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Sport 38: Winter 2010

The Scrivener

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The Scrivener

Ravni ravni ravni.

The only word he can say now, repeating it over and over.

Laura listens to the music of his speech, the up and down of it. The emphases, the pauses, everything is retained. It's the language of a native speaker, the voice sliding up at the end as if the speaker is surprised, as if every statement is a question.

We're all surprised down here, she thinks. We're chockfull of questions. The most newly discovered of the lands of this world and we still don't know what to make of it.

She walks through from the kitchen to the living room. Her father is hunched forward on the edge of his chair. He's staring into the TV, his face only inches away from it. There's someone there, crouched in the middle of the jungle. The helicopter swings up and cuts away over the tops of the trees. Then it sweeps in again, clattering over the clearing.

There's a man down there, wearing nothing more than a horn of twisted bark that covers his penis. His head tilts back as the camera zooms in, his face serrated by stripes of clay or mud, elaborate feathers in his headdress. A chief, perhaps, who has snatched up his weapons and rushed out.

His face fills the screen. Then it's flicked away as the pilot yanks the machine up and it slides away before settling in for another sweep. Why can't they leave him alone, proud and innocent, unmarked by the filth of the twenty-first century?

Laura puts her hand on her father's arm, feels the rage in him.

Together they watch the man on the screen, how he crouches in the middle of the clearing as the big bird flies over, the terrifying sound of it, the way it drags plants and dust up into its gaping mouth, the wind storm that's come with it, the tall sappy trees twisting and writhing.

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It's up to him to protect the tribe, the women, the children, to show courage and strength in front of the other men. Otherwise one of them will challenge him.

He has his bow and his poisoned arrows. He takes aim. He fires off a shot. The arrow snakes up, fast and fierce. It stalls, it buckles, it falls back to earth.

There's a man crouching in the middle of the clearing in the middle of the village in the middle of the rainforest. A man with a map inside his head. And on the map there's every tree, every track that slides through the rainforest, every stream. Every creature, every leaf, every berry.

Wolfgang and Laura, sitting there, watching him.

Others will go in now. The co-ordinates of the flight will be marked down. The world will Google him. There'll be TV cameras and film crews. Celebrities will trek in, faking discomfort, the bearers, the medics, the wine and oysters, the venison pies kept well out of sight. The fresh fruit. Someone will get a PhD out of this. Someone else will get a game-show.

They'll steal his language, put it on tape. They'll spend years trying to translate it. They'll make the same sounds. They'll laugh and slap him on the back when he responds and of course he can't help but respond. Not when he's looking into the strange face of a god and the god speaks in something like his own voice, in something like his own language.

Laura goes to turn the TV off.

But her father wants her to leave it on. She tries to imagine what's going on in his head. Will there be questions? Like, how does anyone know what they're meant to do with their life? Or, what is that each of us is prepared to die for?

No, she thinks. Not Wolfgang Merckle, the painter, the internationally respected poet. His marvellous language trapped inside his head after a stroke.

No, what he'll be thinking is rather more like this. So, that's what it all comes down to in the end, that's how it is for a tragic hero, standing alone in the middle of the jungle, facing up to the monster, shaking your fist at it, Hoobra, hoobra!

Reduced to a curiosity, a laughing stock.

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He'll be reading the whole thing as a fucking metaphor!

The phone rings. Laura gets up, drags her yak jacket around her shoulders, goes out into the hallway to answer it.

She shudders when she hears the voice. Craig Wordsworth. 'Laura, darling, you're back!'

He asks her about the Spaniard, or was it the Frenchman, there was a rumour, quite a while ago, has he come back with her too?

'I'm sorry, Craig.' She pulls a face in the little painted mirror on the wall. 'I'm just getting tea for Daddy.'

'Righty oh. Sorry to hold you up. I just wanted to remind your papa about the little celebration next week.' Graig Wordsworth sounds buoyant and . . . rubicund. Is that a possibility? Maybe she'll look it up later.

'The Writers' Group wants to do a little something in his honour.'


'Yes, someone's said he's not so good and we thought it would be nice to do something on the local front. You know, before it's too late.'

'Sorry?' Laura can hear the razor slash in her voice. But Graig Wordsworth seems impervious.

'There's going to be a reading. Althea Wigge is coming down from Wellington. She'll read for a bit and then there'll be the usual BYO stuff. There'll be a glass or two of wine, nothing spectacular. And some chippies and dip. We're keeping it all very simple.'

Laura wonders about the 'we'. She's been away for such a long time. Terence McWhinney, no doubt. And Ben Sawyers. Hadn't Mags rather fancied him way back? And Izzy, what about poor old Izzy?

'I wrote to Wolfie about it a few months ago—'


'—but I haven't heard back.'

'He's a bit tired at the moment. It's the winter . . .'

'Of course, of course, and he's no spring chicken, is he. Time waiting for no man and all that.'

Laura is silent.

'Or woman.' He gives a little snigger. 'Sorry, Laura.'

Now he's mocking her.

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Craig Wordsworth, smooth and flexible as a cat, able to fall whichever way. Reading her silence the same way he always used to, as some kind of reprimand. Or pretending to.

You're so out of touch, that's what she wants to say to him. You're a fart and a fool. She wants a fight with screaming and scratching and blood on the floor. She wants to do Craig Wordsworth, to chop him up like minced meat.

But she can hear Wolfgang, struggling to get up out of his chair. Anxious to see what's keeping her.

'Look, I have to go. What day is it? What time? Oh, evening's not so good for him but we'll see what we can do. You realize he's not up to giving a reading, don't you. OK then, thanks.'

And she's hung up before he can say another word.

The next morning she goes down to the beach as usual. The waves are dark and heavy with sand. Little ribbons of purple weed twist through the wreckage of roots and stripped tree trunks, some branches a bright tan, some a rancid yellow. It's as if a fleet has been wrecked on this wild, forgotten bit of the coast.

The sea is nudging the gravel into low berms. Her feet sink into them, it makes walking difficult. But it's good to feel the pull in her ankles, the little twang in her calf muscles.

Her body is hanging in there, it can take a bit more punishment.

They'd brought her mother out to the beach the day before she died. Stopped the car on Golf Course Road and sat there, Laura and Netta and Wolfgang. Not Magda, not Billy. They came with a rush and a roar when they got the final news, of course. When it was too late.

The water had been still that day, shiny like a mirror.

Laura had tugged at her mother's sleeve, trying to distract her. 'Look, look at the clouds in the water. It's like a mirror.'

'It's like a metal trap.' Poor Netta, holding a handkerchief to her eyes to keep out the light.

Wolfgang had been silent. It must have been an embarrassment for him to have Netta back in his house. But where else did she have to go when she was really sick? Mere was still there but things weren't too happy. There was a new woman in his life, apparently, younger, page 221 prettier, a painter. Yolande? Surely that couldn't have been right. No one would have had a name like that round here, would they.

Laura had come back briefly for Netta's sake but after only a few days she was regretting it.

There'd been black swallows spinning and flipping all over the lagoon, just like there were now.

'Oh look, they're catching insects.' Laura the do-gooder, trying to get her mother to look outwards, to take an interest in something. Anything. Panic-stricken by the depth of her despair.

A tiny dotterel speeds across the stones. It matches their colours, beige, grey and white. Laura can only see it by letting her eyes drift, by somehow sensing

the movement. Such a funny little mechanical toy. The abrupt ticking over of the spiky legs, the head butting the air, nid nod, nid nod, the little bird speeding away from its nest, pausing, flicking out a wing, dragging it over the gravel, the high peep of anxiety.

There must be a nest somewhere.

Laura turns away and the metallic sounds become frantic, tap tap tap like a tack hammer. An image pops up in her head, of Wolfgang rushing around the house, upstairs and down, tap tap tapping hooks into the walls, laying out his lavish paintings. Taking up all the space. Not one of the hooks ever struck a dwang. The paintings, brilliantly located for symmetry and light, were highly likely to fall down in a big wind or in a relatively small quake. They were likely to kill someone.

'The paintings are a bit of a knock out.' Laura can remember coming up with the line when Saph came out to stay. 'Are you sure you'll be OK, sleeping under them?'

And Saph had laughed. 'Don't worry, I like to live dangerously.' And she'd gone on piling more and more cotton quilts on top of the bed.

The Princess and the Pea, that's what Laura used to call her. With that pale, translucent skin of hers. And the clock would have to be wrapped up in a towel and put away in a drawer because Saph couldn't bear to hear it ticking.

Don't worry. People still tell her that.

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There must be something in her voice, something that gives the game away.

And there's Laura rushing down the corridor. It's the last day of her first week at the new school. Assistant teacher English. She's forgotten to lock up the classroom and it's lunchtime, the kids are wandering all over the place, looking for mischief. In a frenzy, she yanks open the door of the classroom, and thank goodness, the DVD player is still there and the computers, the video camera, nothing has been stolen. But where's the key so she can lock up? Her fingers fumble, she drops her whole bunch of keys, her glasses are back in the staffroom, she's got no idea what she's doing. And just then Saph, HOD Maths, comes strolling along and takes the keys from her.

'This is panic,' she says and the words come out very quietly as if Saph is talking to herself, as if she's naming the problem and sorting it at the same time in that amazing mind of hers.

And of course she picks out the right key straight away.

'I suggest you put a sticker on it,' she says. 'Maybe colour code all your keys. I've found that to be very useful.'

No point Laura telling her that she prefers to play the good day, bad day game. The I'm-in-luck and the bummed-out-yet-again game. Put the random key in the lock. If it fits, Lady Luck is on your side. If not, watch out.

Cheaper than going to the casino.

Billy was always mortified when she told him things like that. 'For God's sake,' he'd say, Mere's beautiful, wayward, selfish boy, 'when are you ever going to grow up?'

Maybe that's why she kept on telling him.

She bends down and picks up a shell. It's the inner whorl only, a bit like a half-open rosebud. The stem's divided into a kind of smile. The whole thing makes a ring that fits snugly on her finger. It's big and clunky across her knuckles. It's rosy white like the winter sky and its reflection in the sea. The air so fresh and chill, the whole beach empty.

'Be brave,' she says to herself. 'You have to be brave.'

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Every day Wolfgang sits at his desk working. He won't use a computer, makes his hands into fists, shakes his head.

Laura sharpens a pencil, hands it to him.

It has to be the palest blue paper, no lines. He bends over it. His hair is getting painfully thin but he won't let her cut it. She's bought a nice little leather thong, showed him a picture of himself when he was young, when he was living in Santiago with Netta, before Laura was born. Wants him to tie up his hair like that, in a pony tail.

But he will have none of it.

Every evening, he shuffles his papers into manila folders and watches as she locks them away in the cupboard. She never asks to look at them, she doesn't want a fight. She gives him the key and he puts it in his wallet. No one else is allowed to touch it.

'Well done, Wolfie.'

They've driven into the city through looming mist and squally rain. They're well wrapped up and the WEA rooms, although they're nothing flash, are warm and cosy. Craig Wordsworth backs free from his crowd of admirers and turns to greet them. He's wearing a black and white striped jacket and a red cravat.

'Good on you, man,' and he punches Wolfgang lightly on the upper arm.

Laura puts her arm around her father to keep him from falling. Craig Wordsworth, poet, beams at them through his black-rimmed specs. He's in his Andy Warhol phase with a silly little squiff of bleached hair sticking up.

'You're a hero. We all think so.'

And he turns round, beaming to everyone in the room, clapping his pale hands with an avid enthusiasm.

Laura smiles grimly.

Craig Wordsworth leans into her, kisses the air beside her right cheek. 'How are you, gorgeous?'

'I'm fine. You've got a good turn-out.'

'Indeed.' He gives a little bow. 'All for you, Wolfie, all for you.'

'Ravni ravni.' Wolfgang articulates it beautifully.

'Oh dear, what's wrong?'

'Nothing, he's fine. He's had a bit of a stroke, that's all. His speech page 224 has been affected but he understands everything perfectly.' Laura takes her father by the hand. 'Come on, we'd better go and sit down before you tire yourself out.'

She settles him on a chair in the middle of the front row, drapes a rug around him, asks if someone can please get him a glass of water.

Izzy Wilson is sitting in the front row too, huddled into herself, her long hair falling over her face. Laura gives her a little smile, hi, long time no see, we're not doing too badly are we, and Izzy nods, distractedly. She's looking awfully pale, as skinny as ever and Laura's thinking that perhaps it's time she made a bit more of an effort. She could give Izzy a ring, she could meet her for a coffee.

The official speeches are generous and fond.

Althea Wigge seems quite overcome.

Wolfgang is a beautiful man, she says, he always was and always will be. Such an influence on the younger generation, such drive and such pizzazz. She owes him a lot, she says, for opening up her life, for showing her the expansiveness that is so essential to New Zealand writing and art, so unusual, so necessary to break out beyond the bounds of insularity, insula being an island as they all know from the Latin. It's also the defence system around something dangerous like an electrical current, like insulation tape (and she gives a little laugh), and that's what she thinks Wolfgang has been, an electrical current in the world of the arts, sparking controversy and challenging the complacency of the hoi polloi, and he's always been such a . . . such a truly delicious man.

And it's clear that Althea Wigge with her tiny waist and her zany Trelise Cooper suit with its swatches of over-stitched silk is as far removed from the commonplace as one could imagine. And there's a little ripple of interest at the fervour with which she utters that rather surprising word 'delicious'.

But then Althea Wigge is a poet and is thus to be forgiven for any display of verbal extravagance. No one should be surprised, least of all Laura for whom the daunting terrain of her father's love affairs, whether literal or metaphorical, is all too hideously familiar.

Now it's time for the BYO reading.

Nothing seems to have changed. There's a burly old farmer from

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Tuatapere with a soulful ballad, the tragic story of a car crash. He's got a blonde wig on the rostrum and it's clear that this is standing in for the teenage victim. He strokes the curls and his eyes fill with tears; his voice chokes with passion as he cries out against her unfair fate.

There's a tax department secretary with an extremely funny ode made up entirely of clichés.

There's a busker with a rat on his shoulder and a dog collar around his neck. He can't get it off, he says, because his flatmate has disappeared with the key. His poem turns out to be of epic proportions and is presented in such a very determined manner that no opportunity arises for Terence McWhinney, as Master of Ceremonies, to intervene, although every now and then he walks across to stand behind the performer, looks at his watch and shakes his head. Retreats then to a corner of the stage where he leans back against the wall, his arms folded across his broad chest, a picture of agitated nonchalance.

The busker goes on and on, his performance hypnotic. There's something about riding a bike and falling into a river. There's a chorus which simulates the swishing of a washing machine. Laura is enjoying it enormously but she knows it's a torment for her father to have to sit through something like this.

She takes a look. Wolfgang is slumped down in his chair, his head resting on his elegantly gloved fist. He seems to have gone to sleep.

Craig Wordsworth is the last reader.

With the confidence of a magistrate, he steps up, opens a fat manuscript, the text all typed out. He turns the pages, clears his throat, strides across to a little side table, picks up a glass of water, takes a sip, returns to his initial position, clears his throat again, turns a few more pages, forwards then back, shakes his head, looks up and smiles ruefully at the audience. Strokes his fingers down a page and ah, at last he's made his choice and he begins to read.

Laura's hands are folded in her lap. When she hears the words, the bitter, nasty, hateful words that pour from his lips, at first she's merely irritated. She jabs the thick nail of her thumb into the soft pad of her finger and presses till it hurts. The man really is an idiot.

Craig Wordsworth steps closer to the audience, closer to Izzy. Oh my god, he's spitting his words right into her face, he hates her, oh how he hates her, that's what the poems are all about.

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He hates Izzy and he wants her to suffer.

Laura is outraged.

She wants to get up on the stage, she wants to make a speech about love and compassion. About common kindness. She wants to make a scene. She wants to expose the romantics, expose the savage streak in them. She wants to remind everyone that Hitler was a romantic, that he wanted the Luftwaffe to wipe out the remains of his army when he realized he was going to lose the war. He wanted every sign of his failure removed from the face of the earth. A romantic can never sustain failure, they'd rather destroy than come off second best. Their wives don't count. Their children don't count. Romantics are the true vermin.

'Are you sure?' Billy hadn't believed her when she'd started on about it at Netta's funeral, when Wolfgang had behaved so badly, refusing to say anything at the service, not one kind word to say about his first wife. And the second one, poor Mere, left to deal with all the guests while he went off with the artist woman, Yolande. What kind of a stupid name was that.

'Yeah, pretty sure.'

And all of a sudden she hadn't been sure at all. 'It comes from a huge disappointment, don't you think. The childish belief that things should work out exactly the way you want disguised as a passion for beauty.'

'You're right, I'm sure you're right.' Billy would never argue. He couldn't care less. Not unless it was something that affected him directly.

'I'm not right. I don't want to be right. It's not about being right.' Please don't trust me, don't believe me. Tell me how the world works, save me.

All of a sudden Izzy starts to scream.

Craig Wordsworth stops reading.

Somebody, a woman, begins to laugh, then stops. A man coughs in embarrassment. Somebody down the back says, 'Open the door. Open the door for God's sake, let's have some air in here.'

Wolfgang stands up.

Laura is shocked to see how frail he is. Silly wisps of hair stick out page 227 from under his hat. He presses the woollen scarf to his throat. His knuckles are lumpy, the skin blotched and scabbed.

'Ravni,' he says, 'ravni ravni ravni' in tones of utter bewilderment.

(He'll break her heart, they always break your heart.)

'Come on,' she says, 'we've got to get you home.'

A few weeks later, Mags comes over from the Gold Coast.

'Better catch up with the old boy before it's too late.' Mags with her thatch of yellow hair, her suntan, the tight white pants with the g-string showing through. Perching on the arm of Wolgang's comfy chair. 'What's he doing up there anyway?'


'Writing what?'

'I don't know. He doesn't let me see.'


Laura hesitates. 'Sometimes I think he's quite happy.'

'He's never been happy.' Wolfgang always used to say that Mags was loud. It seems to Laura that year by year she's getting louder. 'He's not the sort of man to be happy, is he. Couldn't stand anyone else being happy either.'

'That's a bit harsh.'

'It's true. You just think about it. You, me, Billy. Made our lives a fucking misery.'

'That was a long time ago.'

'I knew you'd say that.' It's accompanied by a triumphant grin.

Laura speaks slowly and carefully. 'What do you mean.' It's not really a question.

'I knew you'd take his side.'

'I'm not into sides.'

'Whatever,' and Mags tips herself backwards into the armchair, ends up folded in half like a pair of tongs, her purple sneakers waggling near her face.

Laura's struggling to find a way through all this. It's as if she's out in the bush on her own at night with only a pencil torch to guide her. They can't start fighting. Not now. 'I just think . . .'

'Don't think, dear sister. You were never any good at it.'

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'There's no need for us to go on like this, is there?'

'Like what?'

'Like we're enemies.'

'Well, we are, aren't we?'


'Yes we are!' Mags is shouting. 'Always have been, always will be, world without end, amen.'

But Laura shouts even louder. 'We are bloody not!'

'We are bloody so!'

And all of a sudden they're both laughing. Mags gets up, goes over to her leather jacket hanging on the back of the door, takes out a packet of cigarettes, lights one.

'Hey, not in the house.'

'What?' Mags pouts, breathes out a wisp of blue smoke.

'Not in the house. Give us one and we can both go outside.'

'You don't smoke.'

'Well I'm just about to start.'

'You're nuts.' It's a compliment, Laura knows that. 'So are you,' she says, relieved and at the same time feeling oddly sulky. 'We're both fuckin' insane.'

Magda puts her arm around her older sister's shoulders. 'Well that's all right then.'

It's the last move in the game. Now they can go out peacefully together like good little children and play in the chilly garden.

Laura takes the key from the wallet, climbs the stairs, opens the cupboard. The folders are lined up neatly, rounded sides outwards, like nicely folded sheets.

She takes one down. She's trembling. She's burning with guilt and shame, just like when she was a child, sneaking around the house in the dark. Standing in the hallway, the red velvet curtains pulled across, the gold tasselled sash. Loosening it, pulling the heavy red edges apart, easing herself through. Listening to the little sighs and groans that came from her parents' room. Wolfgang and Netta. The things they were doing in there, the secrets they were keeping from her.

She is betraying her father's trust, she knows that.

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She puts on her glasses, takes out a sheet, holds it up to the window. It looks like a musical score with hundreds of little wormy lines in varying lengths running across the blue paper.

She takes up page after page. They're all the pretty much the same and yet they're all subtly different.

'They're artworks, you know that don't you.'

She can imagine Billy poring over them, running his hands through his thinning hair. Beautiful Billy with his rosy cheeks, that gorgeous Maori skin, could be taken for an Italian. The eyes greeny blue, more blue really with flecks of navy. The girls had always gone crazy over his eyes, poor things, all of them doomed to disappointment.

Billy would be over the moon, proud that his father had been an artist right to the end. Still making his marks, these elegant scratchings, curves and hooks and dots, a kind of painterly shorthand.

'Jesus, they're exquisite. I reckon I could get Manny to set up an exhibition.'

Of course he'd have to bring Manny into it, the two of them dreaming of making big bucks in their Sydney gallery. 'Get us as many as you can, sis. Send over the lot. He wont even know they're missing.'

No, she would never show the papers to Billy.

Mags knows all about shorthand. Laura shows her a sheet.

'What do you reckon? Can you read it?'

'Yep. It says . . . ravni ravni ravni ravni ravni.'


'Na, it's garbage. The stupid scribbles of a sad old man.'

Laura irons the sheet before she slips it back carefully into its folder. Her father was quite right. Mags has been living too long in Australia.

Wolfgang is writing, writing, in his room:

Laura climbs the stairs, brings him a cup of tea. There's a couple of biscuits too, macaroons, his favourites.

He hooks his arm around the page, concealing it like he used to when he was a boy, sprawling across the shared desk, working away clumsily with a chewed off pencil.

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After the pencil it was the steel nib in the wooden shaft, the ink poured from the big bottle into the white porcelain stashed in the top right hand corner, above the hinge that joined the flange to the sloping face of the desk. He's told her about it so many times, taking pains with all the details. (He's measuring it up, that's what she used to say to herself, he's turning it into poetry. And she'd wonder if he was going to turn her into poetry too.) There was the slop slop of ink when Fatty Jenkins got up and shoved his way down the narrow aisle to Sister's desk. 'Excusez moi, ma Soeur, j'ai besoin de la toilette.'

And sometimes Fatty would wet his pants because he couldn't remember the words. Then there'd be the leakage onto the floor, the shameful wet gusset, the other boys all jeering. The stink, warm and acidic, rising from the damp spot on the seat beside him.

How had he got from that to this, the brief flicker of fame, the poems making their odd way round the world. The honours in London. The women. Maybe he had loved them. There was no doubt that they loved him. He was their delicious but dangerous provenance.

And now there is only Laura left, standing back, watching.

He looks up. His face is changing. It's more sunken, grayish, as if a light is slowly going out. They're so cautious with each other these days. She thinks he's trying to tell her something. It must be that he wants her to go, that he needs to get on with his work.

'I know,' she says, 'I know', and she moves towards the door. Her hands are shaking, her heart is pounding. The last thing she could bear right now would be any sign of his contrition.

The door closes. He bends over the page.

to curvet the horse rearing up on its back legs
giving a little leap up into the air
my heart curvetting when I see you
when you smile at me when the words flow over the page
a scrivener a writer
da capo go back to the beginning ah yes go back to the beginning