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(This is a revised version of the story which first appeared in Everyday Life in Paradise.)
Stop me if you've heard all this before--the events I'm now going to describe to you, here in this story, have probably happened, somewhere, sometime, in the recurring sort of way that history has. We begin in the placid years of the early 1970s, when the well-scrubbed Craig Scott had won the Loxene Golden Disc, when people drove through the better suburbs on Sundays and took them in for the pure pleasure of imagining themselves living there, and when the Values Party claimed that, without zero growth in the population and economy, the whole country would face ruin. Lorraine Catchpole was still a little girl; she was flying with her parents on an NAC Friendship back from their holidays in Christchurch. As the plane passed over Clarence River, its delicate wingspan began to rock...and then to shudder. Lorraine stopped trying to wrestle the plastic-wrap from her slab of Dairy-Board cheese--she looked upwards into the narrow cabin. And within moments her whole stolid, ordered world collapsed into the cabin's dimensions: an unstable, thirty-six-seat celestial cavity, a bucket pitching and yawing among bags of cloud, somewhere high above a massive sea off Cook Strait. They dropped into free fall. Lorraine's father caromed out of his seat--he was concussed against the tubular-steel luggage-rack overhead. Her mother screamed. A woman behind began audibly to pray. Lorraine's heart rose; so this, at last! was what change was like! She threw up with happiness. For long afterwards it was, spiritually as well as physically, the most moving experience of her limited life, an excitement against which all else was measured. And nothing else ever measured up. Only many years later in her early twenties, when Lorraine met Neville Paddy, did both of them find that love seemed to duplicate the delicious turbulence of an air pocket, with everything reduced to no more and no less than themselves.
They met at intermission during the main feature of the Wairoa Regent. Neville had come out into the dusty, floral-carpeted lobby to have a smoke, and Lorraine was there with some friends, eating chocolate-covered ice creams at the sweets counter. Neville knew Lorraine--everybody of a similar age in a small town knows everyone else--but he'd not seen her for some time because he had gone into the avocado business. He was a tallish, somewhat attenuated and thoroughly awkward young man, with the gangling limbs and downy face of a day-old fawn. He possessed a hardy, if restrained, intelligence and an impractical imagination. It was the latter that got him into business. For over a year he'd been saving the seeds of avocados bought from the local Four Square and planting them on a small section of leased land, near his father's farm. A few months before meeting Lorraine, Neville left home and went to get filthy rich on his own, living at the orchard in a slab hut without utilities. When he saw Lorraine at the Regent that fateful day, his eyes rested on a young woman who had inherited a square-shouldered, bulky build from her mother. Also blonde hair, a determined chin and a chest that was too large for lying comfortably on her stomach. Aside from this genetic heritage, she had developed a mental life fed mostly by romance novels and bridal magazines.
Many claim that love is no more than a psychological eccentricity: it's a fleeting phase, an illusion. But what Neville and Lorraine saw, gazing at each other across a fluorescent-lit lobby bedecked with posters, ashtrays and pot-plants, were vistas, a reciprocated wonder that is love extempore. Love was on the radio, love was in dog-eared piles at the dairy and love was all across those hoardings on the main street, but this could not be switched off, plagiarised, or peddled as snake oil. Neville sort of wandered over and managed to say the magic words--any words would have been magical enough. In our cynical age it is difficult for us to accept that love can be an everyday event. We are left, at last, explaining to our children how their parents could have met at a disco, a butcher's, an airport waiting-lounge.... Lorraine went back on the bus to Neville's hut and lived with him. Her parents complained, but she didn't listen. Although she never told him that he was not her first, Neville was so kind, so boyish and gentle that, she resolved, from then on there'd be no other.
Neville needed Lorraine in his life. His parents eked a mean living from a marginal dairy farm and, before leaving home and meeting her, most of Neville's childhood had been spent enduring hardships intended to build character--more somebody else's character than his own, alas, and not any character designed with long-term happiness in mind. Neville milked cows that were choking with goitres every morning and evening, he scrubbed the herringbone-shed floor and, in his 'free' time, tended the homestead vegie-patch. For any minor disobedience he was bent over and received a wooden spoon or his father's belt. He learned that the greatest man in history was probably a fellow from the Waikato named Clarke, a fullback. He was made to eat his greens. Neville bore all this with his parents' dour stoicism as example until one December, when he was nine years old. It was 1976. The police had spent much of the year catching people who wanted to live in New Zealand and treating them like criminals. In a moment of wholly untypical family-feeling, Mr Paddy decided to cut down a small pine by the main rear-fence as a Christmas tree for the living-room. He walked down to the fence-line through the cow pats, whistling, with his son following behind. Neville watched as his father sharpened the axe, tested it along the hairs of his brawny left arm and hoisted it aloft. The runty pine offered no resistance--a single blow brought it down. His father hacked away some tired branches with short, hard chops. Then he picked up the carcass and dragged it, bleeding needles and cones, across the wet paddocks toward the house. But ahead of him Neville was already running, screaming, from the sight of the murdered tree.
At the hut, Lorraine swept the floor and washed Neville's clothes in a bucket. She submitted to cooking avocado in every possible combination for breakfast, lunch and tea over an open fire, and she replaced the honesty box used for sales with a roadside stall. In the orchard, Neville worked hard with the bewildering number of strains--Hayes, Hopkins, Hass--that had come up from his random seed-gathering. The crop appeared in more of a dribble than a harvest. Everything was so higgledy-piggledy that he was forced to use an artist's brush to paint reminders on every fruit of type, taste and ripeness. At the end of the financial year Lorraine calculated that they had made nothing at all and were actually living off their dole cheques.
John Mulgan wrote something to the effect that others go overseas for adventure, but New Zealanders travel in search of satisfaction. Well, whatever Mulgan did, it certainly holds true for domestic migration. At first, Wairoa had seemed an Eden of green spare hills, rangy pohutukawas and blissful silence. The river's bustle accommodated eels and shrimps; slaters lived under rocks near the house and tuis croaked strange harmonies in the roofs of trees. And where did love begin but with two people in a garden? But the idea of living on love can only be carried out in reality by those of us already in parsimonious old age, which is why it never happens. Youth, on the other hand, has always taken it for granted that it should also be able to have a good time--a fact conveniently ignored by most fiction. Perhaps mankind's original indiscretion before the fall was really just a hankering for more, an unguarded suggestion that paradise could do with some development. One day during a supply-trip into town, Lorraine saw a television in a shop window showing pictures of a city far away, with large cars and sun-drenched people on the streets. For some reason she knew it must be Wellington--it was really Los Angeles--and Lorraine took the bus back to the orchard in a state of excitement. She tried to discuss the idea of moving with Neville, but he absolutely refused. They rowed bitterly. Then next day, she found him standing before the rough grass along the rutted main road, his duffel-bag packed and his thumb out. With the huge clear sky above and shoals of hills behind him, he seemed already lost in the empty scenery. She walked over and took his arm.
'Don't go,' she said.
'No.' He shifted uncomfortably. 'You were right, Wellington's the place. Look, I'm going to shoot down there and get us started. You follow me in three days and I'll meet you at the station.' He pressed their remaining money into her hand. 'Here, for the ticket.'
'All right, Nev, whatever you say. But you take the money.'
'No, no. Don't worry. I'll get a job and fix us up with a nice place.'
Lorraine looked at him and sighed. A nice place: it was a tempting thought, especially after a slab hut.
'With white walls?' she said.
'Sounds right by me.'
'And blue curtains?'
'Yeah.' He pictured the house in his mind. 'A red roof and a white chimney and brown windowsills.'
'Oh no, you don't want brown. It gets really hot and the paint flakes off.'
A lorry pulled up. Lorraine started to cry.
'Take care of yourself, Nev,' she said. She hugged him close.
'Don't worry. I love you, girl.'
'I love you too, Nev.'
He walked over to the lorry, climbed up into the battered cab, slammed the heavy door and was gone.
Boy meets girl, boys loses girl, boy and girl find each other again: this is the pith of fiction. Three days later, Neville was waiting at Wellington Railway Station for Lorraine. He'd not found a job and was staying at the night-shelter in Taranaki Street. Cold, unruly May winds jostled about under the lofty arches of the terminus. In Wellington, where the buildings are all copies lifted from somewhere else's idea of a capital, the station seemed inadvertently designed with plenty of room for the local wind to move. The widely-spaced, classical columns, open interior and high, heavily-moulded ceilings resembled a mad king's mausoleum. Outside, litter was swirling on the grey lengths of track and platform. Inside, the air rushing through the foyer and underground passage almost swallowed the incoherent cries of newspaper-boys. Deep within the terminal, uniformed shop-girls stood grimly at their deserted kiosks, envying the derelicts on the benches who could keep themselves warm with heavy coats and bottles of port. And in the mdist of all this Neville waited, afraid to go--afraid to go eat, afraid to go to the toilet, afraid to go anywhere even for just a second--in case Lorraine arrived and he missed her. He met each train as it pulled in: the Northerner, the morning rush of commuter units, a trickle of long-distance railcars from the Wairarapa and the Manawatu. But Lorraine did not appear. He waited and felt emotionally ringbarked, more alone than he'd ever been in his life.
At last, in the encroaching dark of late evening, Neville left the station and walked across the lawn and Bunny Street towards the Waterloo Hotel. Another architectural failure, this--periodic tinkering with the hotel's Art Deco features had failed to disguise its steady decline towards both intellectual and financial bankruptcy. Neville entered the public bar. It was a dim, oblong room full of smoke and the noise of a badly tuned TV. He passed conclaves of beer-besotted workers, hunched over raised tables. There was a telephone on the rear wall beside the toilets. Scooping the remaining change from his back pocket, Neville dialled, pushed buttons A and B, and manhandled the rickety machine until finally he received an answer.
The voice of Lorraine's father emerged from the erratic crackle of the telephone line. He had a bluff, managerial tone--for many years he'd been owner of a small factory that made novelty pens for tourists. The tops of these pens were tubes of oil, each with a clear-plastic window in which a Maori canoe or a string of native birds floated into quaint, gaudily coloured scenes. For a time Mr Catchpole had made money and convinced himself that his sound management was the reason, but gradually fashion changed. The pens no longer sold, though Mr Catchpole refused to alter his ways until it was clearly too late. Just before Lorraine entered high school he shut the factory down, sacked the staff and became devoted solely to his two great loves in life: tobacco and shifting the blame. Neville angered him on the only occasion they met by brushing aside his complaints about heartless fate and suggesting a new line of product. Why not try boxes for sale in Rotorua, he offered, of Instant Boiling Mud? Just add water and heat. Now let us imagine Mr Catchpole at the telephone, the butt of a hand-rolled cigarette hanging by absorption to the moisture on his lower lip.
'Who's speaking, please?' he said.
'It's Neville, Mr Catchpole, about your daughter.'
'Bill? Bill who?'
The connection spat hiss as Neville tried to reply.
'No, no, Neville Paddy. Neville Paddy. It's about--'
'Bill Batty? Well, what a nice surprise. How are you? Where are you ringing from?'
'I'm ringing from Wellington, Mr Catchpole, but I'm not--'
'Wellington? No wonder I can't hear you. The phone's acting up like nobody's business. How's the wife and family, all right?'
'I don't have a wife and family.' Neville heard, through the toilet door beside him, the sound of the hotel's urinal flushing. Above it he shouted, 'I'm Neville Paddy! I'm living with your daughter!'
'No, my daughter's taken up with some clueless fellow from the backblocks. She's probably there now. Don't know when she'll come to her senses. Mum's good, aren't you Mum?' Mr Catchpole began a conversation with Mrs Catchpole, somewhere across the room.
'Mr Catchpole!' Neville yelled. 'Mr Catchpole!'
But he was listening to an abrupt series of beeps. The money had run out. He replaced the receiver and wandered through to the front of the pub. A sign beside the beer pumps caught his eye; it advertised for bar staff. By the end of the week, Neville was working at the hotel each night, he'd found a one-room flat in Johnsonville and he was taking the train into town each day. Every spare minute of his time he watched the station through the pub windows. He even took his meals from the pie-cart outside. He still felt unbearably forlorn.
On the third day after Neville's departure, Lorraine waited for him at the bus station in Taranaki Street. The bus station--she was a victim of semantic oversight. Hour after hour she spent watching people come and go, as she sat on her plastic chair in the relaxing, muzak-filled, pastel-colour-coordinated lounge, until she hated every bloody corner of the place. Sometimes she walked out to the buses in the departure bay; at others, she curled up with her suitcase beside the coffee-machine and cried. Violent emotions, anger and self-pity, overwhelmed her. Through the station's glass front-door she could see a child, sitting on a large, mechanical spaceship that was supposed to be rocking back and forth. There was no money in the machine and the child, though apparently abandoned, was going places by frantically turning the wheel and making car noises. The sight struck Lorraine with all the uncanny force of unwanted metaphor. The late-night bus pulled in, empty except for a dapper, heavily made-up woman in her early thirties. The woman--there was something mannish about her solid frame and independent demeanour--minced briskly across the commercial carpet with her small bag on a trundler.
She stopped before Lorraine and in a confident voice asked, 'Are you all right?'
'No, I am not all right.' Lorraine knew not to talk to strangers, but suddenly her voice broke with tears. 'I mean, I come over halfway down the North Island to see my boyfriend, and he said he was going to meet me, and he just didn't show up. Now I don't know what to do or anything.'
'Men....' The woman, whose name was Dianne, rolled her eyes theatrically. 'Do you need somewhere to stay?'
Lorraine looked up. She'd been warned about encounters in places like this. She nodded her head.
'Well, don't worry. You come along with me,' said Dianne. 'And forget about him, sweetheart. They're not worth it. Men are like buses--another one'll turn up in a minute.'
Dianne lived in a flat in Vogeltown, a two-storey, up-and-down villa with cast-glass sidelights around the front door, a steep, narrow staircase and cavernous rooms. It turned out that she flatted with two other women who, like herself, were veteran secretaries in the city's financial district and who regarded their jobs as raiding parties into heavily-defended territory. Their house was a haven; it was decorated with fashion-magazine cut-outs and inexpensive knickknacks, and had sunflowers hand-painted on interior doors. Nothing, however, could hide the sinking piles, the borer and the toilet shut-off valve that leaked into an ice-cream bucket. But to Lorraine it was what she needed; it was a marvel of Bohemian self-expression, it felt like a place she'd always been looking for without knowing it. She unpacked in the spare room, and she was promised it permanently if she could revive her high-school typing and find a job. The 'girls' regarded coaching her as an amusing challenge.
In 1956 Mr Maurice Yock and his son Anthony had made a summer trip to Tokyo. Everywhere they went about in the sticky heat, while taking their jackets off, taking their ties off and giving genuine consideration to stripping down to their sweat-soaked underwear, they saw Japanese with zouri or geta on their feet: these strange, Oriental foreigners shuffling about comfortably in the humid weather. Mr Yock decided then and there to return to New Zealand and build a factory in Auckland that would produce the same kind of lightweight, open-style footwear. He called the result 'Japanese sandals', and from this the term 'jandals' was coined, along with a hefty profit. Actually, the shoes were impractical in New Zealand's cold, wet climate, but they were easy to put on and terribly cheap. Armed with her newly-acquired techniques of self-introduction and resume-inflation, Lorraine was able to start work in the company's Wellington office, which at that time was little more than a sales-branch preoccupied with promoting its own existence. She typed letters for Mr Hodgekiss. She answered telephone calls for his inner office, and she arranged and stored files in her own room, though it was not much larger than the corridor outside. The company premises were in Stout Street, with the square, brisk shoulders of the railway station in full view from the windows. Each morning and evening, Lorraine took a clattering trolley-bus between Adelaide Road and work.
Her path came within a stone's throw of Neville's, but they did not meet.
Lorraine's first inkling of city-life's bizarre possibilities came a month after she started her job, while walking through Manners Mall one evening at the close of autumn. She was trying to ignore the fast-food stores because she was three weeks into a crash diet and had begun to lose weight. The gold, departing light seemed to collect among the trees' remaining leaves. The air quivered with cold; the chatter of people out for Friday shopping showed on their breaths as steam. Lorraine was carrying a bag of imported cosmetics--her flatmates were teaching her make-up--and as she reached Herbert Street, she saw a large man slouch away from the building site across the road. He was wearing a soiled, sleeveless denim jacket with a gang-patch on the back, and his shaggy hair fell in bunches to his shoulders. He shouted at someone coming towards him, a teenage boy, and waved a hand. Then with the other hand he pulled a butterfly knife from the back of his jeans. Facing him, the young boy seemed unable to move, rigid with fright. A blunt sound drifted across the road to Lorraine as the knife was thrust up under the boy's ribs. The boy gasped and fell sideways onto the asphalt, an apron of blood spreading over his chest.
The attacker began to run across the road in a lolloping gallop. Lorraine could hear a rattle of keys on his belt as he approached out of the gloom. He moved to punch her away, but growing up in Wairoa had taught Lorraine never to back down and, more importantly, how never to back down. She braced herself, she bent her knees, took his hand and shoved hard under his outstretched arm with her shoulder. The man rolled into the air. He pitched and caught his hip on a bench, before crashing heavily onto the footpath on his back. It was only now that Lorraine became aware of the other shoppers around her, screaming. She bent forward and kicked the man in the face, to make extra sure.
The rest of the evening Lorraine spent at the police station, waiting to be interviewed. Someone took her statement and at last she was driven home. Though nearly midnight, all the lights in the house were still on. Dianne and the others were watching television in the living-room. Lorraine entered and began to tell what had happened in a flush of delayed excitement. She couldn't help going into detail.
'Of course, I was lucky,' she was saying. 'It was just the way he fell. If it happened again, he'd have maybe knocked me flat.'
But the three women showed only passing interest. They'd put some dye in their hair, and there was the dosage and how long to wait to consider. And one of them was having her period and would that be all right? They even changed channels on the TV, trying to find something they liked. Lorraine gave up and joined them--she had some dye rubbed into her scalp. But she couldn't forget the attack. She thought about it, and rather than admit to herself that these women were not really her friends, she decided that the place she was living in no longer felt so comforting. It was suddenly inadequate, fragile and even dull.
At this point in our story there are a number of questions you might want to ask, but I shall address myself, instead, to why the New Zealand talent and light-entertainment shows that dominate our TV screens have so little entertainment or talent in evidence. Any medium is tricky, God knows, but we see singers who mumble and rasp, dancers who cavort in badly choreographed semi-abandon, and the oily face of the MC who glances obsequiously between camera and clock. The sets, lighting and costumes are versions of overseas models that we can also watch as originals, but still we choose this; we're held by the very localism of the scene. For we, too, are Brian Knight of Gore or Ann-Marie Prescott of Raetihi, those two new faces who are hoping to quit their fears and needs right here, right now, nervously, with the magic of the studio. There's no illusion, no disbelief to suspend. We have our own dusty ballet-shoes or piano accordion tucked away in the garage rafters, and the feeling that...well, one day we might get our chance.
After work, Neville came home at one or two each morning, only to get up and go to work again later the same day. The boredom and pointlessness of the routine made him feel as stagnant as water in an old pond. It was always cold, wet and windy, and he trudged up the hill behind Johnsonville Station in a musty blue air-force coat he'd bought from an opportunity shop. In the small hours of one morning, he stopped at the front gate to peer as usual into the empty letterbox, then glanced into the dark along the right-of-way beside his flat and saw flames coming from the chimney cap of a cottage at the rear. A solo-mother in her thirties lived there with her baby. The chimney was on fire. Neville hurried through to his kitchen, found a packet of salt and headed out again into the drive.
What happened?--the woman had returned from a night-club in town and decided to warm her place up with a fire. The newspaper and kindling wouldn't catch, and the lawnmower oil she fetched from the toolshed was mixed with gasoline. The sudden blow-back ignited the squares of carpet and the drapes near the hearth. When Neville arrived through the open front door, the woman was shrieking at the patches of flame, calling them obscene names and attempting to beat them out with her jacket.
Neville scampered outside for help and across a stretch of lawn towards the next house. A wire-mesh fence blocked his path; he paused to swing his legs over. He banged on the neighbour's door but no one would answer--there was nothing but his knocking and the hurried sound of his own breathing. He looked back across the lawn at the chimney. Orange flecks were still leaping from it up into the darkness. A large plastic bucket lay near him, under a tap beside the steps--he filled it, bobbed towards the fence, climbed awkwardly over, entered the house, then threw the contents onto some burning cushions. He ran out and started again. Meanwhile, the woman had dragged a woollen blanket from her bed, soaked it in the bathtub and was dumping it across the sizzling carpet. As Neville ran back and forth and over the fence, his arms began to ache with exhaustion. Ten minutes later he hauled the last bucketful across the wire, tripped and almost fell over a coil of hose beside the hydrangeas.
The fire was dead. Neville stood flushed, trying to regain his breath. The air in the damp, smoky living-room was still warm; he was sweating down his back and shoulders. The woman pulled a corner of heavy eiderdown up from the scorched remains of the carpet, then let it go. She stood up straight, swept back her dishevelled hair and smiled, saying her thanks. Neville noticed her wet dress: how it conformed to the soft, seedy outlines of her body in a way that was openly erotic. He saw her skin glistening, her grey eyes shining, and he knew with a remarkable sureness that if he kissed her, now, she'd respond all the way to bed. He felt a pang of guilt--what about remaining true to Lorraine?--then put his hands on her shoulders.
It has to be said that Fran--that was the woman's name--was not a good mother. Over the next five months, Neville observed Fran's ability to forget her baby whenever it suited. As a solo-parent she was provided with a flat and a benefit, but when she dressed up and went into town, to a pub or a club, the baby was shunted around the corner to a friend's. Whenever Fran hung out the washing in her front yard, or telephoned Neville to come over, he heard the baby crying somewhere unattended. He hoped that he could help, but Fran had made his position clear at the end of their first night together.
'Look,' she said, lying naked against him amongst the tousled bedclothes, 'this is just a casual relationship, okay? Like no strings attached or anything.'
'Okay,' Neville said. 'Can I see you again?'
'Well, you can see me, yeah. But only when I ring you up. Other times you can't come here.'
'Because that's the way I like things.'
Fran did ring him often, always for sex. Neville would appear at her summons in the early hours of the morning, after coming back from work, and they'd go to bed together with a bottle of wine. There was no bedstead in Fran's room; they lay on a base and mattress directly on the floor. When the baby cried, Neville volunteered to get up and bottle-feed her. But occasionally, and for weeks at a time, Fran would make no contact. Neville would start losing his mind, descending into a garbled mixture of uncertainty and desire, convinced that she'd taken offence, that she'd gone away, there was another man. Then the phone would ring at last, and she received him in bed with her clothes already off and her arms open, as if nothing had changed.
Eventually Fran's capriciousness began to rile his nerves, but Neville was a victim of his need for her. Or rather, of his pride. He felt a certain superiority at having caught a woman that others had so plainly been unable to hold onto. The pair had quarrels and he forced himself to stay apart, but Fran would telephone again, after a day or a week, and he started unzipping his pants even as he ran down the driveway. Neville began doing things that, from some hint of dissatisfaction Fran had given, he decided must make him pleasing to her. He grew a moustache, a fine, bushy handlebar. He took up weightlifting at a gym--it thickened out his neck and shoulders, broadening his back. He learned to box. And as Fran's offhand treatment of him intensified, so did Neville's dreams of marrying, of being a father to her daughter and of their living together in some little blue-curtained house.
Then one day in town, Neville saw Fran on the footpath of Lambton Quay. She was coming out of the 1860 and getting into a taxi, arm-in-arm between a man and a woman. The sight of the man, a tall, wavy-haired, good-looking fellow, pushed Neville into a paroxysm of jealousy. He called out and tried to approach, but Fran ignored him. The taxi door closed quickly and the car pulled away. After that, she did not telephone him for a long time. Neville started to wait, but he felt as if he were being unfairly punished. He wanted to go to her and explain, to recant, to apologise, anything to see her, anything. For several weeks he lingered, until finally on one of the rare days he had off, a whole day with nothing to do but brood, he could stand it no longer. He strode out of his back door and down the driveway. It was near one o'clock in the afternoon, the sun up in a spring sky so remarkably clear it seemed smooth and hard. Gravel crunched beneath his shoes as he approached the cottage.
Neville found the front door unlatched. He knocked, pushed it open and went inside. From the direction of the bedroom he heard muffled voices; he walked rapidly towards them. But as he reached for the handle, the bedroom door was pulled back. Fran was standing before him, completely naked. She made no attempt to cover herself. The room behind her was thick with acrid cannabis smoke, and on the bed Neville could see another woman lying, equally naked, among the sheets. Somewhere, disturbed by the noise, the baby began to cry. Fran turned back towards the bed, staring at him over her bare shoulder.
'Piss off,' she growled.
He found himself running from the house.
It's been remarked how the great decisions that shape our fates are no more than moments of routine in the lives of secretaries. Lorraine knew Mr Hodgekiss only as a thin, fussy, middle-aged man in a shiny suit, who brushed past her desk each morning on the way to his inner office. Sporadically, his face and arm appeared round the door to drop some typing onto her desk, but he did not come out at all during the day. After several weeks he began arriving earlier, leaving later and opening his door only a crack--until all she saw of him was a gnarled, hairless wrist and a spray of papers in a hand, hovering momentarily above her in-tray. Lorraine began to suspect that the sheets she was working on she had seen before. Finally, she discovered she was typing from a hand-written copy of something typed by her the previous morning. For a while nothing changed, then one day Lorraine was abruptly called into Mr Hodgekiss's office. She entered to find the room in sepulchral semi-darkness. Mr Hodgekiss was squatting before his desk, his back to her and his Hallenstein's jacket wrenched up over his head.
'Come in, Miss Catchpole,' he said, without turning round. He motioned with one arm for her to take a seat. 'Close the door.'
Lorraine sat down and pulled her legs up under her chair as far away from the squatting creature as possible. He was speaking through the jacket over his head.
'How are you these days?'
'Fine, Mr Hodgekiss.' Lorraine gazed about her. The room was unpleasantly dusty; it had no windows.
'Job working out all right?'
'Fine, Mr Hodgekiss.'
'Good, because...because, Miss Catchpole'--the chicken-like figure in front of her shifted its hams and scuffed a shoe. There was something feverish, but still prissy, in the way he spoke--'we do like our staff to be happy. And everything is all right?'
'Good. Because, Miss Catchpole, we live in a defiled world. Standards have collapsed. People are less than consummate. This country, it's not the Elysium it once was. And do you know why, Miss Catchpole?' Lorraine opened her mouth to answer but it was a rhetorical question--the talking jacket continued. 'Because...because of this unnatural process we've adopted, this business of eating frozen foods. I mean, if the Good Lord had wanted us to eat peas in winter, He'd have created plants that matured out of season. Man in...in his pristine state was a full and balanced creature, dining off the land with a sense of responsibility, it was...a land which assembles him. He was designed...we were all created to eat salad vegetables in spring and root vegetables in winter. We, er,' the jacket began to giggle at its own strangely refined manner, 'we suffer the sinful errors, you know, of outdated legumes. Personally, I...I must confess, this has been the cause of some difficulties for me. I have a sensitivity to these things. Perhaps you've noticed that...that I haven't felt a hundred percent tiptop for some time.'
'You need to rest, Mr Hodgekiss,' Lorraine said.
'Rest?' The hooded figure became suddenly agitated. 'I can never rest, Miss Catchpole. My job is quotidian. I've worked here twenty-eight years and today...is the same as 1961. I have a wife, a family to support--to maintain even in their corrupt dietary habits...there are appearances to keep up.'
'You need to rest, Mr Hodgekiss,' Lorraine repeated. 'As your secretary, I think you really do.'
'As my secretary? You must understand my position, Miss Catchpole. I have discovered that we live in a world botanically out of control, but...but that appearances demand and...I feel I can confide....' He broke off and paused. 'To build a new heaven and earth--could you help me?'
'Of course, Mr Hodgekiss,' Lorraine said, uncurling her legs from under the chair. A small voice in her head told her what she was about to do was wrong but, knowing what she knew, she couldn't resist. She said, 'You just stay here until you feel strong enough to get home tonight. And tomorrow, you relax while I make a few changes to this screwy job.'
After Fran left him, Neville quit his work and wandered the streets all week. He saw a great deal of Wellington; it turned into exploring, a pleasant way to pass the time. One day before noon, he was walking among the bare-iron veranda poles along upper Cuba Street when he felt suddenly hungry. There was no burger-bar or fish-and-chip shop nearby, but he could see a restaurant sign with an unpronounceable foreign name overhead--the sort of place he usually avoided. Neville hesitated, still hungry, and then entered, climbing some creaking stairs. At the top, he went through a doorway into a room different from anything he'd ever seen before. It was large and decorated with Arabian-looking, ancient rugs, with intricately coloured wall-tapestries, polished brasses, candlesticks and a ceremonial sword, hung up across a shield. There were no other customers. The lace-covered tables with vases of fresh-cut flowers were deserted. Neville sat, and at last a dark woman wearing long robes brought him a menu in a script he felt was impossible to read. He managed to order something at random.
Swift, exotic music began to come from the wall-speakers above him. As he waited, Neville gazed down from the windows to the outside. Two ragged street-kids had lain across the footpath on the other side of the road and seemed to be demanding money from passers-by who stepped over them. Neville was conscious of looking out on a separate world, at somewhere grown distant and drab. He was so glad he'd come! The food appeared. It was a chicken--it was barbecued and smothered with a strange sauce Neville didn't like the look of, but he plucked up courage and tried a bite. The sauce was spicy, full of herbs and aroma. The meat had a hint of sweetness, a creamy texture. Each mouthful seemed fresh and exciting. Neville ate, and when the meal was done his stomach felt satisfied. The waitress thanked him in a throaty, deeply accented voice as he paid the bill.
Next day, Neville tried to find the shop again. He walked along Cuba Street, looking for the overhead entrance-sign. It had disappeared. He wandered all the way down to the mall and to the slipping, splashing bucket-sculpture that was too artistic to be removed, and then he tried going all the way back up. He checked both sides of the street. At last, Neville found the entrance with the sign gone, and he climbed the stairs in some relief. But at the top the door was locked, the room beyond in darkness. A cardboard sign, propped up against the window inside, announced: 'Out of Business.'
A week later, Neville bought an all-night cafe at the bottom of Taranaki Street. He still had debts in Wairoa, but he opened a bank account under the name Tony Piekarsky, which the bank immediately misspelled so that he had three separate credit histories. Soon he managed to secure an apology for such cultural insensitivity and then a business loan in compensation. The cafe had been open since before the war; it served a plain fare: fish and eggs, lamb's fry and tea in thick china cups. Shift-workers, sailors, ship-girls, taxi and truck drivers, night-clubbers, masseuses and old alcoholics made up the custom. Tony--as we shall call him from this point--kept on the cook and waitress, and he gave himself the job of maitre d'-cum-bouncer. From the first, things were slow. The shabby clientele was a fixed crowd and, if anything, they were beginning to drift away. The cafe's ceiling was often dirty because the customers who did appear were fond of flicking butter-pats up into it. With the high interest on his loan, Tony had difficulty meeting repayments. He tried to think of how to distract the butter-ballers, how to bring in new people and how to use what he'd learned from his experience of life. Then one day, he had an idea. He painted the cafe white, hired a 16-millimetre projector and began to screen scratchy, blurred adult movies across the rear wall of the shop. A pornographic restaurant! It was an instant success. Tony had discovered something like an unimagined land-mass beyond the known world, one of the primary sensual relations: the mysterious connection between erotic activity and food. The sophisticated flocked to eat, talk and above all to be seen at the cafe. They wanted to appear chez nous in the smoky atmosphere with its anonymous moaning, and to receive introductions and kisses against a flickering background of repetitive thrusting and bumping. After a few months, the bank was happy to let Tony Piekarsky spell his name any way he wanted.
Back to Lorraine. Mr Hodgekiss stayed in his office each day with the door closed and the lights off. He transferred all his calls and correspondence to his secretary, and he approved her salary rises almost once a month. In his name, Lorraine started to use the telephone as an offensive weapon, to organise a series of TV advertisements in which the All Blacks wore jandals during a pre-match haka. She discovered a useful fluency with her pen, and this enabled her to write several articles about the All Blacks and jandals for local journalists (who always had trouble writing) to print under their own by-lines. Her new income also allowed her movement into higher social circles. Though once a pupil of the 'girls', she now began to outdo her masters. Lorraine cultivated friendly contacts with staff of the Ministry of External Relations and Trade, by hinting when she met them that she'd been to better schools than they had. Soon foreign dignitaries passing through Wellington were being surprised with a complimentary pack of New Zealand jandals. The American Secretary of State wore a pair to an afternoon's golf at Wairakei, thinking they might help lift the ban on nuclear ships. Sales took off. Jandals were patriotic, jandals were chic. There was talk of an industrial award.
At length, Mr Hodgekiss was brought to Auckland. There, he was given a fifth-floor office with three secretaries and invited to make a number of advisory addresses to senior management on marketing strategy. He was reluctant; the management begged. At his first lecture, Mr Hodgekiss appeared before the board of directors immaculately dressed in a new three-piece suit. He smiled, accepted applause and nervously drank a glass of water. Taking the lectern after some delay, he cleared his throat and spoke without notes.
'The fruits of a solid marketing procedure,' he began in his usual over-meticulous tone, 'are...well, these are primarily realised through a scrupulous approach to nutrition. What we consume is all-important, I...I think you'll agree. And where did our dietary errors begin? This can be traced back to the very inception...the start of that integral, constant skein of honking emotions we call man....'
The executives leaned forward to hear. This was too good to miss. They knitted their brows and began to scribble on their jotter-pads.
Lorraine found a new job. She became a Personal Assistant to the Leader of the Opposition. The salary was not as good, but she no longer needed money. She could go everywhere by government car, she could eat at Bellamy's and charge her clothes to an expense account. In fact, her new job kept her so busy that soon the budget people complained she wasn't spending enough on herself from the public purse. But months of hair dye, severe dieting and behind-the-scenes self-promotion had transformed Lorraine, both inside and out. She'd become a svelte brunette, long of leg and lean in figure. She began to wear grey suit co-ordinates. She was fitted for glasses, and she changed her name by deed poll to Helen Welland--something snappier, something tight. By delegating only the non-advantageous scraps of her workload and then shouting at anyone who objected, Helen Welland soon gained a reputation as dynamic. Helen often lost her way down the long parliamentary corridors and was discovered looking about in unexpected places, so that people began to say she must know where the bodies were buried.
It was election year. The opposition party was wrestling with the problem of how to offer something new to a nation that had always hated change. They adopted the slogan 'Preserving Our Progress' and they came up with a series of new logos under which the public service could be reformed, without anything really being altered. But the party remained behind in the polls. For the Opposition Leader, another election loss would most likely be fatal to his staying on as party head. His political success so far was often attributed to his fine head of silver hair and his slippery mind--though the real secret of his ability was that he was an incurable insomniac. Night after night he lay awake, reading files and memos, marking action in the margins above his three initials. At last, combinations of pills and alcohol would begin to take effect. He'd slumber for a few hours, and then appear at his early-morning meetings in such a vile temper that he would annihilate all dissent. The public saw his tiredness as the distraction befitting a deep thinker, his mood-swings as decisiveness and the results of his grinding nocturnal paperwork as devotion to public service. To Helen, however, he entrusted steadily more of his work. She accompanied him to meet the Governor-General. He asked her opinion at meetings. She began to sign his documents, first pro procurationem, then in her own right.
With the election near, Helen helped draft and type an important speech for the Opposition Leader on the subject of national development. But she had trouble reading his exhausted handwriting and, instead of typing that the party intended to borrow seventy-million dollars from overseas, she rounded the total up with an extra zero. The Leader, who was proud of his childhood elocution lessons, read out the number seven-hundred-million on television with flawless diction, to the eager nods of the cameramen. The speech was followed by huge public acclaim. Independent economists commended its daring. The party shot ahead in the polls. A week later, the Government was defeated.
The morning after election celebrations, Helen found herself appointed Chief Public Relations Advisor to the new Prime Minister. She was given an office on the eighth floor of the Beehive and--an irony she'd always craved--her own secretary. Through her 'special' involvement in the election--it was never explained in the corridors, but it was often referred to with something like mystical reverence--her power over access to the Prime Minister was almost without limit. People were frightened of her; they called her 'Miss Welland'. Her position was so strong that she could insist upon a reputation for fairness. Helen arranged the Prime Minister's appearances, she briefed Select Committees, and she made her own speeches at service clubs outlining government policy. She was present at press conferences. She learned to speak with the care and vagueness of the often quoted. In her evenings she began to read widely and to go to concerts of Vivaldi, Beethoven and Vaughan Williams. The Wellington Club was forced to consider her membership. Each morning Helen liked to gaze out of her office window at the entrance to The Terrace--at that street of folly, trapped under lumpy asphalt, shaded by towers of glass, straining up into the majestic old villas of Kelburn. A large house was available at the top, near the university. Helen took over the lease. The first morning she stepped out her new front door to stroll downhill to work, she thought again of the man with the knife in Manners Mall and the impossibility now of her being that kind of victim.
Wellington was her town.
'Their images I loved, I view in thee.' What poets and philosophers need a lifetime to perceive, any schoolgirl already understands: experiences may come and go around or between us, but love itself is cumulative. Love collects in the bottoms of long-unopened drawers, it piles up at the sides of favourite walks and places, it gathers on photos or private gestures. It is not just the distillation of present experience; love is also the layers of our numerous past loves and loving times in life, all archaeological copies expressed as now. Proof against chance and change, it is God's easiest injunction--the love we can offer has us destined to become everyone, everyone become us...and love become more lovely. And all this makes us in our world, here, now.
It was a year since Tony first arrived from Wairoa. Through eating his own food each day and weight-training at the gym, he'd filled out, with a barrel-chest, muscle-bound shoulders and massive limbs. His moustache reddened for no apparent reason, and a boxing accident resulted in his nose being reset at a hooked angle. In the cafe he liked to wear thick polo-neck jerseys and a silver tau cross on a chain. He started smoking American cigarettes with the filters cut off. Tony was like a new man, even down to his personality. The running of his business kept him absorbed in practical details and ruthless about his staff. Everyone out the back remembered the night a drunken waiter hit him in the face--Tony knocked him up onto the stove with one punch. In the produce markets and wholesale stores people called him 'Tony the Terror,' though they insisted--even to each other--that this was a joke, that Tony was always genial, always popular. His notoriety was such that he could be accepted just as he was. Tony bought a red Ferrari sports-car; he drove it in every day from Johnsonville, kept it outside the cafe and ignored the parking tickets.
One evening, Tony was standing behind the counter at the cash register, an old machine with silver scrollwork and with a cute parrot that popped up instead of a no-sale sign, when two large, unshaven men in crumpled vinyl jackets opened the door. They were not part of the usual crowd. They were watchful and scowling as they stepped into the room. When they asked Tony to come outside, he followed, happy to get them away from the customers into the night. But he'd gone no more than two or three paces along the footpath to the corner, when he was hit from behind. As he went down, he saw one of the men putting away a cosh. The other man then kicked him efficiently in the stomach and the groin. Tony lay sprawled on the cold ground, gasping, red in the face. He rolled onto his back and tried to rise, but one of the men pressed a heel hard into his neck.
'You listen,' the man hissed. His accent was Mediterranean. 'You know old Manny, yes? He's run the after-hours action, is a very kind, very warm-hearted guy, yes? He's so kind, he wait six months so you doing well, for pay something. And you no have nasty accident like this one, only inside your shop.'
'Uh-huh.' Tony felt relieved it wasn't personal--that sort of thing could get nasty. But his windpipe was pushed so tight he could hardly breathe. He managed to rasp, 'How much?'
The man told him.
'And old Manny is so warm-hearted, he's give you forty-eight hour for find the money. We meet you here this corner, in two nights. This time, all right?'
'You understand? My English no so good, so I worry. I'm so shy, understand?'
Tony felt the boot leave his neck. He began to cough as he tried to stand up.
Two nights later, the men reappeared. They had the same wrinkled jackets as before and the same professionally bad-tempered countenances. They were early. They stood at the street corner and lit cigarettes for warmth. The smoke trickled in the dry, chill air. Cars passed occasionally through the intersection. The shape of the Wakefield Market warehouse loomed opposite in darkness and, beyond it, the wharf gates and docks. It was not a part of town for street lamps. The cafe door opened with a burst of clammy air. Tony stepped out. He was followed by three burly watersiders, all armed with lengths of wood. They yelled as they attacked. The surprised racketeers tried to run. One fell immediately and was beaten unconscious. The other, shielding himself from a blow, broke his arm but managed to keep going. As he reached the front of the Plaza International Hotel and stumbled into the safety of its lights, the man began shouting that he was so disappointed. These days you just couldn't trust nobody. The cafe was going to burn, and Tony the Terror was going to die.
Next evening at six o'clock, Helen was preparing to leave when two uniformed police constables were shown into her office. They were both young. They looked almost adolescent in their oversized blue jackets and caps, with their still-ruddy faces and their reserved demeanour. Radios crackled from their belts but they hurried to turn them down. The pair seemed reluctant to leave the doorway.
'Can I help you?' Helen asked.
One of the policemen coughed. He assumed an air of superiority over the other that seemed to calm them both and said, 'Yeah, we're looking for a Miss Lorraine Catchpole. Do you know where we'd find her?'
'You've got the wrong office. I'm Helen Welland.' Helen pointed to a nameplate amongst the untidy paperwork on her desk. 'What do you want Lorraine for?'
The policemen moved further into the plush room. The one who'd already spoken glanced about, and then said, 'Well, in fact, there's a warrant for her arrest.'
Helen made a show of looking at her watch. 'Lorraine will be at home by now. I'll give you her address.' She leaned over and began to write on a scratch-pad. Helen sensed the policemen were more interested in trying to look down her blouse than in what she was scribbling. When she stood up, she smiled knowingly, letting them feel emboldened. 'What did Lorraine do?'
'Well, it's, er, it's alleged she sort of...misused privileged information. Bought a lot of farmland up Taranaki way that they're going to drill on.'
'Really?' Helen remembered some papers she'd signed for the Prime Minister, three months ago. His farm. Would it be long before the police station radioed her new name? She asked, 'How could that happen?'
'Search me. You think you know someone, eh. I've got this sergeant, he's a real one for swimming'--the policeman suddenly turned and winked at his partner--'and he saved up for years to put a pool in his back yard. Big concrete thing. Reckoned it really increased the value of his property. Anyway, come winter he drained the bloody thing out, and it rained so hard every day that the water-table raised. Pool started to float, eh. Couple of tonnes worth of pool lifted up out of the ground and cracked, right in half. Shit, he was ropable.'
'Yes,' said Helen. She handed over the slip of paper with her old address.
Within minutes of the policemen's departure, Helen was crossing over the Beehive bridge and then striding out through the revolving front-door of Parliament Buildings. A taxi she'd rung for met her at the main gate; it took her to the nearest rental-car agency. Helen didn't dare even go back to her house. In thirty minutes, she was driving up the motorway through the sunset on the Ngauranga Gorge.
Long banks of cloud encroached steadily from the south. Darkness drifted in as Helen accelerated through the hills towards Tawa and circled the edge of the Porirua Basin. As she passed the black waters of the harbour and the shapes of electric train-lines on her left, the rise to Strathaven away to her right, the motorway lamps became fewer and then disappeared, until Helen could see only the shifting asphalt in her headlights. Then there was a muffled bang. The car began to vibrate as the shredded left-front tyre hit the fender. The whole vehicle swayed and poised on the brink of rolling over--Helen had no time to scream as she ploughed at speed into the median strip.
When the car finally came to rest, in a knot of toetoe, Helen clambered out unhurt. The road was empty, the distant house-lights of Porirua continued shining without change--it was hard to believe that the world had not noticed. Helen switched off the ignition and stepped back to peer at the damage. The car seemed more or less intact, but she couldn't picture herself driving it again. Suddenly her knees seemed to desert her. She sat down on the lumpy turf, trying hard not to cry.
A moment later, the ground beside her was bathed with twin haloes of light. The beams swerved--another car was pulling to a stop. Its door opened and a man got out.
'You all right?'
'Yes. I'm not hurt.'
The man stared through the headlights' gleam at this attractive woman before him: dark-haired, glasses on the edge of a delicate nose, her hands smoothing out her jacket and skirt. She was still graceful, even after what she'd been through.
'Can I take you somewhere?' he asked.
'Where are you going?'
'Nowhere special.' He hesitated. 'Anywhere but here.'
Helen looked up. 'Me too.'
She knew it was a provocative answer, but there was...well, there was something in this man she liked. He looked confident, tall, about her age. He was wearing a polo-neck jersey through which, despite its heavy wool, the muscles of his arms bulged. A small tau cross hung from a silver chain round his neck. He helped her up. He opened the low-slung car door for her, and she stepped in. The man got behind the wheel. He started the engine and glanced towards her watching gaze. Who can tell how many times this has happened before? Beautiful women, it is said, have the power to evoke landscapes, and he could imagine one now with themselves driving through it: a switchback, coastal road, lost in a tumultuous sea and sky and, on a hill above, a line of white shore-front houses, with red roofs and blue curtains.
Copyright Ian Richards, 2008
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