Yesterday morning I went to the local supermarket to buy a few things; and when I was given my change at the checkout (a note and a few coins), for some reason neglected to put the note, as I usually do, in my wallet. Went to the bakery next door (they do good sourdough), spent some of the coins ... as I walked away I recall thinking that I shouldn't be strolling along with a banknote in my naked hand and at that moment, or very soon afterwards, it disappeared ... ! Just disappeared! And I do not know what happened to it. Naturally, a few steps on, when I realised it had gone, I turned around and went back for a look; nada. It had vanished into thin air; like a reverse of one of those conjurer's tricks where a coin appears out of an empty palm; or as if some unseen hand had reached down and taken it from me. Or had I (or rather my right arm) passed, unwitting, through some anti-gravity field, some mini black hole, some Bermuda Triangle for banknotes. I know already that this is something I will never understand; while the metaphorical interpretations remain to haunt me: too true, too true.



Stan Frost

A week or so ago, maybe last Thursday, as I was wandering back from Ashfield to Summer Hill, I suddenly found myself talking out loud to no-one in particular - the first sign of madness, we used to say. This is not a habit of mine and I'm not sure what prompted the episode, beyond my having recently noted a resemblance between a friend and colleague I've been seeing a bit of lately, and my old Godfather. His name was Stan Frost and the inadvertent monologue, which I'll try to reconstruct some of here, was about him. Stan was the art teacher at Ruapehu College when I was growing up in Ohakune in the 1950s. He was a real Cockney, which I understood then to mean that he had been born within the sound of the Bow Bells; but he didn't speak Cockney: rather he had the smooth, educated tones of so-called Received Pronunciation. He was a dapper dresser, usually in a tweed jacket, grey trousers with a knife-edge crease, well-polished black brogues; and had a penchant for colourful patterned knitted sleeveless pullovers worn under the jacket and over the shirt. He also had fascinating hair, intricately crinkled, its natural dark brown turning, seemingly before the eyes, to grey, which he wore oiled and combed back from a high forehead; and his skin, like my own father's, was quite swart, as if there had been somewhere back amongst the generations an admixture of Mediterranean or even Moorish blood. Stan drove a Model T Ford and for most of the time I knew him, lived alone in one or other of two dark and mysterious houses, the first behind high macrocarpa hedges next to the College, the second, similar, at Rangataua. He was, my parents said to me seriously on more than one occasion, a Bachelor. But I knew that he hadn't always lived alone: for a period he had a companion, another Bachelor, another teacher (but of what?), another Englishman by the name of Bill Pawley, who wore little round rimless glasses and three piece suits; they had a place together at Rangataua, a silvery paintless two storey wooden building that had been a shop which they called Wenceslas Towers and fitted out with a bar - unheard of; us kids were sometimes allowed to play with or around it while Stan perfected an exotic omelet for our parents to eat. Bill Pawley departed for parts unknown, perhaps back to the old country, perhaps to Canada, at some point in the decade, leaving Stan alone. Stan was a much-loved teacher, an exceptionally charming man but also a very private one. I remember my mother telling me once (I must have asked her) that, yes, there had been a woman, in England, but something had happened and they never married; curiously, whenever I bring this particular piece of information to mind, it comes along with an image of a blue bonnet with a wide brim and trailing ribbons that are meant to be tied under the chin: whatever happened between them was specific and encapsulated in this image, which was one of loss. I think Stan may have remembered her by her hat. A later attempt to pair him off with the Infant Mistress also failed. My parents and their friends - the Lawns, the Watsons, the Brunings, Nancy Leggatt, Stan Frost, Bill Pawley - used to stage amateur theatricals in their own homes, that they wrote themselves, and in which each of them adopted a persona not wholly distinct from their selves in real life. They were musicals, with piano accompaniment, and were performed with great gusto and many shouts of laughter at their own wit and bravado. Also lots of smoking and drinking. The only piece I remember of any of these musicals is a snatch of song that begins: My name is Flan / I am your man / A problem does delight me / For I suppose ... then trails off into doubt and supposition. Stan was a good cook and lived well; the first liqueur I ever tasted (Cointreau) was at his house. He was also keen on hunting and fishing, and used often to go after trout at nearby Lake Taupo. Sometimes he would give us a fresh one he had caught, to be, invariably, fried in the heavy blue and white iron pan on the coal range. I remember, in 1973, when my father was in the midst of one of his breakdowns and I was a bit sideways myself, after an abortive visit he had made to Auckland driving Dad back in his own car, a Chrysler Valiant, to Wellington. We broke the journey at Ohakune and stayed the night with Stan Frost. I recall Stan's perplexity at the shattered state my father was in, his well-meaning helplessness and his English reserve that prevented him making any but the most oblique remarks about the situation; and I also recall how his house had become even darker, more mysterious and more cluttered than it had been when I was a child. But the food (a stew) was excellent, and the wine, and, yes, we drank Cointreau after dinner. That was I think the last time I saw him. When he retired from teaching he left the district and moved to a house he had built, or bought, on the shores of Taupo, so that he could indulge his love of fishing. Later I heard, from the Lawns, that after the move he became reclusive and hardly saw anyone, not even old friends. At the same time, the clutter I noticed in his house in 1973 increased, until it was only possible for one man to make a single track from room to room to room: piles of newspapers I believe, and books, and cardboard cartons of things that could not be thrown away. He's dead now but I don't know (although I could certainly find out) when he died or anything much else about his last years. Nor do I know quite what else to say; beyond this: from when I was a very small boy I loved and admired Stan Frost, and was always proud to be his Godson; and nothing related here, and nothing else that has come to my notice about him since, has or could change that feeling. And yet, while I can remember clearly how he looked, the sound of his voice, his physical presence, he seems, as time goes by, to become more and more mysterious, like a puzzle that looks simple on first glance but gradually discloses an intricacy and a depth and a strangeness that means, in the end, I will have to give up trying to solve it and content myself with mere contemplation of its elegant inexplicability.



Though nights and mornings are still cold, days are fine and warm and if you sit for a while, as I did today out in Bronte, under the sun blazing from a cobalt sky, it's hot. A hitch-hiker I picked up a couple of weeks ago told me that he had heard a long-range weather forecaster, who works off the moon, predict that we would have some rain at the end of this month and then nothing until a downpour the week before Christmas. Well, perhaps. Because it is August, the wattle is flowering, those tiny yellow puff petals, if that's what they are, blow in the wind or lie scattered on pavements, roadsides, gutters ... and then there's the scent, indescribable unless you know it: wattle. It is one of my earliest scent-memories and thus, and paradoxically, when the wattles flower in Sydney in August, I am liable at any moment to be transported back to Burns Street, Ohakune, where I grew up and where the wattles flowered in profusion every spring and the tiny yellow fragments blew, gathered, lay scattered ... has always seemed oddly fortuitous, this sensory memory that collapses half a century into a moment, and if at the same time I hear a magpie quardle-oodle then I truly do not know where I am or properly who I might be. And as I come out of this daze-dream, I might remember again something I did not know for most of my life: that my father's father Charlie was Australian, Melbourne-born and raised there until his older sisters plucked him out of the family milieu, because of his father, James', alcoholism and took him over to live a pious life in Herne Bay, Auckland ... or so the tale goes. Who knows? But I like to think that an appreciation of the scent of wattle flowering is not just apparent to my senses but, through some sort of Linnaean inheritance of acquired characteristics, in my genes as well.



John Philemon
Backhouse [ca. 1880] Alexander Turnbull Library, Aotearoa.



The 4.28 from Strathfield

It hardly seems possible that it is only a year since the last City to Surf; and inconceivable that I should have gone on it again ... the things we do for our kids. This year the weather was better and I enjoyed it much more, even though I forgot to take a hat ... found one underneath a car bumper somewhere in Diamond Bay, I think it was, a beauty, white baseball cap with black stripes, a logo of a red cricket ball with a white cotton cricketer embossed upon it (looks to me like a straight drive for four) and the words THE CRICKET CLUB below that. Course the kids disappeared almost as soon as we rounded the corner into Williams Street and I didn't see them again until Bondi; but I'd taken the precaution this time of giving the older boy a mobile phone. He used up most of the available credit texting me faintly derisive reports of his progress and had all but run out of talk time by the time I hobbled over the finish line ... but had managed to tell me where to find him. It was enjoyable mostly because I spent the walk with Dr. Phil's 76 year old father, a retired chemical engineer who came to Australia as a 16 year old in 1949, having escaped his native Latvia in August 1945 and spent the intervening four years in northern Germany, somewhere near Bremen. A man of few words, but sweet natured and companionable and so we held each other up, or perhaps egged each other on, through the whole 14 kilometres. Getting home after these events is almost as difficult, and as time consuming, as getting there, and I had then to take the kids back to Woy Woy, where their mother was picking them up from the station ... was going to drive but, well, I do a lot of driving and we already had our Funday tickets so the train was the cheaper and, as I wrongly thought, more convenient option. We caught the 4.28 from Strathfield and, because it was going to be packed, sat in the always emptier first carriage of the train. Just north of Hornsby, while I was reading Henry Lawson (The Geological Spieler) and the kids were playing a game on the laptop, the train whistle blew and then there was an ominous sound, a soft, wet thud, repeated once, as the train wheels ran over something on the track. We came slowly to a stop and then, moments later, the driver announced there would be a short delay. This soon became an indefinite delay and later, we were told, would be followed by an evacuation. By then most of us on board had realised that the strangely hollow sound we had heard was that of a human body that had fallen on the rails: either someone had leaped from the road bridge that crosses the railway line just north of Asquith Station, or they had thrown themselves in front of the train from the grassy bank beside the track - god knows, and we were never to. We had ample time to contemplate the peculiar horror of this fatality, as CityRail called it; the train stayed in that benighted spot for three full hours and in all that time we were forbidden to leave it for any reason whatsoever (though apparently a group of cops on their way on to night duty at Gosford got off quick smart and various smokers did contrive to fag standing out on the metal pathways that run between carriages). Horror and boredom mixed. Some hysteria too - a very young couple with a small baby and three feral children in tow caused a ruckus, she shouting about depression and anxiety, full throttle, until a cop told her if she didn't shut up he'd lock her up for the night and take the baby away. My older boy was pretty freaked out but the younger was more sanguine, if that's the word, about the event, though less tolerant of the all but interminable waiting that ensued. There was a fellow sitting near us, an Englishman, who'd worked for Brit Rail cleaning up after episodes such as these, though never a human death - deer, cows, pheasants etc - so he filled us in on all the gory detail we might otherwise have had to imagine for ourselves. One of the strange things for me was the feeling that we had somehow, inadvertently, through no fault of our own, become prisoners of CityRail - I even heard my elder son at one stage speculate (how did he know? from a computer game?) as to which of us would first fall victim to Stockholm Syndrome - but the Pommie bloke assured us that we were being sequestered so that none of us would see anything, since that might then lead to trauma and thus to CityRail costs eg counselling, legal action and so forth. Then there were the logistical challenges ... first they told us buses were coming, then that there would be another train. That is in fact what happened and we had all of us, eventually, one by one, to file out the front of the train, over those fatal wheels, looking neither right nor left, and into another that had come down from the north to take us on. A diabetic without her insulin had to be removed at the next station, Berowra, into an ambulance and the wonderfully officious State Emergency Services personnel kept snarling recalcitrant passengers back into line ... though the police on the whole behaved rather better. I guess it depends upon the individual. We reached Woy Woy at about 8.45 and I handed over the kids, who were by then, especially the younger, in a state of exhaustion that wasn't helped by the fact that they hadn't eaten for six or seven hours. Then I learned that the next train back to the City wasn't due for another 45 minutes - when a fatality occurs both north and south lines are closed immediately and chaos follows throughout the creaky old system. I declined my ex's offer to take me down the road to a Kentucky Fried outlet (there was one outside the stopped train, on the other side of the Pacific Highway, shining balefully white and red through the gathering dark under a Russell Drysdale sunset that was a mirror of the one on the cover of the Henry Lawson book; and I've never liked their food anyway) and went instead for a walk around Woy Woy. A desolate place on a Sunday night and a town I've never liked even when it's busy. I was thinking I might go to one of the two pubs for a drink. One I think I might've drunk in but never since a Scottish friend, a Glaswegian, told me after he'd been there once that it was scarier than even the worst pubs in his old home town; the other I've been to occasionally but never really felt comfortable in; I didn't go to either and then, as I was walking down a dark deserted street, my ex's car with her driving and our two kids sitting up in it sailed unaccountably by - it seemed to me that I left them hours ago but that couldn't have been the case. They didn't see me, the kids I mean, but there was a belated, half-hearted beep of the horn once they were far past and it was too much for me, I headed straight back to the railway station since there, at least, I could begin to imagine arriving somewhere else. There were only three other people on the platform, all Asian. A man about my own age who looked terminally depressed; a slightly younger woman with big teeth speaking Japanese loudly into her mobile phone; and a young fellow who could have been an Aussie, also depressed looking, with a bunch of red roses lying wilting in their plastic shroud on the bench beside him. I read Henry Lawson until the train arrived; at one point (The Union Buries Its Dead) he writes: It didn't matter much; nothing really does. The fall of lumps of clay on a stranger's coffin doesn't sound any different from the fall of the same things on an ordinary wooden box - but I kept, and keep, thinking of that other sound, that soft wet thud, echoed just once, and wondering whose soul escaped back there, and from what torment it escaped, if it did escape, and why ... and other useless questions like that.

image: Angry Harrison's Store, Russell Drysdale, 1950



somewhere else

When I returned home quite late last night after a dinner party, there was an email from a Lisbon based publishing house complimenting me on Luca Antara, the book, and inquiring very politely as to who they should speak to regarding a possible Portuguese edition? There's no way of saying this without sounding like a ninny but the fact is, I was so moved that I wept. Luca Antara is written in homage to the great Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa; and it also seeks to imagine specific ways in which the early Portuguese presence in Australian history might be made manifest. So an expression of interest from the most prestigious, and also one of the oldest, publishing houses in Portugal felt like a mark of honour in itself; and a kind of validation of a book that already has a curious history. Conceived as a book about Australia, it was written mostly in New Zealand; only the last section, which is set in Malaysia and Indonesia, was written here, at Pearl Beach, on automatic pilot while I was in the midst of a very difficult relationship break-up. When it was published, by East Street Publications (ESP) in November 2006, most Australian reviewers were puzzled by it: an interesting if not entirely comprehensible work; but the reviewer in the Sydney Morning Herald detested it and wrote one of those pieces that are designed to kill a book stone dead. Sales have never been good here and The Supply Party, which came out only six months ago, has already sold twice as many copies as Luca. But ESP sold it on to English publishers Oldcastle Books, who put it between new and better covers and brought it out in hardback (2008), then in paperback (2009). English and American reviewers, like NZ reviewers before them, have not had any difficulty in working out what kind of book it is and most of them have given it what I believe to be its due. Meanwhile, in Australia itself, despite its low profile, I keep coming across people who have read and loved it - from the father-in-law of the woman who works behind the counter at a local 2nd hand store to the the Head of Journalism at a major university. Somehow the possibility of a Portuguese edition, which of course may not occur, seems like a homecoming to what was always conceived of as a homeless book. I don't know if any reviewer has pointed this out yet but, with one exception (guess who), every other Australian character who appears in Luca Antara - myself included - is from somewhere else.