Return to No Frills NZ Literature home page.
This is by Barry Peel. I'm twenty-nine years old, and I'm writing a life story of mine here inside the library at Mount Crawford. It's for the writing-lady's course. But also, if your mother shows you this, it's so you'll understand what's going on. When I'm out, I might want to get away for a while, just me...even to a place a bit like this. In among some shelves with videos and books, I mean--so this is not getting written just because that cute writing-course lady comes here in the library every week, you know, and then she asked me. I mean, I'd fall for anyplace where it's not all just walls, like the rest of the prison. I can't remember how I've been any worse than my old schoolmates and my friends--why'd I end up in here? But in jail now I'm like a sports star, every day. Who'd think I'd ever change? This isn't really a place that has heroes, right, but you still hear some talk about this guy nine years ago, some fellow, he's still the man around here. He climbed the barbed-wire fence outside with his bare hands. And then went and rang a taxi. Got himself driven into town before the alarms went off.
And in our cell-block, there's this guy with a mini-system, he just plays the same song every evening. Near lights-out. That Frank Zappa song, 'Who are the Brain Police?' He does it just to annoy the wardens, and I'm telling you, that takes some guts. But it's like I keep hearing that first line--'What will you do if they let you go home?' Yeah, 'Who are the Brain Police?' from Zappa's first album, Freak Out. I learned that because in here is where I can read a lot. They've got this rock encyclopaedia in the library. Says Zappa's great because he can't be consistently categorised. Well, it's been an education--I'm finally in that sort of place. If you sit with a book or a piece of paper to write on, they don't reckon it's a waste of time. No one says go outside and play. Believe you me, right now beside me here, there's the best view in the whole jail--there's a single-barred window and it looks out onto an asphalt yard with all concrete-block walls. And after that, I can see round one edge of the football fields. And then further on there's some sort of a war memorial, with pines around it, and in the distance there's this bit of the sea where the ships come in. But after that, man, it's all in the mind--like any chance of really doing it with the writing-course lady, you know?
So, I like to get in here, I really do, and I think about how I'm not great because I've been consistently categorised. Embezzler. But it's not really my fault. What I reckon, in here I'd like to write about my theory of why it all went wrong. Keep the writing-lady happy.
It's because my father didn't teach me to play rugby when I was little.
My dad, Doug Peel, he was proud of his moustache. A black moustache, and curled at the ends. It made his face look tough--it's the first thing you'd ever notice about him. Each morning, before he left the house, he used to shape up the whiskers with a steel comb. Like doing his morning exercise. It was an actual barber's tool, he'd got it from somewhere. You know--one two, one two, weeding out all the dead hair and the dirt. Dad worked at the Farmer's in Cuba Street. He sold household appliances. Back when I was a kid, I remember Kiwi Keith Holyoake was the prime minister then and we were all getting top prices for our lamb and wool in Britain--and everyone wanted a TV, as soon as TV started up. Then next was a fridge, and then a twin-tub washing machine. So make no mistake about it, about household-appliance salesman, I mean. Because it maybe wasn't the sports department, but it was one of the good jobs in the store.
I always thought dad was pretty neat at his job. He said they talked about him getting promoted to management and that--especially after he trained this stray dog to take a shit each morning further down the street, in the front doorway of James Smith's. My dad, he wore a rugby-club blazer and smoked two packets of cigarettes a day. He was tall and easy-going, and he was a powerfully built man. Dad always had a lot of pals, so he could talk and show off these really big gestures. Like when I was little and he came home from work with the beer on him, he'd pick me up under the shoulders and raise me over his head. So sometimes, when I was just hanging there from his arms, he'd used to ask, did I know he'd played number eight for the New Zealand Division in the desert--and then he even let me try to pull his moustache. See, that's how I think about him now. I see him running over hot sand with the ball in front of him, head up and laughing. In a blazer and tie and whiskers--it's just like I saw my dad from the ceiling.
About my mother--I can only tell a little bit about her life outside our house. Mum kept things like that quiet. Like she'd no real proper life before she met my father, sort of thing. I guess it was just like that, in those days. According to dad, they met at a country dance in Hawera, and she really stood out with this beautiful corsage--two orchids, he said, crushed to her bosom. Well, she was a big build. Plenty of room on mum for the flowers. She once said she was waiting for dad to come and take her away from Hawera. I know she never wanted to go back. I've got holiday snaps they got taken together on trips out of town. She used to look thinner than at home, and she's always looking like she's got the same question--'where in this godforsaken place can I get a decent cup of tea?' Well, women are a mystery. What I reckon, she spent her whole life pretending to be a high-class townie. You know, she'd go with this group of tough old housewives down to the good shops every day. I know she never wanted to be anywhere outside much. Just down the Kilbirnie-end of Queen's Drive where we lived, in with the old biddies. And mum looked that unhappy with a basket under the crook of her arm. Yeah, she lost her looks early.
Like I said, my memories about mum are inside the house. I can still see her broad shoulders over the kitchen sink, with the big pressure-cooker dismantled on the bench nearby. She's doing the washing up. She's got these giant hands and she's dipping them into the oily water. You used to hear the best dishes banging and scrape on the bottom of the sink when she brings them up. I remember. When she used to let the water out, I could feel she's pissed off--a knife or a fork there that she's missed. She was forever wanting to make things just right and nice. Dad knew that sort at work--that's the kind of lonely-heart it's easy to sell to, and he could sell anything to anyone. Just right and nice--that's why she wanted to stay home where she could run things. Queen's Drive had a good side and a bad one, and of course we lived on the good side. Backs to the hills. Out of one window in our living-room, I can see it now, there was this looking-down view of Evans Bay. Iron roofs and chimneys below us, and a few factories--mum'd complain about those. Lyall Bay School not too far to our right. In her own way, I'm pretty sure mum was a snob, and that's why she'd get annoyed at strange things. Like for example, public libraries.
'Waste of money. That's what they are'--she'd say something like that at the roast over the dining-room table. Then she'd bang her fingers on the table-cloth. Because mum didn't talk, she had announcements. She'd say, 'People go there, they learn funny ideas. Public means they're owned by us, doesn't it? Well?' She's looking at dad. 'And what's the government doing wasting our money on that trippery-frippery? And the sort of people who work there--why don't they get a proper job?' Then mum, she's waving her hand again to stop me from scraping up the gravy from the boat, or picking my nose, or what it was I was doing and not eating. She was always going on about something. And she says, 'Barry, manners!--when you were born, we didn't even have a phone. No one could get one, eh. And we didn't miss it--your father, he could go next door, he asked to ring the hospital. Because our neighbours were all in the same spot, not like those hoity-toity ones. We're all in it together, I know, but I don't see why we should all be in it together with other people who aren't like us.'
I don't really know why she had it in for public libraries. But it was like that, sometimes, at tea-time. My dad just used to sit there and nod his head and agree. His way of ignoring something when it didn't matter--because everyone'd know it didn't. Then he made out like it never really happened.
I was an only child. Dad married late in life--he was forty three when I was born. Mum was thirty one, I think. I suspect both of them lost most of their interest in the mutual, physical side of things soon after that, but, you know, it wasn't the sort of thing anyone talked about. Anyway, by the standards of those days my parents were a happy marriage. Dad brought in his regular housekeeping money. On Sundays he'd go out and get us all fish and chips. Yeah, Sunday was the big family night--I was always trying to get Cathy and the kids to do this for ages, but these days it's all hamburgers.
When I was old enough, I used to go get the fish and chips together with dad. We'd walk into this long, narrow shop full of men, and then he'd mumble out an order to someone behind the counter. Because you see, you needed a special kind of knowing about the shop's staff to get their attention--it's hard to describe, it was like you were really a proper member of the staff too. Dad just took it for granted. Then what you always did was, you leaned against the wall and folded your arms, and waited. So I stood beside my dad, and my arms were really folded. No one was going to point me out and say I didn't know what to do, you know, and I was so happy that it was so easy. So you waited until someone called out your order--but this was the tricky part, you had to get to it while they poured the salt on before anyone else took it. Because most of the orders were the same. Well, dad handled that part--he used to say unbelievable things to the other people there. Like how he could just remember back to before fish and chips, when he was a little boy. And he'd wink, so no one was really sure, and then he'd grin this big, false grin and say, 'That one's mine'. When we got home, I'd tell mum and she'd say it was my job to open the packet on the floor and pour the tomato sauce out onto a plate.
Then as I got older, the rest of the time my dad used to be out.
'Dad won't be home from work till after six,' mum used to say most week-nights, and she'd push tea onto my plate early.
'Dad's just meeting a few people down at the RSA clubrooms,' mum'd say on Friday evenings, all settled on the couch opposite the TV.
'Your father's off to the footy'--she called this out at me each Saturday afternoon in the winter. She'd pretend like she was pleased to be shot of him.
She'd fetch dad's coat and scarf, and he'd stride down the hallway to some waiting cobbers. And they'd have to decide whether to walk or drive to Athletic Park. When he passed, dad used to give me this big wink and then he'd murmur, 'Barry, go outside and play.'
But my father never taught me how to play. Never.
You see, you've got to know this about me. What I want to say, the section right opposite our house there was empty. It was mostly this scraggy, flattened couch-grass and stuff, all fenced with barbed wire. But with no problems with prickles or cutty-grass, so it was the playground for us neighbourhood kids. My dad's success at Farmer's let my parents show off a little and that--they put on this extension on the front of the house. Then the builders used to have smoko in the empty section, and there were always off-cuts and nails and forgotten tools lying about as an extra for playing with. You couldn't see what you were treading on, and that might have put me off a bit.
Anyway, the other boys used to play football there. They used to kick this shapeless leather ball around and the big kids used to run around pushing the small ones away. You know--because I learned it in here, getting ready for this--that ball wasn't so different from the bullock's bladder that got used for the first game in this country, ever. But never mind. Anyway, I'd got my father's size and I kept getting asked to play, but I just lacked natural aggression. Looking back now, because I'm above that sort of thing, I think it's because my parents never hit me. I was a good child and I didn't give them much reason, but at the time, back then, I suppose I seemed a little bit like a sissy. Make no mistake--I mean, I loved everything about rugby. Everything. I was like everyone else in the country back then, I got angry with Colin Meads's dismissal from Murrayfield simply for kicking a Scotsman, that sort of thing. I really badly wanted to play, but what I needed was my dad to show me how. So I used to hang around a lot. I remember, when the ball bounced towards the front of the section, I picked it up for a moment and I just felt lost--holding it. I was terrified all those kids'd think I was clueless. Then one of the others came and took it away from me.
My Uncle George, he gave me a football for Christmas. I've still got a photo of me taken together with it, head up, arms folded. I kept bothering dad to teach me some of his moves. I really did, but he was always busy with his mates. They liked to sit around the house over a few beers and yarn about rugby history--about the Deans try, and the big effect of Danie Craven's dive pass, and Don Clarke's little stubby kicking style. They liked to interrupt each other a lot. So I used to make these trips to the sports section of the Kilbirnie Library--all in secret, I never told mum. By nine years old, I reckon, I could impress my schoolmates with my fancy knowledge of the fourth South Africa tour. My magic names to start talking to other kids--Lochore, Laidlaw, Jazz Muller. I even cut out Bryan Williams from the front page of the Listener for my bedroom wall. But it wasn't enough. Each winter at phys-ed class, when the boys played football, I'd be pretending to have asthma. Yeah, standing on the sideline. When it looked like I'd have to play rounders with the girls, I used to wag class. I got the strap for that all right, a lot. You'd get hit that hard across your sore palms, it felt like barbed wire, but it's always better than getting really showed up. I was black and blue from getting growled at for being too timid. I suppose I just learned how to be bad when it was too late to do me any good.
But you do learn things, don't you, even when you don't want to. I learned things from the writing-course lady about how to write my life. 'Be honest,' she said to our group--like it was a novelty. 'Hey, you want to help, you should tell us how to get better at being dishonest,' I said, and she really laughed. 'I just did,' she said. That's when I started to like her in this hippy thing she wears, and I thought, I'd do a bit of a writer now.
So, in my life story, the first big thing ever I learned was when I was three. We bought this used 315 Consul, with big tail-fins and a sloping rear-window. Chrome exteriors and all plastic inside--just flashy enough to impress the neighbours without upsetting them, sort of style. I remember, I nicknamed the car 'Bimbo' after an old song on the radio--'Bimbo, bimbo, what ya gonna do-i-oh?' We all liked the name, and I was pretty proud about having thought of it. Anyway, one morning dad started up Bimbo in the garage as usual. It was chugging away and he was late, and he just backed down the drive in a hurry. Felt the wheels suddenly roll over a bump, and stopped. When he climbed out, he saw Socks, our old black-and-white cat, was dead under the side of the car. My father, he picked up the carcass and got rid of it in the household scraps in our metal rubbish-bin. He knew what I was like.
Well, I heard about it all years later--he had a terrible afternoon. From work he was telephoning the SPCA and all the city pet shops and everywhere, trying to find out a black-and-white cat with markings close to Socks. The way the plan went, he could sneak it home before afternoon-kindy finished. He got hold of an early edition of the Evening Post and what he did was, he rang up all the Pets and Livestock column. I reckon maybe he even thought about stealing someone's moggy from a front garden, he was that worried. Well, at last my dad tracked down a promising cat for sale in Messiness Road. He shot out through the Karori Tunnel at top speed, and he managed to get back to Queen's Drive with this thing. So then mum brought me home and through the kitchen door, right, and purring away in my father's lap was this young puss, which both my parents called Socks. But it wasn't Socks. I don't even think it was black and white. But they made such a fuss about it, I mean, I couldn't argue--they just pushed me into it. I was that worried for months afterwards. For ages. I mean, what if I came home one day and found that I'd been replaced by something that wasn't me?
I think some more events might help you understand how I grew up. So the first big event--that happened about five years after the cat died, when my parents took me for this summer holiday to Rotorua. The motel we stayed in, it was built round a pool, and I spent a lot of time in there with the other kids of the other guests. We could always tell if a kid had been at the pool a lot, because after a few days the sun used to freckle our faces. All over--it was like being a group member except you were already in. This smell of old chlorine hung around on the water a lot, but I didn't mind. It used to keep away the stink from the sulphur and steam everywhere that was all bubbling up at odd moments, from little holes and grates all over the show. My mum was forever telling me to be careful, don't you walk on them, if we were on the street. I don't know what she'd imagined was going to happen to me, but the Women's Weekly gave mum some pretty hooey ideas.
My dad's older brother, Uncle George, he worked the family farm near Rotorua. When my mum and dad went off to visit him for the day, right, they'd always say I could play at the pool if I wanted. And I always did. You know, looking back now, it seems fairly significant that we didn't stay with Uncle George--he had lots of room. But nobody said so at the time.
What happened was, one morning my uncle sort of appeared at the door of our unit. Holding a few cold bottles in a bag. And he saw me wading about happy as anything in the pool's shallow-end, so he walked over and he asked, 'What's wrong with you, eh? Why aren't you swimming?'
I said, 'Don't know.'
'Don't they teach you at school?'
I remember, my uncle shrugged his huge shoulders. He'd played prop for the district and even bust his nose. He says, 'How old are you, then?'
So I just hung my head.
'Come here,' he says.
I didn't want to, I knew I was in trouble. But he put down the bag and waited till I climbed out from the pool. Then he grabbed me by my dripping arms--he dragged me to the deep-end, while I was fair screaming like I was going to die. Yeah, and he just threw me in. Christ, I panicked. I tried struggling hard but the water was bottomless. I remember, I took in great gulps and breaths of it, and finally I just stopped going down. Uncle George'd already picked up the bag, he was humming some tune to himself, something or other. I think he was already on his way back to the unit. I was starting some thrashings about with my arms, in a copy of freestyle, sort of thing, going towards the edge. At that moment, dad opened the door and saw me.
'Good man, Barry,' he called. 'You'll do.'
Well, I'd nearly drowned. My hand touched that concrete rim and I felt hot with pride. Getting out again at the deep-end side. There was like this sudden filling-up in my heart.
But my father, he had no time to show me the game. Why? Why? The game. I knew all the words, second five-eight, tight head, grubber kick--just couldn't play the tune. On Saturday mornings I didn't go to schoolboy rugby. I used to walk down to the dairy and buy a packet of spaceman cigarettes with my pocket money, instead. Sort of trying to be someone by making out like I was smoking.
In the afternoon my dad went off to Athletic Park, which had the world's tallest stand--I knew all that sort of stuff. Like it's the park where the country's first-ever international got played. I only ever got myself asked to come along once. Maybe mum said something. But I remember that my father knew all the returned servicemen in white coats who sold the tickets at the gates, because he smiled at them--it was his fish-and-chip shop smile. The turnstiles were made of all this wrought-iron. When I had to go through, mine was too heavy for me to move, yeah. And dad didn't even notice that the brick walls had piss on them and behind the stands all smelled of straw and horse shit. And everybody else already knew where their seats were. But dad wouldn't let me hang onto his hand--well, I think even back then I guessed the place was built for tougher people than for me. Much easier to smoke a lolly-cigarette on Saturdays and just hope that somebody'd notice.
Anyway, the next event. When I was, I think, eleven years old, I went to this cub-scouts jamboree. Taking place at Tatum Park over Queen's Birthday weekend. I loved being a cub, I was a sixer. I was really proper proud of this. Well, this jamboree was organised for sixers from everywhere all over the country, and I got chosen to represent our pack, so it was a pretty big deal and I didn't have much choice. It was the first time I'd been away from home with strangers. But it turned out that I really enjoyed it. I discovered the key, it was to join in. You know, I actually learned this--like the way you can learn a maths problem. I joined in with all the contests. I remember eating baked beans for tea with all the other kids in the long dining-hall. And I slept on the bottom-bunk of this hardboard-lined cabin, and at night I laughed like mad at all the farts that the other three boys in the cabin pretended they were making. In the next morning, I aired out my brand-new sleeping-bag on the window-sill, you know, it felt like I'd been doing it my whole life. The worst thing there, it was about fifty boys had to use only a few showers, and I wasn't keen on being last--it was the only time I got that worried about being shown up. But then a boy from my cabin let me in after him. Because for everyone, we were always being given points for speed and tidiness that we got doing things together. And to beef up the competition, the North Island was against the South. And the North was winning, that was the main thing, and so we were all happy.
But then we got told that the final reckoning was going to be this rugby game, it was on the Monday morning. The team lists got pinned to the notice-board on Sunday afternoon, and of course I'd been selected--I was going to play lock-forward for the North. There was one kid chosen from every region, so it was another big deal and there wasn't any getting out of it by saying I was sick. Besides, I didn't even know who to tell. Like I said, I was the victim of my new gift for enthusiasm.
That Sunday evening inside myself I prayed for rain--usually a good bet in June. By midnight, it was bloody warm and calm and that. Even this big glow of this crescent moon coming through the cabin window. Well, I'm being honest now. When I was fairly sure all the others were asleep, what I did was, I got up and I left the cabin in my pyjamas. I walked along in the moonlight--I remember the creosoted walls and the phebalium hedges--then I got to the sports shed. There were four new footballs inside, and I picked them all up in my arms. When I crossed the rough fields I was that miserable with fear, I kept dropping the balls, and each time I used to drop one I'd got to stop and scoop them all up again. I was praying now that nobody'd find me. I mean, I wasn't properly in control of myself. Because I'd never be able to explain why I was alone on the playing fields in the middle of the night, in my pyjamas, with an armful of footballs. I've never told anyone this before, not even Cathy. Because I was already living a sort of a lie, I couldn't help it. I mean--everyone feels this way, don't they? But you don't reckon this has to be part of growing up? Anyway, you'll love this bit, and you've got to know I'm only telling you this because, well, you're special.
When I got to the river nearby, I knelt on the bank in the dark, and one by one I lobbed those fucking balls in. I remember, they landed in the water with a plop and they all floated out of sight, one after the other. And then I hurried back to the cabin before anyone else could see.
Just one more event. Because when I entered high school, right, my parents started to age all of a sudden. I started to see them looking like these broken-down people. Well, putting on lots of hair tonic, it couldn't even slow down all the loss at the front and the back of my old dad's head. He put on so much, his face got blotchy. And he began to get this pot-belly, it jiggled around in front of him when he walked. And mum was even worse. She sort of folded up. Her spine bent, you know, and the shoulders went forward over her chest. It was like a struggle for her to keep her head up. She'd always liked to wear a cardy, and it used to get raised at the back over her ugly swollen bum. Anyway, for me, when the time passed, a bit of hair grew above my cock at last, and then it began to spread across my body. Yeah, of course it left my chest till the end--wouldn't you know it? But my voice thickened. I began to look pretty silly in school shorts, and shorts were the rules. So, I started not wearing my pyjamas, I took them off secretly at night and I used to sleep nude.
Anyway, I remember coming home late one evening, after detention again for missing phys-ed class--again. I went and took out my old rugby ball from the back corner of the wardrobe. The one my uncle gave me. The leather was a bit dull, but it didn't have any scars or scratches or anything. Then I went and found my father watching television in the living-room.
'Dad.' I don't know how I plucked up courage. I said, 'Can you come outside for a kick around?'
I remember, he didn't look at me. 'Not now,' he says. 'The news'll be on in a minute.'
So I sat around and waited till the news ended. I'm just juggling the ball from hand to hand. Then I asked again. It was mid-autumn, right, I remember. Because the sun through the windows was already beginning to fade. My dad twisted in his chair.
He said, 'I'm busy, Barry. Why don't you go play with your cobbers?'
'Oh dad. Can we just chuck a few passes?'
'We do that all the time,' he says. He lied.
'Oh, just for five minutes.'
And I nagged. I was bit surprised how easy it was, but I'd had enough. And this irritated look came across his face--where's the justice? Because he'd not had his tea yet. Finally, he got up to his feet, he was grumbling, and he took the ball from me.
Outside, where our backyard slopes up from the back steps, the grass always stretches without a break from our woodshed to the lemon tree. Dad's hand was facing down--that way it held the ball tight into his palm. With the other hand he waved me to go back across the grass. I probably can't begin here, to make you see how deeply it was that I--I really loved him at this moment. Because he was my dad, because he really looked how dads ought to look. Yeah, I could imagine us both in black jerseys, with the left breasts all shiny with a silver fern. In these picture books I'd been reading, the original All Black jerseys are different--they got reinforced at the top with leather. And also the British newspapers back then, they used to claim this was eel-skin and stopped tacklers getting a fair hold. But it wasn't, it was real. Anyway, I could imagine like we were jogging out onto Athletic Park. To the crowd looking at us and everyone's roaring. We'd be like a picture of a team in one of those books.
Dad tossed the ball up and down in his large hands. Then he turned, he sighted me and spun a pass out from his hips. I reached up. The leather, it fair smacked into my palms. Well, the bugger jumped like a living thing--then it dropped. It bounced, and I bent to get it, and I swear I didn't see dad running across the yard through the twilight. So when my fingers closed on the laces, then his weight sort of crashed into me with a grunt. I went backwards on the dry ground--the air, it was just gone from my lungs. One side of my head hit the clothes-line pole and it rattled the wires, it was that hard--you know, from then on my hair grew there with a grey patch. My father stood, I'll never forget it. Looking down at me.
'Well if you're not going to play properly...' he mutters.
And then he turned back for the house.
I grew up. In my teens I swam a whole lot, and it broadened out my shoulders and back. I tramped the whole way up Mt Ruapehu, where we'd gone on a high-school trip, and I even sang loudest, I can still see it, in the chorus in the school's version of H.M.S. Pinafore. But when I'd reached sixteen, my schoolmates and I, we were starting to get measured and labelled. How we did in exams, what about our job chances, were we good with our hands? how good-looking we were, and popular with girls, who had the cool clothes, whether we were tough, or big, or brave--then we got the vocational-guidance interview with Mr McCulloch, 'What are you going to do?' The differences between us got bigger and bigger. Mostly, I felt pretty sure I was weak in exams, with no job hopes, not practical, I was pig-ugly, unpopular with girls, and I was badly dressed, and soft and clumsy and timid. So, like everybody else--I never asked why--I just tried hard to stay average. I remember, there was this scrawny, effeminate boy in our class named Ebbett, and nobody liked him much. We all bullied him. We shoved him around, pulled down his pants in front of the girls. We threw his sammies into the bin. Because the big thing was not to be an Ebbett.
But there were still a few fellows among us who had some real potential. I mean, they could be really excellent at rugby. You see, the strength that you needed to take the ball from a ruck and break away, the skill of how to land a kick in one corner just shy of the goal-line, the guts a joker's got to show waiting for an up-and-under when the opposition forwards are coming down, I'm telling you--these were the things the rest of us just couldn't match. Well, the stars of the first XV, they got made into prefects. The visiting speaker for school ceremonies always wanted to praise them. We'd get used to seeing their names printed in the local paper. But if the first XV got defeated, the headmaster'd punish the rest of us by holding fire-drill in a big southerly gale. It was like, I don't know how to describe it--it was like everybody was supposed to be still the same typical bloke--and so it was like they weren't really athletes, naturally gifted for the game, but it was just we weren't up to scratch. I mean, it's hard work to be ordinary when the bar's up so high.
Then, to top it off, I disappointed my parents by deciding to go to varsity.
I mean, now I'm a writer, I'm an artist, but back then I was enrolling for a Commerce degree. I thought that'd keep them happy. But it didn't--they just reckoned I'd spent more than enough time in a classroom. I was supposed to be someone by now. At dinner, my mum went on about how she hated the sight of that varsity library, up high on the Kelburn hills. My dad just said that he'd picked up all he needed on the first day of his job, and he'd done all right. And me, I just mumbled something about learning to open a carton of milk properly before I'd grow old. It was all meaningless--I mean, my parents still got glass bottles from the milkman. I wasn't that good at being dishonest. I hadn't met the writing-course lady yet and turned it around. But even back then I was this visionary, sort of thing. My marks weren't all that hot and maybe varsity was just a place to go, but you have to understand, I lacked the ruthlessness to say it straight out. I wanted to be more than a household-appliance salesman with a fancy moustache. Yeah, or that the economy was on a downturn for over a year, and some of the store's younger staff were getting laid off anyway. But the way I saw it, mum and dad really wanted me to repeat the sort of lives they'd had. And they wanted me to be settled down so it could stop them having to think about me. And I've still got the feeling they sort of didn't think I should be better than them.
Anyway, I could get a grant and a bursary too, and so it didn't matter what they thought. But there were big silences at home. It mattered.
At varsity, I fell in love. Out of the blue, in my second year. Julie. She was the main thing that happened to me at varsity--I mean, I wasn't passing any units. What I remember about her, Julie was someone beautiful, with fascinating opinions. She didn't look and act like the other girls. No, she was fairly slim and she was pale, and she had all long brown hair that she liked to scoop up into a pony-tail. Round green eyes and this small, heart-shaped face. I remember, she was working on a double-major in French and Business Management. Because she'd spent the year before in Paris, and I used to imagine this sort of showed up in her appearance. When she spoke something, I felt the words were coming from somewhere more exotic. I soaked up everything she said like a sponge, you know, and I carefully learned all of her attitudes so they'd be like mine. And after we'd been out a few times, I decided all on my own that we were serious. So, it was time to invite her home for dinner, because that was what you did. Also I'd forgotten how different she was.
Like I said, it was a big mistake. When she arrived at the house, Julie was wearing bare feet under this long peasant skirt and she was fairly obviously braless. I could just see my parents' amazement. They didn't say anything, not a word, but I knew she'd made the wrong impression. We sat at the dining-room table and we ate a roast, with pavlova to come, and the conversation started off with just the weather and mum's garden. And then nothing. Nothing. So I mentioned Paris to help Julie out, right--I asked what the French ate. So she went on about the importance of French cuisine in Europe for a bit and how wonderful the French are, and dad was nodding and humming his agreements, a lot. And, well, she did go on broadcasting this. Even I'd started nodding too, and I was just praying nobody'd say anything about nuclear testing, or interrupt. But then it was Julie, she changed the topic. She started saying all about how recently she'd gone on the anti-Springbok-tour march, along Molesworth Street.
'We were so crammed in,' she says. 'There was nowhere to go.' She had her knife and fork out on the tablecloth to show how narrow the street was. 'And there was a lot of trouble up the front, eh. A woman came back past me, there was blood all over her face. Then the cops got us trapped, and they charged up when no one was expecting--with these batons. I didn't know what to do, I was that scared.'
My mother said, 'Well, maybe you had no place being there.'
After that, that's when Julie sort of began this lecture on the apartheid system. I should've said something to stop her, but I swear, I was wanting to hear more about the march. Besides, well, I was banged up--I was too nervous of her talking, but also of my father. He'd gone completely silent.
Then he scraped his knife across his plate, he was scattering peas on the table cloth.
He says, 'Now look. This has got nothing to do with people like you. We've been playing the Boks for donkey's years. Even the Maoris go over.'
I took a deep breath. 'Only since 1970,' I said. I weighed in with my backlog of rugby reading, full tilt. 'Back in the twenties, George Nepia played in all the games for the Invincibles, and four years later he got dropped by the Football Union to tour South Africa. Just like that.' Dad glared at me. My voice was wavering like mad, but I remembered what I remembered. I says, 'In the thirties, we stopped the New Zealand Maoris from playing the Boks here, and in 1956 the Maoris got warned before the match not to go in too hard.'
'This is my house!' That's just what my father shouted. 'I will not hear any more talk about this!'
And Julie kept right on going. I don't know how I missed it, you know, inviting her to dinner. Because it wasn't just that she disagreed with my father about the only one thing he couldn't manage to agree with her on--she just didn't give a shit whether he agreed or not. I remember, she was leaning forward and she showed herself down her blouse over the table and she gave everyone a piece of her mind.
Anyway, the rest of the evening was a mess. Julie ate a second-helping of everything, and man, my father was drinking. I heard it from Julie later, about when we were getting ready to leave and he came up to her alone in the front hall, after she'd been talking to my mother. My dad, he backed her up against the staircase. She just thought he was trying to make things better.
Dad mumbles, 'Somebody as pretty as you can't be all brains, girlie.' He was good and smashed. She said he put his hands out to the wall, on either side of her, and then he asks, 'Who'd you think you are?'
Julie hit him fair in the face with her elbow. Split his lip. Well, she'd taken self-defence classes--she bargained on this sort of thing.
You see, in this country, I don't know, it's like we always express ourselves physically. It's our language, that sort of a deal. So when an artist like me is basically, you know, a word-man, it's like I just don't have any real proper language that anyone else can understand. Well anyway, that's how it felt when Julie and I had the little talk. You know, the one where she says she really wants to move on. Explore new horizons. Yeah, I didn't ever want to know, but she told me about what happened with dad, and she said something strange about my mum. She said, 'I think your mother is the most thwarted woman in the whole world.' I was amazed. My mum. And she told me that mum told her, right, about how much mum always used to want to be a primary-school teacher one day, but it just never happened. 'I never knew a thing about that,' I says. 'Isn't that sad?' Julie said.
And the other strange thing was, my parents decided they liked her. I mean, for months afterwards they used to be forever mentioning Julie and saying oh, what a charming young girl she was. I mean, didn't they know that us going out together was finished from that evening at home? And after a while, we all started to play the story of how I'd broken off with her. But it was all over before it'd ever begun, really. Even back then, I'd basically thought I was reaching above who I really was.
So I left varsity at the end of my second year--but it wasn't a good time for me to be entering the workforce. The thing is, doing Commerce and that, it'd given me a global sort of a view. The way it went was, in the late 1950s the country just let the price of meat and wool all escalate with a bang, and it used to let our rivals get competitive. And through the 1960s, right, we'd argued about should the United States be in Vietnam, but we never thought for a minute about could the British just leave us for Europe. So, come the 1970s, we'd been scraping through by subsidising and everything, and saying everyone would share in the pain. But what I knew then was, if I didn't get a real job really soon, I might miss out. Yeah, that was a bit more of everyone's pain than I wanted to share.
So just before I left varsity, my dad got told to take early retirement, after all his years in that department store. He used his golden handshake to pay off the house, but after that money was fairly tight. Only a smaller superannuation and some life-insurance. He'd got no savings, because dad said he'd always voted for the government to take care of us. I remember, the family car got sold off. And mum started to complain about how dad was under her feet all day. She used to go round the house at night turning the lights on, it was just to show the neighbours on the uphill side that we weren't in any financial strife. But the thing was, we were the only family on our side of the road with nobody working. So finally I found a job, it was in the office of this factory in Gracefield which made house-paint.
Not a bad job. Everyone said I was so lucky. Me, I just answered this ad in the paper for a new assistant to a trial position, and I sort of lied that I was finishing my varsity degree part-time. So, you know, every morning I had to ride the trolley-bus and the train out to Gracefield. And from the station I used to walk round past the shabby old brick factory, and then I'd enter this really brand-new annexe for all the research and management staff, including me. Because technically, I was in management too. A liaison job. I was technically the executive officer for the boss of the new Efficiency Centre. Yeah, just the two of us.
What we were supposed to do was, it was a new idea to help the firm. We were supposed to see how these formulas for mixing the paint, when they got made in the test-tubes by the firm's lab people, that they got passed on correctly to the workers in the factory next door. Anyway my boss, he was actually this big-name expert who'd been hired as a sort of hands-off consultant, so he was away all the time at important conferences about saving on efficiency and that. Well, it was like I was the one hired to do the actual liasing. But in reality, the management weren't even supposed to take their smoko with the wage-earners. They'd got two separate rooms so that everything would get no liaison at all. I mean, I don't know why the boss hired me--I think he just took things for granted. And I just had to spend a lot of time hoping that no one'd notice how pointless I was.
So all day I was telephoning the blokes over at the works to check on them. Sometimes I went over there too, but I didn't have a clue about what was going on. I couldn't even get their attention. I used to smile a lot, right, and I'd crack these stupid little jokes, but they never went along with a word I said. What I reckon, I didn't have the patter down properly. I should have taken some lessons from my boss--now there was a mighty bullshitter, you know, that bloke could pull the wool over anyone, sort of style.
Well, it wasn't much, but later on I learned the truth--that's when I got into prison. I met this guy in here, you know, he used to work at the factory. And well, everyone's in the same boat here and we got talking. Turns out, the formulas are no good anyway. Because, see, in real life the paint gets mixed in these big four-thousand-litre vats, not like in test-tubes in the lab. So the blokes in the works just follow their instincts, and they've got a lot of years of experience. I admit, hearing that was sort of like a relief--that the job was no good before I even started. Because what I reckoned was, even back then I used to think I didn't really measure up to management material. Like when a new colour-base got invented and it was my job to liase like anything, I'd see these factory blokes getting together in the carpark--I didn't know it was about how to perfect the mixing. But instead of doing anything, I used to get all efficient and send a secretary over to tell them stop standing around.
By the end of three years I was married to Cathy. One of the secretaries.
Cathy. A big plump, curly-haired little blonde, and she never seemed to make a fuss. With dark eyes and this broad face that she was always smiling with. So why Cathy? Well, it's like I already explained to the writing-course lady at our class--because our classes, they always seem to turn into these sort of heart-to-hearts. I'm just speaking for me. It's like we started going out and having sex, sort of thing, and the sex was nice so we got married--no one told me that sex is always nice. For a while afterwards, I used to wonder how it happened too. Like I said, I liked her smiling, and maybe I was just happy to marry someone who'd marry me--I didn't think, you know, that she's a complicated woman or anything. But now I suppose she didn't want to be a secretary any more, and I suppose from the way I talked about myself, well, maybe she thought like she was marrying someone else. Maybe a man of mystery. And I mean, I guess it was just supposed to be like that, the time when people start lives together--and everyone was so proud of me. Like I'd really done something. Mum was forever going on about how I was 'settled'. And dad said something that surprised me, about how he just wished he could do more for me. He didn't look too well--his size was shrinking away after retiring, but I didn't say anything.
Cathy and I, we bought a place up in Paparangi way, in this new sub-division where the wind blows all the time and fair dries out the hills. I remember. Our street was that new that there was nothing except the housing units and letterboxes which poked up above ankle height. And the mortgage, man, it stretched out into the next century. The place must have been her idea, because I'd have never have bought into it on my own. Me, I was just trying to keep busy with the workaday routine--that meant I gave up swimming and had a beer after a late dinner instead, and that started to show up on my waistline. But the time was passing more quickly. Our first baby got born and she cried all night. On the weekends, I remember I used to sit with her by the living-room ranchsliders, just rocking her on our new lounge-suite that Cathy kept clean with the plastic covers on. Like a family-man. And I'd be rocking her and watching the sprinkler trying to coax some grass from the backyard--I'd be just keeping the baby quiet.
And even then I was thinking, why'd the real world approve of all this loneliness so much?
The paint company had this social rugby team, sort of thing. Well, here we go again. It was the game, right, for contacts in and out of the firm. Only time when the office and factory staff could size each other up. So why couldn't I play? Why? Everyone else was into it, and Cathy didn't give me much in the way of sympathy. We'd got two babies by now, so she saw those games on Saturdays as like a way of getting out of the house where she could see her old friends. Besides, I noticed that the office didn't fancy me not playing--the old story, someone had me marked down for the forward pack. So when the chance for salary promotion came up, it didn't. It went over to Bee, the firm's halfback. This up-himself smart-arse who likes to put the ball in under his own hooker's feet.
But make no mistake about all that, I could still talk about rugby. I mean, I knew the All Blacks' chances of carrying off the first World Cup--I had all the info, mate, the inside stories. But it was like I just couldn't run about and sweat it with these guys in their thirties and forties on the weekend, so I didn't really belong. At work, they used to just let me hang around if I was like the same as them, but the fact is, I wasn't. I didn't feel it, yeah. You know, all my life I've secretly hoped to get myself a nickname, like most of the boys in the company footy team had--Cuzzy-bro and Gus and Muzzah. But it wasn't ever going to be like that--I was an Ebbett.
And so, then one day, I began to steal from the company, there. It just happened. I just invented this account in the records for the company footy team. Then I made myself team treasurer, sort of style, and I got the funds siphoned in there from the management's hospitality budget. And nobody noticed, I can still see it. I wrote myself these cheques for after-match functions that sort of weren't real, and then I cashed them in Petone at lunchtimes. Nobody said a word.
What I reckon, it's because I wasn't really in control of myself. Of course, I did it for the money--all that cash, it helped me give things to Cathy and the babies. And no one was going to point at us and say I didn't know how to manage. Mum, she'd been forever fussing about how I should buy Cathy a good dinner-set. Well, I gave Cathy the money and she went out and bought it--this thick, black-and-white collection which wouldn't break when the kids dropped it. Mum was pretty disappointed. But anyway, I was going to tell you about everything. Because you've got to be true to yourself, right? Yeah, because the most amazing bit is that stealing money made me feel great. Like I'd begun on this really big job, you know, I was taking the initiative, I'd got guts. Like Jazz Muller mowing his hedge with a lawnmower. Thinking back, I reckon that stealing helped me break away from everything and, you know, it really added value to my life, so for a long there I just lied to people about where it all came from. They say a woman's got like this need, right, to take care of her children. Well, I reckon a man's got a biological need to bring in something for the family. So we got a video-camera, a jumbo-size deep freeze and a big gas barbecue--then I decided to save up for a new car.
But just then, when everything was going really great, my mum rushed out to the clothes-line one afternoon because a summer rain was just starting to fall. She was wanting to get the washing in while it was still dry. Anyway, I guess the filled-up basket was heavy--mum dropped it on the back steps. Then she must have fell sideways into the wash-house, because she died with her face pressed up against the Gentle Annie.
The ambulance driver, he said she'd had a heart attack. Very quick, she'd have known nothing--one moment you're there, and then just not. Yeah, it sucks, the whole thing. A few days later, I remember how I stood up with dad in front of the closed coffin at the crematorium. I watched it, how it was all eating him up. I wanted more than anything to put my arm around him, I thought perhaps I should, but I couldn't. I couldn't. I never did. But that's not how I felt inside, that's all I can say. The whole thing sucks.
So instead, I used to make this point of visiting dad in the evenings from time to time, just leaving Cathy at home. And he used to surprise me by talking a lot about football. Back then, he remembered a hell of a lot from the history of the game. He told me this story he'd heard once about our first All Black tour in Britain, about how Scotland refused to pay us colonials our fee before the test. Yeah, they only offered us the profits after the expenses. Anyway, the All Blacks won the match and they made about a thousand pounds. So the Scottish Rugby Union, they got that angry, right, that they refused to play us at all on the next tour, and so that gave up any chance of beating the team which became our Invincibles. The Invincibles, they won nearly thirty games on the trot, that's the way it was. And with only thirty percent of the ball possession--technically, it's impossible. But we won all right, we thrashed the Poms. And then came all the tests against South Africa. And those racist bastards, you know, they needed to win as much as we did. In one test, their Boy Louw got that badly concussed that he giggled out loud all through the game--but he wouldn't come off the field, not for anything. I mean, it was war. Because in 1956 it was, dad managed to get into Lancaster Park, even though there was this huge long queue--he saw the whole test-match by standing on some beer bottles he'd wedged neck-down into the ground. Yeah, watching the scrums up close. And Kevin Skinner doing such a hell of a lot of damage to Jaap Bekker with his fists. Made you feel sorry for a bloody Bok, dad said--like being in the army all over again. Because rugby was a proper cruel game, dad said. He'd never really enjoyed playing it, but his brother just pushed him into it. Dad said the kind of thing he saw, he reckoned that was why the NZBC didn't used to be allowed to broadcast rugby live on TV.
I don't know--all those stories. Dad fair knew the game, but that still doesn't explain why he didn't ever teach it to me. But hell, I think he felt the way I do now. Because back then, I mean it was in my pre-literary days, and I just thought it was like a loss of power, sort of thing--like he'd just lost the will to keep quiet and that. Well, I hadn't got comfortable with my own genius for palaver back then, so mostly I just let him talk.
I remember, it was about two years ago now, my father and I finally got close. What happened was, dad had several sisters, and one of them was unmarried and she died up on the family farm. So we both drove up to Rotorua together on the Friday to go to the funeral--in my nice new Holden station-wagon that I'd bought on the firm's money. My dad just confessed straight out that he wouldn't have a bar of staying with Uncle Charlie and the other rellies, so instead we just stayed in this motor camp near Lake Rotoiti. The camp's manager, he told us about how he was in J-Force after the war--and on and on. All about what it was like there, and about how he loved Japanese-style baths that much--so then he said he'd built one of his own down by the lake. 'Use it anytime,' he says, but we insisted no. 'Go on,' he says, and we were no, no, no. Well, the cabins hadn't got any showers, so by Sunday morning we couldn't stand being all dirty any longer. So what we did was, we waited till no one was around--then we took some soap and towels, and we headed down this sharp gravel track to the bath.
It was a pretty strange place. The bath-house was like this all tiled room, right, with a row of taps in one of the walls. And some plastic buckets and a drain below the taps. And then there was this large hot pool. I remember, above the pool was a picture-window of the lake--and I reckon we'd have gladly dipped in the lake instead, if it hadn't been for winter. Anyway, the pool got water from a thermal spring, sort of style, but the water also got heated by a gas heater during the night. God, it was scalding. I mean, we tried to get in several times. You know, we pulled ourselves together and tried to be tough and just hop in and out. Oh, but in the end, man, we just couldn't. I remember us both, we were sitting there together on the rim of the pool, and feeling sort of pink and sore. So I saw my father's limp cock--yeah, and this here is another bit you'll love. Not the cock, I mean, but it's like I understood it with a jolt--that thing's where I came from. Yeah, because we were just these two oversized men beside a bloody hot Japanese bath. Both of us stuck, we didn't have a clue what to do next. So, in the end what we did was, we filled the buckets from the pool and we diluted the heat with the cold taps, and then we just tossed the water over each other's backs. The water all splashed about really wonderfully on the tiles--nobody had to say a word. Afterwards, dad got an extra close shave at his stubble and I just brushed up my greying moustache with that old fine-toothed comb.
But when we got back to Wellington on the Sunday evening, that's when it happened--I got arrested at my house for embezzlement.
Well, the company had some trouble for a long time, but it'd brought in the receivers over the weekend. Just one glance at the books, that showed me up straight away--I really stood out. As soon as he heard, my boss at the Centre complained that no way could he do his job properly, and the prick resigned. So I'd just cost them their star mover-and-shaker into the bargain. I think really that's why I got all the blame. After all, they kept trading, and I got five years in here. Well, no one was in any mood to be kind. I only got the chance to read all the court proceedings later. Believe you me, all very lah-di-dah, how they rigged it up so that I'd become her majesty's houseboy.
And then nothing. I reckon when this place first got built it was nice and roomy, even if everyone thought that maybe criminals ought to be punished. No one ever thought the place'd be filled up. But nowadays, it's all like a narrow maze in here, it's got hundreds of little additions everywhere, all chocker block with this real collection of scary guys--and then people think that we're all supposed to get rehabilitated. What a laugh. It's that frightening, it just puts you wrong all the time and you've got to watch your step--you can't know what's going to creep up out of nowhere in this place.
Anyway, Cathy visits in here once a week. No one else--the kids've had my absence explained away and that. But life's harder for them now. Pretty quickly, I learned to get into the library here when I can't cope, and read, and try not to think too much. I get me the window spot, looking out onto a side-road back to town and no barbed-wire fence between. Comic books I read mostly, I just liked them all. Everything up front and not too much deep talking. Happy endings.
I remember, on her first visit Cathy looked all tired and confused. She'd promised me presents, sort of thing, but she'd forgot them. And, well, we were on a schedule, and I just spent most of my conversation-time apologising for the whole thing. Even this wooden table we sat round at the visiting room, it bloody creaked, you know, and then from a corner this guard kept staring over at us. But then I remember--the second time it was, Cathy was wearing her favourite red dress. And she'd dyed her hair brown, and she was holding this carton of Rothmans.
I said, 'I don't smoke.'
'I know that,' she says. 'I thought you used smokes like money in prison, eh. You know, what do you call it...?'
So, I said thanks--but really, we use money like money in prison. And then I shifted to get the carton, and I just let the table creak. I says, 'What do you tell people, now that I'm not around the house?'
'They don't notice.'
'Well, they never talk about it. So fuck 'em.'
I was a bit surprised. See, Cathy didn't usually say that kind of language, but she didn't look that angry. What I reckoned was, she looked a bit like a gangster's girl because of her hard clothes and her hair. She had extra make-up on, and jewellery--so I tried to ignore it.
And I said, just like on that first visit, I said, 'I am so, so sorry I've given you all this trouble, I'm just a worthless weed--'
'Oh don't start that up. Like what do you think a bloody weed is? Just a plant growing in the wrong spot, eh. I haven't even mowed the fucking lawn since you left, and I'm not going to.' Cathy sat there, she was curling her hair round her fingers. 'Do you know there's a support group for the wives of crims?' she says. And she just smiled--it was her big happy-go-lucky smile. 'I've joined, eh. It's fun.'
God, then I really learned something important about this woman, my wife that I'd married, and what a proper disappointment I'd been. Because she's like everybody, right. She's spent her whole life wanting to be somebody else, and with luck now, she just might get it. So I'm smiling back. Because I understood--I was going to keep her happy and I'd be brand-new too.
I'm telling you, I took Cathy's hint--I joined in. It's sort of like it's another country in here, so I taught myself how to be an inmate. I mean, I started talking to people all the time, I just kept talking no matter what. I got myself into games of pontoon and poker and I just gambled away my cigarettes. I ate off my plastic tray at a table with this bunch of guys--they all supported Wellington for trying to get back the Ranfurly Shield. And after lights-out, I pretended like I was enthusiastic when I listened to my cellmates in the other bunks, all lying about all the women they'd had. And I slopped out in the morning like an old hand. Yeah, I even joined in the violence. This big bloke, right, he started bragging one day about what he reckoned he'd do to me in the showers that night, so I came up behind him in the dining-hall and hit him in the head with a metal chair. I got a week in solitary for it, but so what? It's better than anyone trying anything like that with me again in a hurry. And it gave me time to rub down that old comb, roughen it into a file and knife. Get me through a bar or trouble, that would. But looking back, it was the turning point, using that chair. Like I said, I stopped doing my jail hard and I even enjoyed bits of it, even if the look of this place still gets me down sometimes. Yeah, talk, talk, talk. I was fitting in.
And about six months ago, it was, the prison got a new director--well, like any of us really care who's running our little home away from home. But this fellow, he's small and thin and he's got this high, poncy voice, so it didn't take long for us to call him 'the Queen'. Anyway, after a fortnight the Queen decided he'd help morale with an inmates' footy game, the dork. A Probables versus Possibles match on the weekend. You can see what was coming next, right--the old nightmare that wouldn't ever go away. Well, straight off huge bets got placed on the game all over the prison. Not cigarettes, you understand--serious money. And I heard a lot of rumours about who was going to get it in the rucks. And all this tension, you know, it just made more trouble and even nastier fights than usual. So when the teams got rostered, sure enough--I was picked to play number eight for the Possibles.
Jesus, I dreaded that weekend. I just racked my brains trying to think about how I could escape it--but, you know, you can't just ask to go home. I mean, I was trapped. Come the day of the game, every inmate and guard who could watch, they just got the hell out to that clumpy playing-field. It used to be this old prison vegie-patch, and it'd been bulldozed flat after the soil got exhausted. The most exposed place in the whole prison--the Wellington wind fair tore across it. And near Christmas, but with the weather cold as July.
Anyway, finally, I put on this grass-stained jersey, and when I stepped out onto the pitch, I remember, it was like I could almost see myself, like from the outside. This lily-skinned fellow, I looked like a boy feeling a bit chilly and naked in a pair of shorts. And then, I don't know, all of a sudden I could see this small child who's lost in the street, you know, not my kid, but me--and it's like he's getting asked his name by a policeman and he's that scared, he can't even remember it. I mean, Christ!--nothing ever prepared me for this.
So the whistle blows, right. The ball got kicked off and caught, and straight away there was this really dirty maul. Someone had his back ripped open--it was a joker with sharpened sprigs. And about five minutes later, our halfback, he spun the ball away from a scrum and then he got felled with a stiff-arm tackle. The ref was struggling--he didn't have any control. And there weren't any set moves--it was all mixed up. Guys just slammed into each other in all scrappy play. In one of the rucks, our hooker got kicked really badly in the head, and he had to use a stretcher for getting taken off because he was still unconscious. And the crowd, man, they were howling like mad--the whole time. Me, I sort of wandered round the field. What I was doing was, I was doing my best to keep out of things, but oh, this only seemed to make everyone irritated. I mean, some of them were booing me. I was shivering and worrying through my orange at half-time--I still wasn't even properly warmed-up. Yeah, even some of my own team-mates were growling at me. Because the scoreline was dead tight.
In the second half, one of the Probables, he just seemed to follow me around, right, and he was jolting into me all the time. This really big heavyset guy who played prop--I knew I was in for something after the match. Hell, I was shitting myself. Anyway, there was no more scoring, but finally, during the last minutes of the game our first-five, you know, he took the ball from the halfback and he cut back inside. And after the ruck, the ball got passed out to me. To me. Holding it. Well, I was near the Probables' twenty-two-metre line, and with that prop of theirs coming up alongside. So to get away from him I feinted and headed for space, but the bastard, he stayed close with me. So I ran harder. Someone else came at me--I was that terrified, I just shoved him aside. And then suddenly, it was, I realised it--I was over the goal-line, dead centre.
All I had to do was put down the ball, and the crowd screamed.
The Queen was happy. But I don't think there's going to be any more footy games, not while he's the director. And that suits me just fine. He's brought in a creative writing programme instead. Yeah, that's how I met my muse. So now we're going to be these writers and explore all what deep things shaped my criminal tendencies--maybe it's kind of a sissy thing to be doing, but I can get away with it in here. Because now, I'm one of the well-known men in this prison.
Well, I still come in here to the library once in a while, but now I've got a real life and real mates. The fact is, I'm up for parole in a couple of years, and it sort of gives me some worries, you know. Like I might have the same life as before. Because I'll be a father again and I'll get the blame for what I can't hide about myself from the kids. And I might miss this place. People in here just want to be like me. I mean, like me.
But what've I learned? I'm telling you, confidence and luck are what you need to survive in somewhere like this. So I'm passing this on to you, my only little one--it's my big thing. If I can handle it here, I can do it on the outside. Confidence and luck, I reckon, that's what'll save me from being an Ebbett. Yeah, life's just a lie--maybe there's some places where it isn't, but in the end you just can't win. There's no justice, right, except in here really. And behind me somewhere or other I can hear a door slam, but I'm good away in here and, you know, already that guy must be starting up with his music. 'What would you do when the people you knew/ Were the plastic that melted and the chromium too?/ Who are the Brain Police?/ Who are the Brain Police?' But confidence and luck--what you'd get from a really good home-appliance salesman, sort of style. That'll see me through, believe you me.
Mount Crawford Prison, 1990.
Copyright Ian Richards, 2008
Return to No Frills NZ Literature home page.