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(This is a revised version of the story which first appeared in Everyday Life in Paradise.)
One slow Saturday morning in December, Gary Johnson got up just after dawn and took the Hi-ace round the streets, driving through a blue, rising light. At last he reached the Hokowhitu Scout Den and pulled up by the railing, the same one on which his kids leaned their bikes when they came here. He got out and stood on the porch, shading his eyes with his hand against the bright sunshine. The building was sited with careless optimism hard against a gorse-covered stopbank, and Gary gazed along the bank and over the thin grass of the sports fields into the landscape, until he seemed to find within it all a point of reference. The muddy grass, the sky, the scout hall, the distant seesaws and swings--this morning everything around him was gathered up into a design. From behind him, he thought he could smell the creosote on the scout hall's weatherboards.
Today was the collection for the boy scouts' bottle-drive.
Gary was a podgy, thirty-three-year-old man with a bad haircut, startled eyes, glasses and a shy smile. His short figure was shaped by the consumption of alcohol; his stomach slid forward and made him affect a stiff, muscle-bound walk. This gave an agreeable impression that compensated for his spectacles. Gary liked to say little, and in the pub he stood the occasional shout. This morning he'd got up in his tracksuit bottoms and got dressed by putting on a pair of white gumboots. To live in a small town, as Gary did, requires deep reserves of patience, simplicity and reticence--or, as Gary was, to have been born there. He'd lived in Palmy all his life. In his early teens he'd attended a high school where the sports fields were laid out opposite a brewery, and even now the smell of stale hops conjured in him the glamour and pride of playing for the First XV. He'd made it all the way to the Reserves. And now he lived here. He had an Australian wife named Wendy, two boys of primary-school age named Craig and Brent, and he worked for the Post Office.
Although Gary spent the working week delivering parcels for the P.O., he did not enjoy going to strange houses. Sometimes he slept in the van all day in a quiet street: more than sometimes recently, and they'd even begun to threaten him with the sack. He returned to the Hi-ace, which he'd borrowed from the Post Office yard for the weekend. He decided that, instead of just collecting bottles door to door, he would stop off again at all those people in his neighbourhood, the one around Waterloo Crescent, whose Christmas mail he'd delivered in the past few weeks. That ought to do. He made a solemn promise to himself not to see his wife and children again until he'd visited everyone on the route, and immediately he regretted his extravagance. Gary was superstitious, which means he believed life is a journey of no point other than to avoid a series of unpleasant coincidences--even the thought of placing a simple thing like seeing his family again in jeopardy was unsettling. He started the van. The radio came on. Gary imagined working the route in an arc back towards Manawatu Street and home: the Wendy Line, he could call it. The radio was announcing the local animal patrol, and the anxious, affectionate descriptions of missing family pets further disturbed Gary with the domestic tragedy each embodied. Looking up, he nailed his vow to the ample blue sky and swore to keep it.
Gary bounced the Hi-ace over judderbars as he drew away from the scout den. He came out of the driveway and into the bottom of a cul-de-sac. He was thinking of addresses. The Toebecks, Eru Saul, Vern Bramwell, Captain Williamson, the Stennings, the Claires--he was glad they were fairly few. The names, especially the Captain's with its authoritative title, awoke in him a vision of the first settlers who must have come upriver in canoes a hundred years before. It would all have been bush around here: the forest shifting in the wind along the waters, and the abundant fish moving in the shallows. The men had been tired but dauntless, their frock-coats and boots soiled, their whiskers moist with river spray. They'd placed their tall hats under their arms and struck poses of inspiration; they were imagining a town, gathered round the prim glory of its square, and boasting colonial qualities: progress and enlightenment. At the rear of the canoes the ladies sat demure and elegant in crinoline dresses. Their legs were tucked back in makeshift propriety. They were protected from the sun's glare by their bonnets and parasols. Fanning off sandflies, they imagined teas on the lawn and children waking to familiar toys. But as the canoes moved on, with each stretch of the empty river, bend after bend, what did they encounter?
Nothing but more bush, tangled, green, choked with desolation.
At the bottom of the cul-de-sac was a ring of ancient railway cottages. They were sat in the exact centres of grassy, fenceless sections. Gary pulled across the road and halted before the Toebecks' property.
Old Merv Toebeck was English. In his youth he'd been an able seaman on merchant ships between Australasia and Europe. His house had been shifted long ago to its present site and unloaded from the trailer in reverse. Now it sat on the section with its lean-to kitchen and back door facing the street, and the front porch looking out into the back yard. Friends who went to the rear of the house and knocked, entering into the living room, always had the impression of committing a social error.
'Hullo, Gus,' he mumbled. 'How's it going?'
Gary winced at the nickname: for some reason everyone called him that.
'Good,' he said. He explained why he'd come.
'Would you fancy a beer?' Toebeck asked.
Gary had promised himself he'd drink nothing before noon, but Toebeck turned from the door without waiting for an answer and headed inside with a determined shuffle. Gary followed him in.
Once, in Singapore, a block and tackle had fallen on Toebeck in a ship's hold. He was knocked unconscious. The boat sailed with him still blacked out, and he came round only when they reached Auckland. He was placed in a maritime hospital; it was another month before he was able to get out of bed. Walking for the first time in the hospital grounds, Toebeck found himself repeatedly glancing up in expectation that something might fall on him. When at last he was discharged and shipped out to Sydney, he was cowering with fright whenever he was in open space. He passed a miserable voyage. The return was no better. After berthing at Manukau Harbour, he was reduced to sitting in a cabin below decks, staring out from his porthole at an area of stony beach beyond the wharf.
From the safety of the cabin, Toebeck's eye was caught by something struggling in the shallows. It was a shark, unable to get out to sea. No sooner had he registered this than Toebeck saw two young men on shore dashing into the surf. They tore up pieces of driftwood from the seabed and tried beating the shark on its nose. One of the men started to jam a stick into its snapping jaws. The shark twisted and thrashed, but the other man had it by the tail and was dragging it up onto the beach. Watching these local people being so naively brave, Toebeck began to feel better. He felt more confident. He left the ship, and found he'd ceased to feel anxious. He stayed in New Zealand, gave up his job as a sailor, and eventually married a woman named Rua and set up house inland. Nowadays, whenever he visited Wellington, Toebeck still liked to go down to the docks and hang about; he'd joke that he was pretending to be on strike.
Rua was at the sink. She was a short, rawboned woman with her hair done up in pigtails. A pinafore was tied round her generous waist and she was doing the breakfast dishes. Gary nodded hullo. The kitchen gave an appearance of ruthless tidiness. Framed, embroidered homilies hung on the walls.
'I thought the boy scouts was next week,' Toebeck said over his shoulder.
'No, no, this week.'
The old man opened the fridge door. He took out a brown bottle and picked up two dripping cups from the dish-rack. Rua stopped him with a look.
'Only have a drink,' Toebeck murmured.
Rua shot a fierce glance at Gary, seized the bottle from Toebeck and tore the cap off with a cast-iron opener fixed to the wall. She thrust the bottle back into Toebeck's hand. Then she marched out of the kitchen with her head up. When the door slammed, the cap was still rolling about on the lino. Toebeck began to pour the beer. Quietly he asked, 'You looking forward to Christmas?'
'Oh yeah. Nice to get a break.'
'Good telly at Christmas.' Toebeck began to drink from his cup and gave the other to Gary. His hand trembled. He ignored it and said, 'I'm saving up for the Queen's visit.'
'Yeah?' Gary raised his cup slightly to indicate thanks and started in on his beer. Then he asked, 'What's she coming for?'
'You know...to wind up the Games.'
'Yeah, when she comes to Palmy, Rua and I'll go see her.' Toebeck smiled. He glanced in the direction of the door through which Rua had left. 'I'll need a new shirt. You never know. We might get our photo in the papers.'
Gary drained his cup. He held it out to be refilled and asked, 'How long you been married?'
'About, oh, thirty years,' Toebeck said. 'And you know what?' He glanced towards the door again as he poured. 'She's starting to get on my nerves.'
Visitors driving through Tilbury Avenue on Saturday morning would have been struck by the shabbiness of the street, by a sense that the street had just been settled and there'd been no time, at least not as yet, to clean up. They would also have noticed a Post Office van in front of Eru Saul's house, and a tubby, heavy-breathing man in striped tracksuit bottoms and white gumboots clambering out. They would have seen the twelve-point head wired to the top of Saul's letterbox and the hardboard in some of his windows. The grass and weeds across the property were unchecked. Saul refused to mow his berm because it belonged to the City Corporation, and as the grass grew there seemed no point in taking care of his section. He lived in a crumbling, unpainted, fibrolite-walled state house, and his car--it was an ex-warrant Cortina with a concrete block for a front seat--stood in the drive facing the road.
Gary found Saul crouched on the front steps, drinking beer from a can detached from a half-dozen. He was wiping oil into the mechanism of a .303 Lee Enfield rifle. Saul was a wiry, middle-aged man, wrinkled and weathered first by exposure to the elements and now gradually by time. He almost always wore the same shirt and jersey, discoloured corduroy trousers, and a pair of scuffed tramping boots. He'd been a bushman nearly all his life, working as a deer culler. It was a restless, lonely way to live, his main contact mostly with the animals he killed. Saul's sullen face, pitted with stubble, hair awry, suggested to Gary--wrongly--that the man had just risen from a rough night's sleep.
Gary squatted down on one of the lower steps.
'Hot day,' he said.
At the back of the section a pig-dog rattled its chain and began to give tongue. Saul yelled at it to sit down. With one hand he pulled a beer can from the plastic tab and thrust it in Gary's direction. Gary popped the top and took a swig. It didn't seem necessary to say anything. But with the beer shared out, Saul appeared in the mood to talk.
'She's going to be a hot summer,' he growled. He gestured to a small pohutukawa on the boundary, where its spindly branches invaded his neighbour's property. 'Looks set to bloom late.'
Gary nodded his head. He asked, 'Been doing much hunting?'
'Oh, not until now. I usually give the winters a bit of a miss these days, eh. I'm only hunting for tucker.'
'I reckon you'd know all the best spots.'
'Oh well, we cut tracks all over the show in my time. And at the end of the day a fellow just puts up camp wherever he's sitting. Like the old saying.'
Gary looked blank.
Saul chuckled. He said, 'A kiwi's home is his arsehole.'
Saul's worst experience had come long ago, in only his second year of hunting, out on a block in the Urewera country. In the evening he'd gone down into a valley, pitched his fly up on a bank from a small stream and slept deeply to the sound of gentle rain. Next morning he awoke to find his feet wet--the stream had risen two metres during the night, and the now swollen river reached up into his sleeping bag. His provisions and rifle were gone. He was cut off. Saul had to move quickly just to get above the water line. When at last the rain stopped, he was able to get a fire started with some dried-out matches and fern, but he was still pitifully hungry. Luckily, he'd shot a hind not far off the previous evening. He managed to retrace his steps, skin the carcass with a pocket knife and bring some meat back to the fire.
He had food, heat and shelter. It was what happened next that was bizarre.
Saul put some of the steaks on a makeshift spit and hung the remainder in a tree. Usually he was well stocked with tins of bully beef, bags of rice and onions, or fresh pork: he'd never eaten venison in his life. The smell of the meat lifted from the fire, a little ripe, then steadily more rancid. When it was done, Saul could barely bring himself to place some into his mouth, but this was no time to get particular. The meat was tough and gamy. He chewed; the reek came up. He tried to swallow quickly but retched, spitting the precious food all over the scrub. Several more times he tried. The meat would not stay down.
Over the next four days Saul lay under his fly, consuming nothing but river water. He thought of dying, but he was tough and toughness was his only way of dealing with the world. The shame of his starved corpse being found beside a tree whose branches were laden with steak kept him alive. By the time the stream had lowered enough to cross, he was suffering fainting fits. He made the last part of the trek back to base camp on hands and knees.
Saul put down his rifle. Gary admired it: his only experience of such things came from movies.
'You clean that a lot?' Gary asked.
'Oh yeah. Quite a bit.' Saul shifted a little back against the step. 'I'll tell you what, I had a mate, eh. Young fellow, never looked after his gear properly. One day he got his finger jammed in the extractor of his gun. So what he done was, he went charging into a police station down Opiki way, waving this thing around and yelling his head off. Everybody ducked. Real hard case.'
Gary laughed. He'd finished his can and Saul gave him another. After a moment he asked, 'What happened to this guy?'
'Oh, not too much.'
'No, go on. What happened?'
Saul looked reluctant to say anything. But then he mumbled, 'Well, the local cop, he took off out back. Then he just come through with his own rifle and blew the poor bastard away.' Saul stared out into the driveway at his dilapidated car. 'They had an inquiry and that, but...nobody even remembers him now. I forget his name.'
Gary thought of his promise about the bottle-drive. He wanted to explain why he'd come. He swallowed another mouthful of beer before beginning to speak.
Years of heavy drinking had stretched Gary's bladder; the beer he'd consumed moved through his warm and comfortable system like an old friend. The empty bottles he'd collected rattled and rang on the floor of the van as he turned the corner left into Waterloo Crescent. The change to middle-class suburb was abrupt. The lawns looked greener. Camellias were planted in the berms. The sections had gardens, the houses had more rooms. The inner streets of Palmerston North are laid out in checkerboard, but the outer roads are in the graceful and imaginative curves of loop and link. Here, the paved footpaths were unblemished. The letterboxes at the gates were galvanised-iron with peaked roofs, and a view, the Aokautere Hills, appeared on the placid horizon. Gary slowed the van past Waterloo Park and drew to a halt at Vern Bramwell's place.
Bramwell was a crusty, early middle-aged type who occasionally annoyed his neighbours by running his lawnmower at six o'clock in the morning. He was an Aucklander who'd come down with his family in the mid-seventies to be union representative at the Longburn Freezing Works. But at the same time he had become fascinated by gold prospecting. Bramwell saw it as easy money. He'd vanish to Coromandel for weeks in his old stationwagon and return with the back weighed down by rocks. Then he sat up all night in his garage, breaking open samples with a hammer and testing for pyrites. What had started as an eccentricity gradually became the obsession of a crank. His wife and children left him, and Bramwell threw himself deeper into prospecting. But the big find, a nugget the size of his thumb, never materialised. He blamed the Maoris. He was convinced that they were somehow shifting the gold off onto their own land at night and burying it in secret. He even wrote a letter to the Evening Standard demanding the confiscation of Maori lands. It was printed between pieces on Communism and religious apocalypse.
Bramwell lived on a small section, in a neat wooden house ringed with beds of carefully loved begonias. Gary was already out of the van when he noticed a real-estate agent's sign was propped up against Bramwell's low concrete fence. He paused. He wondered how he'd not seen the sign earlier, when he was delivering parcels. He looked about. The letterbox was crammed with circulars. The grass was uncut and sprinkled with daisies, the begonias were in poor shape, and Gary could see spiders' webs under the eaves of the house. He walked across the lawn and up to the front windows. The curtains were gone and there was only bare wallpaper visible inside.
Gary's disappointment verged on unease. His thoughts strayed to disaster--no matter how much he tried to think of alternatives--and he imagined a man, a gold-obsessed, Hori-hating, early-morning-lawn-mowing man, lying forgotten somewhere on a hospital bed, bald, dying of cancer. He got back into the van and shuddered. Gary calculated whether this meant the breaking of his vow. He started the engine and pulled away again, deciding that as a visit it still counted.
When Gary had met Wendy, he began to control his drinking for the first time in his life. That was when he was twenty-one years old. It was a Friday night in the Sports Bar of the Willowpark Tavern, a booze-barn near the new railway line. Usually Gary stuck by his mates around a table with some jugs--the pub band played so loud that talk was impossible anyway--but that evening they'd teamed up with a group of typists from a local insurance company. Gary found himself paired with a small, heavily-built strawberry blonde, a no-nonsense young thing with brisk blue eyes and a clipped New South Wales accent. He asked her to dance. As she walked before him onto the dance-floor, she kicked off her shoes in the aisle between the tables. Gary was captivated. They danced, a little shyly at first, but they relaxed each other with surreptitious smiles. They seemed to recognise in one another the same mixture of exhilaration and anxiety. By the slow dance, their friends were beginning to gossip.
Later, at a party in Tremaine Avenue, they sat on a couch and talked. Gary had himself a beer from a crate, which soon ran empty, but Wendy would drink nothing. He risked leaving her alone for a brief period, saying that he was going off to the toilet, and headed into the kitchen to take gulps from a bottle of bourbon. In the kitchen, his mates egged him on. Gary felt a strange relief by the time he got away from them and returned to the living room. Past midnight, he took Wendy by the hand and they went upstairs to find a bedroom. With the door shut behind them, they started kissing eagerly in the dark, and Wendy let him put his hand up under her dress. She seemed very passionate. But as he tried to remove her clothes, she pushed him away.
'Not like this,' she said.
They were both flushed and perspiring. Gary mastered his frustration and asked, 'Well why not? What's the matter?'
'I don't know.' Wendy shifted round. He could see her profile in silhouette. She said, 'I just don't like doing it pissed.'
'But--.' Gary felt a sudden drowsiness come over him as he understood what she meant. He had to struggle to focus, to keep his speech from slurring. He said, 'I...really like you.' Then he added, 'Would it make a difference if I hadn't been drinking?'
He thought he saw her eyes glow in the dim light.
'Yes please,' she said.
Gary stayed more or less sober for several years, during which time his sexual life was entirely satisfactory. He and Wendy got married. But sometime after their marriage, he began to stop off for a few drinks after work, and took longer and longer to get home. Then one Friday, he picked up two hitchhikers on his way out to the Massey Post Office and kept on going with them all the way to Wellington for a weekend binge in the pubs and clubs. Three days later, his money evaporated into an abysmal hangover, he drove northwards. He was filled with remorse. The radio was on, a talkback programme in which a woman psychologist tried to answer people's problems. As he passed through Shannon, Gary pulled up beside the pitted granite war memorial and trudged down the street to a public phone. He felt his head aching while he found the number for the station in the book, dialled, pushed button A and asked to be put on the air.
At last a female voice said, 'Go ahead please.'
'Yes, go ahead please.'
'Yeah,' Gary mumbled. He felt suddenly shy. 'Sorry to take up your time like this.'
'It's all right. That's what we're here for.'
'Well,' Gary rasped. His mouth was dry. 'I'm sort of a local person. My father, he was a worker in the Post Office--that's how I got my job, really--but he died when I was quite young. He was a heavy drinker and it stuffed his liver, you know, and now I'm kind of wondering whether maybe I'm going the same way.' Gary paused and leaned over the top of the phone. The woman started to say something but he realised that, more than anything, he wanted to keep on talking. 'I mean, I've lived here all my life and I know everybody,' he said quickly over the top of her voice, 'but it's sometimes...I don't know...I feel so down that I almost feel like killing someone, and then I just want to get away. I mean, I love this place. I just wonder, what do you think, is there something wrong with me?'
'I'm sorry.' The woman's voice came down the telephone line at last. It sounded drenched with embarrassment. She said, 'This is a gardening programme.'
Gary was speechless. The woman added, 'We give garden hints. Potting mixes, types of sprays.'
'I thought you were a psychologist.'
'I believe there is a psychologist, yes,' the woman said, trying to stay calm. 'On the other station about now. I can, er, give you--.'
Gary hung up. He staggered back to the car. It was 32 kilometres to Palmerston North. He came home swearing never to drink again, but he couldn't keep his promise.
The town was born in a clearing whose name was ignored. It was christened after a British statesman who never knew of it. It grew up distinguished from some place southwest of Oamaru only by the fussy cognomen 'North'. Its settlers were the adventurous poor--they'd been given a chance to escape the industrial slums of Britain. Picture their disappointment at arrival, faced with the crushing grimness of a merely primeval land. But they fought, bravely, against the impulse to surrender. They set out to survey and reduce the bush. They allotted farms. They put up buildings. They educated their children. They wrote letters home. Pioneering photographs show people who are ceaselessly active, caught for a brief moment between chores of work and play: beside a bullock team, with jackets off and sleeves rolled up to save the cuffs; behind picnic hampers, in starched white dresses and hobnail boots. They constructed breakwaters. They elected officials. They engendered in themselves a loneliness passed down in secret generation upon generation.
'Let he who has won the palm wear it.' Who would want to be a pioneer? Picture their disappointment. They laid out cemeteries. They buried their dead.
The padre, Captain Cedric Williamson, lived in one of the last houses in Waterloo Crescent--until the road had been extended in recent times. It was a simple, much-cared-for bungalow with yellow stuccoed walls. A glassed-in sunroom had been added over the porch, and a small round lily-pond in the front lawn had a concrete seal at the centre, balancing a ball on its nose. Gary walked to the back of the house and found Williamson setting fire to some hedge clippings in an oil drum by the fence. Williamson was a large, hearty man of almost forty. He was wearing gardening gloves but he was also dressed in his clerical collar, and he held a bottle of kerosene in one hand with dangerous nonchalance.
Williamson was a curiously self-created man. He wore the collar at mid-morning in his own back yard because, long before he became army chaplain at Linton Camp, he had learned the importance of symbols. He'd grown up in the town of Manakau, in an era when New Zealand was a network of prosperous hamlets surrounded by farmland--in the way that islands are surrounded by oceans. When Williamson was seven he had gathered with the other children of the town for the visit from Wellington of the Governor General; it was to mark the half-centenary of the school. But during the night strong winds had blown away the 'Welcome to Manakau' sign set up on the highway in front of the town. Both the Governor General and his driver were English. They were strangers to the area, and that morning they drove on through to Ohau without realising their mistake. When Williamson left his home town at last for theological college, he took with him a hard-won, resilient personality, but along with this came the residua of a rural boyhood: an obsession with ball games, a revelling in social awkwardness and an instant appreciation of who was, and wasn't, big enough to beat him up.
Seeing Gary, the padre approached across the yard. He juggled the kerosene bottle from hand to hand as he pulled off his gloves.
'What can I do for you, Gus?' he asked in a jocular tone.
Gary told him about the bottle-drive.
'That isn't till next Saturday,' Williamson said. 'I was going to help with the collection.' He broke into polite laughter, but seeing Gary's confusion he added, 'She's right. You're just starting early.'
He turned to the garage.
'Look,' he said, 'there's some wine bottles in here you can have.'
Williamson pulled opened a side door. He leaned in and grunted as he dragged out a cardboard box crammed with assorted empties. Two full bottles of beer were lying on top.
'What do you say we open these?' Williamson said, and winked. 'I'm afraid they're a bit warm. Okay by you?'
'Well.' Gary always felt a little too intimidated by the padre to consider spending time with him. But he mumbled, 'I wouldn't say no.'
They sat on some folding chairs near the back steps. The padre's large, round head showed his balding patch as he bent forward to prise the tops off the bottles. The beer foamed when it was poured. Williamson lounged with his legs stretched out and raised his glass.
'Well, Merry Christmas,' he said.
Gary drank. He felt the padre watching and trying to guess his thoughts. It was something Wendy did, and it annoyed him. At last he said, 'The Queen's visiting.'
'Yes. All that bickering, brouhaha, the trivia in the media. I don't know--it's not Her Majesty's fault, God bless her, but she really does bring out the worst in us.'
Gary sat silent at all this. A fly buzzed round his ear. He brushed it off.
The padre spoke again, rather obviously making an effort. He knew when he was making people uncomfortable. He knew that he'd captured the young man's attention with the offer of a beer. He asked, 'Your boys play football?'
'A bit, yeah.'
'I don't know. First five...flanker.'
'I'll bet they're good kids,' Williamson said. 'Just don't let them play league, that's all.' He grinned. 'You know why league players don't like rugby?'
'Because it's too intellectual.' Williamson laughed, aware that he was the only one laughing. He shifted in his chair, finding a new position for his legs. He asked, 'Who looks after you, Gus?'
'I don't know. Wendy, I reckon. Why?'
'Well, I was very sorry to hear about you moving and that. Let me know if there's anything I can do.'
Gary put his glass down on the knobbly top of his knee. He wondered if Williamson had somehow mixed him up with Vern Bramwell. He opened his mouth to speak--then noticed his glass was empty and thought instead of asking for a refill. At that moment, he heard the padre intoning in a clear voice:
'love is a place
& through this place of
(with brightness of peace)
The smell of hops seemed to hang in the air. Gary asked, 'Is that in The Bible?'
'No, but if you'd like, you can always put an "Our Father" in front,' Williamson said.
'Thank you.' Gary stood up. 'I've got to go now.'
He headed quickly for the driveway, forgetting the box of bottles. The padre started to follow but Gary lumbered away from him. The drinks had made him feel heavy but he hurried anyway, as quickly as he could. By the time he reached the van, he realised that he was unsteady on his feet. He thought of reneging on the Wendy Line and then told himself that there were only two more visits to go.
He got the engine started. It was only a short haul to the next house--but it was the Stennings' place.
The extension to Waterloo Crescent had been developed during the late 1970s, and the wealthiest families in the city had moved in. The new part of the street was planted with golden elms. The sections had rockeries and the houses were built in shades of brick, close to each other, with high tanalised fences between. The Stennings lived in one of several low-maintenance units on the left-hand side of the street. Gary pulled the van up directly in front. Frank Stenning had inherited a Wairarapa sheep station and had seen the slump coming. He'd retired at thirty and moved into town, and most days he amused himself by doing handyman jobs around the property, with the result that nothing in his low-maintenance unit was ever quite repaired properly. Gary hoped he would be there, working as usual.
Stenning's wife, Liz, he knew, loved reading. At school she'd once been given the part of Hamlet because she was the quickest in class to recite, and the teacher wanted the job over fast. Liz was small and blonde, and with the kind of jutting chest men liked to contemplate. She had large blue eyes. One day she had opened her door in the middle of the afternoon to the knock of a short, unprepossessing man from the Post Office, a man with soft, bashful eyes and an endearing smile. Frank was away for the day at Manfeild. The P.O. fellow handed her a parcel. As he turned to go, he supposed Liz must have felt lonely--or perhaps his own feelings were easy to divine--because she opened the door wider and asked, 'Would you like to come inside?'
The affair lasted only a fortnight. Their couplings were furtive, scratchy encounters in which each strove for self-gratification. For Gary, it was mostly an opportunity to brag later to the others at work. He'd escaped into the pornographically stimulated fantasies of his adolescence. Liz, on the other hand, wanted to talk. She'd held onto him afterwards and told him about her wedding, and about how only ten people were invited so that they'd agreed to do away with bridal clothes and fancy food. But Liz's aunt, Aunty May that was, had decided at the last moment to bake a cake, and she posted it from Gisborne in a large box. To keep the cake safe through the journey she'd driven eight 10-centimetre nails through a board and stuck the cake onto it. It arrived with not a single silver jellybean out of place, and was prised off and served to the guests with the aid of a screwdriver.
Liz seemed unable to stop talking. When Gary began to show a certain indifference, she held him tighter, her eyes misting over.
'We honeymooned in Wellington,' she said. 'We drove down along the coast road and it was a calm, warm evening, as I remember, with the sun setting on the water beside Kapiti, and it was all scarlet and gold. I remember, because I said, "Isn't this lovely? You know, I could get quite romantic about this." And you know what he said, my brand-new husband? He said, "You can get the same thing with a torch in the bath." Really, he did. We stayed at the Saint George--it wasn't that fashionable even back then. The corridors were musty. I remember walking around them feeling bored. And one day, at the end of a corridor, I saw these tiny words written on the wallpaper, all in biro, and I bent down and read them. I can still remember what they said.' Liz began to recite:
'"A dirty magazine beneath the bough,
A picnic lunch, a lot of wine--and you
Between me and a very tuneful mattress--
Remove that dress, I think this place will do."
'Who'd write something like that?' she said bitterly to Gary. 'Who would write some filthy thing like that on the wall during our honeymoon?'
He looked down at her in his arms, on this unfamiliar bed in her unfamiliar room, and saw that her eyes were now wet with tears.
By the third time, Gary began to notice a discolouration in the tissue along her hips, and how Liz's breasts sagged away from each other. There was a collection of moles near her navel. Also, he saw her eyeing the hair which grew more freely on his back and shoulders than on his chest. She seemed to be thinking, he thought, that his bottom was so big it started somewhere at the rear of his knees. On the fourth occasion he hadn't stayed for long. She didn't accompany him to the hallway. He never bothered to return.
This morning, Gary knocked several times and then walked to the back of the house, where he found Liz Stenning reclining in a patio deckchair. She was wrapped in a large pink bathrobe. A wet, fluffy towel was around her hair and a Ngaio Marsh paperback was propped up on her lap. Unfortunately, there was no sign of Frank anywhere.
Liz looked up as Gary grew near.
'Hullo Gus,' she said, with no trace of hesitation he could catch.
'Don't call me that,' Gary said.
In answer she merely pointed to the wooden table beside her. On it stood a wine bottle, next to an opened packet of polystyrene cups. Gary accepted a drink without a word. He leaned up against one of the ranchslider doors: there was nowhere to sit.
'What brings you here?' Liz was asking.
When he told her, she did seem to relax a little. Although, Gary thought, she must have known that he'd already knocked and had no response, she said, 'My boy Philip's back from Collegiate. He's in the house.' She nodded past Gary at the ranchsliders. 'He's just done his third-form year and wants to get into forestry.'
'He's going to be a tree?'
Gary was pleased at his own witticism; he saw Liz smile in spite of herself. But all she said in reply was, 'Your kids looking forward to Christmas?'
'Yeah. No worries.'
Liz stretched a little in her deckchair. She put a hand up to steady the towel on her head.
'When I was a little girl,' she said, 'my dad was the RSA Father Christmas. Remember them?'
'No, my old man was too young to be in the war.'
'My dad used to go round all the families of the returned servicemen in the morning and let the kids sit on his lap. We were always at the end in the queue, because he had to do home last. By then he used to be stinking of whisky.'
Gary poured himself another cup. He stared down into it.
Liz said, 'Do you miss your father?'
He was surprised at the question. How did she know his father was dead? Gary leaned on the table toward her but the table's edge was not where he expected. He floundered, hovered in space for a moment and then fell onto the paving near Liz's feet. The paperback slipped from her lap down in front of his face. He read, 'Huia's voice was as deep and cool as her native forests,' and felt strangely repelled by it as he groped to gather up the book. The cup was gone; there was only some spilled stuff. Gary struggled to his feet. He was trying to think of the thing the padre had told him, but it was gone too. He held out the book.
Liz took it and said, 'Go home, Gus.'
'All right. Yeah.' He was swaying about. The wine, he supposed. He'd overdone things.
'Gus, go home.'
Gary turned. Without a further word he managed to stagger off. When he reached the road, his head was swimming. He stood in the street and tried to picture Wendy and the kids, how wonderfully happy he was going to be to see them--maybe the kids would be running about playing cricket, and he'd get a cup of tea and a smile from Wendy, and she'd show her surprise as he told her about the visits--and he was suddenly panic-stricken at the thought of not seeing home again. Opening the cab door, he climbed in, sat still, and waited for the windscreen to stop moving.
As he pulled away from the curb, everything around him had a slowness that he couldn't quite master. The gear lever playfully avoided his hand. He was distracted by the loose bottles rolling around in the back. The road before him curved awkwardly.
There was great excitement. The tramway was finished and anyone could use it. Mr Snelson, Mr Linton and Mr Coles, their venerable beards trimmed, their massive frames in massive suits, boarded a carriage and rode through the quiet streets of the town all the way from Palmerston to Ngawhakarau. Descending the carriage briefly, they gazed at the unfordable river and, having nothing else to do, rode back from Ngawhakarau to Palmerston. There they descended briefly, admired the prim glory of the Square, and made the journey once more.
Everyone turned out for the great day: the river could at last be crossed on foot! The stout, timber bridge was complete. Although there was no approach built to the bridge yet on either side--it had been forgotten in the budget--someone had nailed some planks together up to the centre-span and the ladies walked across it in safety. Below, they saw the quick waters rippling from the wind along the river. On the far side the roadway stopped abruptly at impenetrable bush.
It was summer. It was autumn. The surrounding trees roared and rang with the burn-offs. Patches of dry leaves exploded. Charred trunks collapsed into each other. The soot palled the town. Ash stung the eyes, blackened the washing on the totara-slab fences and clogged the sky until the sun bled. The children stood, shading their eyes with their hands, and saw within it all a point of reference. They'd grown up with colonial qualities--they were strong and confused--because they believed that everywhere was always like this. It was the only way they could save themselves from the insanity of their parents.
The van sidled into the curb--it happened too slowly for any damage--and stalled. Gary bumped an arm into the steering wheel; the pain jarred him awake. He'd stopped on the last bend of Waterloo Crescent, near the turn-off to a no-exit street. He had no idea how he'd got there. Ahead of him, a number of cars were parked on both sides of the road.
The Claires' house was close by; they were having a barbecue party. The smell of burning grease and the swelling sounds of chatter drifted across the road. Gary sank backward in his seat, feeling dishevelled and numb. After a time he heard two men approach on the footpath near the van. They were speaking as they walked past.
'When I got home and opened the fridge, it was chocker, eh.'
'Yeah. On the top shelf there was fruit juices, on the middle shelf there was beers, and on the bottom there was miniatures.'
'You know, those little bottles like whisky and things. Gin, vodka--it was all there, eh.'
Gary clambered down from the van. His fingers fumbled with the handle to get the door closed.
Simon Claire's father had started an engineering company in the town thirty years ago and built up its stainless steel division to make Palmerston North the urinal capital of New Zealand. His son lived in a large, two-storey Spanish-style house: it had elaborately stuccoed walls, with a balcony all along the upper floor, and a dramatically arched roof. There were banks of six-light windows. Even the fence at the gate was plaster and stone and capped with half-round tiles.
Getting caught abseiling down the front of the DIC department store during his student days, with a paint tray and roller brush in his hands, had made Claire locally famous--he'd been putting the finishing touches to a large red K at the end of the shop's sign. His parents sent him to Europe for two years, and on his return he slipped easily into the board of directors of the family firm. In mid-1987 he was carried away by the dream of building a new plant in the South Island and to raise money he secretly sold his portion of the company shares. Three months later the share market crashed; the South Island project vanished. Claire bought back the shares for almost nothing, making a profit for himself, and everyone praised his ability to read the market. His credit was always good.
Gary made it all the way to the front porch before he was stopped. A large Polynesian youth in a white shirt, black bow tie and discoloured jeans stepped out from the open doorway. He said quietly, 'You invited, sir?'
'It's a Christmas party. You invited?'
Gary stared at the youth, who filled the doorway. He tried to explain why he'd come but could not manage coherence. He stepped forward and found a broad hand was immediately planted on his chest.
'No invitation--I'm sorry you can't go in there.'
'Only a drink.'
'Try the pub, brother.'
The youth, who was working as security, felt the palagi drooping onto his arm. It was such a pain having to be nice to these people. He pushed gently and the stupid palagi floated back, with his head up, saying, 'I...got kids.'
'Oh yeah? Go home or something. Okay?'
He watched the palagi trying to think: the effort seemed physical as much as mental. The fellow's eyes blinked in slow motion and he said clearly, 'Home.'
Then he reached out for the door.
Gary woke up slumped in the seat of the van.
The early midday sun was on his face through the windscreen. His head throbbed. There was a cut on his lip; he licked the dry scab. His left eye was puffy and the collar of his shirt was torn. He couldn't remember if he'd met Simon Claire or not.
The keys were in the ignition. Gary managed to start the engine, easing the Hi-ace out into the road in first gear. All he wanted now--the reason why was lost on him; he could only remember the importance of the impulse--was to get home. The van wobbled along near to the white centre-line. His gaze wouldn't focus. Gary reached the intersection and stalled the engine. He restarted it with a sense of desperation rising in his throat, and limped across into Manawatu Street.
He considered just getting out onto the footpath and legging it--but doubted he could walk that far.
The van passed the rows of antiseptically-spaced houses. Gary thought he saw Craig and Brent playing by a gate--but he'd gone too far to look back. It wasn't his driveway, so it couldn't be them. He drove by the mini-mart, the dairy, the hairdresser's and fish-and-chip shop. His own house was coming up. He pulled across the road up onto the curb and halted on the berm in front, honking the horn. He got out and shambled up the driveway; he noticed that the garage doors were open. Gary got to the house, the last stop on the Wendy Line, and stared through the gaping curtains into the empty living-room.
A jet airplane was rumbling through the sky overhead.
He shaded his eyes with his hand to look harder into the empty room. Nothing moved in the house, and he understood that from now on he would be alone.
Copyright Ian Richards, 2017
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