Sport 21: Spring 1998
Ian Richards — Sentimental Bonsai
Returning to New Zealand two years ago, newly married, I watched Mariko seeing the country for the first time. We had landed at Auckland among paddocks of cows, and were pushing our squeaking luggage along the narrow path from the international to the domestic terminal. There were almost no people. The roads seemed pointlessly broad, and the space around us, despite the scattered airport buildings, was grassy, windswept and vast. I felt suddenly diminished, as if we were crossing one of the sand-trays I remembered arranging for gala days at primary school. Instead it was the sky that seemed crowded, packed with bulky, low-slung cloud. From such impressions, is my conviction any wonder?—the trembling hand which made leaves, lakes and childish laughter in this archipelago did not make me. If to be is to be perceived, then I don't think I am.
On the lurching plane to Wellington I buried myself in the complimentary newspaper. It contained the tale of a Hamilton couple who'd moved to a newly subdivided cul-de-sac in Raglan. They had redundancy money but no work. They could recall a passion for the rural life, and by living in a cheaper area they hoped to scrape by mortgage-free. On arrival the couple found the house still covered in pink primer, alone on a development stripped of shape and topsoil by a bulldozer. There was no rubbish collection, no phone, and nowhere for storm-water to run but into a pit in the back yard. The television could not pick up TV3. When they discovered that New Zealand Post would not deliver mail to a suburban house more than two hundred metres from the next letterbox, they gave up and fled. Raglan was somewhere below us. I peered out the sealed window at the obscuring cloud.
Esse est periphery. A few months ago Mariko and I, in yet another attempt to make friends, had dinner at the home of a couple I once knew at university. Back then Phil and Naomi had been out together page 90 each evening at some sort of party. After their graduations they spent six months in Italy. They returned to start careers, bought a house and car, became very involved with the city's art gallery, and then suddenly halted everything to have children. At the dinner table their two-year-old twins threw food on the floor. There was little time for elegant dining or sparkling conversation. The twins attempted to fall out of their high-chairs. They wailed when their nappies were wet and had to be cuddled to settle. I observed the endless cries for attention, the house's furnishings in tatters, my former friends' nerves worn, and was amazed as Phil and Naomi repeated that they were happy. I wanted to ask whether the children were not really a substitute for happiness, but knew such a gambit would be unwelcome. After the toddlers were finally in bed Phil and Naomi managed a few dutiful questions about Japan, which I answered with monologues. But they ignored Mariko, who sat waiting to be talked to. Eventually I noticed she had disappeared. Excusing myself, I found her in the doorway of the twins' bedroom, watching their sleeping shapes.
Never having been married herself, the sight of lace strung back across the bonnet of a car always made my mother over-excited. She would turn in heavy traffic and chase the bride. She hoped to get a glimpse of the white wedding-dress going into the church. Sometimes, if there was space to park, we would follow through the door and she would marvel at the bridesmaids, who were often children no older than myself; at the guests, who ignored us; and at the flowers, the music, and the church—to which we had not been invited.
‘Isn't this just like a wonderful show?’ My mother would worm us both forward among the pews. Reaching out to pinch the bridesmaids' plump arms as they passed, she would whisper, ‘Stand up straight! Would you like me to fix that corsage?’
‘Hushup!’ the bridal party would hiss.
But my mother would ignore them and announce, ‘This is a moment of union you will all treasure for the rest of your lives!’
In her teens my mother had been sent from her parents' Manawatu farm to board at St Mathew's Collegiate. During her final year she had become pregnant, after an event she could only later refer to as ‘the irregularity’. All I ever knew from her of my father was that he page 91 was energetic enough to conceive, ruthless enough to care little for contraception, and had enough of an independent mind to decamp before my existence was discovered. My mother's parents gave her some money, and disowned her. But she was always a woman who made decisions and trusted to an iron will. Despite pressure to put the baby up for adoption, she wanted to keep me. My mother decided to move to Wellington, live alone, and enter teachers' training college, all of which was next to impossible in those days. Several painful years were to follow. She convinced the Department of Education to accept her case. She attended classes with me in a pram outside. She took me from flats with rent unpaid to stay with girlfriends. She waited on tables and cleaned in hospitals. She fought off the advances of men who thought her easy. She arranged for someone to watch me every day when she could not. Finally, she managed to complete her certificate. For several years my mother taught French at an inner-city high school. No rural district at that time would have considered an unwed parent. Each day after kindergarten I sat in the back of her classes. By then, when most young, unmarried women were becoming more free, she was spinsterish and with scholastic tastes. She liked cardigans and pleated skirts, tidy shelves and chintz covers, and tea and biscuits at four. She also had a child whose presence and growing demands came increasingly as a surprise. My mother decided that I should follow her example. On my typical day I delivered newspapers after school, and then did the laundry and ironing. Homework I did in the evenings, until my mother was satisfied. We saved our money and rented a house in Lower Hutt. We bought a second-hand car, and my mother chased bridal processions.
When we bought our home in Rimu Road, after five years of renting an apartment together in Osaka, Mariko and I signed the mortgage papers at the bank with a barely disguised sense of panic. Was this what people referred to as ‘settling down’? Afterwards, we were driven in a rattling, untidy taxi up to Kelburn to take possession of what seemed—even to me with such a long absence from New Zealand suburbs—like a rough-hewn cabin in the woods. Our house is a modest, white-weatherboard, California-style bungalow. A bay-window on one side gathers extra light and stares impassively down page 92 over a raw-concrete wall into the street. There is a brief ribbon of ordered grass, but the path beside it to the house is like a goat-track. At the back a spectacularly lush slope of assorted bush clambers up an escarpment to the rear of some overhanging garages. Those are in Upland Road, where strangers (who no doubt ride easy) deposit cars each night. ‘The Glen’, the valley in which we live, is criss-crossed with tortuous rows of steps to precarious buildings. Like its false name, the valley's cabbage trees, punga fern and nondescript scrub look in constant danger of slipping into the gulf. Yet Kelburn is an upper-middle-class area of Wellington. It appears to have been swept clean of all deprivation and vice, and this illusion pleases me very much. Children run about on the footpaths with ice-creams and skateboards in their hands, and the shops still accept cheques. The suburb retains some of the confidence and complacency that Peter Bland once recognised in the whole town, his ‘City of cenotaphs and broad-breasted belles’. Mariko loves the way our sloping street is sunk below the houses, with their lower garages opening like mouths onto the road. She soon adjusted to the massive wooden doors, the empty corners, and the outside wash-house. At the end of our first meal, as she watched me shaking the crumbs off the tablecloth into the back yard, she pointed up the slope and asked, ‘Fred, what are those all pretty yellow flowers? Can we pick them?’
‘That's gorse,’ I replied.
That first evening I found some weathered timber stacked along the side of the house. After a lot of messing with newspaper and matches, we started a blaze among the kindling in the living-room grate. The fire would not draw well. We fanned it and added more wood, fussing over it for nearly fifteen minutes, until we were interrupted by a burst of noise from a siren. Through the blinds we could see flashing lights in the street outside. Some passers-by had rung the fire brigade. Smoke was going into our roof and coming in great, grey billows out through the eaves. We had no chimney. People from the neighbourhood were already in the house, opening our windows as the smell of ash began to permeate the rooms. One told me that the previous owners, liberal interpreters of the law of goods and chattels, had dismantled a gas heater in the fireplace and taken it page 93 with them. As Mariko and I left the house, we saw the walls and cobwebs were becoming tinged with soot. Outside we both watched with an embarrassment that was comprehensive while a fireman loosened tiles on the roof. Wood-smoke trickled from all apertures of the house into the evening air. I looked about to thank our neighbours who were so helpful, but they had vanished back into their own homes as quickly as they had appeared. Suddenly it seemed to me that our failure at this practical, almost primeval task could be extrapolated into the miscarriage of our dreams: my foolish hope of becoming New Zealand's most prominent literary critic, or Mariko's of being its most sought-after simultaneous interpreter.
But I had intended to begin with Kenji. Let me restart, then, with the day I met him, a typical day which may prove illuminating. Before 7.30 am Mariko and I are asleep in our large and comfortable double bed, the most luxurious item in the house. The battery alarm clock starts up with a penetrating whine. I stagger out of bed groggy, always at my weakest in the morning, while Mariko collects herself with disconcerting speed. Shivering on the kitchen lino, we make the coffee, toast and weetbix which we had promised ourselves we would prepare the night before. With a pair of scissors I trim a freshly frayed edge of the living-room carpet, while the jug boils. After breakfast we leave the dishes in the sink. I return to the bedroom and shave without a mirror, feeling out the angles and crevices of my face. At last I pull on my grey polyester trousers and white bri-nylon shirt, with a striped tie from my rotating collection of three. A woolly jersey and a parka will do if I am cold. These are drab, cut-price clothes, only one step removed from a high-school uniform. Meanwhile Mariko has applied some makeup and is still dressing. She has brought her extensive wardrobe with her from Japan, and she begins a process of selection and co-ordination from several ensembles, to be whittled down by patient elimination. The result is an oriental beauty, elegant and coy, that every boy in the school where she teaches Japanese part-time will yearn for in his secret heart. I long to undress her again to the svelte, slim-busted nakedness I know is beneath, but instead I must kiss her quickly goodbye. I hurry out the back door to the porch. Taking my shoes from the wash-house, I check them for wetas before slipping page 94 them on, and jog down the hard slope of the street towards the steps of Lower North Terrace.
Outside the April wind is blowing brisk and cold. I speculate that if it is a common climate which delineates a geo-political region, then how can New Zealand claim to be a Pacific island nation? Our weather comes from the Antarctic. I put on my parka, shoving my arms through the oilskin sleeves, and remember the perfunctory wave I cast to my mother one afternoon when I was seventeen. She was pulling out of our drive on her way into town. Ten minutes later I picked up the telephone to hear that she was dead. She had seen a sumptuous motorcade heading north along the Hutt Road, black limousines set off with banners of lace, and the bride looking glorious in the leading vehicle. Determined as always to be involved, my mother decided she would cross the highway at one of the breaks in the median wall. This morning I abandon any pretence to being on time. I run back up the street, puffing, thrust open the front door, crash into the dining room, and enfold Mariko in my lanky arms. She hugs me—I will tell her that I have forgotten something—and complains that I am spoiling her makeup.
At last I arrive for work at the back door of the Japan Studies Institute on Waiteata Road. By now I am exhausted from having crossed a chunk of Kelburn where everything is either up- or downhill. The Institute is an independently funded research centre for the improvement of the bilateral relationship. Like the fussy, reconditioned building in which it is housed, the organisation exists on the margins of Victoria University. I enter a cold, echoing office, created from what was once a child's bedroom in a turn-of-the-century villa. A seedy, green-enamel paint-job covers the plaster walls. Fluorescent lights glare down from the ceiling, and there is a damp and musty commercial carpet underfoot, all added in the 1970s when the house was gobbled up by university expansion. Adrift in the centre of the room are a heavy wooden desk and swivel chair. I pause to survey a majestic sweep of scenery through the sash windows. It is a view whose enigmas I never grow tired of: the airy harbour, the abrupt shoreline and island, the solid blue hills torn from a busy sky, the obscuring towers which claw up from the loose-packed city below. I sit down at page 95 my desk to the various dog-eared and untidy details of the report I have been taken on as a researcher to write: ‘The Importance of Japanese Language Teaching in New Zealand.’ I have an alternative title, ‘World Domination for Beginners’, but I cannot bring myself to believe in either one. Jokes, I theorise, are a useful form of appropriation. A set of words which would otherwise belong to somebody or somewhere else are made our own. A few days ago Mariko raised my disbelief by describing me as ‘an impotent handyman’, until I realised that the epithet she was searching for was ‘incompetent’. My first page reads like this.
‘In 1991 it was noted by many that, according to the best Ministry of Education figures available, 189 New Zealand secondary schools out of 397 offered some introduction to Japanese. One of the highest ratios in the world, this would seem to refute the all-too-common argument that New Zealand has been slow in acknowledging its position as an Asian economy. While accepting this, however, it must certainly be conceded that the level of study in schools, at the present time, cannot be described as high. Present levels of competence could not be considered such that a pupil who went on to complete a university degree in Japanese would be capable of finding employment in a company where these skills might be judged of some importance.’
But I am the living embodiment of the unimportance of foreign language competence in New Zealand. I groan audibly and reach for the morning mail, which is scattered across my tiered in- and out-trays. Shortly after I started here my university library card was stolen, much to my pleasure. I was delighted to be suffering a vicissitude which caused me no pain. The university decided that it was unable to cancel the card, and issued me another in the same name. Now I receive constant and threatening overdue notices—university staff are never fined—for books which I have never seen. This morning I am warned to return four titles forthwith, or face dire consequences: The Fertility of the Unfit; The Shadow; New Zealand Life in Contemporary Literature (1932); and No Man is an Island: True Tales of Twentieth Century Antipodean Hermits. On my typical day I will remain fitfully at, or near, my desk for most of the time, hopeful that presence at least will be taken as a sign of activity. Instead I try to imagine step- page 96 by-step what Mariko is doing. Now she is entering the cable car at the top of the Botanical Gardens. In the driver's seat an elderly man is cursing through a microphone in Croatian to his friend at the far terminus. Now Mariko is looking about for a seat, cautious of strangers. The child jumping about at the front of the carriage should be in school, and why is the man across the aisle crying? The car starts with an electronic beep and a downward lurch. At the bottom Mariko will depart hurriedly, telling herself she must not miss the bus.
The Institute is usually almost empty, and despite its ten-year history it seems a curiously provisional place. Throughout my day I will pause for tea-breaks, telephone calls, lunch, a university meeting on how to deal with sexual harassment, an inquiry about possible jobs in Japan to be palmed off to some other organisation, and by late afternoon my turn at reading the postie's Dominion. But where are my colleagues to tease and amuse me with office gossip? Where are my mates to meet for a few beers after work? Where are my friends with a place out of town to visit on weekends? I imagine Mariko again, crossing to the bus stop in Stout Street, the old tramlines and cobbles forced into retirement just below the road's layer of asphalt. She clambers onto the bus. It will take her to a school where her HOD will shout at her, and he will excuse his own staggering rudeness by pretending that her English is not good enough to understand him. Around me I see confusion, inexplicable violence and loss, but where are truth, goodness and release? Is there any way of being redeemed from the condition of otherness? But on the day in question this routine, usual as it is, was broken by a telephone call from the Vice-Chancellor's office.
‘The VC wants you to come over with accommodation for a Japanese boy.’ The secretary, whose name was Pauline, droned as if our conversation had already become a strain. ‘With information about English teaching.’
‘All right.’ I tried a common administrative escape-tactic, which I privately think of as the wall of infinite interrogation. ‘What's his name? What kind of accommodation does he need, and what sort of price range? When do you want it by? And for how long?’
‘I don't care,’ Pauline sighed. ‘Why don't you ask him?’page 97
‘He's in the VC's office right now.’
I fell back upon another strategy. I call it diffusion of responsibility. ‘I tell you what, I'll contact one or two people at the Embassy, the Asian Languages Department, and the local Polytech right away, and I'll get them to ring you.’
‘His dad's with him,’ Pauline said. ‘You better hurry. They don't speak much English.’
I tried to duck the old-fashioned way. ‘Isn't this the hostel manager's area?’
‘He wants a homestay.’
‘My wife is a qualified interpreter,’ I added.
‘Stop pissing around,’ Pauline sighed.
I left the Institute, reciting like a bulwark Mariko's list of New Zealand names ending in ‘een’: Noeline, Christine, Maureen, Kathleen, Gaylene, Raylene, Charlene, Shirlene, Jeanine, Josephine, Rosaline and Noreen. Under the perspex-covered quadrangle in front of the library a student was sneezing in the cold amongst his friends. Someone said, ‘Careful or your face will explode.’ The Vice-Chancellor himself, tall, silver-haired and languid, opened his door for me when Pauline knocked. I entered to a smell of new carpet and percolated coffee.
‘Ah, Mr Hasegawa, this is Mr Bright,’ the VC said to a man who rose from the enfolding depths of an armchair across the room.
‘Hajimemashite, Buraito to moshimasu,’ I mumbled, bowing, embarrassed as ever that in Japanese my name is identical with a brand of powdered milk.
We began comfortably to exchange name cards. I was looking down at a stocky, middle-aged gentleman of noticeable delicacy. His thin hair was combed severely back from a large brown forehead, and his face was animated by a shy smile and jet-black, liquid eyes. His trusting demeanour did not seem to mesh with the title I was reading above his name. He was Managing Director of a major Japanese construction firm. Mr Hasegawa continued to bob and fuss over me. This was all the more remarkable when I considered that this small, well-mannered man had probably qualified as the richest person in New Zealand from the moment he stepped off his plane. He called in page 98 Japanese to his son, who was standing at the window, looking out at the harbour in the fleeting sunshine, and I was introduced to Kenji.
Kenji was the same minor height as his father. Thick, horn-rimmed glasses masked the upper part of his face above a smooth, almost chinless jaw-line. At first I wondered if he might have been a nicotine baby. His head was narrow, but wide at the top, with small ears and a diminished upper lip that displayed an overbite. His hair was styled in the tight mass of short, permed curls fashionable that year in Tokyo, and the childishness of his body, all thin limbs and narrow shoulders, seemed outlandish in his massive, double-breasted suit. Kenji thrust out a hand. I bowed. As we began to sit down on the office lounge-suite, the Vice-Chancellor showed me a letter in English of several months ago from his files, proposing Mr Hasegawa's visit. It stated that his son wished to learn English at Victoria for one year before enrolling in the University's agricultural courses. There was no record of a rely.
‘I'm afraid that we weren't making any progress before your arrival,’ the VC said. ‘Could you tell Mr…er…Hasegawa that it will be no problem to enrol his son in some classes here, for ESL and all that.’
‘We shall do our best to arrange some English lessons for Kenjikun,’ I translated, knowing that there was no year-long English course for foreign students at the university, and that the VC's memory was having a selective lapse. Mr Hasegawa nodded vigorously.
The Vice-Chancellor said, ‘Tell Mr Hasegawa that we'd be delighted to have his son take some agricultural courses next year.’
‘At the end of the year if Kenji-kun gets a score over 500 in a TOEFL test,’ I translated, ‘which is what the Ministry of Education requires for entrance, then we'd be delighted to have him take some classes at the university.’
‘Ano, Kenji-kun wa kotoshi no sue ni shiken wo ukete hontou ni torimasu ka?’ Mr Hasegawa inquired.
I explained to the VC, ‘He's asking whether Kenji's English will be good enough for university classes next year.’
The Vice-Chancellor headed back to safety behind his enormous rimu desk, tucking his ungainly arms in against his sides.
‘Oh, after a year here, no problem, I would think.’page 99
‘That will be up to Kenji-kun,’ I translated as Mr Hasegawa nodded. ‘But we shall certainly do our best to assist him.’
Later Mr Hasegawa, Kenji and I stood in the doorway of the Vice-Chancellor's inner office. As the VC and his guests began a lengthy exchange of handshakes, bows and goodbyes, Pauline called me over to her desk.
‘How old do you think he is?’ she whispered loudly at me.
‘They say he's twenty-one,’ she hissed. ‘That kid!’
I flashed Pauline an appropriate, and mostly genuine, look of amazement. Across the room Kenji broke into a broad, toothy grin.
‘Denis Glover's “The Magpies”’—I hoped to contend in my PhD thesis on ‘Problems of Authenticity in New Zealand Literature’—‘is probably the best known and most loved poem the country has produced. But readings of it to date have been surprisingly narrow. Schoolchildren are usually taught that Tom and Elizabeth, a brave new couple, lose their farm and their livelihood to the wicked mortgage man, while the magpies, representing the eternal and indifferent forces of nature, watch and quardle from an unspecified distance. Glover himself saw it as a piece about socialist economics. Nevertheless, when coming across the poem in an old school textbook dug out from behind the TV, when seeing a quirky reference in a newspaper article, or if suddenly reminded of it by a song in the trees, have not most readers been struck by a feeling that part of the inexplicable drama of their lives has been articulated? They have grasped intuitively that the subtext of the poem concerns their relationship to the land, in a country where almost everyone is of immigrant stock and all newcomers are seen as interlopers. Tom and Elizabeth can be read as representative of the essentially unnatural forces of civilisation, which attempt to encroach upon and subdue a natural environment where magpies live. It is important to consider the possibility of a discrepancy between authorial intention and text, as is often done with non-Antipodean poems, such as “Sailing to Byzantium”. In that poem's fourth stanza, despite Yeats's own explication, the mute song of the golden bird can be perceived as an act of imagination among Byzantine lords and ladies, completing page 100 the movement in the poem and speaker's life from the sensual to the intellectual. Tom and Elizabeth “took” the farm. Their actions are as self-serving and exploitative as the mortgage man's which follow. It is only at the start, before they can impose themselves on the landscape, that they sleep upon bracken. References to ploughs and to lips (which are sexually heightened by red makeup) suggest fertility. But they also indicate the way in which the landscape and the human body is altered into something artificial. The union of Tom and Elizabeth is without issue.’
By the age of thirty our jobs have become either so fascinating that they threaten to absorb our lives, or so intolerable that we are truly alive only when away from them. I began at the Japan Studies Institute shortly after Mariko and I came to Wellington. I was lucky to find the work, which only makes my dislike of it all the more intense. My defining insight into the jobbery of higher learning occurred when the Director, a retired diplomat who comes in three days a week, asked me to accompany him to a symposium in Auckland. At the airport on the day of departure he asked me to carry his almost-new leather briefcase as take-on baggage during the flight. It still smelled of tissue paper from its wrapping. Several times as we bumped our way north in the claustrophobic, sloping cabin of the 727, he told me that I was to keep it close by. The symposium was held in one of the conference rooms of a large Auckland hotel. The Director disappeared to several meetings, while I waited in the marble-covered corridors or with the food in the anteroom. ‘Symposium’ in its original Greek meant ‘drinking party’, and its modern meaning is the same. At various breaks the Director emerged, laughing and chatting with fellow delegates, and he would make a proprietorial gesture in my direction which seemed to inquire whether everything was all right. I stood with a complimentary cocktail in one hand, the briefcase in the other, trying to pretend that I was enjoying myself. Much of the time I stared studiously at the case's chromium frame and stitched beading, between small conversations with the cleaning and catering staff.
That evening we stayed at separate hotels, the Director in the Pan Pacific, and I in a motor lodge recommended by the AA. From my room I listened to car doors all night, as they were slammed in intricate page 101 combinations. On the second day I was allowed into some of the sessions. Through my lightweight trousers I felt the soft, pitted leather of the briefcase across my knees as I tried not to go to sleep during the interminable extemporisations. When I went out to the toilet, I found the waitresses wrapping some of the delegates' lunch in monogrammed napkins for their children. On the third day the Director picked me up in his taxi from my motel, and we were driven out to Mangere. As we flitted along the highway, he seemed relieved that I still had the briefcase with me. He asked me to give it to him for a moment. I swung it across the narrow space to his waiting hands and, unable to resist, asked him what it contained. The Director snapped open the locks, revealing the pockets and silky interior.
‘Oh nothing.’ He smiled. ‘It's a beauty, see. I couldn't go anywhere without it.’
Later, on the day of Kenji's arrival, I found myself directing Mr Hasegawa in his rental car up the motorway to Johnsonville. Kenji was in the back. The car had an enormous steering wheel and a five-speed gear lever, both too big for Mr Hasegawa's grip. He had to change down at the Ngauranga gorge, and he ground the gears tenaciously all the way to the top. By some miracle the clouds seemed to have vanished with the southerly. On the other side of the hills the air was warm and dry. Earlier, in desperation, I had bought a copy of the Dominion with my own money and found a couple in the classifieds who were looking to board a student. As we pulled up in the driveway at Rotoiti Street, to which I had directed us, we stared over the dash-board at the rusting hulk of a wrecked car. Its denuded axles were up on four stacks of bricks. Beyond the wreck was the unpainted konkaboard exterior of a boxy state house, and in between spread a mass of unmowed lawn. On its green extravagance an elderly man in shorts and a singlet was sitting in a canvas deck-chair, picking at a gadget with a screwdriver. Around him, half-smothered in the matted grass, lay an assortment of broken machinery: a refrigerator motor, the slats from a number of venetian blinds, half a twin-tub, the lining of a hot water cylinder. The man put down the screwdriver as we approached.
‘Hullo there,’ I said with forced cheer to cover my embarrassment. I was conscious of our ties flapping over our shoulders. ‘I rang Mrs page 102 Ashley earlier about a boarder.’
‘Oh, that'd be Mum,’ the man rasped as he looked up at us. ‘Mum!’ he yelled, scratching his long, flabby arms.
He stood up, and we followed him to the front steps as he repeated his call. I saw that the interior of the house, like its exterior, was neglected and cluttered. Discarded rools and, to my dismay, articles of clothing lay about on the floor of the front hall. The brusella did not reach all the way to the skirting-boards. We passed between a battered bicycle and a low bookshelf, crammed with ornamental china plates. In the living room snapshots of couples, together with babies and children in various poses, were lifting out of their cheap frames all across the dusty wallpaper. The furniture was heavy and ancient, and everything in the room, including Mrs Ashley, seemed arranged round a television set in the corner. From her chair she wobbled to her feet. Mrs Ashley was an enormous, lumpy woman in a threadbare sundress which did not cover the varicose veins in her ample calves. She seemed not so much a person as a feature of landscape. We quickly motioned her to sit once more.
‘I understand you're considering a boarder,’ I said, as I tipped back into an armchair, and the Hasegawas squatted on the edge of the deeply-padded couch.
‘Right,’ Mrs Ashley said.
‘Well this is Mr Hasegawa and his son Kenji. From Japan.’
‘Right,’ Mrs Ashley said. She switched off the TV and removed her glasses, reaching to place them on a nearby coffee-table. Her sticky grey hair, plastered to the sides of her large face, did not move when she leaned forward. ‘My grandchildren,’ she said with hasty pride, seeing Mr Hasegawa eye the pictures on the walls. Uncomprehending, Mr Hasegawa beamed.
The room was hot. A hard sun shone through some of the windows in sharp rectangles, and lit up dust-motes disturbed by our presence. Mr Ashley said it was Mum who took care of business and then sat in a dutiful silence. I began to wonder if we would ever be offered a cup of tea.
‘I get a student every year,’ Mrs Ashley was saying, fiddling with the straps of her sun-dress, ‘since Dad's retired from the railways. It's page 103 a bit extra, and we enjoy it. Last year we had a Malaysian boy, remember Dad? Remember that boy Daniel?’
‘Eh?’ said Mr Ashley.
‘We heard from him at Christmas.’
‘Eh? That young fellow?’
I interpreted where I could. Mr Hasegawa appeared to take great interest in everything Mrs Ashley said. This was undoubtedly his first glimpse inside a New Zealand home, and I could not see the delicate child, packaged in an expensive suit beside him, being anything less than miserable here. But they gave no sign of what they were thinking.
‘Kenji's going to learn English, so that he can study agriculture at the university next year,’ I said. ‘He wants to work with animals on a farm.’
We all looked at Kenji, who by now was perspiring freely.
‘Right,’ said Mrs Ashley.
‘He'd need looking after,’ I tried to hint.
‘Oh I always do the best for my boys. A cooked breakfast and dinner, and plenty of it.’ Mrs Ashley smiled. She leaned her bulk across the sides of the chair and couch, and touched Kenji on the arm with an undiscriminating warmth. ‘A cut lunch every day?’
He grinned. To my surprise Mr Hasegawa inquired how much Mrs Ashley charged.
‘Well, would he want his clothes washing too?’
The answer was yes. Mrs Ashley named her weekly rate with a great deal of elaboration on what was included: use of electricity, hot water and the telephone, the run of the garden. It was cheap, but Kenji would have to share his room with the sewing machine because of a lack of space. Mr Hasegawa, accustomed to fixing the prices of major construction projects throughout Asia, seemed satisfied. He thought for a moment, and then asked what time Kenji would have to be home by each night.
‘Dearie me, that's up to him,’ Mrs Ashley said. ‘Well, boys will be boys.’ She suddenly laughed with her entire, huge body. It wavered like the horizon from a ship, but her size, face and unkempt hair seemed to fill the room with something benign.
I tried hard not to wince. Mr Hasegawa asked if he could pay in page 104 advance. He opened his wallet, and with alacrity pulled out a stack of scarlet notes. There were more than enough of them to amaze me. He counted out four months' rent. I felt it was foolish to reveal so much money to the Ashleys, that it was somehow placing before them the opportunity to steal, but they merely accepted the cash without comment. Mr Hasegawa explained, as I reluctantly interpreted, that it would be too much trouble to change the money back into yen when he left the country. Then he grunted, nodded, and gave his thanks in very a humble language which could not be translated. Mr Ashley asked whether Kenji liked any sports.
‘Supoutsu ga suki desu ka?’ I said.
‘My son is a great sportsman,’ Mr Hasegawa intervened. ‘He enjoys every kind of activity: swimming, running, skiing. He doesn't like study so much but he loves the outdoors, so I think he's always wanted to live in New Zealand.’
He gestured to Kenji, who got up and left the room. We sat in silence, unsure how to proceed, until we heard the boot of the car slam and Kenji returned holding a plastic, duty-free bag. With no more than a murmur, he shyly produced several parcels. They were elegantly wrapped by one of Tokyo's better department stores, and he began to hand them over to the Ashleys. Their faces lit up with a Christmassy delight. I was appalled. As she tore at the corner of a parcel, Mrs Ashley turned to Kenji and said very carefully, ‘We're going to have to feed you up, aren't we. What do you like to eat, dear?’
‘What is your favourite food?’
Knowing that he was being addressed, Kenji opened his mouth. His gaze concentrated, but no sound came out.
‘Oh dear,’ Mrs Ashley said.
Normally I entertain myself and Mariko over dinner with stories of small disasters, remembered from the newspaper. A youth, who is upset at being refused a job by the Canterbury Transport Board, kidnaps a Christchurch bus driver at knife-point. Unsure what to do next, he forces all the passengers to be driven free to Darfield, and then surrenders. Showing a carping pride in its own misery, the Lands page 105 and Survey Department announces another problem with the advent of ‘user-pays’. It claims that copyright charges will increase the price of complimentary promotional New Zealand maps by 10,700 percent. A sixty-one-year-old Auckland woman, eating an ice cream in her car, is beaten up by a man who wants her parking space. Is the reporting of such calamities schadenfreude? Or then again, does it reveal through metaphor something apocalyptic in the New Zealand psyche? Smith's Dream, The Quiet Earth, Intensive Care: our literature is stuffed with dystopias, ends of the world, and suicides from varieties of despair. Why do so many New Zealand writers imagine national disaster?—from a sense that our dual centuries of development have merely swept the compact bush into plains, the raucous bird-song into silence, and the ritual warfare into jails? Or is it because they feel forced utterly to the margins of society, and wish to take some sort of revenge? Back to Kenji. That evening I described the scene at the Ashleys' to Mariko. Mr Hasegawa had departed for the airport and Kenji was at Rotoiti Street. I had given them both my home telephone-number, and then taken the phone off the hook. We were sitting on the floor in the dining room, at a ten-dollar, second-hand table that I had sawed the legs off. Mariko was preparing yakiniku, and it was laid out across a tray beside the electric fry-pan. Diced cabbage in mayonnaise from the Kentucky Fried Chicken store, which Mariko wonderfully misnamed ‘cholesterol salad’, lay in small bowls by the chopsticks.
‘If that child comes crying to me at work tomorrow, or in the next couple of days,’ I said, ‘I'm not going to fuss around. It's not my job. I'll just book him a flight home at Daddy's expense.’
‘Why don't you say that I teach him English?’ Mariko said, dropping delicate shreds of meat onto the hot-plate.
‘You wouldn't mind?’
‘He's rich. Let's make a money. And I think in the beginning he needs someone who can speak Japanese.’
The pieces of beef hissed and spat on the surface of the fry-pan. With long cooking-chopsticks, Mariko pushed them about. I thought of the dull tucker of my childhood, and of having had to eat what was put in front of me. I said, ‘You couldn't teach him all the time. You'd be too busy.’page 106
‘Send him to high school. Maybe he just sits in the back of the classroom, but if he listens he can learn. A lot.’
I had been teaching English in Osaka for about nine months before I saved enough money to buy a telephone. At an NTT shop a helpful clerk gave me a form to fill out, but it was in hieroglyphics which I could not yet understand. We began to speak to each other fluently and with mutual incomprehension in our native languages. After several failed attempts he disappeared, and at last a small young woman with good English approached. It was wonderful to meet someone with whom I could communicate. She was attractively curvaceous, even under her careful uniform, with a long neck and a demure moon-face, discomposed by large, vivacious eyes. Sometimes an action can spur consequences that resonate through several lives, and who can guess what would have happened if I had turned away at that moment, or suffered a sudden grand mal, or simply scowled? But instead I ordered my telephone and, leaning over the counter, asked in a conspiratorial fashion whether Mariko would come out with me to dinner. I felt a small shock of pleasure when she said yes. We went to a Mexican restaurant on the sixteenth floor of the ACTY building. Over dinner I talked too nervously to eat much and the likewise nervously listened—so that we came again on a later date to taste the food. Afterwards we went for a walk around Osaka Castle at dusk, strolling hand-in-hand through the heavy summer air as we skirted the dry, unmortared walls. Flood-lamps illuminated the jutting roofs of the donjon, and beyond the castle's perimeter the glowing towers of the city lay camped, as if in siege. Years later, when I asked Mariko what she was thinking at the castle gates as we first kissed, she replied, ‘I was wondering whether I drop my handbag or not.’
‘Well, it's a passion. In the movies a girl always drops her bag when a boy kisses her. I thought—oh, do I? Then I decided no.’
‘Just as well. If you'd dropped it, I probably would have stopped to pick it up.’
She smiled. ‘I didn't want you to stop.’
The serenity of love is in its totality. Mariko and I soft-landed into a domain of love which we discovered for ourselves. We were king page 107 and queen; we were our own borders. I can still remember walking down the street in Ikeda to see her, after a year together, and realising that I was not going to leave her, and she was not going to leave me. What had seemed an inordinate search, for someone who could blend my desires, secrets and regrets with her own, was over. All justification, all mystery, all impulse coalesced in the teasing, intelligent woman I would soon gather in my arms. I never knew such feelings about any other human being. I went to Osaka to ply my talents in return for money and adventure, but despite all attempts to resist, Japan has left its fingerprints on my soul.
There was no desperate phone call. Instead, after three days of silence, I rang Mrs Ashley. Kenji was fine. He was up each morning at six, jogging over Ironside Road and out under the pylons to the farmland beyond Churton Park. He drank a litre of milk at the dairy on his return, and then put in time in the garden. From Mr Ashley he had learned the commuter-train system into Waterloo Quay, and he was spending each afternoon exploring the town. He was cheerful and chatty.
‘He can't speak English,’ I said.
‘Oh but he tries so hard. And he's got his little dictionary, eh. The other day we sat down, and with a whole lot of trouble he told me that his dad wants him to be a businessman, but what really grabs him is farming.’ Mrs Ashley chuckled. ‘He said he wants a job wearing gumboots.’
‘His father told us that. He said Kenji likes the outdoors.’
‘Oh, does he ever. Do you know, in his high school he was a champion triathlete?’ Mrs Ashley lingered over the pronunciation of the last word. I confessed it was news to me. She marvelled, ‘How does he get so much energy from such a wee body? You know what I reckon. I've a fair idea his father sent him out here so he'd fail, eh, and then he'd have to be a businessman. Well, Dad's in for a bit of a shock.’
I though of the entry requirements of the university. ‘But he still doesn't speak English,’ I said.
After my mother's death I saw a lot of my grandparents. Since my mother had never forgiven them, this seemed almost an act of teenage page 108 rebellion, and across our extremes of age I managed to recover something of my own past. My grandfather liked to entertain me with stories of life on the original family-farm up in the Waikato, before it was lost in the 1927 slump. His father had owned 700 acres of grassland, sowed in the ashes of burned bush country, with blasted, wiry stumps hanging on across the hillsides. For an immigrant family, it must have looked appropriately like the end of the earth. The dairy herd had to be milked every morning and evening by hand, and my grandfather, his brother, and his sister used to come before school with mugs to get a draft of cream from the separator. It was thin cream because there had been no time for it to thicken. They ate dough-boys and sponges, cooked on a wood range with flour bought on six-monthly trips to Auckland. The family kept pigs and fowls, and black Muscovy ducks in a fenced-off section of a creek. Each year at Easter the local Chinaman would buy two of the ducks for eating. He paid four shillings, and always wanted the ‘looter’—they knew that he was trying to say the drake—because it was the biggest. The children had been born in England before a ship brought them over the oceans, and the journey leached like brackish water into their contempt for the strange, yellow face.
Later, in the 1940s, my grandmother's youngest brother made a small fortune with an engineering shop in Hawke's Bay, converting.303 rifles into Charlton guns against the threat of Japanese invasion. When the danger was at its height, and while the country's army was away fighting with the British in the North African desert, Prime Minister Peter Fraser announced that he would let New Zealand fall, rather than withdraw our support from the European theatre of war. So my great-uncle worked from seven each morning until sometime between eleven at night and two am, keeping up production. He became a master of the cat-nap. During smoko, lunch, and tea he would doze for ten minutes, and awake refreshed. ‘Just give me five lines of print,’ he would say, and then fall asleep reading the newspaper. In fact, he was too cut off by his work to have any true perception of the war. The sense of collective purpose was what he loved. Great-uncle Sid would get up in the night, take a phone call, solve a problem in the factory, arrange for a crate of armaments to be driven to the page 109 station next morning, and sleep once more. A heart attack took him a year after VJ Day. In all his life I doubt he ever met a Japanese.
Throughout our history as a nation we have wanted to be good and great, but we have never let that prevent us from defending our clear notion of our own kind. As early as 1894 Britain signed a trade treaty with Japan, and British colonies were given the choice of becoming parties to the agreement. Even when Australia accepted, New Zealand refused from fear of ‘yellow peril’. The Minister of Labour claimed ‘the introduction of Japanese coolies, market gardeners, and retail traders would not be desirable and could not be tolerated’. There was also a fear of Asian miscegenation with the Maori, who were dying out most conveniently. The selfishness of the fathers is merely repackaged by the sons. How many white New Zealanders today are still afraid that Asia will do to them what they once did to the tangata whenua? Mariko had only been in Wellington for one morning, when a group of primary-school boys outside the butcher's spied her and raised their arms to scream ‘bonsai!’—confusing a thousand-year-old expression of respect for the emperor with the art of dwarfing trees. I returned to New Zealand with Mariko in search of the redolence of memories: leaving the front door unlocked when going down to the shop; wage earners dropping good jobs to take on better ones; the whole town sitting around after their ample Sunday dinners to discuss the neighbours and belch. It may be that this is nothing more than an empty nostalgia. But the pursuit of these memories seems to involve the objectification of decency, kindness, and joy. I do not wish to be excluded.
I saw Kenji frequently when he came to study English with Mariko. Regardless of the weather, he would jog from the railway station up Bolton Street and through the Botanical Gardens, arriving at the front gate breathing comfortably and with his satchel swinging on his back. Often he would stop to do chin-ups from the lintel of an open garage-door before coming in. Kenji's vocabulary had expanded far ahead of his grammar. He could now say badly a large variety of things. This quality of inarticulate energy seemed to make him popular. At Rotoiti Street, he dug out a thicket of pampas grass at the bottom of the Ashleys' section and put in a garden of cabbages, broccoli, cauliflowers page 110 and silver beet. Everyone in the neighbourhood said that he wasn't afraid of hard work. Kenji bought an old Corolla for a few hundred dollars and drove it to high school each day. The starter motor was irreparable. He had to grunt to push the car down the road, before leaping in and engaging the clutch. The other students loved to help him, and he gave them rides wherever they wanted to go. One day he shared a table with a couple in a tearooms, and then spent the weekend with them moving stock on their farm near Greytown. I discovered this when they approached me to ask where they could learn some Japanese. The house was always lively if Kenji was about. He began to spend more time with us than he did with the Ashleys. He could not understand why their meals were always full of potatoes, why they complained if he sat up with the heater on late at night, and how they were obsessed by the Lotto draw on Saturday evenings. Mariko worried about Kenji's progress in English, and what he was learning from the Ashleys and his friends. She ordered books from Japan on techniques for sitting the TOEFL test, worked him out a schedule, and scolded him if he fell behind
‘Fred,’ Mariko would say, ‘we have a responsibility to him. We have to make him succeed, or nothing good will happen in his life.’
In my early teens my mother, whom I had come to view as one of the great constants in the Byzantine equation of the universe, suddenly lost all sense of decorum. She came home from her school one afternoon, found me having some biscuits and cordial she had left out on a tray, and announced that she was tired of being a mum. She was not going to be one any more. From that moment her behaviour changed radically. In the evening she ignored the half-prepared meal in the fridge and sent me down the street to buy fish and chips. We ate them on the living-room floor, while watching TV. During the advertisements my mother giggled and flicked bits of batter at the screen. When we had finished she left the mess on the carpet, disappeared into her bedroom with the radio tuned loudly to a pop station, and put on the prettiest, most revealing dress she had. Her hair she let loose, and she painted her usually unadorned mouth with a bright smirk of lipstick. Then she went outside to her car, shouted that she was going to a pub, and drove away. I cleaned up the fish and page 111 chip papers and wiped down the television screen. At length I put myself to bed. In the middle of the night I heard the car return and two voices, my mother's and a male bass, talked excitedly in the passage. Later, from her room I heard the sound of low, yielding groans.
Next morning I got up early, laid the table for breakfast, prepared cornflakes, toast and coffee, and called my mother. I sat in silence as she and a stranger tumbled semi-naked into the dining room. After the man had left, and my mother had finally agreed to go off to work, I cleaned up the breakfast dishes, made the beds, and bicycled late to school. This became the pattern of our lives. Although I had always made some contribution, I now did most of the housework in between studies. I began to cook meals, organise the weekly menu, do the shopping at a nearby supermarket, and balance the chequebook. At first I was not good at any of these, but with practice things gradually improved. I scrubbed the toilet and bath. I tended the garden at weekends. I even decided where we should spend our Christmas holidays.
My mother's behaviour would have been almost completely childish, were it not for the procession of men through her life and her bedroom. Most days she went off to teach, although occasionally I had to ring and arrange a sickie for her. Then I would listen as the Principal tried to ask if there was any reason why her commitment to teaching had so deteriorated. But in the classroom her pupils loved her, and she held their attention as she never had before. She spent money on clothes, makeup, records and drinks with friends. Eventually I had to keep her to a budget. When she climbed into her car in the evening or on weekends, to go to a movie or nightclub, or just round to somebody's house, I would worry about her because she was twice my age, and she was crazy and my mother. I regarded the men who used her as a personal insult. Most of the time I sulked or smouldered while they were about. Then, one Saturday afternoon, I saw her heading to the garage in a backless dress, with her cheap jewellery flapping. Her tinted hair was bound up in a large number of little plaits with ribbons. A pair of high heels made her walk stiff-backed and swaying. As she reversed down the driveway, I could have murdered her. I scarcely bothered to acknowledge her cheery wave. I had learned page 112 from my Latin class that the ancient penalty for parricide was to be sewn into a sack with a dog, a fowl, a snake and a monkey, then thrown into the sea; but I would have taken my chances with the bag and the animals if my mother continued to ignore me. A few minutes later I received the phone call which told me she had crossed the centre of the highway, without seeing a truck coming in the opposite direction. At seventeen I had to learn how to make funeral arrangements.
A phone call, which was no real surprise, came from Mrs Ashley in early June. I was at work and thumbing through a collection of the library's overdue-book notices. Wanted for immediate return, with ineffectual threats of replacement charges, were: Vikings of the Sunrise; Chess Without Black Pieces; The Nature of the Universe; and Five Ways to Win at Russian Roulette. It was four o'clock, and already the sunlight through the winter cloud was thinning into early darkness on the harbour. An icy cold tried to draw the heat through the windows off into the view.
‘It's about little Ken,’ Mrs Ashley said, after an exchange of pleasantries. ‘He's a dear wee boy and everything, but I'm … I'm afraid it's not working out.’
‘Oh, I'm sorry.’ I began to swing gently in my chair. ‘What seems to be the problem?’
‘Well, he's never here.’ She sighed. ‘I ask him if he's going to be in for meals, and then I cook something and he doesn't show. I mean, it's just a shame to let good food go to waste. And he's so stubborn. If his car breaks down he rings a taxi to take him home, see. I keep telling him, put his bicycle in the back and drive around with it, and he goes yes, yes, yes. Well, next thing I look up and he's taken off without it. But I know he understands all right, because I explain it to him with that dictionary of his.’
‘I see,’ I said, remembering Kenji's growing catalogue of complaints. ‘Would you like—?’
‘I'm afraid there's been a lot of that. Look, I say to him, put a jersey on if you're going to sit up late, then you won't have to keep your room so hot. And he nods sort of style, but the power bills have page 113 been … oh. Then there's the sewing machine. He started it up and tried to use it. Well, he broke all my needles. I mean, he replaced them and everything—’
I interrupted. ‘Would you like me to see if I can arrange for him to move?’
There was a pause, before Mrs Ashley sighed and said, ‘I think it would be best. Like I said, he's never here. We sit down in front of the TV in the evening, but he never joins in. He goes out.’
Much to Mariko's surprise, our New Zealand house had a room which we could simply label ‘spare’. Kenji took it over and moved in on a Saturday afternoon. Several times that day I looked out the living-room window and saw his old Corolla; it was rolling silently down the gradient towards the tree-swollen slopes near the bottom of the street. Then the car would jolt as the engine roared into life. Kenji ran a number of precarious trips along Khandallah Road with his clothes, his bicycle, bits of furniture and a brand new pair of skis. In his new room, he decorated the pelmet of the window by his bed with a colourful array of fern-leaves and empty beer cans. He brought in a kitset chest of drawers which he never got around to painting, and set up a large, supposedly portable tape-recorder, and a stack of cassettes. We soon discovered that he shaved each morning, although in his case it was largely an academic exercise. Mariko was annoyed if he borrowed her hand-mirror to check the results, and left it lying face-up. His clothes collected in a pile in the middle of his bedroom floor, as we tried to remind him to do his own laundry. At last Mariko gave in and did it for him. Kenji bought several varieties of red wine one evening, opened and tasted each bottle to see what it was like, and shocked me by pouring the remainder down the kitchen sink. In his English, he developed a habit of substituting Japanese onomatopoeic words for things he did not know.
‘Oh, rain is zaa-zaa, and wind is pyuu-pyuu,’ he would say, pointing out the window at a gathering southerly. One of us would have to correct him.
Kenji seemed amazed that I would want to live in a house where much of the hallway's wall-space was taken up by shelves displaying the spines of books.page 114
‘So many,’ he said to me in English, picking up a copy of I saw in My Dream in which I had been busy with annotations. ‘You read?’
‘Oh yes. That's a classic.’
‘What is classic?’
How could I encapsulate for him my long-winded definition: a book more fun to talk about than read? I thought of mentioning that I had come across a source for Sargeson's mysterious Cedric, who lives half-mad in the bush as escape from his fraught past, and who has a secret cave, in the Cedric of The Greenstone Door. Kenji would have to understand that Sargeson adapted Satchell, who had adapted Shakespeare. Then he might see that this is how a sense of national authenticity evolves, by developing a literature which the reader can relate to in the same way that both writer and reader relate to their immediate environment. This involves writers being intimate with and open to their raw material, in all its aspects, which in turn imparts a certain type of confidence in telling the story. But Sargeson's novel still lacks that authority, so that when its material is transformed, the honesty of the process remains in doubt for the reader. The work does not think and breathe; it is merely pretty. But I knew that, like most of my fellow-countrymen, Kenji would have no interest. Instead I smiled helplessly, because in both New Zealand and Japan no distinction is made between rebels and revolutionaries. Rebels commit emphatic physical acts: ceasing to wash, defacing bus shelters, flinging Molotoy cocktails. Revolutionaries are more equivocal and cerebral. They may wear sensible clothes, ride the bus to town, and sit through the gory parts of movies with their eyes clamped shut, but they nurture their determination to fray the intellectual fabric of their society. My dream is of doing irreparable harm to everyday New Zealand life. How could Kenji know that nothing is easier to divert than a naive national literature and its imaginative impedimenta? How could someone who push-started his car understand that he was vulnerable in this way? Mariko berated Kenji for his skis and stereo, and reminded him of the importance of study on the weekend, if he was to get through the English test. As she remonstrated, he hung his head.
I still feel that Kenji is somehow eluding me. I must try to describe accurately for you his impact on our lives. When Kenji was not page 115 studying, he was jogging through the Botanical Gardens and along Tinakori Road, or out working in the back yard. He managed to remove all the oxalis pods in our vegie patch so meticulously that they have never been re-established since. He dug blood-and-bone into the soil, and raised carefully marked rows of Brussels sprouts. I had hacked pieces off the hedges along the sides of the house on several occasions, but Kenji trimmed them to their proper shape and size. The front lawn was mowed flat, its edges clipped, and the flower-beds weeded until we had the tidiest garden in the street. Our neighbours began to view us with respect. They smiled or waved to us when we met. Some, spying Kenji in his gardening gloves and boots as they passed by, even walked up the path and struck up a conversation. Suddenly he seemed to be on the best terms with everyone. The local shops gave him free apples or ice-creams. His friends from school came to visit. Kenji bought a skateboard, and he and his pals nearly killed themselves hurtling down the footpath outside the house. He liked to work on his car out on the road, looking like a tradesman in a pair of cast-off overalls which one of the neighbours gave him, and he accepted advice from anyone who was strolling by. Into this new community Mariko and I were carried. We were like long-distance swimmers lifted by a fortunate swell. Sometimes I watched Kenji squatting between earthen mounds in the back garden. There was a look of serene concentration on his face, which was tanned nut-brown from exposure to a winter sun. It was hard not to see him through Sargeson's eyes, sitting on a hillside in gumboots, sipping Lemora and thinking of his home-orchard, not foreign any longer but reborn as a New Zealander.
Kenji never mentioned his father except in the most critical terms. Several times he described him as careless with people. Kenji had two older sisters, but Mr Hasegawa had produced a son only in his middleage. He was busy with business—Kenji saw the relation between the words immediately—and tried to run his domestic life as part of his corporate affairs. When environmental protesters blew up Mr Hasegawa's car, during the construction of a dam, Kenji found himself disappointed that his father had not been in it. The family lived in Chiba, and at the local high school Kenji had been an athlete and a page 116 troublemaker. His father's gangster connections meant that no one could stand up to him. Mariko complains about her mother and father sometimes as well, but differently. I know she often misses them. It is remarkable how, as unborn children, our existence is dependant upon the chancy survival and conjunction of two strangers, our parents. Mariko's father, Mr Aihara, was three years old near the end of Japan's disastrous Pacific war, when he was led with neighbouring families down to the harbour to commit suicide for the emperor. They huddled together on their knees in a circle, too frightened even to show fear. A soldier took out a hand-grenade. Then, at the vital moment, a runner approached shouting that the emperor was on the radio, and the madness was over. At least this is what Mariko tells me, and I believe her. I am fascinated by the knowledge that Mariko and Kenji have of their parents' lives, gathered at many different stages in their own lives. My mother is mysterious to me, and my father could be any middleaged man I stand next to on the street. Under these conditions, isn't it easy to find that one's feelings for other people have been cut back and compromised, like a dwarf-tree at the rear of the house which everyone ignores? It was against this background to our emotional states that, one evening, Mariko announced she was pregnant.
‘My period's late a month.’ She was lying beside me in bed, staring straight up throught the semi-darkness at the plaster ceiling. Her long black hair, browned a little by the New Zealand sunshine, was spread out around her like a fan. ‘I think I better go to the doctor.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘I feel strange.’
I drew myself closer and put my hand tentatively on her stomach.
‘Do you feel sick in the mornings?’
‘Don't be a stupid.’
I lay back, frightened. The night was wide and noiseless except for the sound of the wind. I whispered, ‘Are you really okay?’
‘Do you support me?’
‘Of course I support you. I love you.’
‘Then okay.’page 117
‘The title of “The Magpies” is not “Tom and Elizabeth”, nor “Mortgage Corporations”. The birds occupy 50 percent of the lines and are the focus of the poem. As many critics have noted, they are symbolic of an enduring natural environment, but not necessarily one that is indifferent. In the third stanza, Tom and Elizabeth toil to produce crops from the land, while the trees above grow in untampered serenity, and it is from this point that things start to go wrong for them. In the second half of the poem, “the beautiful crops soon went/To the mortgage-man instead”. These lines have been widely misinterpreted, since “beautiful” is Tom and Elizabeth's word. The farm fails because it is against nature. It is not passed on to a new owner, but left derelict, and the doom which began with breaking in the land is complete as the farm reverts to bush. Even the mortgage corporations are threatened with ruin from the property, when they “Couldn't give it away”. New Zealanders are still taught to see the early clearance of forest, the massive burn-offs that have resulted in massive erosion, as part of a linear, civilising process. But such teaching confuses domination and co-existence. A truly authentic relationship with the land might be one where people are fused with their environment, part of its essence and changes, in the way that in authentic writing the words do more than just believe what they say. In such writing, the sense of approximation has disappeared, as the subject and authorial voice have become manifestly inseparable. An introduced species, unlike their human counterparts the magpies have adapted to exist in complete harmony with their surroundings. They talk nonsensically to humans, speaking in an authentic language appropriate to their situation. Glover thus implies that New Zealanders may need to learn a magpie tongue. Curiously though, by highlighting the lack of authenticity of much New Zealand European/Pakeha experience, in a borrowed poetic form, with throwaway lines, “The Magpies” may be one of the most authentic pieces of writing which the country has produced. It is a paradoxical characteristic of the best New Zealand Pakeha writing that it abrogates its authority to speak. You have to be in one place a long time, it seems to say, and share that place's suffering—the worst moments big and small—before your relationship with it can become authentic.’ Thus begins my thesis. But it is not possible to do a PhD part-time, page 118 and I can no longer afford to live as a full-time student, so the work remains mostly unwritten.
Fatherhood exploded over my life. For me, Mariko was confirmed as a universal principle around which I moved like a satellite, the weight of her existence holding the confused forces of mine in balance. She was with child—I ran the old-fashioned expression through my mind repeatedly, and it unlocked atavistic, almost biological emotions. I was worried that Mariko did not immediately begin showing, and went to the library in large anxiety to take out a stack of books on pregnancy. I rang around from the Japan Studies Institute to find the best antenatal class. Mariko's family in Osaka became very excited by the news, and I spent lunchtimes at a travel agent's making plans for them to be in Wellington for the birth. I walked back to Rimu Road after work, up and down the hill-tracks hemmed by corrugated-iron fences, feeling infused with a new mood of purpose. I was on the verge of an exclusive community of men: the fathers. In the elbow of the road, through a swift twilight almost hastened by the orange glow of the street lamps, I would take in the solid, nestled shapes of the houses, the curbside saplings growing in asphalt, and the smell of water from the day's rain dripping through the punga ferns. I reached the front gate and the narrow path, the light glimmering off the lining of our curtains, and knew that I was truly home.
One afternoon, at the Japan Studies Institute, a bearded economics lecturer in a threadbare corduroy jacket explained to me how growing trees could combat the world's production of carbon dioxide. He calculated a need, after current burn-offs, for two tonnes of new vegetation to remove every tonne of carbon. Mass global reforestation, he argued, would simultaneously solve all unemployment and Third World debt, if financed by rich nations. The cost would be similar to an oil shock, but the world had survived these before, and the Japanese should be made to finance it. He seemed to think that I would ask them. At my desk, with my fingers knotted and my head regularly nodding, I was not even trying to listen. I had taken Mariko to the doctor and the initial tests were positive. I wanted to tell everyone. Afterwards, we had rung Kenji's high school and informed him.page 119
‘Wow,’ he said in English down the phone, and, ‘That's good’ in Japanese over and over again.
The truth, as Mrs Ashley had tried to tell me, was that Kenji could be troublesome to live with. Encouraging him to study vocabulary and listening comprehension, instead of spending time outside, was a chore for Mariko, and I did my best to help. But both of us were distracted by the nine-to-ten-month timetable of pregnancy. People from the neighbourhood were always interrupting Kenji's studies by tramping through the house with gardening and mechanical tools for him to try. They did not bother to remove their shoes, and came to us for translation. Several of Kenji's things, which had not made it into the house when he first moved in, were left lying around the front porch—and then the path and lawn. The baby was due in May, and Mariko and I were altering our budget. Although he paid a third of the grocery bills, Kenji could not resist improvisations with food. One week he decided that he would try eating everything with mayonnaise and spent most of the kitty on large jars of ETA. Sometimes he made snacks of bread dipped in raw egg, and did not clean up. His unreliability irritated Mariko. She asked Kenji to spend a Sunday helping her repair a second-hand bassinet. He went out as usual on Saturday night to a party with his high-school friends, and then did not return until late the next afternoon, dishevelled from sleeping in his clothes. Twice at parties he had been pushed into fights, handling himself surprisingly well with a mixture of simple karate and sheer doggedness. After one fight, the police brought him back. Kenji left his car anywhere it suited in town, so that frequently I had to take time off work and accompany him to a towie's yard, where he would pay his fines with calculated nonchalance. The more he misbehaved, the more popular he seemed. It was somewhat like being back in his old high school, I supposed, and it became difficult to convince him that learning in any form mattered. Yet he still wanted to enter the university.
Mariko's first insight into the slippage between one world and another came at the age of seven. Her father was transferred to Tottori for three years, and the family moved just a few days before she was due to start primary school. An only child, after having grown up in page 120 a neighbourhood where she knew several other children, Mariko suddenly found herself alone. In a country town her speech had changed into a difficult accent, and her urban manners into bad habits. On the first day of class Mrs Aihara walked her daughter to school, which in fact was only at the other end of their narrow street. They passed squat, two-storied houses which were each the same as their own, with high front fences, tiny gardens, and slatted windows. Mariko was wearing her new school uniform: a pleated black skirt, a white blouse carefully ironed, and a smart yellow hat. Her mother took her into the classroom, but Mariko began to cry and refused to stay put whenever Mrs Aihara tried to leave. Mariko kept running out of the room and after her mother down the hall. Eventually Mrs Aihara had to sit outside on a bench in the playground, so that her daughter could see her looking in through the window. Then Mariko calmed down, became cheerful, and took a place near the front of the class. She even raised her hand to ask questions. But Mrs Aihara had to sit on the hard wooden bench, watching her daughter all morning and afternoon.
Next day the same procedure was repeated. Mariko refused to stay in class unless her mother was visible through the window. After an hour or so, Mrs Aihara tried to slip away. Mariko was up before the blackboard, singing an elephant song, when she noticed her mother had vanished. She broke off in the middle of a verse and ran out of the room. Crossing the dirt playground, she trotted along the covered gutters to the house where her mother would be. She found Mrs Aihara trying to prepare some lunch in the kitchen. The child refused to go back to the school alone. That night Mr and Mrs Aihara had a quiet discussion. They understood the rain-streaked, concrete school building was drab and forbidding. They knew Mariko's friends were all in Osaka, and like most parents they realised that they had no control over the emotional processes of their own offspring. Eventually they decided that Mrs Aihara would sit on the school bench each day for a week, until Mariko settled. The problem continued for three months. In class Mariko was active and bright. She sat at her desk and studied hard, but every few minutes she would glance up to check that her mother was watching. If Mrs Aihara was gone, Mariko would page 121 immediately raise her hand to announce a headache or stomach pain, and hurry along the now familiar route home. She was lonely, of course, and her responses kept her lonely. It was as if she sensed that, by letting go her nostalgia for an old, pre-school life, she might vanish into the new with no token of prior existence. At last the headmaster was called in. He assigned a thirteen-year-old girl to look after Mariko, to take her to school, sit together in class, eat lunch with her at lunchtime and play with her during breaks. The girl was even to do some homework at the Aiharas' house in the evenings. After a short time, Mariko did not need to be within her mother's gaze any more. She made friends, and soon even her escort was unnecessary. She began to pick up the Tottori dialect, and as her life re-established itself in a wider circle, Mariko felt that she had achieved something arduous and liberating. Now, when she went with her new friends to see an American movie at the cinema, she dreamed of learning English and becoming an interpreter.
Kenji's mother began telephoning from Chiba. Hers was the most cringing manner of any Japanese middle-aged woman I had ever encountered. ‘Itsumo osewa ni natte imasu,’ she murmured down the line, in a tone that seemed practised and thoroughly untrustworthy. Kenji must be a lot of trouble, she began to say, as if divining our innermost thoughts. She was sorry. If he was the cause of any difficulty, we were to let her know; just a hint and she would take care of things. She was very sorry. I found her rarefied politeness and falsetto speaking-voice almost impossible to understand, and Mariko had to do most of the talking. Mariko chirped back down the phone—with a corresponding deference—that Kenji was no problem at all, and that we loved having him around. One weekend, she lied and said that Kenji was away at a farmstay we had arranged, when in fact she was furious that he had failed to come back at all from a Friday-night party. Kenji used to say that New Zealand women who worked in shops always looked attractive, because the shop-counters hid their broad bottoms. He had finally found a small-bottomed girlfriend. Mariko wanted to keep him under control, and not let him stay out after midnight. I said that he should allowed to take care of himself.page 122
‘Mr Hasegawa wants Kenji back in Tokyo,’ Mariko explained. ‘So he says to Kenji's mother to ring. They are worried that he can stay here for years, and they're looking for a way to make him go home.’
We argued over Kenji, his studies and his future, until I began to feel that it was not good for the baby.
But Mariko was not pregnant. She rang me at work from the doctor's, a few weeks after the initial examination, to say that laboratory tests had all proved negative. If she ever had been pregnant, she was not so now. Her voice was quiet and distant. A nurse had given her a tranquilliser. I rang a taxi to go to the doctor's rooms and stood waiting on the edge of Waiteata Road, shivering in the southerly that blew up the hill. Old houses were sprawled at ramshackle angles below me, and a magpie was bobbing and fussing about on the branch of a stunted pine. Patches of white flashed each time its wings flapped. Then came what I felt was its inappropriately bravura call, rolling through the wind. Was it really such an achievement to be a fucking magpie? Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle, it said. On the taxi ride into town I thought of the list of boys' and girls' names in our bedroom, and the knitted clothes that were still in the post from Japan. Mariko and I went back to the house at Rimu Road. The dirty breakfast dishes were lying stacked in the sink. Mariko turned on the tap to scrub them, and I took out a tea-towel. The water ran and she stood with a detergent-soaked XLO in her hand, crying and crying.
It was the close of October. The roses along the bay-window were unfolding from their swollen buds, and Kenji's TOEFL test was only a few weeks away. He started to become worried. I made it clear to him for the umpteenth time that his entry to university depended on a satisfactory score, and Mariko gave him a mock test. His marks were close to a pass. He was good at listening and reading, but the grammar that drew everything together was weak. Kenji began to spend the whole of each day working through a pile of books. If I woke briefly in the early morning, I would see a glow down the corridor from the direction of his room, as he allowed himself only two or three hours' sleep a night. He pinned charts of grammatical conundrums to the back of the toilet door. Over meals he mumbled page 123 phrases to himself. Kenji's mother telephoned almost every day. She spent up to thirty minutes on each call, haranguing him about being a bother, and telling him to come back to Japan. Her phone bills must have been fierce. I had never seen Kenji nervous before. The neighbours and his school friends began to worry, too. They dropped by for brief moments in the evenings to wish him luck. Mrs O'Brien from down the road made him a batch of his favourite large scones, which he liked to eat with a knife and fork. Several people sent cards, as if he were ill.
I took Kenji over to the university and showed him where his test would be held, in the basement of the Murphy Building. The room was a long, windowless place with cheap wall-panelling, hard fluorescent light, and narrow laminated desktops. The sound of my voice seemed to shrivel on the acoustic tiles and fuzzy synthetic carpet. Kenji gazed through the door with unqualified fear. He begged Mariko for more help, but she and I had decided to spend some time together on a trip. We felt as if we had taken our attention off each other for a moment, and the baby had somehow slipped away between us. My mother never did explain to me what she called ‘the facets of life’, perhaps because she wanted me to intuit the naturalness of such needs and purpose, their role in the continuity of things. Fortunately, I had friends at school who were well informed. It was sad to have Kenji sit his test alone, but we had prepared him as well as we could. We took time off work and school, and arranged to fly down to Dunedin. Before leaving, I asked Kenji to take care of the house. Mariko said it would show Mr Hasegawa how responsible and trustworthy Kenji could be. We wished him good luck and rang a taxi for the airport. In Dunedin we hired a camper-van, stopped off at a supermarket for supplies, then drove steadily down state highway one and along the river valleys to Te Anau. We stayed at the edge of the broad, blue lake. Across its empty distance were scattered the ragged mountains of Fiordland, and each day we seemed to commune with the immense calm of a vast landscape. The lake's clear surface did not stir; it did not even gather and lap against the beach. Only Mariko and I moved, walking hand-in-hand along the enormous shore.
A few days after Kenji had sat his test, we drove along to the public page 124 phone at a caravan park. Standing in the midst of some couch-grass that had grown in under the floor of the booth, I picked up the receiver and dialled our house. A strange voice answered.
‘Hullo,’ I said. ‘Who is this, please?’
‘It's Martin Gilbert, the Brights' next door neighbour. I'm looking after the place. Want to leave a message?’
I felt a stab of exasperation. With some embarrassment, I explained who I was and asked to speak to Kenji.
‘Oh, he disappeared, eh. Gosh he's a character, that one. I'm just over to open up some windows, because some of these rooms are a bit stuffy. How's the weather down there?’
I tried to provide a brief meteorological report, and at the same time to let Mariko know what was happening. There was some confusion and I had to insert more coins. I asked Mr Gilbert, ‘What happened to Kenji?’
‘Oh, I wouldn't know where he took off to. Japan maybe. His English isn't always the clearest, you know?’ Mr Gilbert laughed.
‘Yes, I know.’
‘He said something about Japan anyway.’
I managed to find the good grace to thank Mr Gilbert, and promised our return within a few days. When he had finished saying cheerio, I hung up. Mariko was furious. She insisted that we telephone Kenji's mother—collect—and complain about how the family brought him back. Soon, by one of the miracles of communications technology which has squeezed the globe, Mariko's voice in a motor-camp near the southern lakes was being disembodied and transported to the living room of a house in Chiba. The conversation that followed was delicate. It was like the courtship ritual of two mutually suspicious birds. I could hear Mrs Hasegawa's voice wriggling occasionally over the line. Mariko seemed to have adopted a crooked posture, nodding often while repeating the same phrases over and over. Finally she rang off, and with some irritation explained everything to me. Mrs Hasegawa was very concerned, because she knew of no arrangement by Kenji to leave for Japan.
When we arrived back in Wellington, Kenji met us at the airport. His Corolla was in the short-term park and, after we had got our bags page 125 inside, I suffered helping him start it. Travellers pointed, as we grunted and shoved the old car towards a critical velocity between the rows of other vehicles. Kenji said that, after his test, he had taken the ferry to Picton for a couple of days to spend time fishing and exploring. He had asked Mr Gilbert to keep an eye on the house, but confused him by adding a broken description of a visit to the Japanese Embassy about a visa for the following year. Mariko was so angry that she refused to listen. The car chugged up the slope towards the dark gullet of the Mount Victoria tunnel. Kenji said that his father had telephoned. Mr Hasegawa announced that his son could not stay in a house where he put people out, and demanded his immediate return.
‘I have a ticket for tomorrow morning,’ Kenji said, as we passed the portal and into the echoing, concrete-lined hole.
We helped him pack. Kenji had bought a brand-new suitcase and stuck New Zealand stickers over it, until the shell was an amalgam of Southern Crosses and Union Jacks. He snapped the case open and filled it at random. Some of the bigger items I agreed to send on later. The car I would sell. Kenji still had his high-school textbooks. I promised to return them. He telephoned one or two people and tried to explain that he was leaving. They didn't seem to understand, and he became irretrievably sad.
‘You'll be back,’ I said after each phone call. But each time he shook his head. It was late in the evening. I took Mariko aside into the corridor.
‘We could ring his parents,’ I whispered in English. ‘We could say it's no problem. How we're really happy to have him stay.’
‘We can't do anything,’ Mariko said. ‘They always think we're saying that because of our duty.’
‘But … we could tell them that we really mean it.’
‘They expect you to say that. It's a duty, you see. Anyway, they found a chance to get him back. They won't change their idea.’
I leant against the fading, floral wallpaper. ‘All he did was go to Picton.’
‘He lost his chance. He didn't act like the adult.’
‘He did act like an adult. Going fishing after a test is what people do in this country.’page 126
‘No he didn't,’ Mariko snapped. ‘He worried everybody. I don't forgive him his duty.’
‘In conclusion, it must be re-emphasised that, vis-à-vis Japanese language, current secondary-school levels of communicative skill are not satisfactory. For this all involved must take some small share of blame, in summary: teachers who have crossed over from other disciplines, upon which their attentions remain overly focused; students who assume that they need make no effort, as compensatory efforts will be made on their behalf; parents who regard a short-cut to the acceptable minimum as academic success; and an administrative body which prefers to apply the cautious negative, rather than strive for improvement. Moreover, without a clear understanding of what benefits will accrue to those who do persevere to the point of genuine achievement, lack of motivation for reform is likely to remain a crucial factor. Under these conditions, without substantial intervention from outside, it is unlikely that the current state of instruction and study of the language will change significantly in the near future.’
I had finished my report and written myself out of a job. It was a month or so since Kenji's departure. I was given a few days to clean out my desk, and was sitting in what would soon cease to be my office. I should have been out looking for work, but an unhappy mood had gripped me by the shoulders and shaken off the capacity for action. I sprawled untidily back across my chair, my bottom on the extreme tip of the seat, fascinated as always by the curves of the harbour through the windows. A tentative, early-summerish light glittered on the waters. Broken cloud speckled the sky, and the angular commercial-buildings and houses, cluttering the nearby hills, were offset by the brooding, distant ranges. I had just roused myself to phone the library and cancel my borrower's card. Several items were so overdue that I was not sure I could afford to leave the safety of my position as staff: The Oxford Anthology of Perpetual Motion; Some Forgotten Pooh-sticks; Teach Yourself Forgery; and Our Lady of the Collywobbles. When I put down the phone, Mr Hasegawa rang from the airport. With his almost non-existent English he had persistently braved the university exchange, until at last getting through. He said that he would find my office, and I did page 127 not offer to help. I sat thinking that the harbour had first been entered by Europeans only one and a half centuries ago, when James Herd led the Rosanna and the Lambton up past the Heads on a mission of colonisation. How could I know that, and not know my own origins? One of the few things my grandfather remembered about his grandfather, back in England, was that the man had believed lightning was attracted to shiny objects. During electrical storms he would move around the house, covering the mirrors. Herd's mission to Wellington was a failure. Even nowadays, when a storm blew, it seemed as if the waves might spring up and wash through the stores in Lambton Quay once again, and the bush on the background slopes slide down the hills to reclaim the ragged shore.
There was a knock at the door. The handle rattled as Mr Hasegawa came in, looking somewhat flustered. I stood up and we bowed to each other.
‘Ohisashiburi desu,’ he said, and shuffled across the room. A heavy bag in his hands made him appear round-shouldered. He sat on a rickety, plywood chair at the side of my desk. ‘I was in Auckland to arrange some business, so I've come down to Wellington to see you and Mariko-san.’
I made polite noises and inquired after Kenji. He was fine, Mr Hasegawa said. He had entered a Japanese university on a sports scholarship, was studying English every day, and planned to come back to New Zealand in four years' time. I said to wish Kenji good luck with his English. The letter containing his TOEFL-test score had come to our house, and I told Mr Hasegawa that we had opened it. Kenji scored 400 points. Mr Hasegawa did not seem interested. I had sold Kenji's Corolla through a car auction and sent him the money. The skis, his chest of drawers, and some other bits and pieces remained. Mr Hasegawa suggested that I find a needy family and give them away.
‘I'm sorry that we put you to so much trouble,’ he said, ‘and I'm sure Mariko-san has every right to be angry with Kenji.’
‘No, no, she's not angry,’ I lied.
‘Kenji behaved very badly.’
‘Kenji-kun was a remarkably good ambassador for his country. page 128 He's very open, and has a talent for making friendships.’
Mr Hasegawa seemed to look pleased. His small black eyes shone, and I imagined that it was natural for a father to have pride in his son.
‘Kenji's mother and I have bought you and Mariko-san some small presents,’ Mr Hasegawa said. ‘They're nothing much, but …’
He opened the shopping bag beside him and took out some parcels. I knew that Mariko would want me to refuse them. I made firm gestures. But he pressed them upon me and I was left with the bag in my hands, thanking him, while wishing he would go.
‘And I want to give you some money,’ he was saying, ‘as something for your inconvenience.’
Mr Hasegawa stood up and opened his wallet. He counted out seven hundred-dollar notes, and then put them on my blotter.
‘Buy Mariko-san something nice,’ he said, and turned to leave.
I was being paid off. Furthermore, greedy as it made me, I needed the money. I had never loathed Mr Hasegawa as much as in that moment of my weakness. I thought he saw himself as tidying up his son's trip to a Third World country. My discharge was not even expensive. Mr Hasegawa had a taxi outside with the meter running. He apologised for leaving so soon. We bowed, and pretended to look forward to seeing each other again. His hand was on the door. He paused once to glance around the office walls, as if noticing them for the first time, and then departed.
We have never heard from Kenji again. I have taken over Mariko's part-time teaching job, and she is doing some units at the university. I leave home for the cable car in the morning, and sometimes run back to the house. Mariko still sorts through three or four outfits before deciding which one she will wear to lectures. There is no baby. We are being sensible and waiting until we feel settled. It is possible that Kenji will return within a few years, but I do not think we may be here. We talk of Tokyo, Sydney, or New York. Outside the house, open hillside space seem to range around us, and a vast wind threatens to draw us away into the vacuum. I do not think that we will be able to hang on.