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Just off Celestial Street

A woman with a short fringe sits writing in a quiet room. She writes in a red and black Chinese notebook. It is a warm evening. She wears a silk kimono. Dreams are everywhere.

I am looking backwards into my life. I will plunder it to make a book. Perhaps I will turn into a flower or a piece of wood. Strange the sort of person one becomes. I seem to have become the sort of person old boyfriends remember well and write to at Christmas. Lines on my hand, lines on paper, telephone lines, the fine line between blood and water.

Can you hear the wobbly ghosts, rustling as they come and go?

When I grow up I want to live in an elegant shed. I want to write about velvet, jazz, grasshoppers, passionfruit and the history of shoes.

Auckland. City of Sails. City of Eight Volcanoes. City of Wild Imaginings. City of Whitebait Fritters. City of Roads One Could Once Have Taken. City of Bitching and Moaning. City of Loosely Woven Dreams and Flax Kit Bags. City of Laughter and Tears. City of My First Fuck. City of Being Stood Up in a Pub called The Fat Ladies Arms. City of Beer in Tall Brown Bottles. City of Lovely Gardens and Summer Rain. City of Pohutukawa Blossoms Floating.

This is the city where it all began. This is the city where I was born, the place my spirit will return to when I die. A narrow slice of land stretching between two harbours, the Waitemata and the Manukau, where the Maori dragged their war canoes from coast to coast, and built their terraced villages on the sides of volcanoes, burying the remnants of shellfish feasts in the dark earth of the pitted slopes. Auckland, sprawled out like a fat lady with her thighs round a gulf of islands: Rangitoto, Waiheke, Great and Little Barrier, green against the blue. This harbour city of boats and sails and red-blossomed trees gnarling silver-leaved beside the murky olive water.

The houses are lovely old villas with intricate verandahs and each one has a compost heap and a vegie garden and a lemon tree. Well, maybe not all of them do, but this is my story after all and I'll tell it how I like, tizzy up my home town, give you my own private landscape, an invented geography carefully mapped and detailed with invisible ink on the blank face of the sky.

Gaps, crevices, old cupboards, drawers lined with yellowed newspaper, shoeboxes crammed with bundles of letters, words carved on table legs, doorways where children have been measured. Sheds muddled or neat, old tins and tools and things to mend things with, and boxes and brooms and rope. If you look in the corners there are plenty of stories.

I put on my velvet slippers embroidered with lies, here in the place of the broken heart and the snowflake ball. I shake the memories, they float, they fall to ground.

Any place I pick could be the beginning.

My grandfather smelled like sawdust and putty. He leant his scrawny brown arms on the wooden table and told us funny stories. He was allowed to, because when he was a young man he had kissed the Blarney stone. My other grandfather used to play the violin, but he didn’t any more, because he was dead. My thin grandmother swam in the sea every day until she was a hundred. She had seen everything in this world, from the first motor car to a man on the moon. You had to behave yourself at her house, or she would bite you with sharp words. My other grandmother was easier. She had jelly-wobble arms and made lovely trifles but she boiled cabbage until it turned into green sludge, too awful to eat. There were mad Irish aunts who wore elderly hats of felt and roses, but that was long ago and far away. There were nearer aunts: Auntie Daphne, who was rich and gave you money at Christmas, and Auntie Ruby, who wore a black and white spotted bathing suit, who drank gin and said icy things and threw a cigarette onto my father's grave.

The stories will not stay glued down in time and space. They push and shove, bold and unwilling to take their turn. Someone came on a boat from Ireland, with ten pounds in his pocket. Someone had a blue bird tattooed on her arm. Someone opened her legs in a field under the wide night sky and made a baby. Someone wore a battered hat. Someone did it and someone said it and someone wrote it down.

Everything is radiant. There are red night flowers and golden bees. I can hear the ghostly yelling of my father, the zzt of the match as my mother lights an angry cigarette. Everything has led me here and now I will tell it, down through all the days.

Shall I tell the truth? Line up all the facts, as tidy as a row of pins? No, the truth is just a wire you walk along, stepping gingerly, until you meet thin air, and facts are stale old things, as wrinkled as dried mushrooms. Why not plump them out a little, soak them until they swell, rearrange the aunties and make my boyfriends even more handsome than they were?

Once I was a young sad girl who made peg dolls from wooden pegs, giving each one a tiny happy face and a flimsy translucent poppy petal skirt, hiding my poppy ladies in the wild garden. A girl who jumped off a wardrobe onto a nail. A lonely girl who ate bread and dripping sprinkled with salt on thick brown chunks of bread and did not remember to brush her hair, growing up half wild on the slopes of a mountain, one of the eight volcanoes, in Auckland, 1953.

Brigid Lowry  
Curtis Sittenfeld
Sue Wootton

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