Sport 21: Spring 1998
Lloyd Jones — 1976
In our old Lower Hutt house there was a photograph of my oldest sister, Pat, on the sitting-room wall. Its airbrushed qualities singled it out from the other family photos taken at the beach or in the backyard where one or other of us kids posed with the dog or a cricket bat. Pat's was a studio photo. And even before I knew what a studio photo was I understood the solemnity of the occasion that the picture represented. It had been taken to mark her 21st birthday. In a few days time, as I write this, she will turn 60. She must have had her 21st in 1959 when I was four years old. The party was in the sitting room. Surely I am too young to remember anything about it, but I do remember someone dropping me out the window on to the back lawn. It must have been a game, and I must have enjoyed it because according to the memory I circle back to the door, fight my way through the sitting-room crowd, to be dropped out the window again. Fabulous fun! but clearly you had to be there. The other memory is of the morning after. The small glasses of brown liquid sitting on window sills, armchair rests, on the carpet next to ashtrays and saucers filled with butts. My mother tells me that they took all the doors off the hinges. It seems a bit excessive but that's what she says: ‘You'd be surprised the room you can make by taking off the doors.’ One of the people at that 21st will be at my sister's 60th birthday party. She recalls a drama when my brother turned up with a girl that my sister disapproved of. What else? ‘I just remember Pat's blue dress. I remember her buying the blue fabric because she wanted to look young now that she was old.’ To mark her own 21st Noelene's parents took her out to The Pines. Otherwise, she said, the occasion didn't mean much. ‘It was all part of the progress in my parents’ minds. I was the middle girl. The oldest sister was already married, my younger one was engaged. My ambition was to let my parents down.’ Turning 21, she said, ‘gave me permission to escape.’ She did, on the Castel Felice, along with hundreds of other young page 61 New Zealanders that included my sister, Pat, who would have her photo taken with King Neptune as they crossed the Equator en route for foggy Southampton.
I turned 21 in 1976, by which time the number 21 had slipped back into the numerical rank and file. The entitlements—drinking, leaving home, sex, freedom to make mistakes—I'd gleefully taken up years earlier. All the same, there was a family dinner at my mother's house to mark the occasion. It ended predictably in shouting and tears, over detail too trivial to recall here. Even my genial, good-natured brother-in-law, Bob Brockie, got to his feet, shouting at the startled faces around the dinner table, ‘I'm not going to put up with this!’ It was a triumph of sorts, to provoke Brock to that extent. Doors banged shut, and cars vanished into the night.
Elsewhere, across the country, State control was at its acme. Debate raged over wage and price controls. Trade unions ruled newspaper headlines. Eating out and entertainment were by and large clandestine activities. Though a precious number of BYOs were starting up. These eateries were Wellington's equivalent of the samizdat press in the Eastern bloc, promoted by word of mouth and subject to police raids. Toad Hall on Plimmer's Steps was the place to take someone you really wanted to impress. The stuffed potato, composed of mashed potato and flecks of hard-baked potato and innovatively garnished with chopped onion, was a new sensation. The Beefeater Arms did a carpetbag steak and offered dancing and vats of sparkling spumante. There were pubs, of course. At the Grand Hotel you could buy something called ‘Rare Rabbit’ in the public bar. The patrons were students and old men with cheeks matted with broken blood vessels. Upstairs, on summer nights when the doors were opened to the verandahs, you might run across a scented woman who would ask after your star sign. One Friday night I had the good fortune to meet a woman who'd been on the look out for an Aries. Generally, though, Wellington was a joyless place. You lived in Wellington if you'd been born there or sent there to fill the vast corridors and offices of the civil service. Incredibly, at the end of the university year I would apply for a job at the Reserve Bank. God only knows what position I was hoping to fill. At the Reserve Bank someone gave me a cup of coffee. Someone page 62 else pointed to a room with a chair where I was invited to sit. I was treated as someone who had clearly gotten off at the wrong floor. A few days later, some kind soul from the Bank rang my mother to say how ‘impressed’ they were with me but they couldn't give me a job. After the Reserve Bank I ‘interviewed’ at the newly established Ministry for the Environment. I was asked for my ‘thoughts’ on the environment. I don't think I'd ever felt so threatened. I didn't really have any thoughts. On this occasion there were two interviewers and as I prepared to say something they both leant forward; and I think their anticipation undid me. I cleared my throat and they eased back into their chairs and we passed the rest of the interview sipping our tea and coffee. Well, I wouldn't have employed me either. What did I know about anything? I ended the year with a number of contracts to clean the windows of office buildings up and down The Terrace. Once again, I was saving my fare to get out.
In other ways my ‘life situation’ was a privileged one. A career path had never been commended by either parent. My father certainly wasn't about to suggest that I follow his example. Schooling that had ended at age 12 and a dull working life broken just the once with a glorious spell gold prospecting in the 1930s. The Depression had provided my father with the happiest time of his life. (He turned 21 in 1930.) Nor did my mother push me in any direction, except to say, ‘You should do what you want to do.’ My older brother was to take a more active interest. After I finished high school and made noises about expanding a scrub-cutting business I'd started over the summer, he took me aside to tell me I was going to university. He also suggested that I become a waiter in one of those new BYOs ‘to smooth off the rough edges’. I didn't follow up that advice but I did go to university because he was willing to give me ten bucks a week if I did. The ten dollars went into my account by automatic payment, and that I could draw on it felt like an act of magic. I drew on it repeatedly, and was habitually overdrawn to the point that the bank manager called me in for a ‘chat’. He wondered what I was spending the money on to be constantly overdrawn like that. He wondered if I was spending the money on drugs. ‘Nothing like that? No. Good. That's good. I had to ask,’ he said.page 63
I wasn't into drugs. I was into surfing and all the money went towards petrol to get me to the beach. Victoria University, to its immense credit, didn't see itself as providing vocations. Rather, the job as they saw it was to open up minds and pass on a liberal framework of critical thought. Where it was all supposed to lead was very vague. Today, among a student population of mind-boggling self-centredness, the destination is the only thing that appears to matter. In 1976, no one I knew wanted to be rich. No one I knew even thought about wealth; nor was anyone really poor. We got by and that in itself was enough. None of my friends thought about the ‘work’ they would do. One friend with only a meagre grasp of English graduated with a BA in Sociology and got a job with Foreign Affairs, in the mailroom, sorting, much to the disgust of his father, a tailor, and a first-generation Greek immigrant who from the outset had expressed grave doubts about the value of university. What's more, old Jim had sewn the black suit that his son wore to the interview. The job, his son convinced him, had prospects. Apparently, there were mailroom jobs in embassies around the world.
I shouldn't sneer. After all, I wasn't really fit to work for a company or organisation or for anyone other than myself, and I should have known better than to turn up at the Reserve Bank. Who was I trying to kid? The answer, I suspect, was myself. I was just putting my ‘qualifications’ to the test.
I'd been exposed to unusual work practices. I was ten or eleven when my father retired from the welding factory in Naenae, thanks to the largesse of my brother who by then was making his way in the world as a successful property developer and investor. Work in our household, then, was spoken of as a thing of the past. Or, alternatively, work was revealed to be a pantomime. Our lives at home only overlapped by a year or two before Bob moved out, but once a week or fortnight he came by for dinner and told ‘work’ stories. I was still a child and only partially understood what he did. Something to do with advertising, selling space to tradesmen up and down the country. I also understood, and this was without my parents ever saying so, that there was something dodgy about Bob's work. But mostly I heard laughter. My brother is a very entertaining storyteller and I'd listen to page 64 him describe his road trips ‘selling space’. Bob's salesmen tended to have odd names like ‘Twelve Foot’. He was so engrossed with the story, he was always last to finish his meal. He'd pace up and down his side of the table. ‘So we come to this building site in Hamilton and I say to Twelve, “Go on. See if you can sign him up again.” So Twelve picks his way across the site and the builder screams at him, “You're not that Moses bastard who came through last month,” and Twelve says, “No. That was a different Mr Moses!”’ My mother permitted herself a sly grin. She really disapproved. She disapproved of nearly everything that Bob did, but secretly, at levels where she entertained notions of revenge against the world, she delighted. Grinning over her plate of gravy she would say, ‘That's terrible, Bob.’
This was the working world that I was introduced to. At high school, on those afternoons when I didn't have rugby practice, I went to my brother-in-law's office in Guthrie Street, Lower Hutt. By now, Michael had Bob's advertising business, and I was paid to stuff useless advertising calendars into cylinders which I stacked against the wall. Working at Michael's office brought me closer to the world of my brother's stories. The door to Michael's office was left ajar, and there was always hysterical laughter coming from it. In the smoky atmosphere were a number of men who wore white collars and black ties in the same unconvincing and hoodlum way that Mr Orange and Mr Green and Mr Black wore ties in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. Through the open door I'd watch Michael go back over the scenario. They were role-playing and he was pretending to be a tradesman. ‘You say, “Hello, I'm Mr Christian…”’ The other man, the same red-faced man with poor skin whom I remembered coming in for a job interview the previous week—I'd watched him sit nervously adjusting his tie waiting for Michael to see him—now nodded anxiously: ‘I'm Mr Christian. OK … Here we go.’ He'd start his lines. He'd start boldly and forthrightly advancing on my brother-in-law with an outstretched hand before collapsing into a helpless fit of laughter. ‘I can't be Mr Christian. I just can't. Give me another name…’ And in a few minutes, once the laughter subsided, they'd start over: ‘You be Mr Brown. I'll be Mr Sainsbury…’
These were the tentacles of the adult world reaching out to me; page 65 my first intimation of what to expect when I joined their ranks. Hopefully, as well, it will help explain why I sat grinning through my interviews with the Reserve Bank and the Office for the Environment, as though not quite trusting the procedure.
Unlike my sister I didn't wait until I was 21 before I left home. Eighteen years old and another ‘character’ from my brother's world is picking me up at Brisbane Airport. I knew about Paddy Butler and his eccentricities, how he never wore laces in his shoes and that his dress sense once prevented his entry to a restaurant in a building he owned. Paddy was in his fifties, a small wiry man. In the two months I knew him I never once saw him out of the unbuttoned white shirt and dark slacks. When he picked me up from the airport I was relieved to see that he was wearing laces; we were in his care before I realised he wasn't wearing socks. Paddy was picking me up from the airport because Bob was my brother. My surfboard was a surprise; so was the length of my hair. I suspect he had been expecting another Mr Orange in a thin black tie.
Paddy wasn't sure what I was supposed to be doing on the Gold Coast. At different times I thought he was under the impression that I had been sent to him for some alternative ‘grooming’. Nor was I quite sure what Paddy did for ‘work’.
For the first couple of weeks, until I found a job on a building site and, after that, a flat, I slept on a camp stretcher in Paddy's downtown office on Beach Road. It was a small wooden house on stilts. Paddy's ‘work day’ began around 10 am when he came in with the newspapers which he read through to midday. He was only interested in the business section and the classifieds. I would sit on the other side of his desk and watch him study these sections for ‘opportunities’. I still remember the sick look he gave me when I told him I'd found a job. He wore these black-rimmed glasses; behind them his eyes went absolutely still. Another time, when I came in from the building site absolutely stuffed from digging out a flooded car park, Paddy smiled across his desk to one of his colleagues, a huge man in a white shirt and black trousers with newspapers on his lap. He said, ‘This is Bob's younger brother. He's labouring on a building site.’ The large man exchanged a smile with Paddy. In the days to come Paddy would view page 66 this ‘work’ more positively. He would come to admire my ‘work ethic’. He would even ask me to speak to his ‘lazy little bastard of a son’, who at 15 Paddy hoped would learn something from my example. By now Paddy had persuaded himself that I was saving to put a modest investment together which eventually would grow until I was ready to buy a building, then ultimately, after the ‘family tradition’, buy up the Gold Coast. I didn't have the guts to tell him I was saving a fare to Europe to be with my Hungarian girlfriend in Zurich. I knew he would find that just too pathetic for words. Worse, he might report the news to my brother. This would mean further shame. But soon enough he had pieced everything together. The mail with the Swiss stamps that arrived at his Beach Road office; the girlish handwriting on the envelope. Once he handed me a letter that had arrived with Snoopy kisses on the envelope. Another time when she rang, Paddy was in the office, and after handing me the phone he sat watching me, and grinning to himself, and chewing his fingernails, while I spoke to ‘that girl in Zurich’.
As soon as he learned that I would be in London, he made calls on my behalf, wrote down addresses of other Mr Oranges and Mr Greens, who, he said, would look after me on my arrival. One evening, he said there was someone he wanted me to meet. We drove around to a smart address on the Isle of Capri where I met a good-looking woman who had dated Arab princes in London. She spoke of her travel through the Middle East. She showed us the jewellery she'd been given. It didn't occur to me at the time, and if Paddy knew he didn't say, but now I imagine she had been a high-class call girl who'd ‘retired’ to the Gold Coast. Together, Paddy and I sat on the couch; Paddy in his black slacks and sockless shoes and buttoned down white shirt, grinning up at this dark-haired woman in her exotic house coat as she brought us our drinks. I think he fancied her.
In London, I didn't contact any of the names that Paddy and the woman had given me. I wasn't interested in ‘rorts’ and ‘schemes’ except as stories. Besides, I lacked the demeanour or what we might call ‘professional aptitude’. On top of that, I didn't want Paddy's mates to feel an obligation towards me. In London, I settled for the usual menial page 67 jobs that Kiwis accepted uncomplainingly and unambitiously as their lot. I worked in a Lebanese kitchen as a dishwasher.
One year later, I was back home, at university, getting up at 4.30 am to work a rubbish run around Wellington's hills. I happened to be home when Michael's father, Gordon, telephoned. ‘I have some very bad news,’ he said. My sister Lorraine had died. I drove round to the bowling club to tell my father. The brash, insensitive way I burst into the club and broke the news to him amazes me now. It wasn't as if I lacked sensitivity; I simply didn't stop to imagine my father's position. I felt a tremendous anger. This is how angry I was. My brother had lent me one of his cars, a Ford Capri. On my way home a car of hoons tried to have me on, slowing and speeding up to prevent me passing them. Eventually I overtook them, and around a corner I stopped the car in the middle of the road and got out. They came around the corner and couldn't believe their eyes. They stopped short. They saw me run towards them. I booted in the side door, and the driver, with a terrified look, began to reverse at speed.
The following year my father died; and now, all these years later, I find it impossible to separate his death from Lorraine's. Just before we drove off to my sister's funeral, I remember Dad wiping his eyes. He shook his head down at the floor and said with absolute conviction what I now know any parent would say in his place: ‘If I could, I would change places with her.’
That winter I came down with meningitis, just one of three cases recorded in New Zealand that year. My brother drove me to hospital. It is impossible for my brother to pass through public space without incident, and at the hospital there was a row over my admission. As I lay on a trolley in a semiconscious state I could hear Bob arguing with the nurse who wanted to know my religion. ‘Who wants to know?’ And, ‘What the hell has his religion to do with anything. Look at him! He's dying and you're asking his bloody religion!’ A month later, recovering at home, I got a call from Paddy. I was in bed so my mother took the call. I was glad I didn't have to speak to him. He'd want to know how my adventure had turned out, and there would be nothing to tell him except failure. The relationship with the Hungarian was page 68 over. Worse than that, from Paddy's point of view, I hadn't made an outrageous bundle of money. He left a message to say he was off to America.
The year I turned 21 I heard that Paddy was living in Los Angeles and cycled each day to the stock exchange, and that he had grown his hair long and now wore a headband.