The Squalid Tea of Mercer

Ian Richards

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(This is a revised version of the story which first appeared in Everyday Life in Paradise.)

The town of Mercer was conjured up and named in memory of Captain Henry Mercer of the British Royal Artillery, who was killed nearby in 1863 at the Battle of Rangiriri, one of the major actions of the Land Wars. The battle, a brutal day-long engagement which resulted in the loss of over seventy lives, including Henry Mercer's, was later referred to in the history books as crucial in 'suppressing' the local Maori tribes. In any case, this naming of the town did nothing to pacify Henry Mercer's brother back in England; he published a polemic arguing that Henry's death was due to the incompetence of his senior officer. The brother had already conducted an interminable dispute with the Duke of Cambridge during the Crimean War, and on hearing about the town he merely concluded, more strongly than ever, that there was a personal vendetta among the British military to ruin his family. At length the township itself fell into gradual decline. By the present day Mercer has dwindled to 219 inhabitants living hemmed in between the confines of its twin features: the railway line and the gun turret. Oh, picture this nondescript place if you can through the fog of its utter ordinariness. Will it help if I tell you that, in an effort to keep up its practical value, the gun turret has already served variously in Mercer's short history as a form of defence, a gaol and, at last, a war memorial? Or that the town's only other claim to distinction is being the butt of A.R.D. Fairburn's famous pun? On a train journey in the 1940s, he alighted at the station for refreshment at five in the morning, contemplated the leaves floating in his thick white railways-cup and announced to the joy of his literary chums, 'The squalid tea of Mercer is not strained.' Nobody in Mercer minded, but that is probably because nobody in Mercer ever knew about it.

Furthermore, no one outside the town has noticed, before us, that a lanky, broad-shouldered youth named Brian Fingan lived just off the main street. He was a shy but good-hearted lad, though this is no excuse for ignoring him, since that was what he was supposed to be. And so it's perhaps no surprise, in such a narrow environment, that the townspeople paid no more than perfunctory attention when he married Noreen Cately, a girl they thought far too ugly even to be called plain but with a formidableness of character which served her well. Brian and Noreen were important only to each other. She took her tall, pliable Brian and he took his sensible, available Noreen, and together they moved to Palmerston North. Palmerston North: because Brian was a builder and, at the time, in the late-1950s, that was where trade seemed best, and Palmerston North because Noreen couldn't stand Mercer any longer and anyplace, even Palmy, had to be an improvement. Yes, the Fingans were an average, respectable couple, but not just 'respectable' in the modern sense of keeping up appearances. There is also the archaic sense of being worthy of reference, and so this story of theirs, I think, can contain no special scandal or censure where they are concerned.

Brian Fingan was a little slow to start, but once he got moving he was always a good worker. At least this was what his mates, being mates, all said. In any case, tradesmen have always been a privileged class in New Zealand, with a privileged income. Soon Brian and Noreen had saved enough for a mortgage on a section near the river and for the necessary building materials. Brian put up the house himself. He hoped very much to make a home worthy of Noreen. He was grateful that she'd enabled him to marry and be the ordinary person he'd always wanted to be. And when his shirts reappeared washed, ironed and folded in the dresser drawer, most of the time, he was wise enough to know that he was lucky. Best of all, she was a big-bottomed girl. When Brian placed his hands on either side of Noreen's hips as prelude to a conjugal encounter, he felt as if the gates to a kingdom of bliss were swinging open for him.

Brian put a spacious living-room at the centre of the house-front, with a picture window looking out onto the porch and lawn, and with its view unimpeded to the footpath, grass verge and road. On both sides he placed wide main doors, with passageways running to the back of the house. He was delighted by the majestic look their symmetry offered. But this proved a disastrous error, since guests, on arrival, never knew which of the doors to use. Brian and Noreen were constantly answering the wrong one with their attitudes of greeting properly prepared, only to be frantically waving to guests across the porch who were, all too often, not looking at them. In later years, Noreen pestered Brian to do something about it; but a design problem is one that can never be truly resolved. Similarly, from saving money by building the house himself, Brian had been able to buy a section nearly half as large again as his neighbours'--and too late he saw that his enormous back yard would be a source of showy embarrassment. Here, Noreen suggested he redress the balance by dividing up the rear of the section. Brian put in a large brick barbecue at the far end and a vine-covered trellis; then there was an area of trees and shrubs surrounding a toolshed, before the washing-line and the house. In this way, no one coming through the house or looking over the fence could ever see too much of the yard at once. Brian painted the exterior a vague, pale green that would blend in with all the lawn and foliage around it, and he painted the roof red, because that was the colour of all the other roofs in the neighbourhood.

Oh, the late-1950s was a period in the country's history when everybody seemed to be living in neighbourhoods like this. Everyone seemed to be new and from somehere else. The Fingans tried their utmost to get along with their neighbours and, inevitably, succeeded by being unfashionable. They were the sort of couple who drank tea, because that was what everybody drank--when the really fashionable copied the Americans and drank coffee. Much later, when everyone started drinking coffee in the mid-1970s, the Fingans waited until it was widespread enough to change, by which time the fashionable were drinking herbal teas or decaffeinates. They adjusted themselves, because the bottom of Albert Street was the sort of area where, of course, you might have Maoris living next door, but somehow they were all in the pocket of state houses off in Crewe Crescent. Because it was the sort of place where it just didn't do if you failed to keep up your front garden and mow the lawns. And if you were putting an extra room on the house, people came round whether you liked them or not, to give advice or just to offer appreciation. Here, Brian was pleased that he could always hold his own. And in this neighbourhood, women usually whipped up a batch of scones when the men gathered. Prudent Noreen had already learned to be an efficient cook. Oh, they made one of those young couples who thought they were embarking on an adventure together, but whom we, inasmuch as we know better, now think were colonising their own lives with some suburban ideal. But why should we be so grandiose about people who were just trying to live in their own time? With what proper tone should we observe that the Fingans' two children, Diane and Matthew, were born with the same antiseptic, three-year interval between them as most children were in the other young families nearby? And have we, even with the superiority of our hindsight, ever managed to conceive of a better place for a family to live in than a suburb?

But communication between the ever-busier Brian and Noreen soon became ineffectual, routine. It was not that they didn't care for each other, rather that their lives offered them little to say. In the morning, Brian got out of bed at the last minute. He wandered into the living-room in his dressing gown and glanced with disappointment out the window at the fine blue sky; it meant he'd have to go to work. Then he crossed through the dining-room to the breakfast-bar and asked his wife, who was already up doing woman-things in the kitchen, to put the kettle on.

'The pressure's low in the pipes,' Noreen said as she ran the cold tap.

'Go over to the Burgesses' later,' said Brian, 'and see if it's the water supply.'

'Perhaps it's just us.'

Brian rubbed his hands through his hair and around one of his carefully cultivated sideburns. He didn't want to go out and check the toby-box. He said, 'The river's probably low.'

'What river?'

'The reservoir river, the Manawatu.'

'The Manawatu River's filthy.'

'No it isn't. They clean it up.'

Noreen put the kettle on the stove. She offered, 'The girl at the hairdresser's says the Manawatu River runs backwards.'

'What would she know?'

'Her husband works for the Catchment Board. She said that river, it starts in up in the eastern Ruahines. You know, then it heads west over the ranges to the Tasman.'

'Well, what do you expect?' mumbled Brian. 'Mountain water, that'd always involve some climbing.'

'Water can't climb.'

'But you just said it did.'

'I said it runs backwards. That's probably why the pressure's low.'

'The pressure's low because the river's low.'

Noreen shouted, 'Well how can it be low when it climbs all the way over the Ruahine Ranges?'

Thus the conversation: nobody could claim they didn't try. At this point, Matthew Fingan, a boy whose features were a rough-hewn version of his father's, but a smaller lad and more delicately built, came in before school. He noticed his mum was angry and dad was ignoring her, but he still chose to ask mum furtively for pocket money to buy lollies. This seemingly trivial intrusion was set in motion by a chain of events of great significance.

In New Zealand most children have, relatively, little to fear outside their homes: no snakes or deadly spiders lurking in the undergrowth; no undue crashing and banging from the restrained electrical storms in the large skies; and no history of invisible witches, goblins or fairies inhabiting the bush, which is empty to the point of monotony. Perhaps that's why New Zealand children like to be outside so much. In Mercer the young Brian Fingan would have grown up more bored than he usually was, had it not been for earthquakes. Earthquakes in Mercer were few but they had quality--good, solid shakes--and after the ground had left his feet a few times Brian Fingan developed a morbid fear: when his mother was out of the house, a crack might open in the ground and swallow him up. His mother, who did work as a farm cook, solved the problem in the simplest way possible. Each day she left little Bri with a small white paper-bag of boiled sweets, twisted closed at the corners. He could open it and then suck his way through the lollies, and his anxieties, until her return.

Years after the grown-up Brian's fear of earthquakes was gone, his love of children's sweets remained. When dealing with anything outside his limited experience, he still felt anxious--the more so since he knew he wasn't supposed to--but he always felt strangely secure when biting into an airplane or munching a hard jube. At night he dreamed sometimes of buzz bars, eskimo-men and red smokers: avid dreams--and he woke with guilt. Dreaming of women: he knew that was normal, but this? Brian told no one. He certainly never told Noreen, because he guessed that she was attracted to the qualities in him that involved manliness. No man admitted to paroxysms of need when he saw a child slurping a mouthful of jelly babies, or to preferring a spaceman cigarette to a real one. Brian's shame was almost deeper than his desire. Brian Fingan was a good husband: he didn't drink heavily or get violent; he was fair with the housekeeping money--and those were the standards of the time. And he loved his children--but he would never allow them to eat sweets. Bad for the teeth, better to learn going without: he used any excuse available. His children, particularly his son, bitterly resented this and watched their father become increasingly inflexible as they grew up.

Brian's instincts were right: Noreen wouldn't have understood his anxiety. At least not then, because her life from the first was a battle to improve on her poor start. By playing hockey out on the school fields each day in the rain she managed to keep her parents satisfied, while getting the education she wanted in a town where only sports counted. She worried about ending up too brainy for her classmates, but fortunately it turned out that her talents lay in practical subjects like home economics, where it was all right to get top marks. By marrying she overcame the disadvantages of her misshapen, blocky figure and of her face with its heavy brow and jaw. Beforehand, she was almost obsessively nervous about her wedding night but found that she rather liked sex and, with Brian anyway, it was never too much fuss for too long. By managing to leave Mercer Noreen reached, she felt, the bright lights of a city of seventy-thousand people, with the competitive cut and thrust of city life. Giving birth alone in a large public hospital frightened her, but the doctor offered her an injection each time and, when she woke up, she was shown her baby. Now with everything she wanted, Noreen happily devoted herself to keeping it, easily seeing off the Rawleigh's man and the Jehovah's Witnesses--until one spring day in October 1962. She turned on the radio--there was no television in New Zealand then--and learned that the leaders of the two most powerful nations on earth were about to destroy the world, over the site of some missiles on an obscure Caribbean island.

The news filled Noreen with panic. With no chance to vote for or against President Kennedy, and certainly no chance for her to influence Mr Khrushchev, she wondered why the designs of these men should include blowing up her part of the planet. It was just after lunch and Brian was at work; the kids were at school and kindy. Noreen went out to the carport and got into the car, an old grey Austin A30, shaped like a bubble. She drove it to the butcher's to buy a rolled roast for tea and realised, as she drove, that the meal might be their last, or might even never happen. She could scarcely bare her aching sadness. Noreen looked out of the window at the clear blue sky, at the dazzling light on the grass verges and roof-tops, at the ordered breaks in the rows of houses as she passed the corners of Centennial Drive and Ihaka Street, and she thought that it was just too nice a day for the end of the world. We know from history that reason prevailed and within a week civilisation was safe; if thousands of nuclear weapons loaded and poised to fire in an instant can be reasonably described in such terms. But Noreen could never again enjoy the illusion of feeling able to cope with everything; now she had anxieties of her own. Of course, she told nobody. Her neighbours, friends and her husband were all convinced that Armageddon, like everything else, could only happen overseas. However, Noreen started to become an expert, gradually and without obvious effort, on nuclear weapons and nuclear-disarmament talks. Each day she watched the news for developments, and over the years as the talks on weapons failed to keep up even with their proliferation, she became less and less optimistic.

In a displacement, perhaps, of the clearly worthless government advice to duck and cover, Noreen's instinctive response to the international nuclear situation was a renewed determination to make her family never stand out. She strove for them to live camouflaged--it's not too strong a word--and so she became distant and something of a martinet. Noreen never really forgave Brian for those two front doors on the house and all they represented, but it was with her daughter that she clashed most often and most bitterly. As Diane grew up, Noreen made sure that her child looked like everyone else by insisting that her face be free of make-up, that her hair was cut long or short in opposition to fashion's dictates, and that her skirt reached her ankles at all times--no matter what Diane said all the other girls were wearing. Diane could go to dances on the condition that they were nearby, that she came straight home and she did not have a good time. She was encouraged to think about leaving school early and working in a shop. Diane had her mother's solid build, but she'd found a more amiable set of genes to shape her open, attractive face. As the sight of a handsome young man began to excite longings in her, she lay awake each night and wondered if she would ever manage to have a home, a husband and children of her own.


The Fingans had some neighbours named Doolan who were not always respectable. Barry Doolan was a real-estate agent who'd remained unsuccessful, despite the fact that people were buying land everywhere to set up houses. He was a craggy-faced, heavily built man, always a little overheated, with his barrel chest seemingly collapsed into his beer-pot. His wife, Lianne, whether by chance or design, looked much the same--except that her weight cascaded downwards from her broad, hunched shoulders all over her body. Her head was crowned with a shock of bright blonde hair of which she was inordinately proud, tying it up in garish styles which she could show to no one but the other women in the neighbourhood, since she was at home all day. But it was not the Doolans' appearance which was unacceptable, nor even the fact of their lack of material gain. Rather, in an egalitarian country where everyone agreed to remove poverty and wealth by pretending that neither existed, the Doolans remained so openly, shamelessly poor. They talked about the family budget at parties, they scrounged drinks at pubs, took home sausage-rolls for the old lady from after-match functions, discussed hubby's income over the back fence. And their evident happiness only made it worse. They were the casual, over-familiar sort of people whose loud, impulsive laughter you might hear ring out suddenly in a restaurant, making you wonder how they got inside in the first place. To the neighbourhood, the Doolan family was an endless embarrassment.

In the evening, Brian knocked off work at five. He drove home, parked the car in the newly added carport and, as he got out, he saw Barry Doolan coming up the driveway. It was summer; Barry's bulk was squeezed into a brown polyester knitshirt and a pair of cotton walk-shorts. He moved with difficulty, because the week before he'd been operated on for an ulcer--the doctors had cut a wide gash in his stomach and the stitches were not yet out. Brian felt sorry for Barry and invited him inside. Noreen made a cup of tea, and they sat at the dining-room table to the noise of the kids playing out in the back yard.

'How are you getting on?' Brian asked.

'Oh, keeping my head above water. The worst of it is, I can't have a beer. When a man can't have a beer in the evenings, life's come to a pretty poor pass.' Barry reached over to the sugar bowl and spooned more and more of the stuff (it was free) into his tea.

'Do let us know if there's any way we can help,' Noreen said.

'Thanks, but Lianne's got it all under control. She's a very admirable woman, is Lianne.'

'So when will you be back to work?'

'Well, there's no screaming hurry while I'm on disability. I reckon I'll get good enough to put in some time on the garden first. The worst of it is, I'm always under Lianne's feet and it feels as if some bloke's just put the boot in.'

'You know, I heard a good joke today,' Brian said quickly, before Noreen could stop him. 'Why wasn't God born in Australia?'

'Go on, why?'

'Because they couldn't find three wise men and a virgin.'

Doolan lifted back his head and exploded with laughter; he'd been born in Australia, though probably Brian did not know it. Doolan gripped the table as the laughter came out of him in great choking, jolting burps. Noreen shot Brian a look and he glanced away. But then they were distracted by a strange ripping sound and turned to see Barry Doolan's face frozen in the midst of his mirth. His fingers came up from the table. He pulled the shirt-bottoms out of his shorts. The stitches had gone; the contents of his stomach were emptying themselves into his lap. Lengths of colon, wrinkled and red, were slithering out through the gash into his hands. The appendix came, and what looked like a kidney plopped out, mixed with blood and slimy fluids. It all became too much for Barry's hands and slipped forwards onto the floor. He reached down, trying to gather it up--with a look of simple confusion on his face.

Noreen surprised Brian by staying calm. She went to the telephone and dialled for an ambulance. By that time, Barry's stomach had ceased flowing and he was sitting still, holding it all against himself, breathing heavily and afraid to speak. Brian longed for a gobstopper or a chocolate fish; in his mind he was untwisting each corner of the bag. He got up and went into the back yard, where the kids were knocking around a cricket ball.

'Don't come inside,' he said.

'Why not?' they asked. 'What is it?'

'Just don't come inside till I tell you!' he shouted and slammed the door.

In the distance, the wailing of an ambulance could be heard approaching. Noreen hated that sound. It meant the worst, an accident to somebody, somewhere, and this time it was coming for them--though they'd done nothing wrong. The St. John's van pulled up in front of the carport and two uniformed men rushed in with a canvas stretcher. They made Doolan sit on it. One man had to help him hold onto his intestines, so Brian took the far end of the stretcher as they carried him out.

'Don't worry,' one of the men said. 'We'll clean it up and put it all back.'

They closed the rear doors of the ambulance and drove off, without the siren, leaving the early evening as quiet as if none of this had ever happened.

Oh, who could forgive the Fingans for being so unattractive, so timid, so ordinary? Because when we forgive people like that, filtering out the bad in them like straining one of their endless cups of palliative tea, we become emptier and more ordinary ourselves. But holding a grudge, contrary as it sounds, now there is the way to build something that will last, a memorial. Only with the application of unwavering standards comes superior vision; though people, being people, just don't want to hear about this sort of thing.

Growing up, Matthew Fingan was good at drawing. He had a wonderful eye, and by twelve years of age his drawing could happily occupy him all day. At first he drew pictures of castles and dragons, spacemen and space monsters, with a remarkable detail that suggested realism. Later, he began to look in books and saw pictures of faraway places, which made him produce clear, half-imagined landscapes of other countries. All this was tolerated rather than accepted by his father; he felt there was something dangerously sissy about it when Matthew was at a crucial age. Had he known about the wickedly pornographic concoctions Matthew was just starting to put together, to the delight of his friends, Brian Fingan might not have been so worried. In fact, Matthew's main problem was that he had a sweet tooth. He'd learned, of course, that the best time to eat sweets was on the way home from school with his friends, and he was careful to remove all traces before entering the house. His father's ban was extended to soft drinks, which Matthew guzzled outside the dairy, and to cream buns and doughnuts--so that the prohibition added extra flavour when Mathew ate them at school lunchtimes or intervals. These complex pressures were building inside the young man when his best friend in all the world, Graeme Dickie, came to him one day after school and showed him a new label printed on a Moro bar. If you could collect just twenty Moro-bar wrappers, the label said, and send them in with an original picture before 1 August, then the ten best would go into a draw. It seemed there were so many, many prizes to be won. But the lucky grand winner would receive a year's supply of Moro bars and a free, all-expenses-paid trip to Disneyland. Mathew had never seen Disneyland, but he'd seen the television programme on Sunday evenings, and from the design helpfully etched on the chocolate-bar label he was pretty sure that Disneyland was a man-made, souped-up version of paradise--better, anyway, than the boring suburb in which he was growing up. By the last year of the 1960s New Zealanders still did not travel much, and Mathew had never met anyone who even knew of people who'd been to Disneyland. But it was perfect; in his own mind he was sure the place was even more wonderful than he could imagine.

Graeme Dickie had an old aunt who was mostly bedridden. She could move about with a walking-frame but she had reached the age when the world had to come to visit her, instead of vice-versa, and so someone decided that it would be nice if Graeme visited her after school on Mondays and Thursdays. Graeme's mother would ask if he'd been, and she would check; she seemed to be in collusion with the old biddy. Mathew used to accompany his mate, to show him just how much mates were prepared to suffer for each other, and because the old witch never bothered him as much as she seemed to scare his pal. It used to amuse Matthew the way Graeme called her 'Nanna'. The aunt, who received them in bed, was not a woman given to nostalgia, and so the conversation consisted mainly of disjointed comments about the weather, school-work and (from the boys) the performance of various local football teams. But there was something about the thinness of the old woman's hair stretched over her scalp, the tired lines of her mouth above the blankets, and the wrinkled and discoloured skin of her hands against the folded-over sheet that confirmed for Mathew, in an abstract way, the unpleasantness of being dead. On their way through to the kitchen to get some lime juice from the Frigidaire, the boys liked to open Nanna's purse on the hall table and help themselves to some of her loose change. Down at the dairy with her money they bought only Moro bars, sometimes throwing them away uneaten and keeping the wrappers. Matthew stored his collection inside an old tyre in the carport, and he made plans for a grand drawing that would be the summation of his life to date: a vast indictment of his obscure and tedious lot, leading to escape and a panorama with impressions of Disneyland.

Of course, Matthew got all the wrappers and completed his picture. Of course he sent it in and, of course, he was considered for the draw. He was selected, and when the news came that he was the Moro-bar winner chosen to go to Disneyland, his parents did not mind and even the old aunt understood. These were thoughts that meandered frequently through Matthew's head, none of them true. Sometimes he hoped that by wishing hard to see it happen, wishing systematically, he could make all this actually become visible through the fog of the everyday. But instead, one weekend when Brian Fingan went to change a wheel on the car--they now owned a nice, sky-blue Morris 1100--he found a tyre with sixteen damp chocolate-bar wrappers stuffed inside. He called his son out of the house where the boy was wasting his time with pencils and crayons again, and extracted a confession. Nothing more was said. Graeme Dickie's mother never learned about her son's pilfering; but Brian Fingan took off his belt, took his son round the back of the house and gave him a hiding that he would never forget. This proved to be literally true. Years later, when Mathew Fingan was a successful architect in Auckland--by now his sweet tooth was conquered and gone--from time to time he would feel the need to rush to a rundown hippie commune in Coromandel, or a seedy Buddhist temple in South-east Asia, in order to cleanse himself of his latent guilt, he realised, over his job. He blamed his parents.

The scene and date change to a barbecue in the Fingans' back yard, several years later. After the oil shock, the building industry hit a massive slump; there was very little work around. Noreen kept up an appearance of normality: she dipped into the family's savings and determined to increase their social involvement in the neighbourhood, though only in activities which didn't involve any controversy or commitment. The result was that the Fingans held several parties around this time. Noreen thought the parties might help drum up business, they might even help encourage people to pay up for work already done, and she liked to drink a glass of wine or two at these gatherings, because white wine was respectable now. And so everybody was relaxing down at the far end of the Fingans' section: the Burgesses, the Cranmers, the MacCullums and the Drakes. Even the Doolans had to be invited. After leaving real-estate, Barry had got into some property speculation that everyone said would end badly. There was a boom in property; he and Lianne were now almost millionaires, and they were just as noisily rich as they'd once been manifestly poor. Yes, it was a typical get-together and yet somehow a surprise, I believe, because something in a barbecue inverts normal patterns of behaviour. Men have the freedom to cook and to fuss about the food; women enjoy a chance to circulate and talk. The meal is outside; and on the Fingans' wooden table, arranged not too near the fire, were salads and vegetables which nobody was bothering to eat.

Brian Fingan was turning the steaks, and the neighbours were standing about with their paper cups in their hands while the children played under their feet. A mixture of simple conversation and occasional laughter seemed to float above the gathering.

'It's so nice to see you,' Noreen said to Barbara McMasters, who'd just arrived with her husband. 'Help yourself to salad if you're hungry.'

'Really, I don't know what things are coming to,' Barbara McMasters said. She poured some wine into a paper cup. 'I was in the post office two weeks ago, you know, to get some more stamps, because they'll put the charges up again, they always do. Well, this man with a balaclava over his head came in and told us all to lie down on the floor. He was holding a shotgun. So I didn't have any choice, I lowered myself onto that cold, cold lino while he waved a hand at the teller and started demanding money. Just like that. Well really--I spoke up. I said, "Look here, young man, I've slaved every day for half my life to put my savings into this place, just like I'm supposed to, and now you think you can just walk in here and take it out. Well, what makes you so entitled to ignore the rules? Didn't your mother love you enough? Didn't your father take care of you properly? You know, the day will come when you'll have to account for what you've done on your own, in this world or the next, and I for one shall want my pound of flesh." And he finally turned round and looked at me, with this sack of notes in his hand, and shouted, "Rave on, lady." I'll bet he really wanted to shoot me, only for telling him the truth. But he ran and they never did catch him.'

'I think you were very brave,' Noreen said, not really listening.

Everyone had already heard the story, again and again, and they all knew that Barbara McMasters was not going to get over it and would be telling it for years. Noreen disengaged herself and went into the house to get more orange cordial for the kiddies. She ran the cold tap and collected a pitcher of water; it came, incidentally, not from the Manawatu River at all but from a reservoir made by damming the Tiritea Stream. As she was going to the fridge, Noreen heard a strange sound coming from further inside the house. She headed towards the noise and opened the door to Diane's bedroom. Her teenage daughter, partially naked, was straddled on top of the Burgesses' eldest boy and moaning in the transports of sexual pleasure. The pitcher of water trembled in Noreen's hand; on impulse she threw it over the pair to make them stop. Noreen then cornered the Burgess boy, who was struggling back into his pants and crying, and learned that it wasn't his fault and that for some time Diane had been saying her parents wouldn't let her grow up. In fact, Diane had already assisted several of the other young men in the area out of their virginity. Nothing was said to any of the neighbours, including the Burgesses. They never learned that their eldest boy was a sexual maniac. Diane was not even pregnant--and yet, before the year was out, she was shunted into an engagement with a young, pre-approved motor-mechanic as if she was. Noreen paid no attention to her daughter's complaints; she was in a sudden hurry to realise her designs for Diane's marital destiny. A mortgage was arranged for the bridal couple's section, on the far side of town. Brian built a small house on it with every last penny they had. The neighbours came to the wedding and waited for the early baby. Diane was settled.

Ten years later, with a failed marriage and an abortion behind her, Diane finally found happiness in the arms of a one-eyed Russian sailor. She was working as a ship-girl on the Wellington docks. The Russian was a client and, after it was done, she lay on the sheets curled up against his chest. Then she told him her entire life story of unacknowledged needs and wants, while he, not understanding a word, nodded in an exercise of European courtesy and drank vodka neat from a bottle. 'Yes,' he said, repeating at intervals the single piece of English he knew, while the strange woman talked and talked. 'Yes, yes...yes.' It was the finest moment of Diane's life. It was far happier, she thought, than anything her parents had ever given her: so much better, in fact, that she wanted to make it her swan-song. When he was gone the next day on a merchant vessel for Mozambique, she took a bottle of aspirin, drank every drop of alcohol she could find in her flat and lay down to die. The woman next door found her. After her stomach was pumped, Diane was healthy enough to be back on the ships within a week, cursing the childhood start that had led her to this.


The time is now, tonight. Noreen has been sleeping uneasily all evening, worrying about nuclear-arms control. She has found out earlier in the day that it was Lord Rutherford, born in Nelson in 1871, who propounded the first modern theory of the atom and who demonstrated, in 1918, that the nucleus could be broken up. This fact, that it was a New Zealander who started the chain of international discoveries which led directly to the thermonuclear bomb, has convinced her even more of the essential correctness of her anxieties. She does not ask for much, only to be spared. At last, she wakes from troubled dreams to find herself staring up at the ceiling above the bed. Brian is not beside her. It is winter, and she feels the dampness in the cold invading even under the blankets. She and Brian have moved into that period in late-middle age when the body ceases to be a convenient house for the soul: it has wrinkled, it has become flabby and its demands begin to emphasise its impermanence. The Fingans have no money except the super. Their children never visit. They are alone.

Noreen gets out of bed in the dark. There's something about Lord Rutherford she wishes to check in her set of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Did he really give a lecture on the evolution of the elements in Christchurch in 1914--he, a Nobel-Prize winner, the greatest physicist of his generation? And how could the elements just evolve, naturally? At her age, Noreen has to believe that the past can't be changed. She puts on an old tartan dressing-gown and some slippers, and shuffles down the corridor.

A light is on in the kitchen. Quietly, she enters and discovers Brian sitting on a chair by the sink, sucking furtively from an assortment of children's boiled sweets laid out on a tray. He's stuffing a cherry-red lollipop into his mouth. Brian looks up in guilty amazement at his wife: Noreen is standing in her dressing-gown with two volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica cradled in her arms. A bundle of yellowed newspaper articles about atomic testing is spilling out from between the books. In a moment, everything is different; they understand each other as much as we do, in this world we have made so selfish. They are not particularly complex people, or deep, but that is because their main feature, as people, is that they have never allowed themselves to be complex or deep. Yes, to understand all is to forgive all, and yet in this unique case, I think, they say nothing--surprised, more than either of them could have imagined, by how their little lives are mysteriously entangled with each other's, more than either of them could ever have dreamed. Are they even worthy of our contempt? Noreen puts down the encyclopaedia, takes Brian's hand as he puts aside the tray, and together they walk back to bed.

What they are thinking at that moment we don't know, nor ever will, nor will even remember not knowing--because at the same instant some global leader, somewhere, makes the wrong move; and because we cannot imagine seeing anything more vacuous than what is before us; and because this is the end. There is a giant flash of light, brighter than day. The ground shudders and a huge crack opens, into which the house falls; and the town, the country, and then the whole world is destroyed in an upsurge of blinding, acrid smoke.

Copyright Ian Richards, 2008

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