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Writing Wellington: Twenty Years of Victoria University Writing Fellows


page 56


After his wife's death John began to fall in love again. It came on him steadily, drawing energy from his grief until that dried up and blew away and she could walk beside him speaking silently and touching his arm. He remembered that she had been the first to say, 'I love this place.' He had not shared that with her until she was gone.

He thought of her less frequently after several years but was glad of her presence when she came. He looked up from his gardening and saw red cattle moving through the gorse on the hill and no longer heard her telling him to see. A morepork calling woke him in the night and he heard alone, and hearing made him part of the nature of the place; as the cattle did, as the pair of horses on the skyline, as the steeplejack on the TV mast with a helicopter lowering parts to him.

He took the yellow unit down the gorge—nine minutes to the central station—and walked along the waterfront in his parka and sneakers and cheese-cutter hat. They had made that walk each Sunday—and now less frequently he heard her say, Listen, see: the hum of yacht rigging in the wind, a shag on a mooring line drying its wings. He saw for himself and he showed her, easy now, smiling with the union he made. He did not believe she would have been jealous.

The wind wrinkled the water on the artificial lake by the museum and sped a plastic bottle on the surface like a canoe. A black-backed gull with a broken wing flapped and scrambled on the sloping lawn by the marina. 'My husband's phoning the animal ambulance,' a woman cried. The wind gusted. A fat sloop hung in slings by the overseas terminal while two men scrubbed her down with wire brooms. After the murders in the Sounds was there anyone in New Zealand who could not tell a sloop from a ketch?

John walked on, not wanting to remember, only to see: fathers jogging with pushchairs in which tiny frowning buddhas slept: a man 'released into the community'—fingerless gloves, broken shoes, a New World shopping bag full of ravelled jerseys and bitten loaves of bread. He jabbed a fence paling at a council dustman wanting to sweep the corner where he slept. Beyond the Hotel Raffaele an Air New Zealand jetliner slid into the opening between Point Jerningham and Point Halswell.

John walked as far as the Raffaele, past labradors and schnauzers and a muzzled pit bull; past cars splashed with birdshit from starlings overnighting in the Norfolk pines; past vandalised bus shelters and million dollar apartments on the hill; and was still able to say, with a happy melancholy, This is mine.

The city of mirrors and chessboards strove for size underneath the hills it would never climb. The Beehive, a pancake stack, remained complacent. He would have liked to see it sooty and scarred. The sound of a piledriver came across the water from the Railyard Stadium and made him think of Jael nailing Sisera to the ground.

Away in its suburb, under the mast, his house would be steaming in the page 57 sun. Others, across the valley, were jammed in dark creases in the hill. Roads dived and climbed and turned back on themselves. Steps went up like ladders, their handrails sprung or skewed. He loved it all. Loved the wind in the gullies, the sound of gusts approaching like trains. He had gone up through the manhole to mend the tile that rattled at the eighty kilometre level but all the wires were tight. He found a poisoned beehive, the bees as light as air, and the mummified body of a mouse, and thought that he might crawl into a corner and dry out too, on the pink Batts, while a new family lived down below. Tiles would rattle, rain would splash inches from his face. He saw himself drifting on the hills, as natural as the weather there.

A shag dived, sped eel-like and vanished; came up with a fish in its beak. Silver flashed from the mirror glass. Red grew dull as the sun went out. He might be watching himself, if time were nothing, from that building on the hill where he had worked. He rode up every two or three weeks in the cable car, by-passed Von Zedlitz, found the library instead and leafed through the TLS and the London Review of Books, keeping in touch although he no longer needed to. Went into the stairwell to see the painting when he was done. That figure made of earth and air was what he really came for. He wanted to take it with him when he left, under his arm—had never seen a student even pause.

He watched it now, on the hills, and joined it. He did not know what it was doing there, or what he was doing. The harbour waited, level and patient; it darkened, then lit up from inside itself. A painter might see a shape in the water between Somes Island and Oriental Bay—a giant ray beating its wings—or see a bird on the grey wind, an albatross that darkened the city with its shadow. Would someone reveal them one day, while the kayakers paddled and the joggers ran?

He hummed with fear at his vision, then let it go. Walked back to the station the way he had come: the chlorine stink at the Freyburg Pool, the ketches and sloops, the floating crane. Listen, he said to his wife: the wind was coming. Ropes on the charter yacht slapped against the mast with the sound she had made beating eggs. Black-backed gulls side-slipped in the sky.

Tonight the tiles would rattle. He frowned at it. He smiled at it.