Sport 4: Autumn 1990
Forbes Williams — Malone
My daughter Celeste, who is fifteen, is in love. She comes to me to talk about it. I always thought daughters went to their mothers on such subjects. I have enough trouble with my son Andrew as it is.
She wants me to tell her about the first time I was in love. What was it like? I try and change the subject. Is it a secret, Dad? she says.
I sip my drink. Yes, I say. I suppose in a way it is.
It's Saturday afternoon. We're sitting out on the deck at the back of our house. I built it myself last summer. I can look across to the houses on the other side of our valley and see into their backyards. Far away people are mowing their lawns. It's cloudy but warm. I sip my drink. Naylor Island comes to mind.
When Celeste and Andrew were young the story of the sinking island was for a long time their favourite. I went through a long period when I often told them stories and I plundered these from anywhere I could: the news, history, films I remembered. Sometimes I made them up as I went along. I got some from storybooks but I never used these books when I told their tales. I preferred the stories to be away from books so they could change and grow and remain new.
Celeste's friend Danielle's mother is a friend of Lucy, my wife, and she told Lucy that Danielle had told her that this new man of Celeste's was twenty-three. I feel uncertain how to approach this. How can I tell her I'm scared she'll get pregnant, that this divine twenty-three-year-old will probably have a new girlfriend next week? How do I know he's not violent? What about his driving? Only last week they were advertising a programme that was going to give advice on how to communicate better with your children on these kinds of issues exactly. The ad said they were going to explode a few myths on the way. In the end I forgot to watch it.
Across the valley I can see tiny people in their gardens. In one place a whole family is having a picnic on a rug. At another they're trying to move a piano. You can see them arguing. Far away, across the city, sirens rise and fall.page 10
Our house was right at the end of a dead-end street. My father spent every weekend working on it and it was full of quirky additions. It rose out of the surrounding trees and shrubs like a moon-mobile. Sometimes when I was walking home I'd take deliberately long steps like an astronaut.
Naylor Island began here with a colouring-in competition my sister Sarah and I entered when I was about six. I can't. remember ever entering any other colouring-in competitions in my childhood or ever having any particular interest in them either. It's possible my father set it as a task to keep us occupied; my mother was in hospital for a few weeks about this same time.
It was a large picture, a mountain scene and a lake, with a family of bears playing mini-golf on grass in the foreground. It took me days. I used exactly the same colours as my sister — she had a full set of seventy-two Derwents — but she got a commendation and I didn't. The picture has stayed with me since: whenever I look at mountains in my mind's eye I still see those same mountains from that picture. And right from the start Naylor Island was to me that same picture as well.
Around this same time in my life I took a whole show-and-tell to myself and told my class about a long world trip my mother and I had undertaken together. There was a world map on the wall in our class-room and I pointed out all the places we'd been. Even the teacher was impressed and for months after that I was terrified that she would bring it up at the parent~teacher interviews. I could see her smiling at my mother.
That sounded like an amazing trip you had with Paul, Mrs Glass, she'd say.
What trip? my mother would say, and when she got home that would be that. I never lost my dread of parent-teacher interviews.
I remember well also my eighth birthday, which because it fell on a Saturday allowed me the right of a proper birthday party with friends. Partly this was a relief: I already owed my best friend Michael Maloney three such parties. There were six of us and my father took us all to the pictures in the afternoon. I think it was Those Daring Young Men In Their Jaunty Jalopies. All the way back we shot at people in cars around us and constantly urged my father to speed up. In the end he drove along part of the new motorway, even though it was out of our way.
As we came up the off-ramp we had a blow-out. My father lost control of the car and we hit one of the barriers, bouncing over to the other one page 11 and then back across again, finally coming to rest facing the wrong way. Nobody was hurt but during and after the accident there was total silence in the car. I remember clearly the faces of the people who next drove up the off-ramp. My father still hadn't taken his hands off the wheel. I didn't know whether to be proud or ashamed of his driving.
My interests at primary school were astronomy and war. One night I wanted to see an eclipse of the moon that was to occur well after my bedtime.
We'll get you up, my parents promised.
The next morning I had no recollection at all of the eclipse and I couldn't remember being woken. My parents insisted I'd been up and seen the whole thing. I must simply have not woken up properly. You see, they said, you wanted to be asleep.
I didn't. I wanted to see the eclipse.
For Christmas one year my sister received an actual record-player and I was given a proper telescope. I couldn't believe my good fortune. I decided I would sleep straight after school and get up when it was still night so I could put my telescope to the greatest use. On Boxing Day my father told us he had a new job and we would be moving to Hamilton at the end of January.
My best friend Michael was overseas with his family till February. Couldn't my father just tell his new work he couldn't make it till later? No, he couldn't do that. There 'was a nice home waiting for us in January. But Michael was my best friend, I said. Couldn't I stay with Uncle Douglas? No, I was told, I couldn't. What about Meads, our cat? He would come too. What if he didn't want to? He did.
Sarah and I became close allies, conferring for hours in her bedroom every evening. Over and over we'd explain to each other the real reasons we didn't want to go. Sarah was in love with a boy from the high school who she often met secretly at weekends and after school. The thought of losing him was intolerable. And we'd both seen the new kids at our school. We knew what it was like to be new.
In a way Uncle Douglas was going to be even more of a loss than Michael. He was an old friend of my father's with a wild eye that stared out to the side so that you were never fully certain whether he was talking to you or someone else. My father didn't like him any more but Douglas didn't seem to realise this, and he came round almost every weekend. He took more notice of me than any other of my parent's friends and I thought he was wonderful. He kept me supplied with model warplanes and regular war comics. Every Christmas he gave me page 12 the Fighting Machine Annual. Michael, who probably knew more about the subject than anyone else in our class, reckoned it was the best annual of all, with the most up-to-date information on weapons and weapon-carrying craft you could get.
Sarah and I were in the back seat when we finally drove off for Hamilton. We kneeled on it and stared out the back window.
Bye house, bye house, my mother was saying, the same voice she used to call Meads. My father drove the same as if we were going to the dairy for ice-creams. My sister and I looked at each other. We were both crying. My mother was crying.
Bye house, she said.
Sarah settled into Hamilton easily. She had a new best friend and a new boyfriend within weeks. We stopped having our long talks. I didn't find it as simple as her and fell into a pattern of attracting friends by misbehaving at school. This made me unpopular with my teachers and upset my parents. I was an intelligent boy, so why did I waste my chances? Didn't I want to be an astronomer or a scientist?
As a boy when I'd first been interested in astronomy I'd wanted to be an astronaut but my parents had convinced me that in New Zealand you had to be an astronomer or a scientist first. Gradually these had become my stated career goals instead.
No, I said. I wanted to join the Air Force.
But you have to have good marks to get into the Air Force too, they said.
No you don't, I said. You just have to be able to fly.
I continued to bring home bad reports and around the middle of the second year after we'd moved the principal rang my father at work and requested an interview to discuss my poor progress and disruptive behaviour. When I got home all my war books and comics were gone from my bedroom. I wept and pleaded with my parents for them back but they remained firm and calm. I would not be ruining my life with my childish ideas, they said. I'd grown out of them now. It was time for a new interest.
The following Saturday morning my father drove me into the Hamilton town centre and bought me an instamatic camera and some film. I tried to talk him out of it. What if I never used it? I said. Why can't I just have my books back? Don't you want me to learn to read Dad?
The camera was a present, he told me. In our family we accepted presents politely.page 13
When I got home my family were all very impressed with my camera, even Sarah. They lined up in the garden and made me take family portraits. My father wanted to see if you could get a photo of water standing still in the air. He promised to pay the costs of developing and threw buckets of water across the line of the camera and yelled Now! That night in bed I had the best inspiration I'd ever had in my life. I would be a war photographer. I would be world-famous for both my skill taking graphic photographs and my bravery in performing my work at such risk.
I'm not for war anymore, I tried to explain the next day. I'm against it now. Pictures tell the truth of war so people will know. It's a good thing. And it's still photography.
My parents argued at first but I quickly became immovable. Even when they gave up arguing I continued to put my case to them regularly, following them round the garden on weekend afternoons, demonstrating the way their own logic supported my plans. They would work on in silence as if I wasn't there.
I set about learning the skills I would require. I borrowed books on photography from the library. There was nothing that specifically talked about photography in war itself although there were lots of books full of pictures of war which I studied for hours every evening. They got hold of a biography of Bob Capa fox: me from the Auckland library. I renewed it till they wouldn't let me and tore out a photograph of him before I finally returned it. I took as many photographs myself as I could afford to develop. I got myself a paper run and as soon as I was old enough a job as a packer at the local supermarket after school. I built myself a darkroom under the house and bought a better camera. One evening I went along to a meeting of the local photography club. People there said they could see the potential in my work but they were unenthusiastic when I told them my career plans. Some of them hadn't even heard of Bob Capa. I didn't bother going back.
As I became more and more obsessed with my plan I moved further away from my family. Sarah was in a world of her own anyway, but sometimes I'd catch one of my parents looking sadly at me from across the room, as if I reminded them of an old friend. We talked less and less and I no longer cared about justifying my plans.
At the same time things at school continued to deteriorate. I was suspended for smoking in the school library and several months later along with Richard Willis for cheating in a science test. It was nothing, everyone did it. They just wanted to make me an example. It was even page 14 in the local papers.
The Bastille Day after my fifteenth birthday the French teachers organised a special lunch in the school hall for everyone doing French. You paid a dollar and got French onion soup and French bread. There were long trestle tables set up in the middle of the hall floor and they put a record over the loudspeaker system of a guy singing well-known recent pop songs in French. The whole thing was unusually informal for our school, with both teachers and pupils standing round together chatting.
About five minutes into it someone threw a roll across the entire width of the hall and within about ten seconds there were more than thirty of us down behind the trestle tables dunking torn-off hunks of bread into the lukewarm soup and hurling them at each other and anyone else in the way. People were running everywhere shouting, some at us to stop, most because they had the chance. For about a minute it was uncontrollable bedlam. To ice the cake someone pressed the fire alarm.
More pupils were suspended than had been in the fight. The ensuing row got onto the national news. I was expelled. Sarah told me later my mother felt like the whole family had been disgraced. She was so ashamed, Sarah said.
For a year I worked at the supermarket. I bought an even better camera and spent all my weekends out photographing, every evening I could in the darkroom. All my friends were still at school and over the months I lost touch. I retreated more and more into myself and by the end of the year my parents and I hardly spoke to each other any more. It was like the real me had died and I was just the ghost left behind. I decided to leave home and move down to Wellington.
My plan was to find work as a newspaper photographer. I'd tried this in Hamilton but there just weren't enough openings. It was to be my first step on the ladder to acclaim. I stayed with my grandmother for a week but soon found a flat in Miramar with two guys: Nigel and Gavin. Both were about twenty and they worked in a local bank, but talk about work was strictly outlawed in the flat. There were lots of similar rules and sinning against these led to a fine. This fine went into a kitty to buy alcohol.
Nigel and Gavin lived for alcohol. They had no interests outside work and would sit at home every night watching videos and drinking. The only decoration in the house, apart from a dartboard at the end of the hall page 15 that was never used, was a poster in the toilet listing the Seven Great Drinking Wonders of the World. Both spoke in a strange nasal tone of voice that was obviously put on and they only ever seemed to talk about the past: great parties they remembered where prodigious drinking feats had been witnessed. Their taste in videos was not wide and they would often watch the same one several nights running. Their favourite when I moved in was one that featured two hours of spectacular racing car smashes. As much as expense allowed I too began to get drunk regularly and spend my evenings watching videos.
There were two small rooms at the front of the flat built as sunrooms, even though they faced south. One was used to store empties and the other was my bedroom. It was only just wide enough for a bed. The flat itself was small but we had a large rough and untended section out the back which I found useful for practising my photography and I cleared out the other sunroom for a darkroom the second week I was there. Nigel and Gavin thought I was crazy, and as my hunting failed to find me a job, I began to wonder if they were right.
Two months of interviews with pompous editors and my photography had been cut down to size. My folio was not bad but definitely not good enough. Come back in two years with a qualification, I was told, and we'll think about it then. Finally I found part-time work in a small privately owned studio in Khandallah. My boss was the photographer, Mr Easton, who owned the place. He was a big man and he chain-smoked all day. Part of his moustache was stained yellow from cigarette smoke. He was friendly enough, but laughed when I told him my plans. I was his only employee. I took appointments, kept the place clean, organised the studio and bought Mr Easton his cigarettes. I started at 7.30 and finished at midday, six days a week. It took two buses to get there and I had to be at the bus-stop down the road by 6.15 to get to work on time. As I worked I plotted with renewed conviction my path to the top of the war correspondent world. I would have to do it freelance. I would have to save the money to go overseas, where maybe my talent and enthusiasm would be recognised.
Six months into the job I'd saved fifty-five dollars. Bus fares alone took at least twenty-one dollars every week. I asked Mr Easton for more work but he said business was down anyway. As things were I was lucky to have a job at all. I continued to apply for other jobs without success. I was turned down for a Poly tech course in photography. They told me to go back to school.
One night I was drinking and watching one of the Electric Blue videos page 16 with Nigel and Gavin when my father rang to see if I was all right and to tell me Meads had died. I'd almost forgotten my family existed. Why hadn't I written for so long? he said. Why didn't I go and see my grandmother? I was too drunk to have a serious conversation. All I could do was tell him jokes, silly ones that came into my head from nowhere. He kept saying to stop it, it was a toll call, but new jokes kept occurring to me every few seconds. Finally he hung up on me. I went back to the video and forgot about it.
About a week later a young woman on a motorcycle drove into the back of a truck parked in the street outside our flat. My bed was no more than five metres from where she hit. I lay in bed and looked up at the red and blue lights flash across the walls and ceiling and listened to all the voices. A few nights after the accident Nigel and Gavin had an argument over what had happened to her. Nigel said he'd heard she was okay, just a couple of broken legs, but Gavin said he'd heard from a reliable source that she'd died in hospital the following morning.
I realised I didn't like either Nigel or Gavin. I did all the cleaning and was the only one who ever cooked. They were making me depressed. For several weeks I secretly looked for another place. I found it hard this time; most people wanted someone older and my age was usually the first thing I was asked. I looked young for sixteen so people were often suspicious I was a runaway. It was even more difficult because I was also being a lot more choosy than when I'd first come down. I needed a bedroom big enough to set up a darkroom or a spare room nobody wanted, and I wanted to live nearer to work. Finally I found a flat with two other people near the university just above the central city and I moved in one Friday evening when Nigel and Gavin were both out. I left a note and forty dollars for bills, but no forwarding address. I never saw either of them again.
Noose Music were a three-piece band from New Plymouth. The members wouldn't reveal their names as they opposed the cult of the individual but there was a photograph of them there anyway, playing in a New Plymouth hotel. There was nothing in the picture to suggest that the band had anything particular to commend it but the accompanying article said they were probably the next Rolling Stones and that they had a whole string of number one hits just waiting to be recorded. They played the loudest music in the world and they were coming to Wellington soon.
The article was pinned on Tristan's bedroom door. Tristan was one of page 17 my new flatmates, and he himself was in the photo, although I probably wouldn't have realised if he hadn't pointed it out to me. The light was all wrong and even good pictures can suffer badly on newsprint, but yes, that was Tristan behind the drum set. He told me they'd broken up since the time of the article.
Tristan was twenty-five. Most people his age wouldn't have thought once about flatting with a sixteen-year-old, but he was friendly right from the start. He told me he gave everyone a mark as soon as he met them. The mark was out of one, and you could only get zero or one. I was a one. It was awful looking for flatmates, he said, because so many applicants were zeros. Some of them must have gone months or even years without success. You heard a lot about counselling for people who repeatedly failed job interviews, he said, but nothing about help for those who repeatedly failed flat interviews. What about the poor people who had to put up with them while they were looking?
Tristan was a reporter for a weekly suburban newspaper. His father had got him the job through a friend. When Tristan had left school he'd tried to get into a journalism course for a couple of years without success. In the end he'd realised he was better off not working and making his living off the share market. It was easy, he said. But his father, maybe thinking he still wanted to be a journalist, had organised this job out of the blue. He'd wanted to stay cool with his father — his mother had died when he was young — so he'd promised himself he'd do the job for two years. There were six months left. He was sure he could jack up something for me if that's what I wanted, but he couldn't recommend it as an option. I'll show you the market, he said. I tell you, it's easy.
He spoke with great contempt about the people he worked with. His immediate boss was Mr Mills, an elderly senior reporter who'd been with the newspaper longer than anyone else. Mr Mills was slowly dementing; he'd done one feature in two years. Everybody at the newspaper was scared of offending him, even those senior to him, so nobody had suggested to him that he should retire or take a break. Nobody took responsibility for his work, either, and it was left to Tristan to make up the shortfall.
When I leave the place'll collapse, he said.
Megan was my other flatmate. She was seventeen, same age as my sister, and she'd come down from Auckland to go to university here. She'd moved in three weeks before me.
The flat was ideal. It was an upstairs flat, a young couple lived downstairs, although I don't remember ever hearing or seeing them at page 18 all. They were very quiet. I only had one bus to catch in the mornings now and there was a spare bedroom full of junk Tristan said I could use as a darkroom. He offered it as soon as I said I was a photographer. At first the room looked too full of stuff but when I cleared it out and threw away all the rubbish and put what was left back neatly stacked there was plenty of space available. My bedroom was at the back of the flat. It got afternoon sun and would itself have been large enough for me to build a darkroom if the other room hadn't been free. It looked out over a small yard and lying in bed I could see up to the motorway. At night the south-bound headlights flickered by.
The living room was one of the two front rooms. It was strangely bare, the way some people holding parties organise a special room for dancing. There was only one kitchen chair in there but the first few days I spent hours sitting on it staring out the big bay window. You could see out over the inner city across the harbour to Oriental Bay and Roseneath, with Eastbourne further in the distance. We were at about the same level as the top floors of many of the taller city buildings, and not too far away. Sometimes it felt like we were at the top of a tall building ourselves. It was an amazing view and the only reason our flat was cheap was because it was due for demolition. The landlord was just waiting for the right offer. That's why there was no lease, Tristan told me.
Most of the living room furniture was in Tristan's room, the other one at the front of the house. He had a double bed by the window facing out and he kept all his clothes on the floor on either side of the bed. The rest of his room was set up as a lounge with a couch and two armchairs, TV, stereo, and a glass coffee table. There was a built-in heater where the fireplace once had been, and a large Turkish rug on the floor, mainly red. Tristan told me this was the proper flat living room and I wasn't to feel inhibited about coming in; I was welcome any time of the day or night, he said. I'd never met anyone so reasonable. I couldn't believe my good luck.
Tristan was tall and good-looking. He got drunk every night. On week nights he'd do this at home, but on weekend nights he'd go out with other friends to pubs and nightclubs and come home late, after I'd gone to bed. Sometimes he'd bring a woman home, you'd hear them giggling in the hall, but the women were always gone the next morning so I never met them.
I never met any of his friends either, none of them ever came round. He'd still tell us all about them though, describing each one in colourful page 19 detail, what they did and what they were like, amazing things they'd done, and I felt as if I did almost know some of them: Pete, Alan, Rick. Rick had nearly been killed on his first parachute jump, Pete had been on Mastermind. Another guy Simon was a future certainty for the All Blacks. Most of these people Tristan had met through the share market.
Tristan himself had got into the share market through a friend about five years earlier. His father had been left some money and he hadn't really needed it, so he'd given it to Tristan to live on. Tristan had invested it all in shares on his friend's advice. He bought the ones his friend advised were cheap. Since then his money had multiplied in value more than twenty times, he'd lost count it was so much. The last two years had been especially good because he'd been able to live off his job so that the fund could grow without interference.
He had many theories on the market. It was a bubble, sport, an elaborate joke. It was like a good story. You simply imagined money to exist and it did. You could even buy things with your imaginary money, nobody else seemed to know the difference. He wanted to lend me a few thousand so I too could become incredibly wealthy. Give up your job, he told me constantly. I'll show you the market. It's easy.
I had the desire, but not the courage. The market seemed to me to be a sleeping tiger. I would end up owing Tristan thousands of dollars.
One Sunday morning all three of us were in Tristan's room. Tristan had bought some marijuana at a nightclub the night before and we were sitting on his bed passing a smoke of it round. I'd had a bit of dope at school but the stuff Tristan got hold of from time to time was much stronger, and the city out his window seemed new and full of good. It was like a toy city, too perfect to be real. We sat in silence, all three of us staring out the window.
It was Megan who brought up the idea of secrets. She thought we should all tell each other a secret about ourselves. It was a good way for people to get to know each other, she said. It seemed a bit childish to me but Tristan thought it was a good idea and insisted I went first.
I told them that just about everything I owned had been shoplifted. I couldn't help it, I just had to steal, I said. Fortunately I'd never been caught. When I'd finished my short and intense confession Tristan whistled.
It's true, I said.
Megan's secret was that she'd fallen in love with a friend of hers, but she didn't have the courage to tell him. Tristan wanted to know who, and winked at me. She wouldn't say. I felt positive it was Tristan.page 20
Tristan's secret took the longest. It was about his job. When he'd first got it and found himself doing Mr Mills' job as well as his own he'd had to work up to fifty hours a week just to keep up, he told us. Mainly it was the hassle of having to meet people all the time. They were always late or failed to turn up or turned out to be no help. Most of the rest of the time was spent on the phone, or trying to research annoying background details. After a while he'd realised that since he wasn't being supervised he may as well save time by making up some of the more irritating facts. At first he was careful, experimenting with the possibilities: changing scores in sports results and details in the births and deaths and real estate ads, swapping replies to correspondents and the venues of public meetings. When these went without detection he began to invent his articles and finally even his features. This meant all he had to do was dream up stories sitting around at home and then type them up at work, making himself friendly and visible. That's why he was home so much these days. Occasionally he had to organise a few friends for a photograph, like the one of Noose Music. In fact, he said, he'd been thinking of getting me involved, he just hadn't been sure how I'd take the idea.
He waited to be caught out but he only found favourable feedback increasing. The editor told him he had a good nose for news. The newspaper was receiving congratulations for its international flavour; the mayor had applauded its coverage of community events. A few whingers complained about the odd minor typesetting error now and then but advertising was up and a few stories had even been syndicated. He told Tristan that he too had made his contribution to this success; they would see him right. You didn't change a winning team, he'd said.
Neither Megan or I said anything when Tristan finished. It was too incredible to contemplate.
Have any of these stories been on TV then? said Megan finally.
Tristan paused. No, he said.
Well let's do it, she said. Let's get a story on the network news.
Tristan looked at me. His eyes were red and half-closed from the dope, as if he were allergic to something in his own room. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion.
I looked out the window. I suddenly noticed the cranes, how many there were. It was as if a whole flock of them had arrived to colonise the city. I tried to imagine them flying away.
Okay, said Tristan at last. We will. We'll probably get into shit, but we'll do it. I tell you, it can be done.
At first I'd felt wary of Megan. She was nice enough to me but the only other girl I'd ever lived with had been Sarah, and I'd avoided the girls at school. Basically I just didn't know how to behave in front of her. I was embarrassed that we shared the same bathroom and always knocked loudly before going in. After three months of living there I still hadn't been in her bedroom. Gradually, though, I'd become more relaxed, and a friendship had begun to develop.
It was Megan who kept up the pressure on Tristan to get a story onto the news. Tristan himself was lukewarm about the idea, it was evident he had less faith in our chances than he'd said. It was obviously he who stood to lose the most if we were caught. At first I didn't care either way, it seemed an absurd notion, but over the following weeks I began to see the wonder of it: inventing the news. In our house Sarah and I had been banned from the living room during the news; my father demanded total silence while it was on. I imagined him in the living room in his la-z-boy chair, solemnly absorbing the fiction his own son had helped create. I began to support Megan and finally Tristan agreed we would give it a proper go.
Our first attempt was the Khmer Air air disaster. Tristan faxed the story from his work to a London newspaper along with the photograph I'd prepared. I took it from an old National Geographic I bought in an op shop. It was taken from the air: a ravine in mountainous rain-forest in Bolivia. The roof of a house made a slash of white in the middle of the picture that easily looked like a bit of fuselage once the quality had been sufficiently diminished.
It was on the news that night. There was a still of my photograph up behind the newsreader while he read the story; they'd added a white arrow in to point out the wreckage. We celebrated wildly till well after midnight. Tristan had several bottles of champagne he'd bought specially and lots of beer and dope as well. We moved a speaker into the hall and played the stereo louder than I'd ever heard it. We danced madly around the living room with our arms around each other in a ring. The story was repeated on the mid-evening news and then the late news as well. We shrieked for joy each time it came on. The people downstairs must have been out, otherwise I'm sure they'd have complained.
The next morning there were the newspapers. The story was in every daily we could get our hands on, sometimes on the front, sometimes featuring on the international page, all with my photograph. Always there was the added white arrow. I sat on my bed most of the afternoon, staring at it. I couldn't believe it had really happened.page 22
Two days later the story was gone, forgotten. We felt deflated. For a day we'd felt like the whole world was ours to re-invent. Now we'd come down to earth we could see: air disasters were a dime a dozen, the whole thing had been far too easy and unimaginative. We wanted something more sustained, more controversial, something nearer the hearts of the people.
Our next story developed more slowly over many intense arguments. It was Tristan who finally made the quantum leap and recognised that in fact we shouldn't distribute a story at all; we should simply set it moving. We should send out scraps of a story only, jigsaw pieces the media themselves could play with. That way the story could grow, become something many people had helped create.
Over the next few weeks Tristan randomly faxed to newspapers around the country the impressive times expatriate Stanley Malone was making in middle distance runs at unofficial race meets overseas. Some of the faxes mentioned that Malone was hoping to represent his country of birth in the upcoming Olympics, while others alluded to disparaging remarks Malone had made about some of the members of the New Zealand Board of Amateur Athletics. Yet others included queries about Malone's amateur status. Usually these faxes included a blurred photograph of me in a wig Megan had brought down for fancy parties. Malone's times were sometimes mentioned in brief in the small print sports result columns, but no more than that. We thought we'd fizzed.
Then, when the Olympic Games team was announced and Malone's name was not included there was an immediate outcry from some newspapers. Where was Stan Malone's name? He was one of our best chances for Gold. Others joined in the chorus, wondering if it wasn't just that the BAA were miffed at the comments Malone had made about some of them. Wasn't this rather petty? The BAA president seemed uncertain when interviewed. Malone had simply been overlooked. When pressed on the issue of Malone's remarks and the board's feeling about these the president became flustered and finally angry, claiming Malone was not an amateur anyway and storming out of the press conference.
Tristan got a friend who was overseas to mail back to an Auckland newspaper a hotly worded denial from Malone that he had ever raced professionally, with a threat of legal action if the comments were repeated. By now all the newspapers had taken up his case and the BAA held an emergency meeting and unanimously passed a motion of no confidence in their president, also ensuring Malone's name was added page 23 to the team list.
By now it was a hot topic on radio talkback shows and it was clear the public were interested. Media interest also continued to escalate. Not only was Malone a strong medal prospect but he was also controversial. Journalists were dispatched overseas to find him and bring home the first-hand story, but we'd anticipated this and once more organised for an open letter to be sent back to the Auckland newspaper. We thought their pride at being chosen as his mouthpiece would overcome any doubts they had about the sentiments. In the letter Malone pleaded with the media and the public to leave him alone. He was exceptionally shy, he said, and his performance could be drastically hindered if he were harassed. Could they please just get off his back so he could get on with what he was good at. There were a few muted editorials about freedom of the press and a few sports writers tried to portray Malone as a wimp, but they themselves had helped solidify public opinion the other way and people in their hundreds wrote letters to the editor expressing their outrage at the behaviour of these New Zealand journalists who were damaging their own country's chances for victory.
The stories began to multiply. We read of Malone's life story: he'd been born and raised on a farm near Thames; his father had once served on the local council. He'd been a gifted rugby player in his youth but a serious shoulder injury had ended what seemed to be a certain international career. His childhood sweetheart was now his fiancee, and by his side overseas as the Olympics approached. It was reported Malone had said he would never run in New Zealand until a proper stadium with a truly world class surface was available. Sensing the need for diplomacy where such a hero was concerned the Ministry of Sport and Recreation established a steering committee to look into the construction of a stadium and track that would enable him to race triumphantly in front of a home crowd. Not to be outdone the BAA announced they'd chosen Malone as the flag bearer for the New Zealand team at the Games opening ceremony. By the time the team left you heard it everywhere— buses, shops, the street: Malone, our grand hope for Gold. Advertisements for everything seemed to somehow include his name.
The plan was that since Malone was already overseas he would make his own way to the Games. When at first he didn't show it was assumed that he was simply a bit late. A new flag bearer was chosen for the opening ceremony and little comment was made. It was thought that his shyness probably prevented him from arriving too long before his races. As the days passed, however, and Malone still failed to show, panic page 24 began to set in. Where was he? Had something gone wrong? Was he all right? Why hadn't the BAA organised his travel plans for him? Opinion in the street seemed to be evenly divided between those who thought he'd been kidnapped (his main threat in the 1500 metres was a Frenchman) and those who retained a deeply held conviction that still somehow he would magically appear on the track in time to run in and win his heat. The nation held its breath.
The heat came and went. No Malone. A few optimists thought he might still make it for his later events but they were soon proven wrong. The media conducted a brief, frantic, rather aimless survey of the world in the hope of uncovering even one clue that might indicate what had happened to him but as this was both fruitless and expensive it turned its attention inward and focused instead once more on the Board of Amateur Athletics. What did the board take the New Zealand public for? What the hell were they playing at? The board — most members only just back from the Games themselves — held another emergency meeting but didn't get beyond appointing yet another new president. Calls were made for an official governmental enquiry but the Minister of Sport and Recreation said such an enquiry would be too expensive, offering his personal opinion that Malone had failed to show simply because he was a coward. This remark was possibly uppermost in the Prime Minister's mind several weeks later when in a portfolio reshuffle the Minister for Recreation and Sport lost his cabinet post. The Prime Minister had made it clear all along he was a Malone man.
Summer came like a dream. We could hardly believe ourselves what had happened. It was too great a triumph to be real. For months it had gone on, endlessly growing, and when they covered the major news of the past year in a programme on Christmas Day they spent more time on Malone than anything else. And there behind the presenter, for the thousandth time, me in Megan's wig.
We'd become news addicts. We watched every TV bulletin that was on and when a new controversy began to brew all three of us would hang around the house the whole day just waiting for the half-hourly bulletins on the radio. We collected vast numbers of newspapers and magazines. It got to the point at one stage where there was so much in print we'd just quickly read the Malone article out to each other and then throw the lot into the living room. We only cut out and kept articles which actually created new information. We learnt that in one way or another Malone had intimate connections with almost every place in the country. The page 25 living room slowly filled with newspaper.
Somehow I'd managed to keep my job. I'd taken dozens of sick days but had told Mr Easton I'd contracted a rare stomach illness — Tristan had forged a doctor's letter — and he accepted my absences with a gruff resignation. It had been easier for the others. Tristan had left his job in the spring — not that he'd ever gone to work that much anyway — and Megan had been able to skip lectures whenever she wanted.
Megan was unemployed for the summer. She'd been homesick when she'd first come down and I'd expected she would go back to Auckland for the holidays, but she said she thought of us as part of her family now anyway. She couldn't bear the thought of more Malone controversy without the three of us being together. I thought the real reason was because she was in love with Tristan.
The market was booming like never before and Tristan was talking of borrowing a hundred thousand to cash in while the going was good. He had a friend who could jack it up no problem. I could be in if I wanted, he said, and Megan too. We should form a company: Malone Enterprises. It didn't matter, they couldn't catch us now. We'd just be like everyone else riding the Malone wave.
He was drunk all the time now. He didn't go out at all, except to walk down to the bottle-store. He was looking tired.
Megan and I had established a good friendship. Many evenings we went out for long walks around the city and up into the Botanical Gardens. She liked to talk about her family. Her brother John was a pilot for Air New Zealand — she'd felt bad about Khmer Air, she told me— and he was planning to buy an old run-down mansion and do it up. He was married to Barb, who was pregnant. Megan thought it would be wonderful to be an aunt. She had two sisters: Katherine and Sally. Katherine was a nurse in Australia and Sally was at Auckland university doing her second degree. Sally was the smartest. Megan was the youngest.
Her father was an architect and her mother a lawyer. They only worked part-time now because they'd bought a farmlet in the Bombay Hills. Her father loved practical jokes. One time he'd organised a policeman friend to come round at tea-time to arrest him. Her mother was kind and clever. She didn't know why she'd come down to Wellington. She'd thought you should leave home properly, it had to happen some time.
She was doing law at university but wasn't sure whether that's what she really wanted to do. Like all of us Malone had taken away her interest page 26 in everything else. She'd passed her finals but only just. She thought she might give it one more year and if it didn't work out she'd go to Australia. Katherine wanted her to go over anyway.
One day early in the new year I took my camera on one of our walks. I hadn't taken a picture in months. It was warm and still. I thought I'd take a picture down the motorway from one of the over-bridges, and I asked Megan to pose in front. As I focused I suddenly realised I'd really only wanted a picture of her and zoomed right up to her face. I deliberately mucked about and took my time as if I was a photographer from early in the century. I said say cheese, things like that. I kept taking photographs. She was laughing, right up close. There was only the camera between us.
I developed and enlarged the photographs of Megan and kept them hidden under my mattress. Each one had caught her in a different way. I looked at them in bed at night and sometimes at lunchtime when I got home from work. There was a latch on my door so I could keep it locked when I had them out.
A story grew to accompany them. When I looked at them I'd imagine her seducing me. The scene was either my bedroom or a secluded part of the Gardens. It was always sudden and unexpected. She'd run her fingers down my arm and then pull me towards her with both hands. There'd be a soft first kiss, many more, and a slow, gentle undressing. Over and over she'd tell me she loved me. I could look at her laughing eyes as she said this, I could trace her falling hair with my finger. Slowly we'd start to make love, only near the end of it would the pace start to build. It was the slowness I desired, the small tugs of breath, lips just apart. I love you, she'd whisper, I love you.
One day I smuggled the photographs downstairs to the yard my bedroom overlooked. There was an incinerator in the comer of the yard and I shoved the photographs into it and burnt them. For a while I'd been building up to this and as soon as they were gone I felt relieved of a great burden. I was able to talk with her again free of guilt.
A week later I developed them again, this time even larger. I'd realised it didn't matter a damn as long as she didn't know; I desired our moments together too much to be deprived.
Two weeks later I burnt them again, but again I kept the negatives and several days later they were back under my mattress once more.
This was the time of Naylor Island. Naylor Island was our plan to follow Malone but we realised it would never happen — for a start we page 27 no longer had access to a fax — but this only gave us the freedom to imagine ourselves the things that might have come of it. All we knew for certain was that Naylor Island was slowly sinking. We imagined it to be at the top of Canada; there were so many islands up there nobody would know the difference. We told each other the stories of the people who lived there, the way they were responding to this crisis. They were strange shadowy people, never in our stories for long.
Tristan wanted an appeal for the victims, a New Zealand-based world-wide appeal. It would do wonders for tourism and the music industry. The media would love it: all their ugly mooshes beamed via satellite to the entire world. Since the place didn't exist we could simply pocket the millions that had been raised, go and find ourselves another island —one that wasn't sinking — and holiday away the rest of our lives together.
Megan and Tristan started going out. They didn't tell me, I discovered it one night by accident.
I'd woken up suddenly in a heavy sweat. My sheets were soaked through and I went to the bathroom to get a towel. As I went back down the hall I heard a low soft moan. I felt a stab of panic. I recognised that sound.
I tiptoed slowly up to Tristan's room. Newspapers spilled out of the living room into the hall. His door was just slightly open and the light was on. They were on the couch, two grappling monkeys, no different than the people on the videos I'd once watched nights on end with Nigel and Gavin out at Miramar. I waited until they were finished before I left and crept back to bed.
I found another fiat in Johnsonville. I realised I preferred the quiet streets of the suburbs. It was much closer to work than my other place. Business improved and Mr Easton put my work up to full-time. He started letting me do some of the portraits. He was good, he didn't interfere.
Malone reappeared from time to time, usually as the classic example of sporting administrator incompetence, sometimes to endorse a new product, although his shyness prevented him from ever doing so in person. I waited for the exclusive interview but gradually he became too forgotten for anyone to want to bother. There were newer and more palpable heroes.
I met Tristan on the street one Friday afternoon about three years after I'd moved to Johnsonville. He wanted me to go for a beer but I lied I had someone to meet. He was dressed well. He told me he was still in the page 28 same place, they hadn't got round to demolishing it yet. He was thinking of making the landlord an offer himself. He and Megan had split up after a couple of months. She'd moved out too. It was nothing in the end, he said.
Sometimes at night I'd lie out on the grass in our backyard. I'd stare up at the sky, the stars whose names I'd once known well, the vast blackhearted expanse of space I'd wanted to go to so badly. Now it didn't matter. I knew I was there already.