Sport 42: 2014
Airini Beautrais — from Dear Neil Roberts
from Dear Neil Roberts
Finding this story
I have a friend I have known,
if I can put it this way, since we were bumps.
When I moved towns, we wrote to each other.
As years went, longer and longer.
We’d roam Karangahape Road in the school holidays,
buy plastic flowers, laugh at oversized knickers.
Our lives’ object was to make things into art.
We loved the sheds of the elderly, and the inorganic collection.
At school, my friend was in awe
of a bunch of punks, hippies, and goths.
She deduced, from the patches on their jackets,
that they were anarchists. Too shy
at first to talk to them, she sat in the library
at lunchtime, set herself essays,
on topics such as ‘Should anarchists vote?’
Yes, for the most fascist party,
whose government will be so awful
the revolution will come sooner.
Or: no, they shouldn’t. They should, instead,
protest the system outside polling booths.
The Asia-Pacific Economic Conference
was held in Auckland; the city crawled
page 85 with protestors; cops with batons
and riot shields. My friend made a flag
from a bin liner and some red fabric.
Went with a buddy through the streets,
got batoned, got in with the cool kids.
Talked police brutality as the bruises slowly healed.
She sent me a poster: ‘Guy Fawkes—The only person
to enter Parliament with honest intentions.’
She put stickers on her envelopes: ‘Ban the filthy car’
and ‘Peter Kropotkin for President’.
‘We are having a picnic,’ she wrote me,
‘to commemorate Neil Roberts Day. He was the anarchist
who blew himself up outside the Whanganui Computer.
Have you heard of him?’ I hadn’t.
One night, in Auckland, my friend and I
went to a meeting of the Anarchist Federation of Aotearoa.
Her mother took us there
asking for directions at every intersection.
These are the memories that tell us
our mothers love us: that they will deliver us
to the addresses we give them, and believe us.
She was never on time. Her love drove us.
A man named Snake was climbing up a ladder.
‘The meeting’s cancelled,’ he yelled.
‘You don’t have email, do you?’ Against the backdrop
of changing communication
we went for coffee. Those were the years
of manicured beards, of scattered cushions,
the boom years of hospitality. I ordered espresso.
Short or long? I couldn’t decide.
A nice night
What went through your head, Neil,
waiting at the Stratford bus stop, for three and a half hours?
Did your dog, Umbrella, sniff something gone awry,
nosing your steel-capped toes? Dogs know.
What went through your head,
putting Umbrella on the bus to Auckland,
seeing the Whanganui bus pull up?
Doors sighing apart. The future, opening up.
How did you feel, in your rabbitskin vest,
buying a battery, asking the cashier
to test it for you? ‘I put a screwdriver
across the terminals,’ he told the papers,
‘and it sparked quite nicely. He seemed like a nice guy.
The last thing I said to him was “Have a nice night”.’
You drank your last can of drink.
You went to the cinema, bought a ticket
to a movie half-over. Cradled your pack,
its unseen contents. Did you watch the action
on the screen, or just sit there, passing minutes?
You must have had a time in mind.
What went through your head, Neil, leaving the cinema,
moving through the back alleys of the Old Town?
There are lots of blank walls there, they echo well.
What went through your head taking out a spray can,
writing on the wall? The text strikes me
as having been written with a steady hand. Also,
it was a fitting choice of quote, then and now,
though written in 1809, in the Junta Tuitiva.
page 87 La Paz, peace, must have been in your mind,
when you added ‘Anarchy: Peace Thinking.’
Some might contest the connection.
‘One day,’ writes my friend Sam, in a zine on anarchy,
‘it may be unnecessary to begin
every piece of writing on the subject of anarchism
by pointing out that anarchism
is not about violence and chaos,
but about organisation and cooperation.
Somebody please give me a yell when this happens.’
What went through your head, Neil, crossing Bates Street?
Did you look at the building, or at your feet?
Were there lights on in the windows?
In Willie Keddell’s short film ‘The Maintenance of Silence’
we see an actor’s legs, from the knees down,
walk the carpark, a pair of hands place a red knapsack.
I was struck by the similarities
between my imagined scene and the film,
except that in the film the footsteps ring ominous
and Keddell’s bomber crouches side-on to the building,
while I imagine him facing the doors. What went through your head,
stooping there? Did you know about the men,
two of them, on the other side of the armoured glass?
There wasn’t time to talk. Did you know about the six
sitting at terminals? What went through their heads,
working there? What I wouldn’t do for a beer.
What I wouldn’t do for a couple hours more sleep.
BANG! The explosion sears through your head,
molecules rearranging, structures unforming.
I have a dream in which I hear the sound
of body parts landing. They make a small noise: blick.
An ambulance arrives, but it is much, much too late.
Out the window
‘I’m trying to moderate my radical thoughts,’ says my friend Jonah,
as he boils a kettle on a hotplate, in a corner of his workshop.
The workshop, in a massive warehouse, features hanging tricycles,
miles of inner tubes, scores of every bike part imaginable
sorted into shelving. There is a smell of grease and rubber;
the toilet, Jonah stresses, when I ask if I can take my boy there,
is a men’s workshop toilet. It’s a bit like a mechanic’s garage,
without the semi-naked women, or the awful music.
Jonah is eating a lunch of silverbeet and baked beans;
late, wolfed, non-gourmet. We are drinking a pleasant kind
of herbal tea. I am sinking into a chair, probably dumpstered.
We are talking about the past, and people we have known.
Here I am, with my blond-haired child,
with my rounded belly, in my hand a set of car keys—
the remote locking kind, which I never would have imagined.
It has been a while since I did anything subversive
with a can of spraypaint, with a billboard, with a naked human body,
with anything. But I’ve known Jonah since the days
when I did. I wonder out loud, what it would be like
if you kept living the same life you lived at twenty-one.
I know some people I’d like to turn out like,
and others I wouldn’t. Jonah is thinking back to his rock days.
A lone creative type, lost in Masterton,
he met up with boys from Upper Hutt College,
played in a band with three of them. All went nuts, he reckons.
All the boys from that school, of that age.
One of them, Jonah tells me, ‘basically, the voices told him
to go out the window.’ And he listened.
page 89 ‘He said one of the most interesting things I’ve ever heard
anyone say,’ Jonah adds. ‘He said, all these people are waiting
for the apocalypse, but the thing is, it’s already happened.
This is hell. We are living in hell.
I’d never thought of it like that.’
‘Neither have I,’ I say. But I can understand,
or remember, more like, what the world
can look like through those goggles.
Sure, it’s frightening, from some angles, getting older;
but what a relief—touch wood, grip vinyl—
to be here, still, a pleasant pointlessness
we have allowed ourselves.
Lukas and I go for a walk up Durie Hill tower,
and look out over the city, the river and its steamboat,
Wairere House square and stolid on the bank
like an ugly pagoda.
All the way down, I carry them both; the one who can walk
and the unborn one. Under every concrete step
names are scrawled in pencil;
a hundred-odd years of self-commemoration.
We lie on the grass, the shellrock monument towers behind us;
memorial to the young, whose shells foreign soil absorbed.
In the warmth of the wall, I look at the embedded fossils
and think some more about the dead.