The New Ships
From: Critical Point, by Geoffrey Waring
Wellington, October 2001
Rob rang from England last night.
‘Peter. You poor bugger.’
His New Zealand vowels, hiding under the received pronounciation.
‘Clare and I were talking about that time you two came over and stayed with us. We went to Bratton Down and saw the chalk horse, remember? Your Moira, trying to speak Italian with the tourists. She was gorgeous.’
I murmured a bland response. Rob didn’t make contact in all the time my wife was ill. He knew, of course. Our mothers play Mahjong together every week. For a while I cut him slack, supposing it was the usual mañana, mañana that we all fall prey to, the delusion that there’ll be plenty of time. Moira’s cancer was incurable, and then aggressive, and still he didn’t call. Even from the far side of the world, the stink of mortality we were giving off was too strong. Rob, who rowed the Sea Scouts whaler with me down the Whanganui River as an eleven-year-old, was scared shitless to talk to me while my wife was dying.
So I changed the subject.
‘How’s London? Aaron flies back tomorrow.’
‘Jittery, to tell you the truth,’ he said. ‘High security everywhere. Took me two hours to get on a flight to Athens last week. Tell your boy to keep a sleeping bag handy.’
‘A work trip?’
‘It’s been a frenzy. In fact we’ve just bought ourselves a holiday home over in Greece, trying to slow ourselves down. Lesbos, do you know it? Cheap as chips. But the prices are going to go through the roof the minute they join the euro. Pretty little place. Views over the Aegean. Your old wine-dark, eh? You’d love it.’
‘Ah, you do know it. You know, funny thing, Peter. We were having lunch down on the waterfront back in August, one of those places that do paninis and so forth, full of local kids drinking their Nescafé. The pictures set us off and we were full of it, talking about Amsterdam, the boat and Geneviève and you, and . . .’
I heard his hesitation.
‘What am I saying? This isn’t the time.’
‘Probably not. But you’ve started now.’
‘We were talking about Geneviève, and about . . .’
He got stuck again.
‘About Abigail,’ I said.
Abigail, wail, pale, flail. The echoes wash up the long-distance line. When did I last say her name out loud?
It comes from the Hebrew, Avigail: my father is joy. Or better, perhaps: my father rejoices. The biblical Abigail was married to the wealthy Nabal, and then to King David, ‘a woman of good understanding, and of a beautiful countenance’, according to the Book of Samuel. I looked all that up at the time. It might have been shortened to Abby or Abi or Gail, but we always used the long form.
‘So the waitress brings out the meals. I did a double take. The girl looked just like Geneviève. For all the world. The spitting image.’
‘Geneviève’s dead,’ I said. ‘Years ago.’
‘Of course. Of course.’
Then I just felt tired. I wanted to put the phone down, and I wanted to go to bed.
‘She was just a young thing,’ Rob was saying. ‘They’re all young now though, aren’t they?
‘Power of suggestion. You were talking about Geneviève at the time.’
‘Maybe. Unnerving though. Because she had a French accent. That was the thing, a French girl waitressing over there on the scrabbly end of Greece.’
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Pretty French girl gets a job in Greece. What are the odds?’
But by then he’d done it, injected a breath of hope. I felt it move down into my chest. I’ve had some experience, over the past year, with the problem of hope. I could do without this tonight, Robbie.
‘It made us wonder, that’s all. Peter, tell me. Did you ever go back to that doctor in Lyon?’
There are many things I haven’t done. Did I push Moira hard enough, forcefully enough, to try every possibile cure? There was talk back in July of new drugs coming through, experimental trials she might have joined.
‘Did you press him further?’
‘No, I never did do that.’
We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. Such extraordinary promises the minister made at Moira’s funeral.
Rob’s wife I suppose, has been telling Rob to call me. Has been insisting.
‘You saw this girl in August,’ I said. ‘Vaguely familiar face, serves you coffee. Three months ago. You said nothing at the time. You didn’t call. How important, really, was this?’
‘Well. At the time. You were—’
I’d let the silence hang. Useless bastard.
‘Anyway. Your boy. How’s he holding up?’
‘One parent left,’ I said. ‘Leaves him out on a limb a bit, doesn’t it?’
‘How old is he now?’
‘Not a kid, thank god. I mean, imagine.’
‘Not a kid.’
‘Sorry. Stupid thing to say.’
It’s true though. When Aaron was small, I used to wonder—don’t all parents?—how I’d manage if we had to go it alone. I figured there would be a long stretch of takeaways and general degeneration, then we’d bob up and survive. What other option could there be?
‘Moira liked you,’ I said. ‘She rated Clare, too.’
‘I should have called.’
‘Yes.’ It gave me such a weary feeling. ‘You should have.’
‘Look, bring Aaron over. Come to Greece, both of you. Ouzo, ruins. The sailing’s brilliant. We’ve got a friend with a yacht, I’ll take you out. That’s what he needs. Just the thing.’
Afterwards, I slept badly. The wind got up, and the branches of the unpruned ngaio scraped against the glass sliders. In the middle of the night, I went down to the study and found the golden book, a foot high and heavy as a box of files. I spread it open on the desk. Daphnis and Chloe. It was supposed to be a gift. In the end I kept it, and brought it back to New Zealand with me. The book is easily the most valuable object in the house, although a burglar would be unlikely to notice it.
The text is in French. In 1971 I learnt whole phrases by heart to recite to Geneviève. I can’t work out the sentences anymore. Chagall’s lithographs tell the story: the boats beaching on the shore, lovers washing in the shrine of the nymphs, an altar, spring wine and bird-snaring. Towards the end, a double plate awash in red: a feast is laid out for all the citizens of Mytilene, where the girl is at last recognised by her high-born father, who had exposed her on a hillside as an infant. The final plate shows the wedding night, bride and groom on one side of the door, the villagers pressed against it, lamps swung high. It’s a story of comic innocence, about a boy who didn’t know how to make love to a girl. The prints are housed in a museum just outside of Mytilene, on Lesbos. It would be something to see those prints, it really would. It would be worth going to Rob’s for that alone. Moira would love it.
But Moira’s dead.
And now this waitress, serving tables where Chagall painted. This girl who looks like Geneviève, who must, ipso facto, look like Abigail.
Abigail was my daughter, born when I was twenty and Geneviève a year older. She was born on the Amstel river on a houseboat called the Lychorida, a former coal barge owned by a secondhand bookseller. Rob, Clare, Geneviève and I had spent an entire Amsterdam autumn sanding, hammering and caulking, and in December, we moved in.
Abigail arrived in the middle of a storm. The boat pulled on the mooring ropes and rocked on the currents. It was difficult, as births can be, but nothing went wrong and she was perfectly formed.
She died at six weeks old, at Geneviève’s father’s home near Lyon. I was in Amsterdam at the time. The cause of death, according to the doctor’s certificate, was acute septicaemia following on from pneumonia. The certificate has a date and a municipal seal, and is signed with an elaborate flourish by one Docteur Gabriel Barreau. It’s a flimsy, xeroxed copy, but it looks official enough. For seventeen years I had no reason to question its veracity. The last time I saw Geneviève in Lyon she told me things that sent me back to stare fixedly at that certificate time and time again. It has now been eleven years since that meeting, and for all of those years I have found myself paralysed, neither able to seek out answers nor to put the questions from my mind.
When I step out of the lift, the new receptionist gives me the kind of startled half-smile that suggests she knows I belong here in spite of my jeans and Nikes, that she recognises my face but hasn’t got a clue what my name is.
‘Afternoon,’ I say.
When I fish in my pocket I realise I’ve left my swipe card in the car. I mime a little hand show and gesture to the glass doors.
‘Could you let me through, Rebecca?’
She looks sceptical. It’s six weeks now since the towers came down. High security everywhere.
‘Peter Collie,’ I say firmly. ‘I’m going through to see Richard.’
There’s a subtle eye-flick to the list beside the phone, an apologetic smile, and she reaches for the button under her desk. The lock on the glass door makes a soft pop, and I’m through.
To be fair to the receptionist, she hasn’t seen me here often. There have been weeks and months of absence, half-days, quarter-days at best, coming in late at night for a scrambling two hours after Moira fell asleep, or sitting on the couch beside her with the laptop warm against my thighs, Pride and Prejudice running on the TV while I fire off the emails needed to keep it all at bay for another twenty-four hours, another week. Keep it in a holding pattern, a hundred balls in the air, flights waiting to touch down, a flock of irritations, nothing that I could attend to or bother with, nothing that mattered. Now nine months since the oncologist showed us where the cells had metastasized to Moira’s femur, sternum, skull and liver, four months since we called a halt to treatments, one month after her funeral, I am, it seems, ready to get back to it.
Richard, the firm’s managing partner, is in his office. I go right through and stand beside the window. The harbour is a pattern of erasures and smudges.
‘Peter.’ Richard’s voice and eyes brim with the apparent pleasure of seeing me. ‘I didn’t know you were in the building.’
‘Just briefly,’ I say. ‘Dropping in.’
He tilts his head on one side and considers for a moment.
‘I’ve been in Queenstown all week,’ he says. ‘Got back last night.’
‘How did it go?’
‘Gus made me try white water rafting. An afternoon of pure terror.’
We’re laughing. How well he creates ease, easiness.
‘And you, Peter. You’re looking well.’
He keeps his eyes steady on me, his gaze doctor-like, wise, concerned, diagnostic. I’m almot ten years older than him, but I feel fathered: there’s no other word for how it feels to have the full beam of Richard’s attention swung round onto me.
‘I’ve lost track. You’ve been with your parents in Wanganui?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘Aaron flies out tonight. I’ll head up after that.’
He closes the door, and leads me to the two red wing-chairs at the coffee table by the glass. A Hotere hangs on the wall opposite, a treasure of the firm’s which has migrated around the walls over the years, from reception, to boardroom, to hallway. It’s startling all over again to see it here in Richard’s office and I wonder just how he managed to comandeer it for himself, the fat black cross, the white text which I’ve mentally fiddled with through many a long partnership meeting: LE PAPE EST MORT. Le pape, pope, papa. Mort, mortal, moribund, from the Latin, mortalis, one destined to die, brotos in the Greek. Below, a text in Mäori: E hinga atu ana he tetekura e ara mai ana he tetekura.
Kura, which might mean school? I can’t begin to unravel it. The painting brings back the taste of peppermints, the smell of coffee served at partnership meetings, the jangling silver bracelets of our secretary Natasha typing up the minutes, and gazing out at the blue, or silver, or white-whipped plane of the harbour when the discussions got bogged down.
‘How’s the house going?’
Richard hesitates, gauging whether I really want the switch in conversation.
‘Bit by bit,’ he says. ‘We’ve found a blacksmith in Otaki. Can you believe it? He’s working with us on designs for the gates. We’re deciding whether to go for a plain look, or a William Morris-y kind of thing, more the late Victorian style. Excuse the technical detail.’ He gives a mock grimace. ‘I become very boring when you get me started on all this.’
Richard and his partner have been renovating their Mount Victoria villa for the past five years. They have both the perfectionism and the substantial income necessary for the task.
‘It’s much fiddlier to do the Morris, of course.’ His brow frets up, the variables of the decision clearly weighty upon him. ‘I would prefer it, if he can pull it off.’
‘And is he, do you think? Up to it?’
‘Oh, look, the man’s highly skilled. He has his own forge.’
‘Do they deliver by horse and cart too?’
Richard laughs gently. Out on the water the rain is gathering, soft funnels of grey passing over the island and Oriental Bay.
‘You know, I’ve never been to such a large funeral,’ Richard says now. He stood in the back row, along with a handful of other colleagues. Throngs of people showed up. Moira’s choir, who sang ‘The Lord is My Shepherd’ and ‘Abide with Me’. Her Tuesday lunch girls. Aaron’s friends from school days. People I didn’t expect. Aaron’s fifth-form music teacher, a tall Indian man, his hair starting to silver now. I spotted him in the back row standing beside his sister Sangeeta, a childhood friend of Moira’s. Sangeeta raised her fingers in a tiny salutation as I walked back down the aisle, my left arm taking the weight of the casket. When ‘Amazing Grace’ struck up, the church boomed with sound. I once was lost but now am found.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘It took us by surprise.’
‘That mother-in-law of yours,’ he says. ‘Quite a woman. You know what they say in Ireland? She’d eat you without salt.’
Claudia gave a eulogy that, as throughout Moira’s life, put herself in rather more important a light than her daughter. She wore flowing blacks and a wide-brimmed black straw hat. I alternated between bitterness and relief at the way she took over as mourner-in-chief. She got her High Anglican service, with the Order for the Burial of the Dead, and I gave up on my idea to have the choir sing something from Mozart’s Requiem, which Moira loved. I did put my foot down about her coffin outfit, smuggling her favourite floral dress into the funeral home after a set of devious conversations with the funeral director. Her mother wanted her in a tailored suit, and although I wondered what kind of stupid man would get between mother and daughter on the matter of clothes, I couldn’t lose this one last battle. Moira and Claudia, when at their worst, would get locked into a kind of mutual stubbornness that onlookers could only shake their heads at. Moira was my wife though, and I was almost always on her side. And she did hate suits.
I’d seen Claudia at the tail-end of that long day, sitting in her armchair, the tide of visitors gone out, her youngest daughter fixing a cup of tea in the kitchen. Her face, without an audience, fell slack and grey, cheeks falling inward, her eyes sunk back into the expression of someone who is composed almost entirely of pain. She is seventy-eight. She’ll never recover.
‘She’s a softy, really,’ I say. ‘I’m not sure how she’s going to get through.’
Richard shakes his head. ‘Such a terrible time,’ he says. ‘For all of you.’
Over all these months and weeks I’ve never worked out how to respond to platitudes. But Richard says these ordinary things with such sincerity.
He leans forward. ‘How can we help?’
Now, from nowhere, I wish I could weep.
‘I’ve been cut a lot of slack already.’ My hands are waving in the air, a gesture I hope might distract him from my face, which I sense I’m not controlling well.
‘You’ve had a few weeks at home?’
‘Tidying,’ I shrug. ‘Sorting.’
Richard presses his lips together and puts his fingers into a steeple under his chin. ‘You’ve needed it, Peter,’ he says. ‘It’s not unreasonable. Although.’
A fizz erupts in my chest, and shoots down to my fingers. Both euphoria and the desire for weeping are cleaned out in a second. I’m a rabbit in a field, snapped to attention.
Richard runs his tongue along his teeth, under his lip.
‘I might mention. You’ve always brought in major clients.’ The steeple pulls apart. His palms come down flat on the glass table. ‘Look, we understand what you’ve been going through. But when you’re back on your feet, say, in the next month or two, it would be a good time to concentrate on’—his head gives a little weave, to and fro, to and fro—‘client maintenance. Keeping those big names happy.’
I lick my lips.
‘The bean counters are at it, then?’
It comes out rather more defensive than I intend.
‘When do they ever stop?’ He says it for laughs, but he looks pained, serious. ‘You’ve been through the most awful . . . well. But it’s been the best part of a year since we’ve had you at full capacity. That’s the difficulty. To be plain.’
On the wall, the painting seems to flicker. Tetekura, tetekura. I want to try the word aloud. Maybe it’s a transliteration? Tetekura, petticoat, petticoat, billygoat. What does it mean to Richard, to keep company with this painting all day? It’s possible he cherishes it as I do, that he has held conversations with it and that the work is a friend occupying part of his brain, history, heart. It’s equally possible that it’s a piece of morbid cultural real estate hanging on his wall.
Richard follows my gaze and cranes around in his chair.
‘What does it mean?’ I ask. ‘I’ve always wondered.’
‘Oh. When one chief falls, another rises to take his place.’
I consider this.
‘The king is dead,’ I say after a while. ‘Long live the king.’
‘Yes.’ Richard seems surprised. ‘I suppose so.’ The mottled beginning of a blush rises on his neck. ‘When are you back from your parents’?’
The answer I am supposed to give is Monday. Monday conveys what Richard needs to hear: resurrection, focus, loyalty.
My mother’s anxiety, my father’s heart.
I’d like to take a week. I’d like to spend long quiet days with my parents, and then come home via the Wairarapa, spend a night or two at our bach on the exposed, windblown tip of the coast at Castlepoint.
But Tuesday is a compromise. I’ll show my face here at the office, demonstrate focus. And I’ll make it a daytrip up to the bach on Wednesday. I want to show a real estate agent through, get the ball rolling on selling the place.
‘You’re an asset, Peter. I’m on your side.’
Adrenaline again, chest to arm.
E hinga atu ana he tetekura e ara mai ana he tetekura.
Right now Aaron is in Wellington. He’s ordering eggs in a café in Aro Valley, he’s walking around the waterfront, he’s eating toast in a house on Adams Terrace. If the earthquake hit today, if the Alpine fault made its thousand-year adjustment, I would search for Aaron first, and he would search for me.
But by the time I get to Wanganui tonight, he’ll be halfway across the Pacific. If the earthquake hits after that, I don’t know who will look for me. Do I sound sorry for myself? Perhaps I am. But he has to go back to London, there is nothing else for it. He is already lining up auditions for the spring.
Aaron’s star is on the rise. Two years ago he amazed us by gaining entrance into a Masters in classical acting at Saint Martin’s University in London on full scholarship. He spent winter at an institute in Moscow training in the Russian method, studying Chekhov, whose plays, he told us (surely in words stolen from his lecturer), just go to show that most lives are sustained from morning to night by the fabrication of self-delusions. In his final student performance, he was singled out for mention by the Guardian. He aspires to the Barbican, the Royal Court and the Globe. I don’t think he’ll come back to perform for us here any time soon, at the small theatre on the waterfront where the audience spills out onto the dock.
He is a good son, he loved his mother ferociously, and yet three months ago it took an hour down in the den talking on the phone, detailing the breakdown in Moira’s body in explicit, fairly gruesome detail, to convince him that he needed to get on a plane, and immediately, and without any fixed date to return. Because Moira had already been diagnosed with, and apparently recovered from, breast cancer less than five years previously, it was immensely difficult for him to see the terminus that was swimming into view. None of us wanted to look at it straight on. But it was happening, nevertheless.
I paid for his fare in full. We just wanted him here, his kiss on her cheek, his company through the weakening afternoons. We both needed his company.
Many of the nights he has spent in Wellington have been at a house in Aro Valley full of thespian friends, including a girl, Akenese, who is either an old friend or a new lover, or both. I’ve only met her once, and that was by accident when I bumped into them in Aro Café one afternoon, and we ended up having coffee there together. Akenese was deferential, or shy, or dismissive, barely spoke to me. Aaron never brought her to the hospice, nor to the funeral.
At six tonight, I’ll collect him from his friend’s house in Aro and drive him to the airport. I’ll take the road around the bays, let him drink up the sunset over the harbour before he burrows back to London’s autumn. As we weave around the Parade, I will break the news to him, in a gentle yet decisive manner, that I intend to sell the bach at Castlepoint. We’ll have a half hour together at the airport and then he’ll leave.
The duck grey sky closes in lower over the harbour. What would it take to delay his trip? It’s a mutinous, needy thought, and it can’t be done, but there it is, hard and breathy, the old mammal brain that crawls out from the nest and squawks, stay, stay. When Moira first got the cancer back I started devising elaborate bargains in my head: two grand donated to charity + clean out the dark recesses of the garage = a good prognosis. It was like negotiating with air, with fire. Whatever we demanded or wanted or willed, whatever we spent or pledged or researched, had nothing to do with it. We were at the mercy of forces well outside my power, of microscopic, relentlessly proliferating cells.
Dylan’s hair is tufted up Bart Simpson style, his tie wide and yellow. He takes a couple of steps into my office and stops there, rubbing his thumb over the back of his hand, his head slightly bowed, not quite making eye contact.
He sits down, crosses his ankles.
‘How’s your day going?’ I ask. ‘You winning?’
‘Some winning.’ He dips his head.
That solemnity. He reminds me of Moira’s undertaker.
Dylan is a good lawyer, one of the more senior in the team I manage. I’ve paid him plenty of attention, but over the last year I’ve realised he’s never going to make partner. He’d make the business case, just about, but there’s something missing. I see parts of myself in him, this lanky, quiet thirty-five-year-old: he’s funny and self-deprecating but also prone, I think, to deep self-doubt. He grew up in one of the meaner parts of Hamilton and got his degree from the University of Waikato, which in his case seems to have given rise to a gnawing inadequacy. I understand that, although it does irritate me. We’re not in Tory Britain, after all, even if some of the partners from Christchurch display a fetishistic nostalgia for their old schools. Dylan grew far more relaxed around me when he found out that my father mended fridges for a living, half a lifetime ago. But even with me, he just won’t assert himself. The most forceful desire I’ve heard him express is his wish to move his kids out of Titahi Bay before the eldest starts school next year.
I made partner at a time when the firm was in clover, before the Asian shocks set everyone back. I’d been a loyal soldier for fifteen years, a safe pair of hands. To boot, I had Richard’s singular, unwavering faith in me, which must have helped tip the balance in my favour.
I like Dylan, and I want to do the same for him, but I just don’t think it will be possible. What I had, and what he simply doesn’t have, was the confidence to sit at the table. I don’t know if I did have that, but I knew how to fake it, which in the end comes down to the same thing.
My mother saying, You’re just as good as any of them, Peter, don’t ever forget that. How fierce she was in her desires for me, in her desires for herself. The meticulous way she applied her makeup every day that she went to work at the library, her pride when they made her chief librarian. She downplayed it in front of Dad, but I heard it all, every ambition, every strategy.
When I speak to Dylan at performance reviews about partnership or career planning or even the amorphous goals, he flushes and almost by instinct starts mentioning where he has failed, some project on which he has fallen short. He sits below everyone’s radar. I just don’t know. I’ve certainly tried. I tell my colleagues at every opportunity about his tenacious, methodical mind for detail. He’s a profoundly brilliant technician. When we worked on the Meridian Energy file, and came up against the question of the smelter contract, he found a way to approach the issue that none of us had ever seen before.
‘Peter, I wanted to ask.’
‘The bonuses this year.’
‘Right,’ I said. ‘Let’s book a time for your performance review.’
‘Because, these targets?’
‘Sure. We’ll go through all that.’
Back in February, it was agreed by majority vote to remove discretion, making Christmas bonuses dependant on transparent criteria. All other things being equal, this translates to billable hours. It’s dodgy policy, as the partners well know, one which tends to encourage a slack use of time and a creep towards padding the bill. The associates with kids at home get huffy. It doesn’t let you thank the poor bastard who took on a whole lot of approved pro bono work to give the firm a good name.
‘I’m about three hundred hours below the cut-off.’
This is Dylan, precisely. Every other associate in the building has assiduously billed to the limit since the February memo and made sure by whatever means necessary that they are over the line.
I sigh, more dramatically than I mean to. He winces.
‘You’ve been billing daily?’
‘Accounts don’t close until December. You’re six weeks away.’
He shrugs. ‘It’s not going to add up.’
‘Right,’ I say. ‘Right.’
This, here, is where I stop. This is the line beyond which no manager has any business stepping. What’s the big problem with the schools in Titahi Bay, anyway? If Dylan doesn’t have the gumption to get his extra ten per cent this year, well, his world will not fold.
I walk over to the window and look out. The tugboats are looping a Korean tanker.
In the middle of the year, Dylan’s wife got some kind of septic leg injury. He took a lot of leave then. The smell of the hospital each time you come onto the ward. The children wailing in the night. That vertiginous feeling, the droning hum in the ear, the sense of a chasm, somewhere, opening up.
‘Remind me,’ I say, ‘who are your major clients?’
He names our two big banks, one government department and a couple of start-ups. The banks have us on a panel, screw us down on every quarter hour and occasionally threaten to shift the core work to the opposition. You don’t muck around with the banks. The start-ups, on the other hand—well, the start-ups ask a great deal and have only the vaguest sense of what’s involved.
The ship swings around to face forward, and the tugboats spray water in welcome.
‘You’ve done a lot on BioCom.’
I keep my eyes out the window, so I can’t see Dylan’s face, and he can’t see mine.
‘A complicated piece of work, a lot of thinking time gone in. You want to reflect that. The big picture.’
I walk back behind my desk, move my pens around. Dylan is nodding slowly, his brow tightening up.
‘Are you saying I should—’
Shut up, idiot. ‘I’m saying, it’s possible you haven’t been accounting accurately. I’m saying you may want to make some amendments in the next period.’
For a dreadful moment, I think he’s going to say something more. He gives himself a tiny shake.
‘Right. We’ll meet next week then.’
He clicks the door shut behind him.
The answerphone is chockablock with messages from neglected clients. I write everything down. The last message is from a woman I don’t know. I’m with the all fierce, she says, we’re so terribly sorry. I’m with the awe fest. The office. The orifice? Surely not. Fifth time over, the syllables fall into place. The Orpheus. Moira’s choir. Orpheus, who went down to the underworld to fetch back his beloved wife.
It’s intolerable to let Aaron go without a fixed date to see him again. I want him back here at Easter, five months away: late autumn, those crisp gold and blue days.
I get Mark from House of Travel on the line, price out some Gatwick to Auckland tickets. One other thing, I hear myself ask. How much would a flight to Athens cost? With an onward connection to Lesbos.
‘We’re mainly booking routes through Asia,’ Mark says. ‘The USA is still complicated. We could do Singapore, Hong Kong or Bangkok.’
‘Whichever,’ I say. ‘I don’t care.’
‘It’s coming up low season in the Greek Islands, of course. You’re fine to travel in the winter?’
It’ll be summer work she’ll be doing at that café, for sure. That girl, just a young thing, will be out of there by November.
‘I need to get there soon,’ I say. ‘Now. Immediately.’
There is rustling at the end of the line.
‘The airlines can free up a seat for an emergency. I can get you on something routed through Asia probably in, let’s see, the next twenty-four hours.’
‘It’s not an emergency.’
‘It’s not? Okay, but you’re looking for a flight within the week?’
A beep starts up on the line, another call coming through. What did I promise Richard? Back on Monday. No, Tuesday. My mother, my father.
‘The difficulty is my parents,’ I say. ‘My father is ill.’
‘Got you,’ Mark says. ‘Look, that kind of situation can be considered an emergency, depending on, if you don’t mind me asking, the severity. We can get you to Lesbos quickly, for sure.’
‘My father’s in Wanganui.’
‘Sorry, who’s in Greece?’
‘These paintings,’ I say. ‘Do you know Chagall? In a museum in Mytilene.’
‘When exactly do you want to travel, sir?’
‘His heart is weak,’ I say. ‘My mother, she worries so much. I can’t go to Greece, sorry, of course I can’t.’
There is a long silence from Mark.
‘You can’t. No. All right.’
‘I’m wasting your time here.’ I hang up the phone and lay my head down on my desk. I don’t understand why I’m not with Aaron right now. I don’t know why I didn’t organise to spend the day, this last day, with him.
Chagall’s lithographs of the Daphnis and Chloe story were commissioned for a limited edition of the Greek romance, published as a large book in 1961 in Paris by Tériade. The only copy of this book I’ve ever seen is the one I own. I found it in a secondhand bookshop on Koningsplein in Amsterdam, about a month after Rob and I had fled London together, arriving with backpacks and a canvas tent and pitching it along with all the other squatters in the Vondelpark.
I found the book on a hot July day, although it didn’t come into my possession until some months later. When I look back on that time, the book seems the key to everything that followed, because finding it led to the Lychorida, and the Lychorida led to Geneviève.
I remember stepping off the busy street into a dark, narrow room that silenced the rush of the crowd. Shelves rose to the yellowed ceiling. It was empty except for an elderly man seated behind a desk in the dim recesses of the shop. A reading lamp with a green shade was lit, the light pooling onto a newspaper, The Times, spread before him.
‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘Could I put my bag down for a while?’
‘Ja,’ he said, gesturing to the space beside him.
‘Where are the English books?’ I asked.
‘There,’ he said, pointing to two of the aisles. ‘And there.’
I found an illustrated copy of Homer’s Iliad. I had taken classics in my final year at Wanganui High. It was a tiny class, with only six students. My mother had encouraged me, and brought back all the extra books I asked for from the city library: Sophocles, Euripides, Ovid. At the end of that year I had laid plans to go to Auckland University. But somehow I had diverted to this other course, had taken a job in a garage, saved money for a plane fare and followed Rob to London, where I worked at a bar in Covent Garden for a year, then went on with him to Holland. In the bookshop I felt, for the first time since leaving home, a desire to return and begin study. It was this unexpected and forceful longing that was passing through me when I smelt tobacco, and became aware that the shopkeeper was behind me.
‘You like that?’ He held the cigarette in his hand and smoke escaped from the corners of his mouth as he spoke.
‘I do,’ I said, scrambling to my feet. ‘But I already have a copy.’
He clenched the cigarette between his teeth and took the book from me with both hands, flipping it to look at the cover.
‘Come here,’ he said. ‘I have something you will find interesting.’
He led me over to a glass case set against the back wall of the shop and produced a set of keys from his pocket, fumbling among them to find the correct one. He unlocked the case, and pulled from it a heavy book stored on the lowest shelf, bound in gold cloth, a foot high and almost a foot wide, as weighty as a testament from a temple.
‘You like the Greeks?’ he asked, and I nodded.
He closed the door, turned the key, and with two hands carried the book across to the desk. I pushed books and papers aside and he laid it flat.
‘Look at this,’ he said. He slid his thumbs down the side and parted it close to the middle, the pages falling open like arms.
An illustration spread across both pages, a broad wash of night-time blue. On one side a hedge of flowers exploded into yellow and red, and on the other two vaguely drawn figures gazed at one another: a woman, naked, standing beside a pool of white water, her arms raised above her head, her breasts suggested by two semicircles, and a man, also nude, his skin luminous white, reclining on one elbow by the water’s edge. I lifted the page and turned it over, the letters clear and high like a child’s storybook.
‘Ja. Of course.’
He shuffled off, and returned with a spotted paperback, creasing the front cover back and pointing to the text.
‘Here. This is the same story in English.’
The book described the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, its canals, inward-flowing sea and bridges of polished stone. You will think when you see it that it is not so much a city as an island. I mapped the words back and forth. The story begins with a farmer who comes across a goat suckling a foundling child, and takes the child in because he is ashamed to show less humanity than the goat: the line made me laugh aloud, and the shopkeeper sucked approvingly on his cigarette, wheeled around his chair and gestured for me to sit, moving off to rearrange piles and leaving me alone for the next hour.
It is hard to accurately recover my thoughts on first reading it. It would have been the sex that interested me first. Daphnis and Chloe, no more than teenagers, inflamed, rubbing up against each other in the fields, so wildly frustrated by their lack of knowledge that Daphnis sits and bursts into tears—to think that any sheep knew more about love than he did—the story could perhaps have been a balm for my own painfully felt frustrations at the time, because I had been wanting to sleep with a girl, Geneviève, whom I had met in the Vondelpark, and who had been ignoring me. I thought I might buy it for her.
‘You like the book?’ asked the shopkeeper.
‘It’s beautiful,’ I said.
‘One hundred guilders,’ he said.
As it was, I had about half that amount in my pocket, the total savings Rob and I had between us. The shopkeeper saw me waver.
‘Where do you come from?’ he asked.
‘Ah!’ he said. ‘And I am from Zeeland. Old Zeeland.’ He put a hand on his stomach, chuckling. ‘For you, seventy-five.’
I probably could have kept beating him down, but I imagined Rob’s face if I turned up at the Vondelpark with the book, and all our money gone.
‘Pay it little by little,’ said the shopkeeper. ‘Until October, I’ll keep it at this price for you. Do you have work, m’n jong?’
‘Not yet,’ I said. I picked up a paperback and flicked through it.
‘How do you spend your time?’
I looked up. ‘Walk around,’ I said. ‘Talk. Bike, sometimes. I went out to Monnickendam the other day.’
The shopkeeper shook his head. ‘What are you going to do with your life?’
‘Not sure,’ I said. ‘I’m interested in classics.’
‘You want to become a professor?’
‘Maybe,’ I said. ‘I don’t know much about that.’
‘How is this going to happen?’
‘I’d have to go back to New Zealand,’ I said. ‘Go to university.’
‘You know this city?’ he said. ‘You know Mokum, Amsterdam? Built on what, do you think?’
I shrugged, thinking: tulips, ships, girls in windows.
‘On the swamp. Can you imagine how much work this takes, to build a city out of the water? For years, for hundreds of years, Holland is a place where people work, a city of merchants, traders and sailors. This is who we are. not princes, not aristocrats, we are people who work, work hard to make anything, land even, out of the sea.’
He slumped down in his seat behind the desk, lit up a cigarette.
‘I know how to work,’ I said. ‘I’ve worked in a garage and I’ve worked in pubs. I just haven’t found anything here yet.’
‘These kids,’ he continued. ‘These foreigners. Gone in the head, they do nothing, they are sleeping in the street, in the park. I don’t mind so much, personally. They don’t like to wash, what do I care? But what do they want? Why do they come to Amsterdam?’
‘It’s different here than anywhere else,’ I said. ‘There’s more freedom.’
He pulled on his cigarette and let out a long stream of smoke. It hung on the air and I stifled a cough.
‘Ja,’ he said. ‘Freedom.’
He took another drag and stared at a point just past my left shoulder.
‘I’ll tell you something. You need to know this. They took the people from this city, m’n jong.’
‘Doctors, dentists, bakers, artists. Here for centuries, they have homes, jobs, our neighbours, our colleagues, they run our shops, work in our banks. Within a few months’—he flicked the fingers of one hand up into the air as if spraying water—‘gone.’
His gaze stayed concentrated on the bookshelf behind me. Smoke collected in the corner of the ceiling. I scratched at my ear, shifted my weight from one foot to the other. The cat leapt up onto the desk and nuzzled into his chest.
‘Amsterdam was occupied, you know.’ He looked directly at me. ‘Each man has to make choices. Everyone hopes for the best.’
‘Our generation has problems too,’ I said. I think even as I said it I was aware there was something badly off-key in the comparison.
‘So.’ The bookseller shook himself. ‘What’s this?’ he pointed to the book in my hand.
‘Sophocles,’ I said.
‘You want to read it?’ he said.
‘I’ve got no money.’
He dismissed me with a wave of his hand. ‘You borrow it,’ he said. ‘Bring it back when you’re finished. You read whatever you like.’
‘Really?’ I said, looking around me, wondering where I would begin.
‘You have your freedom.’ The bell jangled and the door opened. ‘If you kinderen want to use it to wear the feet naked,’ he said, gazing past me, nodding his head in greeting to the customer, ‘well, I don’t judge you.’
I curled my toes up, black and tough from the summer. ‘Thanks,’ I said, clutching the paperback to my chest. ‘I’ll bring it back tomorrow.’
‘Where do you live?’ he asked.
‘In the Vondelpark,’ I said, but I couldn’t look straight at him. ‘With friends.’
‘I have a boat,’ he said. ‘It’s moored on the Amstel near the Carré Theatre, between the Amstelsluizen and the Hogesluis. It will be empty from October. You and your friends, if you’re willing to work and fix it up, you can live there.’
Chagall was sixty years old when he went to Lesbos to start work on the Daphnis and Chloe paintings. He was honeymooning with a new, Jewish wife, who followed on from an English mistress who had brought him seven years of complicated misery and an unexpected son. The mistress, Virginia, had followed on from his beloved Bella, born in his home town of Vitebsk in Russia; Bella, to whom Chagall was married for almost three decades. Bella died in her fifties when Chagall, although he didn’t know it, still had forty-one years to live. The second wife seems to have been a sort of exhausted compromise. There’s nothing wrong with compromise, under the circumstances, although there is a melancholy about the lovers in the lithographs, when you know all this.
The part of Chagall’s biography that has always gripped me, the story I’ve always thought someone would make a film of one day, is his last days in France under the Vichy Government in 1941. The Chagall family have left it late to leave, almost too late. Marc and Bella have been granted visas to flee to America under the sponsorship of Solomon Guggenheim, and the art world of New York has raised funds to pay for his passage. For some weeks, he and Bella are waiting in Marseille, waiting together with his daughter Ida and her husband Michel, waiting in a cheap hotel, waiting in a town where thousands of others are waiting too, waiting for the correct papers, waiting for forged visas or real ones, waiting for instructions, waiting to be told go now, waiting to travel overland to Portugal and board a ship. Chagall hesitates, he doesn’t want to go, because this is France, he considers himself a Frenchman now, he wants to come back one day, and so they delay departure, he and Bella, in order to apply for a re-entry passport. His and Bella’s exit visas are ready, but Ida’s and Michel’s are not. Ida is packing a case with his paintings, planning to smuggle them out. If he leaves France, cuts himself off from her, will he ever see her again? Imagine the anxiety of this time, the terrible paralysis. He cannot bear to go, he has to go.
Then one morning he and Bella are arrested, rounded up with all the other Jews from the hotels of the city and sent to police headquarters. Somehow, through American connections, their release is arranged. The danger has become manifest, there is no option to wait any longer. He and Bella farewell their daughter, and travel west by train to the border of Spain.
Some months later Ida and Michel get out, and all four make it to America, and the collection of paintings too. Chagall goes on to lose Bella to a bad virus in New York, not to a concentration camp. He returns to Europe, and works on Daphnis and Chloe a decade later, under the Greek sun in Lesbos, now married to a woman who seems to have done her best to care for him, and this is a kind of restoration, a happy ending.
Shortly after I found Daphnis and Chloe in the bookshop, Geneviève started sleeping with me. We spent August camping beside the artificial lake in the Vondelpark, thick with scum and weed. We barely left our tent that month. We’d emerge in the evening and eat the food she gleaned from the fruit stall where she worked early mornings in the Albert Cuypstraat market, apples and walnuts, cherries and grapefruit.
When it rained the park turned to a mudbowl. We went to a squat where her Parisian friends were living, and waited it out. We would take the chance to wash, heating pots of water on the stove and bathing in the bath. Electric wires coiled down from the ceiling above, my legs wrapped around her waist, and her hair was loose, blooming into loops and whirls on the meniscus.
They were on junk, the people who stayed in that squat. We saw their tiny pupils, the track marks on their arms, the way they lay drifting in and out of consciousness under blankets in the corners of the room. Once we walked in on a young boy shooting up his girlfriend, her forearm extended, a belt tightened around her bicep. Geneviève shouted and swore at the boy, and dragged the girl outside and onto the street. She told me that she’d known the girl in Paris, that she had once been a student at the Sorbonne, that she had, two years ago, won an award for her first year of humanities studies. This shit destroys everything, said Geneviève. I hate this shit.
I still had no work. Rob managed to get a job writing for a left-wing weekly broadsheet, and also received a monthly cheque from his father. He had paid me back an amount of money I had lent him in London. There was enough to buy bread, cheese and ham to supplement the bruised fruit from the market, and enough left over to put a little down on Daphnis and Chloe, or to pay for a train ride out to Scheveningen and back, or to buy a secondhand shirt and hot chips at the fleamarket in Waterlooplein. There was no difficulty about anything.
Later the girl Geneviève had dragged outside died of an overdose, and the police came and raided the flat. We heard news of it at the park, and we came back a week later and saw that the landlord had boarded and padlocked the door. Somebody had painted across the boards in large red letters: HOW FOOLISHLY MAN GUARDS HIS NOTHING.
What if I did it, though—flew to Athens, then northeast to Mytilene? What if I wandered down through the town to the waterfront, alone, in the early morning, the Aegean pale blue, the sky soft, holding on to dawn, the boats anchored still? The girl with her French accent would be setting out the chairs and tables, getting ready for the day. She would offer me a seat, and bring me a menu covered in plastic, and wipe her hands on a teatowel, and return to take my order. She has Geneviève’s hair, hanging down loose, wavy, shades of brown and gold. Her face is a blank oval. I can’t project onto it the exact variation of uncanny you’d expect.
‘Who are your parents? Where were you born?’
She would turn—would have turned—thirty this year.
‘You are asking me?’
I have to work out the dialogue here, but she answers the questions and I answer hers, and we rally to and fro, to and fro, until we get to the far point of what language can prove. She hunts for a photo in her pocket and lays it down on the table. The photo is a battered black-and-white print of me, bare chested, standing on the deck of the Lychorida, grinning, legs planted apart, facing square to the girl behind the camera, Geneviève, who is lining up this shot in the late summer of 1972, who is wearing a sunflower-yellow dress that drapes around her pregnant belly and down to her bare feet, long brown hair worn down, squinting through the viewfinder to take the photo she will later use as a bookmark in her copy of L’Étranger; who is now pressing down the button to capture the photo; who will take L’Étranger to Lyon with her two months later along with the baby, who is hot, too hot.
‘That’s me,’ I’ll say to the girl. ‘Yes, that’s me.’
The scene gets vague and blurry after that, but the laying down of the photo, I have it blow by blow. The photo is always the trump card, the forensic evidence.
I’ve had that bit for years. The Greek island setting is a tidy coincidence. I’ve seen our reunion play out in Amsterdam, in London, in Lyon, in Wellington. Why would Abigail come to Wellington? I have the logic for that too. I have embroidered all the details, a knock on the door one evening, an email asking to meet at a café on Oriental Parade. Someone in France has given her my name, a detail, a clue. She will come to me of her own accord, and all I have to do is stay still and pay attention. On occasion I have gone out of my way to walk past the entrances to the backpacker hostels around the city.
But, actually, I don’t give a shit about this could-be daughter.
I know precisely where in France she was last seen, at six weeks old. I have the names that Geneviève gave me. I have a copy of the death certificate. There are letters that could be written, advertisements that could be taken out, even now that Docteur Gabriel Barreau is dead. Even though Geneviève herself is dead. I could contact the French police, I could hire a private investigator. I have taken no steps, in eleven years. I have built complicated, consoling fantasies.
The furthest I’ve got? Last Easter, I used Yahoo to look for versions of her name. Moira had just been given her diagnosis. I was becoming aware of the thousand useful things one could research on the World Wide Web.
Abigail Collie, the name registered on her birth certificate, was a real estate agent in Cheltenham. A PhD student in Chicago. She featured in results from an athletic meet in Illinois. Improbably, she is a lead detective in a crime fiction series that seems to have an enormous following in the USA. I searched for Abigail Barreau and found nothing at all. Abigail Barrera, the computer suggested. Abigail Barrow. Abigail Barron.
When I break for lunch there’s a new girl on reception, a law student who does a few hours administration a week. I noticed her back in the winter, walking through the office from time to time, a small parade in her pinks and lime greens. Today, she’s in a neon-yellow shirt that makes me blink.
‘I’m Peter Collie.’ I pause on my way past, offering a hand. ‘I’m not sure that we’ve met properly.’
‘Oh, but that’s great!’ Her eyes light up. ‘There’s a message for you,’ she says. ‘I was just working out what to do with it.’
I raise my eyebrows. ‘Give it to my secretary?’
Last time I was in, my secretary was a temp from the agency.
‘Well, she’s gone. And there’s no replacement. So anyway, you should take this.’
She tears a piece of paper from a pad and hands it to me. I’m down to volunteer at the local Community Law Centre on Tuesday night, a form of corporate tithing which I continue with in order to encourage the young ones, and in order to encourage myself. At the Centre I am reminded that beyond the relentless mental clickity-clack of the charge-out sheet, and the thousands of varieties of self-deception the profession offers, there are human beings of all stripes who actually need us to do the thing we do.
I fold the paper into my pocket. ‘You didn’t tell me your name.’
She looks a few years younger than Aaron, twenty at most. She still seems some way off being tamed into corporate life. Her clothes have unexpected zips and buckles, the skirts are short and the boots chunky and coloured, everything clashing, the brash mess of it showing up her prettiness.
‘It’s going all right, is it?’ I say. ‘This must be a bit dull for you.’
‘I don’t mind, really,’ she says. ‘I’ve got reading to do.’
A wad of photocopies are on the desk before her. Passages have been highlighted in pink, in blue, in yellow, and neat notes, like a border of red berries, decorate each margin.
‘Final exams, is it?’
‘Yeah.’ She grimaces. ‘Company and Partnership Law next Thursday.’
The switchboard lights up. I stand back as she attends to the call, busying myself with a paperclip, reading her papers over the edge of the desk. Her dark eyes are animated, moving constantly in the frame of her face as she speaks, as if she were a notch more awake than anyone else; her hands tap a rainstorm of characters into the keyboard as she transcribes the message.
‘You’re studying Murdoch, are you?’ I say, once she’s finished. ‘I was involved in that. Come and chat to me about it sometime, if it’s helpful.’
She has a cover of soft, barely visible down on her cheek, just above her jaw. She looks up at me now, and the fullness of her smile, unexpected, is beautiful.
‘Oh, can I? That would be brilliant.’
We moved onto the Lychorida in December 1971 and Geneviève knew she was pregnant by February. When she told me, I felt that I barely knew her. We had spent three months together, and not all of that exclusively. There was a girl from San Francisco, Mary, who lived on a boat on Herengracht. I slept with Mary a couple of times. I didn’t hide this from Geneviève, but we didn’t discuss it directly: it was the times.
Geneviève, for her part, was close with an old friend from Paris who lived on Rozengracht, a lanky thirty-year-old who had studied sociology at the Sorbonne. I always felt that he spoke to me with a little too much enthusiasm, too much intensity. Geneviève and this Parisian would sit pressed up against each other on the couch up on deck of the boat, and he would stroke her hair. She told me it was now platonic between them, but that she had been his girlfriend in the year she first left home, and that this Parisian sociologist had, in some way, rescued her from the streets where she was, at the time, if not living then spending a great many of her days and some nights too, because she had little money and no connections in the city. I had come to realise that her first months in Paris had been a time of darkness and mere survival for her.
Geneviève had left her home in rural Lyon when it became intolerable to stay. She told me her mother had turned into a shadow who wept all the time, who was self-abnegating to the point of having no desires of her own. Geneviève had been close with her father, who had once been in the military but now worked their small farm, yet as she came towards the end of her college years she had fought bitterly with him about wanting to leave Chavanoz and live and study elsewhere, on her own. She had friends in Lyon who had been in the riots in Paris in 1968. Her father despised these people, called them communists and ranted at her about how they should be jailed. Once, he had locked her in her room for two days to prevent her seeing them. That was the last straw. She had run away, taken a train north with her friends, first to Dijon, then to Paris. For over half a year she didn’t tell her father where she was living, until she arrived in Amsterdam.
Several of the girls we knew were involved with Dolle Mina over that summer. When Rob’s girlfriend Clare arrived from London, some time after us, she immediately joined in with them, staging happenings to demand free and legal abortion and contraception. I remember her standing in a line of women stretching the width of Dam Square, blocking the tram lines, each woman with her top hitched up, Baas in Eigen Buik scrawled in thick black ink on the skin of her abdomen. Boss of my belly. Geneviève watched from the side. She seemed not ambivalent, but disengaged. I never saw her participate in any political action.
Who can say why one woman chooses to have her child and another doesn’t? In any case, once she knew about the pregnancy, our conversations leapt immediately to how we were going to manage. Geneviève had worked all the time I had known her. She set off to the produce markets at Albert Cuypstraat at five in the morning, six days out of seven. She said we could expect no help from her family, that she refused to ask them for money, and she told me that I would need to find work too, immediately. She suggested I try my luck at the shipyards.
I biked along the IJ waterfront, past container ships and fishing boats. I came to an open gap and looked out at the grey water. A red barge was moored up in the slipway on the pier opposite, and towering above it in a drydock was the rusting prow of an old cargo ship, the final portion, like the head of a gnawed fish. The empty holds were bared to the sky, the overhangs of decks and cabins jutting out.
A sheet of metal that had been peeled away from the hull of the ship was winched up and swung through the air, tipping back and forth, a kite floating on a limp breeze.
The shipyard gate was open, and I walked in. The sheet of metal from the flank of the boat had been laid down on the ground. Two workers with blowtorches were breaking it up, cutting chunks out from each side, sparks hailing gold and white over their heads. Men worked in teams, filling wheelbarrows and hauling them away, sorting wires, pipes, buckets of plugs and scraps of steel into separate containers. The dismantling was orderly, efficient, rapacious. Shipdust coated the ground and swirled in the air, thick and ferrous on my tongue.
One of the cutters stood up from his work, raised his visor. ‘U bent hier voor de baan?’
I smiled, raised my hands in a shrug. ‘Engels,’ I said.
‘Spreekt u Engels?’
I nodded yes, English.
He disappeared into the building. I thought I should turn tail and leave before I was forcibly evicted, but his tone had been amiable. He returned with a tall blond man in overalls, sporting a handlebar moustache which had been neatly oiled. Despite the moustache, I could see he was close to my own age.
‘You can start today?’
I blinked. ‘That’s right.’
‘Good.’ He sniffed. ‘We are behind. You have experience?’
He peered down at me. ‘English only? Geen Nederlands?’
‘Hendrik.’ He put out his hand, and we shook. ‘I’ll bring equipment.’
Did he take me for a metal cutter? I wanted to use a blower, to feel it knifing through solid steel. I had welded often enough in my father’s workshop, but I knew that cutting required the right balance of gases, and without the ability to ask questions there was a fair risk I would cause an explosion. If they put a propane blower in my hands, I decided I would walk off.
Hendrik came out of the office with boots and a helmet.
His brow knotted up briefly. ‘Not many here speak English. Talk to me if you have problems. Thomas!’ He whistled to a boy on the far side of the yard. ‘Spreekt u Engels?’
The boy gestured a pinch in the air. A little.
Hendrik slapped his hand on my back.
‘Go with him. Okay, ja?’
What moment can you can point to and say, Right here, this is it where it started, here is the origin of the catastrophe? If the cutter had brushed me off, if I had wheeled my bike out of the shipyard and ridden away towards Wittenburg, if I had never spoken to Hendrik, would it all have turned out differently? In the months and years that followed I thought so, and I was very bitter, in my mind, about that day.
The ship’s head reared up, four stories high, a pillaged and wrecked cathedral. Two-thirds had been dismantled, but it was still a vast bulk of matter. It seemed improbable that human hands would ever unravel it.
‘Zet uw helm op.’
The boy tapped his helmet in warning. I followed him across the gangplank and we descended through a riddle of stairs and ladders to the chambers of the lowermost level. All the doors had been taken out, and the partitions and flats above had been punched through with rough holes. Light and air poured in, the reflections richocheting off the steel at wild angles. The air vibrated with the raw clangs of hammers, an orchestra of crashes and thumps, and the echo of men’s voices, high and reedy, shouting instructions.
We came to a room where the walls were lined with copper pipes. A man was standing atop a stepladder, hacking at the top layer with a handsaw.
‘Uw werk is om de leidingen naar de bak te brengen.’
The boy looked at me expectantly.
I pulled a face, shrugged. ‘Sorry,’ I said.
‘Okay.’ He wiped his brow, irritated.
‘He—’ he stuck his finger up towards to the man.
I nodded enthusiastically.
‘Cut.’ His hand sawed in the air. ‘And you’—his finger, jabbing at my chest—‘like this.’
He mimed the action, lifting a pipe from the wall, hoisting it onto his shoulder and carrying it across the room to a square bin.
Manual labour. No skill involved.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I see. All right.’
After five hours’ work, I took off my helmet, wiped my face dry. The locker room was dense with steam. I hoisted my feet up onto the bench and unclipped the boots. The toenail on the left foot had gone black and seamy with blood, and a red blister the size of a milk-bottle top had formed on the heel. I prodded at it, winced, stripped off the overalls and shunted my foot down into my sneaker.
Hendrik appeared with a cigarette clenched between his lips. He waved an envelope at me.
‘Betaaldag,’ he shouted. ‘‘Je kunt het ophalen bij het kantoor.’
I nodded, stripped off my working gear, too tired now to bother decoding, but he grabbed my arm, insisted I follow him out into the passageway. The men, dressed in clean shirts and jeans, were lined up in front of a metal grill.
‘Payday.’ He opened his envelope, fanned out the notes. ‘Go up and collect.’
I joined the queue, signed my name. For five hours’ work, I had earned six guilders. It was enough. I could feed myself and Geneviève on this, and buy whatever the baby would need.
‘Come back at eight tomorrow,’ Hendrik said. ‘I have work for you all this week.’
When I left the IJ shipyard I turned back to look. Lumbering out of the dusk, the wreck was stubbornly there. There were new gaps in the hull, and the line of the bridge had visibly lowered. But the prow was ship, still ship. It held its shape against the air, defying the work of the day.
I worked in that shipyard for three months. In that time, we dismantled the rest of the ship, and started on another one as well.
When I walk out of my office I find Dylan and Richard standing in front of Laura’s desk, heads bowed in conversation. All three startle when they see me. There is a shift in the air.
‘We were talking about Dylan’s Great Dane.’ Richard recovers first. ‘Eighty kilos of dog. That’s going to take a lot of feeding, right?
‘Do you have a dog, Peter?’ Laura asks.
‘We had a cat,’ I say. ‘We got rid of him when Moira’s immune system was messed up by the chemotherapy.’
All three go doe-eyed. The abyss opening right up, there under the beige carpet squares.
‘Hey,’ I say. ‘I’ve got a joke. So, Erwin Schrödinger—you know Schrödinger—he gets pulled over by the cops, right? And they search the car, you know, open up the boot, and then the officer comes back to Schrödinger, and he goes, “Ah, sir, do you know there is a dead cat in your boot?”’
Richard looks perplexed.
‘And then Schrödinger goes, “Well now I do, you bastard.”’
Laura’s laugh, after a few seconds, is real. Richard and Dylan smile weakly.
‘Theoretical physics,’ I say. ‘There’s this box. The cat is imaginary.’
Laura bites at the corner of her lip.
‘Yeah,’ she says. ‘Dead or alive. Depends whether you’re looking.’
Her shirt is quite something, the cool glow of the yellow. Not many girls could carry off a colour like that.
‘That’s it,’ I say. ‘Yes.’
She lowers her eyes, but she’s pleased. I think she’s pleased.
‘And how far do you have to walk the dog, Dylan?’ Richard asks, angling his body towards him. ‘He’d be keeping you fit, wouldn’t he?’
Late in Geneviève’s pregnancy, Hendrik, the superintendent from the shipyards, stopped by the Lychorida one night and sat on deck with us. We drank bottles of Amstel and Christoffel. Hendrik brought weed with him, and we shared it out amongst us and smoked. Light gusts sent the smoke whirling about our faces and drifting towards passersby on the riverbank. I remember pulling Geneviève onto my knee, running my hand over her back and round belly, and feeling, under the sweet loosening of the drug, a vast rush of satisfaction.
I knew he approved of me. He thought well of the way I worked. I had rapidly moved on from carting chunks of scrap metal to cutting away the structures of the ship with the propane blower. Often he worked at the cutting too, and then we worked alongside one another silently, intuitively. I thought of him as a model of competence. He would never lavish praise on anyone, but here he was. He had come to my home, was drinking my beer, receiving my hospitality, laughing with my friends. I was proud that Geneviève was there to witness his visit, and proud that Hendrik saw me with her too, the full swell of her figure, her natural elegance and her sharp mind on display as she talked about French poetry.
There are hours to go until I’m due to pick up Aaron, but it’s intolerable to go home. I drive round the Basin Reserve twice, and up the main arterial route to Newtown, on towards Island Bay, cresting over the hill at Athletic Park, where I pull over and stop the car.
Bulldozers are tearing into the bare ground that used to be the park, and pre-fabricated retirement units are starting to pop up. By this time next year the residents will be taking cautious walks on zimmerframes right over the pitch where Stu Wilson and Bernie Fraser pounded home to the tryline. Last spring the city council pulled down the Millard Stand, the steep, rickety frame of iron that swayed in high winds, where I had taken Aaron once or twice as a youngster. He was never much into the game, more preoccupied by running up and down the vertiginous steps than watching the match. The stand collapsed in a series of slow huffs. Each time we drove past it last August, another part had come down.
Ah, Moira. The truth is, in part it’s a relief to have it over. As far back as April, the deep pain in her right leg left her unable to speak for minutes at a time, and later the cough in her lungs grew into an agony of breathlessness as if she were trying to draw air up through a wet sponge. Her terror. She knew what was happening. She wasn’t brave about dying. She didn’t want to do it, not well, not badly, not at all. Would I have given her an overdose of morphine if I’d had it, if she’d asked? We never spoke like that. Even when she couldn’t walk or toilet herself, she had her mind, her speech, her eyesight, her hearing. She remained conscious and able to speak for much of the time until the last twenty-four hours. Only two days before the end, we watched her take nibbles of pineapple with great relish, licking the juice. She took everything that was left to her, and then it happened faster than we thought it would.
Crying felt clean in the days before she died, and the first days afterwards. I shouted and kicked at the glass every morning in the shower and the salt water and the clean water ran together. I had the brace of our people around me. At the funeral, we carried her casket out to the porch of the church and paused on the step in the face of a haka, unexpectedly performed by Aaron’s school friends and some of his actor mates. The Rongotai College boys, the Lemalu twins and Tama Horomia, took up the front row. Ka mate, ka mate, ka ora, ka ora. I knew Claudia would be spitting about it—What do they think this is, a rugby match?—but for me the unity of the bodies, the force of the chant and the ceremony it put around the moment made it both unbearable and easy to carry her body onwards to the hearse, and I was grateful. Her leaving was out of my hands, it had nothing to do with me. The weeping that came on in those early days was utterly impersonal, a sort of ecstatic unbuttoning, a force that wanted only to move through my body. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, the Reverend had read at the funeral. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.
But here I am in the usual old order, bawling my eyes out in the car on a side street in Berhampore. And tonight Aaron goes away.