The Spike [or Victoria University College Review 1961]
The Motor Car
The Motor Car
A Car is essential, thought Willis. He kept thinking about this all the afternoon. It was important to have something pleasant to take his mind off the job. He was cutting manuka. Thick, tough, hairy old manuka; the sort that gapped bushmen's axes and sent them off on long, frustrated jags. The sun glared offensively from the theatrically blue sky and Willis slashed on. He left the branches piled in heaps to be burned later. He kept looking longingly towards the shady parts on the edge of the bushline where the energies of the pack of vultures who'd pioneered this piece of valley not quite a hundred years ago, had petered out against a tangle of birch forest and thick undergrowth. He wondered why he didn't stretch out there and have a quiet sleep for an hour or so. Only thing that stopped him was some vague feeling of provincial pride which he was surprised to find he possessed. He was sure no sensible human would put up with all this heat, thirst and monotony without some powerful reason. In his case it seemed to be that he wouldn't like Alf to find out that he couldn't keep up the pace.
'How'm I doing?' he asked Alf when the billy came up at smoko.
'Not bad for a townie,' said Alf.
Willis knew he'd say this. They leered at each other and started pushing and kicking about in the scrub with Alf's hat for a football. The game ended in a draw with the arrival of Mrs Buttons the housekeeper.
Here's a nice plate of scones I've just made,' she said with what she thought was one of her mature sex-cat smiles.
'That's very charming of you indeed,' replied Willis in what he thought was his imitation English-public-school-type-who-is-down-on-his-luck voice. 'Awful old bitch but she can cook,' he added silently.
'Yak it's better than those dry old biscuits you used to bring me,' said Alf with a knowing leer.
'Now come on sit up and eat them like good boys.'
'Christ Almighty you've made a hit with the old girl,' sneered Alf when she had gone. She never used to feed me up like this when I was on me own.'
'Oh balls, she's old enough to be my mother.'
That's all right about that — I wouldn't be surprised at anything you foreigners get up to. Man's got to watch you jokers all the time.'
'Well watch me attack these scones then,' said Willis. He selected the one with the most jam and butter and turned away to study the view down the valley so that he wouldn't see Alf's jaws chumping up and down with bits of scone and jam getting outside his teeth and falling down his chin and having to be pushed back inside the machinery again with a dirty thumb.
Willis had arrived on the Coast by a process of logical exhaustion. He was keeping out of the way of the police because of some false cheques he had foolishly written. This meant staying away from places like Auckland (his home town), Wellington and Christchurch. His last real job had been as a junior reporter on one of the rags page 76 up North. Before that he'd been bumming round England and Europe with a bunch of other impecunious Kiwis. Now he was seeing New Zealand.
Alf was an older man who was employed permanently on the farm where Willis was scrub cutting. He was also an expert on the power saw. Whenever Willis struck something in the second growth scrub that was too big for him to handle. Alf would, lug the saw across and belt it down.
The Coasters had no artistic delusions about landscapes. With the aid of a horse or a crawler tractor to snig away the logs, All and the power saw would turn any romantic bush-filled valley into something approaching an Australian desert once they got stuck in.
Willis lay back in the sharp smelling manuka boughs and thought about the West Coast roads crawling with almost every kind of vehicle. There were some fine new cars which had been laboriously and expensively shipped out from England and America, but for every one of these there were droves of antediluvian monsters clattering about the highways. He sometimes fancied the whole valley as a technological museum with the faculty of perpetual animation. And its curators seemed to spend their days in idyllic creative labours, arranging and comparing their exhibits after they had dragged them triumphantly from swamps, ruined barns, tumbledown black smiths' shops and overgrown junkyards. The quaint mechanical mutations which were the by-products of their researches fascinated him. He had gained considerable respect for the Paleolithic society of Westland when he saw how its people unconsciously transmitted their repressed energies and skills into such discarded junk and obsolescent oddities of the outside world as came their way. Their creative talents went eagerly into putting old motor cars together in ingenious hybrid combinations.
'I can drive anything boy,' said Alf one day. This was literally true. All these folk were at ease on anything from a camel to a ninety-ton tank. What was more, they could keep their transport going with nothing more elaborate in the way of roadside equipment than an axe, a few lengths of fencing wire and some swearing. Willis had seen their experts dive boldly into the complex bowels of imported machinery to give a snick here and a snip there with the pliers, plucking out whole fistfuls of vital organs like surgeons on the battlefields. Then they stood back and said: 'Give 'er a go now.' Generally the corpse writhed back to life and performed prodigies its original manufacturers had never dared dream about.
For, out here on the perimeter, not just motor cars but all the machines were made to work twice as hard and last twice as long as anywhere else. Instead of being scrapped when they wore out, they were revitalized through many elaborate stages of reincarnation.
Here on the frontier there was a functional, highly utilitarian view of life. Here was no carefully-staged, Polynesian-postcard scenery, no tediously-contrived tourist bait, no sycophantic jollification on the part of nature, no primping in front of the tourist bus or the colour camera. The quartz mines had long shut down, but the symbols of their greedy conceit had lingered in spite of vague therapeutic attempts on the part of the fertile climate. Old pipes and sluice channels lay rotting in the page 77 ferns amongst the wreckage of deserted mining settlements. Ponderous chunks of iron squatted balefully in the ruined frameworks of the stamping batteries like ancient desecrated monoliths whose worshippers have been hurried off to oblivion by some irresistible complication in the machinery of fate.
The present day populace from time to time snigged some of this old iron away to make up a shipload of scrap for Japan, and continued to improvise happily in the remaining debris. Old steam engines and crude, roaring, grinding structures bolted on to the rear of tractors slaved equally in the fields beside the occasional expensive, more recent importation. Hedges were cut, ferns and blackberries squashed flat, the earth scoured up, gorse scarified, ditches dug, firewood and timber sawn, logs snigged out, stumps uprooted and winches driven unceasingly as if the patched up, motley array of machines were the obedient slaves of eternity and no doubts or uncertainties as to their continued servility or final intentions were ever to creep into this remote Eden.
'Where do you think I might be able to get a good car cheap?' Willis asked Alf.
'Oh, any sort, must be cheap though. Even an old job would do. I might be able to get it done up perhaps.'
'What the hell do you want a car for?'
'To get around in of course.'
Ah ha! You must have a little sheila on the go somewhere already eh? What did I say about you Outlanders!'
But after tea at the homestead Alf led the way round the back of the cowbails to where the scrap heap was.
'You don't wanna get crunched up by them second-hand car sharks,' he told Willis. We could fix one of these ones up for damn-all.'
Willis looked in dismay at the assembly of beaten-up old wrecks and vintage vehicles that lay scattered in the attitudes of painful, violent death.
'Some good old waggons,' muttered Alf. 'See that Model T over there. We could jack her up easy. No. no! We couldn't. I forgot the old man rebored her during the depression. She's about had it now.'
He marched over to something massively upholstered and reminiscent to Willis of pictures he had seen of the Bristol coach, and he poked around under the bonnet.
'Here's the first Cadillac in the district. They used it as an undertaker's van until business got a bit slack and then they put another body on her — Ha! Ha! Ha ! — and they ran her as a taxi. Lovely motor, lovely motor she's got. . . Now see that 35-horse Moreau-Lupton over there. That belonged to me grandfather — I was nearly born in that, they tell me!'
'What about something more contemporary?' suggested Willis.
'Okay, how would you like that Arrol-Johnston in the corner then?'
Alf pointed to a rusty tangle where a dozen fowls were nesting. 'No,' he added. 'On second thoughts, she's too good for you — you wouldn't appreciate her.'
After a long discussion on the pedigrees of all the wrecks that were visible above page 78 the mud they decided on a '26 Chev which was mating in the weeds with a horse-drawn chaff-cutter.
'Hellishin good machine that to start with eh ?' said Alf. 'Go anywhere.'
'It's got no wheels.'
'Aw what's the matter with ya ? We'll rat the wheels off that old Hup in the corner. Wheels are nothing. You can buy a few spares easy enough to finish the job, and we'll cannibalize the odd bit here and there from some of the other cars, and we'll have you jacked up in no time.'
Willis went to sleep that night weaving wonderful schemes for the future. He'd give the South Island a last chance, he thought as he listened to the rain snickering against the iron roof of the bach where he slept. Up till now it had been disappointing. Everything down South had turned out to be shabbier and increasingly under the neurotic domination of Wellington. As far as he was concerned the whole of the South could just as well be given to the tourists to play in — a sort of glorified dude ranch with race meetings day and night, as many trout as you wanted to catch, as many deer as you could shoot, and as many pigs as you could barbecue. But as an attempt towards establishing a human society it was just as big a failure as the North. Perhaps it was a bigger failure, because at least there was some living space down South and consequently there wasn't such an excuse for ineptitude; for example the show wasn't cluttered up with Horis and side-tracked by squabbles over the divvy-up from the Maori Wars. There weren't so many politicians and policemen either, so you'd have thought people could have evolved something pleasant in the way of survival — but no, here they were dodging around on the same grubby manoeuvres as the mob up North.
It was important that he should have his own car. It didn't have to be a flash one either, because he would be able to get kudos out of doing all this pioneering with the old Chev. This was in conformity with the powerful social traditions of the valley. It was bound to impress Beverly to see him triumphing over his handicaps as a newchum and creating the vehicle for his ambitions with the pioneer requirements of a screwdriver, a Bsa spanner and a pair of pliers, which was as far as his acquaintance with the mechanical world went.
To a man in Willis's situation the motor car was really what the patio and guitar were to a passionate Latin, or the boudoir to a skilful Frenchman. He fell asleep dreaming of a classical elopement by moonlight. Thundering across the Alps in the old Chev to Christchurch. Then a quick killing at the registrar's office. Deal with the father later...
For the next two weeks Alf and Willis spent their spare time with the mysteries of backyard mechanical engineering. They dragged the old Chev into the big barn where All did his blacksmithing and general farm repair work and fiddled around with the homestead lighting plant. Methodically they stripped the chassis down. They cleaned and overhauled every working part and assembled it again. Alf would give instructions and then disappear for long periods on work of his own in the back page 79 of the shed, leaving Willis to do quite a few of the jobs himself. He found he was even gaining some slight manual dexterity.
'Do you really think we'll get her going all right?' he asked Alf.
'Yak, we'll do the old bitch up better than she was when she left the manufacturer, you see.'
'Now look at Alf,' thought Willis. 'Superficially he's your rough, hard-working, boozing, gambling, intellectually-dormant Pig Islander. But when he jumps on that bulldozer or starts work with the welding torch he's away up in the front line of human activities. He seems to respond to the subtleties of the apparatus in his charge just as some of the peasants in the valley respond to older, more primitive forces and assume unconsciously the tireless habits and sensitive, wary identities of the animals they are always hunting, and the trees they are continually felling in the vast weeping forests...'
This literary reverie was interrupted by a loud sustained Buurraaaap!' from All (they'd had onions with the chops at lunch time). Then in a voice like a blunt crosscut saw he demanded: For Chrissake pass the Perkin' hammer will ya?'
'Oh, sorry,' said Willis, coming back to reality to see Alf glaring round the bulge of the back axle assembly.
Willis pottered about happily in the rear compartment of his car. He had so many plans for it. A pale pink aesthetic interior would be an interesting style. Perhaps some indirect lighting too. Carpets and blue-flowered ceiling would make a chic addition. What about a cactus plant and some personal scent, like pines or tropical fruit, in the corners to give that subtle illusion of space and masculinity? A red satin plush sofa with built in cocktail bar would be an asset for quiet seductions; later on he might experiment with etchings or water colours. Then a radiogram . . . Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt and of course some Brubeck for variety, maybe a few Bessie Smith and Leadbelly discs for the traditionalists. Girls had such funny tastes these days. It might be possible to arrange readings from Shelly, Keats, Dylan Thomas, Auden and maybe some of the New Zealanders. Yes! All the trappings of romance. La vie spirituelle! None of this revving around in hotted up V8's broadsiding in front of all the milk bars and playing chicken with the railcar on one-way bridges. He'd show them something in creative energy too. They'd only begun to explore the artistic possibilities of transport in this country. He'd apply to the New Zealander's mechanistic vitality the transforming guidance of European art forms, and the result would be a magical, voluptuous regeneration, a second renaissance, no less! A new Humanism! He'd show them all.
'She oughter be goin' by the week end,' All announced as he poked his head through a displaced floorboard.
'That's good news.'
'I was wondering if you'd be able, to do something for me?'
'Most certainly. As a matter of fact I'm very deeply obliged to you, my friend, for all the work you've done on this, and I'd like to show my appreciation in some way.'page 80
'She's right, I like workin' on cars — but I was wonderin' if you'd help me out on Saturday.'
'The races next Saturday. The big Cup meeting. I told old Clara Buttons I'd take her.'
Well I can't. I've got something else I gotta do.'
Now, that's a pity isn't it?'
'Yair, well will you take her instead?'
'Oh but I'd made other arrangements. But — oh well, yes of course I'll take her if you can't manage it.'
Aw that's good. The old girl likes her day out at the geegees. You better watch her though boy. Don't lend her any fivers to put on roughies. And don't forget she's a tiger to go when she gets on the plonk.'
'I'll watch her,' said Willis grimly. That was going to make things complicated. Mrs Buttons. Hmm. Randy old nuisance. He'd already arranged to take Beverly. Well it couldn't be helped. He'd take them both.
Race day. Blue pin-stripe suits taken out of moth balls, floral frocks and tailored costumes ruthlessly levered and stretched and corseted on to rebellious figures. New hats studied with anxious finality in bedroom mirrors. Everything on wheels old and new, rushing along the dusty roads. Much hilarity and jingling of cash registers in wayside pubs. The smell of green turf, pies, canvas awnings and horse manure; the shining alcoholic faces of old Friends and relatives mixed up with the shrieks of swarming, lolly sucking children.
Willis was ready right on time. He came up from the bach where he had been making sure his sports coat and grey trousers were neatly fitting, and he attended to the serious business of starting the Chev. He had carefully checked the oil and petrol, and polished the car up the night before.
'Cod-damn the bloody thing! Why won't it go?' swore Willis after he'd nearly flattened the battery by grinding the motor over and over. Ignition on — yes — petrol —yes — choke out — yes. What the hell could be wrong? And Alf nowhere about to help. What sort of luck was this? Perhaps the most important time in his life — to be stuck with a car that wouldn't start. He peered frantically under the bonnet and fiddled with everything in sight. It took half an hour to discover that the high tension lead had unaccountably come unfastened from the distributor cap. Then it was only a fluke he noticed something dangling loose and saw where it had to go. He couldn't understand how this could possibly have happened, but there was no time to worry about that now. He dashed up to the house with apologies ready. Mrs Buttons was there, smiling brightly at his concern.
'Is Beverly ready?' Willis wanted to know.page 81
'Oh she went half an hour ago, said she couldn't wait, but never mind I waited for you,' said Mrs Buttons.
Willis ground the gears by way of reply and pressed on. Crouching over the wheel like a Queen Street taxi driver with a maternity case, he roared into the racecourse parking enclosure after a jolting ten-mile trip. He was bitterly enlightened when he got out with Mrs Buttons. They were in time to see, reclining languidly among the cushions in a regal phaeton — a gleaming red and yellow custom built 1922 Hispano Suiza — who but the goddess Beverly, smiling and waving aristocratically across the grinning figure of Alf. And it was a fresh-scrubbed, clean-collared, best suit-rigged Alf who blandly flicked the steering column, as the equipage under his masterly control glided noiselessly towards a distant rank of cars belonging to officials and members only.
So that's what that rotten bastard was up to in that shed of his all the time,' Willis realized. 'And that's how that wire came loose under my bonnet this morning.'
Hours later, down the drain for twenty quid, gritting his teeth to the sour, flat bite of racecourse beer, he stared with dismay across the barrels into the shining maternal eyes of Mrs Buttons. Outside, the band played selections from Rose Marie and H.M.S. Pinafore. He had a momentary cognizance of all the struggles he was to endure in this lonely country amongst these deceitful people; and in the sweating clamour of the race crowd he was able to detect only grossness and futility, which he fancied in his angry mood was all they had, in spite of their ingenuity, for an answer to the challenge of all the space and freedom surrounding them.