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(This is a revised version of the story which first appeared in Everyday Life in Paradise.)
Of my entire overseas trip, the clearest and most honest impression I have left is of Auckland Airport. I remember its imposing size. I remember glimpses across the fence of the long, flat tarmac in the wide centre of dry Mangere grassland, as I pushed everything on a trolley from the domestic to international terminals. At the terminal's entrance a grand, sweeping road was clotted with taxis, buses and cars arriving and departing; there were luxuriant palms and creepers and, overhead, above the broad white verandas of the building, exotic logos peeped up on the tail-sections of jumbo jets. When I returned three and a half years later, I saw one or two planes dwarfing a tiny building, a deserted driveway in the middle of nowhere and a lot of stringy plants.
At that time, OE was still something you did instead of, or after, varsity; so at graduation I booked a one-way ticket to LA, filled my old orange pack and went with no plans, no contacts and nowhere to stay, as flushed with hope and innocence as if I were hitching down to Dunedin for the weekend. We circled the city on the plane before landing, and the city went on and on and on. The revelation of greater Los Angeles spread out below on a day of only minimal smog, destroying all my previous sense of scale, was one of the most shattering moments I have ever experienced. In that instant I became nobody special from an obscure, marginal country--and learned that true power and privilege do not belong to some boy born in Palmerston North. It was an experience I shared with a generation.
I kept moving. I crossed the States and then headed down through South America, having adventures that seem, in retrospect, like something out of a book. Flying to London, I worked with homesick Kiwis in a pub and saved enough money to go sightseeing in Europe, east to the Soviet Union, then back down through the boot of Italy to Tunisia. I did it all. I greedily did everything that all the other travellers said you should do. I spent a year travelling in West Africa, negotiating my way into friendly countries, and in Johannesburg I kept my eyes shut to apartheid long enough to earn more money and fly to India. I followed the hippie trail to Nepal and down across Southeast Asia until Darwin. Then I drove all the way to Sydney and flew home. Three and a half years. In the stuffy, wide-bodied jet on the flight back, an infant over the aisle kept standing up on the seat, pointing at me and saying, 'Car!...car!' The mother restrained her child, and I smiled politely, but the overgrown baby continued with fanatical determination.
'Car!' it said off and on throughout the flight, and pointed at me. 'Car!'
When I stepped round the screens into the passenger-reception area, I discovered something new waiting for me: a green, fertile country that was just like the rest of the world. It had inequality, injustice and prejudice--and a strange sense of confidence that these only occurred elsewhere. Of course, I have enjoyed a marvellous opportunity to see almost literally everything; I am part of a time blessed by advances in technology and society that allow ordinary people to travel freely. It is no mean achievement to see the world and yet know where you belong--so perhaps you can understand my surprise and my anxiety when one day, several years down the track, I received a letter from my little brother, announcing that he'd bought a ticket to Bahrain and the Middle East. It was all out of the blue. The Middle East. He said he'd come up and see me in Wellington on his way to visiting Mum and Dad in Palmy, then head on to Auckland...and off.
Well, let us step back for a moment and take what novelists refer to as a God's-eye view, which means that we must see things from above. Looking down, there is of course, me: Neil Gunnel, twenty-eight years old, and the small, straight street in which I live, just off the Petone foreshore. It is a road mostly of single-storey, single-bay villas with verandas to one side. The houses, and even the row of streets off the Petone Esplanade, are so similar that I sometimes miss the turnoff to Jessie Street and drive into Collins or Patrick Street by accident. The paint on the weatherboards of all these houses is patchy and each of the foundations is suffering more or less from age. Under their gables, the broad bay-windows along the roads face each other through gardens and picket fences, like sleeping heads in a row of giant, curled-up cats. Over the street from us live the Van Dorens, a retired couple originally from Holland; on their right are the Yongs from Malaysia, who have a shop in Jackson Street; and beside them, the Stratulatos's from Greece. On our left live the Tuvalusas from Tonga, who all work in the Levers factory and lend me their lawnmower; and on our right are the Andersens, who were born here but must, once, have been Scandinavian. We're an entire community of New Zealanders, by birth or inclination, and we know who we are--yet, continuing the tour down these rows of staid Victorian houses, all pretending to be the same, could take in the whole world. When we say 'gidday' to each other in the morning or evening, after work or leaning over the back fence at weekends, I'm struck by the triumph or pointlessness of travel, depending on my mood: by a sense of being at home at last, or even more lost than when I started.
It was breakfast time, on this occasion after my brother's letter, and Marama and I sat in our enormous front parlour drinking instant coffee from chipped, Temuka seconds. Perhaps I should explain: old villas like ours were built with high roofs and ceilings to collect rainwater, and the result is that even in February they seem chilly. But outside, in the placid morning air, sparrows were warbling on the power-lines. Through the open slats of the Venetian blinds came the green of the lawn, the orange spots of marigolds clustered in the garden and the white of the front fence I'd repaired at Christmas--all mixed in a summer light so dazzling it threatened to bang you in the face when you stepped out for the Dominion. Two bowls of muesli, made to a recipe to ensure regularity, sat on the tablecloth between us. And all around us the second-hand furniture deposited over the thin carpet and against the walls seemed cheap, but comfortably ours, and we were having that conversation again.
Marama was saying plaintively, 'I want a baby.'
'What, right now?'
Marama giggled. 'You know what I mean.'
I watched her remove a pill from the series between her short fingers and take it with coffee.
'We can't afford one,' I said in a tone meant to sound final.
'Crap. Babies aren't that dear.'
'They'll make you fat,' I said. 'They'll give you a big fat wahine's bum.'
'Not me, boy.' Marama giggled again.
Marama has a way of raising what she wants as jokes, which I counter by trying to shrug off. But she'd been talking about a child for months, and so I had started to supervise the contraception. I come from a small family, the sort where a child is a major commitment. Marama has seven brothers and sisters.
Marama wriggled her delightfully well-made figure on the chair. She said with a new casualness, 'So what's the story with your brother? You're glad he's coming, aren't you?'
'I don't know. Not really.'
'Why? You still don't see eye to eye?'
I sighed and said, 'It'll never change.' I'd told her before that we didn't get along. I added, 'You know, we used to have this Cyclone gate and, when I was about six, I swung it round really hard and hit him in the face. I don't remember why.' I pointed to one side of my chin. 'He's still got the scar.'
Marama raised her own chin and surveyed me. She said, 'Well, you and I growl at each other a lot, eh.'
'Yes, but that's different. You can't choose your relatives.'
'You can't hide from them, too.'
'I'm not going to hide,' I said. I got up. I walked out into the hallway and began to telephone the office. Eventually a sleepy-sounding woman, whose voice I knew, answered as if she didn't care who it might be.
'I've got a fever,' I said quickly, giving her my name to be sure, 'and I can't make it in today.'
'Oh yeah? Guess who's throwing a sickie.'
'My brother's coming on the nine-o'clock ferry,' I said and hung up.
I wandered back to the parlour. I nodded that everything was squared away and stepped over the top of the chair to sit down. Marama asked, 'You want me to meet him with you?'
'Who? Oh no, it's all right. But we can all have lunch together, okay?'
Marama pursed her lips. She puffed the cheeks out in her already round face so that it looked like a beach-ball. But all she said at last was, 'Run me into work?'
'If you don't take the whole day with your make-up.'
'Eh?' She got up and rushed off toward the bedroom, without touching her muesli. I heard her call, 'Don't you forget to wash your own dishes, boy!'
This is how a marriage works: simple arguments about the dishes and daily schedules. Relatives, motherhood, constipation and lunch--I suppose these are the nuts and bolts of love, itself an emotion so intense, so binding and improbable that it seems hard to think of it as common.
We met at a party. This was not long after I'd got back. It was given by one of my former varsity pals at an old flat in Abel Smith Street. It was one of those parties at which a stereo booms distortedly through open windows into the road, where carloads of people nobody knows keep coming and leaving, where bottles are hidden behind the curtains so that others won't drink from them, and often bored people are milling around, shouting or throwing things. I'd drunk too much. I didn't feel well. I entered the lounge and amid the crowd I saw a young woman standing by the fireplace, talking to some friends. She was overdressed--she was got up in a big, brassy sort of way that only gained in enthusiasm what it lacked in sophistication. There were rings all over her fingers. Large gold pendants swung from her ears as she moved her head, brushing against her long, dark hair, which was permed in waves. She was Maori, with a heavy, but nicely concaved, shape. She had fierce brown eyes that sparkled with a mixture of mascara, pride and merriment.
She caught me looking at her. She called out, 'Hey, how's your sex life?'
'Non-existent,' I managed to answer. I walked over less steadily than I intended. 'How'd you like to make it existent?'
'No fear,' the woman laughed.
'They reckon, sort of style--' I was making an effort to sound very Kiwi again '--if you don't use it for a long time, it drops off.'
'Well it's not true then, eh. Yours is still hanging down there.'
I bent forward to look at myself, and as I did a glass of vodka, Coke and Kahlua was poured over my head. I could feel the sugary stickiness in my hair. After a few moments, I became aware of a roomful of people staring at me.
I found the bathroom. I took some unlucky flatmate's towel from its rack and put one foot up on an old enamel tub with lion's claws as I rubbed vigorously around the back of my neck. Some minutes later, my tormentor appeared. I half turned and saw her in the doorway. She asked, 'Hey, are you all right?'
'I think you're wonderful,' I mumbled with my head half under the towel.
'What, after what I just done to you?'
'No--before what you just did to me. But I still think you're wonderful.'
Her eyes fluttered over my face, searching to see if I was serious. Then she grinned. It was a lovely smile, with her mouth spreading wide under her round cheeks.
'You're a nut.'
'Could we go out together, sometime?'
'All right,' she said.
When I got off the plane at Auckland airport, back from all those years of OE, I was too tired and too deflated for going home immediately, and I decided to book into a hotel. I decided I had just enough money left for a night at the Sheraton, provided I didn't eat breakfast and then hitched down to Palmerston North the next day. The hotel management never batted an eyelid. In our egalitarian age, the only passport needed for the world of the cultivated is money--and after that you can be unshaven, you can be in tattered jeans, have a filthy pack on your back, you can look as much of a pig as you like. My room was discreetly lit, heavily carpeted and so well decorated that, seeing it in a photo, you would never mistake it for anything other than a hotel interior. It was delightful. After getting out of what seemed a luxurious shower-bath, wrapping myself in a complimentary robe and walking over to the bed, I switched on the television. I hadn't seen a television since...well, at least since Darwin. The sound was down. A panel of people seemed to be arguing something of deadly-solemn import. They were all wearing conservative suits and sensible dark dresses, and they were gravely and agonisingly weighing each point. They seemed to be agreeing with each other and yet a little fearful about doing so. I wondered if it was a debate about atomic war, the death penalty or child abuse. I turned the sound up: it was about whether New Zealand society might enjoy multi-culturalism.
Marama comes from Te Kao, a small town in the far north near Ninety Mile Beach. I've been there with her several times for tangis, huis and visits; it's an example as good as any of New Zealand's pleasant, green countryside. You see, what some nations claim is countryside really has so many cottages, shops and factories that we would call it suburban. The proof is whether you can really take down your pants in a field and have a pee. If you can do this in full confidence, then you are truly out in nature. If you're constantly looking over your shoulder lest you be caught in the act, as you are most of the time in England or Europe, or being watched by locals who don't give a damn what you do, as in most of Asia, then the place has failed this simple litmus test. Marama's family welcome me with rough and open hospitality; but when I stand on the local marae and see a powhiri, or cross nervously to hongi Marama's broad, waiting mother, I feel more cruelly exposed as a stranger than ever I did in Berlin or Buenos Aires, with none of the traveller's happy ignorance. I'm still greeted with the shyness accorded a newcomer, but I try to fit in. How long, I wonder, until I'll be allowed my place?
But Marama has her problems, too: loving her parents although living far away. And I suppose I am one of her problems now. I don't really understand why she likes me. I don't understand why she so wants us to have a baby.
I dropped Marama off at her job at the BNZ in Willis Street. She works in a hard, black-glazed building that looks like the inside of an empty broom closet. Hurrying back along the quays to the terminal, I watched the green-and-white ferry crawl up the long harbour in the distance. It docked, and my brother appeared in the gangway. My brother Jim looks very much like me, almost as tall, with the same long jaw, the same vaguely curved nose, and the family's straight brown hair. But he is thinner than I am, and there's that small, rough patch of scar tissue to the left of his chin. Jim moved cautiously down the rattling gangplank. There was a bemused smile on his face that I've seen him deploy to hide inner confusion. His clothes were a red-and-black-check Swanndri, worn so thin that the wool had become hairy, some black tracksuit bottoms with a knee gone, and jandals--and all of it, the Swannie, the bottoms and the jandals, bespattered with paint. He looked like a tramper who'd had an accident under a decorator's ladder.
My brother lived alone on the West Coast. That was where he pursued his career as an artist and eschewed material success. And that was the type of thing which brought out the cynic in me. Yet I saw in the delicate movements, the self-consciously soiled clothes, the youthful features, as he descended and passed through the ticket barrier, an aura of genuinely na´ve and open boyishness that I couldn't shake from my perception. There was no time to think further. He stretched his arms out and we embraced with a mutual embarrassment. We are not touching people. Marama is: suddenly, I wished that I'd insisted she come.
Jim and I had not seen each other in nearly seven years. Jim and Marama had never met--he'd not been able to make it to the wedding. I asked whether he'd had a good trip, and he nodded, and we went outside to collect his pack from the railways trolley.
'How've you been?' I opened the boot of the car and put in his pack. It felt remarkably light.
'All right.' He got in the passenger side.
'I thought you might've brought some paintings with you,' I said jovially, as if to show that I was only being polite. I said more seriously, 'I'd have liked to see some.'
'Oh, they're too big to move, eh. I've got them all hung up in this old abandoned house on the Coast--exploring, like, concepts of space and relatedness. So that the message isn't just about the surfaces, it's about the total geometry of the area. There's a lot of paint, a lot of relief.' Jim continued in this vein while I started the car. Then he said, 'Actually, I haven't done much for a while, because I've had some problems.'
'Yeah? What kind of problems?'
'Oh, you know, hassles. I've been very depressed, eh.'
The car pulled away from the terminal. We drove between the pillars supporting the motorway, and eventually I asked, 'Why the Middle East, man?'
Jim sighed. He acted as if explaining himself to a child.
'I don't know. It's just somewhere I've always wanted to go.'
The unkind thought occurred to me that it was one of the few places where I'd never been.
'Have you tried to find anything out about Middle Eastern countries?'
'Well, I don't want to prejudice my images or anything. It'd be bad for my painting.'
Jim pulled a packet of cigarettes from the Swanndri pocket. He took one out and carefully broke off the filter. I watched him light up.
I said, 'So what are you going to do when you get there?'
He drew back on the cigarette.
'Well,' he said. He blew two columns of smoke from his nose. 'I reckon you ought to be spontaneous, you know, and just experience things and the life of the people. I'd like to go to Turkey and help look for the ark. Maybe I'll get married.'
I stared at him across the steering wheel. We'd come up the ramp onto the motorway and after a moment, far below beyond Jim's smooth face, I could see the weathered signboards and forlorn warehouses of the old Hutt Road.
I kept my voice calm and said, 'Why don't you fly to London? It's the logical place to start. There's plenty of galleries, they speak English, and I know lots of people I could put you in contact with who'd help you out.'
Jim sighed again. He looked down at his lap. The cigarette was in his fingers resting on his thigh, and he just looked at it.
Past the interchange, we entered the highway and saw, stopped in the distance, a lorry with a fallen load. Two truckies were trying to restore the contents of a huge, fallen cardboard box from which sheets of loose, pink-coloured paper were slipping and scattering in their hundreds across the road. We approached. Suddenly the wind came on, and the sheets billowed up, obscuring the lanes in a cloud. I slowed down with the other traffic. We entered amongst the undulating papers that dangled about the car in puffed, buffeted waves. Through the windscreen, it was clear that the sheets were photographs; they were pages from pornographic magazines. We were surrounded by crowds of passionately intertwined bodies, all naked and ecstatic. They were copulating against the windows, they were displaying themselves on the bonnet, disrobing on the roof; they were interrupted by the windscreen wipers, dashed to pieces on the wing-mirrors.
The rustling of the papers sounded like satisfied exhalations, like whispers. I laughed with delight.
'Those pictures are sexist,' my brother said.
Jim was born on Christmas Day, when I was three years old. I can still remember Mum's nervous face as my parents went off to the hospital. I can also dimly recall being taken to the house next door in the early morning--a box of Jaffas was thrust in my hand--and being told to play draughts with the next-door neighbour's boy. I think the neighbours were as nonplussed as I was. I sat amongst wrapping paper, empty fruit-and-nut packets and discarded presents lying beneath someone else's tree, feeling paralysed by a complete sense of dislocation. Jim grew up to be a quiet, methodical, careful child, who always kept some part of himself separate and secret. I remember him, mainly, in a blue-cotton Hawaiian shirt and flannel shorts, and a slight whine in his voice as he asks with dogged persistence that I return his plastic soldiers, his table-tennis bat, or his swimming togs. He could be phenomenally stubborn.
Of course, I was always ahead of him. In class, I was already getting my best marks in English when Jim was starting to be good at science and maths. This presented a nice symmetry for our parents, who were worried--rightly, as it turned out--about how I could turn my abilities into a career. I had to be sent to Sunday School; later, Jim begged to go. For ten seasons I played schoolboy rugby on Saturday mornings, and each weekend I quietly hoped rain might cancel the match, but usually I ended up trotting about uncomfortably on the frosty fields. Jim started with hockey, then switched to soccer, then harriers and, although it was clear that he was a natural athlete, he eventually gave up on sports altogether. In a single-sex high school, as our behaviour became increasingly hormonal, we were exhorted to keep away from girls and to sublimate ourselves into acts of manliness. I smoked cigarettes behind the cricket pavilion, I lifted weights with a frantic and fruitless intensity, and I tried unsuccessfully to avoid excessive masturbation. My brother waited, seemingly immune, and simply withdrew deeper into himself.
I was overseas when Jim entered varsity, and what I heard of him came mostly from my parents' letters. Jim seldom wrote. When he did, it was to insist that his experience of studying for exams, learning to drive a car, or getting drunk or stoned for the first time, was somehow more remarkable and more intense than anyone else's. He abruptly switched to the fine arts and went to study painting at Ilam. My parents' letters told, with a sense of pride and then of mystification, how Jim had got top marks in his first year, how he had dyed his hair and started to spell his name 'Gym', how he'd dropped out and moved to an old shack on the West Coast to live on the dole, and so on. Jim just wrote that he'd become a full-time artist. I bought catalogues and small books of prints at the galleries I visited, put them in a large box and sent them by ship from Naples. A reply from Jim eventually caught up to me in Bombay. He thanked me curtly. He told me that, after thumbing through the books, he'd taken them out to the back yard and dumped them in the incinerator. A true artist needs to learn by painting from his own mind. He could not afford to contaminate himself.
There is, incidentally, only one New Zealand painting for which I feel unadulterated respect: McCahon's series of Northland Panels. The panels display the hard, unforgiving light that is uniquely ours. They show the uniform bush-green, the cloud-dappled, flat blue sky. I can watch them as long and seriously as any painting I saw in Europe. A wilderness is created from light and dark in the left panel, and this moves through a series of views to suggest completeness. But the roads are vague, empty scratches, and the tuis' songs are like vacant-looking crosses. Nature goes through her cycles in a way both beautiful and cold, yet the scenes are monumental, static. Things do not get better; they simply play out in variations. I stop off at the Wellington Museum when I have time to see them. I toil up all the steps past the carillon and give the panels another look. And I also spend more time downstairs, now, at the Maori exhibits, wondering how I could ever have missed them before.
My brother put his things in the spare room. We arranged a mattress for him to sleep on. He took a shower and then put on the same clothes again. At twelve o'clock, we met Marama at a Chinese restaurant in Courtenay Place. She and Jim greeted each other happily, but both seemed shy, I thought, and I noticed that they didn't embrace or even shake hands. We found a corner table beside a large tank of goldfish; the fish eyeballed us through the glass. One of the waitresses, with whom Marama was friendly, came over to give us menus.
While Marama and the waitress were chatting, I said to Jim, 'I hope you like Chinese food.'
'As long as there isn't any meat in it, eh,' he said in the tone of someone announcing the news. 'You know I'm a vegetarian.'
'The Japanese kill whales.'
'Yes, but it's a fact that more whales commit suicide in New Zealand than anywhere else in the world,' I said and laughed. 'Believe you me.'
My brother's face stayed frozen. The waitress had gone and Marama turned back to us.
'How are you getting on?'
'Good,' I said. 'Did you know that Jim is a vegetarian?'
'Oh, this is the place, then.' Marama smiled one of her bewitching smiles at Jim. 'They reckon Chinese food's very healthy.'
'It's got too much salt,' my brother said.
'Well,' I put in, 'salt's not always bad for you. It helps you perspire properly.'
My brother sneered, 'In Wellington?'
'It must have taken you ages to save up for your trip,' Marama said.
'Oh, yeah. Not too bad.' The scar on Jim's jaw had started to redden as he spoke. 'I crashed at a friend's place in Christchurch and got a job for a few months shifting fridges,' he said. 'You know that advert on TV where the little bloke says, "Hullo, I'm Alan Martin, of L.V. Martin and Sons. It's the putting right that counts"--yeah, well, I was working for them. It was okay. I made plenty of money, but it took up too much time, eh. In the end there was too many hassles in the flat, so I had to leave. I actually met Alan Martin once, though, when he come through the shop.'
The waitress returned and took our orders. Marama asked, 'What do you say we have some wine?'
'Yes,' I said. 'Then we can all have a good sweat.'
Marama frowned at me. She turned and looked inquiringly to Jim.
'No, wine's for pansies,' he said.
In the silence that followed I studied the goldfish. Marama rubbed one of her hands into the palm of the other. The waitress had gone.
At last I asked Jim, 'When are you going to see Mum and Dad?'
'I'll take the bus up tomorrow evening. Then we can all sit around pretending to do our duty before I shoot through.'
'Don't say that,' Marama said. 'They'll be sorry to see you go.'
'No,' Jim said. 'It's like oil and water. They reckon they "understand" me, but they don't.'
'They're your family, boy.'
I should mention that Marama and my parents get along very well; they think she keeps me in line. Jim was saying, 'There's too much Oedipus and moulding into preconceived roles and all that in the road. You can't escape it, eh. In my paintings--'
'But they're still your family.'
'So who cares?' Jim grumbled.
'I don't have a family. I live free, me.'
'Well, you've got no show of being a painter, living in a group of one!' Marama snapped. 'What are you, anyway?'
Jim reacted to her raised voice as if stung. He looked at her and then asked quietly, 'How can you say that?' His voice had the same whining sound that I remembered from our childhood. He said, 'How can you reckon you know anything about me? Do you know, I'm someone who's marched for the Maori-land rights movement. I think it's high time all the ancestral lands were given--'
'Who cares what you think?' Marama shouted with real fury.
Jim got up in a hurry, almost in tears. He walked out. The food arrived a few minutes too late.
I decided not to waste a full day's pay; I went back to work that afternoon. The receptionist had told everyone I was sick, and now I had to tell people that I was better. In fact I was listless, and I sat at my desk feeling bored and unhappy. But bored and unhappy is pretty normal for me at work anyway. I work for the Ministry of Transport, in a shabby, open-plan office on the top floor of the Wellington City Corporation building in Mercer Street. From my chair near the centre of the room, you can make out the upper half of the library's stone facade next door: the top of some false columns, hoping to look classical, and half a row of windows. From my first day, it seemed a symbolic view to me--it was symbolic of the way I'd truncated my life. But I have a duty to do now.
Coming back from OE meant finally getting a job, with only a BA in modern literature to sell. Previously I'd side-stepped the problem by saying, 'I want to write.' It was my mantra, and it was rubbish. In America and Europe, no one had been so impolite as to ask exactly what I might want to write, and everyone seemed to feel that there might be money in it. Back in New Zealand, everybody asked what I wanted to write and nobody felt there was a penny in it. It was teaching or the public service--I thought a desk job might be less stressful. But I hadn't reckoned on the Byzantine cretinism of government departments.
The best--or worst--example happened only about a month ago. It occurred when we'd all trooped downstairs to the office canteen for morning tea, leaving the phones to ring unattended. The woman making the tea noticed a greasy film on the inside of the milk bottle. While we selected our biscuits and poured out cups from the tea-urn, the dirty bottle was passed from hand to hand, unopened. It looked as if we'd have to drink our tea black. Finally, some milk-in-first lover became desperate and decided to ring the Milk Board. We could raise no reply; the Milk Board staff were all at morning tea. Later, it turned out that a crate of defectively cleaned bottles had escaped notice and been distributed to government departments in town and all along The Terrace. Someone at the Milk Board had tried calling us at the Ministry of Transport to requisition an extra van and sort the problem out--but we were already at morning tea.
'Hey, look! Look!'
A voice roused me. It was from among the staff whose desks were along the windows.
They were still calling. They were standing up and pointing at something outside. I went over and joined them. On the broad, beautifully tended expanse of lawn below in front of the library, groups of office clerks, high-school girls and tired shoppers were lolling and sunbathing. The weather was bright and kind. But I could hear screams and squeals from amongst the girls, and I saw embarrassed amusement on the faces of the grown-ups.
There was a young man in a Swanndri standing on the lawn, his tracksuit bottoms pushed down. He was exposing himself. It was my brother.
'Down trou! Down trou!' some of the people in the room around me had begun chanting.
I could see office windows opening up in other buildings and hear distant hoots of laughter. Below, my brother's uncircumcised member shone plainly, limply, in the sun. He turned. He was displaying himself through 180 degrees, and his backside came into view. One or two older people in the office beside me were turning away, after looking first, in disgust. I slipped out and headed frantically for the stairs. The staircase was large and ornate, with polished marble steps. I nearly fell several times as I ran, slipping and swearing when my shoes couldn't get a better grip.
I reached the large front doors, pushed them open and dashed out towards the library. But my brother had already disappeared.
The first clear intimation Marama had that there was a world larger and more conducive to exhilaration than she knew came when she was six years old. It left in her a sense of exotic abundance that--I think, although I've never shared my opinion with her--led her to finish high school and travel to Wellington. The family was living on the farm outside Te Kao. The kids' classes came in the mail in large green-plastic, correspondence envelopes, were filled out and then disappeared again the same way. But one day, a special letter was included. The letter said that a city teacher was coming to visit and that the local children were to gather at a neighbour's house, not far away, for their first-ever real class.
There was great excitement--and not just among the children. For days beforehand the neighbour's house was cleaned with help from what seemed like everyone in the district. Party food was prepared: chocolate crackles and lollies, cheerios and sausage rolls, with tea for the grown-ups and fizzy for the kids. The children were exhorted to study hard. They had to be full of knowledge for their teacher; it had to be up to their eyeballs and coming out of their ears. When the big day arrived, families from far and wide descended on the farm in their stiff and shabby best-clothes. Marama, her parents, brothers and sisters, could have walked, but instead they drove round in their rusting old stationwagon.
At last, the teacher's car could be seen in the distance. It was coming down the road at speed and up the long drive to the house--it was bouncing too fast in the potholes. It looked like a brand-new red car, and the wax polish still shone through the dust that the bodywork was collecting on the road. The teacher's car pulled up and stopped. A very young, earnest-looking Pakeha man got out. He dropped what appeared to be a map back on the seat behind him. He was tall and had a sweep of blond, lustrous hair. His suit was clean; it was well cut and light coloured. He looked just like a movie star. The teacher opened the back door of the car and pulled an enormous stack of pamphlets and loose papers off the seat. He struggled with them to approach the front door. The children giggled amongst themselves. The living-room had been cleared of furniture for the class, except for the table heaped with food for afters. Some of the parents could look on from the back of the room; most had gathered to peep in through the hallway. There was a lot of kerfuffle when the teacher and his important papers had to get past.
Marama sat on the floor in wonder. She watched the teacher set up an easel with a blackboard and mumble nervously as he shuffled papers. He said he'd start with something for the kiddies. Then he placed a large, pretty poster of a barnyard over the board, and he began pointing at the animals.
'What's this?' he asked.
'Horse,' the children intoned.
'And what's this?'
The teacher relaxed. He moved through a succession of creatures that the children identified correctly, almost easily--until he came to a sheep. He pointed to it, and was met with deep silence.
'Well?' he asked.
Still the children did not respond. The adults waited. The teacher stood in the tension, tall and quiet; his hand was frozen, waiting, on the poster. He didn't look so good. He seemed to be getting hot in his flash suit.
'Well?' he repeated.
The teacher glanced across the room to the parents. They were standing or crouching, some with frowns on their faces, lost in thought. The children were growing restless. Something was wrong. The teacher gazed through the window and could see sheep, feeding lazily in the paddocks outside.
'Hey,' he said, an edge of anger creeping into his voice. He couldn't help himself. He rapped on the poster with his hand and stared at the clutch of small brown faces before him. 'What's the matter with you people?'
The children were whispering to each other. It was intolerable. The teacher raised his voice. He said the thing he'd intended never to say.
'If I don't get an answer soon, I shall have to file an unfavourable report.'
At last, one of the older boys raised his hand.
'I'd say it's a merino,' he said doubtfully. 'But maybe not with those legs.'
By now, little Marama had seen enough. She was in love with the bumbling Pakeha's comical clothes, car and manners.
It was midnight and we were in bed, when I heard a taxi pull up before the house. It had to be my brother inside. He stumbled up the drive and managed to open the front door. But then I heard nothing. Finally, I decided to get up. I found Jim lying on the floor in a corner of the front parlour. He was asleep. I think he'd got lost in the dark and mistaken the parlour for the spare bedroom. Jim reeked of booze; his clothes were damp with it and stank. I helped him to his feet--but it took him some moments to comprehend where he was and why I wanted him to move.
I got him back out into the corridor. Jim began to stagger along the wall and he mumbled, 'I have to chuck.'
Better not to risk taking him outside. I dragged him quickly down the hallway to the toilet. He slumped over the porcelain bowl and almost immediately began to retch; then he vomited in great, sighing gasps. I went to the back of the house and out into the garden. It was dark, and the moonlight put everything into shades of navy blue. I could see the washing-line, the toolshed, the vegetable garden we'd put in, the old back fence and, beyond it, the quiet, simple back yards of other houses--all homely, gracious and decent. I wondered why such words should seem old-fashioned. It was Friday night. In the distance I could hear the echo of rowdy noises from groups of drunks. They'd be outside the Yongs' takeaway bar in Jackson Street, spoiling for a feed and giving the Yongs hell. Well, this is still a new country, I thought, with frontier norms. Then I thought that people of so little use to a new country ought not to be allowed.
I went back into the house. I flushed the toilet and dragged my brother roughly into the spare bedroom. He collapsed onto the bed, and I took off his ridiculous jandals and covered him with a blanket. Then I opened all the windows in the bedroom, and in the parlour for good measure, and went back to bed.
Marama was still asleep. I felt, a little foolishly, like the master in my own house. I put a hand on her shoulder and gave her a small shake. She rolled over, blinking at me in surprise.
'What's up?' she groaned.
'Nothing. I love you.'
'Thanks, you bastard,' she said and closed her eyes again.
As I drifted off to sleep, I began to dream. Someone had come into the bedroom. He was standing at the foot of the bed. He was a big, bulky, hard-looking man, roughly dressed in a green bush-shirt, football shorts and sandshoes. His hair was unkempt, his jaw was unshaven, and there was a sullen look on his face. This man, he stared at me as if I had no right to be there, and I knew that he'd stepped out of a forest, off a farm or down from a building site. I began, rather eloquently, to explain why I was the type of person, you see, who could not watch the arcs of a rugby ball passed down the back line, or the weaving run made by a pack of loose forwards, without humming a few bars of 'The Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy'--but I couldn't tell if he was responding. The man just seemed laconic to the point of autism. His grim eyes continued to stare at me under his furrowed, heavy brow, as if objecting to my very essence. I opened my mouth again to try and talk about something we might both enjoy, but instead I found myself expounding on the sad themes of this country's cobbled-together history: how we are condemned to relive its restlessness, its near misses, its unembroidered sense of exile. And suddenly, I was scared. The more I tried to speak, the more preposterously British I sounded--I sounded like someone from the top drawer--and the more I felt that he did have the greater right to be here, in my bedroom, glowering down at me.
I woke up, sweating and chilly. Apart from Marama beside me, the room was empty.
The next morning was hot and clear. Two good days in a row are rare enough to savour in Wellington, and we decided to go fruit picking. I woke Jim, not too early, hauling him into the parlour for several cups of coffee. His face had the exhausted, colourless look of a hangover, and he moved stiffly and slowly. He seemed too tired to complain; I took it as a blessing. I bundled him off to the shower and went out to unlock the garage.
Later, in the car, the three of us drove along the Esplanade towards the Petone overbridge: Marama with me in front, Jim slouching silently in the back. Far beyond the low sea-wall for the beach, across the flat, rippling water, we could see the commercial towers of Wellington spread along the opposite side of the harbour and crowded up by the hills behind them. Their banks of empty windows were lit by the morning sun. On the highway we followed around the edge of the cliffs, and then we had to wait in the crush of traffic going to Saturday sports or shopping. Marama fidgeted with her bag beside me. The unit clattered past. I wondered if there'd been an accident; the side of the highway is often littered with abandoned cars. But then suddenly we were off again--heading for the interchange and the motorway north. I glanced back at Petone, shadowed in the sun, across the harbour. It was there that the original New Zealand Company settlers had fetched up and founded the city, amid all that sand, the rotting kelp and the heaps of dead seashells. They had a miserable time with wind, rain and flood. At last, hope and innocence returned to them once more, and they packed their tents and escaped across the harbour towards us for Thorndon--where I guess they've continued to have a miserable time ever since.
We stopped off in Johnsonville for an early lunch. My brother sat upstairs with us in the McDonald's, a hamburger with the patties removed spreading its innards over his gripping fingers. He'd hardly said a word. He looked sick and unhappy. All around, the light and warmth of the cloudless sky flooded the metal seats through the window glass. The air was resonant with the shrill voices of happy children playing on the swings and slides below. I saw Marama watching them enviously, greedily, wanting a child of her own. I thought she was going to say something--that conversation again--and I moved to gather up the paper wrappings and boxes and said we should tidy them, to pre-empt her.
We drove on. We passed through the Porirua basin and along the shoreline. We journeyed on nearly to Otaki where, down a long, straight stretch of road, we selected one from a number of pick-your-own places. I turned the car into the drive. I parked in a rough paddock beside several other cars, and we got out and stretched our limbs. We collected some plastic trays from the weighing centre and then headed out to the fields.
We started in good spirits. The air was fresh and full of smells; the green of the hedges that bordered the fields was shady and cool. There weren't many pickers around but we could hear excited laughter and sometimes glimpse other people in other paddocks, walking between rows. Marama danced about on the rutted tracks, picking fruit and popping it into her mouth, and even Jim seemed cheered up. The strawberry fields nearest to the road had been well sorted through. We had a hard time picking even two trayfuls and were often just bent over listening to the sound of the passing traffic. But the raspberries and boysenberries, located at the back of the farm behind the commercial crop, were much better. That was where most of the pickers were. We trooped over and set to work amongst the high, leafy and heavily-laden rows, crouching to find the fattest berries. We spread out. It was tiring work.
I lost sight of Jim and Marama, and suddenly I was alone. I was in the centre of a long lane of boysenberry vines, stretched out on either side almost as far as I could see. I'd eaten too much. The juice had stained my fingers blood-red, and in the relentless, sultry heat I felt mildly faint. But I pressed on, filling a tray and a half, pausing to eat more. My training shoes trod unsteadily on the clumped grass and the uneven dirt path, and insects buzzed about my eyes. I felt this was like being a peasant. When at last I came to the end of the row, my breath was short and laboured. I turned the corner and found Jim sitting propped up against a hedge in the shade. Some half-filled trays were beside him. He saw me and smiled.
'It's baking,' I said, and started to realise how sweaty I was. Through the perfect quiet I heard somebody's dog barking.
Jim said, 'I've got to get used to the bastard. It's hot where I'm going.'
I ignored the remark. Jim looked three-quarters asleep. I put down my trays and leaned my arms on the long handle of a spade that was stuck in the dry ground. For a moment or two, neither of us said anything.
Then, on the other side of the hedge, a large group of people approached nearby. We both seemed to guess they were tourists, in a noisy, straggling bunch, led by someone: perhaps a bus driver. We could hear their foreign accents. We could see them through the leaves and branches, in their sunglasses and summer clothes. They were talking excitedly in several languages and carrying white plastic trays in their hands. They had airline bags and cameras over their shoulders. They stopped to laugh and point and even take photographs. I tried to imagine where they were from as they marched past along the next row: French, Germans, Japanese.
'Bloody tourists,' my brother said. 'I don't know why they let them in.'
'Don't be stupid,' I said, raising myself from the spade's handle. You're about to be a tourist yourself.'
'Yeah but not like that, eh. They're just turning the place into a bloody beach resort.'
'So what?' I said, beginning to feel angry. It was anger that made me want Jim to be more honest with me. 'Look,' I said, 'I know that you're leaving and it's stressful. I know what you're thinking.'
'No, you don't.'
'Yes I do, I do know what you're thinking. But that's no reason--'
'No, you bloody don't. You've no idea.'
'Hey look, I've had the same experience,' I insisted. I could feel my voice rasping, with my breath thick. 'I--'
'You don't know anything,' my brother shouted.
'Will you shut up and listen!' I yelled, but he looked away from me and began to stare down into his lap.
I wrenched the spade out of the ground. It swung in a small arc and I guess I brought the flat end down on the top of his skull, hard. It struck him with a crack. It bounced, and he keeled over sideways into the grass, not moving. I looked up and saw Marama, approaching from a row not far off. She acted with surprising calm, almost detachment. She helped Jim up to a sitting position and then checked his eyes and the wound on his head. He was stunned and bleeding a little, but he didn't seem seriously hurt.
After washing the cut and finding some aspirins, Marama took care of Jim in the rear of the car all the way back. He leaned limply against her shoulder.
Of course, New Zealand's immigration policy from Wakefield through Vogel to the present day can be summed up in a two-word phrase: no niggers. For 150 years officialdom has applied itself to the task of letting in only the better sort of Englishman. Occasionally, in order to bolster our international image, we prise open our doors as a miser does his purse and allow in a very few refugees: preferably those without immediate family who might follow them. And in return we expect these human flotsam to feel humbled by the privilege and offer up endless gratitude, while we watch them aspire, as far as the meagre possibilities allow, to become just like the rest of us. No niggers. We cannot conceive of a Chinese cricketer or an Indian All Black, but we come unglued when we refuse to acknowledge that these are not necessary. Pacific Islanders who continue their customs here are openly reviled. Maoris, whom one suspects are here only because they managed to immigrate before the immigration authorities, are magnanimously offered the chance of becoming honorary whites--but for one and a half centuries they have remained disappointingly Maori.
In any case, I shouldn't have hit my brother.
Back at the house, we suggested that Jim lie down. He went off meekly to the bedroom. He emerged at seven o'clock, looking tired, for a salad Marama had prepared, and we all ate in silence. Then he rang for a taxi to take him to the bus terminal. We stood about for a while, not knowing what to say, until we heard the taxi's horn outside. It was a melancholy sound. My brother went and got his pack, and I wished him good luck. Jim said goodbye to Marama, and he told her that in the spare bedroom there was a picture for her he'd put together that afternoon--he hadn't been sleeping. Then he pulled open the front door, walked down the driveway and got into the waiting car.
The taxi started up quickly, and he was gone.
We wandered into the spare room to see what Jim had left. And there, lying flat on the mattress amid the unfolded sheets, was a large piece of paper worked over in pastels. I don't know where Jim got the paper or the pastels from. It was a suburban scene, viewed from an airplane. There were several rows of quarter-acre sections, with red-roofed houses, lined up behind fences--one of them contained a villa very like ours. Outlines of cars could be seen parked in driveways, children jumping and playing on the lawns, and dogs asleep beside heavily pruned rose bushes. The sun seemed to be coming down in a winter sky at about four-thirty, because already people were on their way home. Streaks that were figures appeared frozen in the act of stopping off at the dairy, checking the letter-box for mail, or putting a key into the front door. I could see the glow of a television coming through a curtained window. It was a still, tranquil scene, with one outstanding oddity. On a section between two normal houses squatted a giant dome, built out of rough, hand-cut blocks of ice: an igloo. Its sloped, shining walls were criss-crossed with cracks, and reflected the activities of the neighbourhood, the streets, and the greens of the hills far away where white dots were grazing sheep. The igloo's occupants were unseen; the arched entrance was covered with an animal skin, but smoke rose up through a vent in the roof. A walking figure passed by, strangely unconcerned.
The picture had many constituent parts. The strokes and smears of the pastels were so messy, so bold, that it was only when you stood back that a design of colour and composition became clear. It was a reconciliatory picture, I thought, and remarkably good. I realised that Jim had talent. Suddenly I felt guilty and wondered if I'd been missing something, but Jim seemed more of a stranger to me than ever.
Marama took my hand. Together we left the house and went for a walk, down towards the beach. It was evening. We strolled along the footpath past the houses. The clouds over the hills were turning purple, and the sky and sea were shot through with streaks of crimson, copper and tanned gold. The boatsheds, the snack-bars, the playgrounds were dimmed and fading into the sepia-shadowed landscape. Down near the Fisherman's Table, I could hear 'Greensleeves' tinkling from a Mr Whippy van, but the beach was deserted. We stepped over the concrete sea-wall, walked across the shells and onto firm sand. The air was so calm that the ripples of the water rose and broke in sudden, flat rushes along the length of the shore.
I swung Marama's hand and said, 'You know what bothers me most?'
'Well, I keep imagining that one day, twenty years from now, I'll come home from work,' I said, conscious that I was just warming up, 'and there you are, standing in the hallway. You've got on a straw-coloured dress and your favourite black shoes, but I don't recognise them, and I think that you're someone who's broken into the house. So we have words. Then I demand a reason for your being there, and the next thing I know, I'm slinging you out, onto the scoria by the driveway.'
Marama laughed. 'What do you mean?' she growled. 'You'd be in strife. Unless I throw you out, boy.'
But privately, I meant that I'd once lived with my brother for fifteen years. I held Marama's hand more tightly. Suddenly she said, 'I'm pregnant.'
I was slow to react; she had to repeat it.
'How do you know?' I asked.
'My cycle's stopped. I just know, eh.'
We took a few more steps along the damp sand. The dark silhouette of the Settlers' Museum, with the boat stuck half out of the building, was coming into view.
I said, 'But that's not possible. I saw you take your pill every morning.'
'You saw me take it. But you didn't see me swallow.'
'What, you didn't?'
Marama laughed again. She let go of my hand and ran a few steps ahead. She called, 'Under my tongue, boy.'
And I was surprised that I didn't mind. I was surprised how easy it was not to mind. It was a decision already made, after all, and anyway I felt as if I were off on a fantastic adventure. I thought of my father, and Jim on his way up to see him. Fathers were oddly ambiguous people, I supposed, but perhaps that didn't matter. When I saw Dad now, I often thought that he'd known much more than me all along, but I'd been too busy being convinced that I was special to notice. Meanwhile, Dad had been going to work every day and keeping his house. I ran up to Marama and gave her a hug, gently, so as not to damage what was going on inside, and suddenly I could see us as if from far away: two ordinary people kissing on a beach.
At last Marama said, 'When the time comes, I want to go up to Te Kao to have the baby.'
'All right,' I said.
Let us draw a veil, here, over these happy and unhappy events. Wellington has 300,000 inhabitants, who live in semi-isolation amid spectacularly inhospitable hills and cliffs, but we have not yet concluded our tour of Arcady. Raise your eyes now across the small, flat-land towns and farms of the Manawatu, shouldered against the ranges; then higher up through the clouds and over the volcanic plateau to take in Te Ika a Maui, with the large lakes below and the peak of Taranaki on the left. Coming up is the lush, rolling Waikato dairy country; then Auckland's suburbs, extending further and further, and breaking up into Northland. The whole shape of the islands seems to yearn and curl upward towards Cape Reinga, where the ancient Maoris travelled to the pohutakawa and jumped off into the nether world. And there, the jets that connect us to the rest of the globe cross and recross, performing unnatural tricks with night and day, dates and the seasons. There, Captain Cook, struggling in a hurricane around the tip of a land he had discovered only eight weeks before, nearly brought off one of the most fantastic coincidences of all time, when he passed on the swollen seas within a few metres of de Surville's wandering ship, without each ever noticing the other's presence.
Copyright Ian Richards, 2017
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