Authors: Peter Walker
For Liz and Louis
There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I—
Dylan, ‘All Along The Watchtower’
One thing was plain – Morgan Tawhai had been expelled from Fairfield Boys High. But why? What did he do? What was the crime that sent him flying at an early age and with no right of appeal from that estimable seat of learning?
The four of them looked at one another. No one really knew what to say. There was Morgan’s elder brother, Lucas, clearly unhappy that the subject had come up. There was FitzGerald, always the diplomat, looking just as unhappy. There was FitzGerald’s new wife, Inga. Inga’s eyes were shining. She had never known Morgan but she was keenly interested, being inquisitive by nature. And there was Radzimierz Radzienwicz who had raised the question in the first place.
Morgan himself was not present, nor would he ever be present, to throw any light on the matter. He had been dead now – it was incredible to think of it – for more than thirty years.
‘Wasn’t it something to do with tennis shoes?’ said Radzimierz Radzienwicz, who, mercifully, had been known since childhood as Race.
shoes?’ said Inga.
‘Sneakers. Plimsolls. What did we call them then?
. Didn’t he pinch a pair of sandshoes from someone’s locker?’
A faint rubbery whiff of old scandal and the school corridor came into the room. They were in Lucas’s house by the beach. Race and Inga and FitzGerald had never met Lucas before. They had come down the coast from Auckland on holiday and they called in to see him only after some delay and debate among themselves.
‘Well, you know, Morgan – he was brilliant,’ said FitzGerald who sometimes wished Race could keep his big trap shut. As he remembered it, Morgan hadn’t just taken the shoes from the locker. He had written his name in blue biro on the underside of their tongues. It was that, deemed unforgivable by the school authorities, which propelled him at high speed from Fairfield Boys High, amid no doubt many painful family recriminations.
‘He was always top of the class,’ FitzGerald went on. ‘He just sort of knew more than the rest of us.
What is the name of the liquor flowing in the veins of the immortal gods?
Only one hand went up.’
‘And?’ said Inga, stretching out a tanned and sandalled foot. Her toenails were lustrous, plum in colour.
‘And what?’ said FitzGerald.
‘The liquid flowing in the veins of the gods,’ said Inga.
‘God,’ said FitzGerald. ‘I mean we were thirteen, fourteen. We’d think how the hell would we know? But Morgan knew.’
‘Yes. But what is it?’ said Inga.
‘Ichor,’ said FitzGerald.
,’ said Lucas and Inga together – Lucas startled there was such a word, and Inga as if just checking.
‘I - c - h - o - r,’ said FitzGerald.
Outside, the waves broke and fanned up the black-bouldered sand. It was a great rainless summer storm. The windows of Lucas’s house were lightly salted, everything beyond them vague as if seen through smoked glass. In a way, naughty, brilliant Morgan had become almost immortal himself. His friends had never forgotten him. They still talked about him when they met, and wondered what had actually happened to him. Here they were, for instance, come to look at his grave, for what that’s ever worth.
‘Shall we go?’ said Lucas, shouldering up from an armchair. They went out into the booming, sunlit gale. The family graveyard was surrounded by a picket of trees about a quarter of a mile across the paddock. They set off, FitzGerald and Inga going on ahead. From a distance, Race noticed Inga’s good ankles, her air of elegance. She might, he thought, have been heading into Harvey Nichols or Bloomingdale’s or some such – so Race framed it – hellhole, but instead there she was crossing the rough grass beyond the shadow of a tall pine that was growing alone in the middle of the field. Under the tree the ground was dusty, bare, ribbed with roots, cobbled with sheep-shit. It was strange, Race thought just then – he caught a faint ammoniacal tang – that he had never noticed the tree when he had been there before, crossing that field in the company of the long-vanished Morgan. He must have just blocked it out, he thought, for after all it was a Norfolk Island pine, and in those days he and his friends disliked the species, the poor Norfolk being so very symmetrical, so neat and regular in brachiation, each one forming a great, green capital ‘A’, that it was much favoured by the authorities who planted it up and down school drives, outside prisons, on the perimeter of sports fields, along beach fronts – on ‘marine parades’ especially, all over Australia and New Zealand – A A A A A A A – on account of those very qualities – neatness, order, regularity – which he and his friends, then aged twenty-one or twenty-two, naturally held in low esteem. Now, decades later, he saw how wrong they had been. It was beautiful, this great green A creaking in the cloudless gale – dark, doughty of trunk, each branch laden with glossed claws of green – a ‘star pine’, cousin of the monkey-puzzle, the hoop pine, living masts of Gondwanaland still growing on long-separated shores of the Pacific.
Race and Lucas walked on beyond the tree’s shadow, and then Race paused for some reason and looked back up at it, and Lucas stopped as well to see what he was looking at.
‘We used to climb that when we were kids,’ said Lucas, squinting into the sun. ‘Morgan and I. We’d climb right to the top and then just jump out.’
‘Jesus, Lucas,’ said Race. ‘It’s a hundred feet high. What did your parents say?’
‘They never knew,’ said Lucas, shaking his head at life. ‘We’d jump off and leap down through the branches all the way to the ground.’
They stood there, looking up.
‘Maybe they did know,’ Lucas said, ‘but just couldn’t watch. We were twelve, fourteen. We were running wild by then. What could they do? We’d climb up there and jump off, or we’d swim out to the lighthouse and climb that and swing from the gantry by our fingertips . . .’
Just then, among the higher boughs, a magpie appeared with his shining badges of white, and then a second swooped around the tree and joined its mate, and at that moment Race not only remembered the very beginning of the story but, as he and Lucas turned and went away across the grass, he felt that he was quite unexpectedly coming to the end of it, the end of the story of Morgan, or at least his version of the story of Morgan whom he had last seen coming fast along the platform of Wellington railway station one Sunday afternoon, coming to say goodbye to Race who was getting on the overnight train, and to tell him that he had in fact slept with the blonde girl the night before, right there in front of the fire after everyone else had left the party, adding that, at the time, the rain was so loud on the roof it sounded like thousands of people clapping.
‘Get out of here,’ said Race, looking past Morgan at the railway clock at the end of the platform, but he was in fact pleased that Morgan had come down on a grey Sunday afternoon to see him off on the train, and then he had climbed on board and gone along to his seat to speak to him through the window, but he never saw Morgan again because, by the time he got to his seat, the train was moving off from the platform and away through the marshalling yards where the signals were – in his memory at least – shining blue above the wilderness of tracks.
When the horns sounded the first time, and the second, and even the third, Race did not know what they were or where they came from. The sound came blowing in from a mournful distance, from the dark, well beyond the wharves, out in the harbour, out to sea. Race had just left the nightclub alone. At the entrance was a life-size painting of a woman in a feathery gown. She had startled blue eyes and beside her was a column of names, spangled with stars:
PLUS PLUS PLUS:
‘Jewel Box!’ said Race to the startled lady in her gown of thick paint. He paused, looking up and down the street, wondering which way to go home, and then set off towards Civic Square. He had been to a dance earlier that night, and he was drunk – drunk enough anyway not to notice or at least not to care that he was in fancy dress. He was walking in fancy dress on his own through dark and probably drunken streets. His costume, though, was relatively restrained. He had spent the night dancing with Candy, who was dressed as a bee, and haughty Rosie Gudgeon, who’d gone as Madame de Pompadour and wore a powdered wig a foot high. FitzGerald had started out the night as a samurai warrior and at some point had acquired – but from where? – a Minotaur’s head. A kimono-clad Minotaur was still on the nightclub dance-floor, soulfully clutching Madame de Pompadour. Candy, in her bee costume, had vanished. Race didn’t know where she had gone. He left the dingy basement club because he was drunk and because the bee had departed, but he felt quite happy all the same, and he turned left and began to walk home. He was wearing doublet and hose, and a cap with a feather in it, but apart from the white ruff around his neck, and the feather in his cap, he was dressed all in black: in a dark and drunken town his costume was not too different from that of some kid in skinny black jeans. He had just reached Civic Square when the horns began to sound from far away. Race did not recognise them. He had been living in the city a year and a half and had never heard them before. Then, at the fourth or fifth blast, so mournful and solemn, the sea-fog appeared – two billows of fog, eight, nine, ten storeys high – coming up parallel streets from the docks. They reached Civic Square at the same time, they silently turned left and right at the intersections, rolled towards each other, met, and came forward as one. The last thing Race saw before a general blotting-out was a border of red-and-white flowers planted near the council offices. He stood there a moment, pleased for some reason at the sudden evanescence of the prim municipal blooms. Then he walked on. There was no passing traffic, no sign of life or other existence. The only sound was the intermittent rising and falling of the sad fog horn.