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(This is a revised version of the story which first appeared in Everyday Life in Paradise.)
Well, open your books--put your hands out in front of you, sit up straight, please, and listen.
We begin with a dawn that rose somewhere to the east of the Rimutakas, tinting the breeze-chopped waters of Port Nicholson with a bluish haze, then clawed up the Khandallah hills and began to shine on some of the best of the capital's real-estate. And on its way, take note, that light touched the first sky in the world; for, by snuggling up to the International Dateline, we New Zealanders can claim to be at the cutting edge of history. Yes, it was a draughty, late-spring Wellington morning, with some tentative warmth coming along. The sun moved slowly to heat cold corners of lawns and the wind to dry them. The residents of Rama Crescent, in those little portions of the earth's surface that were theirs to keep, still slumbered peacefully. They dreamed. And in the darkness of their collective unconscious lay the comfort and security of the entire British Empire (or at least the bits with really 'British'-coloured people) on which, thanks to that geographical fluke which you won't forget I just mentioned, the sun had once never set. Within them all, these New Zealand suburban residents, as they lay on their sides, their stomachs or backs, their heads cradled in Dunlopillows, persisted a sterling and English sense of rationality, fair play and propriety which--let the events that follow show you--was completely misplaced.
The largest portion of real-estate in Rama Crescent belonged to Wayne Holmes. His section was occupied by a rectangular, modern bungalow, and in its master-bedroom he now lay and snored. The house's walls were made of brick so expensive it was supposed to look burnt, and the roof was the best in Decramastic tiles. The rooms were filled with the latest pastel co-ordinations of furniture and fittings and stuff, and the living-room ranchsliders took full advantage of the house's position, resting along the top of a knoll. From behind those windows anyone who visited could sip rich-roasted coffee in the fine-bone china for visitors and look down the tree-lined streets of the neighbourhood to see everything. Everything! Mount Victoria, Miramar and the Eastbourne hills stretched out for admiration in lazy panorama: wrinkles of land rising up out of the sea. It was all about location. Wayne had bought the whole show a few years back; she was heavily mortgaged, but he was confident that property values were rising everywhere. And he knew. The city had come a long way from just forty years earlier, when a Japanese submarine surfaced in the harbour during the Pacific War and gazed speculatively at the grey-clad shores--and the invasion of this part of the Antipodes was called off.
Wayne Holmes was the wonder-child of a finance company that was taking over assets at a great rate: firms, buildings, property, parcels of shares, patents, bonds--each day was like a giant shopping-spree. And Wayne was so good at it that, come the end of the week, his picture (young, dark-haired, vigorous, the large face lightly lined by the stresses of his job) was due to appear on the cover of New Zealand Investor. He could have showed those Jap invaders a move or two. He continued to snore gently, producing unawares the perfect German uvular 'r' that had eluded him earlier through what he now knew--and he was able to tell New Zealand Investor at length--were three utterly wasted years at varsity. Location: not education. Wayne had a lifestyle that constantly seemed to attract the word 'nice'. He had a nice working world of restaurant meetings, hectic telephone calls, credit cards and trips to Sydney. His car was nice--the only thing he owned completely--a streamlined, hard-top, silver-grey Mercedes sports with the latest nice quadraphonic system and a bloody nice telephone. He had a nice wife, Renee, sleeping beside him, and a nice ten-month-old daughter, Brenda, in her crib in the next room. Things were so good he felt as if God Himself could not dent the niceness of his existence. For this paradigm-shifter into success, this sound sleeper, this nouveau epicurean, convinced of his entitlement to, his fitness for, his establishment on the pig's back, what could possibly go wrong?
Just after sunrise, when the dawn was still shut out by the curtains, and the alarm clocks lay primed and waiting in the quiet, the whole street was pulled awake by the jarring shudder of a Kango-hammer and the screams of power tools.
Brenda was crying. Half-conscious of this and nothing else, Renee tore off the bedclothes and went out to her with motherly endurance. Wayne sat up, suddenly cold. He got out of bed and staggered to the bedroom windows. He lifted back the curtain. Through the gaps in a row of young, speckled silver-birches in his way--if only he could wake up with the living-room's view in the morning--he could make out the corner of the Butters' house, across the fence. The noise seemed to be coming from somewhere beyond that. The racket shook in the air. Wayne stood for a moment, dazed and angry, then pulled on his dressing gown. He set out to discover what was going on.
Further down Rama Crescent towards the harbour, a small shopping-centre stretched along one side of the street, consisting of a butcher's, a hairdresser's, a shop that was always changing hands but currently sold wine and, at the far end, a disused dairy. The dairy was a large building that extended a long way back from the road. It seemed covered in grime. Dust had collected on its windows and spiders spun webs in its eaves. A broad veranda along the front had half-collapsed and provided shelter for dogs on rainy days. Flaking, faded poster-paint on the walls still advertised defunct ice-cream companies, the Sunday papers and now-unfashionable types of bread. Wayne had never known the dairy to be anything but empty, an eyesore, a mere remnant of a network that once fattened the entire nation.
Under the safest side of the veranda Bill Maxwell was standing with a circular-saw in his big hands, cleaning up the ends of a pile of planks across two sawhorses. Goggles masked him against the spray of wood chips. And inside the open doorway, Stan Maxwell was arching his short, broad back and drilling with a Kango-hammer into part of the concrete floor. Carpenter's tools swung from both men's battered aprons with a look of professional authority. The Maxwell brothers were not about to be put off, not by nothing or nobody. They had a contract to complete, and a hard night with a few beers and a pocket calculator had shown them that the only way to make the thing pay was to work from dawn till dusk. They hadn't even bothered with their usual argument over who would go get something for smoko--they were far too busy to waste time with a row.
On the street, Wayne saw that everybody he knew from the neighbourhood was in attendance. Already they were formed up on the footpath in a neat line: Lawrence Bigger, Peter Butters, Pauline Mason (whose husband had left her for one of his university students), Sally Naylor, Jim and Fiona Ryan (who after thirty years of marriage looked so much alike they might have been brother and sister), 'Digger' Simpson, Joe Ting (whose family ran all the inner-city photographic stores) and Harry Watson. At the head of the line old Lawrence Bigger, in his pyjamas, was shouting above the din about socialism. He was leaning with both hands on an old-fashioned cane, his large stomach clearly sagging into his flannel pyjama-top, though he thrust his head forward pugnaciously and his jaw out, working himself up into his harangue. A black beret was clamped down on his sticky, dissolving grey hair, and thick, horn-rimmed glasses protruded from his chapped and wrinkled face, magnifying watery eyes. He was not a pretty sight. Oratory was his hobby--it was just like the old, dear days, when he'd tried to convince the unions at his own company to go on strike.
'It's a judgement!' Lawrence Bigger screeched at the Maxwell brothers. 'That's what it is! On yous two. I'm telling you. Yous two parasites. The bosses' fine lackeys! What are you trying to do? Eh? You think you can get ahead and make a living, robbing from the sleep of honest people? You're all just exploiting each other and not facing up to the question! Someone's got to spread out the whole picture for yous, you're like slaves to the system, your basic class-struggle. Because nothing good can possibly come of this, I'm telling you. It's all dialectical materialism, you mark that word! Yous blokes are like the two trampers in that old joke. You know, the ones who were going along in the bush. Yeah. They saw this wild pig charging at them down the track. Yes, a pig! Like a judgement! Yous two think I don't know what I'm talking about? I've seen it all before. So then one of them tramper fellows whips a pair of running shoes out of his pack, he slips off his boots and he puts them on.' Bigger caught his breath with some unlovely noises, and continued. 'Just like in that old joke. The other tramper says, "Hey, what are you doing? Eh? 'Cos you'll never manage to outrun a wild pig." And the first bloke, he says, "No, but as long as I stay ahead of you, I'll be all right!"'
Lawrence Bigger laughed bitterly and his hands trembled over the cane. He had become a devout socialist during the Great Depression, the one after the First World War. There could be no lasting peace, he felt, until the state had complete control over all means of production. He spoke in 1935 for the Labour Party and marched for the watersiders in 1951, but in between he had come up with an idea that improved the machinery for casting concrete blocks. It was a simple enough notion, though revolutionary of its kind. For a time Bigger used it to try and run his own business, but he was unsuccessful--and he was disappointed when his staff were much too easy about treating him like one of their oppressors. At last, selling the patent to a developer overseas made him suddenly rich beyond his most secret dreams. Before then, he'd been reduced to coaching his union reps. in the words to the Internationale. But after the business was closed, with golden handshakes all round, Bigger did not abandon the cause. A picture of benign, mournful Mickey Savage still hung above the mantelpiece in his living-room. He continued to vote leftwards: Labour when National was in power, and one of the better communist parties when Labour got in. Bigger could remember Savage's funeral procession stretching down Lambton Quay towards the railway station. Now, that was a do. Six lorries draped with floral wreathes, bands playing slow, solemn music and--oh, everywhere--the blinds drawn. During the Depression 80,000 people were officially out of work in a country of one and a half million. The government kept the figure artificially low by refusing to allow Maoris to register.
As he stood on the footpath, Wayne felt the rough concrete prickling at his cold bare feet. His gaze rested on Pauline Mason's head well above everyone else's in the line, her hair in messy curlers. Their eyes met, and a simple glance was enough to sympathise with what Mr Mason had suffered. Pauline Mason was a big, muscle-bound woman, all bum and bust--and even so her blocky shape had been carefully hidden before she'd come out of her house, by a dress pulled over what looked the most conservative of nighties. There'd been no sexy photos taken of her at high school sitting in a hockey skirt, Wayne imagined, no dark back-row moments at the flicks. And he was right in this, as about so much else. In fact, no show-it-all fashion had ever focused on a part of the body that Pauline Mason might comfortably display--she felt there was always too much of her on display already. With one twitch of her large neck and head, she now directed Wayne's attention to a shiny hardboard sign, tacked up behind Bill Maxwell's shoulder: 'This building to be converted to Kowhai Vale Funeral Home. Refer F. Koy, 694-553.'
Wayne stared at the sign, with all that it meant for his own property's value, in something like disbelief. Perhaps because he'd woken up so precipitously--he felt his head was beginning to spin. Nearby, Lawrence Bigger was still shouting, pushing himself towards some kind of ideological peak.
'You mark my word! Yous jokers are floating down capitalism's river of blood. One day, come the revolution, jokers like you will be begging for mercy!'
Wayne stepped forward along the line of people and hissed, 'Settle down. Shut up, you silly old bugger!'
Bigger stopped in mid-sentence. He'd not been expecting such hostility from his comrades. Everything stopped: even the Maxwell brothers seemed to pause--before continuing their work. Bigger's face flushed scarlet.
'No one cares what you think, eh,' Wayne finished up lamely. He turned away again and tried to watch the building-contractors, regretting that he was unable to interfere.
But Wayne's outburst spurred Pauline Mason into action. She marched back to her house across the street, muttering the telephone number from the hardboard sign under her breath. She lived in a pleasant brick and stucco-covered dwelling, and each time she looked at it while shoving open the rusty hinges of the front gate, she remembered that it was all paid for by her ex-husband's university research. He held the chair in philosophy and was a well-known linguist. If the sound of rain was pitter-patter, he once reasoned, and the sound of children's feet was also pitter-patter, then what was the sound of rain on children's feet? The ensuing publications had built up his academic career so successfully that he was able to sleep with his students.
Pauline Mason's two boys, both gangly and in their early teens and incredibly lucky to be so slim, were up and they wanted to go outside. Pauline Mason stalled them with a glance. She pulled open the drapes in the living-room and picked up the phone. Her fingers trembled with anger as she dialled.
'Mr Koy, yes?' Pauline Mason said, as soon as her call was answered. 'Listen, I live in Rama Crescent and what I want to know is, are you setting up a funeral parlour in our street?'
'Excuse me?' Mr Koy's voice sounded thin and soft, with an Asian accent. 'What you say?'
'There's two prize nongs banging away, turning our old dairy into a funeral parlour!' Pauline Mason shouted. She pushed open a window and for a moment held the receiver out in the direction of the noise. 'Hear that?' she shouted into the phone. 'Is that your doing? You hear that?'
'Yes. Sorry, I think they started already.'
'Now look!' Pauline Mason squeezed the receiver against her cheek: the phone appeared strangely delicate in her bulky grip. A curler was beginning to work its way loose and swung down across her expansive forehead. 'My kids aren't growing up practically next door to a whole stack of corpses. I'll get the City Council onto you. This is a residential area.'
Then she heard Mr Koy sigh--she heard the sound commonly made by someone being patient. It was someone dealing with the unimportant, the ignorant, the disagreeable. Her husband used to sigh like that, the bastard.
'Don't get upset, lady. In a residential area the city bylaw only prevent industrial development, you see? The funeral home come under the category of essential service, so if the dimensions are in accordance with--'
'What do you mean "essential"? Eh? That's a new one on me.'
But Pauline Mason could already hear her voice losing its edge. Underneath her bluster she had a decent side, a maternal side. For the past ten years she'd brought up her sons by herself and given them a home. She'd held onto her sanity amid the loneliness of a scandal-loving world. You couldn't count it against her that this had cost her what little she'd possessed in looks. How often had out-sized outward appearances shaped the life of this much-provoked, hard-working colossa, while reduced circumstances left this abandoned vestal, this responsible, heavy-weight solo-matriarch, punching below her weight?
'Why our neck of the woods?' she pleaded. 'Mr Koy, it's just not on. Why...? Are you there?'
But the telephone had been hung up at his end. Defeated, Pauline Mason felt a sudden passion for food that was so overwhelming it seemed akin to sexual lust. For years she'd inflicted unsuccessful diets upon herself with the masochistic fervour of a medieval flagellant. Nothing worked; it didn't get any worse than this. Her boys sat on the sofa watching her. They didn't know what was going on, but they felt their mother's exasperation like wild creatures scenting blood. They were ready to pepper her with awkward questions.
Outside, the noise of hammering and sawing had ceased--and was replaced with the slow wail of an ambulance. It turned out that poor old Lawrence Bigger had collapsed.
Evil is random; its tart disregard for logic puts its origin beyond our ken. Seldom, however, has it acted as capriciously, as unaccountably, as in the case of Harry Watson.
Harry was a quiet, somewhat soft-faced man in his early thirties. He ran a tiny, one-person sports shop, the Surf, Hunt 'n Ski, in a downtown mall where he rented some space from a large corporation. The store attracted rugged, ambitious sportsmen, with whom he laughed and joked in the aggressive manner required for expressing bonhomie. But Harry was too small, too passive and, ultimately, too eager to please ever to be one of the boys, and they would instinctively keep him at a certain distance. They guessed--they were right--that Harry was an inherently gentle fellow. To hide this near-fatal business flaw, over time Harry had grown a large moustache and let his belly run to fat. The facial hair hardened his approachable gaze, and the blubber allowed him to go among his customers with the hefty movements of a good, tough bloke. It was helpful for sales. It also helped conceal Harry's physical and even mental clumsiness--he could never explain to himself quite why, how did it happen? that he'd ended up in the sporting-goods line. A mistake, one of many, and it niggled him. Secretly he hated exercise, though in fact his now manly beer-gut prevented him from taking any.
Harry Watson lived alone near the bottom of Rama Crescent in a state house. It was a small, box-like bungalow with a complete lack of large windows, so that its unbroken rows of weatherboards looked like stripes running along the outside walls. He had no close friends. Economically, he belonged to Johnsonville or the Hutt, but in New Zealand social outlines are sometimes blurred and demographic accidents do happen. Of course, many people deny the existence of these rules at all, for how could such things possibly matter? Surely it's more than enough to keep the house tidy, to do the job, to pay the bills, to marry off the children and take a Tiki Tour of Europe on retirement. So why pay attention to anything else? But then that couple in their cheap and sensible clothes, that no-nonsense, brittle-faced old pair we so often laugh at--they park the car in the garage to stop the neighbours seeing the crates they've brought home from the bottle-store, they actually pay their TV licence, they save their Christmas-wrapping for the grandchildren--they turn out to be us a bit further down the track, with our respectability frail, pretentious, but achieved and worth hanging onto. And by then we don't want to know about the deserving, hard-working poor any more than that crowd outside the dairy wanted to pay attention to Lawrence Bigger's over-blown oration. Harry Watson's presence in a suburb commemorating the heyday of the British Raj was a pattern-anomaly, just something in a country preyed on by self-ignorance, a country so young and rough that any record of its social history must be not diachronic but synchronic. Yes, our lesson today will concern babies, neighbourhoods, dangerous chemicals and the triumph of love over fear. Listen.
The day that the Maxwell brothers started remodelling the dairy was one of the two most decisive in Harry Watson's life. After being woken up early by the noise and excitement, he drove a little sleepily towards town at mid-morning, through the steep green gully along Churchill Drive and past the supermarket. There, near the supermarket's car park, he saw Renee Holmes as she carried little Brenda in her arms from the bus stop. Wayne must have gone to work already. Harry followed the winding road down through the university, over The Terrace, Ghuznee and Taranaki Streets, and towards the Basin Reserve. The Basin Reserve, incidentally, was first envisioned as an anchorage to be linked to Wellington's harbour by canal, but an earthquake in 1855 so raised the land that the scheme was forgotten. And after that, events just ran their course willy-nilly. Now the area is a cricket-ground that still seems to be under water much of the time. Harry skirted the hunched backs and shoulders of the sports-stands, passed the brick walls and iron gate of the Governor-General's residence and went weaving down the complicated lanes of Adelaide Road.
He was on his way to the hospital to receive the results of almost three months of interviews and tests.
Five years ago, Harry had become restless and bored with his life. It seemed to happen to him all of a sudden. Suddenly he grew desperate to do something different, something unusual, though nothing at all suitable appeared to turn up, no matter how hard he looked. Then the chance came--and you only got one life--to attend a sporting-goods conference in Tokyo, sponsored by a large Japanese firm. Harry stopped prevaricating and packed. There was something a little daring about going to Japan. It was the first time he had really gone overseas. True, he'd been to Sydney once--but he was very aware, getting off the plane into the bewilderment of Narita Airport, that in the Far East he was entering into another world entirely. A train took Harry downtown through an apparently endless urban landscape. Tokyo seemed an enormous city that had been compressed up tight against itself until all space was gone, then bedecked with strange signs. He stayed on the top floor of a new hotel that was somewhere unpronounceable. He had an L-shaped but well-designed room for which he seemed, nevertheless, several sizes too large. He'd never been tall at home, but the illuminated emergency-exit sign in the passage just outside his door hung so low that he had to bow his head to step under it.
Every day Harry was taken to the conference by a different guide, a young woman who always seemed completely like the guide who had escorted him the day before. At the close of each day's session, he joined tours through vast, bustling department-stores, then dined each evening on exotic foods while his hosts fussed about his chopsticks. It was all beautifully organised but somehow unconnected to him. On the narrow streets as he followed the people in their neat blue suits and sober dresses ahead of him, Harry tried to divine what they might all be up to, and at last, by really concentrating, he understood something: everyone was very obliging, but nobody made any sense. By the fourth morning Harry was so thoroughly disconcerted that he felt ill--he begged off the day's seminars and lay on his hotel bed in a dream-like state. Slowly he sank further into himself. The room was flooded with an intense loneliness; it seemed the bitter-sweet distillation of not just his own, but all humankind's, timeless misery. He felt the deep underpinnings of his consciousness were coming loose.
At that moment, for reasons of its own, the hotel decided to conduct a fire drill. Bells rang, sirens howled and hidden loudspeakers screamed incomprehensible instructions--the hotel staged everything exactly like a real disaster. On instinct, Harry leapt from the bed. He flung open the door to his room and ran into the corridor. The emergency-exit sign outside caught him three centimetres below the top of his head, severely cutting his brow and knocking him unconscious to the ground. Fire wardens checking that all was going according to schedule found him a short time later, bleeding and mumbling incoherently on the hotel carpet. He was making an utter mess of their otherwise perfectly-planned disorder. And it was from that point, from the time when he woke up in a hospital bed with his head bandaged and saw a round-faced, oriental woman in a nurse's white uniform smiling down at him--Harry thought he was gazing at an angel, at his saviour--that he knew what he really wanted most in the world was to be like her: to be a woman. How much could this asimple, reflective non-sportsman, travelling in athletic leisure and confusion, no longer satisfied with the constraints of gender, this de-inhibited, Nipponophobic schizothymic, to what extent could he attribute a major change in the course of his life to mere accident, an aberration of destiny?
Much time passed; this strange desire did not. After a few years Harry went nervously to consult a GP. He asked about a sex-change operation, and so he was referred, as anything requiring change is in New Zealand, to a bureaucracy. After some false starts in which office-people behind counters laughed at him, usually while they moved further back from the counter--in one case a man called some colleagues over to have a look--Harry was at last allowed to make a submission to the Department of Health. In it he pointed out that, like most New Zealanders, he had been perfectly happy with nature's choice of his sex; but now he was an oddity, a freak, and all he wished was to become normal again. Was this too much to ask from other normal people? Eventually, after a further year of struggle, he received a reply on an embossed letterhead that listed the Department's title in both English and Maori, saying that if an exception were made in his case, an exception would have to be made for everybody. He had a right of appeal, but nothing more.
As he read the letter at the mailbox, Harry gazed up the street into the distance and spied Renee Holmes on the footpath, holding Brenda. This was several months ago, and he was not aware of it then but the chance alignment of Holmes and Watson, here, on the far side of the world from Baker Street, had a gravity of its own.
There is always something bad-tempered and troubled about Adelaide Road. It lies in the persistent rumble, perhaps, from the broad lanes of heavy traffic, or in the shabby, cut-price shops that face each other across the street, displaying the unmistakable effects of economic depression. Perhaps it lies in the ugliness of the overhead trolley-bus cables that tessellate the sky. Certainly there is discomfort aplenty in the extra wind that sweeps down the road when it funnels the prevailing weather, which is most of the time. And all this can be read in the bored, unhappy faces of the people on the footpaths while they scuttle for somewhere else, as if reluctant to be there. But not Harry Watson: he was there by choice, nervous and excited. He'd appealed to the Department. He'd given blood and urine samples to an intern who visited his house in an official capacity, he'd even had some counselling. Now he parked and entered the old-fashioned front of the Wellington Hospital building.
As Harry walked along the cold and foreign-looking corridor to reception, a heartfelt, terrifying shriek pierced the ceiling from somewhere above.
'Don't worry about her,' a nurse who was passing said, gesturing upward. 'She's always like that.'
Harry was directed to a ward--and then another ward--and then an empty hospital room that, when he walked in, seemed not much larger than the corridor outside. The room had that antiseptic smell. It had been over-used and scrubbed clean too often, and he sat in one corner on a tilting wooden chair. Today would be his best and last chance. Harry was near the heart of the building, he knew it. Above him, the light was a low wattage and all around the tiled walls displayed faded posters warning against genital diseases. From beyond a small, high window he thought he could hear a bird's chatter, sadly distant. He played with some copies of the Listener and Post that had been stuffed into a wire magazine-rack. At last, two doctors and the young intern he'd been dealing with entered hastily. They all wore glasses and white coats, and they sat down at the far side of a long table, scraping their chairs with much abandon on the lino. They eyed Harry with obvious distaste--including the intern, who'd been so friendly when he'd stood in Harry's living-room and accepted a cup of tea.
The senior doctor was a bald, middle-aged man with an air about him of carefully contrived boredom. He dropped the small manila file he was carrying onto the table as if relieving himself of a great weight, and began to speak.
'Mr Watson.' His voice echoed slightly off the walls. 'I'll come straight to the point. Your application for an operation has been turned down.'
Harry asked, 'Is it the cost?' He sighed. 'I told the Department I could at least pay some, no matter how dear it is. I could sell my business--'
'It'd be pretty dear, all right,' the doctor cut in, 'but that isn't the reason why your case has been refused. I'm afraid our committee has decided that psychologically...you're not suitable.'
'Well, you lack sufficient background for wanting to become a woman. We're not sure that you could handle it properly.' The doctor avoided Harry's gaze by reaching for the file he'd discarded and glancing lazily through its dog-eared pages. Only his long forehead betrayed any tension: it was pink and beginning to perspire. 'We understand,' he said, 'that you don't have any transvestite experience.'
'Do I need that? Is it required?'
'No. But it is normal in such cases.'
'But I don't want to be a transvestite. I want to be a woman first, then act like one.'
'Yes, but I'm afraid...well, if you've never done that sort of thing before, there's no good reason why we should let you do it now.'
Harry stared. He felt that, to them, this disaster in his life was merely routine, as if he were a child being denied a toy. Hot tears welled up in his eyes.
'I...maybe I could be bisexual.'
The other doctor, an angular, fidgety man with dandruff on his collar, folded his arms as he leaned back and said quickly, 'Don't come that one, Mr Watson. Bisexuals are ridiculous, they're two a penny these days. Look, we've got boys who want to sleep with girls, and boys who want to sleep with boys. And we've got girls who want to sleep with boys, and girls who want to sleep with girls. Then we've got boys and girls singly who want to sleep with groups--of boys and girls, or boys and boys, or girls and girls.' He smiled, as if in triumph. 'Now, isn't that complicated enough?'
The bald, senior doctor picked up his file and stood. The others followed as if on cue. They moved in a line towards the door.
'But what am I going to do?' Harry asked.
The senior doctor turned as he held the doorknob, his lazy, bespectacled eyes blinking across the room.
'It's bad luck, but there are other factors involved.' He twisted the doorknob slowly as he spoke, until it clicked open. 'We've got everything in hand. You mustn't try and beat the system.'
Lawrence Bigger died of a coronary occlusion in the ambulance on the way to hospital. The old socialist was buried with a church service in Kelburn a few days later, because, in contrast to his socialist practices, Bigger had never quite lost a grudging respect for religion. 'God calls collect,' he'd read in a book somewhere and was fond of repeating, and on this basis the vicar, who in any case held liberal views about the divinity of Christ, agreed with the widow that a service would be all right.
Bigger's few surviving political colleagues refused to come on principle, but several of the neighbours attended. The motorcade up Kelburn Parade drove slowly with its lights on--and got hopelessly broken up in traffic. People had difficulty finding the right places to sit in the chapel. They were uncomfortable in suits and best dresses. While the vicar spoke, the assembly thought of the Ranfurly Shield, macrame pot-holders, Brierley's shares or a new cardie for mum. Babies wailed. The only believer in the place was the corpse, whose soul had departed. The function at the Biggers' house afterwards, with sausage rolls, tea and beer, seemed a distinct relief. Lawrence Bigger was survived only by his wife, Mavis, a stranger to him in his own home for the past thirty years, and by a distant teenage nephew who had really come down from Auckland for the varsity tourney and who listened to a Walkman throughout the service. On Bigger's grave, at his own request, appeared only his name and an epitaph: As is, where is. He was still trying to keep up political appearances.
Florrie Hope had lived beside the Biggers when she was a little girl, in Island Bay before Lawrence could afford the big house in Rama Crescent. Her own parents had wanted a boy and were uninterested in her upbringing. Florrie spent most of her childhood over the fence next door, and for a long time Lawrence Bigger was the only person in her life who treated her kindly. Now she was married to a bus driver and with grown-up children of her own. Too late for the funeral, she read about Bigger's death in the back page of the Evening Post and, that night, her husband came home to find her bent over the formica kitchen table with her face in her hands. She was crying, was all he knew--his wife was crying. He put down his bag and placed his arms around her and the mystery of her grief, but she was beyond all consolation.
At the beginning of the twentieth century New Zealand invaded a foreign country, all by itself, for the only time in its history. This unique event is almost forgotten now. War had been declared on Kaiser Wilhelm II and Germany by the British Empire, and New Zealand was determined to take part; but Germany was inconveniently located on the opposite side of the globe. Fortunately, however, there were a few German civilians living peacefully in Samoa. With no time for delay New Zealand troops were raised, ships commandeered, and rifles and Maxims collected. A force sailed carrying--so the newspapers said--the flowers of a young dominion and expectations that every man might do his duty. Tense days followed. Arriving offshore at Apia, cautiously ready, the ships' captains used their binoculars to identify German colours flying above the Samoan courthouse. A frisson ran through the members of the expedition. Senior officers took turns with the binoculars. At last a small boat was dispatched, bearing a flag of truce attached to a broom-handle and carrying the assistant paymaster--the only man in the force who spoke any German.
The parley was a fraught affair. The enemy was stubborn, even unhelpful. They had not trained nor armed the civilian population. They would not fight, but neither would they surrender. It was vexing: the officers met to discuss strategy. Eventually, the New Zealanders contented themselves with scrambling ashore from their ships as fast as possible, posting guards on the roads and bridges, and parading a lot. One New Zealand soldier roughly hauled down the German flag, and the next morning, with great pomp and pride, a Union Jack was raised. Dispatches were written: the nation had stood! If the Empire needed it done, when it happened then it was best done quickly, and we had done it. Throughout the dominion the press could be relied on to push hardships, fortitude, a new dawn, that sort of thing.
Meanwhile, the troops dallied with the local girls and lay on the beach, writing letters home. They were young, and they could scarcely believe this was war and they were on active service. Later, most were killed in Turkey and Belgium. At Passchendaele, where 3,000 New Zealand soldiers were lost fighting over 200 metres of land, they were frequently shelled by British artillery.
How is it that Wellington, modern capital, can manage some of the most primitive, erratic weather on earth? Today, one week after the Maxwell brothers started work on the Kowhai Vale Funeral Home, is no exception. We look up and suddenly see that isobars have been gathering, circling overhead. Thunder-clouds scrape low, heavy and dark from the sky, and gales have begun to shudder up over Mount Victoria. The rain is already percussing incessantly across the streets of the Hutt. And in Courtenay Place, people shoulder into the wind and then dash for shelter between shop-verandas, flailing with half-forgotten bags. The airport's marginal. On the Thorndon stretch of the motorway, the cars are now drenched and corroded by salt-spray flung off the sea; sometimes, they stall. Their wipers struggle to move, to clear the windscreens. In Brooklyn, in Tawa, the living-room heaters glow but the cold, the aggressive and mean-spirited cold, is bullying the houses, and creeping in from the wallpaper and up from the carpets. At schools, playtime is announced as indoors. The phone goes--staff are throwing sickies. Taxi drivers and pharmacists in the wet, blustery bustle do good trade. The radio warns: a tree has blown down over Harbour View Road! And the Botanical Gardens, quel fiasco...
Normally, this would keep a population together and sharpen a stringent sense of endurance and wit; but here, we do not feel the welcoming pattern of lives long used to coping with an environment. Instead, we let ourselves make personal compromises with each of these mornings, which in a mysterious way involve double-parking, ducking the queue at supermarkets, taking cutlery in restaurants and, finally, knocking some old lady on the head. Ah, we are becoming a country proud of two cities and five companies, but our moments of individual self-discovery, that we are different from what we blithely told ourselves at school, are humiliating reminders of weakness. And not just for us alone.
Renee Holmes sat in the Coffee Pot Cafe at the Churchill Drive supermarket, leaning on a tubular-steel table and sliding on her plastic chair that had been ergonomically moulded for someone much larger--and scratched at one hand with the other. It was cold, and far too dark. The owner had fixed Victorian-style brass-lamps to the beige-painted, concrete-block walls, and they threw off only a dim light in some futile attempt to create atmosphere. The carpet-squares were damp and Renee was fairly sure they smelled--outside, the rain had eased to fall mostly in large drops that bounced and burst on the asphalt--and she could hear one of the sandwich-makers somewhere out in the kitchen arguing with a talkback-radio show until their voices were a competitive scramble. She scratched at her hand again. At another table, two fat housewives who looked frighteningly like her future self were munching steadily through a plate of assorted cream buns, while twin trails of cigarette smoke rose from their ashtray. It was all right, Renee decided, to feel depressed. She looked for Brenda. Safe from all this, the smoke, the confusing noise and other complications, her baby lay tucked up and sleeping in her pram in the sheltered area outside just beyond the large windows. Renee stirred in another spoonful of ugly coffee crystals, scratched and waited.
A timid person by nature, when she was nineteen years old and ready to sacrifice anything to daring, she'd gone underage into the Gresham Hotel with some girlfriends to see a group called Johnny and the Lazy-Boy Rockers. Renee looked very pretty in those days--of course, that was before she had her baby--with her fair hair long and a little make-up on her small, doe-eyed face. She was wearing her pink tank-top, and her short, nicely rounded legs were jammed into skin-tight jeans, the good pair. And she looked all right, and old enough at least, not to be too out of place. But during one of the band's breaks, some police came in. They were even walking round the room. Renee stopped pretending. She was that terrified. Then, in the semi-darkness, a hand touched hers. Johnny had walked over to her table, Johnny himself! and he was telling her that he wouldn't mind too much if she came home with him tonight. Renee's head buzzed with excitement and danger. Her friends were all watching, crowding in close with their backs to the cops. Renee tried softly to refuse Johnny but she held his hand--she kept him with her until the police were safely gone. And afterwards was the best, she was the envy of everyone; she didn't wash her hand for over a month. It developed an itchy rash which never entirely healed.
She'd been born Renee McKinnon, one of those fine Kiwi surnames that begin with a little Gaelic, and she grew up on a prosperous north-Canterbury station in the days when farmers with freehold were the nation's aristocracy. There were Devonshire teas on the lawn; she rode horses. At five years old, Renee attended a small country-school and began an education which, she thought in retrospect, seemed mostly musical. In the primers they were always learning these songs that made no sense. Renee never did find out what a 'bonnie' was, or why it should lie over the ocean. In the standards, Mr Venables tried to teach them to sing and do a Maori song, but he didn't know the actions and there wasn't a Maori in the class to help, so they all settled for 'This Land is Your Land' instead. Then one day while she was boarding at Christchurch Girls', Renee remembered, she stood at assembly with the pleats ironed in her frock, her tie tight, socks properly pulled up and hands down by her sides, as their starchy stick of a headmistress led them in a new national anthem to replace 'God Save the Queen.' When Renee reached 'Guard Pacific's triple star,' she thought it was a silly song. She knew there were four stars on the New Zealand flag--possibly more.
What happened next? To Renee it always seemed like fate. Then, as now, girls were encouraged to treat university as a finishing school where they would be made available for the sons of the professional class. Renee was struggling through several units of art history when she met Wayne, who was doing commerce and every easy unit of religious studies and languages he could lay his hands on. The days were long, the sun shone, and there were always lots of people to spend time with. It was easy for Renee to believe that this was how life would be from now on. Under the raw-concrete overhang of the Students' Union, which shadowed a grassy slope to the Avon where they all liked to sit about and sunbathe, Wayne held her in his arms and promised to be with her forever. Their love was a social inevitability--but it was also love. In a dangerous world of ozone holes and lethal tinned-salmon, he'd kept his promise. They moved to Wellington.
Through the 1980s the stock market was booming. Somewhere between the newlywed period and the birth of the baby, Wayne disappeared into an all-consuming, mostly masculine world. He was ambitious in his job and talked of 'understanding the market.' He put a lot of effort into learning to like red wine, so as to give him the advantage at restaurant meetings. At his own expense he had name-cards printed. There was weekend golf, a large number of trips away and his office with a pretty secretary just next door. Even on the cranky day the Maxwells made their frantic early start at the funeral home, Wayne simply went off to work as usual. Later that morning, Renee got on the bus with Brenda and rode to the local supermarket in a nadir of sleep-disturbed depression. Her baby felt so heavy that its shifting weight threatened to dislocate her shoulder. Renee filled two lonely shopping-bags with specials, buying in her unhappiness more than she needed, and she was just struggling from the check-out with Brenda and the bags, and trying to put the trolley away and manage the iffy automatic-doors, when Wayne's sleek grey sports car pulled up at the entrance. Holding Brenda in front of her with one hand, Renee opened the passenger door with the other and then heaved the bags into the back.
'Hey, thank goodness you turned up,' she said as she got in. 'I didn't stand a show of getting home on my own.'
She looked over at the driver--she was staring into a young, handsome face, a stranger's. His rather obviously permed hair was combed back from his forehead and his strong, square jaw was working as he gently chewed at some gum. The man was already turning the car further into the car park with a deft, one-handed control. Renee cradled Brenda a little closer on her lap.
'I'm...I'm sorry. I've made a mistake.'
'I know,' the man said. He smiled. 'Anyway, can I take you somewhere?'
'No, no, I don't think--'
'Well, I'm really--'
'Left or right here?'
The car was almost onto the street.
The man looked at her from the driver's seat. His eyes were dark, like his swept-back hair. His broad shoulders were hunched a little forward as he held the wheel.
'Did you think I was your husband?'
'I'm no longer married,' Renee surprised herself by saying.
They passed under a railway bridge.
'I'm in insurance,' the man said. He was being kind and making conversation. 'My company sends me about a lot. You wouldn't believe how much.'
Renee grimaced. 'I don't like jobs like that.'
'Well, sometimes it helps. I got my start a couple of years back, when I was just a recruit and volunteered to go down the South Island. Everybody else wanted to go up Auckland way. Second week, there was this outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease that I got called for, out on a Temuka pig-farm. They ended up killing about 800 animals. I mean, it was full-on. Then they found out it wasn't that type of disease.'
'And what was it?'
'They never knew. But it wasn't Foot and Mouth'
'That's a bit hard on the pigs.'
'It was even harder on the farmer.' The man grinned. He ground the chewing gum in his teeth. 'We didn't have to pay out.'
Before he'd dropped her off in Rama Crescent, Renee had agreed to dinner at a restaurant in two nights' time. Wayne would be away in Auckland on business. When the evening came, Brenda was left with a baby-sitter and Renee wore the result of a whole afternoon's careful choosing from her wardrobe, of trying to decide between the revealing black and the demure brown. The dinner was superb; there was a dessert-trolley. She ate and drank too much. After finishing the wine, they went back to the man's hotel. The next day, Wayne returned from his trip with a large bunch of roses and a sheepish, almost helpless, look on his face, and Renee felt sick with guilt.
'That it is as least as difficult to stay a moral infection as a physical one; that such a disease will spread with the malignity and rapidity of the Plague; that the contagion, when once it has made head, will spare no pursuit or condition, but will lay hold on people in the soundest health, and become developed in the most unlikely constitutions: is a fact as firmly established as that we human creatures breathe an atmosphere.' Was Renee (there are none so blind as those who have degrees) disadvantaged by an education more cosmetic than scholastic? What condonation can be conferred on this hitherto faithful and fair-hearted hausfrau, this peccable yet unpremeditated passenger, somebody's mother, this astatic, assignated axiologist--this yeasty yeowoman?
Renee left a message at the young man's hotel: meet her in the Coffee Pot Cafe around mid-morning. She intended to have it all out with him, break it off forever and swear him to secrecy. She was frightened of losing her husband and home, her reputation, her baby. Each night, to sit in the house after sunset was to be once more slowly surrounded, gorged, by the illicit darkness she'd known in that hotel room. Renee's breath would become shallow. She would start to perspire. What were those unseen noises in the dark? Those dim shapes--why did they seem weird and menacing? Panic would seize her, and she'd rush to turn on the lights.
Now Renee waited at the cafe for the young man, who in fact had already left town. As she stared glumly down at the blob of cream dissolving into her coffee cup, she did not notice the stooping form and paunch of Harry Watson, his face obscured in sunglasses, passing by the windows.
At the same time, not far away, Admin Hakune was out at work. He was hauling blue-plastic rubbish bags over to a pile in the gutter. Sweat combining with the rain dripped off his face, and the cold wind whipped under the flaps of his parka onto bare, wet knees. He was a big man, short but heavyset, and running a little to fat. A thick bandit's moustache curled darkly round the edges of his mouth. He had been born on the East Coast and his father, intrigued by the sound of a popular, post-war word, christened him 'Administration'. With a name like that, perhaps it made sense for Admin to come to Wellington after leaving home, in search of a better life. He'd had been a dustie for more than a decade. And so nowadays, whenever Admin visited his marae back in Tikitiki, he knew the rellies saw a middle-aged man easily supporting his wife and kids, and with their own state house in Porirua, and his wife having flash, newish clothes on her back and his kids telling tales of eating at the Kentucky Fried Chicken. Yeah, he knew what they saw: in the big smoke he'd become a success. And on days like this he tried hard not to remember that he was poor.
Admin liked his job. He knew the routes, which houses had dogs, which had maggots in their bins and where he would most likely find unwrapped, broken glass. But there'd been a general decline in the quality of rubbish over recent years: a reflection, he thought, of this economy. Once in Khandallah he'd have found radios put out, or perfectly good jackets or leather bags, but now their rubbish was--if a man told the truth--rubbish.
'I let on to the missis,' he announced to his mates back at the yard. 'I said, "It's even got into the weather, that economy." I reckon. You know how last year it was rainy bloody near every weekend and come out fine at work? Yeah, well, I tell you what--this year we just get fine all the time on Saturday and Sunday, then rain like crazy in the week. Yeah. And sometimes on the weekend, too. I told her: "No good for work, eh."' He giggled. 'And you know what, that woman, she started growling: "Why doesn't the Government do something about it?"' He laughed at the thought.
As he swung some of the wet bags up into the waiting yellow Bedford, Admin heard a gurgle in his stomach and felt a painful loosening in his bowels. He broke off and stepped away from the stack. Something he ate last night--it didn't agree with him. It'd already forced him to the toilet once this morning. He'd have to go again, right here in Rama Crescent, he knew it. Admin moved towards the Biggers' house, pushed open a wooden gate and walked up a tidy, cobbled path to the porch.
From behind the net curtains Mavis Bigger watched him approach. Mavis was a small grey woman with rinsed hair and round shoulders. She was withered by an old age that had always been with her: she'd been born elderly, then she grew into it. Throughout her life Mavis had longed to come to some accommodation with the world around her, but she settled for strategy instead. Her disposition was shy, her appearance tense. She managed people. A look of high disapproval--a defence-mechanism, one could say--hung permanently around her straitened eyes and crumpled mouth. And also, these days, the malleus bones of her middle ears were calcifying, so that she was almost deaf. Admin knocked shortly before she opened the front door, but she did not hear it.
'Yes?' Mavis stared at the figure dripping on the porch, trying to recall if they'd met. She spoke loudly and correctly. 'Who are you collecting for?'
But the figure shook his head and smiled: a wide, generous grin. His moving lips created far-off, friendly sounds.
'I'm sorry,' Mavis shouted. 'We don't want any.' She could see a look of surprise on his face. She added, 'We're all Church of England here.'
The man was protesting, anxious. Really, it was impossible, what some people did. He started gesturing towards inside.
'My husband's a policeman,' Mavis shouted as she firmly closed the door. She thought of poor Lawrence then...and how she could never count on him anyway.
In the rain Admin limped down the path and out onto the road--his bowels were in agony. He'd just collected Mavis Bigger's modest-sized rubbish bag, and he pulled it from the top of the pile, raised it above his head and threw it with all his might over the fence into the middle of her lawn. Then he wiped the wet hair out of his eyes and continued down the street. He'd settle for a bush somewhere.
Both Admin Hakune and Mavis Bigger were too preoccupied to witness the most far-reaching, scandalous event ever to occur in Rama Crescent's past, present or (most probably) its future. This was happening just next door, as Harry Watson ducked into the side entrance of the partly-converted dairy. In his arms, warmly wrapped up and also unknowing, was the sleeping form of little Brenda Holmes.
As we speak, in yet another part of town Sally Naylor is beginning her first ever report to the Wellington Historical Society at the Wadestown Presbyterian Church Hall. Her speech is part of a series that day on 'Significant New Zealand Women' and she has perhaps interpreted the word 'Significant' a little too literally, since her chosen topic is a notorious female murderer who, besides, was not even from the Wellington area. But Sally is a new member of the Historical Society. She has joined and nervously taken on her first assignment because she feels that behind all this history stuff, somewhere, must be something important, and it's a good chance to get out of the house. As she gets up for her turn, she is self-consciously aware that her yellow blouse and bright blue slacks should form an ensemble in bold, clashing colours. Sally Naylor is a plump, round-faced woman in her early forties. Artfully thick make-up, which she has applied in the car outside, covers the crow's feet below her eyes. Sally walks to the lectern amid scattered applause and taps at the microphone. The room, crowded with people on folding chairs, looks surprisingly large. Sally commences too hastily by saying that her husband is with the Rural Bank and also he cannot be here today since he is actually away working in Argentina, because he is a lawyer--it wouldn't do to let the society-members think of her as some hick.
Fortunately, no one can hear her above the buzzing microphone.
A red-faced young student in charge of these things comes up and fusses with some dials on a grimy box beside the lectern. The feedback calms down. He retreats. Sally rustles the pages of her report and begins properly.
'In the 1890s,' she reads aloud in the firmest voice that she can manage, 'children who were put up for adoption were often collected by professionals who reared them for profit. These people called themselves "baby-farmers". The idea was that farmers raised animals efficiently, so why not have baby-farms? This meant that the farmers would be child-care experts. They had to be, since they'd need to do a good job if their livelihood depended on it. But that was only the theory. In reality, everyone knew these children going onto the farms were illegitimate and unwanted. They were usually neglected, and it was understood that the sooner the children died, the better.'
Sally pauses. Everyone in the audience is watching her as they should. She has only a few minutes left of her time allocation. She continues.
'New Zealand's most famous baby farmer was a woman in the South Island named Minnie Dean. She and her husband, Mr Dean, and a dressmaker all lived on a farm in Winton, near Invercargill. They had a small shanty with a lean-to, a bit grandly called "The Larches," and because they were well known it was filled with infants. Minnie Dean was an educated lady. She was a businesswoman. She advertised in the newspapers and did quite well. You can see in pictures of her' --Sally held up a photocopy-- 'this is a bit far away...but you can tell Minnie Dean wore respectable Victorian clothes and she looks determined and even quite calm. However, she was a bit too greedy to wait for nature, I suppose. In May 1895, the police dug up the bodies of three children from under her flower garden--and I won't go into nasty details, but she was found guilty of murder and hanged. She went to the scaffold insisting that she was a good woman who'd done nothing out of the ordinary. She believed her own lies, although whenever she announced that she was innocent she always seems to have got her times out of order, or something. I mean, after the trial she wrote to her solicitor from gaol: "If only I knew where my children were I could be at rest, and say God's will be done." But everybody knew where those kiddies were by then: down at the Invercargill morgue.'
Sally looks up from her notes. This is fun. There are plenty of mothers in the hall staring at her wide-eyed, and she thinks maybe they lack the cool detachment of real historians. Sally has nearly reached the end of her report, but now she doesn't want to stop.
'Anyway, the New Zealand public was very shocked. Minnie Dean was the only woman who ever received the death penalty in this country. At Winton, when she was buried, they refused to let her grave have a headstone. That's how upset people were. But the part that just amazes me, I think, is that the husband and dressmaker were investigated and the police reckoned they didn't know anything about it. I mean, can that really be true? I can't believe it. But that's what the law said, back then. Well, just think of all the effort they must have used up every day to go ahead and ignore what they really knew was a crime going on in front of them. But they were never charged...'
Why does New Zealand have all the sheep and the Arabs have all the oil? Because God gave the New Zealanders first choice.
The old joke popped at random into Wayne Holmes's mind as he watched nervously and waited: his GP was thumbing through his medical history. Wayne was sitting on a cushioned, steel-mesh chair before the doctor's desk in the quiet of the surgery. He could smell disinfectant. Doctor Duncan, a tough old Scot, kept his small body bent over the desktop and his large, florid head half-raised as he read the medical details through bifocals. The man was being bloody thorough. Wayne's hands were beginning to shake--he thought of sitting on them to keep them still. This was not the speedy deliverance from anxiety he'd been hoping for in the waiting-room, where he'd passed a half hour studying some diamond shapes set deep into the painted, concrete-block walls. Wayne thought of the all times he'd let his own clients at his own office feel worried by making them wait--he liked to open his wallet in front of them and then slowly count the credit cards inside, as if checking the chambers of a gun.
'Doctor,' Wayne interrupted at last, shifting on the uncomfortable chair. He tried repeating what he'd first said when he entered the surgery. 'I...I'm afraid of dying.'
'Yes, I see that. But why?' His doctor looked up from a page. 'Are you ill? Have you been under a lot of stress?'
'No...I'm just afraid.'
Doctor Duncan sighed, as if impatient with such a poor description of general symptoms. He stared at Wayne along the top of his glasses.
'You should relax.'
'Yes,' Wayne said. 'I know--'
'You wouldn't be worried about dying if you could relax.'
'Then why can't you?'
'Because...because I'm afraid.'
The doctor sighed again. Wayne left the surgery with a prescription for a bottle of tranquillisers.
A week ago, Wayne and his neighbours had seen Lawrence Bigger lying on the concrete footpath in pyjamas, contorted and gasping, unable to breathe. The life was squeezed slowly out of the old man, as if from a used-up toothpaste tube, right before their eyes. There was nothing they could do. Then a few nights later, in an Auckland hotel room, Wayne didn't know why but the memory of it overwhelmed him. He was lying on a luxuriously made-up bed in the executive suite, watching the latest American television from the satellite dish and holding a good, strong drink--he was feeling rather sleepy, even--when a mood gripped him. It was an emotion larger than himself. It was a collective mood of which he felt he was everything and yet only a small part: one little portion of a whole community of Wayne's reaching back into the past and even into the future, all compelled, suddenly rushing, to face dread. He got up from the over-warm sheets with this burden of sadness, put the glass on the night-table and pushed open the window.
A welcome breeze rustled into the room. With it came the traffic noise from a road full of cars and moving headlights, visible eleven floors below. Wayne felt the curtains billowing around him in the abundance of air and space. The view: it was so pretty but so empty. Wayne leaned out, recklessly far, into nothing, and soon the weight of his infinite sadness began to push on his shoulders, to ache in his back. It felt awful, awful! he'd give anything to be free of it, and he was exhilarated to see it could be done. Just moving one inch more, one more impulse--the sadness would go. He sensed his muscles' reaction, his body floating. In a final effort Wayne swung back into the room with its disappointingly ordinary bed, table, carpet and flickering TV. He pulled the window shut behind him. Shivering, near to panic. What had happened? He couldn't believe some chemical part of his own psychology was turning self-destructive--was actually malevolent toward him.
Next day, Wayne bought a big bunch of flowers on his way home to Renee. He held onto the bouquet for so long on the plane and in the taxi that it was tired and wilted by the time he arrived. Renee surprised him that evening by insisting they sleep with the lights on, and he didn't object. And he was so exhausted that he did sleep, a little. But as he lay awake each night after that in the glare of all the lights and lamps in the house, unable to doze off with the brightness in his eyes, Wayne told himself honestly how frightened he was.
He had caught fear like a virus. He couldn't forget it, and it might happen again.
When Wayne was a little boy in Papanui and people asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he'd always obligingly replied: President of the United States. The family possessed some inherited money, but his father's weakness for the TAB ate steadily into their finances. Mr Holmes laboured under an illusion. He was a systems-better who spent everything on elaborate combinations of horses. His failure to win and the decline of the family fortune did not distress him. He was convinced that the system, once perfected, would bring his wife and children permanent economic security. Mr Holmes spent all they had, and then a lot they didn't have, but the system was his ever-reliable answer to all complaints. His losses he blamed on unforeseen events, outside influences and, ultimately, other people. One day, when Wayne was still in his youth, Mr Holmes stepped into the street without looking to borrow money from an acquaintance on the other side--and was killed by a passing car.
Fortunately, Wayne was a child of the welfare state. At all the stages of his life there were organisations to cushion him against privation. As a baby, the Plunket Society kept him plump. There was the family benefit, school milk and free primary-education to get him through early childhood. In high school he blossomed. He received a special-needs allowance after doing well in Mr Richards's Social Studies class. (Social Studies was the brainchild of liberal, post-war educationalists who, like educationalists everywhere, were more interested in making students who thought like themselves than in education. They argued that history is not the product of people doing things but of impersonal demographic and economic forces; they studied 'social change.') On the second floor of a badly-heated Nelson-plan building, Wayne developed the knack of reproducing completely what he'd been told, untainted by original thought or opinion. He got UE accredited. At university, he spent three comfortable years with a fees grant and a tertiary bursary. He graduated on an aegrotat.
By the time Wayne emerged into the real world at twenty-one he had read Lord of the Flies, could catch an up-and-under on the try-line, knew where a clitoris was and how to back a trailer. He was the nearest to a renaissance man we in New Zealand are likely to produce. But for all this, he felt no debt to the society that had raised him. Instead, from his upbringing Wayne remembered mainly the bailiffs coming to repossess the family's television, the refrigerator, items of furniture--his mother would be in tears--and how he'd discovered the fluidity of material possessions, along with lessons on how to live entirely on higher purchase. Of all the people in Wellington's financial services dealing with the bull market in the 1980s, Wayne was the most adventurous, the most over-reaching. He had a fearless appetite for risking other people's money.
Wayne went straight from the doctor's to the pharmacy with this prescription. When it was filled, he opened the bottle and dry-swallowed one of the tranquillisers on the street. Soon the footpath was moving about bizarrely as he walked, but he managed to get back to his Victoria-Street office through the rain.
'Any calls, Gill?' he asked in a well-practised manner when he entered the reception-area. He was beginning to feel better.
His secretary stared at the dripping, lurching figure before her.
'No, Mr Holmes,' she said.
She wanted to say something more but was too scared. Her boss staggered past for his office, head down, as if he could barely focus on his own shoes.
At his desk, Wayne sat and gazed blankly out of the window. It was the ninth floor. He found that if he stayed very still and concentrated, then he could see. Down there was Jervois Quay and the old stone Harbour Board offices. He could see the empty wharves jutting in rows, and the Hutt Valley in the distance in a dark mist of folding hills, spray and sky. Man, he could see.... The Arahura, was that it? was arcing slowly round the square patch of the container terminal after what must have been a rough crossing--passengers below decks, issued with brown-paper bags to vomit into. The container cranes looked empty of watersiders. So where was everybody? Wayne took another of the tranquillisers. Eased back in his chair. It'd be all right. In fact, everything felt pretty bloody fine. And in this new post-industrial economy--well, he was part of it--there was an unspoken truth. He concentrated: certain segments of the population were going to be superfluous. Yes, in fact, maybe they'd all given up and gone home today already. And these people, you could pension them off for a time, give them jobs cooking or cleaning, you could give it all a look of humanity. But eventually the ape somewhere deep inside would reassert itself and then...he tried to remember what he was thinking.
But it'd be all right.
The telephone rang with a startling jangle. Wayne struggled to pick it up. He heard Gill say, 'Go ahead, Mrs Holmes.'
'Renee, I'm sort of--'
His wife's distraught voice cut him off.
'I can't find Brenda. She's missing! I don't know what to do.'
'What? Why can't you...she crawled off?'
'No. No, she's gone. The pram was in the supermarket but she wasn't in it.'
'In the supermarket? Where are you?'
'I...I just went to have a cup of coffee. I looked up and she was gone.'
Gone. The wavering, disembodied words filtered down the line and into Wayne's consciousness like some sequence in a bad dream. He felt the sickness of the hotel room flooding back. And also something like adrenaline. Renee was sobbing into the phone.
'Someone must have taken her! There's no other way she...because, I've looked and I've looked. Everywhere!'
Wayne could hear the sound of cash registers and shoppers in the background over the phone. He rubbed his face hard with his hand.
'All right. I'm going to drive home and have a check. Then I'll come give you some help.'
Wayne hung up, feeling weak in his thumping heart. He strode out of the office and through the reception-area, narrowly missing the edge of the secretary's desk. He ignored Gill's requests for some message to give the Executive Manager, who was due at any moment.
Are you paying attention to this? I'm warning you, I thought I told you not to lean back on that chair. This is a sad, sad story but with a perfectly happy ending for everybody, so face the blackboard and listen. Class isn't over yet. What reasons, after all, could Holmes and Watson, two gentlemen so far from their natural environments, their creature comforts, their traditional repose in the teeth of life's mysteries, have for acting as they did? What forces, economic and demographic, impel these two, once sleuth and scribe, now epizoon and eonist, as their story reaches its lysis? In what sense, inductively speaking, are they the products of social change? These and other questions shall be discussed. Don't stare at me like that--I'm only following the syllabus. So look out, that means there'll be a test! Pay attention, please. Listen!
Whenever Francis Koy felt depressed in his adopted country, he would remember the day his uncle was strangled. This had been when Koy was a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge, the party which became the new, revolutionary government of Kampuchea in 1975 and instituted the year zero. The Khmer Rouge then declared that fifty percent of the country's population was unnecessary and would be destroyed in the interests of society. One obvious flaw in this plan was that soon there would be no society left. But it seemed the party hated many types of people--it particularly hated intellectuals, like Koy's uncle who was a journalist--and it also hated people connected with anyone it hated. And so a few days after Koy's sixteenth birthday, his entire family was arrested and transported to a camp near a remote village named Ta Amp. There, all the detainees were assembled each morning at first light and made to work the soil in the surrounding paddy-fields till nightfall. While oxen grazed nearby, Koy was yoked to a plough. The camp's inmates were fed one gram of rice per day and began starving to death. Any prisoner who grew too weak for work was shot. Koy survived by eating lizards, rats and earthworms, and by pretending to be sub-humanly stupid. One evening, like the vermin he had become, he managed to wriggle into the mud and escape.
By good luck Koy made his way to the Thai border. There, he lived in temporary settlements for a few years. He was informed that he was too old to qualify for being sent to the West as a refugee on humanitarian grounds--there were rules even for being utterly destitute--so he lied about his age and got himself onto a plane. After much confusion and anxiety, during which he never seemed to sleep in the same place twice, Koy at last woke up for several mornings in a row at the Mangere Resettlement Centre and found to his infinite relief that the instructions being patiently, perhaps kindly, given to him there in English, and of which he did not understand a word, were for a new life. From then on, when things seemed hard, he remembered the group of laughing soldiers who one day pulled his family from the fields at the camp and lined them up on the assembly ground--and his uncle's frightened face as the soldiers cheerfully put a clear-plastic bag over his head. There were some short, convulsive movements as his uncle failed to breathe, and then the limp body was dragged off and left in the mud.
Koy felt no bitterness. You are alive, he thought. Rejoice, live your life.
Francis was not Koy's real name, which was unpronounceable to most New Zealanders. It had attached itself to him at Customs and Immigration in Auckland, because the officer at the airport could speak no Kampuchean.
'What is your name?' the immigration officer asked, fuming over the blank spaces in Koy's papers and at the dishevelled, even dirty, young man from whom he'd just prised them away. Why, the official was wondering, does there bloody always have to be a person connected to these documents?
Koy was frightened of the man's uniform and hoping for a magic formula. 'What is your name?' Koy repeated.
'No, no. What is your name?'
'What is your name?'
'My name is Francis,' the immigration officer said reluctantly.
'My name is Francis,' Koy repeated once more. He was a quick study.
The immigration officer shook his head. He asked no more questions and wrote 'Francis' on all the forms.
Now, five years later, Koy was on his way to becoming the richest man in our story. He had a simple plan for making money: he would work for it. Every day he got up at five o'clock and went to the auction mart, where he had a job shifting crates of vegetables. In the afternoons he worked in a bakery, and each evening he washed dishes in a restaurant, eating only the frugal meals the baker and restaurant's chef each provided. Superficially, Koy's life was not so different from his time in a Khmer-Rouge labour camp, but those differences were vital to him. Here in New Zealand he could live in the comfortable, ground-floor flat of an old up-and-down house in Newtown, its large bay-windows looking straight into the street. The authorities left him alone, and he could save his money, though that was best done quietly. His savings were a protection against uncertainty but also a danger. From his observations of his new fellow-countrymen Koy had guessed that, if it were known just how hard he worked, no one would ever forgive him.
Indeed, many things about his new country were strange.
One day, Koy was driving the bakery van along the motorway when he saw a sign saying 'Road Works' and, assuming that the road was working well, he sped up round a corner and narrowly missed a maintenance crew. Also, in this country of white men, people sometimes shouted at him on the street. He knew that these people didn't have guns, but he worried that they might find one. When Koy went to the toilet, he could see the words 'Vitreous China' staring at him from the porcelain in the bowl; he didn't know what 'vitreous' meant, and he wasn't Chinese, but he felt that this summed up how New Zealanders saw him. And then only a fortnight ago, he'd woken at dawn as usual, looked out his window, and heard and at last seen a single-engined Cessna approaching low over the neighbourhood. It was an aerial top-dressing plane--this much Koy understood. The hopper doors were open, and it was crop-dusting the houses below with shreds of cut-up newspaper. Bunches of the stuff in ribbons all flapped and fluttered down in the weak, early-morning light, looking like pockets of how he thought snowflakes should be. The plane's shrill engine whined as it banked and turned. Then it repeated its run over Koy's house and disappeared. Koy went outside into the still-empty street. Were the neighbours' curtains moving, or were they all heavy sleepers? No one joined him, and a stiff wind was already catching the newspaper scraps and carrying them away towards the harbour. He rescued one or two, though within a few minutes the street was looking no more littered than usual. Koy was so bewildered that he decided to allow himself back to bed for ten more minutes to calm down. He kept the covers up over his face.
Several months before this, the grandfather of one of the other dishwashers at the restaurant passed away, and Koy was asked to come along with his friend from work and help consult a funeral director. He agreed partly out of curiosity. But by the end of the arrangements--having the corpse dressed, having it lie in chapel, a cabinet-maker's coffin, the hearse, the wreaths, the plot, the burial, a tombstone--Koy was astonished at the vast expense of being laid to rest. In his life he'd seen hundreds--no, maybe thousands--of corpses in fields around the camp, and not one had ever received more than cursory attention. While Koy was returning to his flat from this meeting, the wheezing red trolley-bus he sat in became immobilised in the centre of Lambton Quay. The driver got out and began wrestling to reconnect the leads to the cables overhead, and Koy passed the time by looking at the passengers around him. Hard-faced, dishevelled public servants who shifted about on their seats and scowled as they tried to find postures in which to doze, dumpy housewives who sat hunched over their shopping and pulled at headscarves to protect their permed hair, bored children in sodden clothes running and slipping along the aisle with only jandals on their feet--Koy was from a third-world country and yet he felt sorry for them all. They had so little.
At that moment the idea of opening his own discount-mortuary, available to everyone without prejudice or embarrassment, was born in his mind.
Koy immediately put all his savings into starting the business. He began visiting government offices, the City Council, and learning the punishing list of regulations and procedures to be followed. He went to his bank to raise the remaining capital. They were not interested in someone without securities. The bank suggested he try the Department of Social Welfare. The Department of Social Welfare suggested the Department of Labour. The Labour Department told him, why not go to a bank? Everywhere it was the same: they would only lend money to someone who had enough already. Koy thought of giving up, till one day he saw an advertisement in the personal column of a newspaper. It was for a company called Myriad Finance. Koy went to their offices, which were upstairs in Cuba Street. He found an untidy room crammed with three small desks and a filing cabinet. There, he spoke to a thin, waxy-faced man who was the only person in the place and who kept grinning broadly at everything Koy said. The man wore a hound's-tooth jacket and looked as if he'd slept in his clothes. On the spot Koy signed a contract for everything he needed.
'This is venture capital, is what it is.' The man in the rumpled jacket smirked. 'Think of it as more of a favour than a loan.'
He wrote out a cheque.
Only a few days after Bill and Stan Maxwell began their work, Koy heard a rapid knock, late at night, on the door of his flat. He opened it and found two huge men in dirty overalls and gumboots, standing before him in the semi-darkness of the street. As they moved on the doorstep, lightly swinging their powerful shoulders and flexing their necks, their scarred and tattooed faces were visible in the street-lights.
'We're sent here from Myriad Finance,' one of them said. 'I'm Tipping,' he slung an arm up, 'and this here is Howse. We're supposed to collect, eh.'
'Collect what?' Koy asked.
'First payment. It's time.'
'Payment?' Koy ran the word round in his mind, checking that it meant what he thought. 'No, it not time.'
'Is now, yeah.'
'But I haven't got no money.'
The men looked at each other and laughed.
'Don't worry about it,' the one named Howse said. 'With your first payment, we'd just want a favour, eh. We're going to keep some stuff at your place in Khandallah.'
'Stuff like what?'
'Oh, just some sacks of these chemicals. We're in the gardening business, eh.'
The men laughed again. They were in a good mood.
'No, I'm sorry,' Koy said. 'I got people there renovating. It can stop them working, and then I have to pay, to them.'
'Your problem, mate,' Tipping said. 'Show us where.'
The men reached in through the doorway with their broad, fleshy hands, took Koy under the arms and pulled him out into the street. Then one of the men leaned behind Koy and, a moment later, the door was slammed shut. At first Koy wondered if he had his key on him to get back in. But as he was pulled forward again towards an idling, waiting lorry, he felt afraid in a way that he'd not known in a long time.
Koy sat in the cab of the lorry between the two men and directed them to the partly-converted funeral parlour in Rama Crescent. As he waited inside the building, they unloaded two-dozen large sacks and stood them against the wall of a back room. Koy was grateful that they didn't ask for help. It was heavy work and, strong though the men were, they grunted and swore as they hauled their cargo about. Next door, unhearing, Mavis Bigger slept soundly in her bed.
Koy saw clearly the worn condition of the sacks, and he watched the tattooed, scarred Tipping and Howse tear off some faded labels from the corners that said: 'Danger: Ammonium Nitrate.' When it was all done, they took him home. In the morning, Koy gave the Maxwell brothers time off with pay until further notice. Should you forgive this tempted, this zealous, ex-mendicant mortician, this early riser, this everted nabob schooled in a camp of hard knocks, for what will occur--no matter what that might be? Discuss (20 marks).
When he ducked into the side entrance of the dairy, Harry Watson half expected to be apprehended with the sleeping baby in his arms--but this was the same morning the Maxwell brothers found they had to stop working on the place because of the strange orders from that Francis Koy. Inside, the whole building was now a mess of joists, exposed paper and wires. Harry could see forgotten carpenters' stuff and smell accumulated sawdust. He sneezed; his sneezing woke Brenda. She stared at him with a serious expression on her tiny, smooth face. He jiggled her up and down and rubbed his nose against hers until she laughed, displaying her two brand-new, bottom teeth.
Harry took off his coat. He turned it inside out and, placing Brenda in it, laid her down on top of a row of sacks. The raging weather outside made the boards of the dairy creak. Harry checked the walls and ceiling. He was in the dining-room of the old living-quarters at the back of the shop (which was supposed to be turned into a garage for the hearse). Apart from a small leak in one far corner, it was weatherproof and draught-free.
Suddenly Brenda started to cry, with a halting, miniature desperation. Harry picked her up again and tried rocking her back and forth. Soon he realised that her bottom was wet. He pulled on his now soiled coat--he checked the baby wouldn't go anywhere and hoped it couldn't--and dashed outside through the rain to his car, which was parked on the street in front. From the boot he hurriedly took out a large pack of disposable nappies. Nobody seemed to notice--he even waved to Wayne Holmes's fancy sports car as it pulled quickly up the Holmes's drive. Back inside, Harry cheerfully taught himself the art of changing a baby's nappy. Then he went off to the car again for baby food and learned how to prepare it in the dairy's kitchen by following the directions on the various tins and packets. At last he sat Brenda on his knee and, attempting to spoon a purée of vegetable chicken into her mouth, he was rewarded by her reaching out gently, with an unsteady arm, towards his face. Harry felt wonderful, overcome with pleasure. He leaned down and smiled into Brenda's eyes.
Her chubby little grip plucked the designer sunglasses from where they were pushed up on his forehead, and with gurgles of delight she began to destroy them.
Meanwhile, Wayne and Renee Holmes spent the afternoon searching the supermarket, then the car park and even the scrub-clad gully behind it--then they drove around the streets nearby with ever-decreasing hope. There was another supermarket not far away that Renee never went to--it was cheaper and attracted a very different type of customer--and they searched that, too, and its surroundings. They went back to the house several times in case Brenda had somehow turned up: going with a sense of painful urgency, convinced that it would be over in a sudden sighting and all explained and resolved with a rush of relief and tears and, finally, laughter. But it was not. By evening they were at a pitch of raw panic. Still, though, Wayne and Renee couldn't bring themselves to contact the police. That meant the combing of missing-persons' files, the dredging of rivers, public appeals. It meant an assumption of death.
Standing in her living-room at the end of their searches and with the sun rapidly extinguishing, Renee felt once more the claustrophobic density of darkness. How threatening it made these spaces around her! Her anxiety had become a concentration of all her fears. Renee shut her eyes as she reached out along the ranchslider doors for the drapes at each end. She groped to pull them closed and then turned on the lights with violently shaking hands. Oh, where was Wayne? But he was roaming about the house, just too preoccupied to notice. At last she heard the front door opening again and Wayne saying only that he was going out for one more hour, and if he saw anything he'd use the car-phone.
On the streets Wayne drove without aim or reason, heading for town. Earlier, the sense of motion had given him a slim comfort, but now, without Renee's presence, he felt only the depth of his own loss. He drove faster and his mind wandered, helplessly. If only he could stop how he felt! The streets were all merging together into one long road. He overtook a car on a corner and it honked in protest--he waved his apology into the darkness. The dry, gorse-lined slopes, the gullies down into which his lights vanished, the lurking crash-barriers: they all seemed to open onto nothing, emptiness. Some mongrel kids were throwing beer cans into the bottom of the Kelburn Viaduct and he suddenly wanted to run them down and make them understand his sorrow. He turned hard downhill near a concrete wall on which some miserable wretch had spray-painted, in large letters under the street-light, 'I think--therefore I am a lesbian.' He was driving even faster, using all of the road. He realised that one more flick of the steering-wheel, one extra push on the accelerator, would send him through the wooden side-fences along the footpath and into eternity. Wayne swung the car over, and stopped. He fumbled for another tranquilliser. He rested his head in his hands.
At the house the telephone rang. Renee answered it. A woman's falsetto voice began speaking.
'If you ever want to see your daughter again, you--'
'You've got her?' Renee gasped. 'Where is she?'
'Never mind that. She's quite safe. Now if you want to see--'
'Why are you doing this? Who are you?'
'I want my baby!' Renee wailed into the phone.
'Lady, hey! Don't do your block! All right?' Harry Watson had dropped into his male voice. He was standing in the living-room of his own house; he'd come back to use the fridge. And not thinking clearly, he knew that. But his recollections of this sort of situation in the movies told him it was high time, it really was, to telephone and list his demands--he had no idea what they were. But Renee had quietened down. 'Listen,' he said, 'I just...I've been feeding and changing her, and she's not crying or anything.'
'Oh,' Renee gulped. 'That's good.'
'And I burped her after feeding. It was quite good.'
'She's no trouble.' Harry paused to collect himself. 'To get her back,' he said, 'I want'--he thought for a moment--'about half a million dollars in cash. In a suitcase.'
'What? We haven't got that sort of money.'
'So what's the story on your house?'
'It's mortgaged. We haven't had it long.'
'Well...let's say a quarter of a million then. And no cops. All right?'
'I don't know. I...I'll have to ask my husband.'
'Listen, do you want your daughter back or not?'
Renee started to cry.
'All right,' Harry said. 'Don't...don't worry.' He hated to hear Renee crying but didn't think he should go lower than a quarter million. 'Listen, just tell your hubby to sell everything and I'll ring you tomorrow. And absolutely no cops.'
Harry hung up. His repeated mention of the police had made him nervous. What if they were tracing the line? How long did a trace take, and how long was his call? He left the house, pondering, and walked back up to the dairy and to Brenda under the street-lights, with a baby's bottle of milk and an extra blanket in his arms. He hoped she hadn't woken up while he was out.
Late at night, before going to bed, Mavis Bigger noticed that through the gap between the curtains over her bedroom window there was light coming in, an irritating light from outside. It was from that old dairy, about five yards away. The half-converted funeral parlour no longer had any drapes, and she saw clearly the figure of Harry Watson walking back and forth in one of the rooms, rocking little Brenda Holmes in his arms. Mavis wondered about it--but after what she'd heard of Wayne Holmes's barney with poor Lawrence in front of that place she'd decided she was not talking to those Holmes people.
She went off into the kitchen and made a cup of Milo to help her sleep.
The weather had cleared overnight--the next morning seemed to confirm that winter was gone at last. In New Zealand, spring will usually emerge in the constipated fashion of all our seasons: a few more flowers each week, longer days, more grass in the catcher, something difficult to pin down, to define. But on this new morning there was not a hint of unseasonable wind or rain. The air was warm and clean and taut. The lawns seemed to sizzle as they began to dry out. People contemplated a day off work: they thought of getting the laundry on the line or pulling oxalis from the garden. They wondered virtuously about maybe baking those cakes for the school gala-day, or inviting some friends for a barby that evening in the back yard. It was a nice, clear spell, and everyone felt blessed.
Even Wayne and Renee Holmes seemed heartened as they woke from their fitful dreams and ate a quick breakfast. The night before, they had cried themselves to sleep in each other's arms. But their baby was alive and they knew what to do. Wayne telephoned his stockbroker even before business hours opened. Standing by the ranchsliders and ignoring the magnificent view, he left a message on his broker's answer-phone to sell. Sell everything--he unconsciously echoed Harry Watson's words. All he owned was tied up in shares. At the same time, amongst wood shavings on the hard, bare floor of the funeral parlour, Harry Watson was woken--as he'd been woken periodically throughout the night and early morning--by the sound of Brenda demanding his immediate attention. Groggy, sore and dirty, he trudged down the street in sunshine to get more milk from his fridge.
From behind her net curtains, Mavis Bigger saw him pass by on the footpath. When Harry Watson was gone, she opened her front door and looked across her garden to the right, then left, then right again, until she was sure that nobody, nobody at all, was watching. Puffing and troubled, she scuttled down her front path towards the massive rubbish-skip she'd had deposited on her lawn at first light, dragging behind her a battered-looking, blue-plastic rubbish bag. At the empty skip, she didn't pause for breath but swung the bag up with all her might, which was not much at her age: it took three hard tries to hoist the bag to the top of the bin. It teetered on the edge, then fell inside with a cavernous thump. Mavis checked again, had anyone seen? She hurried off and telephoned the haulage company to take the skip away as soon as possible. They were busy, they said--tomorrow at the earliest, they said. But Mavis was too deaf to hear their replies. She sat waiting at her window, anxiously anticipating their removal of the evidence.
That morning, Pauline Mason went shopping to buy her boys cricket pads for the new season. She managed to get a park in town, wandered along the quays in the fresh air, and arrived at the front door of the Surf, Hunt 'n Ski to find it closed. At the same moment, in Karori, Admin Hakune was running for his life. He'd been emptying the bins in front of a large, two-storey town house, when down the side of the property the owner's Doberman pinscher slipped its collar. Admin managed his fastest ten metres in years. He scrambled for the top of the Bedford, just ahead of the animal. Then, realising he was trapped but safe, he stretched out to sunbathe on the roof until rescued. Meanwhile, the Maxwells were also beginning to enjoy their time off with pay and were driving up the Ngauranga Gorge to Paekak and the beach.
Francis Koy had been awake since five o'clock. He was sitting at the kitchen table, trying to make sense of his rapidly deteriorating accounts. Koy had just resolved that he had to be brave and do something, and not let these people suck the life out of him, when there was a knock at his door. He opened it to find Tipping and Howse, with their scarred, tattooed faces, waiting on the step. Without so much as a greeting they told Koy that they had more sacks to store; he'd got to come with them to the funeral parlour at eight that evening. Koy objected. The men answered that if he didn't shut up they'd be happy to tip off the cops about the first sacks.
'You're fucked, mate,' Howse said.
Then they laughed, pushed their way into the flat and helped themselves to breakfast.
Here, will you just listen? Soon all our troubles will be over. Care, solicitude, concern, trial and travail, misfortune, mishap, mischance, evil, ill and injury, bane, pain, harm and hurt, tragedy, fragility, extremity and misery--all of it, all will end, because soon Grandpa Geary will return to Rama Crescent. Look up, and you'll see his Volkswagen at the top of the bend, a vehicle too small for the Father Christmas-shaped figure hunched at the wheel. Grandpa Geary's heavy shoulders spread almost across both front seats. His head, balding and bearded, seems to have been jammed onto his portly body without thought to a neck, and he glances about with watery eyes that are not quite paying attention to the road. Fortunately, this does not matter--he's already pulling into the right-of-way up to his house, which is behind the Holmes's. Grandpa Geary has come back, after weeks away preparing at his bach in Paraparaumu, because at last the weather is right.
In the garage, Grandpa Geary climbs stiffly out of his car while reaching for his stick. He suffers from arthritis in his left leg and takes garlic tablets to ease the pain at night--his breath is something hard to love. He's nobody's grandfather in particular but that is what everyone calls him because he seems like everyone's grandpa: a red-faced, cheery, old fellow, someone who has always been there, but whose origins are in fact obscure and his habits occasionally secretive. His round frame and his stiff leg work in a well-practised shuffle-and-roll along the path at the side of the house to the door. A Bob Charles T-shirt is straining to contain his oversized belly, and the pyjamas that he loves to wear under his clothes at all times peep out from his collar and the bottoms of his old-fashioned trousers.
From inside his house, twenty minutes later, a soft, muffled sound of machinery begins to emerge: the constant clicking and lapping of a printing press.
Well, I can tell you something more about Grandpa Geary than the neighbours know. He was born in Plimmerton and he grew up there until the outbreak of the Second World War, when he cut short his youth by joining the Air Force. He was trained hastily and sent overseas. He arrived in England and enjoyed himself at first, but his travels and excitements came at the price of combat. Soon Grandpa Geary saw more than enough action to feel that getting involved at all had been an atrocious mistake--and since he chooses to draw a veil over the details of what happened, so shall I. After being demobbed, he took up an apprenticeship with a Wellington engraver and determined to settle down once more. He married a local girl; they had a son. In his dreams each night Grandpa Geary saw himself raising the boy properly into a better, more fulfilled generation of Geary, but there was now something indescribably out of kilter in Grandpa Geary's manner, something that had come back with him from the war, and it seemed to inspire restlessness in others. His wife deserted him. She went to Australia, taking the child with her. Dog-eared postcards appeared from different, almost random places--Cairns, Alice Springs, Perth--and each asked for money, which Grandpa Geary sent. Then the postcards stopped.
Grandpa Geary returned to the sort of cosy, lonely bachelorhood often found in boys'-magazine heroes. He took up the jazz trumpet and aimed to learn by ear the entire repertoire of the early Louis Armstrong. His neighbours complained bitterly, but he persisted until he had a good list of tunes, all of which he played badly. He became a lover of rich food and delicate wines, and while the city proceeded to expand due to forces demographic and economic so did his own waistline, a coincidence which Grandpa Geary never once noticed. When he retired from his job, he moved to a town house in Rama Crescent and decided that for the next year his major project would be to read. He'd heard other people saying they wanted to tackle War and Peace, and so he settled on it almost by accident, because after a lifetime of compromised expectations, Grandpa Geary remained undaunted: he was a man who looked only to the future. The day after he'd read the last page of Tolstoy's epic, he thought of devoting all his personal energy and time to changing the world for the better.
'Surely goodness and mercy will be here with me all the days of my life,' Grandpa Geary was fond of quoting from his Bible--not quite accurately--as he awoke to each sunny or cloudy morning, 'and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.'
It was no easy task, improving the world. Getting started was harder than Grandpa Geary had first thought. He spent long periods devoted to research in the Wellington Library. He attended some public lectures, subscribed to a few magazines. The experts in this area seemed to feel that any type of solution would require a staff, facilities and a budget. It was important to build networks, to stage conferences, to publish and, above all, not to rush into anything. But Grandpa Geary faced life's large-sized questions with the simple confidence of an autodidact. Very carefully and deliberately, he formed a plan.
And so, at lunchtime after his return, Grandpa Geary made himself an omelette with two fresh eggs, chopped up a small side-salad and turned on the radio to check the weather forecast yet again, because saving everybody would depend, more than anything, on the weather. The news started just as he was knocking his omelette out of the pan. The dramatic opening music died away, and the newscaster's voice announced a crash in the world's stock markets. The Dow Jones Index in New York had fallen further than in any day in history--even further than in the dark days of October 1929. The bottom was dropping out of the Barclays Index. Stocks and shares were near to worthless. This was a black, black Monday. Grandpa Geary switched the radio off; he didn't care to hear this sort of poorly suppressed whining, the sort which suggested the newscaster had his own portfolio disintegrating at home. There was no special need to wait for the weather--she was going to be good. Grandpa Geary had childhood memories of 1929, but they didn't matter, none of it did, because tonight he was going to make everything all right.
He heard the sound of Wayne Holmes's big car as he ate--it accelerated frantically up the Holmes's drive and then took off along the street with a squeal of tyres. After finishing his meal, Grandpa Geary put the dirty dishes in the sink and decided to visit Renee. He guessed that Wayne didn't look after her enough; perhaps a lack of something in common was pushing them apart. He had a nose for these things. He left the house and then shuffled down the gravel right-of-way, cutting through a gap in the hedge. In a few minutes he arrived puffing at the Holmes's back door.
Renee was crying when she heard his knock. She recovered herself as well as she could before she went to the door and opened it.
'Oh, Grandpa. Come in.'
'How've you been, dearie?' he said. She looked terrible, he thought. Bloodshot eyes. He wondered if she'd been drinking and asked, 'Have I come at a bad time?'
'No, no. It's okay.'
He followed Renee through the kitchen into the dining-room. Grandpa Geary sat beside her at a rimu table, a lovely thing that was still shiny with its elaborate factory-polish. He ran his plump fingers along it. They always had such nice things in this house--he had to pull his attention away from the room to concentrate on Renee. She sat agitatedly on the edge of her chair. Her hair, he noticed, was so dirty that it was sticking out like greasy straw from the back of her head, and her face looked awfully drawn.
'What's the matter?' he asked.
'I can't tell you.' Renee sniffed. 'Sorry.'
But she seemed about to break down. In a moment of inspiration Grandpa Geary thought of the stock-market crash.
'Don't worry, dearie. Don't worry. Really, everything'll come right.' He added, 'It's always darkest before the dawn.'
Renee shivered--it was an unfortunate expression. Grandpa Geary stroked his chin under his shaggy grey beard.
'How about a cup of tea?' he said. 'I'll get it.'
He stood up awkwardly and went back into the kitchen to plug in the kettle. As he went, he called over his shoulder, 'Where's Brenda?'
Grandpa Geary put tea-bags into some cups. He came back into the dining-room.
'You know, when I was a little boy, oh, about four or so, I had this terrible dream one night. I dreamed I'd died. But God came and said that it was a shame, because I was so young and that, and so He'd put me in another world just like the one I'd left, see? A sort of a perfect copy. Well, then I woke up. But then I wasn't sure if that was only dreaming or if I'd really died and gone to this other world. So for about, oh, three days, I watched my parents and my cobbers every minute, to see if there were any differences or anything. You know, anything in their appearance or what they did that'd give the show away.'
'Oh, I jacked it in. There wasn't any chance I could beat God. Anyway, I reckoned if there was a difference I'd never be able to find it, and if there wasn't, it didn't matter.' Grandpa Geary smiled. 'I'll never know.'
Renee could hear the sound of the kettle bubbling hard somewhere, as if it might boil itself dry. Pushing aside her troubles at last, she wondered if, maybe, she should do something about it.
'Don't you worry over a thing, dearie,' Grandpa Geary was saying. He'd forgotten the jug--his reassurances were reminding him that he needed to go take care of his project. 'We'll soon make everything right,' he said. 'Believe me.'
It was evening. Wayne had spent the day trying to see his stockbroker and then driving home to check whether Renee had heard anything, and then driving off to see his stockbroker again, and so on. He took tranquillisers, and he drove. But his broker remained unavailable and Renee heard nothing about Brenda from the kidnapper. When Wayne sat at home, each time focusing on Renee and hugging her close, he felt less and less like going out anywhere, ever again--but a sense of guilt over just doing nothing would force him to head for the car once more. And so that evening, in between taking more of his tranquillisers, Wayne ate a distracted dinner which Renee had prepared. He did not taste it, he didn't even register that he was eating. He bent over his plate at the table, slumped one moment in exhaustion, the next wriggling uncontrollably with an excess of energy, as he watched his wife walk about turning the lights on. They'd still not heard from the kidnapper, nothing. Wayne wanted talk to the guy, man to man. He wanted to explain about the money, his debts, how he'd sold everything and found his finances were wrecked.
At last, he decided to go out and drive around again. What else could he do? As his Mercedes coasted down the street, its headlights flashed across the rusty skip on Mavis Bigger's front lawn.
From her window Mavis saw the car go. She glared at the dark shape of the still-unclaimed bin--clearly, it was visible from the street--and went to fetch a torch. Then she opened the front door and trudged out on her unsteady legs across the lawn's lush, new grass. With her torch she peered over the skip's rim for her tiny rubbish bag--all she could see along the bottom was a great jumble of soiled disposable-nappies. Mavis muttered to herself on the way back to the house. This was what happened when one dealt with a haulage company that didn't speak the Queen's English, and when one's property was left outside far too near the fence and at the mercy of the public.
Mavis Bigger was a gossip and a snob of the old-school sort: she was without peer in the art of withering praise. 'The Tings,' she'd say, 'they're Chinese...but nice.' Her family was poor--her father had owned a marginal farm and walked off his land in 1927--but there were upper-class connections back in England that she was not about to forget. At every election her vote for National cancelled out Lawrence's and drove him nearly mad. They had no children, and during their married life she'd wanted to work with charity, to help her homeless, her intemperate and her Maoris. But the welfare state--Lawrence had always been so proud of it, as if he himself had come up with the idea. It made the poor lazy and fat...and then scarcely poor at all. How could she forgive him? In Rama Crescent she'd cleaned the house with scrupulous care, cooked an endless succession of roast dinners--spring, summer, autumn, winter--and watched the doings on the street from behind the curtains of her high front-windows.
Many years ago now, it seemed, Lawrence Bigger had semi-officially retired from business life and he and Mavis had gone together on a Tiki Tour of Europe. They saw things. They saw eight countries in three weeks, which was all too much of mouldy civilisation and cathedrals, plus a stopover in Hong Kong on the way back that was only funny food and dreadful heat. But at one point, as they were taken on a coach tour through northern France, they passed near Caen and the bus began to wind up a switchback road through steep, scrubby countryside, startlingly reminiscent of home. The passengers, all elderly, irritable New Zealanders in the wrong clothes and with colds and bulky traveller's bags, were suddenly overcome with a strange feeling, something powerful and united in its yearning that they understood, at last, was nostalgia. Oh! they were impatient with this foreign malarkey. Now they all just wanted to get back to the tea towels, the Taranaki gates, the pikelets and pre-match hakas that remained of their own lives--in their own land, whose superiority each had ceased to doubt. Some of the women sent up a moan that sounded frighteningly like a keen; the men battled to hold back bitter tears.
Their driver had kept up an occasional commentary on the sights but spoke no English. Their tour guide, a little, energetic French brunette with a large peaked cap, stood beside him at the front of the bus and worked with difficulty to interpret his words, despite the wave of confused emotion which, she noticed, was engulfing the passengers. They were sick of Europe and its memorials to invasion and vanity. French, Mavis observed to her private satisfaction, was a dead language: only the French spoke it. As they rounded another green and rugged bend, the driver muttered something and the tour guide gestured outside through the broad, tinted windows.
'He say that this is the place they like to hunt the animal very wild, very dangerous.'
'Go on, what do they bloody get?' an intrusive voice called from the rear.
The tour guide leaned over to consult the driver, who was wrestling with the steering-wheel. He mumbled back angrily, 'Le porc sauvage.'
The tour guide thought for a moment.
'Savage, he say--the savage pork.'
The bus exploded with relieved laughter. The desperate gaiety bounced off the windows. The women hooted, the men roared, everyone was talking--not hearing the tour guide trying to tell how, just recently, a boar had cornered a local child and ripped her stomach.
Savage pork!--how quickly we draw a veil of chatter across the evil we see about us every day in la vie as she is vied. Is it a natural instinct? How quickly we let a system decide for us that poverty, violence and prejudice occur only to other people in newsprint and rumour, and according to principles economic and demographic--and we and Mr Richards are wrong, wrong and always wrong. We New Zealanders are a deeply conservative people whose uncomplicated, practical nature sometimes leads us to radical acts. In 1840, we were the first-ever country to adopt the eight-hour working day and, in 1893, the first to give women the vote--because each seemed like a good idea. Later, in 1984, we banned nuclear weapons for similar reasons: we didn't like them. We were not thinking politically; we forgot to consider 'politics'. Conservative or radical, the value of any system depends on its noisy executors, who turn out to be not experts or teachers, but all of us. The world's greatest men and women have been people too simple with themselves to avoiding grasping this simple fact.
And Grandpa Geary was one--he'd come to the conclusion that the main cause of unhappiness in the world was the same as the solution: people needed money. Money was the world's most divisive, most useful commodity, but there was not enough of it. Tonight, he'd do something about that.
Sometime before eight o'clock, Mavis Bigger saw that light was starting to come once more through the gap in her bedroom curtains, that light from the old dairy's windows. Couldn't those people get some drapes? How was she going to sleep? Pressing her nose to the glass, Mavis watched Harry Watson--there he was again--standing with Brenda Holmes cradled in his arms. Mavis remembered Wayne Holmes and her husband and how they'd argued that morning a week before, but then she decided not to let that cloud her judgement. Well, she was not incapable of forgiveness, and something, yes, something had to be done. Mavis went to the front hall. She faced the telephone, one of her electrical enemies within her own house. Then she picked up the receiver and started to dial--'dial,' Mavis thought with scorn, as she tentatively pushed at the buttons: even the language no longer matched reality. The whole thing gave her trouble, it always did; she had to try several times.
Renee Holmes answered in a tiny, frightened voice.
'Hullo, Mrs Holmes? It's Mavis Bigger here. I must say, I'm surprised to find you at home. What do you think is the meaning of all this?'
'Hullo? I...what's the matter with you?' Mavis's voice was chirping with anger. 'Don't you care about your own child?'
'My child? What are you--?'
'I'm afraid that, look...you can't just leave little Brenda with any baby-sitter like that. Really, it's not right. She's far too young.'
'Yes, yes, but there are some things that just cry out to be said. I mean, well, I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but he's filled up my bin with all her nappy-pad things, and now he's walking her about with all the lights on.'
Renee was shouting. It was most inconsiderate--Mavis could not understand a word. But she felt it probably wasn't worth trying to listen and pressed on.
'Now, I know I shouldn't interfere, heaven knows, but that old dairy next door is no place for a little baby. Do you hear? It's not safe and, well, I've lived in this neighbourhood quite a long time and I think I ought to know what's what.'
Mavis put down the receiver on the hall-stand and went to console herself with a cup of tea. She was sure it was all perfectly scandalous.
As soon as Renee Holmes realised that her baby and its kidnapper were only at the end of the street, she became frantic. She tried at first to ring Wayne in his car. But her telephone wouldn't work--Mavis had forgotten to replace the receiver. Renee's heart raced. She felt frozen with panic. 'Do something!' she yelled at herself out loud. The back door--she ran to it. She opened it and then hesitated: the inky dark seemed to swirl in. No moon. There wasn't even any moon. It was impossible. She turned away. Shaking and sweating, she began to pull open all the curtains along the back windows, until a wide area of the rear section was lit up with house lights. Renee steeled herself. Her lungs were heaving. She managed to return to the open back door. Her legs were heavy and had to be dragged. At the doorway she pitched herself forward like a diver, down the paved steps and out into the night.
Renee felt sick as she dashed, whimpering, across the deeply shadowed lawn. Squinting to find the gap in the hedge. On the other side, the darkness was complete. Her shoes scuffed on loose gravel, she went blindly up the right-of-way. But soon she was banging at Grandpa Geary's wooden door. The house was empty, the lights were off. It was too much for Renee. Her knees buckled and she sat sobbing on the rubber doormat. Then, in desperation, she struggled to her feet and staggered down the driveway, no longer sure what was happening. She blundered off the path--branches grabbed at her face. Renee shrieked, attempting to push herself free, and went by mistake into more branches. She reached the street, scratched, bleeding, and ran up the road through patches of light from street-lamps, on and on, until suddenly, ahead of her out of nowhere...was a lighted telephone-box.
A few minutes later Wayne received a stricken, almost incoherent call on the phone in his car.
Wayne had already been on his way home. When he finally understood where Brenda was, he slammed his foot onto the accelerator. The engine surged. He raced through the bends of the Ngaio hills as fast as his car could take the corners. The banks of rough grass swept past as a mere blur in his headlights. He overtook recklessly--honking to clear the road. Within minutes he was hurtling down the bumpy slopes of Calcutta and Bengal Streets. At the turn-off to Rama Crescent, he squeezed by an ancient lorry in which were Francis Koy, the tattooed, scarred Tipping and Howse, and their new load of chemicals. Down the road, Wayne could see the uncompleted mortuary coming up towards him, fast.
In the last instants before Wayne decided not to slow down, his mind made a thousand promises to God. He promised to be good, he promised to obey, he promised to do his best, to do his duty, to help someone every day: he did not care how silly he sounded, he would promise anything--if only, only! he could have his daughter back. All he wanted was to get to the right place in the right time. The car leapt the curb at the narrow gutter...and flew.
Wayne felt a brief sense of motion sickness. The funeral parlour came up and filled his gaze. Then with a long, rippling crash the sports car sliced through the front wall, the building supports, a partition wall, and smashed into the sacks leaning against the rear. Wayne was slammed into an airbag. The powdered ammonium nitrate ignited in a crackling roar that shot flame along the ceiling of the building.
Dazed, Wayne dragged himself from the wreck of his car. His hair and eyebrows were gone; he saw the tops of his shoes were burning off. He raised an arm against the heat and stared at the flames. Everything around him was on fire. But he could see his daughter--Harry Watson was with her, keeping her safe in a corner, shielding her in his arms. Wayne couldn't breathe. He covered his face and ran for Brenda. He took her from Harry, and the two of them forced their way over to the nearest window. Harry broke it with his elbow. They scrambled out as parts of the roof started to collapse. Wayne was clasping his daughter to his chest with one arm, the other around Harry's shoulders for support. He found the street full of gesticulating people who were mouthing at him silently--after the blast both Wayne and Harry could hear nothing, not even the noise of the fire engines approaching the top of the crescent.
And as Wayne stood facing his eerily quiet neighbours, money began to fall out of the sky.
It was a cloudburst of dangling green twenties, all kereru's and Queen Elizabeth's, softly descending. In the noise and excitement, no one had noticed a single-engined Cessna banking low overhead. Grandpa Geary was at the controls. He gunned the motor and passed over the streets again with a dull rumble, lights flashing, hopper doors open. For months he'd been printing his own money, storing it in rubbish bags in his house and spending long periods practising his flying at Paraparaumu. He'd even conducted a test over Newtown one morning with shredded newspaper, where he learned the necessity of perfect, windless weather. Tonight, the notes from his plane fanned out behind him and fluttered earthwards in a uniform, intricate spread. Roads, lawns, flower-beds, vegie gardens, sun-decks, driveways were dusted with money--and clogged with ecstatic people. They were climbing up into trees and onto the roofs, and knelt everywhere all over the street. Nobody would let the fire engines get through to the accident. When the police managed to arrive, they found two scarred, tattooed men with a lorry-load of stolen goods, unable to escape in the traffic.
Grandpa Geary smiled down from the heavens, pulled back on the controls and headed for other neighbourhoods.
Wayne Holmes will lose his job tomorrow. After the stock-market crash he will be unable to meet payments on his debts and will declare himself bankrupt. He'll live in his large and increasingly tumbledown house, his assets frozen, playing with his daughter and taking care of the cooking and family chores. His hearing will return. Patches of premature grey will form along his sideburns, and he'll put on a little weight. He'll continue to take prescription tranquillisers for anxiety, in doses regulated by Renee, but the attacks will remain infrequent. Renee Holmes will completely lose her fear of the dark. She will take up a part-time job as a typist to help pay for looking after Brenda and buying food. She'll keep her figure, and she'll stay remarkably resilient whenever the power and gas are cut off, or when things break down that cannot be repaired. She and Wayne will be very happy together.
Francis Koy will be arrested, along with the tattooed, scarred Tipping and Howse, but then he'll be set free due to lack of evidence against him. Tipping and Howse, so uniquely scarred and tattooed that their recent movements can be easily described by witnesses in court, will receive six years each in Mount Crawford. After the fire, Koy will decide not to open a discount-mortuary in Rama Crescent after all (considerably to the satisfaction of Pauline Mason), and he'll rebuild the dairy with the insurance money as a profitable mini-mart. There, he will spend much of the day chatting with customers like Wayne Holmes. The Maxwell brothers will have the contract for the rebuilding, with an advantageous clause including all subsequent maintenance.
Harry Watson's hearing will also return, and he'll receive his wish. At first, he will be declared not guilty of kidnapping by way of insanity in the Supreme Court and then spend several months in psychiatric care. However, he'll soon be recommended for a sex-change operation, after which, to the delight of government statisticians, he'll be successfully rehabilitated into society. Harriet Watson will work in another part of the country, as a Karitane nurse.
Mavis Bigger will sell her story to the newspapers and become the darling of the tabloids. She'll be visited frequently by Truth reporters, whose questions she'll seldom hear as she recounts her own opinions. She'll not feel lonely any more, as a television commercial will make her face famous. Admin Hakune will collect a little cash when Grandpa Geary opens his hopper doors over Porirua. With it, Admin will go to the local TAB and gamble recklessly on outsiders. After four doubles and two quinellas come in, he'll return home quietly and move his entire household to Khandallah.
Grandpa Geary will be arrested near dawn, as he lands his light plane at Rongotai Airport to reload for the fifth time. He will be given a suspended sentence. He'll continue in good health and form plans for a new, even grander project. The money will never be recovered--not one single dollar.
Well, that about concludes our class for today. You may pick up your bags, pull your wet jerseys off the radiators and wait at your desks for the bell. But, as you go out to play, you shouldn't forget what you've heard. Because this has been a sad, sad story with a happy ending--and if you'd like to hear the sound of perfect happiness, simply close your eyes and mouths, sit very still, and listen.
Copyright Ian Richards, 2008
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