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Sport 6: Autumn 1991

Lloyd Jones — Journey Through a Painted Landscape

page 81

Lloyd Jones

Journey Through a Painted Landscape

Some years ago an elderly man answered my newspaper advertisement to ask if I would chop his wood to kindling. I quoted three hours; it took four and a half. It was a load of soggy pine, full of knots, and the axe wouldn't bite. I was near the end when he come out of his house carrying a tray with a teapot and chocolate thins. 'Milk. Sugar?' he asked. As he poured the milk he calmly confessed to not having any money. Unfortunately, as it seemed. He thought he had, but was mistaken. However, if I wished, he had a painting by a famous artist.

He was surprised, I think, when I asked to see the painting, and a moment passed when I wondered whether he actually had it. He set down the tray and was gone inside the house. It was a few minutes before he reappeared in the doorway, struggling with a large painting of my father laying a fenceline in South Canterbury.

I took the painting and showed it to my mother. She put on her glasses, and gave the man in Theo Schoon's painting a dark look. She thought it could be Ron.

'Your father had "Kramer" tattooed on his right shoulder. Where's "Kramer"? Everything else however seems to be there.'

In the painting Ron is pile-driving a post into the hillside. The artist has ghosted in his underarms a fleshy whiteness, but the other details leave no doubt as to the season. The hillside is still green and the upended earth moist as Christmas pudding. The arms on Ron's flannel shirt have been torn away, and his shoulders are ripe with new sunburn. In the bottom right hand corner of the painting is the year, 1947. It made perfect sense. Ron is farm-labouring for money to tie him over his campaigning months, December/January, the time of the year he entered tennis tournaments about the country.

I hung on to the painting, since my mother had no use for it.

Then, six months ago, she rang me late at night to say that Ron had been killed. The club captain of Ron's tennis club had just been on the phone to page 82her. It was a Sunday night and Ron, in his trademark long white trousers, had left the club full of gin and good times, and while fumbling with a key to open his driver's-side door had been side-swiped by a passing car. It was bad luck. Well, Ron had moved too far out of my life for me to feel devastated. As for my mother, she had long since dismissed Ron, first from the house, then from her mind, and herself remarried. The club captain, believing he was in contact with Ron's next-of-kin, had in fact notified strangers, and I was sorry about this, and all the grey space Ron had placed in between.

My mother had wondered if Ron had 'left anyone behind' who might clean out his drawers and wardrobe. I think she had in mind a brown paper parcel of Ron's underwear and socks to be dropped off at St Vincent's, or the Sallies. It was uncharacteristically sentimental of her.

As I say I had lost touch with the man. There was the odd memory from childhood; an unexpected visit, my mother's cool reception of a man who appeared to be full of favours, his pockets full of sweets, and his disappearing again. The only material connection left was this painting. One of Ron's few reliable addresses which I now thought of investigating; instead of taking possession of Ron's old socks, as might have been expected, as clearly the tennis club captain had hoped, I would feel out this old landscape.

I spent a day at the National Art Gallery archive fishing among Theo Schoon's files and notes. A small newsclipping reports Theo's death in Sydney's Prince of Wales Hospital three years earlier. A decrepit end in a Sydney boarding house, opposite the hospital, where Theo had shared a room with another old man. Death notices always seem to deny there ever having been a youth. But pinned to this death notice was a photograph of the artist as a young man. It is not what you might expect of the war years: sunburnt shoulders, large ears and a shorn neck. No. The photograph is of Theo performing a Balinese dance. He is barechested but for a silk scarf and a flowing robe attached by a single shoulder strap. It is not what you might expect for an acquaintance of your father.

Theo, the son of a Dutch administrator, had been brought up in Keboemen, Central Java. His boyhood was spent wandering through abandoned temples of the ancient Hindu empire, and along with his Javanese peers Theo learnt traditional dance, mime and shadowplay. When the Japanese chased out the Dutch, in 1939, the Schoon family moved to Christchurch. Theo, now 25, had already studied art in Rotterdam and his page 83heady rise in the local art circles is easily imagined. In the archive I had noticed a photostat copy of his painting of Rita Angus and other works exhibited at the leading galleries of the day. What my mother used to call a 'Dutchman's stroppiness' probably applied to Theo, who didn't think highly of the local art scene, or the fruits of egalitarianism if the quote is to be believed: 'I could not stand the vulgar and ridiculous, so I went out in search for the superb—in a very depressing country.'

Theo found it down the road from the Raincliffe Station in South Canterbury. Two kilometres from the farmgates, above the roadside are three caves with drawings—the end one with the 'desklid' initials of more recent visitors. Underneath this escarpment sheltered the original artists during their fair-weather trips up river valleys in search of moa, and other bird-life. Centuries later Theo followed them here with his art materials to reproduce what he called the 'frozen music' of the mytho-poetic Polynesians.

Two hours south of Christchurch this rock drawing area was the best clue I had. For now it would do. I never expected the location of Theo's painting to be a place-name on a map, to drive up to, refuel, stretch a leg, and buy an egg sandwich from a woman in a white coat.

In the tearooms at Geraldine I was given directions to Gudex Road by a man in a white apron and running shoes. The road was full of dips and dales; here's a quiet valley with yellowing haybales in the shape of covered wagons, the air busy with insects, and suddenly—the snow, the Alps. And just the way a child might have drawn it. 'Beautiful Valley' it turns out is indeed beautiful. 'Pleasant Valley' was only pleasant. Early October and green foothills were still shouldering the winter snow. An uneasy alliance of seasons: to go with the tall man with the short wife. The thin mother with the obese son.

On the map the Opihi River runs nearby. Riverstones have been piled over paddocks either side of the road. At the bottom of Gudex Road is Raincliffe Station, a large farmhouse made from blocks of limestone. I unhitched the farmgates and drove up in the hope of being shown to the shearer's quarters with the aging weatherboards, where I might have expected to find Ron's name carved into a bedpost. But old blinds were drawn in every window, and no one came to the door. For a few minutes I stood on the verandah and it occurred to me what is wrong with the view. I should have been driving across a valley of forest. The Alps are not supposed to be wholly digested, or viewed like white cue balls across a vast page 84green felt table. The Alps are better glimpsed through branches, and on rises over treetops. But only the names have stuck—'Totara Road' and 'Three Mile Bush Road.'

The church in Theo's 'Colonial Church Raincliffe' is just up the road, past the rockdrawings, before the bridge over the Opihi River. It is a small wooden church with a handful of graves. Amy Bartrum's headstone reads: 'Born Northampton . . . fell asleep in 1907.' There was no traffic, I could hear the wind, and nothing else. Apparently Amy Bartrum had just nodded off.

In Theo's painting the church is full of collapsed lines: it sags between peaked roofs like a wet sheet pegged to a clothesline.

Theo had a good view of the church. According to his notes, he camped in the scout reserve opposite. Each morning he would have passed it on his way to record the rock drawings back up the road.

I spent the night in a farmhouse that offered bed and breakfast. A retired farmer and his wife, June, gave me a room in the back of the house overlooking green paddocks that stretched for miles. None of this pasture was theirs. Jim had had a farm up north. He had bought at the wrong time and overnight seen half its paper value wiped. He laughed when he told of this experience. Folding back the eiderdown on my bed, June smiled quietly to herself. She had heard it all before, many times, this story which was outside grief, more like some huge natural occurrence, like Pompeii, where over the years human cost has become a footnote to the event. The Harrisons' walk off the land had become a useful anecdote. An ice-breaker. Later, after dinner, I started to tell Jim of my interest in rock drawings in the area. But at that moment his wife entered carrying a tray of bowls, ice cream and canned fruit, and Jim said, 'Ooh goodie. Pudding. MacGyver's on at eight.' So I let it pass. I watched the farmer in his slippers, for a while, so I would not be thought impolite, and got to my room just as dusk was closing over the hills.

If any hour belongs to Theo it is this one: camped underneath a damp rock ledge, drawing his sleeping bag around his shoulders; damning himself, watchful of his own metamorphosis from 'city dweller, with European outlook, to a cross between a deerstalker and hermit.'

In the morning I did ask Jim if the details in Theo's painting—a copper water tank next to a clump of cabbage trees—summoned up any particular place. We were in the kitchen. June was scraping bacon fat from the pan. I was getting ready to pay for the night, and the retired farmer was eager to page 85be helpful. His eyes squinted up over the rack of dishes.

'Could be Twigg's,' he thought. 'Or Morrison's.'

'Plenty of cabbage trees over Smythe's,' said his wife.

'No. That's Morrison's country. You are thinking of Morrison's.' Then he said to me, 'Turley's boy might have a spare water tank. Two hundred gallon. He digs wells too, of course. Depends what you're after. '

I thanked him, and was obliged to take note of his directions to Murray Turley's place on Monument Road. I was headed in that direction, anyway, and somewhere along the empty road I happened to look out the passenger-side window and catch a small cottage with an assortment of tanks out the back.

The greenness, the matrix of fences, I think it would have pleased Ron. The cows and the sheep lifting their gaze to a man playing imaginary forehands and backhands; his picking up a stone and backhanding it with a fence post. The idea of Wimbledon—and this other reality, of a young man with sunburnt shoulders fitting the earth with fenceposts.

If this is the subject of the painting, then it is also a masquerade. There is the farmwork, but beneath this bread-and-butter task the heart beats to a different tune. Theo is painting pot-boilers to earn his keep and pay for the paint supplies. It is just a matter of time before he will bring to the world's attention the extraordinary 'frozen music' of this limestone country; and before Ron will collect his trophies.

I passed the turn-off for Hanging Rock and drove on to Pleasant Point. There, I turned for the coast to sample, briefly, Ron's triumph, which follows on the heels of Theo's painting.

In the offices of the Timaru Herald I dug out the New Year's Day edition of more than forty years ago, and found the name of Ron's old doubles partner, Murray Tinder. Over the telephone it took a moment for the connection to register. Close on fifty years to comb through, then, once he had arrived at the fact that it was Ron's son calling, he fumbled for the right order of things. He wanted to invite me home. He gave his address in Beverley Road. Gave meticulous directions. Then, he changed his mind. His wife was sick. The house was untidy. So we fixed to meet at the tennis courts at Maori Park. On the way I snuck up Beverley Road. It was lined with solid two-storey houses, quiet, and well-treed. I cruised past Murray's house. He must have already made his way down to the park. In front of his house was a nicely maintained grass court. It was unused, and all the more page 86luxurious because of it. I could imagine Murray spending his weekends pampering the grass, greening it up and on his hands and knees, the way another will lick a vintage car with a chamois cloth.

Murray was in the green windbreaker he had described on the phone. He was seated on a bench in front of the tennis courts, old and frail, dependent on a walking stick, watching the tennis.

Murray thought I had come to hear stories of Ron's glory. Like the time he beat one of the Forde brothers—the younger one, or was it the older one in line for Davis Cup honours two years later—I had forgotten, but Murray said it was the younger one, Cyril. As for making the Davis Cup he had a peep in . . . 'But an incident with a horse during muster crushed his ankle and he hobbled around after that. Still a force at net but I mean a man can't play and win from there.'

Before the horse injury Ron rode into town and stripped Cyril Forde of his expected honours in the South Island Championships.

Poor old Murray. His blue eyes glistening, he made as if he remembered a topsy turvey battle . . . fortune swinging one way, then the other. Ron's crisp play . . . Cyril's doggedness. The only details I trusted were: the sweat marks in Ron's sandshoes and the severe sunburn along the tops of his ears. The final started early afternoon and finished at quarter to six in the evening. A ball was planned in Caroline Bay to see in the New Year. But Ron's feet were so badly blistered that he missed the first half of the evening. Ron and Murray went to the pictures to see Cowboy From Lonesome River. It gave Ron time for his feet to heal, and when they came out of the theatre they joined a stream of people headed for Maori Park. The main street had been roped off, the shops were still open late at night and young women in cotton dresses held hands with farm boys, come to town for the night.

Bronwyn Sellars was mentioned. Beyond the tidying up details Murray didn't offer much. Cyril Forde, the defeated finalist, had gotten himself drunk and was lying stupored in the sand at the Port end of Caroline Beach. Consequently Bronwyn spent much of the evening walking around the sideshows with her bare arms folded against the chill. It was during a huge rendition of 'Auld Lang Syne' around the bonfire on the beach that Bronwyn fell into Ron's arms. The next thing Murray saw the two head off for the ferris wheel. Murray lay down on the grass to watch the wheel spin, and listen to the women squeal. About one-thirty in the morning a fog drove in from the sea, and there was a light drizzle. An hour later an electrical page 87problem stopped the ferris wheel and stranded its riders. Murray decided he would wait for Ron, and some hours later he awoke stiff and cold on the ground. Other party revellers from all around were doing the same, brushing the dew off themselves, and looking around for the sun. Some minutes later, there was a groaning sound from the ferris wheel.

'The wheel turned and heads rose above the safety bars. People shook out their legs. Ron came down then. He jumped out and held a hand out for Bronwyn. She was wearing Ron's jacket. Her skin was shiny, and her face had kind of narrowed up. I guess at your age I can say these things to you,' Murray Tinder said. 'But it was a beautiful thing really.'

Around ten in the morning the Forde brothers threw open the doors to the rooms on the upstairs floor of the Grosvenor Hotel, but Ron was at the railway station. Murray waved his doubles partner aboard, tennis racquet in hand, writing materials, trophy, and some sandwiches he had thoughtfully pocketed the previous day, sticking out the tops of the pockets in his sports jacket.

Murray gave me directions to the railway station. I thanked him and was on my way when he startled me, asking, 'How is Ron anyway? In good health?'

'Yes,' I said. 'He's doing fine.'

At the back of the railway station near Merchants & Auctioneers I could make out the top floor of the Grosvenor. This was the old part of town, the flash part in 1947. More recently the hotel has been refurbished. Bright, new canvas awnings. The ceiling mould in the foyer newly painted. The tables with starched white tablecloths in the dining-room numbered, so that the year 1947 does not feel so distant.

Spilling down to the pavement were a series of fire escape ladders. I looked up to one of the third-floor windows and imagined Ron putting aside his packing, for the moment, content to enjoy the town, and his pulling back the curtains, raising the sash, his long arms folded along the sill, and his sleeping dog's smile beneath the cigarette smoke, at the thought of the ferris wheel, and Bronwyn Sellars.

Farewelling his doubles partner Ron moves first to Christchurch to play in the Canterbury Championships, then on to Blenheim to narrowly miss out on the Marlborough title, onward to Wellington, aboard the Tamihere, to the Casa Fontana where he will meet my mother.

My mother is easily imagined. All hip and shank. She was often short page 88with people she suspected of 'having education'. People who attempted to be nice with her met with a surprising tartness. A man scribbling over the backs of used envelopes might think he was the cat's pyjamas but there was the outstanding matter of payment for that third cup of coffee. Ron looked up from his writing—at this woman—all hip, shank, and lip, he later said. He reached into his coat pockets, and found a lonely coin. He flipped it. 'Heads or tails?' My mother obediently called 'Tails'. This is the story which my mother tells. In our worst moments I have seen the thought flash in her eyes that here before her, as she is tempted to say, is the result of a losing toss.

I bought a meat pie from a dairy, then headed back for the landscape of Theo's painting, back to the interior; this time travelling along Hazelburn Road to the rock drawings at Acacia Downs. On the spur, a farmhouse, with a tennis court. Beneath the farm, and a short rise from the road, a long shallow cave with raft and bird motifs.

I sat up there—as Theo must have done—with questions for the cave dwellers centuries earlier, and meanwhile wondering what went on under the iron roof of the farmhouse further along the road. A cottage locked into place by a solid steeple of limestone rock. Its frail stem of chimney smoke disappearing into an overcast day.

My father went north. Theo stayed in the caves, painting, convinced of the originality and artistic merit of these sketchy figures of dogs, moa, crayfish, reed rafts, and the stylised human figures. Searching out their 'hidden thread'.

On the roadside below the Raincliffe drawings is a brass plaque of a taniwha, with the official invitation to 'rub a picture'. Further up the bank, a steel grille protects the actual drawings from enthusiasts after a tracing of the real article. But it was here, at Acacia Downs, that Theo erred. He retouched a spiral with crayon to aid his photography, and suddenly Theo Schoon was a vandal. A forger. A faker. Funny isn't it? Ron copied as best he could Jack Kramer's backhand, and if anyone had commented on the likeness, I believe, he would have been very happy. Then there is Theo's old classmate, Van Meregen, whose brilliant copies of Vermeer took him no further than prison.

Intentions are everything, so we are told. Re-touching the spiral, argued Theo, was the best solution at the time. In 1916 a spiritualist had arrived from Kansas to chisel out the rockdrawings so as to remove them to 'safety'. page 89His activities were stopped and export of the drawings diverted to the Otago Museum.

Leaving Acacia Downs I drove over to Hanging Rock. At the turn-off at Gay's Pass, from an AA sign hung a rock on the end of a piece of string.

'Bev and Kev' and 'Tui McIwi' belong to more recent work on the rockface near Hanging Rock. Betrothals. Humour. It makes you wonder—at least it made me wonder about the original artists. Did they have a wicked or ironic sense of humour. Did they constantly put themselves down like the Brits? Were they patriotic? What kind of jokes might be considered in bad taste? Were they good at sport? Were women allowed to do rock art? Were rock artists given time off moa-hunting? What sort of personal habits were annoying? Such as unnecessary throat-clearing.

I had to open a farmgate, and cross a paddock of sheep and lambs. Down a short ravine of burnt flax, over the soggy banks of a creek and up the other side, I found the cave with the drawings of five crescent-shaped dogs. As with the drawings at Acacia Downs and Raincliffe, the dogs are behind metal grilles, weathered and indistinct, the sharper lines rubbed away by sheltering cattle of an earlier period.

It was here I threw my penny in the well. A childish notion turned me quickly about; a flimsy hope that the landscape might suddenly reveal itself; that half-glimpsed truth. I might catch out Ron, his bare arms and Kramer working against the skyline on the hillside across the creek. It might have been there; and just here, that Theo sat down with his canvas and painted.

Theo's files and notes in the end, I think, provide Ron's unspoken explanations about life after the painting. Really, it seems to me the artist and subject merge into the same story about singlemindedness without reward, or success, finally losing its charm.

Ill-health finally prises Theo from the caves. But he has discovered gourds and, from a Maori up north, how to grow them. A gourd-grower by day; a drummer in a jazzband at an Auckland nightclub by night. Theo painted his gourds with spirals similar to those which he had gazed at for hours in the limestone caves. An exhibition of Theo's gourds in the seventies, at Rotorua, led to some being destroyed by a gallery-visitor upset at their phallic-likeness. Theo is a prolific letter-writer to The Gourd, the bible for American gourd-culture, where gourds from calabash trees are made into raccoon masks, Big Bird, model trains; in Florida, a retired metal- page 90worker in a pattern shirtsleeve poses with a lampbase made from a gourd; from Queen gourds the stalks are turned into giraffes and sold to gift shops. Entering into the spirit of things, Theo once turned out a gourd for Elvis Presley to use as a musical instrument. In the early seventies there were gourd exchanges between the Soviet Union and America. But, once again, it is the same old story of floundering among the 'vulgar and ridiculous' in search of the superb. Theo's earnest letters are quick to give Gourd readers free advice on growing techniques pioneered by himself. In later issues the magazine features 'excerpts from letters of Mr Theo Schoon'. Soon The Gourd was running a regular 'Letter from Mr Schoon'.

Theo would have been in Rotorua photographing the changing patterns of mud pools when Ron travelled up there for the veterans tournament in 1965. On a pitstop Ron called in and took me down to the Epuni tennis courts. On that occasion we were rallying, back and forth, trading forehand for forehand and so forth, when a car slowed down on the street outside the court. The passenger-side window wound down, and a man yelled out at Ron, 'You stinking bastard!' Ron played on with a cheap little crosscourt slice. I pretended not to hear and rushed to scoop it back for Ron to volley away. I looked up; the car was turning up the next street; and Ron had turned back for the service line.

I was on my way back to Geraldine when I remembered that incident. I thought it probably had to do with somebody's wife, or girlfriend. I seemed to be realising this for the first time. I had been too young to understand that Ron was slowing up, and not getting out of town fast enough. No one ever wants to think of their father in that light. He had published his book—How To Play Winning Tennis—where he writes, 'In percentage tennis there's less opportunity to enjoy the game than to win the match.' That's as much philosophy as I ever heard from Ron. But it seems very close to Theo's: 'I have only one certainty, that is, whatever I choose to tackle I do that intensely and well. Whether it is appreciated or not has little meaning.'

During the years I lost track of Ron I believe he was coaching kids up north, in his long white pants, still combing his hair with brylcreem, and getting by. Theo, however, had given up on New Zealand. He had come into an inheritance and was busy in a fruitless attempt to resurrect Balinese opera.

In Geraldine I stopped back at the tea rooms from where I had got directions to Gudex Road. The man in the running shoes wasn't about. I page 91sat near a table with two Americans. The woman was lecturing a local man, but I could only see the back of his head, nodding, his arms folded in schoolmat obeisance. Theo would have known how to deal with her. She was saying how the American political system was different from here. 'More like the Australian Federal system,' she was saying. The next time I listened in, she was saying how she and her husband knew the Governor of Florida. 'Well not know him personally, although of course I have met him. But he's a friend of a close friend of Bill's.' Bill, in a zipped-up pale blue golf-jacket, looked away out the window to the street, bored out of his mind.

A council truck drew up to the door. Three men jumped out, tightened their buckles, and found a need to scowl. And like the bare, grass-sown hills, these faces could not be trusted with a secret. Not a bold idea between them. Despite the hard-wearing cloth, their shirts trace soft, rounded bellies. Yes, I did notice. I was in a contemptuous mood. For the sake of Ron and Theo, which shows too, sentimentality can have its arms around contempt, like sickly sweets with hard centres.

In Christchurch airport I saw a woman knitting. A ball of wool had unravelled over her lap, and at first glance—that snatched glimpse again—it offered a myriad of paths and possibilities; but gradually the scrawl grew taut and entered the one strand.

I must say I like the idea of Theo and Ron having been along the same track, for the simple reason it would appal them both. Ron, of course, would never have worn leather thongs, and Theo surely never gave a thought to Kramer.

Theo chainsmoked Camel cigarettes. As for Ron I remember once seeing orange rind stuck in behind his fingernails. Other than that, my father was a lefthander with special gifts in and around a tennis net, who married the wrong woman and became the wrong father, and whose path once crossed with a stranger's, a Dutchman, who painted his picture.