Thursday morning, in New Zealand
sitting on a coffee
waiting on some words
From thee, to me
A mea culpa, please hold firm
I wait, I wait
A man, unlocked, turned up in words
Thursday morning, in New Zealand
sitting on a coffee
waiting on some words
From thee, to me
A mea culpa, please hold firm
I wait, I wait
A man, unlocked, turned up in words
49 Number of days at/in Level 4 lockdown.
3 Number of times I commented about adding an extra day, just to crack the half century, before eye-rolls commenced.
1 Number of times I asked whether we are ‘at’ or ‘in’ Level 4 before my question appeared to cause physical pain.
7 Number of novels grabbed from the school library shelves the day before lockdown.
7 Number of novels returned unread 49 days later.
2 Number of novels read! Discrepancy attributable to the fine Murakami novel that’s been sitting on my shelf, unread, for 14 years (and 7 house shifts). And the library book, loaned by the wife.
6 Number of whacky family activities devised to pass the time.
0 Number of times we played charades in French or cards in Te Reo. Or, indeed, passed a fine evening reading Dickens aloud to one another.
0 Number of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals I had watched pre-lockdown.
6.001 Number watched during lockdown. Because they were streaming on YouTube, and it was a bit of a Sunday night treat with dinner on your lap. Don’t judge me!
0.001 Number of viewings of Lloyd Webber’s ‘By Jeeves’ required to prove it is absolutely unwatchable.
27 Number of times the wife or I shouted at the kids to stop blooding singing bloody ‘Phantom’ tunes while they did the dishes.
2 Number of birthdays celebrated with a nice walk and homemade takeaways. The lack of consumerism produced two songs, and one dance, in celebration. And one spookily accurate portrait built in Lego.
3 Number of nights out toasting marshmallows under the stars, watching Elon Musk’s dumb satellites whizz overhead.
16 Number of sudden, inexplicable emotional outbursts or meltdowns. Because… yeah.
6 Number of family kick arounds at the park followed by lining the kids up against a wall and throwing a small ball at them.
9 Number of times we wondered what the hell we were doing, and swore to tell no one.
2 Number of times someone in our bubble had to get ‘the tickle’ because they may have the Rona, maybe.
12 Number of various types of rashes, aches, tingles and sudden lumps on the neck that manifested while waiting for the (negative) results.
1 Number of times I called my friends, just to ‘check-in’.
57 Number of times I felt fucking useless for not calling friends or family.
270kms Distance biked or run up and down the river, so I stopped feeling fucking useless, according to my exercise app.
38 Number of times I felt weirdly excited seeing unfamiliar faces when I exercised.
Withheld Number of chocolate bars I didn’t need to buy, or eat, but did. So there.
52 Number of feature stones transported from the river up to our garden, as a direct result of family walks down to the river.
49 x 3 Number of vigorous tummy rubs demanded (and received) by Thomas the cat.
4 Number of times Thomas the cat bit me because I was ignoring his demands.
2 Number of unfinished novels I finally had a chance to work on with all this spare time.
2 Number of such novels totally untouched due to carrying rocks and worrying about strange tingles and odd lumps.
6 Number of new stories written and submitted to competitions here and abroad.
1400 Total number of words in those 6 ridiculously short stories.
Heaps Number of times I suddenly hugged a family member, just because.
Slightly less than heaps Number of times I got a ‘what are you doing?’ look in response.
1 Number of songs I wrote!
60 Number of times I practiced the song over 2 days, because I was so nervous. Singing and playing guitar at the same time? Gah!!!
321 Number of times I said ‘What are you doing?’ during home schooling when the child was ‘just checking’ something on the computer.
321 Number of times a child was ‘arsing about’ on the computer, with good reason.
321 Number of times I asked myself ‘What am I doing?’ by even attempting to keep them on task.
1 Number of times I wore a mask at the supermarket. Felt such a dick.
4 Number of times I held my breath, and awkwardly burst bubbles with a stranger, in the narrow underpass out of Kelson before deciding to use the scuzzy horse underpass instead (even though it seems like a great place to get knifed and lie unfound for days).
36 Number of cut-price Easter eggs purchased and scoffed in the month after Easter.
25 Number of days I wrote in my daily lockdown diary over the 49 days.
0 Number of insightful observations about life under lockdown in said diary.
100% Percentage of days where I just list what I ate and what we watched.
18 Number of times I did an online BodyBalance class with the wife and felt 100% happier, healthier and infinitely more chill.
Withheld Number of times I reached out in the darkness of the night to my beautiful, kind and patient wife just to feel the reassurance of her warmth.
Also withheld Number of times I reached out in the darkness of the night for a slightly different reason.
45 Number of times I got up in the middle of the night to read countless in-depth articles about what was going on.
4 Number of times I shared my half-baked recollections of what I had read.
3 Number of times I watched the daily 1pm briefing from Cindy & Ashley. Daily numbers tell you little.
580 Number of screws and nails and gap-fillers of various sizes and types bought in the mad chaos of Mitre 10 the day before lockdown.
6 Number of long-term maintenance projects I could now complete with all the spare time and 580 screws and nails etc.
580 Number of screws and nails etc still unused 49 days later. But who’s counting?
37 Number of history podcasts about historical plagues/pandemics listened to that gave me a greater understanding about what’s happening (and what will follow).
23 Number of ‘More or Less’ podcasts on COVID statistics that underline the countless words wasted trying to describe the numbers.
2 Number of times I stayed in bed in the morning. It just felt too depressing and devoid of luxury.
99% Number of nights I stayed up way too late, avoiding the prospect of another day being positive and undaunted.
Zero Number I times I wanted be somewhere else.
Incalculable Number I’ve been thankful to face all this with the patient, kind, loving people I have.
6 years since my last trip to the West Coast with the lads.
33 years since I first went to the bach.
0 amount of power or phone reception at the old fisherman’s bach.
4 expressions of interest in stopping at the notorious ‘F**k Off Café’ in Springfield in order to livestream it’s newsworthy rudeness.
0 visits to ‘F**k Off Café’ after reading that the infamous owners had gone into hiding.
5 Number of times we pulled over and raised the hood of the overheating Terrano.
9 different parts of the engine we inexpertly poked looking for the cause of the gurgling.
11 bottles of water received from friendly Australian tourists at the top of a bitterly cold Otira Gorge in order to fill the radiator.
2 snowballs thrown by tourists in Porter’s Pass (probably not thirsty Australians).
3 mutterings of discontent regarding the American Brownies purchased at Arthur’s Pass.
66% of mutterings due to lack of sharing of said brownies.
33% of mutterings directly attributable to the unexpected presence of walnuts.
6 pies eaten, at altitude, while resting at Arthur’s Pass.
99.9% ethnic homogeneity observed at the Greymouth New World supermarket (many shades of grey).
8 times we ‘feel the pain of everyone’, thanks to the Dinosaur Jr. (and a poorly performing shuffle algorithm).
7 times someone asks ‘who’s this?’ when a song by Deerhunter is playing.
100% sunny days enjoyed while the rest of the country is pelted with grey winter rain.
100% of the time 3 middle-aged men drink like 20 year-olds while eating like middle-aged men.
2 Number of vegetarian sausages required to sate the hunger of a middle-aged man who’s been drinking in the sun. ‘I might save my other two for breakfast.’
3 varieties of alcohol taken along to enjoy (red wine, vodka and craft beer).
3 guts suffering acid reflux after too much red wine, vodka and craft beer.
100% agreement that acid reflux due to the orange juice mixer rather than vodka etc.
50% of drunken toasts directed to the good ladies at home.
900% Amount of unexpected gameplay found in the ‘alphabet game’ where you go through the alphabet by theme. Bands, girls, fake album titles, Australian(s). Novel names for parts of the anatomy. Marital acts.
Zero muscles pulled, knees scraped and bones fractured while scrabbling over wet boulders in the dark after consuming beer, wine and vodka drink.
1 sighting of another human on the massive West Coast beach over the three days.
100% disappointment due to lack of sightings of seals, whales and dolphins.
9 spectacular, and challenging, golf holes created on the deserted beach.
3 pars made.
1 ricochet fired directly back at a cowering golfer from a treacherous rock.
1 golf ball lost due to the club finally connecting with full force.
66% of middle-aged men actually wore shorts in the middle of winter… because it was so darn sunny!
33% of middle-aged men tough enough to climb the rocks in bare feet.
33% of middle-aged men assured enough to wear their comfy slippers on the rocks.
19 bright red sand-fly bites discovered on my left foot.
1 bright red sand-fly bite detected on my right foot.
7 theories developed to explain this asymmetry 1. I wash the left side of my body more thoroughly than the right 2. Marmite accumulates on the side of the body you prefer to sleep on 3. The insect-repelling nature of the Vitamin B in Marmite is a bit of a myth, but only half of the time 4. Marmite churned counter-clockwise takes a left-handed bias 5. I forgot to wash my left foot. 6. Sand-flies prefer to dine in well-frequented establishments. 7. I jiggle my right foot more than my left while listening to Deerhunter.
19+ rat droppings discovered in bed after sleeping in it for two nights.
4+ Number of days it takes me to recover from 3 nights in the South Island.
Imagination is tricky. I live with 3 kids so what-ifs are a constant.
Last night we talked about time travel over dinner. We were discussing Matariki and how long it would take to reach the stars. I said it would take 100, 000 years to reach our nearest neighbour, Alpha Centauri, if you travelled at the speed of light.
Since some sort of time trickery would be needed, the girls started coming up with ways it might work. Magic and machines. Science and Mr Peabody. The wife chipped in that time is ‘bendy’ as you can sometimes achieve a task when you simply don’t have enough time. Which is a version of the Dr Who’s “wibbley-wobbley timey-wimey” stuff.
One of the 11 year-olds added that déjà vu was proof that you had visited a particular point before.
It was a fun discussion. But I steered it towards an aspect that had really blown my mind.
Historians of Time Travel claim that there were no such stories until HG Wells wrote The Time Machine. None. There were stories about people falling asleep and waking long in their future, but none with travel as we think of it. Forward and back. Here and there. Checking out the sights.
This blows my mind. All cultures are full of fanciful tales of imagination. But HG Wells had a novel idea that was so attractive that it is viewed as a possibility, only slightly out of reach.
So why did this idea pop up in the 1890s?
Historians believe it’s because an age of unprecedented change in technology and society had begun. Electricity, trains, telephones and telegraphs. All unimaginable to their parents’ generation. What rapid change lay ahead? Moving pictures, radio communication and flight; all within reach. The reliable constants of life were no more.
Some things are impossible to imagine. Time travel was one of them. Now it seems impossible to unimagine.
Somehow it must work. Each one of us around the dinner table last night agreed.
Somewhere all our pasts continue, awaiting our benign intervention to put things right. While multiple futures sit before us full of disaster, glory, dystopia and lotto wins.
Stories have power.
China recently banned time travel stories as they undermine the status quo.
What is must be.
What isn’t. Is unthinkable.
The other day, the wife asked, ‘are you sure you’re not gay?’ It was a fair question.
She was making a comment about how I had chosen to tart up an old chair.
I’ve had the iron chair for thirty years. It was left behind in a flat which had once been an Op Shop called Mother Hubbard’s. It was a pretty rough place, rumoured to be among the oldest wooden buildings in Christchurch but, best of all, right in the heart of town.
The nature of our living conditions was wryly commented on by a journalist who went through once Mother Hubbard’s was threatened with demolition, and then relocated to Redcliffs and restored.
I loved living there, and I loved the chair. It sat downstairs in the lean-to kitchen which had a fridge but no oven. My bedroom upstairs overlooked the Avon River and I often went to sleep to the sound of ducks punctuated by the groans of the old building adjusting itself through the night.
That’s where I started writing, and where a fumble friend once saw a ghost, giving me a big chunk of my first published story.
I took the chair with me when I shifted out, painstakingly ‘painting’ over the bold white with two gold pens and making a cushion covered in red velvet.
One night, a flatmate decided to add lots of black pen doodles in an act of drunken inspiration. It was pretty fancy.
The iron chair then spent many years stored in garages or under houses as I took up acting and went on the road. I can’t count the number of times I shifted it from one dark place to another, always wondering, ‘do I really need to hold onto this?’
For the last seven years it has sat under the house I have just sold. Always in the corner of my eye as I renovated and emptied the house.
I wanted to spray paint it a bold colour. Give it a cushion so ridiculous that you couldn’t help but sit on it. I didn’t want it shoved in the corner, a place to dump bags and crap.
Once I had stripped all the old white and gold, I painted it with a neon pink purchased years ago to appease my then-six year old. But the tin ran out before all the iron work was covered. And when I went to get more, the people in the paint shops all raised their eyebrows at the very idea of neon pink. It was impossible to get a replacement in enamel.
So I plumped for plum. And went fake fur for the cushion. Icelandic fox, to be exact, possibly a little influenced by the Icelandic novel I had just read where a 49 year old man does up a broken hotel instead of topping himself.
Hotel Silence is not as bleak as it sounds. It’s very enjoyable. I loved it to bits. It got me reading novels again.
Despite my fears, the Iron Chair has been a big hit in the new house. It sits by a bookcase, looking too fabulous for words, the perfect place to sit with a book or mess about on guitar.
I’m so glad I held onto it.
I love books. I love talking about them. I love being surrounded by them. I get more and more whenever I take the girls to the library. They love them, too.
But reading seems hard. I have a pile of books by my bed, and I want to devour them all.
There is always an excuse. So many things to do. Distractions to indulge. It seems such a waste of precious time to sit in the company of the printed word. Lazy, even.
I could be writing fresh words of my own, or listening to a story while I get chores done.
But, dear Reader, this situation cannot stand.
Last Friday night I fought distraction and read a book. It was short, but I read it in one evening. It was so enjoyable. A French novel set in the Russian Civil War. Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli. Simple and perfect. Pretty and compelling. The final paragraphs were so astounding I read them again and again. Something I have never done.
I was so thrilled that the next morning I picked up a New Zealand novel and read the first few lines. I didn’t put it down until I was 57 pages in. And that was because I had to go to work.
The Ice Shelf by Anne Kennedy is hilarious and gripping. A comedy that will not let you look away. It has a dark, comic book cover that suits the wicked insights within.
My wife is reading the same book. Not the same copy, mind. That would be a bit tricky. Last night we abandoned the dubious pleasures of Love Island and sat side by side, snorting and laughing. Luckily, I am a many pages behind her so I am free to read-out quotes and relive favoured scenes without spoiler-ing anything.
But I want to consume this infectious narrative before my Beloved.
It’s not a competition. No. My copy is due back at the library and I cannot renew it. Some other lucky eyes are seeking this treat and have placed a reserve.
So back I go, to read. To spend more time with the mad writer as she wrestles a broken old fridge up and down the twisted paths of thwarted ambition.
I’m finding it hard to stop writing. I handed in my final folio for a 6 week summer fiction paper at Victoria University on Friday and the momentum and pressure has left me in daze.
It is Monday, and there are so many other things to do.
Fixing the broken doors, latches and handles in the new house the family moved into 4 weeks ago. Shifting boxes. Unpacking boxes. Sorting piles of things. Putting pictures on walls. Working out what each of the keys do around the place, and if they’re the only copy. Working out how to cook anew now that the wife has gone vegan. Finishing the painting (inside and out) at the old house, which needs to be on the market ASAP because we can barely afford one mortgage let alone two. Arranging tradesmen to do the things I can’t legally do. Exercising my old aching body, that needs large daily doses of anti-inflammatories and stretching until I get a big chop-chop operation on my Achilles. Cleaning this house for the first time since we shifted in. Two bathrooms. Two toilets. Six sinks. Two floors to vacuum. An overgrown garden to tame and explore.
I could go on.
But I need to write. It is a need. Not just the two new stories I wrote for the course. Both of which will not leave my mind alone. One, a story of writing and love. Sharp, clever and funny. The other a dark wee fantasy fable that has mushroomed into the biggest thing I have ever written, and clearly needs to get bigger again. Or the kids’ story I started bashing out in my journal on Saturday as I watched the kids at their gym class. It holds my mind the most, being at that hot and fertile point where you can just keep writing and writing until the tale is told. Which is what you must do because if you stop the momentum is lost and the ink has dried to a hardness that will not take another coat without becoming a different picture altogether. And there are the two novels that need revision so they can seek publication. Plus the letter I promised to forward back in December. A real letter, on paper, that needs to be reconsidered because it involves care and caution. And there is my diary; the beast I started with great hope having re-ignited the habit last year, managing to knock out 200-250 words each day. This year I have been doing 600-700, until the last few weeks when life’s demands left it sadly neglected.
So what do I do?
I write. A blog for 5-10 people to read. I used to get 25-60 readers with every new post but those numbers have passed. The world is awash with words seeking eyes. The ‘attention economy’ places great demands on our time.
So why write, fool? Because I must. Why write this? Because the words came out when I sat down. The muscle needs movement and cannot relax or stay still.
Smiling can be hard in the morning, especially in the face of the stress and the unexpected.
This morning I got to the airport just as the check-in went to shit. The computers had stopped talking and the baggage conveyer wouldn’t work. The queue at bag-drop snaked out of sight through the terminal. People were huffing and puffing and walking into me as they tried to deal with the stress.
No drama was required, the plane couldn’t leave without our bags. Still, people pushed and fussed and contrived ways to jump the queue. A young woman behind me tottered away out the terminal and blundered back into line at the front of the queue. Well, she was wearing a very short green skirt and ridiculous heels.
I struggled not to glare.
As I reached the conveyer belt it froze once again. When it restarted after 5 minutes the short man beside me had a fit when told his soft bag needed to be placed in a tray. ‘Why couldn’t you have told me that before? I’ve been bloody standing in front of you for 5 mins!’ I laughed a little too loud and shook my head at the poor woman from Air NZ.
‘We’re all stressed,’ she said. I smiled in agreement and went to stretch my legs.
While waiting to board I started to write. I had received several random smiles and it wasn’t yet 9am.
This has been happening a bit these last two weeks. Are people happier or is it me?
I suspect it’s got to do with the joke I played on myself.
When the heatwave hit a fortnight ago I shaved my big grey beard into a ridiculous moustache. Think the bastard love-child of Lemmy and Derek Smalls. A heavy metal scowl drooping under my chin like curly white tusks.
I have the air of a pompous little monkey blown up into a man. It’s in no way attractive but it attracts the female eye.
Of course, I may just be projecting on co-incidence and quirk. Just because a woman gives you a second look, smiles, and then appears right beside you means little more than middle-aged fancy.
Still. Woman are smiling at me like never before. It’s nice. I like it.
So when I saw the feedback machine as I went through security, I hit the smiley button.
Then I smiled at the woman gawping at me as I boarded the plane.
But when I saw that the young woman in the short green skirt was sitting right behind me on the plane I thought, fuck it. I am not going to smile.
Our eyes are special. They reveal the soul, provide a window for our thoughts to climb out. Whether or not you actually believe in the soul, our eyes are definitely designed for social interaction. They let us see what’s going on in the minds of others.
It’s why we’re the only primates with whites in our eyes. By making the iris and pupil stand out, this unique adaptation lets us better see where someone is looking and we are able to make a good guess at their thoughts and feelings. Are they terrified, friendly or shady? Are they pleased to see me, or is there a bloody great bear galloping up behind me?
Why am I thinking about this? Because eyes are disappearing.
When I work at the local stadium, the young folk on the tills spend the whole transaction staring intently at the screens on the cash registers, often failing to notice that I am holding out cash until the transaction icon doesn’t resolve in front of them.
It’s the same at my local café. The friendly smiles, eye contact and brief chats have been replaced by eyes darting around a screen while I repeat my order as the device has commanded all of their attention.
I sound like a fuddy-duddy. But I am not. I love the promise of technology. But customer service is not just about listening to words, clicking a mouse and tapping apps. It is about human contact with a stranger, and it appears that human interaction is being screened out of society.
This can only cause problems. Social isolation, anxiety and depression have all been directly linked to the allure of the glowing interface.
The more you stare at a screen in preference to interacting with human faces, the worse you will feel. People in societies across the world increasingly prefer the safe, undemanding routines of swiping and clicking over trying to fathom the murky cues of human interaction.
It just seems so much easier to deal with a device than a person. Because with real people you don’t just have to interpret the mystery of eyes, you have to read body posture, vocal tone, subtext and gestures. Human interaction seems so demanding when compared to a click.
It’s why some people get addicted to Tinder but struggle going beyond a first or second date.
People are tricky. But that preference for comfort and ease comes with a cost.
Our bodies are built for the stress of uncertainty.
An astronaut who spends too much time in space risks breaking bones when they return to Earth, as the ever-changing stress we feel fighting gravity is essential to maintaining growth and strength.
Likewise, our bodies and minds.
If we don’t use it, we lose it. The negotiation and interplay, with stressors and uncertainty, helps us grow and stay healthy.
We don’t need to lose the devices, but we shouldn’t use them to screen out human interaction.
We are social creatures, made by our gift for social interaction.
We must keep that fact firmly in sight.
As the first to rise in the house I’ve taken to blasting big bad tunes to rouse the house while we establish the unfamiliar routines of new schools and new house.
The wife, never an early riser, tends to resist alarms and gentle entreaties. Which is only fair, as she makes all the school lunches and sorts out her work clothes the night before.
So when I get up at 06:15, I use the quiet to placate the squawking cat and get the porridge on the stove. Then I walk in circles, tidying dishes and mess, prepping my gears for work or school. I sometimes take the wife a cuppa, but that almost never gets drunk.
By 6:45 it’s time for all to get up. In the past, to avoid shouting like a fishwife or knocking on doors, I used to blast their favourite grooves to entice them to the table. But this week, the first one back at school, I have decided to play brash old music to stir them to action.
Big, bad 1970s Glam rock, to be precise.
The whole week has all been about The Sweet. Ballroom Blitz and Hellraiser. Poppa Joe and Little Willy. But it has got a bit much, even for me.
Today, I switched in Queen. Bohemian Rhapsody followed by Under Pressure (technically not Glam, but both songs are full of diva dramatics and sequined strutting).
And I can push my voice loud and raunchy on both songs.
Likewise, Sugar Baby Love by The Rubettes. I can rise from the low-pitched verses to the trilling falsetto while inexpertly pumping out the Bump-sha-waddy, Bump sha-waddy-waddy backing vocals, kicking it along like the power house drums.
No one came up to complain.
It was time for Elvis If I Can Dream. Not Glam but big and bold, dramatic; just as out-of-reach as Freddie Mercury or The Rubettes. But oh, how I tried.
Still no go.
So I paused the music and shouted at the top of the stairs, Time to arise and dress for school, sweet sleepers! I will keep singing awful songs until you stop me!
On went Gary Glitter. Hello, Hello… The wife popped her lovely head into the kitchen, mid make-up, and said that song feels different these days. Yes, I said, making a joke I can’t repeat regarding the erstwhile Mr Bucket’s early placing in the pantheon of fallen idols.
By now it was after 7:00AM.
I slammed on Rocks by Primal Scream. A song I can strut, and gravel, and holler to. Big, leery, retro-rock boogie; a nice bridge between all the styles. An ever-popular (with me) go-to number on SingStar.
That’s when the wife appeared, hair perfectly tousled, looking glamorous and understated as always. These aren’t awful songs, she said, smiling.
I shall have to try harder tomorrow.
47 Number of times I will hit my head on the caravan door frame before I punch the caravan (or devise a cunning way to stop doing it).
9 Number of $2 coins the wife will ask for to do one load of washing, as it’s still not dry.
36 Number of snarky/comic names bestowed on fellow campers to amuse the wife. Like Damon and Jemima, who parked their giant motor home in the middle of our sea view and proceeded to cook mussels and sear broccolini for young Tarquin and Sapphire.
99 Number of times the hunting enthusiasts next door shout ‘Logan! Mason!’ each morning as the toddlers shoot at us with their new toy guns.
Zero Total number of segments of Terry’s Chocolate Orange I can successfully sneak from each of our 3 kids.
360 Average number of minutes chocolate is safe in the fridge before it mysteriously disappears.
7 Maximum number of minutes I get to write before someone wants or needs something.
Like $2 for the machine, or to account for some missing chocolate.
4 Number of days before the kids stop wearing sandals, jandals, kicks or scuffs whenever they walk on any sand or grass, and are happy with bare feet.
3 Number of days I can go without a shower, by swimming in the sea instead.
2 Number of minutes I can handle the shower going cold before cracking open the door to press the button for more hot water.
4 Number of mothers and small children sitting outside, staring impatiently at the crack.
0.25 Number of places I can safely change into my togs without flashing someone, somewhere.
9 Number of bum cracks visible at any one time within a thirty metre radius as beach folk adjust and strut.
3 Number of tubby kids who can squish onto a tiny camp chair to stare at a phone while their mothers do the dishes.
∞ Amount of entertainment possible to derive watching other campers set up and pack down.
13 Number of times the wife tells me to shush! each day in case the neighbours hear me making up fake dialogue for them.
You can’t park that there.
That’s never level.
The awning’s fine, it’s my groundsheet that’s fucked.
I see you have the Classic. Mind if I have a look inside?
0.75 Maximum number of intimate acts achievable before the caravan starts to wobble (or a child appears).
58 Number of times I covet the food the Chinese campers are cooking by the ablution block with theatrical flair and giant flames.
3.5 Number of days in a row you can eat sausages before you reach peak sausage.
5 Number of books taken away to read.
0 Number of books read.
4² Number of books the kids have read (factor due to them rereading their books with glee).
9 Number of days unable to locate the can of CRC you are sure you packed in the fixit kit.
9 Number of minutes it takes to locate the old can of CRC after buying an overpriced new one.
19 Number of times I can smile at the same person on the way to the ablution block without saying a word.
17 Number of times I can mention the weather when forced to talk to a stranger before having to find a different topic.
6 Number of hours between the Christmas Eve ‘weather event’ and the Christmas day thunder storm.
36 Number of minutes it takes for a web page to load on the camp site Wi-Fi when it’s raining.
5 Maximum number of hours I can hold off going to the toilet in my last set of dry clothes when the rain is still horizontal and my raincoat is still soaked.
4 Number of incredibly loud farts the smallest child can release in her sleep after being rescued from her tent during the Christmas Eve storm, and snuggled down into the caravan.
5-6 Number of days it takes to forget how many days you’ve been on holiday.
6-7 Number of days before you start counting how many days remain.
19 Number of different exercises the two blonde twins in front of us do in perfect unison each morning.
3 Number of minutes before the wife realizes what I’m counting.
364 Number of little coloured bits of rubber strewn across the campsite after sudden water bomb fights.
363 Number of bits of rubber that remain on the grass two hours later.
1 Number of people sitting on the ‘occupied’ chairs by the pool.
180 Number of seconds a mother sitting down with a good book by the pool will look at the book before picking up her phone to check something.
88 Percentage of particulates in the pool that are not water or chlorine. Or leaves. Or rubber.
1 Number of times I have banged my head on the door frame of the caravan since writing In and Out on the caravan step in order to aid traffic flow.
2 Number of people who suddenly appear out of the shadows after I fart loudly on the way to the ablution block at 5 am.
7 Number of times the wife and I suspect we’ve been approached with the secret campground swinger’s code.
She’s in good nick.
I see you’ve got the Classic.
Have you been to the end of the beach? There’s a lovely spot in the dunes.
I had the beef. The wife prefers the fish.
You’re very good with your morning stretches.
7 Number of invitations to socialize, or have a wee drink, the wife and I have non-committedly dodged in order to sit in the caravan and look at people.
Nice. Lovely. We’ll have to see. I’ll ask the wife.
1.5 Number of snoozes desired each day.
0 Number of snoozes achieved after 15 days of rest.
1 Number of days remaining before wondering if we can extend the holiday.
24 Number of seconds it takes to decide that we can do another day. Yay!
1 Number of nights left before we pack up and head home. Boo 🙂
Tonight I am going to the opera. It will be my fourth.
The first was 25 years ago in Christchurch. Tosca at the Theatre Royal, the wonderful venue where I saw Basil Brush, Sonic Youth, Rowan Atkinson, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Del La Sol, Hot Gossip and the Violent Femmes. As that list might suggest, I don’t attend many operas.
My first was Tosca with my mother, a fan of light opera. She wasn’t that keen, but I was balls deep in theatre in those days, seeing every kind of performance I could. Mum adored Gilbert and Sullivan and saw The Phantom of the Opera several times. Sang Yum Yum in the Mikado at the Theatre Royal.
When the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company came to Chch when she was young, Mum camped outside the Theatre Royal to get tickets. No one did G&S better than D’Oyly Carte. In fact, at the time, they had an exclusive contract. When they went bust after the copyright lapsed we were plagued by endless touring Australian versions. I worked on their Pirates of Penzance with John English when I lived in Auckland. I was a wee bit star struck.
The second opera I saw was Boris Godunov at the Aotea Centre. Not a popular opera, but my brilliant flatmate, Simon, still knew it was Mussorgsky, so happily came along. I loved the story. Medieval Russian history sung in something other than Italian. While I couldn’t whistle a single note of Puccini’s Tosca, I often sing ‘Slava, slava, slava’ in that stunning sequence when the slaves sing of glory.
My third opera was ten years ago in Wellington, at the St James. Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, a story I knew well. I love the film by Ralph Fiennes, adore Pushkin’s original poetic novel, and often find it resonating in my life. Not that I have ever fought a duel, or been a Francophile aristocrat, but these themes are a constant in our home now that the musical genius of Hamilton has infected my family. Honour, snobbery, the danger of wasted opportunity. All find purchase in Titahi Bay as easily as Broadway and Tsarist Russia.
Tonight I am going to La bohème, and the wife is quite excited. She never thought she would get to see it; operas are rare and hard to put on. Which is why I always try to catch them when I can. The productions are huge; so much theatre, so many players. I can’t say that I know anything about this show, so it will be a bit of a surprise. The sur-titles will help (I must remember to take my glasses). Needless to say, I know Puccini is one of the most popular composers. When I stayed in Lucca, the small Italian town where he was born, I tried to visit his house but it was closed for renovations.
Tonight’s performance is at the Opera House in Wellington. The St James, where I saw the Tchaikovsky, is closed for earthquake strengthening. The Opera House is okay. It’s where I saw Courtney Barnett and Grease. Adam and the Ants and A Dead Dog in a Suitcase; a modern version of the first real musical from 1728, The Beggars Opera, itself a satire of Italian Opera . It was a brilliant show, more engaging than any opera. I wanted to see it again and again.
Which is the sign of a good show, for me.
But why compare? Is it the music or the theatre, the performance or the spectacle that draws you to a show? Do you just need something to hum, as the brilliant Sondheim likes to poke at? It’s an ever-changing mix, surely. And not knowing can be the best part.
Opera thrives on tragedy, there is something about the nature of music that allows the emotion to reach out and touch the heart. I once lived next door, unknowingly, to a house where a Chinese Opera was set. It was about a famous poet who had to flee after the Tiananmen Square massacre. When I found out about the tragic incident next door, I was glad that I knew so little. Some things just don’t need to be spelled out. Let the music do the work.
And so, on a spring day in Wellington, as the city is battered by hail, I await my fourth opera, and wonder about my fifth. I have done two Russian, two Italian; it is time for a change. Will it be German, French or English? Chinese?
We shall see, we shall see.
I’m obsessed with words. Big, small. Odd. Not.
How they look, how they sound. Music and meaning.
The other night, while waiting in A & E, I picked up a magazine. It was full of articles I found hard to read (they weren’t on a screen, they wouldn’t scroll), but there was a column that showed how the pronunciation of the same word can change if used as a noun or a verb. The same word. What’s more, the change is consistent. Noun, first syllable emphasized. Verb, the second.
The symmetry was bewitching, like maths or music. Diverting enough to stick long after I had turned the page.
But the Words I cannot shake is a song. Sharon O’Neill in my head. The earworm has infected my consciousness. The video is a solid gold dose of 1979. Kiwi pub-rock nostalgia played out in a TV studio. Shaggy perm and shark tooth earing, tight white jeans. Youngies shuffling side-to-side with huge grins. Par-cans glowing overhead red, orange, blue. Moustachioed backing singers, layering their sweet topping over Shazza’s ballsy swagger.
I know every word. Every line. Every melody. Every hook.
Let me out. Like the new blood at the slaughter.
Who starts a pop song like that? A brutal simile for the kids. Freedom splattered on the abattoir floor.
Words just a breath away from my hand. Breaking into tiny pieces.
When I sing along my voice drops an octave, settling into a country-Elvis croon no one needs to hear.
The day after my visit to A&E I flew to Nelson to work on a rugby game where the result was never in question. Only one team could win. The winningest team. Sport without competition.
On the way I listened to Words three times in a row, and then tried to kill it with a podcast about a crisis in women’s sport. When does natural advantage make competition unfair? Unusually high levels of testosterone gives some female athletes the advantage usually reserved for males. Larger heart, lungs and muscles. Elite sport is all about a battle of the exceptional, but our society strives to be fair. We want things to be fair. Complain if they’re not. The sexes compete separately to prevent unfair competition.
But how to resolve this need for equity, when a woman with the strength of a man competes against women?
Fairness is a word that can never be resolved. Is it fair to expect more of some, less of others? To be paid the same for doing less work? To be paid less for doing the same work? To claim success while competing at a lower level?
In Nelson, everyone knew the All Blacks would beat the Pumas. Where is the sport in such a pre-determined outcome?
As I flew back from Nelson, still wrapped in Words and fairness, a bigger discussion erupted in women’s sport. The most exceptional tennis player of our time publicly berated an official, claiming it wasn’t fair. She was being paid millions, he was getting $700. Vanity reigned from court and chair. Enough to write a novel.
This morning, staring at my phone in the midst of insomnia, I saw a new word I had only just learned disappear. Mardy. I knew the Artic Monkeys song Mardy Bum, and thought it was a regional version of Marty. But someone used it on the telly two days ago and the wife told me it meant sulky or moody.
The Guardian had headlined an interview with Graham Coxon from Blur with ‘I was a mardy brat in my 20s…I’m quite mellow now’. But two hours later it changed. On the front page he was now a ‘moody brat’, and a ‘mardy brat’ in the headline once you clicked on it. A sub-editor had changed the words in his mouth, but only in part, possibly afraid the unfamiliar word would stop people clicking.
You’re argumentative, and you’ve got the face on
Words should have been a world-wide hit in 1979, but no one outside NZ knows it. Maybe the big record companies didn’t think Sharon O’Neill could compete with the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, that no one would understand her. Back then, New Zealand music wasn’t considered good enough to play on the world stage.
It’s a touch, it’s a touch of class. It might not even last.
Today, anyone can sing a song and show it to the world. You can sell it to anyone. In this way, the music world is fairer than it ever was. But with something like 200,000 songs hitting the internet every day, the chances of your words being heard may be less than ever. It’s much the same with blogging.
When I sing this song, I feel inside of me.
The thing is, while I remember every lyric of Words, I can’t seem to recall a single example of the pretty words I read in the magazine. I wish I had taken a photo on my phone. Shared them to the digital memory. They were common words. Like re-port and re-port. Noun, verb. Name, action. This is my report. I will report you.
I cannot express how frustrated I am with my memory, and that I can’t access the article online. My brain has been rewired. It’s not fair.
But I have found the chords to Words online, and I can play it. Badly.
And I can write this; a blog of too many words, sent out into the clutter.
Vanity: excessive pride in one’s character or ability e.g. the belief that one can find words to connect an old song, Serena Williams, something you saw on the internet, William Makepeace Thackeray, Sharon O’Neill, a game of rugby, The Arctic Monkeys, that guy from Blur with the glasses, and something you read at the doctor’s but can’t quite remember.
Why do we need to write words? Is it to entertain ourselves or others? Is it to display or to conceal? Why spend so much time presenting an acceptable image, while hiding in plain sight? These are the questions I ask myself as an infrequent diarist living in a time of constant over-sharing.
The gap between our public and private thoughts is made clear when the top three words women use on Facebook to describe their husbands are compared to those used in Google searches (on FB my husband is “loyal” “amazing” “best-friend” vs. “annoying” “mean” “gay” on Google).
I was thinking about this the other night while scribbling mundane descriptions in my diary. Why bother? Lists of routine events. Dinners made for the family, housework done, writing projects chipped away at. My words lacked insight or reflection. I would never want to read them. I sought distraction, remembering my mother’s travel journal, My Trip Book. My sister had been looking through it when she visited recently, discovering it held more than I had seen.
I glanced at it when Mum died several years ago, reading the first few pages of her boat trip out to Britain with Dad in 1957. But the death of a parent is a fraught time; deciding what to keep hold of, and what to let go. I was disappointed by all the blank pages. Why had she stopped after the first few days? Had she got seasick, lost the thrill of the journey?
But my sister, Sonya, saw more. The journal takes an unusual format. You note departures at the front, the journey later on, places visited and people met at the back.
Mum’s beautiful, flowing script written in fountain pen by her 24 year-old hand, describes her journey with her husband of four years out from Christchurch to his English homeland, and to that of her Scottish parents.
She visits places I have seen and those I have not. Pitcairn Island, Panama, Curacao. London, Edinburgh, the Isle of Wight. Enjoys Harry Secombe and Terry Thomas at the Palladium. Gets a job sewing electric-blankets. Suffers the disappointment of photos not coming out, and has such fun on the Underground.
It is a treasure, but I want more. Descriptions, not lists. Reflections as opposed to generalities. What were the people like? What did she feel? But she was 24, and there are reasons most journals are like this.
I am a deliberately boring diarist. I have been burnt more than once. My ill-formed words snatched in secret and thrown against me. It’s a betrayal I struggle to forgive. Words written in private cannot match the expectations of the world.
The other night, reading Mum’s words, I found the unsaid I craved. Amongst many blank pages, there was a random list written in red pen; cuts of meat and prices paid. More blank pages, then March 1964 Leaving for Sydney to-night at 7:30. I remember Mum telling me that she went with her younger sister, Lynette. There is a photo from the trip, somewhere in Mum’s box of old photos. But how long were they away? Days, weeks? Nothing is noted, even though she clearly took the journal with her. Maybe it was too much fun to find time to write. After many more blank pages there is a list of gifts to get. Cousin Lesley got a koala.
Over the page is a more detailed list. Money spent: drinks on the plane 1s 9d, hotels in Sydney ₤3 2s 10d, Surfers’ Paradise ₤5 15 s, grapes 2s, drinks in Bondi 4s 6d, magazines 1s, drinks 6s, coat ₤ 12 12s, drinks & sandwich 2s 9d, excess baggage of ₤1. There is a note to keep ₤22 for hotels, leaving ₤104.
But what of the ₤6 5s Val, ₤62 10s Joe. Val is my aunty. Was it a gift or to get something? And who was Joe? 62 quid? In 1964 the average wage for the job Mum was doing was ₤9 a week. ‘Joe’ had given her seven weeks’ wages. For what? I sat wishing Mum had written more detail. Searched every page, going through the contacts at the back of the journal, most of them crossed out as people shifted or moved on.
I found Val ₤6 5s fawn twinset, 34” size 14. If no fawn, then pale blue. NZ was a heavily controlled economy back then. Everything was cheaper overseas. And there was more choice.
And then, Joe ₤61 10s (₤61 with Traveller’s Cheques) 25yds Wenzell, Batty & McGrath, 865 York St, Sydney. Mum noted the exact cost and change, deducting the taxi fare. Twenty-five yards of cloth is a lot of fabric. That explains the ₤1 excess baggage.
Because Mum left gaps, I can fit a story around the words. Maybe they were smuggling expensive fabrics into NZ’s controlled economy, drinking their way through the hotels of Bondi and Surfers’ as part of the plan. I can think this because she doesn’t say any different.
For the first time in decades, I remember a possible Joe. A cutter who worked for her boss at Zenith tailoring. I recall her talking to a man called something like that. I was about four years old, playing hide and seek with my wee sisters amongst the endless rows of jackets and coats. He was friendly, funny, had a big black moustache and was leaving to join the police force. Mum didn’t work there anymore, but did out-work from home, sewing up menswear while looking after us. Mum told me that when Joe was at Police school he was instructed, along with all the new recruits, to tell everyone that Arthur Allan Thomas was guilty. Mum repeated this over the years as the fabrication, and Thomas’s innocence, was revealed.
Maybe that man was Joe. It doesn’t really matter. I have pictures in my head. Words that lead to more. I have searched out the photo of Mum and Aunty Lynette in Australia in 1964. Holding ice-creams, wearing jandals at night, they look tanned and happy. Mum said they took a train up to Queensland and that some locals refused to share a cabin with them, because they looked Italian.
I have also found the passenger lists of the trip to England in 1957, a photo and a menu from the fancy dress ball on board. Mum and Dad dressed up in their finest on the deck. Like married women of the time, Mum is listed simply as Mrs. Taylor (no initial). All the men, mothers, unmarried women and children have initials.
That omission says something, does it not?
What we say, and what we do not, matters. The unsaid can speak more clearly than any strongly voiced comment. This is why I write. To be read and to be ignored. It is a process of discovery; remarkable, mundane. It is an identity, cut from a pattern, worn to cover any naked shame.
I got married in the weekend. It was quite a lot of fun. More than I expected. But now I’m buggered. Beyond buggered. Exhausted.
I still have the bounce of the thrill, the buoyancy of happiness, so many special moments fondly remembered. But my body feels wrecked, like I could sleep for a week or come down with a cold.
I guess that’s why people honeymoon straight after the wedding. It’s not just about rooting yourself silly on a tropical beach, doing your best to fill the proverbial jar with as many jellybeans as possible*. It’s also about letting go of the constant state of stress and anticipation, the endless need to organise and decide.
And the organising hasn’t finished. Wonderful photos are being shared to our save-the-date, and they’re lovely, but they need to be viewed, liked and loved.
There’s also thank you cards to be written, emails to be sent, feedback to be posted.
But, most of all, there’s a honeymoon to be planned in the not-too-distant.
It’s not a hardship. It’s a joy. The thought of heading off somewhere new with the wife. A road trip without the darling kids, free of the need to get on top of the washing pile or the endless renovations.
But, for now, I am tired. I need to close my eyes and rest.
Getting married takes it out of you.
I’m so glad you only have to do it once.
*1 jellybean placed in the jar for every marital act during the first year. One out each time over the following years. Received wisdom claims it will never empty.
The wife-to-be is quite fond of faggots. Me, I’m not so sure. I mean, some things just bring up long-embedded reactions. Thoughts of toffs bullying young fags in Tom Brown’s School Days, or bundles of twigs piled under heretics who will not recant before the flames consume them.
I know words have several meanings but I can’t quite get my head around the idea that my fiancé finds comfort in little rissoles made of offal and offcuts named after, well…
It turns out they’re a speciality of her homeland, the English Midlands, traditionally eaten with gravy, mash and peas. Like bound twigs, they are bundles of otherwise worthless bits. Pig’s liver, heart and shoulder with herbs and breadcrumbs. A gutless English haggis, if you will.
The name makes sense. The first printed use was in 1843 when a local paper noted some fat bugger had eaten 20 of them. Clearly some feat.
The word comes from Latin fascis ‘bundle of wood’ and is related to the Roman symbol of authority and punishment, the fasces; an axe bound in a bundle of rods. The rods for whipping, axe for beheading. The Italian fascists took their name from it believing it showed how the bound cause of the many confers unbreakable strength (which sounds much like an argument of their communist foe.)
Unlike that other great fascist symbol, the swastika, the fasces did not fall from favour, and is still proudly displayed by the US government.
Of course, the humble faggot can have other meanings. Facebook has banned English users from talking about their meaty treat because of this. Ads that play on the name have also been supressed.
Words can be tricky. Some people can say them, sometimes. Others cannot. It depends on where you live, who you are. Borders and rules are shifty.
This struck me last month while listening to podcasts about the celebrated Dam Busters raid. It is 75 years since that audacious attack on the heart of Nazi Germany when the leader, Guy Gibson, chose the name of his beloved dog as the code-word for success. It was a common, affectionate name in 1940s England. My English father had a cocker spaniel with the same name at the same time. But the BBC did not dare mention the dog’s name. They simply referred to “Gibson’s dog” or “the dog’s name”.
The word has an ugly history. Abuse. Reclamation. Suppression. Cultural imperialism and bias. Its use, or absence, is fraught with problems. The great wordsmith Stephen Fry is writing a script for the Peter Jackson remake of the 1955 film. All people can talk about is whether the dog should be named or renamed.
There is no easy answer. History happened, and should not be ignored. Brave young men gave their lives on the raid and thousands of innocents, woman and children and enslaved labourers, died in their beds. Whose story is it?
The American history of slavery has not ended. The debate in the US over the unspeakable word bleeds into the rest of the world. No one’s hands are clean. I learned this when the UK treasury tweeted that anyone who paid taxes in the UK up to 2015 had helped end slavery!, based on the fact that repayments on reparations paid out in 1835 had just been completed, 180 years later.
It was an appalling twisting of words. The £20 million (£200 billion or US$405 billion today) was paid not to the former slaves, but to their owners. Half went to just 6% of the claimants, a despicable roll-call of Britain’s future elite. To make it worse, the money was clawed back through taxes on everyday goods, making the many pay for the sins of the few.
The fact that every time I had a pint or a pub lunch in the UK before 2015 played into this sick abuse is hard to swallow. It makes me feel angry and ill.
The persistent call in the US for reparations for the victims of slavery is usually met with derision. It cannot be afforded, is undeserved. That is nonsense.
I have heard the iniquitous use of the unspeakable word, in songs and movies, justified by black musicians as their right in lieu of reparations. I can sing it, say it, but you can’t, is said seriously, and with a smile. I respect that greatly.
But American history is not world history. The imperial reach of their media should not swamp the nuance of different cultures and taste.
Black US forces fought the Nazis in Europe and famously experienced a freedom that did not exist at home, the so-called ‘land of the free’. The British refused to bow to American racism.
The only time they ever did was in the war of 1812 when captured white American sailors demanded they were segregated from their fellow combatants while imprisoned in Britain. It was a foreign concept on British soil. The black prisoners amused themselves while waiting for freedom by staging a production of Romeo and Juliet. There’s a book about it, a film to follow.
Some things are hard to swallow but Shakespeare, that great Midlands lover of words and nuance, was adept at throwing bits of this and that together to turn the unpalatable and mundane into an experience that transcends the simple definition of words. It is part of his undying genius.
To the Bard, the world was never black and white. And he probably also liked faggots.
And hark ye, sirs; because she is a maid,
Spare for no faggots, let there be enough.
-Henry VI Part 1
Swayed into… town.
It was windy. Dark. Not a night to be out. I leaned into the gusts to make headway through the blasts screaming around the waterfront.
Not your usual Friday night, I was meeting an old bandmate to go to a museum. At the counter of the gift-shop I pulled out my phone, ready to swipe/show/swipe the Q-Code emailed to me when I booked the tickets, but the flummoxed person in the black Wellington Museums polo shirt just asked my name, crossing it off the list with ruler and pen. Just like the old days, name on the door, 21st century technology not required.
The Bond Store building is one of New Zealand’s most architecturally significant buildings, according to the website, full of Wellington Harbour history and artefacts. I had been there once, many years ago, before I picked up sticks and shifted here.
Swayed into town
Feet can glide along
Don’t know my way round
Sideways, forwards, backwards, uphill, all the way down
Me and my old gat-man mate had each paid $15 to see some relics of NZ’s post-punk history playing the old songs, once more, for old folk. We walked past the bottles, jars and ropes hidden behind glass, down towards the music.
Peter Jefferies was playing piano, singing, engaging the audience with his easy humour, getting everyone to clap along. It felt like we were in a bunker where the past never passed. Solid beams of giant native timber felled in the 1800s still stood, the valuable imported goods they protected long gone.
This is like being in the Cavern, my mate said. Yip, I agreed, but with green lasers drawing patterns on the backs and faces of the dark, intense figures.
And this could be anywhere
And this could be anyone else
It was jammed. The floor covered in people sitting, immobile. The edges crammed with those standing, trying to find a spot to see the music. No one could dance. Still, some bobbed their heads, others dared to sway.
We found a place at the back by a display case of old guitars and pedals from the 1960s. An exhibition of Kiwi music had been pushed aside to accommodate the punters. Weta guitars. 1964 Burns Marvin, played on stage by the Avengers. Mustang Fuzz Box. Gunn Octivider. Plug in and go!
No more getting in the way now
Not returnable incomplete
There were songs I knew, Caroline’s Dream, Chris Matthews growling and slashing, a treat to hear live. Immigration Song, with one of the best openings in a rock song ever. The noise and demand matching anything from 1950s Sun Studios or 60s proto-punk for sheer surprise and energy.
Swayed into town…
We heard about the gig from NZ’s top spy boss (name withheld). He had got the Intel on the gig the old way. Saw a poster in the street. Let us know by email. He shook my hand and said me and my mate should play some songs from our old noisy band. We were, after-all, 2/3s present.
Yes, the bits of This Kind of Punishment, Children’s Hour and Nocturnal Projections on stage were proportionally lesser fractions, but they added up to way more. Why else would a couple of hundred old codgers go into town on a Friday night to stick cigarette filters in their ears and guzzle from white cans marked ‘Beer’?
By 10pm they had finished. A Blues band prepared to take the stage. I had no interest. I could no longer stand around inside in my head, sifting through the past. My legs hurt. I wanted to go home, to sleep.
Left outside their houses while sitting inside of themselves
Ritual’s in sleep
Making endless promises you somehow believe you will keep
Any day now…
Sometime next week
Immigration Song – This Kind of Punishment
I was alone in the house, thinking about something I wanted to write, composing words of little consequence in my head, when something funny happened. I had just stepped outside to check on the washing, riffing away at gags and observations, when I heard a noise behind me that I didn’t recognise. A soft, woody, clicking.
It was the feathers of a fantail, flitting gently around the room. Long tail hanging down below.
Oh, I said. Oh, aloud, following its flight.
I have come to be nervous of birds in the house. They panic, throw themselves against the windows. Shit on the curtains. But the piwakawaka did exactly what fantails do. It calmly flew three circles of the space, aware that windows are not exits, and then it bobbled past me, out into the afternoon sun.
I quickly shut the door.
It is 17 years since I last saw that. I was starting a writing course in Timaru. A fantail flew into the kitchen, circled the light three times, and headed straight out into the garden. My flatmate, another writer, was uncertain. She thought it meant death. Something to do with their role in the death of Maui when he sought immortality. I swiftly made the point, rightly or not, that such events are also seen as a portent of rebirth, the start of something new. We were to write. Add words to the world.
As I recalled that moment, our recently returned long-lost cat appeared at the door, shouting to get in. Too much. Meke tu meke.
I had wanted to write about the poet I saw last night. The two poets I saw last night. How it was 2/3 performance, 1/3 poetry. How funny they were. John Cooper Clarke and Andrew Fagan. I liked it so much I even bought the Ramones-inspired tour t-shirt and started to write garbled poems in my head, humorous and wry. Words the world is not waiting for, does not need, but I have to express.
I had recently been thinking about giving stand-up a crack. It’s something I haven’t done. Not bucket-list but a bit of a lacuna. I’ve written a set and am trying to pluck up the courage to give it a bash. The thought terrifies me. I’ve often had the urge, having worked on so many live stand-up shows, but felt I was too much of an actor and/or writer, needing control of words.
Last month, when I saw a wonderful young actor do a solo show that was as much stand-up as theatre, I resolved to try my hand. I am nearly 51, how bad can it be?
I have read my ropey poems live, shaking in my boots. It really does happen. The anxiety was worse than theatre or playing in a band. You are totally naked. A performer and writer with no loud music, drama or drums, make-up or guitars to hide behind. Just you and your words. And a mic.
Maybe that is why both poets last night, 70s punk and 80s pop star, both employed costumes, patter and props, jokes and gags. It wasn’t stand-up, it was funnier than that. I smiled and laughed the whole time as they entertained the beautiful, packed historic church and offended the young.
I don’t know if I have the guts to act like a stand-up comedian. But I can be a funny poet. Maybe I could blend the parts into something new, born of me. A brash bird no longer bashing against windows it cannot see.
I want to flit about new spaces, unafraid of any threat, confident that the door remains exactly where it was when I came in.
It’s hard to accept absence as loss. There is no way to mark the grief of the inexplicable. You seek multiple explanations and none satisfies, or offers true relief.
You can bury a squashed cat or one that doesn’t come back from the vet. You can cry and move on.
But a cat that just disappears, leaving no hint or trace, stays curled up like a knot.
Thomas disappeared five and half weeks ago. The girls have wandered the neighbourhood and left notices in letter boxes. The have lit candles in the window each night to guide him home. We have all been a bit scratchy, unable to grieve.
At first, I told the girls that he may have found a nice old lady, who would give him too much food whenever he squawked. They liked that.
Once he was gone a month, the tears started. Hope was gone. We decided that we needed a wee ceremony, to bid him farewell. But when?
This weekend, we stayed with good friends out of town. They have dogs and a cat, pigs, sheep and chooks. I had intended to bring our huge bag of cat food that sat in the cupboard, waiting for Thomas to return.
I remembered it when Polly, their fluffy cat, rubbed against me. That led to talk of Thomas. Theories of what happened. Bad dogs. Bad kids. A fast car slept in to far-far away.
I repeated my theory that he hadn’t been well for weeks. The exceptionally hot summer had hit him hard, he constantly complained, unable to settle; had begun to look like a crooked old cat.
From the start, I believed that he had crawled under a bush and gone to sleep, searching for peace from whatever ailment was going on inside.
This morning, five and a half weeks after he vanished, the unimaginable happened. Thomas emerged from a bush, unable to shut-up, squawking and loud, ready to take command of the house once more. I filled his bowl with the biscuits I forgot to re-gift and he gobbled them between screaming meows.
It is unbelievable. I am so glad we didn’t say good-bye.
Last night I did something I never do. I posted a photo of our cat on social media. He was curled up in the way-too-small box he’s been trying to sit in all week. He has attempted resting his chin on the flimsy flaps but his head tips over when he falls asleep. He has twisted and folded trying to tuck in his head, but his tail or a shoulder always popped out.
It’s been very entertaining. What did cats do before boxes? Which came first, the cat or the box? The philosophical enquiry has been endless.
Thomas loves boxes. But each affair has only ever lasted a few days before the claws came out and rough-love was applied, shredding the cardboard; un-boxing the box.
I’ve always loved cats. They seem to love me. Sometimes a bit too much. Cats want to chat with me, jump on my back, or sit on my lap. It’s been a point of repeated jealousy from friends and lovers. I always say it’s because I’m part cat. Or some sort of very cat-like dog. Maybe I was a can of sardines in a past life.
When I posted the picture of Thomas, stubbornly content in his box, my partner said, “You will get lots of likes for that”. I did. In bed I showed her the pictures two friends had posted of their cats who had recently moved on. They were great final portraits.
Cats are funny things. Two weeks ago, on the last full moon, the witchy-poos I live with put all their crystals outside on a bed of salt in order to soak up the moon’s energy. Thomas spent the whole day sleeping below them on a hard wooden bench he had never favoured.
Over the week me and my sisters sat with our dying father, we repeatedly tried to get the facility’s so-called ‘Death Cat’ to come into the room to help Dad find peace. After five nights it finally did; to sit on my lap.
This morning, after my fiancé left for work, she sent a text saying Thomas had not come in for his breakfast. That is unusual. He is always at our bedroom door by 5am, demanding a fussing, or in the kitchen screaming at her feet for food.
It made me worried. He has never wandered. He only went missing when he got hit by a car, using up eight lives. His head was so misshapen he couldn’t eat for a long time, and we thought his handsome good looks were gone and he would never be right.
But Thomas is Thomas, a cat like no other. After escaping, and losing, three ‘cones of shame’ he was once more boss of the house, seeing off every other wandering cat in the neighbourhood so that he could stalk birds, mice, lizards and rats in peace.
As soon as the girls got up this morning I asked Alice, Thomas’s proud ‘wife’, to press the button to open the garage door below us, not saying why. I knew that if he had been trapped downstairs we all would have heard about it but, nevertheless, I still hoped to hear him barrel through the cat-flap straight after the button was pressed.
I said nothing about his absence as the three girls ate their porridge. But as Alice was washing her bowl she said, “There’s Thomas!”
I looked out the window and said, “Where?” masking the panic and relief in my voice. I couldn’t see him. “Where, Alice?”
“The birds. What are they?” She pointed at a sudden cloud of sparrows. I had shown her how the cleverer birds warn the flock of his lurking presence. Sparrows flap up and cheep. Starlings swoop and squawk. Seagulls fuss.
“They’re sparrows, Al. Did you see him, did you actually see Thomas?”
“No. But the birds mean he’s there. In the bushes.”
I turned away and began to dry the dishes.
After the girls headed off to school, happily unaware, I began to feel superstitious. His obsession with the box was a foreshadowing. I had empowered it by sharing a photo of him and his box, accompanying it with too-cute words in his voice. And by showing my fiancé the two final portraits I had seen. Two.
All writers are superstitious. Even atheists. Especially spiritual atheists.
Like my favourite author, John Irving, I often put my greatest fears on the page in order to rob them of actualization. Saying things out loud can defuse the trapped, amplified rattle of the head.
Before I sat to write, I replied to my fiancé’s worried text with a cheery ‘Will do!’ (Smiley face). She called back straight away, asking if it was time to call the vets. “Why, what can they do?” I asked.
“In case any cats have been brought in. He wasn’t on the road as I left…” That had been my worry. That the girls would find him as they walked down the hill.
“He’s only been missing for a few hours. That’s not enough even for a human.” She laughed, reassured.
I started to write.