Authors: Ted Dawe
This book metamorphosed from its original form. It began as a short story. A friend suggested it might be a novella. Longacre told me it was a novel.
I would like to acknowledge the people who wanted to read more and the publisher who demanded I write more. I would like to thank Jane Ridall and Tom Purvis for their initial enthusiasm about the original story; Barbara Larson for seeing the possibility lurking within the pages of the novella, and the indefatigable Emma Neale for her guiding hand in the process of turning this meagre offering into a fully-fledged novel.
I will not cease from mental flight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
I dedicate this book to my three farming uncles: Peter D’Ath,
Bill D’Ath and Noel Smith.
THE year Mum died and Dad went mad I was packed off to live on a farm for a while. I was in two minds about this but it wasn’t like I had any choice in the matter.
After Mum died, Dad seemed to spend all his time
two things: peering into the bottom of a wine bottle and snoring off on the couch. That was when he was home. Most of the time he wasn’t. He was out God-knows-where ringing me at two in the morning to make sure I was okay.
“Well yeah, Dad, I was fine until you woke me up.”
I guess I should start at the beginning. Ah yes, but where is the beginning? It’s like looking at a tangled fishing line, impossible to straighten out, to make sense of, but it has to be done. I guess the best thing to do is to take a deep breath and go back to where Mum got sick. Back when we were living in the big house.
Back in those days, a time I think of as “the good old days”, the three of us were all living in a sprawling house in the richest part of Auckland. It was the sort of suburb where all the walls are two metres high and you’ve got to talk to a
speaker in the gate post before you can even set foot on the property. Dad used to call it the high insecurity prison. He told me that was a joke, although you’d never know. It
a big house and we only seemed to live in a small part of it. I built a circuit for my remote control Mustang: it took a full twelve minutes for the car to get around it. As well as all these bedrooms and bathrooms there was a games room, a living room, a dining room and a sitting room. Added to this was a room called the library. It was called this because it was full of shelves. There were no books though, we weren’t big on books, just shelves.
Most of the time there were only two people in this house: me and Mum. We seemed to always be hunting for each other. I can still hear Mum’s voice calling “Sandy! Sandy! Where have you got to?” Mum didn’t like this, she found it hard to yell because of her asthma. I guess that’s the next thing I had better pick up on.
Asthma is a funny thing. It comes on fast, there’s no
. One moment the person’s talking, laughing, having a good time; next thing their lips are blue, there’s no sound coming out of their mouth and they’re scrambling for the trusty puffer. That’s what it was like with Mum.
It had always been that way. No cure. You just learned to live with it.
Somewhere in the big trunk of my mum’s things there is a photo. I could dig through and find it but I don’t want to. Don’t need to, I know it well enough. It’s of Mum and Dad soon after their wedding day. They’re standing on the veranda of some little house. Behind them the door’s open
and Dad has a glass of beer in his hand. He looks like he’s just made one of his famous unwisecracks and she’s looking up at him as though she’s about to say something. They were happy then. Everything in front of them: money,
I used to wish that I was alive in those days. That I was in that scene, taking the photo maybe. Everything seems just right. Like the opening of one of those weepy movies before all the
happens. There would be hopeful music
in the background, a warm wind blowing and everything soaked in yellow light. I wish we could all live in that photo, never getting any older, in a perfect world without pain and worry.
I guess that’s why I leave the photo where it is. I used to love those soppy movies but I don’t believe that sort of thing these days. I reckon the world’s not like that. These days I sort of walk on briskly, and don’t spend too much time looking back. Still hurts too much.
But for the sake of the story I’ll go back there one more time.
DAD was a car hoon when he was young. He used to annoy Mum by saying his first girlfriend was called Lotus Cortina. He loved Fords. Sometimes he would try to impress us by reciting the names of every model from the Mustang back to the Model T. I was impressed but Mum would get this sort of glassy look in her eye and you could tell she was bored out of her tree.
He had these little sayings which he claimed Henry Ford made up. Things like “History is bunk and Holdens are junk.” And “If you can’t afford a Ford, dodge a Dodge.” Or “Why are they called Holdens? Because they’re barely
There were lots more but you get the idea.
He was quick off the mark, Dad: bought his first car on his fifteenth birthday. All his own money too, he had saved it from his paper round. It had taken him three years, or as he used to tell it, one hundred and sixty-three thousand
New Zealand Heralds.
It would be true to say that Dad was always a bit like that. Set himself targets and nothing got in the way.
There was a reason for this. His mum and dad were
criminals so he had a lot to prove. They were always in and out of jail and he had to back himself … he knew that if things got tough there would be no one there for him.
There was a movie he took me and Mum to once. I’ve never forgotten it. It was a remake of a film he used to love when he was a boy. All these guys were in a prison camp in the Second World War. Usual stuff. High barbed wire fences. Guards with dogs. Machine gun towers. All these British guys hanging out in a bunk room planning their
. Everything they do is so clever. They all pretend to be model prisoners while at the same time all their energy, all their organisation, is going into digging the tunnel.
“You’ve got to have a tunnel,” Dad used to say, “It keeps you sane.”
I didn’t know at the time but now it seems to me that his whole life was like that. As his parents went in and out of jail, and he and his younger brother went in and out of foster homes, he had to have a tunnel to keep him from going off the rails. His tunnel was the paper round, the car, leaving school and leaving home.
Like the men digging the tunnel in the movie, he had to hide everything. The money he got from the paper round. The car. His plans. He had to keep everything in readiness for him to push off into the wide world.
It took a few false starts but then boy, did he make money. Every setback made him more determined. At first he had this dream of being a policeman. Being on the right side of the law. But that didn’t work. As soon as the cops found out
his name he was laughed out of the police station.
“Your old man would steal the stink off a fart!”
“If your family went straight, half of us would be out of a job!”
Ho, ho, ho. They were sure he was only there to steal something, such was his parents’ reputation.
So he got this job cleaning cars for a guy who fostered him for a while and was willing to give him a chance to prove himself. No one picked it at the time, but this was his first step on a ladder that would lead him to the top of the car business.
MUM had a different start. As Dad used to say, she was strictly old money. Or sometimes she came from “mouldy old dough”. She didn't like that. Usually it was just that she was “born with a silver spoon in her mouth”. I used to
that â¦ the little baby being delivered â¦ startled doctor having to pull out the silver spoon â¦ can't get the image out of my head.
She came from suburbs where the garages are as big as the average house and driveways are so wide they've got go-fast lanes along the middle. It was private schools all the way for her. Princess High School, Dad called it: where they wore shoes made of glass and had bank notes for toilet paper.
What did she see in Dad? Who knows. She used to say she was a “possum in the headlights”. One minute she's there, minding her own business, next thing, bang, it's all over. Sounds extreme, but it's probably sort of true. Once Dad set his mind to something there had to be some pretty powerful force to stop him achieving it.
The story goes like this. He spotted Mum working at the
make-up counter at Smith and Haughty's, a big department store in Newmarket. He was on his lunch break and used to cruise Broadway to line up what he was going to buy one day. And there was Mum, leaning against the counter and staring into space. From the moment he saw her, he was history, he reckons. There was a loud clattering sound in his head as all the items on his “to do” list were reshuffled. This major new mission jumped to the top of the list. He said that in a heartbeat he was sure of three things.
He had to have her.
He would do anything to achieve her.
He would do nothing else until she was his.
My father's tunnels were always like that. At the end of each one was a glittering prize spurring him on. I guess that's why things went so wrong when Mum died. But I'm getting ahead of myself again.
Dad researched her first. He's not like me, the impulsive type. He's a plotter and a planner. He couldn't work out how to strike up a conversation with a girl at a perfume counter so he had to circle her for a few days, “researching” her. Where she went for lunch, the colours she wore, how she got home, that sort of thing.
Mum claims that his inherited criminal instincts helped here. That he “cased her” the way burglars “case a joint” on TV. Dad never thought this was very funny. Probably because it was true.
Here's what he did.
Mum got picked up by her father every evening after work. Her father drove a big blue Mercedes. They were
uncommon in those days, but, as Dad likes to say, “these days every jerk drives a Merc.”
A friend of his, Rufus O'Malley, detailed cars at the big Mercedes dealership nearby. Through Rufus, Dad managed to find out who Mum's father was, where he lived, all that stuff. He cruised out to the leafy 'burbs to check her out. When he saw the house he almost gave the mission away. He's a confident guy, Dad, but he thought that he might just have bitten off more than he could chew. But there is this other quality that Dad has. He backs himself. After the first shock he would have been even more determined.
The first thing he found out was when her lunch hour was: by moving his backwards and forwards until it matched up. Then of course, he followed her.
Mum was always a creature of habit, Dad says. Every day she used to walk via the florist, the shoe shop, the
, giving everything the once over, and then she'd take her lunch into a little park at the end of Broadway. She would sit at the same bench sharing her sandwiches with the
. After that she would amble back on the other side of the street checking out the music shop, the newsagents, and those little shops with the designer names like Piece of my Heart or The Road to Rome. Then it would be back to her counter at Smith and Haughty's.
Within a fortnight he knew lots about her: what she liked to eat, her musical tastes, even her weird little tics, like how she used to always touch her left ear when she found something funny. I never noticed that until he pointed it out. Yes, he's got sharp eyes, Dad, especially when he's after
something. He used every scrap of what he had seen to plan his next move. Nothing was left to fate: he knew he had “only one chance to make a good first impression” (to quote another Dad expression). Though she was one of the high and mighty, the sort most people would think were out of reach, he wasn't put off. “Even the Queen of England puts her knickers on one leg at a time, does she not?” How could he possibly know that?
So it was with famous Dad cunning that he was seated on her park bench when she arrived. In one hand he had a bag of scraps from which he was tossing bread to the pigeons, and in the other was a bunch of red roses. He watched her approach out of the corner of his eye but never moved his head, gave nothing away. She sat down and he slowly finished feeding the birds then he stood up quickly, slapping his hand to his forehead like he had forgotten something. He turned to Mum as though he knew her and said, “Would you mind holding these? I'll be back in a minute,” and passed her the bunch of roses. She looked a bit flustered but she took them and he hurried off. When he came back he had one of those disposable cameras. He insisted on taking a photo of her. I still have that photo in my box of special stuff. There's this pretty teenager, all dressed up, holding a bunch of flowers in one hand, and the other hand is open and sticking out towards the photographer. Her face, everything about her, seems to say, “What the hell's going on here?”
I guess it's not surprising really, I mean here was this guy she had never seen before snapping her in the park. She didn't know what to do. Nothing in her sheltered up-bringing had
prepared her for this moment, Dad claims. Mum tried to give back the roses but of course Dad had an answer lined up (he had probably being practising it in his spare time).
Dad told her he wanted her to keep them. He claimed it was only fair.
“My people have this tradition: when I have taken
from you, I must then give you something in return.”
This sounds pretty cheesy to me, especially when I think about “his people” but he seemed to get away with it. Then he said this line that I still find hard to believe. Only Dad could have pulled it off without a mouthful of knuckles.
“I hate to tell you thisâ¦” then he paused for dramatic effect, “but your father's a thief.”
Mum, mouth hanging open in amazement, says, “What?”
He repeats himself, this time more confidently, “Yes, your father's a thief.”
He waited for a moment while her confusion turned into anger. Then he came back with the punch-line. “He stole the stars from the night sky and he put them in your eyes.”
It makes me cringe to think of it, but it worked, he
. I guess I'm the proof of that. I mean, I'm here aren't I? Anyway, the point of all this is to show you what a
customer Dad is, well organised too, which made it even stranger the way he went to pieces after Mum died.
I guess he had no tunnel dug for that one.