The Neurasthenic Detective - let's call him ND or else JLP - comes to in his own bed in his own flat above the premises of a dental technician called Doobov on the wrong side of the tracks at Croydon. His head hurts and when, for the nth time, he searches with his fingertips for the source of the pain, he finds again the raised, bumpy cut just back of the hairline, some centimetres beyond the advancing line of his widow's peak. Stitches. But not as in he laughed until he was in. He tries to remember where and how he received the wound but cannot. Just a vague memory of orange. Lilies? Or carp? Or ... his flat is both achingly familiar and strange to him. Such foul clutter and neglect cannot be his, fastidious, indeed compulsively tidy as he knows himself to be. Or is that someone else? These thoughts make him tired and so he looks out the window instead, hoping for relief. A trapezoid of blue sky, the outline of some kind of tree, a cypress or a conifer, the red tiles of the roof of the building next door. The window glass is a brown yellow, it's stained, somewhere he remembers someone alleging that the marks are at least partly made from tree pollens blown against the glass and melted into place. He notices that the accretion is thicker towards the base of each pane and wonders if it is true that glass is actually a liquid and flows imperceptibly down in obedience to gravity? Probably it's dust, not pollen or nectar or sap or whatever; probably the glass isn't thicker at the base and anyway who cares? What does it matter? The cobwebs in the window are larger than he remembers, and dirtier, and the one directly in his line of sight has a kind of open hollow tube at the heart of it, no doubt where the spider itself, black and malevolent, hides waiting for any stray insect to blunder and fall. Indeed, given the fecundity and variety and extent of the webs, they seem to be in the process of swathing his small and so uncharacteristically untidy, also grimy, flat the way the pristine white bandage swathed his head in the hospital he has so recently discharged himself from. Pristine, yes, when newly swathed but then the red insinuated itself, then it turned that rusty orange brown of old blood ... the thought of orange, the colour, nauseates him so he quickly changes the subject of his meditation. Current projects include the first ever Dyslexics Dictionary; a website called Virtual Manhattan that will be fully negotiable in all four dimensions; and a Compleat Register of the Ghosts of Croydon. All by their very nature are works in progress and none, at this particular time on this particular day in this particular place, seems plausible or even possible. He sighs. The webs, ragged, dirty, faintly malevolent and redolent of abandonment and neglect, seem to echo or at least rhyme with the tattered state of his mind. If only he could recall something apart from that nauseous orange. And then it comes, so slight, so fugitive, almost imperceptible, but nevertheless a trace. Hibiscus, he whispers to himself. Yes, on a black ground. And a girl ...
The neurasthenic detective is in the habit of going on Sunday mornings to the art gallery to listen for rumours. This (late) morning he spends some time lingering outside the toilets watching footage, projected on a wall above him, of Monet painting in his garden at Giverny. The lily ponds in the background look murky, grey and indistinct. Monet has a cigarette stuck in his mouth but the solid mass of burnt ash doesn't fall, not even when he bends down for some unknown reason, perhaps to retrieve a brush off the ground, perhaps to add some colour to the palette he holds in his left hand. After watching carefully for a minute or two the detective decides Monet's cigarette has gone out, also that it was probably one he had rolled himself out of thick black shag tobacco. Maybe when he pauses he will relight it and smoke as he attempts to assess how the work is progressing. On the floor above the detective overhears a report coming in on a security guard's radio: a man has been seen leaving the gallery with a painting-sized package under his arm, did he come from the gallery shop or from somewhere else? The guard does nothing, even though the message is repeated several times. Meanwhile a young woman in a floral blouse, it has orange hibiscus on a black background he notes with distaste, is brazenly picking a bit of paint off a painting of Nebuchadnezzar on fire falling over a waterfall and concealing it in the top pocket of her blouse, just over the rise of her left breast. The detective leaves the gallery none the wiser. He skips lunch and goes for a walk in the Botanic Gardens instead, where he finds feathers in the grass, a fake castle walled off behind a yellow and white plastic fence, ibis quarrelling, or are they dancing, in the crown of a palm tree and many bats hanging upside down from branches in bright sunlight. Sometimes they stretch out one or both of their leathery wings and then he observes the slightly orangey transparency of the membranes stretching between the fantastically elongated fingers. Near the lily ponds, with their luxuriant green foliage, extravagant pink-fringed white flowers and seed pods like shower heads, he listens while some German tourists speak of catching one of the monstrous old man carp and throwing it on a barbeque to cook and eat. He concludes they are joking and moves on. There is, he knows, a glamorous orchid among the Rare and Threatened Plants but when he goes to look it has been dug up from its plot and taken away. There is a man wheeling a wheel barrow disappearing up one of the avenues, leaving a trail of fresh earth on the concrete path but the detective does nothing, perhaps after all he is only a gardener and employed here, perhaps that is not an orchid in the barrow at all but some kind of rhizome that needs re-positioning—who can say? The same young woman he saw in the gallery is kneeling in the Succulent Garden taking a cutting from a silvery looking plant with sculptured leaves, she looks up as he passes and seems to wink but he can't be sure, the day is hot and bright, he has come out wearing neither a hat nor sun glasses, his eyes are sore, that's the neurasthenia, other classic symptoms are fatigue, anxiety, headache, impotence, neuralgia, depression, he has them all. He watches the young woman in the floral blouse walk jauntily out of the sun-hammered Succulent Garden and knows, all at once, that he must either sit down or fall over. Along a quiet leafy avenue he finds a bench in the cool shade of a flowering magnolia and takes refuge there, looking up into a sky so blue it seems almost white and the buildings clustered on the skyline are white too, with metallic flashes from their strangely angular ornaments, ethereal as a future city, one that is seemingly in the act of vaporizing into that white hot blue sky. Dysautonomia, he thinks, that was the word the doctor used, a disease that refers to an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system ... just then the woman in the floral blouse comes into view again, that is the third time, it cannot be coincidence, she must be following him, why? As she walks by something falls from her hand, is it a clue, a fleck of paint, a corner of the leaf of a succulent? As he bends to see there comes a roaring in his ears and he feels himself falling forward except there is nothing there in which to fall, just a void, not a black void but a white one, white as the Aleph, he thinks, white as the longest lasting rose, white as silence or as a sepulchre; and just before oblivion descends or rises he sees an infinity of images, as in the painting of the bride descending a staircase, they are all him, or rather they are shadows of his former selves on their progress through this fatal afternoon and before that through all the other interminable days of his life ... infinite selves, he thinks, and before me infinite space, what drives me onwards is a consequence that lies already behind me, I am falling into a void without motivation or intent, without cause or sense, without remedy ... He was acting suspiciously, the young woman later tells the police. I think he was following me but I don't know why. No I didn't see him fall, I heard it and when I turned around, there he was lying on the path, with that shockingly large pool of blood spreading out from his broken head. I have never seen so much red, she goes on but the policeman says that's enough, now what is that you have in the left pocket of your blouse? Where did you get it? Why? While in the hospital, conveniently near by, the detective lies unconscious, his head swathed in white bandages through which, surreptitiously, the red blood seeps.
It was some kind of convention but I cannot now recall what it was about. All I remember is the venue, Rotorua, and a group of us around bare tables in a wide open room like a warehouse or a barn. In the shadows, the dark-skinned boys with lustrous eyes, waiting hopefully and expectantly to join our deliberations, were certainly Aboriginal. I wanted to buy a pot of honey and asked therefore where the nearest newsagent was. Lake Road, my friend said, so off I went into the town to look for it. Sometimes when we become lost in dreams we never find our way again but I did at last come to the right street and walked down it past brand new condominiums and office buildings made of steel and glass. The newsagent in the basement of tower there, naturally, did not sell honey but, as I went on across a glittering plaza, a secretive young man walked past me with his eyes fixed reverentially upon a small jar he was holding in both hands before him. A fair way along the road I came upon a cafe. Black and white chequered floor, bare tables, metal chairs, no-one in attendance. On one of the tables, an ornate bank note, of large denomination, in a currency I did not recognise; on another, a pile of small books with soft red covers. It was an honesty system. I paid my money and took away my copy. A strange script, cursive, stained like old blood on brownish paper. There were line drawings too, in black ink, hectic and a bit over done. The stories were by Edgar Allan Poe and two of them - a short one near the front, a long one towards the back - were on Maori subjects. I read them with growing excitement as I walked back up Lake Road. Yes, I heard a woman's voice say, we smuggled them out of America, we don't have copyright clearance, but it seemed important that these stories should be known in the country that inspired them. I was standing in the small porch of a public hall reading when out the door my father came. He looked handsome, relaxed, at ease, glowing with health and vitality. I hugged him. You look wonderful, I said. I feel good, he replied, grinning at me. About the age I am now or maybe a little younger. He and his friend went out into the yard, took off their sports jackets and began setting the bonfire that we would later light. I felt a sudden doubt: Poe? Or Borges? The Dutch owner of the cafe where I bought the book came up. A huge man with a perfectly bald head. Laughing at my brief temptation to steal the currency left upon his table. The Dream of Coleridge, he boomed. You know it? Who is to determine the ownership of dreams? Perhaps, and I know you have already had this thought, we have things precisely the wrong way round. You are not the dreamer but the dream.
across / again / air / another / auckland / away / between / birds / black / blue / body / book / born / came / children / christchurch / cold / come / dark / day / dead / death / door / down / dream / earth / even / eyes / face / fall / far / first / go / god / green / hands / head / heart / hills / home / house / know / land / last / leaves / let / lie / life / light / little / live / long / look / love / man / may / men / moon / morning / mountain / new / night / nothing / now / old / once / people / place / poems / press / rain / red / river / road / say / sea / sings / sky / small / still / stone / sun / take / things / think / though / time / tree / two / university / water / wellington / white / wind / words / world / years / yet / zealand
... the 99 most commonly used words in An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English (OUP, 1997)
... the 99 most commonly used words in An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English (OUP, 1997)