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Sport 8: Autumn 1992

♣ C.K. Stead — A Short History of New Zealand

page 95

C.K. Stead

A Short History of New Zealand

He was 52 and had that London look—dry hair (he ran his fingers through it, glancing at himself in the lift mirror), tired eyes, something unhealthy about the skin; the suggestion of less than perfect cleanliness, which, like Lady MacBeth's 'damned spot', no amount of washing would quite remove. Was there a word for it? 'Care-worn' sounded too Victorian and virtuous. 'Stressed' was its modern and equally self-serving equivalent.

Within himself he felt little of thismdash;only allowed the recognition to run through his mind, thinking it was how she, a 26-year-old fresh from New Zealand, would see him. As the lift doors opened he caught sight of her sitting in Reception. It was her knees that registered first, primly side by side, in dark stockings, with neat knee-caps and a fine curve away from each side, cut off by the line of the skirt. Good strong Kiwi legs, he thought; and then remembered how when he'd first come to England it had seemed to him that young Englishwomen had no calf muscles. It wasn't true any longer. In the intervening decades Europe had become athletic.

She looked in his direction and must have guessed he was the man she was to meet, but he went first to the desk and said he would be out until three.

'James Barrett,' he said taking the hand she held out to him. 'And you're Angela McIlroy.'

Out in the street she said she'd lost her bearings. He pointed down the Farringdon Road to where the figure of justice over the Old Bailey lifted sword and scales against the dome of St Paul's. The sun glared down through the haze, casting no decisive shadows. The thump of a 24-hour disco came up through a basement grating. Believing he knew how dingy and confusing these streets must seem to her, he hailed a taxi and gave directions.

They were settled at a table under a tree in a pub yard near the British Museum and had made their choices before he took the little tape machine from his pocket and propped it between the pepper and salt.

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'You won't mind, will you? he asked, and she shook her head. She was unassertive, making no attempt to impress him. Shy, he decided; slightly apprehensive, but self-contained—and he made a mental note of these descriptions.

No need to turn on the machine yet; no need to begin at once with her novel, which was the purpose of the interview. Better to begin—where else?—at their common beginning. She knew he'd grown up in New Zealand?—left as a young man intending to return, but had married an Englishwoman and ...

Yes, she knew all that. She'd been told. 'Interesting,' she added, nodding and smiling—but he could see it was something other than interest she felt. Disapproval, perhaps? Or was it just indifference?

'I've been back, of course, but only for short stays—three weeks at most. There were eighteen years I never set foot in the place. By then it was too late.'

She'd ordered a salade niçoise. He watched her struggling to cut the lettuce in its bowl. Her drink was mineral water.

'Quite sure?' he asked, lifting his bottle of Italian white.

She held up one hand, like a policeman. Her mouth was full of salad. He filled his glass.

'Oh dammit,' she said, draining the mineral water and holding out her glass. 'Why not?'

'Why not?' he agreed, filling her glass.

'I'm not abstemious,' she said. 'Not especially. But jet-lag and wine. . .'

He nodded. 'Here's to A Short History of New Zealand'

They touched glasses and drank, but the naming of her novel seemed to bring back that wariness which just for a moment he'd thought was about to be cast aside. She fell silent, waiting for him to lead their conversation.

'I read a large part of it coming down on the train this morning. It's quite a grim picture.

She inclined her head.

'And a true one, so far as I can judge.' And then, almost without meaning to, he began to talk as the expatriate. Once started, it was hard to stop. Some part of his mind was detached. Was this the way to go about it? But then, why not? Somehow he had to get a response out of her.

His view of New Zealand was almost entirely negative, and at first, from the way she met his eyes, nodded, murmured assent, he could see he was page 97 taking her with him. But then he went too far. He felt it himself, and saw it in her eyes. Even New Zealand's weather, it seemed, was now inferior. This was London's third good summer in succession. She put her hand over her mouth, and her eyes were smiling.

He looked down at the table cloth and thought for a moment. 'I'm a journalist,' he said firmly. 'Sometimes when I get a twinge of the old nostalgia I just let myself think what it would have been like working on the Herald or the Dom or the Press, or the ODT for God's sake—just imagine it!—dealing with local cow and sheep stories, while all the world stuff was coming in on the wire, written by someone else.'

She nodded, but with such a blank face he began to feel irritation. Did she want him to write about her book? Did she understand that he was doing her a favour? 'My paper has a million readers,' he said.

Her face softened, as if there was something she understood. 'You've done well,' she said.


Her novel, A Short History of New Zealand, began with these sentences:

'One's name is Brent and the other is Hemi. One is white and one brown, and they are running under the moon. Ahead and behind and in all directions stretches away the landscape of the plains. You could say they are the cop and the robber. You could say they are the colonist and the colonised. You could say they are the Pakeha and the Maori.

'They are running through most of a long night. Sometimes they stop for breath. Sometimes Hemi reaches the end of his tether and turns on Brent. Pursuer is pursued, back over the same ground. But then it resumes, the other way. They run and keep running.'

The novel is set in a very small town—what used to be called a settlement—in the North Island. It has one cop, a young man who belongs to the local rugby club and takes long training runs with his team-mates. One night he's taking a last look around when he hears something in a storage shed. He goes looking. There are some tense moments in the silence and darkness of the shed—he's sure someone's there but can't find him— and then the burglar, a Maori, makes a break for it, straight out and down the wide main street, the cop in pursuit. In a couple of minutes they've left the town behind. They're out on the open road, running under the moon through that empty landscape, sometimes on the road, sometimes across page 98 ploughed fields, through bush, along stream-beds, back to the road again.

The Pakeha sprints. So does the Maori. They slow to jogging, recovering breath. The Maori sprints and the Pakeha almost loses him—but not for long. Sometimes the pursuit slows to a walk, or stops. They talk back and forth across a safe gap, reason with one another, threaten, shout insults. Then they run again.


With the Sunday papers tucked under one arm he walked back from the village, over ploughed fields, skirting the wood where pheasants, bred for the annual shoot, scuttled away into the undergrowth. The gamekeeper had set snares for foxes, simple loops of fine wire along the edges of pathways. James tripped them as he went. He liked the sight of foxes appearing on his lawn. Why shouldn't those handsome predators, as well as the tweedy kind for whose sport it was intended, have game for supper?

Anne was waiting for him on the gravel outside the front door. He could see by the way she held her hands, and then by her anxious expression, that something was wrong. There had been a phone call from New Zealand. It was bad news. His mother ...


He flew non-stop. There was no choice if he was to be there for the funeral. It meant eleven hours in the air to Los Angeles, a stop of two hours, and then on again-another twelve to Auckland. His grief was confused with jet- lag and a dread of finding himself among relatives with whom he believed he could have nothing in common. But after the service, when they'd gathered at his sister's Mt Eden house, drinking and eating and talking on the verandah and out on the back lawn, it came over him how much he was enjoying himself. The hugs of cousins he didn't at first recognise brought surges of old affection. Trivial reminiscences gave him pleasure. It even pleased him to be called Jamie. He'd expected to find himself behaving in away that would be judged aloof, unfriendly, superior, but it wasn't like that at all. In his strange, jet-lagged state it was as though he saw it all from the outside—saw a different self emerge and take over—warm, out-going, filial, fraternal, avuncular.

Once or twice in his life a death and funeral had had this effect. He hadn't wept. He'd become an actor on a public stage. But this time it was different page 99 —something to do with these people, and with the green of the plum tree in new leaf, and the white of pear-blossom, and the freshness of air and light and water. How long was it since he'd felt such uncomplicated happiness?

He remembered that when he was a boy he would meet his mother unexpectedly in a room or in the garden and they would smile—not anxiously, just with the pleasure each felt at seeing the other. The sadness of that thought didn't spoil his happiness. It was part of it.

Late in the day he was asked the inevitable question: How was he finding New Zealand? It would have been easy to evade—to say it was only hours since he'd stepped off the plane. But what came out was 'great' and 'super' and 'wonderful to be home'. He knew it was the right answer; but it was as if, at least for that moment, it was true.

His questioner smiled, glad to hear it, but then shook his head. 'This country's a mess, Jamie. I don't like to say it, but the fact is you're better off where you are.'


That night he crashed asleep while the others were still drinking and talking, then woke in the early hours of the morning. He was in the back room of his sister's house, with wide windows looking out on the garden that was overhung with pungas and cabbage trees. The silence was so complete he strained for something that would prove he hadn't lost his hearing. A floorboard creaked—that was all. These wooden houses shifted with the changes in temperature.

A light shower began to fall, whispering on the iron roof. In childhood rain on the roof had always brought sleep, but now he lay listening, soothed but wide awake, his body still on London time.

He turned on the bedside lamp and looked in his bag for Angela McIlroy's novel, and beside it his tape recorder. He put the machine close to his ear, switched it on, and put out the light.

'The framework of your novel's the chase, but in alternating chapters you go back into the lives of the two men—family history, childhood, schooling ... Did you feel you could do that equally-I mean with confidence . . .'

'I don't think I felt confident about any of it. I just jumped in and hoped I wouldn't sink.'

'Well, clearly you didn't sink. It's rather unusual, from a woman novelist. Not about ... Not the usual sub . . .'

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'They have mothers and sisters.'

'Yes, but the central characters . . .'

'You don't find them convincing?'

'Oh yes, I think so. Sure. As for the, ah—the Maori background ... Well, I guess—who knows? I think only a Maori could say.'

'I'm not sure ... I don't think I agree with that. I mean anyone, Maori or Pakeha, could say they felt it was right. Or they felt it was wrong. If you're talking about feeling, that is. Of course if facts are wrong, that's different. But no one. . .'

'No, I'm not suggesting that.'

There was a break. In the background could be heard the clatter of plates, the murmur of other conversations, a burst of loud laughter.

'Look, I don't know how to put this—I'm just feeling my way towards something. It's certainly not a criticism of your novel which I think is well written and well shaped. But the way it's done touches on something. . .'


'Delicate—yes. But I think I mean ... big. I'm not making myself clear, am I.'

'Keep going.'

'It's there in the title—a short history of New Zealand. That's quite a claim. Quite an indictment.'

'Oh an indictment. Is that what it is?' There was the sound of her laughter. 'I think I plead the fifth.'


It was no longer a matter of law and order, or crime and punishment. It had become a question of who was fitter, stronger, cleverer; who would out-run, or out-fox, the other; who would win.

Those roads are long and straight, and when Brent saw headlights in the far distance he thought here was his chance. He would flag down the driver and tell him to call in help. But even while he was thinking this there was the twanging of fence wire and the Maori was off overland. He got a bit of a break on there, and quite soon, after crossing a couple of paddocks, he was in a field of corn. Something had happened to the crop. It was head-high but it seemed to be dried out, dead on the stalk and unpicked. The Maori plunged into it and disappeared. Brent hunted and then stopped. It was such a still night you couldn't move in there and not be heard. If there'd page 101 been a wind the Maori could have moved under cover of the rustling, but there was none. And the moon was bright. So Brent waited and rested. When the Maori made a break for it the chase was on again.

They ran through empty fields, through flocks of sheep, through cow- paddocks, through stubble, through crops of swedes and potatoes and cabbages, always well dear of farmhouses. Dogs barked in the distance. A nightbird sounded as they ran through the edges of a swamp. They came back to a road and ran on it. Then there was again the twanging of fence- wire and they were off over a field of onions. The onions had been turned up by a mechanical digger—they were lying on top of the soil, waiting to be collected, and they made it hard going. The Maori seemed to go over on one. It must have rolled under his foot, his ankle twisted, and for just a moment he went down.

'Now you bastard,' Brent thought. And then he wondered, What the fuck am I going to do with him? How'm I going to bring him in?

When he got to him the Maori was up on one knee, holding a knife. 'Come and get it, Dog-breath,' he said.


On the tape they sounded at first hesitant with one another, wary. He'd known it was because she distrusted him as an expatriate, expected him to be patronising. It had made it hard for him to get to the more difficult, and therefore more interesting, questions. But as the lunch went on, and she shared his wine, the exchanges had become more frank, less hesitant.

He ran the tape forward, and listened again.

'I keep coming back to your title. . .'

'Yes, it's bold, I know.'

'And it makes how the thing ends important.'

'Don't tell me about it. Terribly important. I spent so many months agonising over all that. I kept rewriting the end—it never seemed right. Then I'd give away the title-look for something more modest. But that seemed the easy way out. The cowardly ... You see I'd had the title in mind right from the start—before I'd written a word. That, and the basic story of the all-night chase, which was something that happened. I read about it in the paper, and straight away I thought this is a short history of New Zealand. But it had such symbolic force—too much. Pakeha chases Maori through his own land to enforce British law. Every now and then Maori rebels and page 102 turns on Pakeha, but then it's back to the old chase. That was OK in away- as a story—because it was real. It happened, and it was believable. But if it was to carry that symbolic load . . .'

'That's why the end. . .'

'Yes, because it's not finished, is it? I mean the history's not. It goes on ... So the end of the novel has to be—what's the word?'

'Tentative? Not definitive?'

'Yes, that's right, but ... Provisional That's the word. I had it on a piece of paper pinned over my desk. The ending had to be provisional. The first version ended with an arrest. They ran all night and then early in the morning Hemi just lost heart and gave up. Well, that might be how it happened-but as symbol . . .'

'No good. I can see that. They haven't given up.'

'And then I had him get away. No good again, you see. Too easy. Sentimental. Because the real history. . .'

'Yes, it's tougher than that.'

'Then I had them fight it out. But how does that end? Pakeha kills Maori? Maori kills Pakeha? They're both killed? They make friends and walk off hand in hand into the sunrise? You see? Nothing seemed to fit.'

'Not as things are right now. But they're all possible, aren't they?'

'You mean in reality.'

'I mean—what do I mean? They're possible ends, most of them, if you think just of the two men. Maybe the problem is there's too much conflict, d'you think? The story sets them too much in opposition. After all, it hasn't always been like that. If you think of our history. . .'


'Yes ... Oh, I see. You think as an expatriate it's not mine any more.'

And there the tape ran out.


'Come and get it,' the Maori repeated, holding the knife out in front of him. And then suddenly he was up and running, not away this time, but straight at his pursuer. Brent turned and ran.

The sprint didn't last long. They had run too many miles; but when they stopped the Maori must have felt he was on top.

'OK,' he said. 'Just fuck off and I'll let you keep your balls.'

He turned and walked in the opposite direction. It can't have been long page 103 before he heard footsteps coming after him, keeping a safe distance. Brent wasn't going to give up now. If he couldn't arrest the bugger, he'd stick with him until daylight.

It took a few runs this way and that before the new rules were established. When the Maori chased, Brent ran. Once it was so close he felt his shirt slashed, and a strange sensation—not pain, a sort of coldness—down his back. He didn't think the knife had cut him, but later he felt a trickle of blood. After that he kept his distance; but as the Maori turned and headed off, he followed.

Now the Maori ran again, effortlessly, as if he was doing it to suit himself. He didn't look back. They came to a stop-bank—it loomed up high and straight above the plain on one side and the river on the other, with a flat grassy path along the top. They went up on to it and kept running, heading down-river towards the sea.

After half an hour they ran off the stop-bank and down a road, and there, opening out in front of them, was the coast—dunes and sand all scattered over with huge white logs and driftwood that had come down the river over the years and gone out to sea only to be washed back by the westerlies. Under the moon it looked like a huge boneyard, with the sea thundering against it.

The Maori seemed to know where he was going now. He stopped short of the dunes and headed north over fields until he came to another road. It was there he went into a pine grove. Brent lost him briefly, and for the first time thought he should give up. He was now a long way from home, and nobody would know where. He might be ambushed and knifed. You could bury a body in the piles of needles and it might not be found for years.

But he kept going, relying on his ears and on the stillness of the night. He stood with his back against a pine trunk and listened. When the Maori moved, Brent went after him.

They came to a clearing and stopped. They were on either side of it, the moon coming through so they could see one another. They rested, sizing one another up. After a while the Maori said, 'You got a wife and kids?'

Brent told him he had a wife, no kids yet.

The Maori turned the knife-blade this way and that on the his palm, as if his hand were a razor strop.

'What about you,' Brent asked.

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The Maori said, 'Soon I'll introduce you to my mates. They're Rastas.'

Brent didn't reply.

'Where I'm taking you,' the Maori said, 'we got a big hole in the ground, like a cave, eh. We call it a tomo. You ever seen a tomo, Dog-breath? They drop the dead calves down there. Sometimes a whole cow. Not even the stink comes up.'

He turned, out of the clearing, and began walking through the pines. He came to a fence and climbed over it. Over his shoulder he called, 'Come on Pakeha. Let's get there before the sun comes up.'


She'd solved her problem by adding a second layer—the story of the writer writing the story. It was what James had liked least about her novel, but he could see why she'd done it. There could be no end, so there had to be many ends—many possibilities, all left open. It was called 'meta-fiction' these days and it was very fashionable, but how could you get around the basic human appetite that every story should have a beginning a middle and an end, and that to be enjoyed it had to be believed?

The rain was getting heavier. The whisper on the roof became a rustling, and briefly a roar. There was the sound of water rushing along gutterings and through down-spouts, and dripping from punga fronds on to the lawn. Then it died away again to a gentle hissing.

He thought of his Northamptonshire garden, the roses and hollyhocks, the woods across fields with crows circling and crying. At last drowsiness returned, and sleep.

He dreamed that he was talking to Angela McIlroy over lunch, or rather, listening while she talked. She spoke in fluent Maori, though words like salade niçoise and frascati were mixed up in it. Now and then she paused in her monologue to turn the blade of her knife back and forth across her open palm.

He strained to catch what it was she was telling him, certain that he did understand—that he was capable of it—but never quite making sense of it. It was like something just beyond reach, or a word on the tip of the tongue.