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Tuesday, 23 January 2007

Invercargill Tragedy (in five parts)

Invercargill Tragedy


If I want to tell the story of the crime of passion I was peripherally involved in as a child, I have to start at the very beginning. This is because, as you will see, my memory plays a significant role in this story. If I had compiled the tale by asking the other witnesses, it would be a different story. You need to have faith in my recall of distant events, and you must also understand the character of my mother. My earliest memory is of her; I am breastfeeding and, obviously intoxicated with the first flush of selfish male entitlement, I decide to bite the nipple, experimentally as it were. My mother cries in dismay; I am promptly slapped and torn away. My mother, of course, has no such memory. She is sure she never administered corporal punishment to a babe at the breast. And it is not the pain I remember, but the shock; for the first time my own actions have landed me outside the charmed circle and rudely awakened me from my milkfed idyll. More than that, my mistake has alienated, however briefly, the only person I love. It is a shock that will never be forgotten. It is also a pattern I will be doomed to repeat in adulthood, but that need not concern us here. What matters is my detailed recall of the incident, and my mother's disavowal; if it happened (and of course it did) it is not the sort of thing she wants to remember.
My Uncle Horace owned the first firearm I could have touched. He was an officer in the RAF, able to fly that oversized jet fighter, the Phantom F4; I was a child of five or six, staying the night at my paternal grandparents' home in Edinburgh, Scotland with my younger brother Ian, when our Uncle came to call. He is a swarthy, bulky, crewcut rugby player of a man, a veritable Hercules, the most masculine man of my childhood, and he has brought his service sidearm in a foam-lined black metal briefcase. I used to think that he brought it just to show us, but it occurs to me now that, in possession of passwords and other Cold War secrets, he was perhaps obliged to be armed when off-base. Also, the RAF has its own intelligence arm; for all we know, flying fighters was not his chief occupation. Whatever the reason for his being armed, if he was staying in a hotel without a safe, he had to take the gun with him when he came to visit us; to lose it would merit a serious disciplinary charge. There it sits in the case, with spare magazine, bullets, oil and cleaning rod; the year is circa 1964. He exudes masculine authority and we are small children; we hardly dare look at the gun, which both fascinates and strangely disappoints us, perhaps because we know we will never see it fired, but also, perhaps, because it does not really resemble the guns in the movies. Flash forward to a few years ago, in my parent's home in Invercargill, when I am discussing Uncle Horace with his sister, my mother. She is sceptical about the gun, and as she is calling his family in Scotland (he has become a sort of teacher, still in the RAF) she asks them; "Young George (my father's name is George) says Horace had a revolver with him. Surely not!" I interrupt to correct her, "No Mum, it wasn't a revolver, it was an automatic; I think it was a .45 Browning." To cut this part of the story short, I was right in every way about the gun. He was obliged to keep his weapon with him, and it was strapped to his leg whenever he flew.
I would see my Uncle Horace one more time. It was 1966 and the liner that carried our family on the 6 week voyage from Portsmouth to New Zealand was berthed in the roadway at Aden after transitting the Suez Canal and Red Sea. With a very few other passengers with business ashore the Hendersons, two parents and four boys, one a babe in arms, are motoring towards shore in one of the ship's boats, when the radio crackles and barks. Because of the terrorist emergency in Aden, no passengers from S.S. Iberia can be allowed to disembark in Aden. We boys grumble as the motorboat swings round, back towards the great white liner. Then we hear another voice, booming out over the water; "Stop that boat!". The call is so authoritative that the bosun cuts the engine, and we all turn to see a fast launch powering towards us, RAF roundel at the bow, and poised above it a swarthy mountain of a man, megaphone in hand, in tropical fatigues; white shorts, white shirt, white socks high over the calf; his terrifying black crew-cut hidden under an RAF officers' tropical peaked cap. Our Uncle Horace. The Hendersons are transferred to the RAF launch and the other passengers, mere nobodies, are carried back to the ship as we speed towards shore. The city of Aden is built in an extinct crater on the equator, and nothing green grows there. It is so unbearably hot that a skinny pi-dog is sleeping under a Volkswagen, the only place in the car's shadow at midday, and the city is being subjected to a prolonged terrorist campaign from Arab nationalist guerillas who will found the Republic of Yemen once they drive the British out. We cross the street near the traffic lights where a handgrenade had recently exploded murderously in a crowd. Nothing perhaps by today's exalted terrorist standards, but our blood runs cold at the brutality and the unfairness of it all. At eight, it is easy to understand what terrorism means to ordinary people. In my Uncle's flat, above the street, I am allowed to play with an antique Arab rifle, but when I carry it towards the window I recieve a severe dressing down from my Uncle Horace; the soldiers on the street below have orders to shoot to kill. After that humiliation my interest in the scene fades, and I sulk restlessly, waiting to return to the boat.

2


In trying to nominate a root cause for the oncoming crime passionelle, clichés, which is to say eternal truths, come to hand. Original Sin, the War between Men and Women, even hormonal or chemical imbalance; they all apply to our unhappy friends, but they apply too generally. A more specifically baleful influence is one that I seem to have shared with them; a failure to fully adjust to the social dislocation of emmigration and the psychic isolation of the immigrant. There are two formative childhood experiences whose influence ineluctably asserts itself into my work; one is romantic in nature and mainly belongs to a later phase of adolescence than this story, but the other was fully developed by the time it began.
My father's skill at maintaining combine harvesters and other agricultural machinery was what gave my family an entrée to New Zealand; that and my parents' ability to hold onto a dream and see it through. Before they were wed my father told my mother that one day, God willing, he would like to move to New Zealand. After his National Service, as a Royal Engineer helping to suppress the Mau Mau terrorist insurgency in Kenya, a military police action which was, with the earlier Malayan Emergency, one of the very few examples of an essentially successful counter-terrorism campaign, they were wed, in 1957. When the children, all boys, began to be born and the limited prospects for a Scottish artisan with a large brood became more real to them, she reminded him of a dream which he had not forgotten, and planning began for real. That my father was always meant to be a Kiwi seems obvious when I consider his rather unscottish addiction to DIY home improvements; as new children came along, he erected plywood partitions across our bedrooms, subdividing the tiny flat. Our flat was perched high inside a towering, many chimneyed Victorian tenement, one of a row that presented an unbroken wall of stone five stories high along the length of the street; ours was the building at the end of the row, where the long grey street turned the corner into a genteel cul-de-sac. The contrast with the quarter-acre section we moved into in Invercargill (actually an eighth of an acre) would not be more marked if we had acquired a mansion. My parents were buying not only their own home but the land around it, something unimaginable in Edinburgh. My father's skills were in such demand in New Zealand that his fare was paid for his signature on a mere two-year contract. In every way but one we were better off.
In Edinburgh I had been every bit as much of a book worm as I am now. I remember staying at a relative's vacant house on holiday, at the age of six or seven, and finding a copy of Moby Dick, which I swiftly devoured. I could hardly devour that book now. Perhaps because I have read a great deal more prose since then, and have developed such a feel for the rhythm of a sentence that the unwieldy prose in Moby Dick feels claustrophobic, a fault that could not have been obvious to me then. I was also a great skimmer, able to read swiftly upside down or from a distance, cherry-picking with a glance the elements of plot, the descriptions, the conversations and the more interesting musings. I do know that I consumed Melville's chapter on the natural history of the whale holus bolus; my fascination with interesting animals has submerged but never died. Perhaps it is the case that I now find man, particularly the female of the species, to be the most interesting animal of all, despite the lack of practical uses for his carcass. I know that man is a verminous pest, but the fact of his impending extinction lends to him a gloss that he might not otherwise deserve. I once enraged a friend whose house my parents had visited, in part so I could play with him, by opening his brand new, unread Eagle (incorporating Look and Learn) magazine and becoming so lost in it and deaf to his entreaties that he tore the paper from my hands and ripped it up in front of me. Yet I was also a popular child in Edinburgh; I had my own gang of boys that I ran with, and I even got into trouble for picking on a retarded kid with them. I don't know the exact degree of my guilt in this, but I was not by nature much of a follower even then. I remember sitting, quite terrified, in the headmistress's office as she pointed to a picture of a palm-lined beach on the wall and said, "You do want to go to New Zealand don't you? Your parents will be very dissappointed", somehow implying that my crime, if known, would see our visas declined and our passports revoked, which for all I knew might have been the case. Perhaps the picture had been put on the wall especially for my interview; one thinks of such things now, but thankfully I had no cynicism at the time. I am always vulnerable to being influenced by sober critiques of my bad behaviour, and since that day I have respected the retarded with saintly patience under all provocations. There is nothing innate about conscience; it is all implanted, taught or learnt - or not.
I was told, and the myth is still current, that there is something Scottish about Southland, but no-one had told my new schoolmates. On my first day at Middle School I was repeatedly and aggressively asked (and I would be hearing it for years to come), "Are you a yank? Then why d'you speak funny?" New Zealanders, especially low-bred ones like my new schoolmates, don't really pronounce many vowels. My long, near-Harvard "a"s in words like "bath" ("baarth") and long fruity "oo"s in "foot" ("fooit") etc., which were only long when compared to the clipped vowels all around me, were hilarious, still are to the immature, and those and other sounds which I have since lost, like the rolled "r" and the guttral "ch", were reasons to mock me whenever I opened my mouth. When you consider that my speech has always been the thing that has redeemed me socially, more than compensating for my odd appearance, my propensity to blush and my general gauchness, and that I can talk almost anyone into friendship, compromise, or surrender if it matters, you might be able to understand how lost I was in this new environment. It was not that I was victimised physically - primary schools in those days were safe places, and what would be called today sexual assaults were far more common than beatings, thanks to the policy of installing retarded children, of whom Invercargill had a vast supply, in co-educational primary schools according to their mental, rather than their physical age, so that snot-streaked youths with more body hair than self-control amused themselves by touching the squealing little girls, to the amusement, or so it seemed, of everyone, including the girls, but me, the only puritanical witness in this new milieu of appallingly squalid depravity. I might add in mitigation of my pudency that, in the co-educational primary school which I had left behind me in Scotland, together with my hope of ever again making a civilised friend, the girls and boys, at lunchtime and other playtimes, were made to exit through different doors, and were seperated in the playground by a tall wire fence atop a stone wall, which no-one was allowed to go near, even if they had a brother or a sister on the other side. That was not the only difference between the two educations; the Scottish education system was acknowledged to be so superior to the New Zealand, no doubt because of the material each had to work with, that I was instantly promoted. Instead of repeating a year, I missed one. I was the youngest kid in the class, and of course the smallest and the greenest, by many months.
Under such conditions, my parents, in the natural way of immigrants not yet confident in the ways of a new land, tended to bond with those with whom they shared a common experience, both the Scottish and the English (this despite the disdain, amounting to pity, that all Scots feel for their southern neighbours). The degree that understanding English helps immigrants to assimilate has been exaggerated in debates on this subject; such a shared language can divide as much as unite if the usages are very different, and the Southland Kiwi idiom of the 1960s was rooted in obscure atavistic experiences that newcomers could not begin to understand, such as the use of the word "seal" to mean half-wit, which (it only struck me much later) must be a relic of the brutal days of sealing; the seal as the ultimate victim; "seal!" was fighting talk; only "you're a queer!" was more provocative. Looking back, it was not so much hostility that prevented me making friends but my own sensitivity and squeamishness. For the first time in my life, I became a snob. With very few exceptions, I did not look up to these people, I did not really aspire to be their friend. That, however, is not something I could easily admit, to myself or others. I do not want to give the impression that I did not make any friends, even in primary school; I made close friends easily, I even suspect with the boy who had challenged me the most, in any case with a handsome dark-haired boy of some integrity, with whom I shared many typical boy's adventures, and with an asthmatic scientific genius who rewarded my trust by dying. It is just that I was never again a member of an easy social group; my friendships were now just one-on-one, and I would let them decay naturally, remorseful but unhurt (was this the start of "cool"?). I tended to find my friends among those outcast, for reasons of health or behaviour (hardly fit friends for a snob, but nonetheless the start of a life-time habit of befriending hypochondriacs and rough diamonds, the latter more rough than gemlike), from the brutal, appalling Kiwi contact sports that I soon refused to enter into. Girls occassionaly had the grace that was lacking in the dirty, foulmouthed boys around me, who I somehow imagined were less refined creatures than the Edinburgh tenement brats I had formerly run with (I cannot ever remember hearing the word "f*ck" in Scotland; certainly, it had never been explained to me, a task my new companions took up with the ignorant zeal of born corrupters).

I fell in love early and often. One girl in particular was well outside everyone's league; my memory of her is still amazing to contemplate. She was a Chinese girl, taller so perhaps older than the rest of us, who came to school each day wrapped in a beautiful traditional silk Fu Manchu costume that seems, in my memory, to cover her, from a high collar to just above her always-gleaming shoes, and of course she could fit her hands inside the opposite cuffs as well. She looked exactly like the Chinese girl in the Rupert Bear stories that I loved. Despite her strangeness and her membership of an openly despised race, I never once saw or heard her insulted. Nor did I hear her speak, except to answer a question, and it is possible that she was not asked questions openly in class at all. Her dignity was like a bubble of mystery that protected her wherever she walked in this land of the yahoos into which she had fallen. Her family lived in a two story house behind a very high wall; her father may have been a greengrocer whose family had lived in New Zealand since the gold rush, but her dress argued otherwise; I like to imagine him as a Nationalist general, or even a warlord, fleeing from Mao's troops with too much ill-gotten booty to trust to the Koumintang authorities in Taiwan. Our family friends were mostly drawn from the ranks of other UK emigrées. Among them was a young couple from England with two small children. We were not to know them for long, our friendship ending with the appalling revelations that would fill the front page of the Southland Daily Times. I have come to think recently that I may have gotten a little closer to them than my parents did, particularly to the young wife and mother of two, who pleased my parents, and myself at first, greatly by finding me a job, selling icecreams during the intermissions in one of Invercargill's three movie theatres. The job did not pay well. In fact, like all of my early jobs, it didn't actually pay at all, but to my parents that was really not the point.


Invercargill Tragedy - Part Three - Everyone's Gone to the Movies

If your only experience of picture-going is at the Multiplex, I pity you. The place I came to work in, at the age of about twelve, was a moving picture theatre. It had a spacious entrance way, like an opera house or a town hall, a lobby where tickets and treats were sold, wide flights of stairs covered in violet carpet, an upstairs and a downstairs, the former a great curving circular balcony, a high-domed heaven of a ceiling, and a stage and curtain like a true theatre; perhaps it had been built for theatrical, musical, and balletic entertainments in the days before movies. Invercargill has a population of about 40,000 in 1970, but it is also a service centre, a market town, the only large city for hundreds of miles in the middle of some of the most fertile alluvial farmland on God's green Earth. It has the widest main streets you will ever see, yet the shops only line them for two long, or three short lengths of the standard rectangular block used in New Zealand city planning. As in Dunedin, Victorian and Edwardian architecture still dominates the scene, whether because those reigns accompanied the City's heyday or because it is just such an imposing style that all the squat utilitarian hutches around fail to register. 

Invercargill is going through an impressive revival and is becoming a desirable place to live, but in my day there was no reason to disagree with the Rolling Stones that it was "the arsehole of the world". For example, once in the 1960s a local man dragged an intellectally handicapped woman from a van and beat her up on the main street. In court, his excuse was that he thought she was a man and he had been offended by her long hair. The judge said "I understand your anger, but you can't take the law into your own hands". The British authorities had trouble settling the deep south of New Zealand in the mid-nineteenth century. It took more of a hardy, loner's pioneering spirit than most places; the huge flat windswept plains were a perfect setting for despair. Men were interested in farming the land, but without women few would stay. The colonising authorities eventually found the answer; the inmates of two women's asylums were shipped to Southland, where they were kept at Gore, one hundred miles from Invercargill, until they had found husbands or jobs. Obviously these women were not schizophrenics, but depressives, manic depressives and neurotics who were unable to cope with life in the old country but might well find life on the frontier to be bearable - or not. Nor should we overlook the effect that the effort to keep them happy may have taken on their mates. Life was hard enough for those men, yet in a woman-starved landscape it is hard for any woman to be too demanding - at first. 

I played in Gore once. Walking down the main street with my girlfriend and her friends, I was amused to be called a "Homo!" from every passing car, and again, at the gig, to be heckled about my "boyfriend!" while singing songs like Bitch Goddess of Love and Disco Nymph. I might add that all these hecklers had longer hair than me, not because they were metrosexuals but because they were scruffy, lazy, dirty gits. In fact the way I wore my hair then was the traditional Southland haircut I hated in my youth, short back and sides, long on top. It took all of my instincts for self-preservation to suppress my planned retort - "I saw your girlfriend the other day; she's a - Merino, isn't she?" When people are that up-in-arms about a sexual aberration for no immediately apparent reason, whether it's homosexuality, paedophilia, porn or what-have-you, you can be sure that there's more than a little projection going on; that what they're accusing you of is what would concern them most in themselves if they were capable of facing it. A visit to the public toilets in these Southland country towns reveals an incredible amount of functional grafitti arranging sexual encouters between men. They're not gay, most of them; they're horny. There are not enough prostitutes in their town (or they lack the money: Kiwi whores are not cheap), and they are not interested in humouring the emasculatory whims of the average feminine psyche, possibly for the rest of their lives, as the price to pay to get their jollies. Perhaps they're not gay, but they must worry intensely that they are, and the more they enjoy themselves, the stronger the fears that they are burning certain bridges that a man needs to reach a woman. Hence their hostility towards the well groomed stranger with his co-ed entourage. A few years back, jafas Mikie Havoc and Newsboy called Gore "the gay capital of New Zealand" on their TV show and outraged the Gorons, who are very touchy about their place at the foot of the evolutionary ladder. Anyone who's actually been to Gore knows exactly what they meant. I have digressed wildly from my plot, but it has been worth it. 

The point is that Invercargill in those days provided entertainment for restless youth from as far afield as Gore and Te Anau and thus sustained three picture theatres, the Majestic, the Odeon, and the Embassy, and I worked in the latter, which was the best and had by far the best name. My job was to wear a light blue smock and, I think, a bow tie on a bit of elastic, and a tray suspended before my belly. This tray had racks for holding those round topped, flat bottomed rock-hard icecreams that you only get at the movies, with or without chocolate toppings, and packets of snifters and jaffas. The jaffa is a round chocolate in a hard orange-flavoured shell; its main claim to fame (the snifter is a more satisfying sweet) is that it can be rolled like a marble down the aisles or beneath the seats during a dull or a soppy part of the film to break the tension or to relieve longueurs. Though a child of my age was prefered, requiring minimal pay (I took home $1.20 on the best week, which would buy a cheap model airplane or two packets of cigarettes), nonetheless there was a slight problem with my age; R-rated films like Lolita,Woodstock, Dracula, and Frankenstein (the originals) were barred to me. This was in the days when censorship was about protecting society, in other words maintaining the status quo, not about social engineering, or trying to please feminist academics and capitalist entrepeneurs at the same time. In those days the law was monolithic; it didn't run around like an anxious dog seeking to appease public opinion, the ignorant and mediocre tyrant of our times. Those were the pre-internet days, when it seemed that a tide of filth could be stemmed by one determined lay nun, like New Zealand's heroically obtuse Patricia Bartlett, the days when Germaine Greer could be arrested and tried for indecency in New Zealand because she used the word "bullshit", an expression which is every Kiwi's birthright, in a public speech. My inability to see the R-13 Sunday night double bill of Dracula and Frankenstein occassioned deep chagrin; there, on the other side of that door, my future pleasures were being arranged; why could I not look in on them, just a little? Frankenstein is a fine film, but perhaps it is just as well that I went on believing it was terrifying for a little longer. For Woodstock, an R-16 two parter, as for La Dolce Vita, I was positioned inside with my tray before the lights came up; I got to see a sight that must have given the manager heart palpitations; hippies up on the stage, right before the screen, dancing with their shadows beside the projected, luminous flower children. There were, I noticed, people smoking in the theatre; you weren't actually allowed to do that. Another odd thing was that, although there were few people there, perhaps fifty or sixty (every hippie, rocker or biker in Southland at that time), they were all grouped together up the front, instead of spreading out to get some privacy. If I wanted to see a film I always had to ask the manager, no matter how many times I'd seen it before. A slim balding man with glasses, I found him severe and intimidating; it's only now I realise it must have taken all his resolve to maintain this persona with his staff. I was not good with money, always being taken advantage of, or giving wrong change: my instinct to please people and my desire to like them often led me astray, and I was rebuked and had to make the money back, but it was never a serious matter because I never argued about money. It was all about the work ethic; there was no real money for a twelve year old to make anyway, not in ways my parents would approve; the important thing was to develop my habits, and my experience of life, and to make contacts that might do me good later on. In those days I was not too much of a disappointment; I was a dreamer, of course, but I was always willing. At thirteen, the amount of physical labour I did in a day would appall a modern child; a two hour paper run before sunrise, a three mile ride to piano lessons, then to school and back, another three miles, then in the evenings I would walk through the night into town through the Puni Creek gardens, to take up my tray; if the film was a two parter, I'd wait in the lobby, being occasionally engaged in conversation by the young woman who is the heroine of my story. 

It is time I introduced her. She was a blonde young mother of two, permed and slight, with a pasty complexion and the stressed air most mothers of young children have, that she hid with an imperfect hardboiled act. I don't remember where she came from, but she had the kind of working class English accent that can never sound classy; I tend to picture her in slippers. She had found me the job, and served as intermediary between the manager and I. She could be acerbic and sarcastic, more so as time went on, which could make her unpleasant, but she was almost always kind to me, who could be annoyingly uncertain about the most obvious things, and thoughtless when I was not. She took her responsibilty to me and my parents seriously. It is only in setting out to write this story that I come to realise how much she liked me, in her own solipsistic way. Everyone likes my mum, but by employing me she assured herself of some company in the first watches of the night. She smoked a great deal; I was experimenting with smoking. I would buy a packet of filterless Greys and smoke one or two on the way home, but I did not know to inhale. I liked the smell and taste of the tobacco and I like, now, the way that lighting my first cigarette back then has fixed the scene (a lit shop window, an empty alleyway, lamplight) in my memory, but I had no major symptoms to report. I sometimes smoked outside at work, but not after she caught me one day. What a telling off! Threats of telling my mother were unnecessary, the scolding itself was discouragement enough. I believe I actually stopped trying to smoke soon after that, though I certainly would have lit up in defiance on my way home. It was only once I left school that I resumed the attempt. I thought then that she was hypocritical, but I see her point, which was not really about health or addiction, factors she was unlikely to understand in 1970, so much as it was about her responsibility to me and my mother; if I picked up a vice like smoking, a vice she had, it would reflect badly on her. My mother's approval obviously mattered to her, which is what made the scene I witnessed a few months later so odd and hard to understand. While I worked at the Embassy she saw herself as my guardian,while I saw myself, if I thought about it at all, as an independent agent; I had a job, after all, and I was free to wander the city late at night. She had two young children, a boy and a girl, and I wonder if she had much experience of life before her marriage; I also wonder whether she wanted to come to New Zealand as much as her husband. It's obvious now she missed her family and friends, or perhaps the pace of live, or the greater range of possibilities she'd left behind in England; her job as an usherette was one way to mix with people without her restlessness being too obvious. In some ways she was still a child; I think of Rose in Brighton Rock when I try to unravel her motives or capture her looks; she did not have Rose's innocence, but she must have started out on married life with similar expectations. Or, I think of Miranda Richardson's portrayal of Ruth Ellis in Dance with a Stranger. A good writer doesn't just quote faces from the movies, but I feel awkward here, too worried about insulting her memory by putting my impressions of her into pitiless words for others to misunderstand


4

It seemed to me as my callow youthful self that my mother and her friends were addicted to a bourgeois concern with appearances, a kind of middle-class aspirational gentility; this despite (or perhaps because of) her four rude boys and her home in the wild deep south. In seeming contradiction of her wisdom and intelligence, a typical law of the day proscribed her children from eating as we walked outside. It just wasn't done. That every other Invercargill child seemed to have no problems doing it was a precedent we cited in vain. We were not, and would never be, like them.

A side of this concern with appearances was an addiction to female ornamentation; all the women of my mother's circle were regularly seen with curlers in, yet I cannot now recall the last time I saw a woman in curlers. The children that I loved as a child had, naturally, that hardy beauty which make-up only spoils; I was in my thirties before I could be comfortable with a woman I loved shaving her armpits and using perfume; whether this was in reaction against my mother's gang, or a congenial adoption of an early lover's politics; an unwillingness to grow up (one should change in the pursuit of constant improvement, not just because the date has changed), or merely the natural development of good taste is a nice question. As I say, my mother's attitudes seemed as full of contradictions as my own do now; unpretentious, self-deprecating, witty and worldly, simultaneously judgemental and tolerant, she imposed seemingly impossible standards only to relax them; perhaps this is the only sane way to raise boys. The maternal trait most relevant to this tale, one passed down in full to me, is a dislike, amounting to revulsion, of confrontations and "scenes". In a characteristic instance recalled recently by my sister, when my mother discovered the cannabis plant growing in my bedroom (at a much later point in my youth than that of this story) she dosed it with paraquat – twice – and not a word was said about it to this day.

I am attempting here to understand why my memory infallibly presents its clearest vision of the friend of whom I write at her dowdiest. She wears fluffy slippers, a pale green knitted cardigan, with knitted belt hanging loose, her legs are bare, pale and scrawny, her face is pale and pinched with what could be scorn or regret, and she smokes a filter-tip tailor-made cigarette with her right hand while holding that arm's elbow with her left. If her ash-blonde hair is not in curlers then it should be. She stands at her kitchen's back door, for this is an occasion when I was hired to chop wood into kindling for one or two dollars on a Saturday afternoon. Her husband is sturdy and swarthy, his straight flat raven hair slightly overgrown against his collar, and he wears a moustache and possibly more facial hair in the look popularised by George Best. He is a strong man with a classic roast beef look and an air of kindness that could be fatally misinterpreted as weakness; or perhaps vice versa.

How and when I lost the job she had found me, if in fact I did, I have no idea. No doubt my clumsiness with money caused my employers too much worry, and no doubt I let myself be talked into leaving of my own accord, and then came to believe it was one of my own clever ideas. I have one last memory of her at the pictures; it is Sunday night and there is a mythological double feature. One of the Jason films is likely showing, but for some reason it is Hercules in Atlantis that excites me; perhaps my obsession with lost worlds, UFOs and sea monsters was then at its peak. Of course I will not get to see this R16 masterpiece. The adults have been stocktaking, and in front of the manager, whose consent must have been necessary, she gives me an expired bag of lollies, marshmallow mushrooms coated in coconut; never my favourite, but a welcome gift to a hungry boy. They look a bit odd, but I trustingly chew one. It tastes disgustingly stale, musty and bitter. I look at the bag. The rest are covered in a film of fungus, cobwebs or both. Like the victim of some fiendish oriental torture, I am careful not to show my nausea as I slowly, naturally depart for the toilet to scrape and wash the traces of the foul thing from my mouth. I know she didn't do it deliberately (perhaps she needs glasses but is too vain to wear them), but I can't help resenting her smug, vapid lack of interest, in the sweets she handled, in the reactions I hid so well. No good deed goes unpunished, if only by the silent resentment of the victims of charity.

I assume this unpleasant incident was not an intentional act, but my infuriatingly absentminded provocations have tempted dearer friends than those to involve me in cruel practical jokes that take advantage of my mindlessly trusting nature. Have you ever over-thought something, so that the obvious answer escaped you? Imagine this happens automatically to every thought you have, and you are part of the way to understanding autism. Reduce its frequency again so that the unassisted life is just possible, add a sizeable ego, a hypomanic's supersensitivity to boredom, and an obsession with never again being forgettable (apparently the construction my subconscious invented to account for the effects of my exile from Scotland), a desire for fame quite independent of those talents I was so slothful in developing, and you are part of the way to understanding why your present author could never hold a job or satisfy a teacher for long; why caring adults may have come to the guilty conclusion that it was in his own best interests that he tasted mouldy or spiderblown sweets, as if their symbolic warning could be absorbed into his system alongside their fungal or arachnogenous toxins.

This unlucky couple had two young children, a curly-haired boy resembling his father, a small girl not unlike the mother. They seemed well-behaved kids to me, but the one snippet of gossip about that family's personal lives that survived the coming dénouement was that the husband had recently submitted to a vasectomy. Whatever you think of the role of male sterilization in family planning, perhaps you will agree with me that as a way to save a marriage it has certain flaws. There is the irreversibility of the procedure should the gesture fail to move, and then there is the weakening of masculinity at a time when it most needs to appear strong. It seems to me that he may, with the best of intentions, have undermined the remains of his wife's respect while supplying that unhappy woman with a terrible weapon to use against him. Did she abuse him as her frustration grew, coming to disrespect him, betray his trust and increasingly aim low blows? I expect so. Did she strike him? If he was as passive, inarticulate and self-controlled as he appeared to me, it is more than likely. Did he hit her? I would have. It is a feature of this tragedy that no-one involved behaved unnaturally or gratuitously, that no-one did anything I have not done or felt like doing myself, that I am no better a person than either of them. And, that only the continuation of real love, for each other as well as for their children, could have kept together two people who hated each other so much.

Oreti beach is the long, shallow white sand beach a few miles west of Invercargill. On my family's first trip out there, crossing the bridge between city and airport, we passed some parked police cars and saw a car being towed backwards up the steep bank out of the silty waters of the Waihopai Estuary. There was a man in the back seat of the car, reaching across the front seats as if reaching for the steering wheel. Black, wet and dripping as he was, I assumed he was a Police diver, steering the car from his inconvenient perch; only from the next day's Southland Times did I learn that he had drowned in the crash the night before, and that the three other men who had been in the car when it left the road were missing, presumed dead. 


5

If I was then delivering the Southland Times, pedalling about the industrial estates on the worst paper run in the city, which is by no means certain, then I must have been the first in my family to read that sensational story, spread over the whole front page, although it would have to have been my parents who identified the participants to us later that day. The young husband and father of two had driven with his wife to Oreti Beach. While there he had killed her with a hammer. Putting her body in the boot of the car, he had driven at dawn into the yard of the Invercargill Police station and told the duty officers what had happened. Further investigations showed that the wife had been adulterously involved with another man (or men. The relevant journalistic cliché was conveniently vague.) The husband was committed to Cherry Farm mental hospital. What became of the children I have never learned; hopefully they were returned to be raised by their family in England. My parents soon stopped discussing the murder, if indeed they ever did discuss it with us. I always assumed my mother knew as much about its cause as I did. 

That this was far from the case I only discovered recently when I raised the subject on a visit home. 
"Do you remember that time when that friend of yours who was murdered by her husband came around to see you with her boyfriend?" 
"No, I don't remember that." 
"It was in the morning, a few days before she was killed. He was quite the bodgie; actually, he was a surfy. He had long, wavy sunbleached blonde hair (actually a short back and sides, but ridiculously long on top, like some Luftwaffe and RAF aces in films from the Battle of Britain). He was young and ruggedly handsome, more rugged than handsome, and not the sort of person you usually have to morning tea. He wore a striped tee-shirt (this was long before men took to wearing tee-shirts as a matter of course). It had horizontal red and yellow stripes." 
"No. I don't remember that". 
"I thought you'd remember them just because of the way they were behaving. She was sitting in his lap, petting him, kissing him as she talked to you. He mostly ignored you, just beamed at her. You just sat there chatting to them, pouring the tea as if you'd not seen a thing out of the ordinary. I was sitting there watching them and you for a while. It seemed odd to me, but I figured you knew what you were doing." 
"That didn't happen! Surely I'd remember." 
"Well yes, you'd think so, Mum," and I smiled indulgently. But I do understand why this most memorable of memories had to be repressed in the course of my mother's navigation around unpleasantness and "scenes"; I understand the necessity of her keeping a straight face and hoping for the best, rather than asking a friend for awkward explanations; and of course, the next time she met the husband, it wouldn't do to have to confront the question of whether or not to tell him the truth. Such marvellous discretion helps to explain why my mother is so well liked; would that all their friends had been so discrete as to forget what they saw. But perhaps they were. The way the woman had acted that day, she must have thrown all of her remaining caution to the winds. Even if she knew she could count on my mother's silence, and I doubt she did, her actions were those of a person who is no longer concealing anything. Beyond the recollection of observable facts and my own reactions, my memory becomes less trustworthy: that it is more likely to be tainted by psychology in these passages I freely acknowledge, but nonetheless she seemed then at her least dowdy, a rare time that her cheeriness seemed unforced; perhaps her happiness with her lover was more than just an act she was putting on for her friends to prove, to herself if not to them, that she was still attractive, still full of life, that raising two children hadn't changed her love of a good time, that she deserved better than constant submission to a marriage that bored her. That her fancy man was no good, wasn't in it for the long haul, was already too old to be still acting and dressing like a teenage rebel, seemed obvious, but she didn't care. At that stage in one's love-life, it's exactly the no-good, heartbreaking lover that one needs; "a younger version of not-you".

Her husband might not necessarily have coerced her out to Oreti Beach on that final night; it may have been she who had bad news for him. If he'd heard rumours of her playing around with those men who must have first chatted her up in her official capacity of usherette, at an adult, R18 movie or at the Hercules in Atlantis Sunday night double feature, he may have expected her to come back into her marriage chastened once she'd learnt her lessson, with increased respect for his tolerance and gratitude for his forgiveness. Maybe that night she told him, hoping to break their hold on each other for ever, that she was really in love with another, true love like she used to feel for him, and that she'd never be back as his wife, and he killed her in his grief and hopelessness. Perhaps he already knew the worst, and planned her death all along; but I somehow doubt this. It's natural to want to take someone you're that close to to a bleak spot, like Oreti beach at night, to break bad news or to start to plan for the tedious aftermath of ruined hopes. 

God knows why, but it is.

1 comment:

lifextension said...

George, you are an exquisite writer.