion of change through shifting circumstances which by no means implied that the voyager would change. Nor was there any suggestion that one might wish to. Instead, the traveller assimilated pieces of exoticism then returned home convinced that the usually trivial things encountered might somehow have offered a key to personal enrichment. Were that it might be true more often.
A push of the glass door lead to the hall which connected busy Moorhouse Avenue to the station platform. It wasn't so cool in here. The open doors let in the rising morning heat. It was inevitable that the next steps were toward the station platform. There was no supernatural force in action; it was just that if you visited a station it seemed like a shame not to have a walk along the platform, to feel in touch with the comings and goings, to get a sense of what the place was about.
At the same time it was certain there would be little to see as the train to Greymouth had gone, and there was no reason for anyone to tarry after its departure. It was simply another vain motion, acted out for want of anything better to do, like going off for a picnic every Sunday, to the point that this supposed leisure activity was transformed into another numbing piece of routine.
Futurologists hold that man is going to become a creature of leisure in years to come, but what if all we can do is set up more stultifying routines to replace the work-centred ones of past times? Such a thought made the head spin. The oppression of thought, casting doubt on all motion, all activity, allotting every action some category, good or bad, purposeful or useless, to the detriment of freedom of action, could be an unsettling thing.
The brain was right in this instance. A stroll along the near empty platform produced no startling effect. Some memories drifted back to haunt the present: making day excursions to Lyttelton in Boxing Day sunshine. An old steam loco that puffed smoke and cinders into the eyes of anyone who thought it interesting to poke his head out the carriage window. Cold wooden interiors that quickly heated up in the muggy summer sun. Racing past people's back yards, peeping through their back doors, seeing their washing out on the line; the odd tree and low wire or picket fence providing no privacy for their owners. Some people, husbands out in the garden, or wives hanging up the washing, waved as the train chugged past. No, not all memories were bad.
What about the trips to Timaru on New Year's Day? The ride down in the train, carting beach towels and the inflatable lilo you had been given for Christmas, proud of the new sunhat received on the same occasion. Mother fussing over the food - do we have enough? I hope the sandwiches aren't going to go off in this heat! Father and sundry uncles looking more concerned with the preservation of the liquid contents of the chilly bins they toted proudly. The fair at Caroline Bay, miniature golf, throwing pennies for prizes, watching the girls line up for the beauty pageant. The throngs of people mulling about, standing talking, looking for lost relatives or renewing acquaintances not seen since last New Year's Day.
Such events felt timeless then. Unmovable fixtures on the calendar. They were preordained. The child knew not when they began, only that they had been established in the mists of the distant past. But they did not last. The train excursions came to an end. The steam locos, the ones that weren't scrapped, were retired to Ferrymead Historic Park. Mum had died a few years later, never having seen her son grow up. The uncles had either died or moved on. The glamour faded. Things changed.
Two NZ Rail porters were staring.
"Hello! Nice day! When's the train to Lyttelton?"
One frowned. The other looked puzzled. The frowning one cleared his frown.
"There isn't one mate. Hasn't been for years."
"You could take the bus though," his companion offered. "Bloody nutter" was what he was thinking.
"Thank-you. Bye for now then."
"I said listen to me when I'm talking to you boy!"
Mr Somersby's face is around three centimetres away from Bill Wilmott's. Bill is not a favourite of Mr Somersby's. Bill is fat and not very smart. Bill is heading for a factory job and knows learning about long division is a waste of time in a world where cheap calculators cost about the same as a labourer's hourly wage. Mr Somersby might have worked out as much too, but he has his syllabus to follow and he isn't about to put up with an arrogant no-hoper ruining his lesson.
Mr Somersby was the teacher who had protested the loudest when the PTA issued its edict abolishing the strap three years ago. Time and changing values have not mellowed him. Now he has to limit his abuse to verbal rather than physical outpourings of violence, but he is none the less fearsome for it.
A part of Mr Somersby wanted to clout Bill. His face was twitching under the strain of his brain being pulled in two directions. His animal instinct is to clip Bill hard, the way he used to back in the 1950s, when a hiding was considered to build character and a young teacher could strap a boy till blood flowed from his backside. But that would provoke a dismissal nowadays, so he shouts louder and louder, venting his frustration through his lungs.
Little gobs of saliva from Mr Somersby's mouth splattered on Bill's face. Bill is scared. Sometimes Somersby lost control and physically shook a boy. Fortunately the furore subsided. Somersby couldn't justify getting any more worked up over a bit of inattention and wanted to get back to the lesson. It was clear that Bill had been intimidated enough for him to be more attentive.
Mr Somersby's anger subsided as quickly as it had erupted, but the class remains in a state of tense nervousness. The roughest boys sit silently, as do the greatest chatterers amongst the girls. No one wants to be singled out for attention. The next outburst might send the old guy off the edge. A few months ago he had actually belted a boy. Fortunately, the parents didn't take action, as they were fed up with the kid too.
You had to pay attention as Mr Somersby had a habit of throwing questions at you, just when you were nodding off because you'd stayed up too late. He had a reflex action, developed over decades, of pouncing at the first hint of a glazed eyeball or wandering eyes. You were off guard and he knew it. He would ask you to finish the equation, or repeat what he had just said. Only the smartest kids managed to pull off a good answer, more by quick wits than anything else. The others suffered a bout of shouting, and a detention if they were repeat offenders.
In Mr Somersby's class, a great deal of learning went on. Not about maths, but rather about how to keep on your toes and watch your arse. In later years many of his former pupils would ruminate over this fact and belatedly realise that the old bastard had taught them something after all.
The Press. An unimaginative title for a daily. "Courtesy of the management", the tag pinned under the string around it read. Left at the motel unit door while I was still sleeping. It wouldn't work back home. Some light-fingered hooligan would lift it and all the others outside the various unit doors, run off and sell them on the street corner at cut price. If the perpetrator looked European, it would be considered a vigorous, not too outrageous, example of French enterprise. And if he did not look like a good French boy he would be carted off for being an Arab swindler or a shifty gypsy.
In this country they deliver milk to your door too, although not at the motel, where little cardboard cartons were freshly installed upon each guest's arrival. Outside the neighbourhood homes they left chubby bottles, gleaming white. Try that one in Paris. The bottles would either be kicked over, urinated on by passing poodles, stolen for resale, or possibly even for personal consumption if the thief was really desperate.
A British legacy. The home-delivered milk bottle, in the South Pacific. Not so different from West Africans studying for the baccalaureate or chewing on baguettes in the equatorial sunshine. The colonised always end up aping their masters in some fashion.
Time to use that milk so thoughtfully provided. Along with the sachet of Nestlé in the cupboard. And a cup, the wrong shape and size but never mind. Saucer.
"Il est cinq heures - Paris s'éveille!"
Baguette, baguette. Ahh, voilà! Only the end of one left over from yesterday, but again it should do.
Let the water boil and have a look at the newspaper while waiting.
The Press. Large format. Passably thick. Quite a few ads by the look of it...
Page one. Headline. Something about a "moss" packers' strike. "Moss"... what the devil is.... ahh mousse! Who would pay anyone to pack that stuff to begin with? This is headline news?
What else then? "Jobless Figures Drop In Christchurch". Hmm. A government press release based on statistical artifice recycled by a staff hack. Not very inspiring. The rest of page one isn't up to much either.
Page 2. The courts. The trivia of the local tribunals.
Page 3. Annette King, the Minister of Employment, claims that a gradual drop in unemployment should be seen from next year. Good things are always just around the corner, never in the present.
World news, world news. It surely can't all be local in nature....
There! Buried in the middle of section one; a page of world news. Let's see - recycled Reuters reports, something from AFP. Apparently this paper has no foreign correspondents of its own.
Page 9. The TV guide and radio listings.
The editorial page. A scandal at National Women's Hospital. Journalistic wisdom and foresight after the event never served much purpose and probably doesn't here. And alongside it is a piece lifted from The Economist. Thatcher - should she go? Further evidence they have no correspondents, either that or they have no people qualified to comment on foreign politics.
End of section one. Section two. The entertainment guide and classifieds.
As the jug boiled, section one of The Press, Friday 13 October 1989, was tossed into the flimsy plastic waste basket in the kitchenette. Section two served as passably entertaining reading during breakfast and was later placed in the UTA travel bag for further reference. It would be useful when deciding what to do for the weekend.
A gap was rapidly approaching. A gap of four months which required filling. The affluent students would be going off on OE for the hols. The less affluent ones have to work in crappy nowhere jobs to scrape together enough cash for another year's study. Me, I've got no great problem, having enough steady part-time work to ensure a liveable income, although not enough to go off jet-setting around the world. No motivation exists to go out and find more work to raise my level of income. It's too much graft finding additional work to fit in with what you've got. It feels more rewarding spending the holidays catching up on reading, watching videos cos there's nothing but crap on TV, and going into town to watch the world drift by. Let the nine to fivers fuck themselves up with suburban neuroses. You're a student; you don't have to assume that load for a few more years yet.
The loads already assumed are more than enough to drag down any free spirit. The academic treadmill with its long hours in the library, spent trying to guess what would make the lecturer happy. Those of us in the arts don't have the luxury of being able to enjoy academic objectivity. Essay writing is an exercise in what will please the lecturer. Tough luck if you write something that is politically incorrect, as dictated by his or her personal subjectivity. It's a funny thing, academic objectivity. We're told to cultivate it by people who are busy trying to cover their arses. Woe betide the young upstart who challenges the university's expert on a given topic. Even if the upstart in question is correct, and has uncovered some sloppy research on the part of the venerable authority, don't expect a slap on the back. Instead you'll get a kick in the teeth in the form of a C. Or the lecturer might have been having trouble at home, so decided to give you a C+ instead of the B+ the piece deserved. Or the lecturer might not have even seen the piece, and farmed it out to some wet behind the ears postgraduate tutor who knows less than you do, not having taken the paper in question in five years, and only having gotten a C+ himself because he was busy trying to curry favour with another lecturer.
Still there's that diploma waiting at the end of it all. And some shit job that doesn't really interest you but you'll take it because it's either that or the dole.
Shona is getting shouted at by the teacher. She doesn’t expect to be shouted at, because she is a girl and in her family the girls don’t get shouted at. So she is stunned at the verbal attack. The teacher is telling her how useless she is. How she never pays attention. How she has to pull her act together. The teacher is at breaking point. It is Friday after all.
Shona was trying to read a book on horses under her exercise book while the teacher was talking. She looked too interested for the teacher to believe for a moment that she could possibly be concentrating on the contents of the exercise book. Admittedly the lesson was dull.
Shona couldn’t handle this. The boys got it all the time. She was different. She was a delicate thing. Such confrontations were not meant to happen to her. Suddenly she cracked and ran bawling to the haven in such instances: the girls’ toilets. The teacher shows no sign of being moved by the gesture.
“I’ve had enough of you lot! The next one goes to the flag pole.”
The flag pole. The ultimate threat. Standing under the flag of our nation, in front of the Headmaster’s office. He lets you sweat for half an hour, then gets the secretary to call you in to his office, where you are grilled and threatened till you came out broken. He is very good at it. He has been doing it for years and years before any of the children at the school had even been born. They had no defences for such a master, any more than a lot of them, like Shona, could bear being shouted at.
The kids from the rougher families could handle it. The ones whose parents would not come to school when summoned by the headmaster for some grave offence. The ones who got far worse at home than anything an employee of the Ministry of Education was allowed under law to deal out as justice for wrongdoing. They would stare defiantly instead of looking down. They knew the drill - that there was a lot of talk and shouting, stomping up and down and threats, but that nothing else much could happen. You could be expelled, but it didn’t happen often. Not in three years anyway, and that event had occurred after an arson attempt.
Shona would never try and burn the school down. She only wanted to read her horse book instead of doing dumb exercises.
The time difference means I have to call in the morning - her evening - before I go off to do my daily business and she goes out to have a high old time in the big smoke of London. She has been there three months now.
All the enthusiasm breathed into the conversation from this end is not enough to resuscitate it from a state of torpor.
Unvoiced at her end are things that may only be guessed at. She says little, or as little as she can get away with saying. Filling the gaps and the awkward silences is left to the caller.
And so they are filled with trivia. The trivia of the everyday, while other things remain unspoken. From time to time she murmurs something in assent to prove that she is at least hearing the words being mouthed across the miles.
That the unspoken should remain unspoken has been a constant in the relationship. The problem is that over the space of three years the number of unspoken untouchable matters has piled up to the extent that there is not much left which can be safely mentioned.
If a difficult subject is broached, one she does not want to discuss, I am found culpable of stirring things up and overdramatising. I get called insensitive, that terrible, masculine crime, of which she is judge and jury.
Inanities are all that are left.
Sadly I am not very good at inanity. For some reason I persist regardless.
As I mouth the words, I wonder about the motive for their utterance. She is in another world now. As she was before she hopped on that jet and flew away. And yet I keep on trying.
Is it the hope we will be reunited? She has already told me she has no early plans for returning. The big OE is more attractive, if working in dead-end jobs and getting drunk on over-priced beer can be called that. She could have done that here and saved some money. But that would have been boring.
She is easily bored.
And the empty words continue pouring out.
She murmurs something inconsequential.
There was a time when she preferred explosive reactions, letting vent to that short temper, slamming doors and stomping around the house. And still the things remained unspoken. Infuriated about something of great importance, she would fume over a misplaced jam jar in her impeccably arranged kitchen. I asked for a layout plan so I wouldn’t make the mistake again. She couldn’t see any humour in that. I couldn’t see any sense in her anger. It took me time to work out that it was a pretext for other things. Things that were never stated. Things I can only guess at.
I have run out of words to utter to that empty voice in London. My daily routine has not changed since she left. More’s the wonder that there is anything to say.
So now it is time to go back to my routine. I wonder if I will call again. I wonder if I should ask her if she wants me to call again.
These things too rest unspoken.
I place the receiver down unfulfilled and disappointed.
I won’t call again.
I tell myself this and want to believe it.
The ringing of the bell for playtime was greeted with relief by all concerned. An hour and a half of maths and science was quite enough for one day. And it was the end of the week, if any day were suitable for such heady stuff. The sun was climbing in the sky outside. The grass in the playground had long lost its morning dew and was readying itself for a pounding under the brute force of hundreds of pre-pubescent feet. Desktops were lifted with greater agility and swiftness than any mental feat accomplished in the preceding hour and a half. The athletic members of the class were gearing up mentally for half an hour of running, jumping, and ball manipulation, demonstrative of their physical prowess. The less athletic ones were thinking of their morning snacks.
The heavy wooden door open, it was three steps down and a quick run across a short expanse of concrete to get out into the playground. The girls went for the netball courts, or off to the toilet to share some youthful bitching or intrigue. The boys headed for the swingballs, or deep into the playground to chase balls. Some thirsty, less active members of the class merely went to the drinking fountains to get some water, sat down and watched the action provided by others.
Martin felt obliged to do something at such times. It was no good slacking off, that made you a target for the thicker, muscle-bound members of the class. It was much better to join in something. Swingball was the least damaging activity on offer. It could also be quite relaxing in that you spent a lot of your time queuing waiting for a turn. You could do absolutely nothing on the pretence of wanting to be active in a racket sport of sorts. Martin enjoyed the shiftiness of this approach, and was quite sure none of his classmates would ever work out his motives and enthusiasm for this pastime for which he in fact felt very little interest.
If you were lucky you would get a couple of gos in the half hour that constituted the morning break. If you were any good, you could stay on the swingball for all of that time. The ones who tended to do that were the kids who had a swingball at home. They had had the opportunity to master all the clever moves, like whacking the ball really high if your opponent had a height deficiency. Or belting it incredibly hard if they were puny, as it took a fair amount of courage to overcome fear of being whacked by a hurtling ball going almost too fast to be seen.
Martin was one of the lucky ones who had a swingball at home. He practised with it a bit, if only to kill the Sundays when relatives and friends of the olds visited and were cluttering up the house. A good belt with the swingball could be therapeutic if the sister beast was getting irritating too. She wouldn’t go near the thing, being scared of it, and he could be guaranteed some peace and quiet.
Martin got his turn and wiped away three opponents without much trouble at all. He rubbed it in by hitting the ball back the wrong way on the third loser. Almost like it was a double point for having got the ball past him both ways.
Jamie was up next. Jamie was a boy who always did well at sports and fancied himself as All Black material. He had the build for it, and played league and union, sign of great dedication for a boy of ten. Swingball was not the same as a rugby scrum though. He hit the ball with great force, but had no great imagination when it came to hitting it at different angles so as to confuse and outwit the opponent. So he ended up trying to hit it harder and harder along the same trajectory, a strategy easily foiled with a motionless, outstretched hand placing a bat square in the path of the screaming ball and letting it bounce back at another angle. Jamie got flustered, then he got frustrated. He didn’t like a sporting nobody showing him up, particularly in a physical activity, even if swingball did not necessarily count as “sport” in the pantheon of rugby, soccer, cricket and softball, the broad fare offered to boys at the school.
“You’ll get yours!” he spat out as he threw the racket down. Being fibreglass it bounced.
I see them on the street from time to time. People I once knew. From school, or from that short time afterwards before I headed overseas to get away from them. Sometimes I pass someone who I sort of recognise. My thoughts ferret around to dredge up some identifying images and bingo, I realise that yes, I did used to know that person some years ago.
At this point the thought can lead off in several directions. If I am in a hurry, or vowed at some time all those years back that I never wanted to talk to that so-and-so as long as I lived, then my step quickens, the blood pressure rises, and I keep moving at all costs. With any luck I will be out of sight before they notice me.
This scenario has a variant. I do all the above but have the great misfortune to see that the other party has recognised me before I can make an escape. This option has two sub-scenarios. Firstly, that person may have reviled me as much as I reviled them all those years back, in which event he or she will make a snide comment about some remembered injustice. The second sub-sequence in this unwanted encounter with the distant past is that the person in question may remember me with unreciprocated happiness and will chase after me, yelling out to gain my attention.
I don’t want to be rude, do I? Sometimes I am, if they get my goat enough. Other times I have to be nice. I can’t afford unwanted attention, or too many grudges in my line of work. I turn around and smile, feigning pleasure at this chance encounter while wondering how long it is going to last, thinking of things I would rather be doing than chatting aimlessly to someone I didn’t like then and never will.
Then there is the usual outcome of that flash of recognition of that face from the past. I stop, look once more for confirmation’s sake, and venture a hello. At this point there exists the high probability that they themselves may be thinking ugly thoughts about that so-and-so from the past who it had been hoped would never be encountered again. But it is too late for them to escape. Fleeing would be rude, an admission of weakness. So it’s time to turn around and smile.
The stuff of the conversation is painfully cliched. Comments about how long it has been, what are you doing with yourself, marital status, whereabouts of residence and how long you have been there. How is such-and-such doing these days? Did you hear about x, y or z? Really? You’re joking! Well who would have guessed!
I have to lie about my trade. I usually lie about where I live too. The less they know the better.
Then there is the ugly pause.
You have both run out of things to say. Having summarised home and work and people you used to know, there is nothing more. Just two faces from the past staring.
They usually say it anyway.
“Hey, we should get together some time. Have you got a pen? Look, here’s my number.”
I don’t give mine. I give some line about how I’m just about to shift but haven’t finalised a new flat yet. Yeah, sure I’ll give you a ring. Then, the formalities over, we both go on our way.
I am seldom tempted to ring. I have to be at a real loose end to follow through on the offer. If the other person had been a real friend, we would never have lost touch with each other. Sometimes, in spite of myself, some misguided altruism brings me to reunite with that face from the past. We have a drink or two together, the conversation stumbles along, and I wonder why I bother.
So the next time a face from the past approaches in Linwood Mall, I will be ready. I will spot them at a great enough distance to allow me to avoid them entirely.
Today is a swimming day. We have a school pool, but the teachers have decided it is easier to troop us on foot down to the local public pool, which is only a few minutes’ walk away, and can take several classes at once.
I don’t like swimming much. Gary does, particularly the changing sheds. He keeps going on about how big his dick is. And afterwards, how small it has shrunk in the cold water. As if we all want to look at his dick. Maybe he wants to look at all ours.
The good thing about it is getting out of sitting in a hot class for an hour, listening to some boring teacher. In other countries they don’t get to do as much sport as we do. Poor kids in grey, wet England. I bet they don’t get an hour off for swimming and an hour off for sport on Fridays.
Some other boys like going to the local pool even out of school trips, because they have found a hole in the girls’ changing shed walls. It’s all concrete blocks, and there are holes in the cement holding them together. Someone might have put them there on purpose. Michael said he got to see Mrs Richardson’s bum the other day. I don’t know if I would want to see it. She’s pretty fat.
Some of the other boys like swimming because they like looking at the girls in their swimming gear. Not that they would know what to do with a girl, it’s just that some of them already like looking. Some of them start behaving real stupid at the pool, showing off to the girls, sticking their chests out. They’re not even ten years old yet.
I don’t care about stuff like that. I do notice that when I go to the pool, I smell of chlorine all day. Mum always makes me have a bath when I get home after swimming, because she can smell it too. She doesn’t like it. I don’t like it myself, and I like baths less.
And I reckon some of the kids pee in the pool. The thought of swimming in their piss is really horrible. It could be good that mum does make me take a bath. Otherwise I would have their dried piss on me.
The pool costs, so we all have to bring fifty cents to give to the teacher to give to the woman at the turnstile. Then we troop through in single file, the girls peeling off to the left, the boys to the right, each to their changing sheds.
Gary will want to show us his dick again. If he comes near me, he’s going to get it flicked with a wet towel.
Fortunately, Gary heads for the other end of the long, narrow concrete block, and his attributes are concealed from view by a wall of other naked little bodies. There is a lot of noise in the changing sheds. The boys are excited at the prospect of diving into the water, and feeling the cold rush on what is turning into a hot spring day. The usual bragging is taking place. The poolside big shots, boasting about the number of lengths they can do, or widths, as the case may be.
Outside, the teachers are bracing themselves for an hour of semi-controlled aquatic mayhem.
Lottie is on her death trip again. First she goes on about the cold, then rotting flesh, worms in bones, the brown bones with the remnants of flesh clinging. Worms and all that shit. She gets on my wick, Lottie. Lottie is into the occult. I used to push it to annoy the nuns, but this one is right into it. One of her fantasies is the demonic ritual scene, with her on a slab being serviced by men in cowls in some bizarre ceremony. She has a pentangle tattooed on her shoulders. Her boyfriend is a sick little fuck. Anaemic and on drugs. He likes to think he’s evil, but he’s just a sick little fuck. The less I see of him the better. The less I see of him on drugs even more so.
He is in the next room now, sniffing something. He won’t let Lottie near him when he’s doing it. He locks the door. Must be ashamed of himself, little junkie fuck up. They’re both on the dole. She works on occasion. In a parlour. It pays for the drugs. As I said, Matt, the boyfriend, is a sick little bastard. I hate him, partly for what he’s done to her. And partly I hate her, for being so stupid as to let him do it.
Now it’s a Cure song. She loves the Cure. Can’t get enough of them. Loves the fatalism. I learnt that word in girls school. She has no time for “Love Cats”, that recent stuff. It’s the gloomy early eighties records she is into. I don’t like the Cure either.
I don’t like her, I don’t like her boyfriend, and I hate her tastes. What am I doing in their flat?
Jumping into the pool at a run is a real rush. There’s the spurt of acceleration as you dash across the concrete, that soaring lift as you clear the edge of the pool, and then that hard splat as your body hits the water, with your arms and legs flailing in all directions under the impact. The commotion around the pool is dissipated by the sound of the water giving way reluctantly to your falling body. Brave enough to open your eyes? Not scared of chlorine? So much the better! Now you can see the clear blue bottom of the pool coming up to meet you. It doesn’t come all the way. This is the deep end of the pool. Safe enough for jumping into. Not for a proper dive. Patrick hit his head on the bottom a couple of weeks ago. He still has a lump to prove it. His mum wouldn’t let him come swimming the following week. Now she has stopped worrying. He is here today.
The water getting into your nose is an awful sensation. You’ll be dripping snot once your head is above water. And the water in your ears will distort hearing for some time until the last vestige dribbles out or is knocked out with the flat of the palm.
Sunlight. The heat is instantly noticeable once above water. The sun is approaching its zenith for the day. Sunburn weather. Gravity exerts its influence and the sun disappears, to be replaced with more water. With a recoil of the feet on the bottom of the pool soon the sunlight is back again.
Eyes full of chlorine water there is no way of working out who the form is hovering over the edge of the pool. That and a nose full of snot and water need to be cleared before any coherent attention or response can be given.
It’s Mister Somersby.
“Didn’t you hear the whistle?”
“The whistle boy! Everyone else did!”
Everyone else... The last few kids are running into the changing sheds, dripping water on the way.
“Sorry Mr Somersby! I was under the water.”
“Water my eye! Too busy to pay attention, that’s your problem!”
There’s no point in arguing that the whistle is very difficult to hear when your head is near the bottom of the pool recovering from a loud splash and the rush of oncoming water. Mr Somersby is an adult, so he is always right. And you are a kid, so you are always wrong. End of story.
“Don’t just stand there gawking lad! Get changed!”
“Yes Mr Somersby.”
One of the things about being a kid is being bossed around by people who are bigger than you. Teachers, parents, older kids. Everyone is looking for someone to push around, so they can feel more important than all the rest.
“And stop running boy! You’ll slip!”
It was good enough for the others, the ones who had climbed out of the pool in time. It’s never fair at school. Never fair at all.
I remember Sven in high school. I have a photo of him from third form. If the name conjures up images of some nordic he-man, he was far from it in those days, regardless of his Danish parents: knobbly knees, school shorts, no chest (not just a problem for pubescent girls that) and a bad haircut. I think all the boys in our class had bad haircuts, but that is beside the point. I’m supposed to be concentrating on Sven.
Sven didn’t care so much about not being the masculine cut-out the rugby boys wanted to be. He was a sensitive guy who liked his books. He was one of those straight A types who tried to draw as little attention to himself as possible in class. He didn’t stick his hand up in response to the teachers’ burning questions, for example. He just did the course work and got good marks for everything. The teachers had to coax stuff out of him in class and couldn’t understand why. They didn’t know what it was like to be thirteen in a school where being different could be hazardous to your physical well-being.
I hung out with Sven in school. You could say we had similar interests, although in retrospect I wonder if that was true.
Sven went to varsity a year before everyone else. A smart kid. He dropped out after a year of searching, having acquired a habit and a neurotic girlfriend.
He dropped out from sight shortly after that. His school dreams of becoming an erudite scientist never materialised thanks to the chemicals he preferred rather than reality. He had jobs cleaning and such like for a long time. The last I saw him was three weeks ago. He told me he had pre-enrolled for varsity again. He was going back to do a social sciences degree. Good on him. He’s clean now too, but with the rings under his eyes and that haggard look that doesn’t leave.
Darryn was the class dunce in third form. All the teachers loathed him for his mood swings and performances in class. He tagged on to me, kept asking me for advice. I couldn’t see why then and still don’t. I remember telling him sorry, but I didn’t have any good advice to offer. He had problems at home. One of those divorced families - a very 80s thing and not much fun for any offspring caught in the middle. Darryn had this unstoppable ability to wind up his father. His father, in turn, was a control freak who always wanted to know what his no good son was up to. He used to tail him around town, making sure Darryn didn’t get up to anything. This used to happen quite often, as Darryn couldn’t stand being at home with “the cow” as he used to describe his newly acquired step mother.
Darryn was a slovenly boy, even by the standards then current for thirteen year-olds. He might have gone to a barber’s once or twice a year. His clothes were cast-offs. His father had money for other things, but not for the required school uniform. This put Darryn in strife with the would-be Hitlers at school, who enjoyed dishing out punishment for breaches of dress code.
He might have been headed for nowhere. His teachers thought so. Just to spite them, Darryn made progress. His marks were never brilliant, yet by fourth form he was passing the odd subject and he made an average, creditable showing for the round of exams that were supposed to equip us for the wide world of employment or higher learning. I think his uncles and his real mother had a hand in that. They kept him sane when he couldn’t handle home life any longer.
Like the others, I lost touch with him after school. Then, several years later, I ran into him in Bangkok. He was on holiday. I wasn’t. He had found a new passion in life: the environment. He talked of the earth as a living organism and of humankind as a virus infecting its lifeblood. He had the fervour of a Bible-thumper as he lectured me about the ills of pesticides in South-East Asia and tried to convert me to the cause. He got bitter when I took the piss out of him. All the shit I was going through, and he was stuck on ecology. It was just too unreal at the time. He was really offended. It was the last I saw of him. He has married a Latvian and settled down on the shores of the Baltic, according to Sven.
Grant was a friend long before I had met the other two. He came from a family of individualists. I had no idea why he latched on to me and still don’t. There was so much we didn’t have in common. He was a great follower of sport, which I never was. His father was a great reader and most of his family had arty interests. Grant couldn’t find much time for the bourgeois aesthetic: the outdoors, his temple, took up too much of his time. When it was raining he had to stay home on wet Saturdays and watch the footy on the telly. While he watched the All Blacks playing the Barbarians or whoever, I used to leaf through the thick tomes off his father’s shelves. Stuff like Renaissance paintings.
Grant went to a Catholic school, a great barrier to anyone with the slightest claim to individuality. His father, a church goer, found to his dismay that all the learning he had inculcated in his several offspring, Grant included, had produced a gaggle of dissenters. They fell out with the best Catholic schools in town. Grant, the youngest of the brood, honoured the family tradition. It was a question of whether he was going to leave or be expelled first. His list of sins was too long to detail here. A few salient points should give a general impression: he kept asking awkward questions in scripture classes and wasn’t easily dissuaded from debate, having had the Bible drummed into him from an early age by his staunch father. He played role-playing games - not transactional analysis or any of that pscyhobabble stuff - Dungeons and Dragons and others, commonly held by the brothers to be the latest form of occult worship. That Grant usually chose chaotic good characters and delighted in slaying imaginary fiends and monsters counted for little in the Catholic demonology.
So he left, forever banished from the realm of good Catholicism. He went to an alternative school and grew a beard.
He comes on like a mate still. And he always wants a discount for times gone by. He’ll be asking for one again today.
“Friends! I have come here today to present you with a very important message! A message that will change your lives!”
The midday sun had a warming effect on Trafficman’s spirits as well as on his body. The Square was the perfect place to warn people of the chaos of their world.
“All about you lies danger! Through our streets and highways, along back roads out in the country, in the most secluded places, the menace is everywhere!”
Some were watching now. Four or five, including a couple of elderly female shoppers, had stopped to see what the fuss was about.
“I am talking of course, not about AIDS, not about famine, not about leprosy, typhoid or other diseases, no, I am talking about that great scourge of the world - the motor car!”
“Pull the other one mate!”
It was a Maori guy in a baseball cap.
“There is no fooling going on here my friend. I am deadly serious, because the problem is of a huge amplitude. For around a century now, we have had these pestilent machines threatening our well-being on a daily basis. When they first came onto the roads of the world, they were rigorously controlled and regulated. Did you know that the first motor vehicles in Great Britain were required by law to drive no faster than four miles per hour, and have a man carrying flags in front to warn other road users of its arrival?”
“Oh, get out of here!”
It was the Maori again.
“And then, after a while, under pressure from the firms that became some of the largest, most influential manufacturing concerns in the world, and at the behest of the users of their infernal machines, those carefully laid down limits were stripped away. Over the decades that followed, speed limits were raised higher and higher. Roads were made straighter, and flatter, and smoother, and wider, all in the interests of the demon, automotive speed.”
“And with those incursions, came a toll. The road toll. A long roll of death and ensuring misery for those who survived the victims of carnage on the highways.”
“Give us a break!”
The Maori guy did not seem convinced.
“Indeed! Give us a break! Give us all a break! From the horror! Do you know how many people have been killed over the last century on the world’s roads as a result of motor vehicle accidents?”
The Maori was slow to respond. He gave a “who me?” look.
“Yes, you sir. Do you know?”
“Haven’t got a clue bro - why don’t you tell us?”
“And tell you I will. The figure is a large one - six million people!”
The two lady shoppers looked unconvinced.
“Those are United Nations figures ladies! Not just something I pulled out of a hat!”
Truth be known, Trafficman could not remember where he read the figures, but they were real ones.
“Six million people! That, my friends, is the same number as all the poor Jews the Nazis managed to exterminate in World War II! It is many times more than all the men killed fighting wars for our country over the last century! Indeed, it is more men than the United States have lost in wars over the last century!”
Trafficman was not entirely sure of that last assertion. It didn’t sound too wide of the mark. It might be worth checking at the public library though.
“I can state without a moment’s hesitation that the motor vehicle is responsible for killing more people than have been killed as a result of atomic weapons and Chernobyl!”
He took a breath before the next line, and wondered if he might be fibbing.
“That’s more people than have died of cancer in developed countries over the last century.”
That better be right. He was starting to get worried now, but the audience was getting bigger. He had a good dozen now.
“And the killing is still continuing. When New Zealand went to war in Vietnam, there was an outcry against it. People said it was unjust, and wrong to send young men off to die for no discernable purpose. Yet I ask you - how can we continue sending our young folk off in cars on Friday night in the knowledge that they too may never return, or might come back maimed and disfigured, or missing a limb? Is that any more just?”
There were one or two nodding their heads.
“Steps must be taken. Measures must be formulated! Laws must be legislated! To control the mayhem once and for all. I am not advocating the abolition of cars, but they must be restricted in number, their speeds must be drastically lowered, and the days of one car per person must come to an end! Our earth cannot sustain these roving ecological disasters. They guzzle one of our most precious resources - oil, which we all know is due to run out early next century. Iron, chrome, rubber, zinc, aluminium, nickel - all of it ends up at the tip or on scrap heaps. Surely there must be better uses for such precious commodities.
“What we need is an end to the regime of personal ownership of motor vehicles. A car should be considered a privilege and not a right. Something to be earned on the basis of an exemplary level of standards, rigorously examined. Public transport must be made more freely ...”
This was the life. Moments like this made it all worthwhile. There was something to be hoped for out of all this. Some of them were listening. And one day they would unite and act to bring about real change. A revolution in thinking that would change the shape of the world.
The class had just been given permission by Mrs Alderton to get up off the seats outside the classroom to stow their lunch boxes and bags away before going off to play until five to one, when the bell warning of the impending end of the lunch hour would sound. It was hot now. The sun was at its peak. The playground was hard and dry, although not yet cracked. The other classes were either a little bit ahead or a little bit behind in the same process, as some had yet to receive permission to leave their seats. The older classes, being nearer to the staffroom, got to head off to play earliest. The Primer One class, being the furthest away, was usually last. Sometimes a teacher would have pity, or show displeasure with the misbehaving older kids by walking past all the classes seated outside, and starting by giving the Primer One kids permission first. Such was life.
Back in the cloakroom it was cool and smelly, Martin stowed his lunch in his satchel and ran back outside. Lunch was a harder time to kill than play times. It was good on the one day of the week when the class (along with certain others), was allowed into the school library. The theory was that if all the kids were allowed in at once, they might either learn something or destroy the place, both being options to avoid. Today was going to be a reading lunch time. There was a book in the satchel on knights and castles, borrowed from the local County Council library. They had better books than the school library. It should fill up the time available.
It paid to be careful in picking a spot to read, Some of the other kids didn’t like readers, and thought there was something strange about kids who wanted to learn outside the class. Martin had staggered wailing in pain to the staffroom once, having been whacked around the ribs with a cricket bat for not wanting to be more of a sportsman. The passing thought of wanting to avoid a repeat of that scenario was shaken by a load screech, followed by a crash of metal on metal and the sound of shattering glass.
All this was sight unseen, being a noise from the road, with a classroom standing between the source and the cloakroom. Every kid in the cloakroom ran outside to see what was going on.
On the road which passed along the length of the school’s grounds stood two vehicles: one a red Honda, the other a petrol tanker. They had met head-on. Glass lay in chunks and shards around the road. The Honda had had its engine compartment completely caved in by the impact. The cabin of the tanker had a large dent right on the front of the driver’s position. Both drivers were slumped over their respective steering wheels.
Two teachers, Mr Jones and Mrs Stevenson, were running to the crash site, having already negotiated the low wire mesh fence serving as boundary for the school grounds. Mrs Stevenson was carrying a fire extinguisher. The other staff members, some still clutching sandwiches and a muffin or two, were watching from the steps of the staffroom. Inside, the school secretary was on the phone. Mrs Alderton and the deputy headmaster, Mr Evans, were running over to the watching children.
“All of you! Pay attention! Listen up! Yes you too!” Mr Evans was saying to too many kids at once. “Line up here in two rows in front of me! Quickly now! No Jason, it doesn’t matter what class you’re in. Girls, fall in line!”
Mrs Alderton was going around getting stragglers and rubberneckers into line while Mr Evans issued instructions.
“You are all to follow me, walking, to the earthquake assembly area on the back playing fields. Stevens!! Stop gawking! Follow me everybody!”
And with that the assembled kids, from various primers and some of the low standards classes, marched off in tow.
No mention was made of the possible effects of a petrol tanker explosion, but it was dawning on various teachers, who had decided to beat a hasty retreat with the kids. Mr Jones and Mrs Stevenson were left to haul the injured away. Another teacher had pulled up in her car, and left the engine running while the two drivers, both groggy although not badly injured, were helped into the back seat.
There were around three hundred kids assembled in the disaster assembly area. The teachers had a bit of an argument, then the announcement was made that the school assembly area was too close to the crashed tanker for comfort. No one really knew what the effects of it exploding might be, and they decided not to take any risks. The assembled school was herded off to the rear playing fields, behind a row of poplars down the far end, a few hundred metres away from the crash site.
In the far distance, the sound of approaching sirens could be heard.
It looked set to be a novel lunch hour.
The stench. It is the first thing that strikes the reeling senses. It struck the face like a wet towel. The cops were far from gentle with their human cargo, heaved into the back of the paddy wagon. The antiseptic wash of the interior could not hide the sweat, blood and despair of past passengers.
Life feels impermanent in a police van. It held little value in the eyes of the two screws providing escort. Prison transfer detail. From now on they would control life and all its parameters. Glimpsing through the wire mesh, trying not to look too desperate, the last vestiges of the outside world pass by. Well-dressed people off to lunch in town. The van follows the curve of the Avon River along Oxford Terrace, past the green, green open spaces of Hagley Park, and out into the open flatness of Riccarton. All the way down Riccarton Road to Church Corner, then left, past the Children’s War Memorial Library, along the Main South Road. Over the Sockburn Overpass, past the buzzing planes at Wigram Airbase. Hornby with its solitary tower, the portent of greater things that never came. The further out you get, the uglier Hornby turns, until it becomes Islington. At the fag end of Islington lies the Islington Freezing Works, now closed after a fit of mid-1980s Labourite free market policy mongering broke the back of the freezing industry. The stock pens lay empty. It isn’t far now, the turn-off to the prison gates lies just ahead.
That was then though. This time there is no paddy wagon, and no screws. The destination is Rolleston - the Wagon Wheel Bar and Grill. Grant was waiting for his weekly supply.
The subject was Fiji. Two kids in the class had been there on holiday. No one else knew much about or cared much for the place. Everyone had to do an assignment of some sort on it as part of the course assessment. The teacher had said the mark would have an effect on the end of year school report, so some effort was made by those members of the class who cared about such things. Martin did. He had stayed after school one afternoon to have a look in the library for any resource material and had found a secondary school geography book on Fiji, deposited as a teaching resource. So the topic was set: the geography of Fiji. Drawing some maps with pie graphs and bar diagrams couldn’t be too trying, and with a female teacher, a bit of good presentation and some colour, and there should be a reasonable mark in it. The others were doing hard stuff, like things about Fijian society and history. Far too much work.
Martin had the idea that as he got older, the work would be harder and harder in school, to the point that he wouldn’t be able to handle it any more and would have to leave to find a job. Dad had not gone beyond high school, but kept saying “It was different in those days. You can’t get any work now unless you have a degree in something. You’re off to uni come the time, if I have to go in hock to do it.” Dad was determined Martin was going to do better than him. Time was the test of such supposition.
There had been a video in this class yesterday. Melanesians saying “Bula!”and doing the kava ceremony. In years to come it would be all that Martin remembered of his course on Fiji. Just as at that time all he could remember of his Primer One course on Holland was clogs, tulips and windmills.
Jenny and Sarah were passing notes again. They seldom did much work. There were various boys like them. Martin found if he kept his head down and shut up the teachers left him fairly much alone, which was how he preferred it. Some thought him too withdrawn, and occasionally tried out amateur sociologist approaches, but there was nothing wrong except a healthy distrust of adults.
There must be more interesting places to learn about than Fiji. Some place that had had lots of wars would be good. Lots of violence. Mum gets worried about this thing I have for war. She thinks it is a problem of some sort. I keep telling her lots of boys read about tanks and planes and stuff, but she doesn’t care about the other boys. Russia, that would be a good place to study. We could draw pictures of tanks and rockets, instead of huts and kava bowls. The kids who have been to Fiji on holiday said there were good beaches but otherwise not much to do. Their parents wanted to go there to lie around and get sunburnt. Some had brought along photos to a previous class and gave a talk about their impressions of the place.
Mum and dad have never taken me on holiday overseas. They worry a lot about money, and don’t have enough to take us two kids that far away. We are going to Wellington this Christmas, if you can call that overseas. Cook Strait? I suppose it is in a way, but not the real overseas. I am going to have to wait till I grow up and go off myself.
This is one of those classes where the teacher knows some kids aren’t paying all their attention to the front. No worry though, it’s the last class for the week and there is no way anyone is going to play up. Keep your lack of interest to within certain limits and it will be okay. Time to look closely at the board again, and look like you’re listening really, really closely. Who would be a teacher for a living? I wouldn’t. Having to put up with all these horrible kids. And they do it for years and years and years. Some of the Primer teachers are getting near retirement now. They would have been around teaching when my mum and dad were going to school. Mum and dad didn’t go here though. They come from Blenheim. Unless one or two of the teachers worked there in the early days of their careers. It could be that they did teach mum and dad then.
The lesson feels like it has been going for ages. Having only just begun, this is not a good sign.
The cars pulled up in the shingle-strewn parking area are a mix of local farmers’ utes and station wagons and hatchbacks owned by servicemen from Burnham. Most of them congregated in the Public Bar. The Grill is quieter. Few want a hearty meal in this hot weather.
Grant’s beat-up old VW was in the car park too. He would be waiting inside, if he hadn’t started eating already.
Grant had changed over the years. With the passing of time, he became a harder and harder case, yet some vestiges of the old Grant, the hopeless kid, would always remain. He sat slouched over a beer, watching the TV without the slightest bit of interest. Some crap or other - the sort of thing TV 1 sticks on to keep the housewives occupied in the early afternoon.
Grant had always been a talker. At such gatherings, the ritual was well established. He would talk and I would listen. That was okay. It gave me a chance to unwind, and tuck in. The Wagon Wheel Bar and Grill was the back of beyond of metropolitan Christchurch, although for all that you could get a good feed there, for ten dollars, plus however much it cost you in petrol to get out there in the first place.
“That little prick Ratty has been giving me no end of shit recently. I know him by reputation more than anything else. I kept seeing him at the Gladstone, places like that, back in the days when there was a live music scene in Christchurch. You wouldn’t remember those days. You were off in Asia. Now he’s living down the road from me.
“He’s got a reputation for being a bit of a head case, Ratty. When he was a kid, all the other young punks from nice boys’ schools used to steer clear of him. He’s nothing but trouble. They all grew up and got jobs, but Ratty stayed the same. He’ll nick anything that isn’t nailed down and he spent his teen years in and out of borstal and Sunnyside - too nutty for the first and too violent for the other. He’s been on booze, dope, pills - the lot.
“I was just getting into bed when I hear the glass in the front door being smashed in. I should have bloody known it was Ratty. I had seen him hanging around on the street, looking at houses with his beady fucking eye. He’s squatting in the flat where he’s taken up digs. Doesn’t pay a cent. The landlord lives in Auckland or something.
“This time I knew I had him. I had a baseball bat by my bed. Linwood is a tough part of town, as you know. The thought of breaking the little bastard’s ribs felt very nice to the soul. Breaking my window - the little shit deserved everything he got.
“I raced down the hallway, waving the bat. I flung open the door and there he was, slinking off down the drive, all dressed in black, like he was some cat burglar, except he always wore black anyway because he takes himself for Johnny Rotten or something. I yelled out to him what I was going to do to him, but I couldn’t run after him straight off. There was broken glass all over the steps. I had to jump that first. I was determined to get him. I wanted to watch him squirm for what he had done to my front door. The shingle on the driveway stung too. No shoes you see. Anyhow I was more worried about catching him up before he could scarper. I screamed down the driveway, never mind the damage it did to my bare feet. I was surprised at how fast he could run. For a scrawny, anaemic punk he was moving pretty quick. I was gaining on him, and I knew I would get him all the same. My urge to do him damage was a lot stronger than his urge to get away.
“But it took a while. I ran and ran, and still I didn’t have him. I chased him down the footpath and across the street and the next thing I know we’re running along Fitzgerald Ave, with me just six or seven metres behind and closing. And you know how they have all those street lamps along Fitzgerald Avenue? Yeah, well it was just then that I realised the only thing I had on was this old orange tee-shirt and all these people were driving past, staring out their car windows at me. Not surprising really, what with me screaming along the footpath waving a baseball bat and my nether ends wafting in the slipstream. I must have looked a real sight.
“I could have been self-conscious and run back to my flat except I was more interested in doing Ratty over. Clobbering that ugly boot boy was all I wanted to do. Bugger modesty. Besides, Ratty was starting to run out of breath. I figured once I had scragged him, I could grab his trou and walk home in them. Let him suffer the public humiliation of walking around semi-dressed. That and a good many bruises would be punishment enough for me.
“He knew he was losing it, so he ran up an alleyway off Fitzgerald Ave. Bad move. it turned out to be a dead end. There was a brick wall and a high corrugated iron gate. He tried it, pushing and rattling it, but it was locked. That was when he really panicked. He looked back at me careering along at him, hefting the bat. He would have to climb the gate. Ever tried climbing one? It had these pointy bits at the top, designed to deter the likes of scum just like Ratty. And just try getting purchase on a gate made of corrugated iron. There are no decent toe holds, not like your wrought iron jobs. As much as Ratty wanted to, there was no way he was going to make it - he was stuffed.
“Finally I had the bastard. I must have looked fucking mean coming at him. He started whining and pleading. I was just about to swing when two blokes grab me from behind. Cops! Bloody cops! I couldn’t believe it! I was just about to do the little shit in and all of a sudden there I am being handcuffed for disorderly behaviour and indecent exposure! I spent the whole night in the cells. I was in the dock and paying a fine the next morning. And got told I would have to do community service! There I am trying to stop crime and all I get is a slap on the hand for my trouble! It wasn’t fair. I just wanted to cry.”
I gulped my last mouthful of steak and nodded solemnly. “Yeah, she’s a tough life.”
The James Hight Library is a cool, quiet place in summer. A good spot to get out of the summer’s rays. Just now it is filled with students swotting for the impending end of year exams. The first and second year students who predominate among the student population clogged the seats and here and there disturb the habitual quietness of the place with inane chatter about sex, drinking or holidays.
I won’t be staying here long. They get on my nerves, those little ones. Fully developed physically yet still living in the fifth form. I am hanging out for the holidays, when you can walk from the ground floor to the top floor of the main library and encounter just a handful of post-graduate students and the occasional lecturer looking for material for that mandatory single published article per year.
I round a corner and there she is. Her back is to me. She has a different hair style from when we were going out. If I walk past her she will notice and perhaps try and start conversation. Best go the other way round.
Old girl friends are people I sometimes want to avoid. Not that they are noxious or anything. It is just the baggage they carry with them. Things in their appearance that take you back to times best left unvisited. Here and now is better. There is no need for the past clouding the way ahead.
I hate shopping malls, even if it’s just a matter of getting some milk there for Carly. I hate the people in shopping malls. I hate the car park outside shopping malls. I hate the decor. I hate the faded sixties concrete. I hate the antiseptic feel of the shops. But I keep coming back because there’s nothing else to do.
Bishopdale went up in the sixties. I hadn’t been born then and there were housewives doing their shopping here, buying linen, clothes and groceries. Frightening. If I was lucky, this is the sort of place I could get to work in, behind a counter. Wearing a smock and smiling at the android consumers giving me their money to be placed in the till.
When I was three I used to like being taken here. If I was a good girl I would get a ride on Dumbo the Elephant, a fibreglass creation mounted on a pole sticking out of a mechanical box that swivelled around a bit for a couple of minutes before mum had to stick another 20 cent piece in. It’s two dollars now, and still only a ride of two minutes. There’s progress.
A couple of the shops are empty, looking for new tenants. Merivale, the competition up the road, has been having an effect on local retail. They have a mall too. A newer one. With higher prices. Not that that makes a difference for those with the money. They have swanky boutiques and cafés in Merivale. The right places for the right people. It’s more of a place to be seen than old Bishopdale. There are some new attractions in the neighbourhood. The Kentucky Fried outlet is giving the McD’s in Merivale some competition in the fast food stakes. Crap or crap. Your choice. That’s the free market. Free to choose something that isn’t a choice.
My life is like that. Choice doesn’t figure. I can follow the system and be fucked over or stand outside it and be fucked over. I have no power either way, no control at all. All that crap at school the nuns used to give us about how you could be anything you wanted. As long as you were a good Catholic and said your prayers. Funny that, given that they were masters of repression and conformity, doing their best to keep a lid on us from the day we came into the place. And there they were supposed to be preparing our blossoming young minds and souls for a bright rosy place in the world.
I keep coming back to them. Can’t get away. If they knew the extent of the control they have over my thoughts even now they would be overjoyed.
So I’ll just sit here for a while, watching the passing housewives pushing prams and shopping trolleys, and wonder at the pointlessness of it all.
The walls of the boys’ toilets are painted puke green. They use that colour on all the boys’ toilets. The girls get a sweet pink in their toilets. For the boys - puke green. Is this what mum would call sexual discrimination? The air is cool and smells of urine and ammonia. The caretaker has dumped a fresh batch of little pink things in the urinal. Are they supposed to take away the smell? I doesn’t work. Gareth, who likes showing off, is seeing how high he can pee. He would go up as high as the ceiling if he wasn’t scared of it dripping down on him from on high.
The pipes for the wash basins freeze up in winter. Even now, the water is still chilly. The toilet block spends most of the day in shade, sheltered from the spring heat behind the classrooms it is attached to.
The tin roofing of the bike sheds has heated all the seats on the bikes that were supposed to be sheltered whilst parked there. There is frantic activity as a prelude to a large part of the school heading off to a local park for interschool sports. Boys and girls of all ages. The school was blessed in having one of the largest parks in the city just a few blocks away, so could fairly safely organise the relocation of dozens of kids to the park for an hour to two on Friday afternoons.
The boys have the choice of softball or cricket. Martin is a minor player in the softball team. He plays softball only because the boys who play it are less a bunch of wankers than the cricket crowd.
“Hey, when are you gettin’ a real bike!?”
The loudmouth is Jamie Bryce. All lip and no brains. He has a new bike and wants to show off. His parents like to think they are successful and periodically give him things he doesn’t deserve.
He must have a problem with self esteem as he is overweight. He doesn’t have the muscles to make the extra weight a threat.
A whistle blows. It’s the Deputy Head mustering the flock. He’ll be leading the convoy on an old boneshaker from the 1960s. Boneshaker. Good word. Read it in an old Beano comic.
The road to Tai Tapu is not the road to heaven. The road to open spaces and the ocean, and to Banks Peninsula if you want to keep on driving. But heaven? No. It is a road to release from the gridded streets of Christchurch. The path to a brief respite from another day in the mill of life. A path across the wide plains, crisscrossed with gorse and wire fencing, with sheep and cows sprinkled across them like hundreds and thousands on a kid’s birthday cake.
Relatives. There aren’t many left to visit. The ones you still can are worth holding on to.
Family is a funny thing. You can’t stand them a lot of the time. They make you feel like crap. They laugh at your dreams, act joyful over disappointments, glad in the knowledge you are still stuck at their level, never to rise above it.
The country knows all about such defeats. All the farming families, with sons and daughters who wanted to move away. Kept down on the farm as unpaid labour, until that day, the day they could finally stand firm and break free, having taken so much the outside world no longer scared them.
It’s the same in Christchurch. The same effect. Out in the provinces, or out in a provincial town, however bloated. Same thing. Growing up in the suburbs. Knowing you will never go to the right schools, or move with the right people. Fuming over a supposedly egalitarian society that harbours privilege and status. Fifty or a hundred years ago they moved into town to escape confines, only to find new ones. It’s why I went to Asia. To get away from all the shit here. Little did I know Asian societies are riddled with castes and clans and status, oligarchies and clientelism. Convention and tradition swathe them like a sheet over a corpse.
The country is nearly empty these days. The few landowners left are widely scattered, doing nicely when the market lets them, thanks to Labour cutting all those subsidies.
Just now the open landscape is liberating. At other times it can feel oppressive. The artificiality is something out of key with the environment. All the fixtures of the landscape, even the trees in most cases, were planted here. Before the first European surveyors came through, marking out plots with pegs, it was all just scrub and tussock. They gave it form with their roads and fence lines, carefully placed so each could have a share. Bar the natives, who supposedly gave it all away, most of them without even knowing.
The Maoris were excluded when the fence lines went in. The same on Banks Peninsula, an island of character in an otherwise disappointing setting. It was their land once. Not any more. I’ve never met or heard of a Maori farmer in Canterbury. It’s not like the North Island, where some managed to hang on to some of what they used to own. What is there in Canterbury? Some reserves? The odd marae? Ngai Tahu are working on it. Their day may yet come.
Driving out here makes me think of Neil Diamond. Some long repressed childhood memory from coming out here on a Sunday drive with the folks. Dad liked Neil Diamond. He had one of those eight-track cassette players. You don’t see many of them these days. You didn’t see too many of them even then. One of his few cartridges, which he played over and over, was a greatest hits collection of Neil’s stuff. I got to hear it nearly every time I rode in his car. I came to hate that cartridge. I ended up sabotaging it so it miswound and came spewing out of the player like so much ferric oxide spaghetti. A rebel even then.
Less repressed is the memory of coming out this way and stopping at a corner dairy near Halswell. They had enormous icecreams, with chocolate dip if you paid a few cents extra. Dad usually did. I’ll give him that at least.
And there it is! It still has an old, faded IGA sign painted on the weatherboards facing the main road. I could do with an icecream.
The place is conveniently located. Lots of weekenders stop here, heading off to Banks Peninsula - places like Akaroa, Wainui. No kids about, to be expected at this time on a Friday afternoon. Whenever we used to stop here for icecreams and the Sunday paper, there were always two or three bikes, choppers or Raleigh 20s in those days, lying on the footpath. The kids in question were either hanging around outside, feeding their faces, or lined up at the counter, picking out a 20 cent mixture of lollies.
The inside hasn’t changed much. The posters for the icecreams are new, and so is the freezer unit, but it looks pretty much the same. I wonder sometimes if places like this aren’t somehow timeless. They change superficially, but given that they are called on to perform the same basic function year after year the degree to which they change can’t be that great. In my mind I picture a dairy in ancient Rome with a similar atmosphere. I can’t imagine they sold ice creams though.
But here is a change. A spacies machine. Not a new one, admittedly. You wouldn’t have seen that when I was young. Pinball maybe, but they didn’t have a machine here. I think pinball was considered an unhealthy sort of pastime for Kiwi kids in the 1960s. Semi-rural dairies didn’t have them. There were better things for kids to do out in the country.
As a kid I used to wonder what my contemporaries did out here. The Halswell area didn’t seem the most exciting place on earth. Miles away from the pictures. I think there was a cinema out in Hornby at one time, but I don’t remember it still being open when I was a kid. They have a multiplex now. Beyond there it’s a fair way to go in the bus to get to the Square, and the buses are never frequent in and around Christchurch. Out here there is no bush or anything to break the monotony of the farmland. Halswell itself was just the same as any other New Zealand suburb, minus a lot of the amenities urban ones enjoyed (some of them, anyway).
“Hokey pokey thanks. Two scoops and chocolate dip.”
The icecreams haven’t changed here. Maybe it’s the same owners who still run the place. Can’t say I remember to the extent of recalling who served us twenty years ago.
I can hang out on the steps and eat my ice cream, just the way the country kids did.
Collecting essays is always an experience you can do without. The nervousness of knocking on the departmental office door, waiting patiently as the secretary sorts through the pile of dozens or hundreds of other submissions, and then walking out of the office before riffling through to the end of the essay to see the final mark.
This one is worth 13 out of 20. I was expecting better. At least a sixteen. So what did I do this time? Hmm, haven’t referred to the lecturer’s three pet sources. I have disagreed with her beyond the minimum limit allowed. A spelling mistake or three. She doesn’t like my bibliography format. Und so weiter.
It’s a lottery, writing essays. Still, it’s a pass mark. I’m sitting on a B for this topic, and it’s not a part of my major. So the lecturer is as unimportant in the scheme of things for me as I am for her. I’ve done enough work for the end of year exam, so I should clock up the six points I need to get that closer to the bit of paper that might get me a job one day.
It’s nice and cool in the department corridor. Almost a shame to go out in the heat.
Fucking aggro all the time in this flat. I get back with the milk and Carly is having a go at Matt. They’re both off their faces. Scrugg is in the kitchen mixing up more medicine.
I like the flat in its own right. It has such a sunny lounge for such a dingy crowd. It was a beautiful old house once, before this lot got their hands on it. Now it needs a paint and a clean.
“Carmen, come and get it!”
Scrugg. He wants me off my face so he can try and make a pass. Stuff that.
“It’s all yours babe. Don’t waste any on me!”
Soon he’ll be the one off his face. Look at that. Now Carly and Matt are making up. Changeable or what?
This is like every day of the rest of my life. Hanging out with these people. Watching them go through the motions, screwing, arguing, getting shit-faced. Sometimes I join in. Mostly I watch. What’s the point?
It’s about time I went home to feed the dog or something. Watch Oprah. There’s fuck all else to do in Christchurch on a hot Friday afternoon.
Too late. Scrugg is here. He’s out of it and he wants to talk. I’ll never get away.
“I wanna kill me some people.”
From anyone else this might be frightening. From an obese, 19 year-old St Bedes dropout in a Cure tee-shirt it sounds ridiculous.
“What do you mean you want to kill some people?”
He tried to look as dead serious as it is possible to look when you have difficulty focusing your gaze in front of you.
“I wanna get me a gun, go to the Square and shoot some people.”
“You’re full of it! You can’t shoot a gun!
“Bullshit. I used to go duck hunting with my uncles!”
“You couldn’t hit a barn door!”
“I’ve killed ducks! They’re smaller than you!”
He was getting pissed off now. Druggies don’t like contradictions. When they’re high, everything has to float their way or they get very very annoyed. It’s the ugly reminder of reality, that discord breaking through into their nirvana.
Scrugg was a sad case. He had been over in Sydney for a while. Had a go at being a rent boy except the clients were put off by his lard and his lousy hygiene. He couldn’t compete with the pretty boys. So back he came. Back on the dole.
He picks up a cricket bat and cradles it like a gun, stroking it. Sicko.
“A few good blasts at the right range, that’s what you need. Too close and you only hit one or two at a time. Too far away and they just get peppered a bit eh? Good range and a good spread go hand in hand. Give me a shotgun over a rifle any day. And as for pistols, well, they haven’t got the blast, range or precision sights have they?”
He is just rambling now. I might as well not be there.
The first show of some bread brought them waddling, flying and swimming as fast as they could shift themselves. Free handouts were not rare along the Avon, but they weren't going to pass anything up. Life as a duck can't be easy. More like short, dull and dangerous, living outdoors all the time. You didn't always know where that next meal was coming from. Predators in the form of cats, dogs, vicious children and fully grown men with licenses and shotguns. I'd come running too if I was one of them, poor little sods.
"There ya go! There y'are!"
In moments they were all around. They formed a shifting cordon of snapping beaks, diving for every crumb or crust that fell around them. Some ducklings wormed their way through the pack, picking up the smaller pieces the big ducks had missed, and getting pushed out of the way if they were too ambitious in the face of a more powerful rival for the prize. They're just like people, ducks.
Some foot stomping and shooing equalled things up. Here the bread giver was God. If you didn't like what was happening, who was getting what, you could even things up. If only you could do that in real life.
The crowd didn’t take long to vanish once the bread had all gone. A clutch of persistent beggars hung around a couple of minutes, but waddled off when no more bread materialised out of the striped shoulder bag.
The botanic gardens. It was peaceful here in the mid afternoon. Everyone was at work or at school. Only a few tourists or retired people were out admiring the trees, shrubs and flowers. You could hear some traffic off in the distance. Just a bit.
A little bit of sunlight for someone who worked in the dark couldn't be bad. Time to De-stress. Forget about the shits for a while. Breathe fresh air instead of second-hand cigarette smoke and roadside exhaust fumes.
Sometimes it got too windy in the afternoon, but there were plenty of sheltered spots to lie down in, and gaze up at the sky through a canopy of overhanging branches. Twittering birds, the swishing gurgling sound of a sprinkler feeding a nearby flowerbed. The gardens felt clean and wholesome. They had the same effect that walking into a church must have on Christians.
Oohh, that word. Not religion, not now. Gran would have said I would be made to pay for what I do. She is up there right now, watching my every move. Up in heaven you see everything. Grubby men in old cars and what they do for kicks. Everything. And me, keeping them happy. Is happy the right word? Does it make them happy? Happiness takes on funny forms.
The gardens are a happy place. Walking here helps. More than going to the pub and worrying about whether some bastard you don’t want to see again is there. There were a few branches on the lawn that needed shifting out of the way in order to lie down. The grass is still nice and green, with that springy feel it has when the mower hasn’t been over it for a while, Some of it would stick to any clothing, but at this time of the day appearances don’t count.
Lying flat looking straight up does things to you. Here I am. Glued to the ground, looking straight at heaven. Hi gran, are you there? Up there in the clouds, peering down at me? “That girl, the way she carries on...”I reckon granny used to be exactly the same when she was a girl and that’s why she carried on like that about me. She made it to heaven because she begged God’s forgiveness just before she got married, and had stayed good for the rest of her life.
Gran loved me. She always had time, unlike so many others in the family. When I was little, about six or seven, she would spend hours with me, when I was feeling down or lonely. She used to get out all her funny old clothes and make-up and dress me up. “Here, put some lipstick on, that’ll cheer you up.” And it did, it really did. Looking at myself in the mirror, with the old clothes and make-up on, I felt just fine.
Fluffy clouds, up there in the sky. How far? It looked a long way. If you could walk, it would take a few hours to reach them. That would be cool, walking to the sky. If only there was a staircase, then you could go strolling through the clouds. Landing at Auckland airport made you want to do that. Passing through ginormous banks of cloud, so thick they look solid. You could walk for miles on some of those clouds, or jump from one to another, except you would have to be careful not to leap on to a small one that sailed out to sea and then evaporated. There goes one evaporating now, just the same as a dispersed puff of smoke. A little wisp that fades and fades then disappears. Clouds can’t live very long - a few days. And the wind blows a lot of them apart, ripping their guts out and scattering the remains so they dry up in the sun.
A couple of sparrows are somewhere up in the branches of the tree overhead. Who knows what sort of tree, a big one in any case. They are flying from branch to branch, flitting around, the mad devils.
Closing your eyes to shut everything out doesn’t make it go away. You have to reopen them eventually, and it is all still there, same as it ever was. Nothing can stop you from trying. Try girl, try for a while. Push it away. Think about nothing. Nothing can’t hurt you, but then nothing never does any good. Nothing doesn’t care one way or the other. Nothing is a big fat nothing.
Out in the country can be a good place to be. For a spell. You can feel the old Fohn wind here. That’s the one thing I learnt in fifth form geography. The Fohn wind, or the nor’wester if you like. It is still blowing here, just before it hits the Port Hills, out the back of Halswell.
The farm has been here for a long time. It is about as old as the century. Aunty and uncle shifted here in the twenties. I call them that, even though they’re my mum’s aunty and uncle. She used to bring me out here every few months when I was a kid. Since she died I keep up the tradition. No one else does.
The farm is completely enclosed with an imposing hedge. The sort taller than a lot of trees. The sort that require one of those special machines to trim them, keep them under control. In front of the hedge is a drainage ditch. A deep one. The type parents with small children worry about. Three wooden planks provide a bridge across it as far as a gate. The gate is one of those things that come back to you in dreams. Too marvellous to be real. It should be in a Renaissance painting, with a woman in garish costume posing in front of it. It is bright red, with hand-painted designs on it in various shades of white and yellow. Aunty’s handiwork. She paints in her spare time, which she has more of than she used to what with retirement.
The gate opens inwards. It clicks shut of its own accord, bouncing back on a spring mechanism installed many years ago by uncle. The hedge is thick enough to form a sort of short tunnel overhead. Once through you enter a small wonderland. I half expect to see the mad march hare bounce past. Flowers everywhere, blooming in the warmth of spring, safe behind the rampart provided by the hedge. There is a concrete path, so you won’t get muddy feet walking to the house in winter. That has only been here thirty years. Apparently they used to have little slabs for you to step on, but got fed up with them as you always had to watch where you were stepping.
A grey-haired head pops up from behind a bush. The only other visible part of aunty is the hedge clippers she is waving. She gardens in all weather. Mum used to be shocked coming here on cold winter mornings, seeing her out in the frost, and that was ten years ago.
“Give me a hug boy. You’re not too old for that are you?”
“For you I’ll never be too old aunty.”
She has her gumboots on, and a loose floral pattern dress, straight from the 1940s. She has a very practical apron over the top of it, which manages to shield the dress from most of the dirt.
“Are you giving that bush a trim?”
“It’s not the only one that needs one. When are you going to get a haircut Eric? You look like a girl!”
“Aww aunty, it’s the fashion. Lots of men have long hair. And how many girls have a moustache to go with it?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some. Anything goes these days.”
She places the clippers on a stool by the hedge. So she wasn’t standing and straining her back all day at least.
“Come in and have something to drink. It’s thirsty weather today!”
She says the same thing every time I come around. That’s alright though. Although she has a thing about the hair, she is one of the few relatives I have who I can talk to.
“Uncle is out with the dogs. They need their exercise, now they’re not working.”
Chopper and Phil were the unlikely names of the dogs. Like uncle, they had been retired from farming.
The path leads around the back of the wooden cottage. You have to step over an extremely long garden hose to get to the threshold of the back entrance. The original back door is now an inside one, due to an extension uncle built many years ago. It is roofed with polyurethane sheeting and has big, cobweb-covered windows so there is plenty of sun for the pot plants to grow there. Once old enough, they are relocated to various parts of the garden, which is in a constant state of flux and renewal. The plants here are being held in reserve against the changing of the seasons.
The kitchen is small and disorderly but clean. Every benchtop and shelf has tins and jars of spices, preserves, honey, and flour to the extent it is a wonder half of it hasn’t ended up being knocked over onto the floor.
“Now you can have tea or coffee, or if you like, some lemonade.”
“Good choice. I’ll have some too.”
Aunty pulls a carafe full of lemonade out of a cupboard. Neither she nor uncle believed in fridges. They had never owned one, never needed one, and saw no reason to shell out for one at this time in their lives.
“I made it up this morning. I knew it would be a warm day. Not as bad as it will get by February mind.”
She carefully lifts the lacework she placed over the top of the carafe. Aunty still did embroidery, and knitted things as well, in spite of the fact her eyesight wasn’t what it used to be. Consequently, the two glasses the lemonade are poured into are not spotlessly clean, but Eric had experienced far worse in Thailand.
“We’ll go and sit in the living room shall we? It’s nice and cool there this time of day.”
In fact, it was cool there at nearly any time of day thanks to the shelter provided by the high hedge around the house.
The living room had two old armchairs, the sort you could sink into and get lost in. They and the couch were abundantly supplied with cushions, all hand-sewn.
“Oh, I forgot biscuits! You always liked your biscuits. Hang on, I think I’ve even got some chocolate ones.”
It was good to be here, in a friendly place, with no threats. The rear view mirrors had carefully been watched all the way from Rolleston, with several misleading detours being taken along the way. It would be all too easy to let the slime into aunty and uncle’s life.
The calendars are still there, going back to the 1950s. Scenes of England and Scotland. Glens, lochs and stags. Fishing villages and moors. Some of the paintings were quite gloomy, others were seeped with light. For aunty and uncle’s generation, Britain was home, not New Zealand. They had helped shape the area into a rough approximation of Scottish farmland, but it would never be the same as the real thing. In some cases, I imagine probably aunty, had pulled the little calendars off the bottom of the pictures. Others were still intact, the dog-eared dates of long-past years still to be perused, although for what purpose it was uncertain. Some of the prettiest calendar scenes had been given hand-made frames, made out of shells or stones gathered from Birdlings Flat.
“Here you are. Mellowpuffs, your favourite.”
They had been since an early age. Aunty didn’t forget such things.
“So how are things aunty?”
“Oh, your uncle and I are happy. The gardening is going well. And it looks like we’re going to have lots of fruit this summer.”
The garden wasn’t half of it. Although the grounds were no landed country estate, they were large enough to include an orchard with various types of trees in sufficient quantity to meet the fruit needs of a large, extended family. The former farm was the product of an age prior to mass consumerism. In the days before they sold off most of the farmland, aunty and uncle had been virtually self-sufficient. They had had chooks, a few cows, a couple of goats, lots of sheep, some pigs, and they still kept the large plot used for growing vegetables. All long before hippies started talking about the need to get back to nature and do your own thing.
“And you? How’s the job going?”
The story is that the job involves working as a nightwatchman.
“Oh pretty quiet. I’m used to the different shifts by now, and I get to go out during the day, which is more than most people working do.”
Aunty smiled. Here is where mum would have launched into a line about how “me and your father” had had higher hopes - university, a good steady job. Aunty wasn’t like that. She had come through the Depression. That you had work, were fed, housed and clothed, that was what mattered, and beyond that it was all just a matter of petty greed.
Aunty and uncle had always struck me as being the most radical and the most conservative members of my family. They lived out in the country, and their only concession to post-war (World War II that is) living was the acquisition of a colour TV in the 1970s. They maintained all the values of their generation, maybe a bit dated, but better than anything my peers had come up with. For all that, I never felt judged by them the way I had with mum and dad. They took people the way they were. They had always done so with me, and always would, regardless of superficial things like hair.
It would be sad when they were gone.
Words come tumbling out of the pen much the same as sound from the mouth of a politician. Whether they are of any importance is a judgement to be reserved for a later date.
The couple in front of me have come to the uni café to pose and play at being intellectuals. The bloke is dissecting a painting in an art book, downplaying its aesthetic worth because the unfortunate artist has sought to emphasis values and features which the critic holds to be ephemeral and not worth highlighting in this or any other visual form.
For arts students they are well dressed, in a dressed down sort of way. They would both have stable holiday jobs and some discretionary income to waste on hanging out here or they wouldn’t have come. Their parents either live in Fendalton or they themselves live in one of the uni halls in residence.
Time itself is a form of privilege. Yet it is paradoxical that the exceedingly rich, students and the unemployed both have the most time on their hands, the latter with fewer options as to how to spend their temporal riches due to lack of liquid assets.
Yeah, he’s doing alright, our clean cut arts student, reeling off some of his recent consumer purchases to his girlfriend. His short haircut just conceals a receding hairline. In a few more years it will be noticeable. Time has no mercy on masculine follicles.
Courtesy of Radio UFM, there is some sort of jazz blaring out of the PA. An eighties tribute to the musical past, with a thin coating of state of the art production work inadequately splashed over the top.
Does scribbling solve your troubles, make you feel better? Is it therapeutic? Should it be? Doing it acts as some sort of release. Then once stopped, a sinking feeling sets in. A realisation of my mortality and weaknesses and limits. Yet when pushing that pen, anything seems possible. I can order the world in any way I choose, highlight what I deem important, exclude what I think is trivial. It is a level of control you seldom have in any other aspect of life. Life is an affliction, with death as its cure. Morbid eh?
I’m off to Birdlings Flat this evening. Should be fun.
The game is going badly. Burnside Primary are way ahead, and this is only their B team, as much as that means anything at primary school Friday afternoon sport level. This inning has only just started and already it looks like we’re going to be out fielding again in a few minutes. Three batters out and the teams change sides. One has been caught out already and he was only the third one onto the plate. The clear reason for their success is a kid with an American accent who pitches a softball like a baseball. Andrew, our best batter, has just been struck out. The few who manage to hit the ball get run or caught out. Shaun is yelling advice to Aaron and Kim (funny name for a boy but there you go), standing on second and third. He’s telling them to run whenever the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand at high speed towards its next victim on the home plate.
“If they run any time, they’ll get caught out like James and Brendon were in the last inning.”
“Aww shuddup. What would you know?”
Shaun is not a bright kid. It’s his turn next. He’s still yelling to James and Brendon to run whenever they can. Go on, let the enemy know your strategy. Shaun is not so much not bright as thick. If he blows this one, I’ll be back on outfield again, standing around doing nothing.
The afternoon wind is coming up. The jersey wrapped around your waist is going to come in handy after all.
Shaun completely misses the first ball, swinging wildly with his eyes closed. He is a batter with a great belief in his strength, but no great skill at using that strength. He is best on the rugby field, where brute force has greater effect.
Strike two. He misses again. The pitcher has him pegged. He is going to finish him off this time.
Yet the third time Shaun manages to hit the ball. All the way as far as the pitcher, who catches it on the bounce, throws it to first and Shaun is out. Just to show how good they are, the guy on first base throws it to home before Brendon can reach it. Tagged, he is out too. James is caught between third and home. He gets tagged too. Three out in one fell swoop.
Heading to outfield, contemplating another missed opportunity at having a bat, because all the pushy ones who forced their way to the front of the line-up got struck out, paths are crossed with Shaun. It’s too good to pass up: “See Shaun, told you so.”
“Shuddup! What would you know?”
This is the problem with sport. I like softball, but you never get the chance to bat. And you have to put up with idiots like Shaun. All muscle, even in their heads.
I’m putting my jersey on. It’s going to be cold in outfield with that wind coming up.
The sign was all there was to indicate the place was a bus stop. No seat. No shelter. Just the sign. No timetable either. So when is the bus coming?
This is the problem for those using public transport in Christchurch. You wait for ever because there are so few buses, and you have no way of knowing when they are coming because there are so few timetables at any of the stops. I could wait here for half an hour or more and nothing would come. Or I could try walking homeward in the hope I can cut down some distance towards my destination before the bus appears. Save money even! The problem there is that if the bus rumbles past when you’re still in the middle of two of the widely-spaced apart stops, then you’re buggered for another hour or so. It’s a gamble.
Stuff them! I’m walking.
I once walked all the way into town along a bus route without seeing a single bus going in the direction I needed. Privatisation of the routes hasn’t helped. The popular ones are mismanaged and you can’t connect from one route to another as easily now. And about the only place you can do that is in Cathedral Square - why has no one ever thought to create a ring route?
A city of three hundred thousand spread over a huge area and they can’t even give us a decent public transport service. When I was little grandma used to tell me about the trains. You could catch a train into town from Lyttelton, Papanui and even Hornby. Then everyone started buying cars, and more cars. There might have even been a time when they had frequent buses here. Who knows?
The further you walk without a bus coming along, the more pissed off you get, and the more exultant, because you know that if you had waited, you would still be standing around miles back up the road, watching the day fade away into darkness. One day I would like to get all the bus drivers, and all their employers, and make those bastards stand at a bus stop for an hour or two and see how they like it. It’ll never happen. Justice never happens. Just shit. Like having to walk all the way when you could be riding a bus.
It was fun riding in lifts. The surge of power under your feet in that first few metres going up. The feeling of smooth acceleration up, or down, only to come swiftly to a halt. The way the level buttons lit up as the lift went from floor to floor. The bell when the door opened. There are new lifts overseas now that talk to you as you travel. They are such good machines, lifts. So functional, and usually so safe.
When I was a kid I didn’t think that way. My impression of lifts then was that they were danger points - a place where things can go wrong. A place where possibly you could get killed, plummeting down the shaft as the result of a broken cable, or get injured if the door closed that bit too fast. Being claustrophobic was no help whatsoever either. It took years to get over this lift phobia. Fortunately it was not a big problem growing up, as there were not a great many lifts around in those days, and it was more a case of them being hard to find, rather than hard to avoid.
The AMP building is one of the highest ones in Christchurch, and it’s open to the public. I can usually spend about half an hour in here, going up and down, feeling the upward surge of acceleration and the downward pull of gravity. Free entertainment, for those who care to enjoy it. After a while a security guard will come along, politely treat me like a freak, and escort me to the front door. I don’t mind. Half an hour is enough.
I never know who reports my presence here. It could be one of the office workers, noticing me always in the lift when it opens on their floor. I try and stand in the corner by the control panel, out of view from casual glances from outside. It can’t work very well. I had thought of security cameras, except I can’t see any in here. Beyond that, you’re in the world of infra-red sensors and intruder detectors. Probably too hi-tech for Christchurch, 1989. In a few years, I reckon. Then us lift riders are going to have real problems getting a kick on a Friday afternoon. You can ride on the lift at the public library all day, however given that it only services two floors, it just isn’t good enough.
After this I will have to find something else to do to fill in the rest of the afternoon. My heart isn’t really into campaigning too much on Fridays. Four days of being treated like a nutter starts catching up on you about this time of the week. I keep going. What they think doesn’t matter. It’s tiring true, yet not enough to dissuade me. I used to get greater fatigue going into an office building like this one every day, and pushing bits of paper around a desk in between shaking hands and answering phones. This isn’t such a bad life by comparison. The people who work in this concrete and metal shell would have a different viewpoint. For them I am an unsightly reminder of the lunacy lurking beyond the snug confines of their Monday to Friday work, weekend rest, style of living. The lifestyle promoted as normal all over the Western world. The one that causes its fair share of burn-outs, miserable so and sos and unhappy families. I could start campaign over that issue too. Possibly I might get more lively support than for my anti-car campaign, yet I wonder if those who bemoan their regulated existences would have the courage and the imagination to step beyond them and try something different, something that might leave them as outcasts and social lepers.
I am a social leper. I see how people look at me, even when I am not calling attention to myself. In the early days it would worry me. Now I worry for them. In their world where everyone has to be the same yet never will be. I wear funny hats and luminescent arm bands and wave placards attacking their precious mode of transport to and from work, the pub, the supermarket or wherever. It startles them. It’s a full-on assault on their sensibilities. They don’t mind someone like the Wizard getting up in the Square at lunchtime and ranting in exchange for a bit of money for his upside down maps and other self-promotional activities. With me it’s different, because I don’t ask for money. No, I ask them to drive their cars to the landfill and fill it with them. Such a step would cost them more than just the value of their cars. It would entail a break with a century-old trend in global social engineering, promoted self-interestedly by Ford and all the other car manufacturers of the world.
When I get bored and want some entertainment I get out of the lift sometimes and wander around the floors. It isn’t very long at all before I get stopped and cross-examined. They think I am one of those stair climbers, or office thieves, and I soon get escorted to the door. No more than that. They have no case against me as I am not actually out to purloin anything. Once I had my pockets searched. Illegally, I know, yet as I had nothing to hide I had no compulsion to lodge a complaint. The police know me already as someone who occasionally wastes their time, much the same way as the Ministry of Transport’s officers know me. I have nothing against the police, I just prefer to avoid them. They are among the most hide-bound of society’s narrow-minded, and their world view does not easily encompass the existence of the likes of me. With the MOT it’s different. They are, plainly and simply, the enemy. They provide the legal framework that allows people to go on killing themselves on the road. They put ads on TV complaining that the road toll has to come down, without realising that the only way they are going to do it is to outlaw cars, their very raison d’être. They will never go that far, because they know that with no cars, there would be no MOT, and they would all be out of jobs. End of story. So they waste thousands and thousands of dollars every year with their silly TV campaigns, achieving nothing that I can see.
Ground floor. Today I am leaving of my own accord. I think I’ll sit in the Cathedral for a while and meditate with the Anglicans.
Riding home was both an anticlimax and the icing on the cake. Another week of school over. Teachers and classmates expelled from life for a couple of days. Best not to think about Monday. The sun was dying in intensity, although it still hung quite high in the sky. It wouldn’t be going down just yet. It wasn’t hot enough to sweat now, even pushing hard on the pedals of the bike. This road was a good way to come. The rest of the team preferred a wider road that ran more directly to their homes. This way they could all be avoided, and interesting detours through side streets could be made on the way home.
Kids never get to go far, unlike adults. Adults have cars and planes and money to use them. Kids are lucky if they are let out of the house. Go more than a few blocks and they feel they have conducted an epic journey. This was an epic journey. A good thirty minutes home by bike - the farthest Martin ever got to go on a regular basis.
Up ahead lay trouble. Just the sort of thing that would take place on a deserted side street. A little bullying. The victim was Bryce, the boy in the class no one liked. He seemed out of step with everything that went on around him. He spent a lot of his days in school daydreaming, in between being picked on by teachers and classmates. This was not a great deal in itself as justification or excuse for the incessant harassment he endured. It could have been his greater than average height, or his awkwardness. But then, bullies never need any great excuse, just the hint that their victim felt apart from others and was vulnerable as a result.
There were two bullies. To make it worse, they were in a lower class. They were big nonetheless. Sports lunkheads. It was one of those situations that you want to go straight past and ignore, but if you do you’ll feel bad about it. And if you get involved you might feel bad for other reasons. It was time to act - speak up or shut up.
A swerve onto the footpath with a bit of acceleration was enough to build up enough speed for a powerful smash. The bigger lunkhead was the target. Judging from the jolt of the front wheel impacting on his leg, it must have hurt.
In comics fights look more impressive - lots of clouds of dust and exclamation marks with cryptic lettering. This one was more a roll on the ground with the remaining lunkhead while the other one cried on the sidelines, then took fright and left on his bike in a hurry when it became apparent his friend wasn’t that hard either. Nine year-olds seldom are.
“Get off! I give in! Get off!”
No punches had been pulled - only teenagers used those. The loser had no bloody nose. Just a frightened, tearful face and a few scratches.
“Don’t try it again!
The lunkhead didn’t look back. He had had enough.
Bryce is a pain. Why can’t he look after himself? Just as long as he doesn’t think he has to be my friend.
One leg was already over the bike as he said it. The urge to leave the scene was strong. Pedalling away, he pondered on the fact that his parting words made no great sense, and didn’t really offer any sort of reply even.
Mum would have a cool drink and some cake waiting at home. Friday too - fish and chips night. Dad would drive us down to the local shops to bring the family food home.
4.09 pm: Eric
It was a fucking nuisance was what it was. Waiting for half an hour for bikies who don’t show. The sun was still way up in the sky - plenty of heat for the kids down on Sumner beach after school sports. High tide - or high enough to get your feet wet walking through Cave Rock. I loved that place when I was a kid. Used to blow me away - like something out of a fairy story. That was before I saw Angkor.
The heat in the car is enough to draw a sweat. Looked like it might be a good weekend to go over to the West Coast. Do some tending of the crop. Where are those bastards? Half an hour! Sure they’re mongrels, but this is business. It’s not like them to be late.
The olds used to take me for Sunday picnics out around here. I loved the place up to the age of about nine then got fed up with it. My restlessness was showing early on in the piece. It turned into something unchainable, yet here I am, back in the same old Sunday haunt. If I could have seen myself then I would have been disappointed.
It’s a bugger this. Selling shit to scum. I like to think I’m above them. A businessman. Yet I dress like them, I hang out with them, interact with them. I see them at the pub, at concerts. Sometimes in the supermarket. Yeah, junkies shop too.
What are you going to do with yourself mate? It’s not a sure fire route to retirement at 65 to a nice little pad. Irene at Blackball said I should buy some land. I’ve got the readies stashed around the place. Not the Coast. I’d end up a target for some of the moochers I’ve cleared away from my crops. Nelson way could be the trick. Open a little hostel or something. Good weather up there. Enough bush to still do some growing. And there are enough alternative lifestylers playing with clay to fit in to some extent. Could be the trick mate.
Tapping on glass cut through the sunny silence.
A big bastard dressed in black, gut out to here and a mangy beard trying to do a ZZ Top impersonation completely filled the window of the car door.
There should be frogs in the pond. It lies out back of the race course, the last stop on the way home. It was a reasonably big pond. Big enough to get a little dinghy into and sail around it. There were lots of flax bushes and plants blocking off access to various parts of the shore. The frogs must hide there, as I have never seen them around this side, where you can stand on the waterline. Aaron had a couple of frogs in his bedroom up till a couple of weeks ago. He had them in an icecream container with water and a rock, with some chicken wire over the top to stop them getting out. They escaped one night anyway. The next morning he was looking all over the place for them. His mother said they must have jumped out his bedroom windows, as they were both open to let some air in. It was a hot night that evening. I reckon Tiddles (their family cat) got them.
We had frogs in the classroom last year. Douglas brought them to school. About a dozen of them. He was Mr Popularity for a couple of days, and then he and the rest of the class left them to starve. I used to catch flies for the frogs every morning before I went to school. I took the flies along to school in a jar and let them loose in the dirty old fish tank that the frogs were being kept prisoner in. One by one the frogs got sick and died. After three had died, I waited till after school and opened the lid of the tank. The next morning they were all over the classroom. Another one had died that very night.
I talked to Mr Brierson, who was our class teacher that year, and asked him if I could let them free. Douglas made a stink, said they were his frogs. “So why don’t you look after them? They’re dying and you do nothing!”
This argument persuaded Mr Brierson.
I rang up dad and he picked me up from school after work. I had to wait around an hour and a half, but he still got out early for me. Dad was like that. He was there when it mattered. I showed him the frogs when I carefully climbed in the car. He said it was a good thing that I was doing, that people shouldn’t harm other living things like that.
We had to coax the frogs out. They were so weak and frightened. They must have thought we were going to eat them or something. French people eat frogs. That’s disgusting. In the end they hopped out, then sat a while staring at the water. Maybe they couldn’t believe it, that they were finally free, after being in frog hell for weeks and weeks.
The first one jumped in the water. One by one the others followed. Dad and I watched them vanish out into the depths of the middle of the pond.
Coming home in the car I felt like I had done something really worthwhile that day. Now I wonder if they survived.
I wanted to be a writer. A real writer. The sort that writes novels. Becoming a food and wine journalist was not what I had envisaged. Mother and father are happy with it. So French. So bourgeois. So respectable. And he knows all the good restaurants. Such a boon for meeting the right people. And he always has good advice on where to dine when we are in town. He could be earning a bit more, but he’s doing alright. Better than some if less than others.
The Arts Centre is an interesting concept. An old campus turned into a series of shops, cafés. There is a cinema too. More agreeable than a musty old place of learning. They have repainted it, spruced it up, added stalls for a market on some days. Very restful.
If I lived here I may have tired of it. It would be rendered familiar by years of contact. For a traveller it has a different feel.
I still have the chance to write if I want to. The urge is there, although with the passing of years it becomes more and more difficult to channel. After a day at work, not necessarily a hard one, some evenings I sit down and wait for the originality to come. I have flashes of inspiration, then fail to actuate them, translate them into words on the page. For the greats it is different. Their words sparkle on the page, brilliance emanating from them. Every thought perfectly articulated, or insight subtly expressed. The characters filled out to the point of total realism, breathing flesh climbing off the page.
I look at my pathetic scrawl and quail. The next reflex is to screw the paper up and throw it in the bin. It seldom fails.
So the years go by, I continue my course as a wine and food writer, and the dream is no closer to attainment. Travel lessens the disappointment.
The game was a simple one. A blockhouse had been built out of every wooden block that the toy box held. Layer after layer of wood had been carefully assembled around a Britains 25 pounder field gun, still bearing most of its original enamel coat of 1970s British Army Deep Bronze Green. The gun had been picked up at a school fair a couple of months ago, along with a big plastic bag full of Britains World War II British and German soldiers. They cost a bomb in the shops, so mum had been happy to shell out for them in the knowledge that she wouldn’t have to pay a great deal more come Christmas time.
Britains were the best you could get in toy soldiers. Better than those cheap Hong Kong and Taiwanese plastic things. More resilient than the Tamiya soldiers, that you had to assemble anyway, with all those brittle guns, and arms that would break of with no trouble at all. The Airfix ones aren’t bad, except they don’t make them any more. Airfix went bust and some French company bought a lot of the old injection moulds yet they haven’t got around to releasing the full range that used to be available. A real waste. After that there’s the Yank stuff, but it’s not easy to get, and is expensive. Plus some of the old castings aren’t very standard. The little men look like skinny mutants alongside their more chunky British counterparts.
It wasn’t a very good game. It was only a matter of time before the force of being hit repeatedly with large marbles started loosening the blocks. Some of the marbles bounced a bit too far, hitting the walls of the bedroom. This was something best avoided. Mum didn’t like damage to the wallpaper. After a certain degree of coming apart, the structural integrity of the blockhouse was reduced to the extent that lateral and vertical hits with the marbles started knocking blocks off. Finally, the inner layers caved in, revealing the naked gun, no longer housed in its protective carapace. There was not fun to be gained from finishing it off, so Martin refrained.
Jerrod’s older brother at school played wargames. You were supposed to use dice and rulers to fight the battles instead of throwing things at the other side’s troops. There might be something in it, because lining up soldiers and knocking them over with projectiles lost its appeal after a while. And just making up the game as you went along meant that someone always felt cheated when they lost. It must be hard to work out the rules though. There were even books full of them. A bit much really. There could be some simple ones on offer at the public library. The librarian in the children’s section would know.
“Strewth, she’s hot today.” His name was Brodie. He drove his Ford with one hand and swigged a bottle of DB with the other. The truck’s motor rumbled unsteadily amidst all the dust the wheels were kicking up as it trundled along the metalled road. It was one of those long, hot mid-Canterbury January afternoons, and the sun was not due to set for another couple of hours. Not far to Springfield now. Time enough to visit the pub before six o’clock closing.
The road stretched out ahead in a rigid straight line, vanishing to a hazy point in the distance. A mirage effect made it look like there was a shimmering pool of water on the horizon. Gorse hedges lined each side of the route. It was easy to become hypnotised by the lazy symmetry of the scene framed in the cab window; to gain the impression that the lorry was not moving but rather the terrain. Only the passing of a pine tree-enclosed farm or a ramshackle corrugated iron structure reminded you it was actually the truck which was moving. The heat of the late afternoon sun on the driver’s cab served to lull Brodie into a state of drowsiness that would have been dangerous on anything other than a straight road devoid of any other traffic. Damned hot it was.
He had been very slow to react when one of his new passengers stepped out into the road. His last moment reaction sent a shower of dust and shingle up behind the lorry as it slid to a halt. A freckly lad, ten years old, just standing there, not flinching in the slightest. Once the truck had stopped, he walked up and placed one foot defiantly on the running board. “Hey mister, ya wanna give us a lift?” Brodie had wondered for a moment about the implications of “we”, until he noticed a slightly younger boy had materialised. He was memorable for his vivid carrot top head of hair.
“What the hell dyer think you’re doing, you silly little...” Brodie’s voice had trailed off into silence. They were only lads after all, and no harm had been done. He continued in a calmer voice. “Don’t try a trick like that again. Next time the driver might not spot you till it’s too late.”
He paused. The two boys waited expectantly. “Alright, get in, I’ve got room.”
The older freckly lad ran around to the passenger door with is carrot-topped mate in tow. Brodie inspected them briefly as they filed past in front of the cab - grey shorts, grubby shirts, dirty knees covered in scrapes and bruises, and hair that was too long for any good Kiwi boy in 1963. They were not country lads. They slouched and lacked that deep tan farmers’ sons acquire over summer months helping out on the farm. Carrot top had a battered leather satchel hanging over his shoulders. They both bundled into the cab.
“So where are you two young larrikins intending to go then?”
Carrot top piped up first. “We’re going to...
His mate elbowed him. “We’re going to Kowhai Bush to visit me aunty.”
The lad’s voice was nervous and anyone could tell he was hiding something. “And whom might I have the pleasure of addressing?” Brodie inquired of the scruffy little gentlemen with mock formality.
“I’m Stewart,” spat out the freckly one.
“I’m Gordy” said the ginger-topped one, leaning forward to poke his head around Stewart, who was sitting closest to the driver.
“My name’s Brodie. Mr Brodie to you.” He took the handbrake off and started up the vehicle. “Where are you from then?”
Stewart paused slightly. “Glentunnel.”
“That’s quite a way to come. You must like your aunt. And what do your mothers think of you both being so far from home?”
Stewart nearly forgot he was making a story up and was on the point of saying his mother was dead, but thought better of it at the last possible moment, having to bite his tongue to stop any sound coming out of his mouth. To say as much would invite more questions and complicate their lies. To be caught out because he forgot the details of what they were saying was too much of a risk. Mr Brodie had the look of a strong man, and Jimmie had no illusions about being able to run away from him if the man decided to haul the boys off to the local police station, wherever that might be out here. One more lie would not hurt, though his real mum might be looking down from heaven at him even as he spoke. “Oh, our mums don’t mind. We’re big guys now. We can look after ourselves.”
This last statement was certainly true, if nothing else he had said proved to be. They had both come fifty miles or more since jumping over the back wall of the inner city orphanage. Since that evening, Stewart had felt more alive than he ever had shut up in that place. He had hated the orphanage from the moment he was led into the dreary old brick building. There was no one else to look after him though, what with Aunty Mary’s sudden death. At least not amongst his family. Mr and Mrs Ellis, the retired couple who lived next door to Aunty Mary were prepared to take him in, but dad wouldn’t hear of it. Proud dad, drinking dad, dad who could never hold onto a steady job even during the boom years of the 1960s. Dad cared, he knew, but didn’t have the ability to express that care in any material sense. He had just got work down south on some hydro project and this was supposedly no place for children, there being no facilities for kids. He had told Stewart that soon he would be able to pay the last of his debts off, piled up since he had gone to pieces after mum died. Stewart also heard him say at Aunty Mary’s funeral reception back at Runanga that he would soon be able to look for a place to settle and reassemble his two-person family. Until then there was no chance the Welfare people would let little Stewart trail around with him. They had even tried to talk him into adopting Stewart out to some more deserving types than him. The Welfare lady said Stewart needed a stable environment. All dad would agree to was placing him in an orphanage until better days arrived. After the funeral dad had come with the Welfare lady on the train from Greymouth through to Christchurch. He said good-bye at the Central Railway Station in Christchurch, being in a hurry to catch a train south to Dunedin, and transfer onto a bus to take him on to Fjordland. Stewart bawled as the lady from the Welfare had led him off to his new lodgings. Dad had promised to visit if he could but several months had passed without any sign of a visit. He wasn’t a letter writer, even though Stewart was.
Living at the orphanage resembled life in the army. Jimmy’s induction ceremony involved a good scrubbing, lice inspection, the issue of a faded uniform and a reading of the do’s and don’ts. The staff were stern disciplinarians, a shock to the system after living with a gentle old aunt.
The voice came from above and behind. Trafficman opened his eyes.
“I said whaddahyah?”
A boy. A fourth former. In a blue school uniform which he was growing out of. He was leaning over the low white concrete wall in front of the Cathedral, that divided the main thoroughfare for foot traffic from the rest of the Square.
“Are you talking to me?” Trafficman was still a bit groggy from his early evening nap on the bench.
“Yeah. I said whad-dah-yah?”
This one looked like a trouble-maker. The sort who would grow up into a pushy businessman.
“I am minding my own business. How about you doing the same?”
His mates were watching from a safe distance. They would close in too if the victim looked like fair game. Team work. They learnt it on the playing fields.
“You’re a homo, aren’t yah?”
“What I am or am not is none of your business.”
Trafficman stood up to face the impudent menace, his umbrella at the ready.
“I reckon you’re a pooftah!”
“Why don’t you just run along little boy.” It was less of a question than a statement.
“Why - whaddya gonna do to make me?”
He had the look of the class trouble-maker. The one who picked on the weak boys. The one who got up to things all the time. He took the moment’s silence as indication of weakness.
“Waddahya gonna do to make me?”
Trafficman waved his umbrella.
“You think that scares me? Huh?”
Trafficman said nothing. This pest was beginning to prove bothersome.
Suddenly the kid fell silent. He was looking past Trafficman’s shoulder.
“So just what is the problem here?”
It was a policeman, in blue shirtsleeves with a summer cap on. The cavalry!
“This boy is bothering me officer.”
“So that’s why you were threatening him is it?”
The boy took this as his cue to pipe up.
“Sir - he was making suggestions. I only wanted to know the time.”
The policeman’s eyebrows twitched. “Suggestions. What sort of suggestions?”
“You know - dirty stuff. What he wanted to do to me. The old pervert!”
Oh you twisted little boy. Wouldn’t it just be the way of the world if that cop believed you? There is no justice. None at all. A man can’t even sit in the Square...
“Don’t you give me that nonsense! I was watching you from over by the kiosk. You and your mates wanted a bit of entertainment at this man’s expense.”
The boy trembled.
“I think it is about time you and your friends got on your bus and went home.”
The boy said nothing. He was conscious his mates were still watching. He turned to go.
“Not so quick! What’s your name?”
The cop took off his cap and rubbed his forehead with his right hand.
“Well Mr Southall.” The “Mr” had that patronising tone the boy would have heard frequently at school. “I work this beat regularly. I’ll be watching out for you.”
With that the boy retreated unceremoniously to the sheltering company of his mates.
So maybe there is some justice, Trafficman thought.
The Deconstruction of Thought. Paranormal Phenomena in the 70s. The Great Crash of 1989. The least-wanted odds and sods of the second-hand trade were left out in the street to greet the gaze of the casual browsers who stopped at the stands outside Smiths. Thirty-plus year-old copies of Popular Mechanics and National Geographic: fading glossy pages, once dashingly contemporary, now outmoded, with shabby covers and worn spines featuring small strips of white, burred pulp paper pushing through the surface where the gloss had been broken by creasing.
Smiths. A 1950s frontage with matching signage, untouched in decades, There were no concessions to modern shop display here, The shelving used in the shop window was old, probably retrieved from a Whitcoulls auction, Inside, wall-to-wall books awaited the browser, not a sight for the claustrophobic or faint-hearted, yet comfort for bibliophiles with time to spare.
The metal and glass front door is somehow disconcerting to push open. Was it the handle on the left hand side, a little bit too low for people over normal height? One step inside and a row of shelves overladen with books immediately hinders movement. You have to be careful not to knock anything over when closing the door.
A new entrant’s eyes have to adjust to the low level of light inside, The artificial illumination provided by a few neon tubes is barely adequate for those with good vision.
A browse in Smiths follows a fairly fixed course. Habits formed in adolescence persist, dragging you to the row of war books, in spite of a flagging interest due to the development of other interests. Musty books on World War I had been a passion in past years, Tales of the Somme, Paschendaele, Palestine and Gallipoli. Multiple volume works used to be devoured soon after being taken from the shelf and purchased. There is nothing much today. One or two new books on the Second World War, not worth spending money on.
A quick scan of the war section is followed by a run through the music books in search of something good in the way of rock writing. Some great obscurities can turn up here, like the first edition of the Rolling Stone History of Rock’n’Roll, with all those brilliant black and white pics of names from the fifties and sixties. This time there was nothing much to see.
A few steps over to the corner by the staircase lead to the politics section. The corner of lost and dying causes. Innumerable books on Marxist doctrine in all its manifestations, as applied from Albania to Zimbabwe, weigh down the shelves. They are all out of date. Them and the copies of studies on the SDS, the Vietnam War and Watergate. Further back are some paperbacks, the real sort (not the ones with cardboard covers), from the thirties, examining hot topics of the day like the Abyssinian crisis, what to do in response to Herr Hitler’s aggression in the Sudetenland, and studies of German rearmament as recent as 1938.
There’s something new! Do It! by Jerry Rubin. The yippie manifesto. A book only heard about. Hard bound, a late sixties edition with photos and hippy graphics, Good for a read. The price $5 has been hurriedly scribbled in pencil on the inside cover. Done!
Up the steps there is more to explore. The steps are lined on one side with material on psychology, law and linguistics. The turning creaky staircase then leads past faded New Zealand prints from the nineteenth century (not for sale) to the carpeted first floor. From there the corridor does a 180 degree turn to meet another staircase even steeper and creakier than the one which preceded it. It is tempting to go straight on, as it is not immediately clear that there is much to look at on the first floor. A side corridor leads to the two rooms which house the shop’s collection of New Zealand books. Facing it is a large window, one of the few sources of bright light in the building. The brightness entices people climbing the stairs to stop and look out. They are met with a sight worthy of the most desolate Liverpudlian slum: a tiny cobbled courtyard hemmed in by high, dirty grey brick walls. Rubbish is scattered around the courtyard, and a shabby dunnie stands in one corner.
This time the New Zealand collection would receive a visit after all. The short corridor was lined with New Zealand fiction, methodically ordered alphabetically by author. Fiction paved the way to reality. Beyond lay the two chambers devoted to non-fiction, including maps and postcards. The room on the left was dominated by the most prolific aspect of Kiwi publishing: books on sport and the outdoors. Most of them were on cricket and rugby, followed by mountaineering, yachting and tramping. Collectors of obscure All Black biographies found pleasure in coming here. For others it was not a point of great interest. The other room covered “all the rest” - history, politics, sociology, religion and other assorted topics. A South Pacific section also lived here, full of remaindered copies of histories of the Pacific Islands, and romantic, boring reminisces of life in the South Seas earlier in the century.
The politics section sometimes held a treasure or two, although was not often replenished. Today it was the same old stuff.
About here a certain level of fatigue kicked in. There was another floor to see, but as it held the dregs of the shop’s collection it wasn’t worth the climb. Do It! would do for the moment.
Fat, grease, sausage meat and fish were the distinctive odours prevailing in the fish and chip shop. It was down by the raceway. You could hear the races from here some Friday evenings. Trots and gallops. Often they were on about 6, when dad usually came down to get the end of week dinner for the family.
It was a short interlude, the wait for the meal. For the man behind the counter and his twin daughters it was their lives. They must eat anything but fish and chips at home, having to look at them every night. Must be the same for people in cornflakes factories. They would never touch a Weetbix. Did they eat toast instead? Not the bakers. They would all be into cornflakes as they have to get up at four in the morning to bake bread. Working with food - a life full of sacrifices.
Dad is off at the TAB. Someone told me that means Totaliser Agency Board. Pity I don’t know what a totaliser is. Mum doesn’t like him going there, so he sneaks in a visit on the side when we come to pick up the kai. That’s a Maori word. It means food. They’ve just started teaching us Maori this year. We have an hour once a week. A lady from the marae comes to see us. She looks like a Maori but she has an Irish name. She said it doesn’t matter what you look like or where you come from. If you learn the language it brings you closer to the land. We don’t have a farm though.
The food usually takes about ten to fifteen minutes - plenty of time to place a couple of bets. If he could he would spend Friday nights at the races. Mum won’t have it. “I want you home with your family on Fridays. What are we if we don’t spend any time together? Bugger all, that’s what!” She holds us together, does mum. Dad wouldn’t stay home that much otherwise. He gets sick of us two kids - we make too much noise.
Little sis doesn’t come down to the shop with us for the fish and chips. She usually has a friend around on Friday night. And every other night, when she’s not at some friend’s house. Debra is around tonight. Mum usually shunts any girly guests out of the house before we get back so there are no freeloaders for dinner and she can have us all together as a family. On Fridays she’s fussy about that sort of stuff. On other nights she’s too tired from cooking to care.
There is a Holden station wagon parked outside the shop. I thought it was empty at first, except that there are two little kids in the back seat. They both look about five. They think I can’t see them. They duck down behind the seat every time I turn around to look at the traffic, or see if dad has come back from the TAB.
Tomorrow will be a good day to go exploring along the river bed. David from up the road is meeting me there at ten. There’s a gang up there somewhere. A bunch of kids about eleven who don’t like outsiders on their turf. We’re going to try and sneak in their hut, made out of old planks, wedged between two trees on a shady bank. The plan is to leave a message pinned up inside to let them know how bad their security is. They go to another school, so they won’t know who we are, even if we get spotted. If that happens we can just run away. We’ll have to. They outnumber us. We had an argument on Thursday, me and David, about whether we should take our bikes. I reckoned we should walk, in case they find our bikes while we’re sneaking around and we can’t get them back. Dad would be real mad if I got my bike stolen. I think David is bringing his anyway. If he gets it stolen, it better not come back to me. I don’t want any blame.
Dad’ll be at the golf again tomorrow. The forecast on drivetime radio was a clear sunny day, just the trick to get him out of the house all day. He won’t be home for tea. They serve dinner at the clubhouse. Shirley club. It’s miles away from home. He wanted that. The further away the better, so mum won’t hop in a taxi looking for him. I’ll be home for dinner even if he isn’t. Mum likes watching the entertainment shows they have on TV so I’ll sit with her for an hour or two. That should cheer her up a bit.
“So, another hard day of frenetic activity Carmen?”
“Probably no more than you in your nowhere job.”
Silence hangs over the dinner table.
Tracey grabs for a bowl.
“Anyone for more salad?”
Tonight she is acting as referee. On other nights that’s Bryan’s job. When we get bored, all three of us pick on the dog. Only problem is he can’t handle a good argument.
Three leaves soaked in dressing. With a big spoon he scrapes out a few lumps of poorly grated cheese and some tomato slices from the bottom of the salad bowl.
“It’s about time you got a job Carmen.”
“I pay my bills.”
“Just and not much more. What are you going to do with your life Carmen?”
He always says my name when he talks down to me.
“In twenty words or less? How about you start first and tell me your big plans. Head of Papanui MacDonalds by the age of 25? Give me a break.”
The phone breaks the fuming.
Carly was at the other end of the line.
“We’re at Matt’s place still. We just got a call from Scrugg’s dad. Scrugg has buggered off with the family shotgun.”
“Shit. You remember all that crap this afternoon about blowing people away in the Square?”
“Reckon we better get over there and hope he doesn’t pull anything stupid.”
Bryan and Tracey are picking up the used plates as preliminary to serving dessert. Vanilla icecream and peaches.
“I’ve gotta go. I’ll pass on the icecream thanks.”
Bryan mumbled something. It can wait.
Because dad was late getting back from the fish and chip shop (and the TAB, but that’s a secret I’m not allowed to mention in front of mum), everyone has to be silent at the kitchen table while he leans forward to listen to the latest sports results being broadcast on the six o’clock news.
In any case you try not to say anything while the olds are watching the news. You can get hit if you distract them from a few important words that they wanted to catch. It is that important.
It’s weird because they listen to the radio in the morning. Mum has it on all day. Dad listens to it coming home in drive time, when they also broadcast all the sports news. They have the evening paper on the dinner table, yet me and sis have to keep dead quiet when the TV news is on. What is it saying that the radio and the paper didn’t? Is it really that good?
I think they get hypnotised by the moving pictures on the screen. You know, like those magicians with their bobbing pocket watches, spun in the face of people they want to get under their control. It’s funny, because adults are always going on about us kids watching too much TV, yet it never counts for them. They can watch it for hours on end in a trance, or even fall asleep in front of the set, something I would never do, or anyone I know from school. Sure, the cartoons are good, and sometimes they have good war and cowboy and Indian films on in the weekends, but other times TV is just boring. Mum must watch the soaps in the afternoon too, because she doesn’t have much else to do with her time once she has the washing and cleaning out of the way in the morning.
Us kids are just as happy out running around kicking a ball or climbing trees. Adults aren’t into that. They watch TV or go to the pub. I hope I aren’t like that when I turn into an adult.
It will happen one day. All the rels, the ones I only see every few months, keep saying how tall I am getting, and how I am growing up. They do it with that voice they keep aside for making kids feel small. They mean it though. I think it is upsetting for them. They notice that I am growing and changing, while they are staying the same. Adults don’t change much the way us kids do. They seem to have stopped. Then some time later they will start turning grey and slowly turn old.
Sis is happy to gobble up her chips and sausage. She doesn’t like fish. She hasn’t since last July, when she decided it made her sick. Girls are funny like that. I have no problems with fish. Well, most fish. Sometimes we come back from the shop with horrible fish that must have been fried and fried and fried again. Mum makes us eat it anyway. Once I threw up. She just said it was in my mind. I reckon the fish must have been pretty bad for me not to be able to keep it down. I am happy that doesn’t happen often.
Mum is watching the screen closely too. Just like dad. I wonder about this as she doesn’t like sport much. Dad likes sport. He never plays it. Just watches it. I suppose that counts as liking sport. Sometimes he will kick a ball around with me if I pester him enough.
I am gobbling away too. I want my dessert, so I can finish eating and get back to my soldiers. I got sick of throwing blocks, so I want to have a go with my Britains 25 pounder, the one that fires matchsticks. It’s no good on my big soldiers, but you can mow down a fair few little Airfix soldiers with it. Me and Matthew from down the road are going to have a game together some time tomorrow, and I reckon I should practice, because he has more men than me and I’ll need to do some good shooting to even up the numbers. He has these rules for moving the men around and taking shots depending on how you throw dice.
I keep wondering if I am going to turn out like dad. Work, TV, a drink at the pub and sleeping. Day after day. Oh, well, he does do painting and things around the house from time to time too. Anyway, I hope I don’t turn out like him.
The lads are too far into the medicine now. Bikies, piss and dope. Bad news for anyone in the way. The Led Zeppelin is pounding out over the back yard. In the kitchen one of the gang’s women is getting shoved around. Tank, the largest member of the fraternity, has just kicked the gang mascot, a wheezy, overweight bulldog, for trying to pee on his leg. Still, it’s a nice evening for it. The sun is glinting off the car and motorcycle parts and hardware strewn around a scorched back yard with a two metre fence and barbed wire surround. The neighbours would be loving all this. Still, they should have got used to it by now.
They pay, the lads. It’s getting out of the gang fortress with the takings in one piece that is the hard bit. I should know this by now. They come on so friendly when the deal is being cut. It’s the delivery and the after-transaction social drinking you need to watch out for.
They are just at that point of being off your face where the world turns from sweet to menacing. Where the boundless love you feel for your fellow motorbike aficionado turns to sniping and swinging fists. Being the outsider with three hundred dollars in pocket I make a better target for a swinging fist than most. A bottle broken over my head and dump him in a street somewhere lighter his wallet...
“Batey boy, reckon it’s time to go eh?”
Batey is the master of ceremonies. The warrior who accompanies the guest onto the marae to meet the wheeled whanau.
“Fuck man, you can’t go yet! I haven’t shown you me refit job on the old Harley.”
The bike holds pride of place in the gang HQ living room. The latter is just a couple of metres away from the gate.
“Oh yeah, that’s right!. Well give us a look then Batey.”
The house is minimally furnished. A torn strip of off-cut from an old warehouse, adorned with cigarette burns, is the sole covering in the hallway. The kitchen, now a scene of full-blown domestic violence, is best not looked at. It would be stupid to even think of getting involved in that set to. Batey doesn’t give a shit about a beating. Or two or three. Sensitivity is something they left behind a long time ago. Their concepts of a woman’s role are rudimentary and limited.
The Harley is an early seventies model. Batey is lavish with details about reboring and cleaning various key components. The effort taken to find certain parts. All while a woman is having the crap beaten out of her down the hall. A man has to have certain priorities in this mob.
He has done a nice job on the bike, I must admit. Bikies don’t have much going for them, except that they know about bikes. And beating people senseless. He could talk for hours about every last part of the machine. His love knows no bounds. For him, the Harley is a breathing creature, as alive as you or I. All I have to do is listen. No great effort involved in that. And no potential hassle from the likes of Tank can touch me in here.
The front door of the house is open to let a draught through. It can’t hope to dissipate the stench of all the beer and ciggie ash soaked into the floor. Not that this is the point at all.
At school I used to get picked on by people like Tank and Batey. They hung out in a little group, the thick boys, the no hopers, and attracted each other irresistibly into a small pack, to provide greater safety faced with a scornful world. Oh, they got their own back for its injustice from time to time. Beating up someone they didn’t like. Letting a teacher’s car tyres down. The fun kids enjoy when they have nothing better to do. Not that I am one to talk. Look at what I became. I was purer back then, not the man I am now. My younger self would not recognise the adult he became. Time travel is something the scientists would do well to stay clear of. The thought of seeing what I might become scares the crap out of me.
Batey was getting into the intricacies of the spark plugs when his concentration was ruined by a banging at the front gate. Gate is not an adequate word for a 2.5 metre reinforced double-layer corrugated iron barrier on hinges with a barbed wire crown.
“Better see what’s up.”
I followed him out to the gate. Steps closer to freedom for me.
A ratty little weasel was outside. He went by the name Squid. I think he used to surf a long time ago. Before he got a habit.
“Lemme in will ya?”
His pig ugly snout was all that could be seen through a door with a wire net grill peephole.
“Where you been?”
It wasn’t a nosey question. As head honcho, Batey had the right to keep tabs on all the members of the fraternity.
“Down at the chemist. They only had one girl on duty. The bloke running the place had gone down the road to do some banking. She went out the back for a pee or something. So I slipped in and grabbed me this lot.”
He pushed a doctor’s bag up to the grill. It had no implements inside, but had been stuffed full of various sorts of medication.
Batey was not impressed.
“Are you fucking nuts?”
“No Batey. Look - no one saw a thing. Clean in and clean out. And no one even followed me.”
“Yeah right. And where do you think is the first place the cops are going to come looking for that lot after the corner chemist has been hit? All the way around the corner to us, you fucking shithead!“
“Oh, I don’t reckon Batey.”
“Fuck that for a joke! Piss off and dump that lot in the river. And don’t show your ugly mug here for a few days either.”
With that, Batey shut the cover on the grill. He looked at me like I would understand his dilemma.
“Now the cops are sure to pay us a visit. We’re gonna have to clean this place up, and get the ripped ones out of here.”
“What about me? I’m trying to stay out of prison.”
“Ain’t we all. Ain’t we all. Don’t you worry mate. You can go through the hole in the wall.”
The hole in the wall was a section of corrugated iron sheeting that had been unbolted from the rear fence of the compound for a quick escape. Out back was an empty section. I walked back to the car taking a roundabout route.
“Hey Mister Brodie?” The phrasing and the intonation were odd - a cross between a statement and a question.
“Yes lad.” He didn’t take his eyes off the road. He had to concentrate. He didn’t want the boys to see his attention wandering. You had to be careful with passengers on board.
“How far can you take us?”
“Only as far as Springfield. You might be able to catch a ride the rest of the way from there. I’ll ask around at the pub if you like.”
Hitching rides got the boys a good distance in a short period of time, yet it involved risks. People would be out looking for them. It had been a few days and there would have been reports in the local papers back in Christchurch, and on the radio about two runaway boys from the Addington Orphanage.
They had done well since they had clambered over that wall back at the orphanage. At first for Stewart it was just like in his dream - skulking along deserted streets full of factories and warehouses, hoping they wouldn’t attract the attention of any nightwatchmen in the still evening. At one point they were forced to hide behind a pile of railway sleepers when they saw the massive bulk of a steam locomotive rumbling past them. The wagons it pulled were full of coal, no doubt hauled all the way from Murchison, or Blackball. Stewart paused to think about the house in Runanga where there were two people who would actually be pleased to welcome him into their home, feed him, and look after him. You couldn’t call the orphanage very caring, in between the beatings and bad food. He could smell that black, gritty coal odour. The smell got into everything in Runanga. Coal was as common as wood for fuel there. It was piled on front lawns and grass verges. Where there weren’t piles of coal between the ramshackle houses there were patches of cold soil where coal had once been piled. The patches glistened with the shiny black dust deposited in them.
Runanga was a magical place for Stewart. He had heard townies calling it an ugly hole. For him it was something quite the opposite. The bush and hills surrounding it were the ultimate child’s adventure playground, back in the days before the very concept of adventure playgrounds had been applied in New Zealand.
“You couldn’t half do with a wash lads.” Brodie noticed the smell in the cab only a few minutes after the two boys had climbed in. Even allowing for the hot weather, and the fact that he himself seldom smelt like a rose, it had to be admitted they ponged.
Stewart had been clenching his fists to hide his grubby fingernails. If they ever got to Runanga, aunty would have a fit seeing him so grubby.
“We were both playing by this pond, trying to catch a frog, and we fell in - dried out pretty quick though.”
Stewart hoped he sounded convincing. Life without soap and water had been less comfortable than he had imagined. Apart from everything else, he had an itchy bum that demanded a good scratch every few minutes. His hair felt all sticky and his scalp itched too.
There had been no avoiding dirt once they had made the long walk out beyond the Christchurch city limits. They trudged through Hornby the evening after their escape, having spent the intervening day hidden in a cattle wagon in a siding. They jumped a wire fence and left the tracks just before Hornby station. A road ran past nearby and the boys followed that instead, not wanting to be spotted walking through Hornby station. Out past Islington they reached the real countryside and were swallowed in its unilluminated darkness. Hours later Christchurch was no more than a glowing patch of electric light on the horizon behind them.
Brodie pulled up outside the general store. There was no room outside the pub across the road. It was past five and the pub was always full then. Stewart and Gordy watched him as he walked across the road. He said he would find them a lift in there, from one of the farmers, but that was irrelevant to their real plans - going through Arthurs Pass, all the way to Westland.
“We’ve got to go now Gordy, or we’ll end up being taken out to Kowhai Bush.”
Gordy turned the door handle and slowly pushed open the creaky door. They ducked down behind the truck, then dashed along the road, hoping no one was watching from the pub. Gordy’s school bag flapped against his thigh as he sprinted behind Stewart. Stewart looked back as they jumped a fence. No one was coming out of the pub to stop them.
Home was all Stewart could think about. With or without Aunty Mary, Runanga was home. He was sure Mr and Mrs Ellis would take them in and hide them. Then when things had died down he would write to his dad and ask if him and Gordy could stay there until dad had things sorted out.
The going was uphill that evening. Springfield fell further and further behind as they walked up the narrowing valley between the Kowhai River on the right, and the main road climbing up toward Porters Pass on their left. The boys’ stomachs rumbled, awaiting food, but there was none left. Both suffered in silence, knowing there was still a long way to go.
A train whistle blew, far off, down the valley. It was a lonely sound to be hearing just as night was falling. Stewart wished they could be on that train, sitting snug in comfy seats watching the landscape whiz by. They stopped and decided they would have to climb up to the road. It was the only possible way of reaching Porters Pass, unless you were a mountain goat. The steep incline up to the road was itself quite an obstacle for the weary boys. The wind was getting chill now and it blew between their exposed knees, a portent of a cold night to come.
Stewart had just scrambled up to the verge of the road when a pair of car headlamps came on and blazed through the darkness at them. It was a trap. Men had been waiting for them up on the road. Stewart was blinded by the lights. He and Gordy turned to run back down the slope, but were collared. A farmer got Stewart. Gordy had the privilege of being caught by a policeman.
Trafficman involuntarily shifted in his sleep. The dreamed memories to come were the stuff of bad dreams, yet here, down among the poplars on the banks of the Avon, there was no one to wake him and pull him away from them.
He sees me coming. He pounces, baring his teeth in an arse-licking grin.
“Good evening sir. Might I take a few moments of your time?”
The voice is demure. That’s the trap. He is searching for an opening, something to cling onto while he sinks his teeth in. He’s a wolf and I am the victim. Say yes and he’s got you. He won’t let go.
“No I haven’t. Good day.”
He has decided not to go just yet. His face is contorted into a malicious smirk. Before I was an easy mark. Now I have become a challenge. He nips at my heels with all the voracity of a starving stray dog.
“You may find what I have to say to be very interesting. It could change your life.”
“So could lots of things. I’m not interested.”
I walk faster but he has not finished just yet.
“Ignorance is a dangerous thing. What I have to say may prove a real eye-opener.”
So I am the ignorant one? His face shines with the steely gleam of fanaticism. Yes, for him I am the ignorant one. He has found the solution to the problems of the world if not the universe. He has filled the void of his pathetically empty life by becoming an acolyte for some sect and I am ignorant for not wanting to be manipulated too. He has seen the light though, and there is no point arguing.
“So you’re a member of Scientology, some later day church of gullibles, you’re out to save the world from Communism and the International Monetary Fund. Or is it the New Age Chapel of Pyramid Power or some ring of pornographers searching for boys to bugger? Whatever you are, whoever pulls your strings. I am not subscribing. Now piss off!”
The smile vanishes and turns to a scowl. He has abandoned all pretence of obsequiousness now. At last, his true nature is open to view. I am neither an easy mark nor a challenge. I am the enemy. An individual beyond redemption. Plainly never to be recruited, I am instead to be reviled.
“You’re just a piker, that’s what you are!”
He stomps off, not bothering to look back.
I looked the word up at the public library. It was such a funny word. The Oxford said it meant a shirker. Webster’s said it was meant a tightwad. I suppose if you’re a fanatic trying to press-gang me and have me give all my money away I could fit either of those two descriptions.
Piker I am then.
Better that than a mug.
All the teenagers are out in the streets. Late shoppers too. The occasional family is out on Friday night, but not as many as you might expect. Here they must stick to the suburbs at this time of the week.
The Chinese meal from the Golden Dragon Restaurant sits heavily in my stomach. Some walking will do me good. It is just a shame that there is not perhaps that much to walk around and see.
Food is a quick method of instilling a sense of well-being when travelling. With a good feed under your belt you feel ready for anything. Not that I am really expecting any great demands to be placed on me in Christchurch on a Friday night.
Cathedral Square is moderately busy, yet quieter than it was at lunchtime. Lots of people stand around with that look of people made sullen by the lack of imagination to do anything with their time.
Mate? I have no friends in Christchurch...
It is a young man, maybe 21, with his girlfriend on his arm. They are both dressed in stonewash denim. A frightful sight.
He comes up to me with a terrible gleam in his eye, and the glow of someone high on something. He has no alcohol on his breath for all that.
“Hey mate - do you want some money?”
Money? I look around. Is this some sort of scam? There is no one near by. No one to pick pocket me while I am not paying attention.
The young man is oblivious to my quick survey of the place, being too busy pressing something on me.
“Here you go mate - three hundred dollars - all yours! Whaddya say?”
“But this is not my money!”
“Nah mate, I know that! Look, it’s a present. You could buy all sorts of things with three hundred dollars!”
Is he mad? I look at his girlfriend. She has the resigned look of someone who knows better than to argue with blank stupidity.
“But this is your money!”
“Nah mate - not mine. I only won it, that’s all. My horse came in!”
“Congratulations, but I cannot take it off you!”
“Course ya can! Go awn!”
His gleam only intensifies when he is rebuked. A determined man.
“But I have enough money! Why do you not give it to your lovely girlfriend? Or buy her a present? A nice ring for example.”
That got her smiling. She is a pretty girl. Better than he deserves.
“Nah, she’s alright. I want you to have it!”
Now he is getting touchy. I decide to lie.
“I must go now. Someone is waiting. Take your girlfriend out for a nice dinner with it. Buy her some flowers!”
I am striding away as I say it. What was that saying about fools and money in English?
It had been an hour’s drive to the beach at Birdlings Flat. She cut through the silence all the way, cajoling me and her other male companion into conversation. We don’t know each other and are hence a bit reticent. Our trip had been mentioned a couple of days ago. She hadn’t mentioned anyone else coming along. I was a bit uncertain when she stopped off in Cashmere to pick up this other passenger. What to say?
Sausages are sizzling on the beach. The sun is going down. She kept talking about how the sun looked at Birdlings Flat on the way. Sausages against a blood red sky.
It is a change of routine. I haven’t been to the beach for a while. Sausages don’t grab me, but hey, it’s food. A nice interlude if the company doesn’t play up.
His motive for being here is her. She is his object of desire. He wants more than she is going to give. I could have been chosen to act as a buffer in what could otherwise have been a threatening situation for her. I imagine she made a carefree promise to go for a drive to the beach, and then realised the implications. Of course - James! What if he came along too?
She has a fatalist outlook.
“Every time I see those waves I want to walk in and be washed away. There’s an undertow here. Go out far enough and you won’t come back. I’ll do it some day.”
She imagines she means that. It stands as a statement designed to impress or shock rather than a portent of future actions. Generally she favours over-dramatisation as a lifestyle. There could be no small things in her existence. All was grand and large-hewn, and if it really wasn’t it could be read as such anyway.
The shingle beach slopes down to grey water stretching off to the horizon. The roar of waves pulling pebbles out into the deep offers periodic breaks in the stillness. Foam and spray form a whispy veil along the waterline. No birds can be seen or heard. They don’t like it here. There is a lagoon a bit south from here with calmer waters. No people are around either.
Strangely, the environment cheers her. She acts the little girl between two older brothers. The brothers act nonchalant.
The other male played his role by organising the fire. I reneged on my part, claiming no prior knowledge of the great outdoors. Let him be the Boy Scout. Some stick gathering offered a pretext for seeking solitude. Away from them, I could breathe.
Dunes properly speaking are absent from this seascape. Amassed pebbles backed up for kilometres inland are heaped up just high enough to form rolling undulations. Measly grasses struggle for purchase on the unpromising terrain.
Some scattered driftwood was to be found away from the shoreline. I left it to examine an object hunched down in a depression. Something big and rusty, smashed and torn and cast away, left to turn to dust.
It used to be a tank before the army had used it for target practice. Now it was a shell, stripped of any loose parts either by the military or by collectors. The turret was long gone. Some wrenched metal that had constituted the turret ring was torn as if a giant hand had screwed it off. The armour plate was peppered with holes and scrape marks where, decades ago, shells and machine gun bullets had been deflected. A metal detector might still turn up the spent cartridges.
At the sausage sizzle the fire is sparking. It takes a while to die down to a useful frying level. The other two delight in frying. My first sausage fell in. The one that cooks tastes salty and burnt. Sauce doesn’t improve it.
And behind us the waves roar.
“You got two dollars mister?”
It was less a request than a demand. The issuer is just a kid. Polynesian. I cannot tell whether Maori or not. Perhaps fourteen at most. Short. Below average size for his age, with a face that looks older. Yes, balanced out at fourteen, all told.
He has two companions. One is tall and skinny. The other is squat and muscled. He could be trouble. They too look fourteen. Maybe fifteen.
“No I have no money.”
“What? No money? A foreigner with no money? How can that be?”
They cannot attack me. Not here. There are too many people. Get going.
“Where you think you’re going?”
The squat one is blocking the way.
The other two are closing in on both sides.
The little one is very sure of himself now.
“So how about that two dollars mister?”
Go for the big one. Quick and fast.
There. Far too sure of himself. My old martial arts instructor back in the army would be proud. A single blow and he is over.
“So little boy. Would you like to be next?”
The kid looks around for help that isn’t there. The people nearby in the Square, unwilling to help me, are even less likely to do anything for him.
“Shit - let’s go!”
They run fast for out of shape boys. The heavy one is still rolling on the ground.
A shop keeper comes out from a nearby hamburger bar.
“Shall I call the police?”
And ruin my evening down at the police station?
“No thank you.”
I decide to get going. There are no problems. People are not that interested.
There is lots of foot traffic around at this time of night. Young guys and their girlfriends out on the town, looking for action. Boys in shirtsleeves, girls in high heels. Uniforms of a sort. They tend to wear the same deodorants and perfumes, the same hairstyles, talk about the same subjects and think about the same things. Just like the kids back in Wellington, out on the town. Safety in numbers. Don’t think for yourself, just follow the crowd, get pissed and wake up in the morning with a hangover, maybe beside someone you don’t recognise and hope never to see again.
Not for you, any of that. You can’t work the streets in a crowd. All the old habits have to be left behind. The death of sociability, although the work involved is as social as you can get.
Eight hoons on foot off to the Occidental, or the “Oxy”, striding along, acting heavy. They shave more often than they have to, boast a lot about things that never happened, and do their best to act like men while wondering why all their masculine behaviour never changed a thing. Come Monday morning they would be back at their work in the panel beater’s in Woolston, or something like that, waiting for next Friday to come around. A cycle maintained only so long as they weren’t married. Then they would end up spending their spare nights with professionals because their shopgirl wives weren’t enough.
Go on, look all you want. None of you have the nerve to come near, but you wonder anyway. Smirks and dirty thoughts.
The girls behave differently. They move in packs but that was safety in numbers while for the boys it is because none of them have the nerve to go for it alone and face rejection. For girls it is always different. The others are there to run off with if the bastard got drunk, or violent, or if he just had bad breath and blackheads. And if no one wanted to dance with you, you could pretend you were having a night out with the girls, and go on about how men only wanted one thing anyway.
No such illusions for me.
Christchurch is not what it was when I grew up. The moral fabric of the old society is being undermined. I blame the Labour Government and their laissez-faire policies. Welfare spending is being trimmed, more people are out of work because of their wonderful “liberalising” reforms, and the signs are there for all to see. Prostitutes out on the streets of the central city, every night. Druggies and pushers hanging around in the Square. Runaways and delinquents hanging out in the City Mall. And it wasn’t getting any better.
The worst of it is the young hoons cruising up and down Colombo Street, drinking and carousing. Nothing but trouble. Accidents waiting to happen. Lamp post material all of them. The cops are no good. They’re understaffed and underpaid. Who would want their job these days? I ask you - who? And there’s this talk of amalgamating the Ministry of Transport Officers with the Police. The worst of both worlds in one single go, that’s what we’ll end up with. Mark my words.
You try telling the power brokers in Wellington. They’re not open to suggestion. They think they have all the answers, when all they have the answer to is how to bugger things up. I could shift to Wellington and lead the campaign from there. It would be harder going up there. It’s a soulless city, too accustomed to being the centre of decisions without feeling their effects. I would have a hard time even finding a place to stand up and present my case to the public. They have no town square! Nothing central like we have here. I would have to perambulate around the place, trying to make myself heard among the teeming mass of pedestrians clogging the footpaths.
That’s not to ignore the fact that Wellington has some of the worst streets in the country when it comes to traffic. Too many narrow lanes built for horses and carts and not upgraded in size to meet the realities of a world with too many cars. In a way it is a blessing, but in a world where no one really wants to bring the car pestilence under control, it’s nothing more than a horrible curse.
But I should be thinking more about what to do about Christchurch. This is where I live, not Wellington. I have to think about what I can do here. If I ever see anything untoward, I do try and find a cop, except they are not always at hand, and some of them are averse to someone strange-looking such as I approaching them under any circumstances, still less as the bearer of sad tidings about their failure to keep law and order. It’s not enough of a contribution to make a real difference.
Can any one person make a difference? To anything? The gravest of doubts seize me at times, and clutch me tight, until I feel I am suffocating from helplessness. Paralysis of the will sets in, for you think all is lost. What am I? Alone? With no support from any segment of society at large? It can be a crushing thought, but I control it. I have come back from the edge so many times that such doubts hold no great fear for me any more. Instead, they serve to bolster my resolve. For persistence is the key. Hoping against all hope, and fighting against the odds to bring about the impossible comprises one of the greatest glories any person might achieve in life. Something to aspire to in spite of the scorn and derision.
And I get enough of that, believe you me!
Still no sign of Scrugg. The gang is out combing the streets around the Square while I sit here by the bus kiosk, the last line of defence. They think he is less likely to shoot me because he fancies me. In his frame of mind it could be enough to make him pull the trigger.
The Square on a Friday night is a little bowl of racial discord. There are three skinheads sitting on one bench, muttering to themselves. They have been eyeballing a group of Maori kids for about a quarter of an hour now. The Maoris are starting to get pissed off.
One of them gets up and starts shouting at them from a distance of a few metres, asking them what the fuck they think they are staring at. One of the skinheads says something, not loud enough to be heard. This gets a couple more of the Maoris up out off their bench and hurling abuse.
Now the skinheads are trying to do the aggrieved innocence bit. They’re loving every minute of it. Stage one of the baiting has worked. Now they just have to egg the Maoris on a bit, get them a bit closer. Close enough to start a fight.
Anyone who ever spouted some platitude about racial harmony in New Zealand has never been to the Square on a Friday night. 1990 is coming up too. Some sort of centenary or something. There will be a few speeches in the wings for that one. Puke-inducing crap by people out of touch who listen to much to their own drivel. Here is your New Zealand for the nineties. Two groups of rough kids looking for a fight with someone. A different skin colour is all the pretext that is needed, thrown in with a few slights and stares.
It may not be just that. The fact they are boys cannot be overlooked. And it’s Friday night. The boys need to go out and prove themselves on a Friday night, do something stupid to make themselves feel there is a meaning to their lives. It’s what Scrugg is doing in a way, trying to add some meaning. It wasn’t me Mr Police Officer. It was my subconscious urge for meaning. He better not freak out and actually do it or we will be right in it. The cops will want to know what his mates were doing patrolling around without having reported anything to the police. Just our luck to get done for being accessories.
“Leave me alone!”
It was a loud voice to carry so far across the Square, in spite of the light breeze blowing against it.
Might as well have a look.
A Maori woman. Two cops. She does not want to be where she is. They have got her in some sort of precarious hold. She is a big woman. If she hadn’t been drunk they wouldn’t have been able to hold her.
Her crime is to be in the wrong place and get spotted by the wrong people. Now the cops have her, they are not going to let her go. An easy arrest. Cart her off to a holding cell, wait till she sobers up, and let her go Saturday morning, with a summons to appear in the District Court on Monday. Drunk and disorderly. She’ll plead guilty and there will be a fine. Can’t afford it probably.
The reinforcements are on their way. A paddy wagon that had been parked outside the police post on this side of the Square is making its leisurely way through the Friday night crowd. They arrive like an ambulance to a low-priority accident. They carry her into the back of the van with the deft touch of mental health workers incarcerating a new victim. Annie has told me all about those bastards. She used to be anorexic. Her mum had her put into Princess Margaret Hospital.
Once the paddy wagon has gone, with everything back to normal, the few people who had stopped to watch move on.
The pigs will have more than a couple of pairs of strong arms with a push into the paddy wagon if Scrugg shows up with that shotgun.
It always felt comfortable walking up the stairs to the second-hand record store. Shands Emporium was the sort of setting all shops in Christchurch should be in: a two-storey colonial building dating from over a hundred years ago, miraculously still intact in between tower blocks that had long ago replaced the old weatherboard structure’s less fortunate neighbours. This is the way shops felt in Asia - small, in rickety old buildings, with a lived-in feel. Christchurch must have all been like this once, back in the days of the gold rush on the West Coast, when the plains were opened up for the first time. Back when men wore funny hats and women wore even funnier ones. Back when Christchurch still had streets full of brothels and opium dens. I was born in the wrong century, that’s my prob.
Reg was a good sort of bloke. He had spent the last twenty years living in England, doing this and that. DJing, teaching, working in nowhere jobs - the latter two being the sort of things most New Zealanders did in that grey land. But he had come back with an enormous record collection, with which he had decided to set up a shop, acting on the assumption that the CD has now turned vinyl into the dinosaur of twentieth century recording.
I don’t believe a word of it. CDs are the record moguls’ plot to screw more money out of consumers. Stop making vinyl, rerelease the same stuff on CD, and charge more money on the grounds that CDs are more advanced technology. Never mind that they only cost about three or four NZ dollars each to make. Slap that higher price on, and watch the annual take soar. The sort of logic that makes drug dealers rich.
“Eric. You’re back for some more?”
“Yeah. Someone’s gotta keep you in business.”
The shop itself is not huge, being just one room, with a window overlooking Hereford Street. It is a well-stocked room though, the lime green boards forming the walls and ceiling strewn with posters for concerts by the likes of the Clash, the Flaming Groovies, Graham Parker and the Rumour, Elvis Costello. He must have seen some bloody good concerts when he was over there.
“Did you like the Electric Prunes album?”
“Oh, I’ve been playing it all week. Great stuff. They must have been absolutely shitfaced when they recorded that one.”
“There’s a bit of a story behind that album.”
“Yeah? All I knew of it was the track they featured on Easy Rider.”
“Yeah, yeah, well that came a year or two later, after the group had split up, but you know what happened don’t you?”
“Nah, no idea.”
“This was their third album. They had had a big hit with their first - “I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night”.
“Yeah, I’ve heard that one. Awesome stuff.”
Reg paused and scratched his nose. It was a big nose.
“Anyway, by this time they had already done a second album, Underground, and they had a deal with Reprise. Someone decided it would be a good idea to do a big production job for the third album, so they got this guy in from Capitol Records, David Axelrod. He had this big plan for doing a psychedelic Gregorian chant thing. The guys in the Prunes said, “hey yeah, we dig that”, and they got stuck into it. Problem is, Axelrod started taking over. By the end of it, it was hard to tell whose album it really was. It’s all good stuff, but all the same, you’ve gotta wonder where the group ends and the session work starts.
“So after all this, the group goes away on holiday for a while, and when they come back, they find they’ve been replaced. All of them. Someone had failed to read some contractual clause in which they signed over rights over the group’s name. To cap it all off, Axelrod and company had hired some stooges to be the “new” Electric Prunes, and they were even going around doing concerts. There was an album too, although it’s bloody awful.”
“What a business.”
“You said it Eric. People think rock’n’roll is glamorous, but it’s full of scumbags.”
“Just like the rest of the world eh?”
That was more or less the end of the lesson. The record bins awaited, full of surprises. Reg got new stock in every week. People selling up their vinyl so they could start CD collections. It’s their loss.
“Dillard and Clark - that’s country rock stuff isn’t it?”
“Yeah. Gene Clark was in the Byrds. If you like their country rock stuff, you’ll love this album. It’s a real classic.”
“It’s an old pressing - made in the US too. Is this one of your old ones?
Reg turned wistful.
“Yeah, truth be known it is. I got the CD of it from the US last week, so I don’t need that one any more.”
“I don’t know Reg. Aren’t you worried about flogging off all these great old albums you spent years collecting?”
Reg pursed his lips.
“No, it’s not the medium that matters - it’s the music itself. I have a beauty little sound system at home, with the latest CD player, and it turns out a sound far better than anything you’ll hear on vinyl.”
“It isn’t scratched is it?”
It didn’t look scratched, but it was fun to have him on.
“Nahh - I’ve always looked after my records. It breaks my heart when someone comes in here with a great piece of vinyl, and it has a dirty great scratch across it.”
“I’ll believe you. Well, that’s one for the weekend.”
Some blues to go with it would be nice.
“Have you got any decent BB King stuff?”
“Sorry, ever since the concert was announced, I haven’t got a thing. Funny how people think. He’s been a classic since the 1950s, but since he’s coming to town, people are running out all of a sudden buying up his records.”
“Are you going? There’s still some tickets aren’t there?”
“Oh yeah. Now you mention it, I should get down to the Town Hall and get one tomorrow morning.”
“Have you seen him before?”
Once, years ago. I think it was 1973. Amazing concert.”
“Where did you see him - overseas?”
“No, it was here - in the Town Hall even. They had just opened it. The place was full of people with long hair. We didn’t get many American bluesmen through here in those days. We still don’t.”
“Too much of the likes of Dire Straits.”
“Yeah, but let’s not get into them mate, I’ve just had my dinner.”
There was something in the blues bin though.
“Taj Mahal! He’ll do.”
Reg put them in a colourful paper bag. He had designed it himself, having worked in graphic art for a while.
“So what are you up to tonight Reg?”
“Ohh, I’m just off home at nine. I’m feeling a bit run down actually. Might have some flu coming on.”
“Well, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. See ya!”
Reg wondered just what that meant exactly.
The war comic is worn and creased, This was its fifth or sixth reading at the hands of its present owner, and before that it had passed through other hands. Cousin Derrick had passed it and a pile of others on. He was grown up now and no longer reads war comics. He had given his entire collection to his little cousin, packed in a dusty cardboard box. Most of them had been second-hand already when he had collected them in the seventies. Some went back as far as the 1960s.
The one at hand was a mid-seventies effort: Death Patrol. It was a Commando comic; a little thing you could comfortably hold in one hand without the pages flopping everywhere. A glossy picture of a torpedo boat streaked across the cover. It was an attractive piece of illustration, airbrushed in strong shades of marine blue and grey, interrupted by the red flares of tracer shells racing across a deep blue sky. The contents were less attractive: black ink on yellowing newsprint. You could tell a Commando comic from the logo on the front, and the black and grey picture of a dagger on the back cover. On the inside cover there were quizzes on martial topics and ads for forthcoming stories.
It was a conventional tale of the genre. A tormented hero finds himself on a suicide mission and, facing impossible odds, pulls the operation off almost in spite of himself. Global conflict acts to heal his inner conflict, spurting him on to individual fulfilment and the realisation of greater glory for his country. The sub-text was lost on Martin, who wouldn’t have understood it. His interest lay in seeing how accurately the artwork rendered period equipment and uniforms, and the portrayal of violence. This is not untypical in boys of his age. Martin was not totally unobservant. He noticed, for instance, the use of words like “nips” and “Japs”, “slant eyes”and “Togo” to describe the Japanese in the story, who had been created solely for getting wasted by the intrepid hero and his crew. He wondered what the Japanese tourists he saw around town would think of such portrayals. He thought about it a bit and then realised that most of them didn’t speak much English, or hang around in second-hand bookshops looking at tatty old war comics, so it was not going to be a great source of ethnic tension.
Only a sheet and a duvet covered the bed. It was too hot for anything else. Death Patrol was just one of a scattering of similar such tales lying on the bed. A good read just before bed time always helped you get to sleep, unless the story was so good that you couldn’t put it down and wanted to carry on reading. Mum was usually strict about that. She would come in and turn the reading light off herself. It was almost time for lights out now. She got lax over summer because of daylight saving. Even now the sun was shining brightly, although it hung somewhat low in the sky. It was hard to sleep when it was so hot and light was coming through a crack in the curtains.
Friday was nearly over for another week. A couple more comics and a sleep, then the weekend would begin in earnest: tree climbing, playing by the creek, riding the bike, maybe a clod fight. With the smell of school out of the way for another week, life as it should be lived could be enjoyed, if only for two days. Friday was a day of anticipation. Saturday formed the ultimate play day, but then came Sunday, with its limitations. Someone a long time ago had decreed that Sunday was a day of rest, a family day where kids couldn’t go off and enjoy themselves because they had to be carted off by their parents to visit relatives, or go on picnics. The picnics might have been more interesting if they hadn’t always been to the same narrow range of destinations: the gardens, if they were too lazy to be bothered driving very far; the beach (one of several, the most common candidates being Brighton, Sumner Beach or some other point up the coast), or Lyttelton, which had absolutely nothing to offer in the way of activities on a Sunday: closed shops, salty air and a dead waterfront. Other destinations were far more interesting, but dad never wanted to go there. Birdlings Flat was cool, with an evil sea crashing onto a desolate beach, enlivened with the shell-smashed wrecks of tanks the army had used for firing range practice back in World War II. They were Stuart tanks - the sort the New Zealand Division had used in North Africa.
With attention flagging, any former interest in the comic was fading. It was tossed onto the floor, to be followed by others, scooped off the duvet. Mum was going to get a surprise when she came by to find the light was already out.
Late spring evenings feel unsatisfying. You’re getting heat, but it’s not full-blown. Nor’west winds aggravate the feeling of malaise. I miss the glowing red sunsets of Thailand. Here you can only wonder how long it will be till it rains again.
The lights were not in my favour. I stopped to watch the cars pass by. A red E-type Jaguar having caught my eye, the woman’s arrival alongside me passed unnoticed. The cross signal flashes on just as she speaks, throwing me completely.
“Scuse me! Do you know where the police station is?”
Do I ever.
I see her face first. It’s a Polynesian face. It looks like it would be a happy one in normal circumstances. Today these circumstances have not been present.
“Yeah I do. Quick, before the lights change back. It’s this way anyhow.”
She follows obediently. I hesitate to say like the family dog. Across the other side of the road, I turn around to look at her again.
“What do you want the police station for?”
“The bastards have got my boyfriend. I’ve got to get him out.”
“Yeah? What did he do to deserve that?”
“Dunno. We were just walking along the street and the pigs stop and pick him up. Probably cause he’s Maori.”
“And you really don’t know where the police station is?”
“Nah, why should I? I don’t live there.”
Hard logic to argue with.
“Is it a long way?”
“Just a couple of minutes from here. You see that tower over there? That’s the place.”
That awkward silence followed next, the one that ensues while you’re wondering what to say next.
“You going out are you?”
“I’m off to the pub.”
“You’re looking good, all dressed up.”
I was wearing a clean shirt. If that qualified as dressing up, I wondered what her boyfriend normally wore.
“So why did the cops stop? It must have been for something...”
“Oh, we were having a bit of an argument. He pushed me into a wall. Nothin’ serious. Don’t know what all the fuss is about. I don’t look hurt or anything do I?”
I couldn’t see any abrasions or cuts.
“So you think they’ll let him out?”
“They’ll have to. I can’t hold him if I don’t charge him.”
She meant “laid charges”.
“It’s not like he attacked them or anything. So is that the building?”
She used her left arm to point, the one that had previously been obscured from view as she was walking on my left. Mechanically I followed her arm with my eyes to see where she was pointing, then did a double take. Her arm was mess of bruises. A gory texture of blue, grey and purple with yellow thrown in to add colour. Trying not to stare, I looked at the building.
“Yeah, that’s the one. Just across the road and we’re there.”
The lights were against us, so we had to wait. Glancing sideways I looked again. The dress she had on covered her torso to the exclusion of finding any more signs of damage. It reached down just below her knees and was sleeveless. She was a brave one, wearing that in public with those marks. Brave or couldn’t care less. If not that then just plain stupid. The cops won’t be inclined to believe her protests concerning her boyfriend’s harmlessness with that tapestry of abuse waved in their faces.
“My boyfriend’ll be so glad to get out of that place. Stick around - he’ll probably want to buy you a drink for helping me find him.”
I pondered the likeliness of this scenario as we crossed the road. I stopped abruptly at the foot of the steps leading to the station.
She stopped too. “Hey, stick around. He’s a good sort really. Not jealous or anything. We’ll have a few drinks together.”
A hint of desperation lurked in her voice. She didn’t want to face him alone once he got out.
“Okay then, I’ll wait here. You won’t want me in the way when you’re in with the cops.”
I sure wasn’t going in there. Normally I don’t come within two blocks of the cop shop.
“You promise you’re not going anywhere?”
A nod was good enough for her.
“I won’t be long. Just stay there okay?”
She tripped a little as she walked up the steps.
The moment the automatic door rolled shut behind her I was out of there.
“And then....ya what!”
Heard coming from two old women sitting waiting for the bus.
“That bitch, she ...... do.!”
Two girls gossiping.
I walk past, pretending not to be paying any attention.
“Lord ... feels .... stupid.”
A middle-aged man with a pipe and cap to his wife.
“Out in the ... kybosh ... run out..... shitless.”
Two “mates” on the way to the pub.
I am missing something here. Can’t stop to ask questions though.
“Jimmy is gonna .... in.”
“Reckon ya .... right.”
Two more mates, with a bad attitude.
“It’s coming to an end..... is ... know ... to do.”
“Done it...” “Out and out... face it!” “I wouldn’t...” “... would...could.” “Tough as...” “Silver and blue with ...” “.., that is, if I...”
The voices, faces, ages and sexes merge as I pick up speed.
“Get that out of your head now!”
But I cannot. You all keep talking and talking. Difficult not to notice it, even if yours is not my language.
In Paris I would be understanding more. Maybe this is enough anyway. To hear too much would be an invasion. I am already a foreigner here. To be a nosey parker would be worse still.
That’s a common exclamation here. I find it as puzzling as some of the questions:
“Hot enough for ya mate?”
“So what do you know?”
What are you supposed to say in reply to such queries?
“I know the time.”?
Did they say such things on purpose?
The remains of the fire have yet to completely die out, so are doused with a bucket of sea water. The sausage sizzle accessories are packed away, and the walk back to the car begins. She is the only one talking. The would-be boyfriend says nothing. I say nothing. I wonder what I ever decided to come for. A fun night out this wasn’t.
It is not too hard to isolate the cause. He doesn’t like me. And she bores me. She goes on and on. One of those people who cannot do anything other than talk. Constant jaw motion is her salvation. By moving those particular muscles she has the impression that greater control is being exercised on life. Just like me when I scribble. Touché. Self-deprecation, the greatest tool of the self-aware.
He drives the car on the way back. This gives her even greater opportunity to exercise the jaw muscles. She reminisces about their failed relationship in high school, where they were both outcasts of sorts. Then she goes on to ask about people they both knew. Whether they liked or hated them is easy to tell from the tone in their voices. A tone of loathing slips in with ease in certain cases, warmth flows in others. It is all the same to me. Not having attended the school in question. I can imagine the types of people they are discussing, people never being that different from school to school. Yet it was not my school. It was not my life. It is not of interest.
It is going to be a long drive.
It’s funny. I remember similar long drives, listening to my parents talk and talk, a six year-old in the back seat, out driving in the weekend. We often came out Banks Peninsula way. Including Birdlings Flat. The last time I came out this way would have been on one of those childhood outings, before I rebelled some time in my teens and said “enough!” I was my own person by that stage, and those who are their own do not get driven around in weekends by their parents.
This would be the first time I have been driven along this road at night. The past excursions were always made in day time. No point driving around something you can’t see, and you have to be home in time for dinner.
I’m vaguely aware that she is still talking. I nod my head occasionally. This makes me look like I am pensively listening and agreeing with her. Women like that sort of thing. No, horrible sexist generalisation. This woman likes that sort of thing. Careful mate, the thought police will find you out.
I don’t like the fall of night. It feels like encroaching death, or a cold chill falling over the world. Horrible things happen at night, more so than in daytime. Fewer nutters venture to do harm to people in daylight. They think the darkness hides them better, and makes their crimes unsolvable. A dark cloak lain over their sins.
And all that sex. Sex happens at night. Far too much sex happens at nights. The minute the sun goes down, so do the blinds and they’re all at it again. People tend not so much to have sex in the daylight either. I think this is because they don’t like looking at each other while they are at it. Darkness can veil sin too.
Drunkenness is another night vice. Friday is the worst. The end of the week. A new pay packet to spend, and a body to punish. So out they go, downing their alcohol, then throwing it back up again. As if the dark will hide their sick stains and their sick minds. And when they wake up on Saturday morning with a headache, wondering what it is all about, with a lighter wallet, only then does it dawn it might not be worth it. Until Saturday night breaks their resolve, or the following Friday.
No, there are no good reasons for liking night time. None at all.
Spotting them is so normal they are hardly noticed. They make such a common subject that newspapers and magazines don’t write about them. It’s something to do with the number of people in the media who are men, who themselves are part of the problem.
It’s talking males, they’re the problem no one sees.
Let’s run it back a bit. We’re in the Square, or going down Colombo Street right? And there you see a couple coming the other way. Ever notice how it’s the guy who is doing all the talking while the woman listens? If she opens her mouth, it’s to laugh at his lame jokes or express murmurs of assent at his penetrating insights, only briefly breaking his stream of words. She is his prop, his mirror in which he can behold his reflected glory, however minor.
He is not the only one at fault. She encourages him, for what reason I cannot tell. Hoping to catch his confidence. Here is a woman who will listen he thinks. Here is a woman who thinks I am funny, intelligent. Just what I always wanted.
She will put up with that because it’s a minor matter compared to some of the slobs she has been out with. She follows the same habits after marriage. Sometimes it is sincere. In other cases the attentive hush turns over the years to insincere bored silence and mocking rejoinders as he inexorably fails to live up to his big words and plans. This turns into a project of bringing his world crashing down. It can end twistedly. A bloke doesn’t like a lippy woman.
The happy marriage in this vein is one where the woman never challenges her man’s deluded ramblings. She knows what he’s like. Knows he doesn’t like having his cherished views undermined. So she lives it till the day he dies. Then in the silence of the retirement home, she sits back in individual solitude with the knitting and the proceeds from his life insurance and remembers all the wise things he said.
Going through Halswell things come to a head. The boyfriend tells her to shut up, and stop distracting him from his driving. She pouts and passes a comment about bad drivers. I say nothing.
She has been going on about their school days, with the account slanted in such a way that he comes out looking naive, inadequate, and somewhat hungry for sex at any cost. Your typical adolescent Kiwi male really. I should have said something then. I could see what it was going to build into. Intervention requires some amount of concern to act as a spur to action. None existed on my part. I preferred instead to say nothing and sit watching the soiled linen being aired. That’s the way I am.
The closer we get to Christchurch, the more I wonder about what purpose my presence on this outing has served. It was her idea. As I said, I don’t really know him much. She wanted me here. Stage one has been to rub the old beau’s face in it. Stage two is now being entered into, given that he has responded to the bait, after much patient silence. Which leaves us with stage three, the denouement. They taught me that word in Fifth Form English - I’ve always wanted to use it.
The glow of the city lights is now visible looming above the horizon. Soon we will be back. Soon thankfully.
Things were hotting up in the King Edward. Shards of a pool cue splintered with a loud crack as it broke over the back of a leather-jacketed gang member. The contretemps was an internal matter involving a resetting of the pecking order in a motorcycling fraternity. An ally of the victim retaliated against the initiator of the quarrel with the casting of a full bottle of beer in the direction of his head. The bottle made the hoped-for connection and exploded in a shower of froth and fragments of brown glass. DB or Lion Brown? It was impossible to tell. The bottle thrower in turn found himself designated as the target for a thrown pint beer glass. A generalised melee ensued.
Alcohol-dulled minds growled in anger. Madness hit the stomach, causing muscular contortions, eyebrows tighten in grimaces of fury. Mouths emit screams, oaths and grunts. Breathing quickens. Muscles tense and release themselves in the expression of violent emotion. Flesh meets flesh.
A left hand clenches involuntarily while the right one reaches for a beer bottle. If the brawl spills over to this end of the bar, the first bugger who gets in my way will get his jaw broken. I don’t give a shit whose side they’re on, just leave me out of it, or watch out. No fucking way I’m running away. It’s no good letting those pricks interrupt a quiet drink.
Good wholesome fun on a Friday night. Pub brawling, inner city Christchurch style. Blood splattered, flesh cut, eyes blackened, teeth broken. Fun for all the gang. Shit, reach for the motorbike chain as well - should fuck a couple of the buggers up. A knife? Why not! Come and join in mate. Be merry. Push life to the max. Enjoy a night out with the boys, inflict injury on your fellow man and live to tell the tale. Break and destroy, but be sure to scarper before the filth crash through the front door waving truncheons.
Sirens are wailing outside. Now would be a good time to leave via the window out the back of the men’s room. It’s just as well I locked my new LPs up in the car.
Their lives are spent in pursuit of things ever changing. Values concerning which the only constant is lack of permanency. They chase them and chase them, from time to time catching up and keeping level, then soon falling behind once the trend veers off on another tangent.
Over the years thousands of dollars expended. They leaf through catalogues, haunt shops looking for that prized item or accessory, and keep up with the latest developments as expounded by the specialist press.
The budget doesn’t always stretch as far as required. There are everyday bills to be paid before that luxury can be acquired. So they wait and save, putting a bit aside for that large purchase that will make life worthwhile. They first use the newly acquired item with relish and exhilaration.
It doesn’t last. The new wonder in their lives becomes outmoded, or breaks, or loses its novelty, to end up being resold for a fraction of the purchase price or left gathering dust in a shed while its owner longs for another acquisition that will lead to still greater feelings of fulfilment.
Those close to the frantic consumer may feel pity, or resentment, or annoyance that these material items assume such an important standing. Am I not more important? Isn’t there something better that money could be spent on? It’s a double standard, for the judger has his or her own priorities and pet wants, pursued just as fanatically.
Fad piles up on fad, in all fields of life. What’s in this season? In terms of clothes, music, sporting items, electronic consumer items, literature, films, motor mowers, automobiles, cutlery, toilet paper, luncheon wrap, sunglasses, cosmetics, shoes, leisure craft whether aquatic or aeronautic, tea pots and on and on and on. Ever changing, the shapes, colours, sizes, construction materials, keeping armies of designers and publicists in employment.
You stand above such things? Really? But even the greatest artists have their trends. Who is this year’s in philosopher? What is this month’s intellectual fashion? The intellectual is as great a slave to fashion as the average working girl in the typing pool.
There are there for picking and choosing, in all aspects of existence, the fads of the world. Opera and heavy metal, Gucci and PVC, Oprah Winfrey and Heidegger. The conservative refuses to mix and match, as does the hide-bound radical. Those fed up with trends try and make their own. Some succeed and make some money, or earn some repute, before being consigned to fashion’s equivalent of the garden shed. With some luck their ideas might be the subject of a revival twenty years down the line.
So go, go and play the game, follow the flow or try and turn the tide, but don’t think you will escape the fickle trends of life.
The police always make me nervous. Even successfully avoiding them makes me feel nervous. I may have done absolutely nothing and still know that all they have to do is look up a data base and the result will be at least a couple of hours down at the station, maybe a search of the flat, a poke around my car. Trouble, nothing but trouble.
I understand why crims hate the police. The way lapsed Catholics hate priests. They are always there, in the background, in your mind. You might be free of them physically, but inside you will always be incarcerated by the knowledge that one day they may get you.
Two incidents in one day. First the bikies and then the pub. That makes me nervous. It can happen anytime, anywhere, without you being personally responsible. The clientele and their stupid actions attract cops like flies. To be put away because some stupid junkies screw up, that is the worst that could happen. And people think we manipulate them. Quite the opposite. I am at their mercy. All they have to do is make a scene at the flat, or ring up the cops with a complaint, and that’s that, I’m screwed. They get treated as the helpless victims, while I am the cruel, manipulating pusher, living off the back of human misery. So I try to be nice to them. Sure I am taking their money, but my future depends on their good will. I’m not just selling them a used car.
I got off specialising in the hard stuff because of the worry. The time you could end up serving kept getting longer and longer, and over there in Asia the penalties didn’t just involve time. Bamboo across the bum and getting other things shoved up it for instance. Weed isn’t without its problems. If they find enough of it, you’re still going to do a long stretch, but the stigma is less than for smack or tabs. One day when I am old and grey, a not too disrespectable past might be a better thing than a record as a heroin pusher.
I can’t excuse what I do. It’s a shitty way to make a living, and I’m in it for the money. Truth is though, what else am I going to do? No great skills, didn’t do anything much beyond high school. Travelled a lot, for all the wrong reasons, but that’s not a lot to build a respectable career on. I keep thinking about going to polytech, except it’s so much work, and you have to pay them just to do it, with no guarantee you’ll actually pass. And your mind goes back to all the crap in school. Wanker teachers telling you what’s right and what’s wrong. What to think and what not to. Polytech would just be that without uniforms.
Yeah, it’s an excuse. It’s just because I hate myself.
Oh bugger it, why do I keep thinking these thoughts? What’s the point?
He was walking up Colombo Street, past the kids hanging around outside Kentucky Fried. He had a roll bag over his shoulder. With a determined look. The look of wanting to do something. Urgently.
Shouting from the other side of the road through the hoons in their Fords was no use. Getting to him in time through that lot was no easy proposition either. He had reached the intersection just before the Square. Impatiently waiting, he was looking around agitatedly. What would he do if approached?
He couldn’t see Carmen - she was standing too far back from the side of the road, with a wave of passers-by and parked cars affording some cover. She would have to take him from behind.
The hoons don’t like pedestrians running across the road in front of them. These ones slammed on the brakes and shouted out their open windows. That they stopped was all that mattered. The lights hadn’t changed yet.
Push, shove and dash. Just a few metres to go. The green light for pedestrians has come on. Scrugg is on the move. He hasn’t turned around. His attention is intently on what is ahead, not what is behind. Now is the moment.
The roll bag, swiftly tugged off his shoulder, comes away easier than expected. He is holding it so as not to drop the contents rather than to ward off a bag snatcher. Bag snatchers are not that common in Christchurch, and tend to be glue sniffers who prey on old ladies, rather than young skinheads.
“What the...!! You bitch! Gimme my bag!
Shit. That’s not Scrugg calling out now. There are three blokes running along in pursuit. They are big and fast. She never was much good at athletics, and the bag didn’t help. It would have to go.
She unzips it as she runs. Scrugg is coming up the rear of the three vigilantes, wanting to reclaim the contents. She catches a glimpse of his worried face as she pulls the gun out and flings it onto the footpath, dropping the bag as she goes. Try explaining that one Scrugg.
“Hey! Hop in!”
A red Ford Escort with hoons! Anything for a lay. The door is open. No questions asked. She pulls the door shut behind her.
And they’re off, leaving Scrugg on the footpath, surrounded by concerned citizens, wanting to know what he was doing with a loaded shotgun on Colombo Street this fine Friday evening.
Ici on passe du jazz, avec un chanteur qui chante en français. Je voudrais parier qu’il n’y a personne ici sauf moi qui comprend ce qu’il dit. Toujours une légère patine de culture française, mais seulement pour garder les apparences, afin de faire semblant d’être bohémien. Sans quoi on ne serait pas cool comme il faut.
La clientèle du café? Ils viennent et vont, mais pour le moment à proximité de ma table se trouvent un crâne rasé, un clochard déprimé, deux étudiants et au fond de la salle, trois jeunes look branché. Les deux étudiants analysent les vies de leurs colocataires respectifs. Je regarde par la fenêtre. Par rapport à la vie parisienne, la rue est vide. Toujours les comparaisons avec Paris. Des autobus quittent la place centrale. Un léger vent pousse les pages oubliées d’un journal le long du trottoir. Le clochard regarde toujours sa tasse à café. Je n’ai aucune envie d’être dans ses bottes. Sa vie serait dure, même ici, dans le pays de l’égalité. Toutes ses affaires sont cachées dans un petit sac de supermarché. L’entreprise en question s’appelle Pak ‘n’Save. C’est jaune, un détail sans importance, mais dans cinquante ans qui va se souvenir de la couleur d’un tel sac? Peut-être est-il un détail de signifiance historique.
Une grande cigarette en carton est suspendue au dessus de la salle. C’est une sorte de tube néon mais qui n’émet pas beaucoup de lumière.
Les étudiants parlent de quelqu’un qui a perdu sa main dû à sa propre stupidité. Je n’ai pas saisi ni pourquoi ni comment il l’perdue, mais on pense qu’il l’méritée parce qu’il s’agissait d’une acte niaise.
Après ça c’est la tour à une amie.
“She was on the defensive. She always thinks she’s right and everyone else is wrong. You can’t tell her otherwise.”
Ils négligent à préciser ce que ladite fille avait fait à tort ou à raison. Sans précision il est impossible d’être d’accord avec leur jugement.
Qu’est ce que le blond dit maintenant? Quelque chose à voir avec la came. L’amie, c’est une droguée. Heu-là!
Ahh, on parle des drogues pour l’amincissement. C’est une anorexique!
Des sons derrière mon dos sont moins clairs. Et je ne parle pas anglais suffisamment bien pour suivre toutes les conversations autour de moi. Je suis comme un handicapé. Ce n’est pas une faiblesse grave. Je ne peux pas me passer de ma capacité concierge dans un environnement francophone. Là c’est obligatoire. Ici je ne connais personne. Donc ce n’est pas si important.
Etre si seul est un peu bizarre. J’aime qu’on me dit bonjour de temps en temps. L’accueil chaleureux d’un vieil ami. Un sourire et de bonne conversation. Des sottises parisiennes bien entendu. C’est ça qui dérange quand on est en voyage. L’absence d’interaction normale.
9.44pm: Sandra and Carmen
“Get off you pigs!”
Screaming wasn’t enough so she started clawing. One of them got a knee in the groin.
The car lurched to a halt.
“Get her out!” The driver had had enough.
They were going to push her out onto the road, except she clambered out before they could, rolling into the refuge provided by the gutter.
The car squealed its tyres as it raced off. They weren’t staying.
“Jesus! Are you alright?”
Carmen turned to see black stockinged legs in high heels standing on the footpath. She looked up. A woman, not a transvestite. That was something at least.
“Here, come on, we’ll sit you down on the seat over there.”
“I’m alright!”she snapped, getting up.
And then so did something in her ankle.
The shift to the seat was a short one, happily.
“Here, get some of this into you.”
Out of a heavy duty handbag came a flask of alcohol. No description of the contents was offered, but it did have some effect. Carmen looked at her helper. She worked the streets, you could see from the get up.
“Bastards... Not friends I hope?”
“No, just giving me a lift.”
“And you didn’t want to pay the fare.”
“Something like that.”
“Here, give me some of that too.” She took the flask with a short, stubby outstretched hand. She didn’t hesitate in downing a good part of it.
She put the cap back on. “What a dump!”
“What, here?” Carmen waved her hand at the general surroundings.
“No, this town. Sorry, I’ve probably offended you.” Sandra guessed she was a local.
“It’s alright. I know exactly what you mean.”
“Friday nights are the worst. All the pissheads out to blow their money on booze and show off to their mates. I can’t stand it sometimes.”
“But here you are.”
“Yeah, hoping some of the cash’ll come my way.”
“Take it easy! Just stretch out and wait. It’s probably just a bit sore from the fall. If you had anything broken I wouldn’t have got you this far.”
“So you’re an expert on sore ankles then?”
“When they’re the result of being shoved out of a car I am. Be grateful they decided to stop first. It doesn’t always happen for me.”
Carmen winced, straightening her leg up and placing her foot sideways over the uninjured one. It helped. Took the weight off the sore spot.
“Don’t worry. I’ll keep you company for a while. My name’s Sandra.”
A handshake followed.
What do you say to a prostitute? Apart from all the obvious, rude questions...
“So where are you from?”
“Wellington. I shifted down here a few months back.”
“So Wellington is worse than here even?”
“For me it was. Too many old faces.”
“You’re lucky. I’m stuck here.”
“No money. No friends anywhere else. I wouldn’t know where to start.”
“It’s not that hard if you really have to go.”
“That’s easy enough to say.”
“I got out of where I came from and that wasn’t easy, but you can do it.”
Carmen thought a moment about that and decided to say nothing.
“Anyway, I’m glad you got out of that car. It’s nice to have someone to talk to.”
Silence. That point where you try to think of something else to throw in the conversation, just as your other number is doing the same. Sandra chipped in first.
“I want to get off the street. How about a bite to eat or something? I haven’t had dinner yet.
“Yeah, alright. I could do with something too. You reckon you can walk?”
“I’m okay. Hurts a bit and not much more.”
Carmen wanted to go the way the hoons had come.
“No, not that way. I want to go the other direction.”
Dropping me off at my flat turned into coming in for tea and coffee. The performance of that ritual wasn’t too difficult, and all the formalities were observed. I even managed to offer biscuits, having been to the South City Countdown last night. To stem the awkwardness the TV was switched on. We’re expecting the news along in a couple of minutes, once the ads have abated. Conversation, such as it was, was knocked into silence come the ad break. Someone in the control booth at Avalon is under instructions to turn the volume up when the ads come along. Either that or the ad makers record the sound levels abnormally high to grab the viewers’ attention. Little do they realise the most predictable response is the sound being turned down until the next programme.
He is suggesting going out to a nearby pub. There are plenty to choose from, as I’m only ten minutes’ walk from Cathedral Square. The church bells wake me up on Sunday morning. He’s saying it is only ten, the pubs don’t shut for another hour, etc.
She, somewhat exaggeratedly, is making yawning noises and suggesting how tired she is.
I am tired of both of them.
I start by clearing away the empty cups and plate, with a few crumbs being all that remain of the biscuits.
Three or four minutes clattering around in the kitchen, washing and drying the items in question and I am back in the lounge to see if they are any closer to a conclusion.
“I’m too tired for the pub!” she is protesting.
“Whenever it comes to doing what you want to do, listening to what you want to say, or running around after you, you’re never too tired then are you?”
Here we go.
It’s the argument of a couple who have a history, going back years. A couple in the non-Biblical sense, since he has never gone that far with her, or that is what she has told me. They know plenty about each other, to the degree it is very easy for either to slight and wound verbally. You know the sort of thing. An allusion to some trait or failing, perceived or real, that keeps getting dredged up and aired every time there is a quibble. The stuff couples are made of. The reason for divorces, except that these two are not even married and will never even get close. It’s a rare thing for two people to behave like they are married when there is no sexual history at all. It’s a measure of how well they get on. Right in my living room.
She has by now launched into a riposte. I cut it short.
“It’s getting late and I have had a long day. I, in any case, am not going anywhere, so I’m going to bed. You guys can stay here and work out what you want to do, but don’t forget to shut the door when you go.”
Surprised silence is all I get from both of them. That and a couple of sullen “Goodnight”s.
Call me rude if you will, but I have had a gutsful tonight. Hours of those two and their games. Mutual reprobation all the way to Birdlings Flat and back. And now they have the nerve to carry on in my flat. This is where my patience ends. Bugger the both of them.
Between the living room and the bedroom there is a hall. I close the living room door behind me. And the bedroom door. There could be shouting, and I want none of it.
In any case, they are not going to leave via the hall. The front door leads directly out from the living room onto the street. Once I have undressed, all there is left to do is slide into bed and settle down for a read. Steppenwolf. Coincidentally, I am in the middle of one of those passages where the protagonist leads a long tirade against the stupidity of humanity. Oh how I feel for him!
The front door slams shut. Good riddance!
But then the door to the hall opens, and there is a knock on the bedroom door.
“Can I come in?”
It is her.
“Yeah.” My voice is far from enthusiastic.
“Do you think I could stay the night?”
She fixes me with a gaze. Certain among you will know the one I am talking about.
“What about your friend?”
A small sigh. “He’s gone home. He said I can do what I like.”
I weigh up knowing I have been used as a pawn in a game of emotional chess against the benefit of having her in bed for the night and decide life offers some strange compensations.
Drug merchants aren’t supposed to think about love, but we do. In between deals. No, that last bit is bullshit. I’m just throwing that in to tell myself I’m cool. An artificial pose. Some people think what I do is cool, but what would they know? My job is nothing to be proud of, and I know it. Love is something you can be proud of, if you’re worthy of it.
I get the feeling maybe I’m not. I bugger up too many people’s lives. Even the dope. How many brain cells am I responsible for destroying? How many careers have gone up the boohai because of me? I ask too many questions. I can’t know of course. Some of my clients are very respectable people. Their weekly dope rations supplied by yours truly doesn’t seem to have done any harm. Others who come to me have this dead look in their faces. You can tell drugs are their last crutch, but it won’t hold them up forever. I sell them the stuff anyway. A social worker I am not.
That weighs on me. That’s enough to get pissed over at three in the morning. Except I always pull out of it. Business is business and all that. This is where self-justification should kick in and I could say that “hey I don’t sell it to twelve year-olds”. I don’t of course. Or thirteen, fourteen or fifteen year olds. But beyond that age it gets hard to tell. And some of the stuff I sell must get passed on to younger brothers and sisters. I’m just one link in the chain, to coin a new image.
Back to love anyway. What right have I to love doing what I do? I’m not Pol Pot I know. I tell myself I have never killed anyone, although I don’t really know. Just a link in the chain. I can’t be there when the ambulance arrives. I don’t know. I like to think the ambulance doesn’t need to arrive. I know I am thinking garbage. Of course someone must get hurt by what I do. It’s not nice. Not nice at all. So if I can live with this knowledge, and keep doing what I do, it’s very unlikely I am ever going to reach the moral plane necessary to deliver love and caring to a woman. First she would have to know what I do to be part of my life. Which would mean she probably has morals as low as mine, or has a drug habit. Otherwise how would she get to know me? And if you are having a relationship like that, you know it only goes so far, and beyond that is money and greed and self-interest and addiction. Not much to build a future on. Not much at all.
What to do what to do what to do. Nothing ultimately. Keep going along your chosen career path, alone, knowing you are not going to have a stable relationship in this neck of the urban woods. Get bitter about it and pause to think once a while. Fail to find an answer, and turn back to day to day routine for want of anything better to fill that gap that is life.
I can also bolster my spirits by telling myself I am not alone. Other crims have the same problem. So do priests, depending on what sect you belong to. Straight, honest men in high places (and women, I must add) face the same question. Is that well-groomed person charmed with me actually charmed with me, or the thought of living off my income for the rest of her (or his) life?
I might even go straight, make a big name and stack of money for myself in some legitimate field of economic activity, and find myself more or less where I am know in terms of the emotional scene. I can tell myself this because it makes me feel better and removes any stimulus to change. Whatever you are, whatever you do, there will be some hang-up. Get used to it and make the best of what you are and what you do.
But it’s not enough.
It was hot in the desert. Burning hot under the sun. A scorpion crawled back under a rock as the Long Range Desert Group truck sped past.
“Two hundred miles to Benghazi.”
Martin told himself this was an irrational setting. Not even good enough for a dream. If an LRDG patrol drove around in day it would get shot up by the Luftwaffe or the Italian air force.
He wasn’t asleep as such. Just musing. It would be a great thing to write a war comic, except it was hard to come up with an original plot. Drawing the pictures was a tall order as well.
Playing with soldiers you sometimes came up with great ideas, then realised they were just stupid kid thoughts. Adults write these things. Adults even read them. The ones who didn’t do too well at school and can’t manage real books.
War films were a bit like how a kid would write a war comic. The uniforms were often wrong, and sometimes even the weapons. And they always had trouble getting the right vehicles. How many real German half-tracks do you ever see in a British or American war film? They always used war-surplus American M-3 half-tracks painted sand yellow or field grey with German crosses daubed on the sides.
The Vietnam war films coming out were better. They had the real stuff, because the war wasn’t that long ago, and you could still find all the hardware. Even the AK-47s, on sale in lots of gun shops in America. There the problem was the Americans. Depending on who made the film, the Yanks come across as absolutely hopeless or as ridiculous killing machines.
Kids aren’t supposed to think about things like that, just lap up the violence, unless their parents kept them away from such films. Mum and dad didn’t mind about war toys and war films. Some parents did. And teachers. At school you could get a telling off for pretending to have a gun, even if it was a two-finger revolver. They think if you play games like that when you are a kid, you will turn into a real killer. Martin hadn’t heard of anyone from his school growing up to kill people though. For him it was just another adult way of trying to make life boring, remove the fun, and make you docile. He didn’t like being told he couldn’t imagine things. Even imagining killing or being killed. Thinking and pretending wasn’t doing. The girls could mother little baby dolls and no one was scared they were going to get pregnant and have babies.
Boys aren’t supposed to throw things either. Adults think they are bound to break things. Or wave sticks. “You’ll have someone’s eye out with that thing!” Or play with matches. “You’ll burn the bloody house down! What do you think you’re playing at?” Or anything much in particular really. And they wonder why I get bored.
Adults lead a boring life. Work, and watching TV seem to be their main activities. Am I going to turn out like that? Suppose I’ll have to work. Unless you win the lotto there’s not much choice involved in that one. They don’t seem to be much into activity either. It’s as if they slow down once they’ve grown up. All that extra body weight they carry around compared with kids, is that it? It could be responsibility weighing on them. The bills, the money they keep having to pay, including for us kids, because we keep wearing clothes out, growing out of things, and breaking stuff.
I never mean to break stuff. Like that window. With the golf ball. If Aaron hadn’t suggested we try some putting it would never have happened. I should have seen it coming. “Don’t do anything with balls near the windows! Go to the park!” I had been told, ever since I was little. I didn’t listen though. Stuff like that happens to idiots down the road, not to me.
Like the broken china cabinet that I stuck my foot through accidentally. Or the lamp shade that fell off when I hit it with the balsa glider I had glued together. It didn’t seem that heavy when I made it. The house is full of stuff that breaks too easily. Mum leaves little ornaments on the mantel piece and cabinets, just waiting to be knocked over. Even the cat bumps them occasionally.
A new bar. A new scene. Old men past the use-by date assigned them by society, huddled round a quiet bar in a once lively inner city pub. The one with the reddest nose was up and running, words pouring out. The others listened respectfully.
“She used to call me a drunk. Two pints here with the lads and that was enough to be sloshed as a salamander in her eyes. Couldn’t enjoy myself. Oh no, had to go home and listen to her gossiping about the neighbours. Not bloody likely. No mate. Twenty years of that is enough for any man. Her and the neighbours! Mrs Alpers and her new curtains. Number 9's tom has been back again, molesting the moggy. That lot up the road better have him seen to before I do. And on and on and on and on. Stuff that! Give me a beer with the lads, down at the pub, where I can be myself.
“So she bloody goes and walks out. Says I’m getting worse. Nothing to do with her mind. Oh no! Couldn’t be anything to do with her. She’s God’s gift that one. Flawless. At least her mother always told her as much. Took the boy what’s more. My lad. Gone.
“Cow. Won’t let me near him. Claims I’m bad news. She’s shifted twice. Says I’m violent. In her dreams. I’ve never lifted a finger against her. God knows less patient blokes would have. All those years working to bring home money for her and the kid. All for nothing.
“It was worth it, tonight, going down to the Town Hall. That bitch never whispered a word. If I hadn’t seen his name in the paper. I would have never found out. Wants to shut me out of the boy’s life, she does. It’s not going to work. Not if I don’t let it.
“He saw me in the audience. He saw me. Final round. Just him and that other boy. My son, three points behind and he cracked it: “What’s the square root of the hypotenuse of...” Oh, I don’t remember. Some bloody thing. And he got it. Spot on! He heard me. He saw me. He knows his dad cares. I gave the biggest cheer of my life. I wanted him to know.”
He broke to clear his throat.
“My boy’s a winner! A bloody winner!”
The slurred words echoed off the walls of the empty lounge bar and fell on the beer-stained carpet.
10.22pm: Carmen and Sandra
“Here’s some chocolate cake, and the coffee you wanted, with milk.”
Carmen smiled and nodded. Kindness touched her, but she didn’t like to show it too much. That had been fatal in the past. The nuns used kindness alternating with short, sharp shocks to keep control. Whenever someone showed kindness now, it felt like a prelude to something bad just along the way.
“I needed a break. The Square is as good a place as any. You can watch them all walk past from here, size them up. Instead of them sizing me up.”
“How many hours a night are you out?”
“Depends on the night. In winter maybe three or four, and you can start earlier because it gets dark earlier. This time of year you have to wait till late for the sun to go down, but it’s less cold at two in the morning.”
“Does it pay?”
“The money is good, but I wonder about all the stuff that goes with it. The lying to friends, hoping people from work won’t see you. The creeps and avoiding the cops.”
“All I do is sit around with my useless friends day after day.”
“You need a change girl. Get away from it all.”
Carmen reclined well back in the hard café chair and thought about that one. “You said that before too, when you found me, and on the way here. I reckon you’re the one who needs a change.”
You could see she was thinking too.
“Summer holidays soon. I’m off to Auckland. No one knows me up there.”
“Have you been there before?”
“Two or three times. Lots of night life in Auckland. Warm nights too. Warmer than here. They don’t have winter in Auckland, just lots of rain.”
“I’ve never been outside the South Island. Haven’t had a holiday since I was little. We used to go away to the coast, when dad was still around.”
Arguments, beatings, shouting, misery. All that passed unmentioned. Sandra didn’t need to know and it was already pathetic enough not to have been out of the South Island.
“We used to go to places like Taranaki, and Napier. See the dolphins and go swimming along the beach.”
Was she thinking about past miseries too? She wasn’t letting on.
Post-coitus I like to surface for a break. Staying in bed feels stifling and empty, and I need space to think in. The need for a drink is my pretext for escape. I close the kitchen curtains before switching the light on. There is a glass on the bench, still carrying milk stains from this morning. A wash and a wipe and it is ready for service.
I did need a drink. As I said, it is a pretext, not a lie.
My name will be mud with her friend. She told him she was staying the night to get rid of him. She was counting on me not kicking her out, or looking a gift horse in the mouth. To that extent she is a good judge of character. I don’t get so many offers that I turn them down when they come along.
The vinyl chair is cold on my arse. Do nudists notice such things? You would think they get used to it. That and knocking their genitalia on things.
She wants me to hurry back. Once is not enough when you’re out to piss someone off. She’s revelling in it. I wonder if he will ever speak to her again. I think he will. He doesn’t have enough dignity to stay away. It takes a certain personality to put up with that much shit from a woman in the hope that one day she might change.
She may never have slept with him, but she has certainly slept with someone. I knew she wasn’t a virgin, and now I know she’s far too uninhibited to just do it occasionally either. The cuckold may even have been through such humiliations before, back at high school and since. I would not be surprised if I was just the latest in a line of men she had jumped on to rile him.
I expect tonight won’t lead to anything much relationship wise. She is not the sort to stay with anyone for very long. She lives her life in general as a series of short sensations. Back on the beach she was going on about suicide. Now she is fixated with sex, at least until morning. By then she will have found something new.
Law students - bastards all. An unusually large number of them are here tonight at the Worcester Bar. They are dressed to kill, upcoming urban professionals, out to inherit the family firm, or maybe put a few out of business. The general level of grooming fell just short of impeccable. They stand out from the regulars in the bar, who don’t dress badly themselves in any case, but do so to another code involving less formality. The male law students have blazers and ties which are not that much of a sartorial leap from what they wore as boarders at the most exclusive of the city’s high schools. The girls had more flair, but keep to sober colours, avoiding skirts that show too much leg, and tops that reveal too much cleavage. One did not want to be taken for the sort who might sleep her way to the head of the firm, even if, in reality, one did.
There was a certain look about them peculiar to those who have been born into comfortable circumstances and would leave the world better off, if anything. They were cocky. They chatted gaily about holidays in Europe, family flats in Sydney, LA and London, and big nobs daddy knew and could use to pull useful strings. They were a caste unto themselves, and might mix with outsiders but refrained from taking it too far.
Part of you feels envious, looking at them. Another part feels sick. Self-centred, arrogant pricks with all the answers. Between them they would end up running the justice system and dabbling in politics, in between fucking their mistresses and doing their best to screw the system for every piece of personal gain the could extract.
And another part, looking at the girls, made you wonder whether the smell of privilege made them better lays than the girls down at the Palladium.
In the throes of sex I usually end up thinking about completely unrelated things. Polishing my shoes for instance. I once stopped in mid flagrante because it was raining outside and I remembered I had left my washing out. That particular relationship didn’t last long. In retrospect I can’t blame her. I wouldn’t like to fall second to someone’s laundry. These things are far more trivial than concentrating on pleasuring a woman admittedly, yet they don’t go away for all that. The shoes come back for some reason. Polishing my shoes. For what purpose or whom I ask myself. It’s just something you do in my case. My station in things is not such that I am accountable to anyone for my appearance. No one cares much what students look like, until they become drones in the national labour force.
It is hot under the blankets, normal given the circumstances. Both of us are sweating under the sheets, heaving and pushing. I wonder what it must look like. One day if I die and become a ghost I will be able to stand over other people in bed and find out.
It has got to that point where she is responding to every little movement I make, all very gratifying, and not just for me. She is holding me very tight, which limits my options a bit. I like it better when they stretch their arms out in abandon. It gives you more room to move.
Her hair up my nostrils forces me to shift my face away. I like her hair, although not if I can’t breath because of it. The faint smell of beachside smoke is still perceptible.
This could go on for five minutes or half an hour. At the moment, five minutes seems the less likely option.
11.22pm: Carmen and Sandra
“Time to go you think?”
Carmen looked at Sandra right in the face, without a waver in her gaze.
“Yeah, I’ve got to go out and earn.”
Carmen kept looking at Sandra and said nothing.
“I’ve got to.”
The two words formed a heavy reproach. The saver was casting off, leaving the dejected one to her fate.
“Don’t look at me like that!”
Sandra snapped. It was all she could do to stop herself from shouting.
“I have to!”
Again Carmen said nothing. Catholic girls - they know all about guilt trips.
Then she spoke.
“You’ve just helped me after being mucked around by a carload of little shits, given me an hour-long lecture about how I should pick myself up and head off for something better, and now you’re going out into the cold, dark night to take money from other little shits just like them. Let’s just sit back a moment and think about the double standard involved in that shall we?”
Sandra lowered her head.
“Maybe you’re the one that needs looking after, lady of the night.”
Images were floating through Sandra’s head. Night after night. The cold winds, and colder looks, the cruising patrol cars, the fear and hate, trying to hide the money, sometimes just trying to hide. And on and on and on it went. For what?
Freedom? Financial freedom, yeah, and at what cost? You got the feeling you were free at one in the morning, when the streets started turning dead quiet, and the interval between passing cars grew longer and longer until it was time to go home. But in the morning that feeling had gone, to be replaced by disgust and self-loathing, voices of mum and aunties floating around in your brain, expressing disapproval. And in the daytime there was always the fear of someone spotting you, pointing you out for all to laugh at.
“Who are you fooling? Come on, sit down Sandra.”
The money has been mounting up. This could be the time to make a move. Auckland might be good. Even Sydney.
Sandra sat down.
This time it was going to change. I’m not going to be found trussed up and left lying somewhere up in the Port Hills. Not me.
Five minutes. Nearly exactly if the bedside digital clock radio is to be believed. She lies heaving like a beached whale, exhausted. I roll on my back to catch my breath.
She isn’t saying much. Funny, for one who is such a talker. Her pretence has been peeled off with the clothes. She feels no need to talk with me pressing against her.
I am contented. Tired too. I will sleep soundly, once the blood stops pumping.
This is the sort of moment virile young men dream about. Single, my own flat, a woman in my bed. What more could I ask for? Her waking me up at three in the morning, wanting more. We will see.
Another day is nearly gone. I won’t be awake come midnight. Nor will she. We are both shagged out.
“I need a pee.”
She already knows where the toilet is, having used it when she arrived. I watch her pale bum as she walks to the bedroom door.
She is one of the more attractive women I have slept with. No, there have not been many. I am no playboy. Also, for that matter, I am not that old. It’s difficult to have an extensive track record at my age. Give me some time and I might have one in a few years.
That’s the macho in me. Clocking up the score. I’m aiming for double digits. There you go. It’s out. James wants to have his way with at least ten women before he dies.
I’m going to have to make an effort to achieve that goal.
In the meantime she is back. Her breasts are cold against my chest. It may not be that cold outside, but the room temperature in the flat has gone down substantially. I hug her and rub her back. She sighs.
Her body has that limpness of someone on the verge of sleep. The relaxed slump of her body into slumber, softened by the sexual embrace she is in. Her breathing is falling into sleep mode along with her brain. I will follow shortly.
It is a powerful feeling, holding a sleeping woman in your arms. It makes me feel important, worthy. Although I know she may never come back, for the time being I cast the thought of the future aside. Now is what matters. This moment and its bliss.
The old woman behind the counter at Crispy Chips takeaways is the saddest person I have ever seen. I have seen a few too. She never smiles. The lines on her face have ben chiselled into a permanent grimace, with furrowed eye-brows that turn to a frown at the slightest provocation. Her light blue smock is always clean, and the food is good, but as she hunches over the equipment, making you a scoop of chips, you always feel like something is really, really wrong with that woman.
Who knows what horrible things she has been through to end up looking like that. You start wondering if that could be you in another forty or fifty years, after life has swung you a few bad blows to the head and body.
For all her air of misery, she never says anything unpleasant, and is unfailingly polite to the customers when I am there. She must be, or I wouldn’t keep coming back.
It could be the nature of the work. Frying bits of potato and pouring cream freezes day in day out wouldn’t be the most exciting of jobs. On the other hand, she has the benefit of a shop right in the middle of town, in the Square. They do a good trade here, particularly on Friday night, when all the kids waiting for their buses home decide to have a last snack before heading back out to Rolleston, Hornby and New Brighton. Some of them decide to be reckless and miss the bus so they can stay out all night. You see them wandering around in the early hours, most of them lost for something to do, not really capable of any serious mischief, just looking for some excitement and finding that it does not exist in central Christchurch at that mysterious time of the week.
I used to do the same. Hang around town till four or five in the morning. Scored a chick occasionally and got drunk. Not much of an achievement really. I was too young to get into any nightclubs, such as they were in those days. And licenced pubs didn’t stay open till one in the morning the way they do now.
At the Police Information Kiosk in the Square there is another woman always on duty. Through the glass she looks like a reflection. My alter ego. The bad on this side of the pane, the good on the other. I would like to stop and stare at her, such is the fascination for me in the look of emptiness about her. If I did that though, I would be a sure-fire candidate for questioning from her colleagues, with inevitable detention and a cross-examination.
There are lots of girls out in the Square. Various of them walk around barefoot, having found out that the nice shiny shoes they bought for tonight are one or more sizes too small. It’s a real woman thing that. Can’t think of any blokes who would fool themselves into buying shoes they couldn’t wear because they liked the look of them. It’s just common sense eh? It’s short skirt weather now that summer is on its way.
It was the house. Moving in day. A scene from the past. Little Martin, aged three, runs in through the open ranch slider door that the removal men have unlocked as a preliminary to shifting in all the furniture. Little Martin surveys the kitchen and living room area. It is one of those seventies open plan homes with a high timbered ceiling. He looks at all the empty space waiting to be filled. The sight of such emptiness holds great novelty. All the other houses he has seen are full of things. Here is one with nothing inside.
“Where’s my room? Where’s my room?”
Dad is too busy with other more important worries to be paying any attention. He just grunts “We’ll see later” as he walks past, lugging an armchair. The words barely form on his lips, they hold so little force. He wasn’t to be bothered any further. Even a three year-old could see that. This particular three year-old did an about turn and scampered off to explore the rest of the new building.
Darkness followed: a mental intermezzo, after which the house’s interior reappeared. As before, it was empty, this time for a different reason. The family is moving out. The wallpaper was different, and the last of the furniture being carted off to the removal truck is in a modern, unfamiliar style. Dad was nowhere to be seen. Mum was doing her best not to cry as she watched the removal men troop out. The dreamer was himself in this dream, but not as before. His outlook had shifted from that of a knee-high toddler to that of a grown-up. Mum looked short, worn and old, depressed by unnamed worries. What had happened?
The dreamer had no idea. It was not an interactive dream, where one might respond to events as they unfolded, or act upon nocturnal thoughts. It would be interesting for the dreamer to articulate a question or two through the lips of his dream personality, but there was no dialogue going on. His character felt no compulsion to ask questions to which it already held the unthought and unvoiced answers, locked away in some part of a dream mind that was not open to the interloper. His legs were taking him on a tour around the house which formed a last-minute check for things left behind. A thought involuntarily reached the dreamer from the head of the dream personality. Mum was too distraught to carry out this final act herself and had entrusted him with it.
First the parents’ bedroom. Empty. Sis’s room. Nothing there. His own room. The wallpaper had been changed as the layer which survived his childhood wasn’t what it had been. The dreamer received a vague impression of his dream character contemplating all the time, all the things which had happened in this room, but he let it drop, as there was no time to review the past. Just a few seconds before the truck drove off.
The kitchen. Here he could be sure nothing had been left behind, as this had always been mum’s jealously guarded domain. He looked through the cupboards anyway. The living room was just as empty. On to the small rooms: the toilet and the washing room. In the wash house, memories persisted of early morning and mum carrying out the washing to hang up in the summer sun. He looked at the corner where he used to stash his skateboard because mum wouldn’t allow “that thing” any further into the house. The swingball used to be propped up in the same corner. After years of disuse it had ended up rusting in the often humid room, and was consigned to the garden shed. It had been uncovered there just a few days ago and slung onto a trailer for delivery to the county council tip.
That was all. Every door had been locked except for the ranch slider. For the last time he turned the key and the bolt clicked in its aluminium frame.
Walk. It is all empty now. There is nothing left there, nothing to keep you, no reason to stay. Bye-bye house. Good-bye childhood. Footsteps down to the removal truck which would take you to a new place, a place not seen before.
Martin jerked awake in a cold sweat. Outside, a lone car zoomed up the street, breaking the still suburban night. He peered into the dark at the bedroom. Was it his? The sight was reassuring. Everything was in its place. Furniture and wallpaper were unchanged. The discarded war comics were still lying in a disordered heap beside the bed.
“Muum! Can I have a drink of war-ter?”
The Zetland. An odd name for a bar. Nothing to do with the island after which it was named. Or is that Zeeland?
They are fascinating, the young people here. They think I am lost, wanting to come in here. Through their clothes, their behaviour, and their haircuts, they proclaim themselves as different, but do so by establishing a new code for conformity. Not that they would accept this proposition. The suggestion would be met with frowns and accusations of cultural conservatism. Had I been wearing a suit and not a leather jacket, I would have received even more sideways glances.
It is hard to be an individual these days, as even non-conformist social movements result in the creation of a series of new norms which come and go like express trains at the Gare Du Nord.
The four piece playing at the back of the room would consider themselves progressive, but their sound seems little different from others in their genre. It is depressing to observe in the global consumer society that the so-called rebels are not really rebels at all. And disturbing. If youth is so short on ideas on how to be different, really different, from preceding generations, what good is youth? It is then no more than a transitory state before the entry into the upper echelons of society, where they will eventually push aside their elders through the attritional effect of the passing of time. You age, and as you age, you become more and more respectable, unless you marginalise yourself completely from society, but that way lies madness.
Yes, very well then, there may exist a few really rebellious individuals. They’re not frequent. They turn out to be the homeless, the institutionalised, the bums and the criminals of the world. To live in those states represents a true revolt against the norms of society, and can be the preliminary to being crushed under the pressure of a system which doesn’t care much for the divergent whims of little people.
The music comes lurching to a halt and the band steps down from the low stage. Roadies start dismantling some of the equipment. The main act should be on in another ten or twenty minutes. There is a minor rush towards the bar. The crowd, having had its full of dancing and music, moves to quench its thirst. Some people light up cigarettes. The smoke is fairly thin. If this were a cellar bar in Paris, you would be able to slice through the smoke with an outstretched hand.
The pub was a venerable one by local standards. It would date back easily to the nineteenth century, considering the stonework above the entrance. It can’t have been a pit stop for the young crowd for that long a time. The pale lime green walls would have sheltered returned servicemen from their families while they yarned about campaigns in Greece, Libya and Italy. Everyone then would have worn homburgs, taken off at the bar to reveal short back and sides slicked back with brylcream. Another dress code prevailed in those days: dark brown, green or blue jackets, unremarkable shirts and baggy trousers.
She is dozing now. Her facial expression when asleep is neutral. I read somewhere that you might divine the true personality of a woman by seeing what she looks like asleep. In her case you would see a red head with a calm face, small nose, long eyelashes. Fair and serene in her slumber.
Tomorrow will be an interesting day. Her emotions may run high in the morning. I can picture her running around going “Oh my God! What have I done? He’ll probably never speak to me again!” Her devotee from school days that is. Not me.
Towards me she might be cold, or outwardly friendly. She might be effusive in her emotions, good or bad. Whatever her mood. Our future together is not bound for longevity.
Seldom does her mind or her body stay in one place. Her preference is flitting through life from place to place, with little repetition. Novelty prevails over routine. I see it in her clothes, in her mannerisms, and in her tastes. She is perpetually on the move, in search of the new. Boyfriends come and go, just like her shifting tastes in pop music, ice cream, or film stars.
On the basis of just a few months’ worth of observation, my assessment is not conclusive, or likely wholly accurate. Nor though is it amiss or misplaced. With her I will not expect much.
I watch him from a distance. We knew each other once. Seventh form. I didn’t like him then. I have no desire to renew our passing acquaintance. I don’t think he recognises me in any case.
He sips his wine confidently. Holds the glass like a professional wine taster. Out of school he used to dress in black. Intervening years have not lead to a change in preference. Black trousers, black jacket, black turtle-neck sweater. He would never call it a skivvy. He still wears glasses, being one of those who considers them more intellectual than contacts.
Someone told me he owns a gallery. He took Art History at university. It would have been either that or teach, so he deals. It’s a logical progression, all things considered. And here he is, at a café with his artistic friends.
Just having made a witty observation on the field of contemporary Australian sculpture, his significant other peals with laughter. They make a fine couple. Her dress is a one-piece black number which reveals a fair expanse of pallid shoulder.
I am more interested in him than her. I talked with him very little in seventh form. He, like so many others, belonged to a circle that was selective about admitting new members. Mainly it consisted of him and a few clever, but less intelligent boys.
He used to write pieces of art criticism for the school newspaper. It was that sort of school. I hadn’t wanted to go there. I found them pretentious. Like so many of his ilk, he had a propensity for name dropping and the laboured use of -isms, mixed in with the trendy theories of the day. He tried hard though, and later succeeded in convincing the editor of a local daily let him do real reviews.
I hear his father was a bit of a bastard. Used to give him trouble if he didn’t come up to scratch, jump the hurdles and all that. You could blame it on his father. Problem is it has been a long time since he left home. He’s a big boy now. No, it’s his own choice, that imperious air, that mystic self-satisfaction, the confidence the world owes him something.
Looking at him still, I try to discern what it was that I didn’t like about him. Some pretentious reviews in the school newspaper aren’t really enough. There must have been some remark, some comment passed that put me off him, except that I have no memory of any. I think it was dislike by association. I knew a couple of his friends a bit better than him and came to dislike them for their arrogance and snobbishness. He seemed cast from the same mould.
And here I am years later, disliking him for it.
Night time was a lonely time for Trafficman. In his bed, in the dark, he felt no one cared and, truth be said, no one did. The world kept going on all around him, not changing one bit, not caring what he did or thought, said or wrote. Trafficman thought this to be quite unjust. If he could have a word with God he would. He had no delusions that he was some powerful being who could part seas and walk across them, or that he should be. But once, just once, he wanted some one to listen, think and maybe take heed of what he had to say.
It wasn’t a lot to ask.
He knew people thought he was mad. For his part, he thought they were mad not to say or do anything out of the ordinary, to pass through life with their car, mortgage, partner and maybe kids. There had to be more to it than that. The only problem was that it was so hard to work out exactly what that other thing was. In twenty words or less. Or two thousand.
Trafficman was determined to pay them no mind. They are the way they are and he had to be the way he had to be. Many great people were treated as lunatics during their life time. He just worried that he would not come to be considered anything other than a lunatic.
He could be grateful for just one thing: that money was no great problem. He did not have stacks of it, just an inheritance with a sound financial plan behind it. Trafficman used to be an investment advisor, in a past life, so he knew what he was doing in that area. He had the fuel to feed his belly and the fire, even if he had no means to satisfy those inner yearnings that drive one so.
The house was not big. It did not have to be. He had no swimming pool, and did not want one. Even the old Trafficman, Stewart, as he had been called, did not own a swimming pool. He had a nicer house than this one, but then sacrifices had to be made. It had been a tough decision to leave the old trappings behind. All that he had strived for over such a long period. Life in Auckland was but dimly remembered now. He had shifted to avoid ridicule. His old colleagues had been told of a plush overseas posting with an expanding large corporate. They had been suitably impressed, as he knew they would be. Some of them must have already looked him up at the false New York address he had given before leaving on the plane to Christchurch. What would they have made of it all?
Trafficman was safe from them here. Few of them went to Wellington, let alone the South Island. He might as well be at the South Pole.
Not that he cared too much. Or he thought that at any rate. Possibly some part of the old self still lurked somewhere in his head and was keeping an option or two open. For you never know what the future might do to a person.
12 midnight: Martin
The cupboard monster didn’t come on Friday night. He was too busy out partying with all the other monsters. Friday night was an important night of the week in monster land. It was when all the monsters took time off from frightening little kids to have a ginormous party. They drank and danced and sang and ran around trying to scare each other, which didn’t work because monsters don’t get scared. They partied until dawn, by which time they had to quickly run back to their lairs to avoid turning to candyfloss under the early morning sun.
So it was a night for easy sleeping. There would be no midnight visitors coming out of the dark, or at least not physical ones. Dreams still held their potential for producing monsters however, even on a Friday night. Martin lay awake hoping sleep would not come for at least a quarter of an hour. Holding out would be difficult. It had been a long, strenuous day, with a trip to the local pool and a longish bike ride to play school sport in the afternoon. Other boys would have been long asleep, exhausted at the end of another school week, and giving themselves a rest before an even more strenuous weekend, full of scrapes and bumps and bruises. But they would have nightmares.
Martin knew better than to fall for that. The midnight danger zone ended at quarter past twelve. Then, and not a second before, boys and girls could fall asleep, secure with the thought that it was too late in the night for a nightmare attack.
Nightmares could do bad things to a boy’s mind. Turn it into a quivering lump, unfit for other imaginings beyond startled reruns of the scary images that had it stuck in a loop. Long term, you could become unhinged, if the nightmare kept coming back time after time. Martin wondered about a couple of the kids at school. Ian and Megan were always on edge. It might be they got belted too much by their parents. Or it could be nightmares. If they didn’t change, they would probably go bonkers by the time they grew up.
It would not be fun to go bonkers. It was bad enough just being a kid and never getting taken seriously. If you’re nuts as well, you’ve got no chance of getting anywhere in life. And you have to get somewhere. Leave home and that sort of thing. Leaving home would be a big step when it came. Not for another ten years at least, yet Martin knew the time would come. He wondered what it would be like to be eighteen and leaving home. Scary? Exciting? Mum would be sad. Dad would be happy - less money to spend on kids. How do you get money when you are eighteen? Ask your parents? Dad wouldn’t like that. Just after you’ve left, keep coming back to him for hand-outs because you can’t look after yourself. He would get really shitty at something like that.
Will the monsters still be lurking then? Maybe not. Monsters don’t bother adults. They like hassling little kids. Adults have bigger frights to face than some spook in the dark - paying bills, doing all the work around the house, fixing things that are broken. Dealing with a world where play and having fun are a waste of time, where work and making money are more important, and politicians run everything. Badly.
Far off, but close thanks to the still, clear night, the sound of a rumbling train could be heard. Martin pictured it in his mind. From all the noise it had to be a long train. And at this time of night, it would also have to be carrying freight. Dad said there used to be night trains to Christchurch, but they stopped them years ago. Could be empty if it’s heading to the West Coast for a load of coal. The horn sounded. Not the romantic whistle of a steam train; the horn of a diesel. A “get out of the way or you’ll get run over” sound, rather than the lightness of an old-style warning emanating from a steam locomotive. Listening closely through the open window, the sound of the bogies clattering over a level crossing was clearly audible. It kept going and going and going. Martin could see the cars queued up, waiting at the level crossing. People coming back from the pubs, or on their way to late night parties. Drivers wanting to be on their way. It took a while, but inevitably it finished passing over the crossing, clanging over steel rails as it headed out to the Canterbury Plains.
The old colonial weatherboard house at 11 Chester Street North lay dark, cold and empty, as it usually did in the breaking first few minutes of a Saturday morning. Eric was always out, as was Karl the flatmate, doing his best to purge the memory of another drab working week with a mix of sex and alcohol.
But not tonight. Tonight Eric had had enough. The nature of the day, the events of the night, his state of mind, had all combined to draw him back to the cocoon of his run-down home far earlier than he would normally have.
There being no drive, Eric parked the car across the street, outside his neighbour’s place. He habitually did this, with the neighbour’s assent, in case an angry customer decided to take his or her frustrations out on Eric’s only means of transport. Once some poor sap had actually parked his car outside 11 Chester Street, only to return from the raging early morning party at number 21 and find every window on the vehicle smashed in. The party-goer had knocked on the door, to ask if he could use Eric’s phone. Eric mumbled “sure” and let him ring, going outside to have a look at the damage while he waited. Eric had said nothing about his suspicions to the unwitting victim, but he knew it was no random act of violence.
The letter box was stuffed full of mail. A motorbike mag from Oz for Karl. A couple of bills - Southpower and the phone bill, a glossy buy now brochure for one of the local supermarkets, and a note.
The note consists of a single sheet of newsprint. Not A4. The next size down. Eric wondered what you called the next size down as he unfolded it.
A single drop of what looked like blood served as a sort of seal to a brief message. Eric held it up to the light coming from the street lamp behind him:
YOULL GET YOURS
The handwriting was junkie’s handwriting. The sort of junkie who omits apostrophes, and is unable to hold a pen well enough to propel it across a sheet of paper to form straight-sided letters. The sort of junkie whose full stop at the end of the semi-sentence consisted of an overly-forceful poke of a green biro that left a small hole in the tired sheet.
Could be anyone. “You’ll get yours.” It had been said so many times before, by so many people, in so many places and circumstances. From here to Auckland to Sydney and all the way to Bangkok via any number of different routes there were places with people with memories who could have written such a note. Failing them, it could be the parent or relative of a deceased client, or one recovering in detox. Any number of people.
“A shitty way to end a shit day.”
The newsprint scrunched easily into a little ball. Eric biffed it into the street. A light October gust caught it and blew it down the footpath.
He gathered up the other pieces of mail and clutched them with his left hand while he fished around in his jeans pocket for the house key.
Then he stopped and looked at the house.
The front door was ajar. Only by a centimetre, but ajar.
Karl never leaves the door open, and he seldom returns before 2am on a Saturday morning. Burglars aren’t so silly as to enter or leave through a front door, even on a street like this.
There is a shotgun under the couch in the living room for just such occasions. Oh to be in a position to reach it... Think.
If there is anyone in there, they will be watching.
Look at the letters. Pretend you forgot something and go back to the car.
No, then they gun you down in the street. No, it’s not paranoia. Such things happen in this line of business.
You are a sitting duck. If you bolt for the car they will get you. If you go in, chances are they will get you even better. Okay then, sideways.
The shotgun went off with a loud boom, close enough to pepper the green-painted corrugated iron with holes. A few of the pellets found their mark, but weren’t enough to slow down the target.
Fence one cleared. Now fence two. Up and over.
Lights were coming on in neighbouring properties. There were shouts from number 11 Chester Street.
Having cleared two fences at right angles to Chester Street, the third would have to be a back fence or they would catch up by taking the footpath. Fortunately number seven had no dogs, so there was no high wire mesh gate blocking the drive. The path of flight took him past a wheelbarrow, a potato patch, through a carrot patch and up, with a clunk of boots on iron fence, and over the back fence.
You’re thirty-six mate. How much longer? How much longer eh?
© Wayne Stuart McCallum 1998
Web site © Wayne Stuart McCallum 2004