This is how it was. I used to get up in the early morning, put on my shorts, jog along the Esplanade, down the steps that lead onto the beach at St Clair, sprint over the sand, through the shallows swirling like fizzing glass around my ankles, till I met the breakers and there I’d dive into the sea. I’d swim out to the buoys that mark the shark net and while the light gathered over the hills I’d jog along the sand where it was damp and hard.
Usually there were others there too, members of the surf-life-saving club who ran up and down the beach at dawn. I got to know them on a nodding level. There were two who sweated there often; one was squat and square-faced with dark hair and joined eyebrows. He’d lope along the beach with narrowed eyes, a solid expression. The other was taller, with hair that brushed his shoulders. It was bleached a shining gold from being constantly immersed in water and sun. He looked like a Greek statue. The thought of these two dashing through the waves to rescue drowning swimmers often entered my head. How they’d part the waves like knives. How the drowning swimmer would feel a strong arm sweep around and under their shoulders and looking up they’d find the golden sun, the empty and ardent eyes of their saviour.
I had a routine. After my morning swim I used to shower and then check my kit. It was always a pleasant time, a time not given to thought but to the simple motions of soaping my body and rubbing myself dry, to laying out the various pieces of equipment and just touching them one by one, lightly. It was a reassuring time. Sometimes, but not always, I took the maps out of their plastic bags, unfolded them and read the names of the hills and valleys, the rivers and mudflats that surround the city. Every weekend I checked the use-by dates on the dried food and if it was approaching I put the package aside and made a note to restock that week. The primus. The water bottle and the blankets.
After my kit inspection I’d dismantle my weapons and check them for rust spots, though I knew it was unlikely any would have developed in the space of a single day, especially as I kept them well greased and oiled. It was living so close to the sea that made me particular in that regard. You can never be too careful. I’d check the ammo and sometimes choose one or other page 92 of the rifles and sight out the window at things that happened to be there; a lamppost, the streetlight, a passerby. After that I’d get dressed.
I had well-developed habits of discipline, stemming, I’m sure, from my years in uniform. Before that, in the institutions they sent me to, I’d more or less gone my own way. But I was a good soldier—I always did my best and obeyed. Compliance and cooperation. The subordination of the self to the will of others. And in return the army gave me the security of childhood, that state of being guiltless and gladly parented. Strange isn’t it, if you’d said that to me even only a year ago I probably would’ve gone off at you, but since my discharge I’ve come to see things differently. For instance armies, which as everyone knows have death and destruction as their single purpose, do not fly off the handle at the least provocation. Instead they plan, and wait, pretend to be peaceful, and then, when everything is mapped out, when nothing can go wrong, only then do they strike.
Many thoughts about the army and life occurred to me after my mother died and I moved into that dozy little suburb. It was a time of looking back. My life’s had its share of ups and downs, and all those difficult things make you think. At school, and in the home, I was always the quiet one. I was something of a target for the thugs and bullies and though I felt like a victim at the time I can see now that in a way I invited it all. In the army they used to shout at us, no pain no gain, and I’ve found it true the harder things in life make you change. But change isn’t progress no matter what the sergeants try to make you think. Most people are happy to believe if they change then it’s for the better, but to me that’s weak, and I can’t afford that. What I look to are institutions like the army, how they stay the same, resist any but cosmetic changes, and I’ve often pondered on why that should be. You’ve got to admire it.
I was in Waiouru camp when I had the news that my mother was dead. I was called to Captain Gardner’s office and while he fiddled with the papers on his desk he told me it was a freak accident. Now, of course, I’ve come to realise all accidents are freak and result not so much from a lack of foresight, as a decision to not see what’s coming. I was once sent to a hypnotism demonstration where the mesmerised man was instructed to not see a red ashtray; he could see a green one and a blue one but not the red one. As the hypnotist pointed out to us he must have been able to see the red one in order to know it was the ashtray he couldn’t see.
The Captain fiddled with a sheaf of papers on his desk; he kept arranging page 93 them, squaring them up, tapping the ends flat. Even though they were perfectly square to start with.
My mother had been walking along the street several months before when a passing car flicked up a rusty nail that struck her in the thigh. She’d gone to her doctor and he’d examined her, removed the nail and cleaned the wound which was deep enough to need stitches. Then, one morning about four months later, she felt dizzy and nauseated. Her leg was throbbing below her scar and so she went to the hospital. By the time they got around to her she was delirious. She’d been sitting quietly, confused I imagine, in the waiting room. It was a thing called a gas gangrene; a speck of rusty metal from the nail had lain in her leg all that time and then for no reason it had turned on her. At first the doctors didn’t know what was wrong, they suspected she was on medication and had abused it. Finally the story of the nail came out and they realised what her problem was. They operated immediately but by then it was too late.
The following day I marched over to one of the newer drivers and told him I’d been ordered to take his truck to the Rangipo desert to replace one with a broken axle. It was a common enough thing. I drove out of camp and took the road south. I was heading for Burnham where I intended to leave the truck and hitch the rest of the way. The drive was quiet and untroubled. I was alone in the cab, the engine was humming. I was pretending to myself I was going home to visit my mother and I drove slowly down the Kaikoura coast, the sky an endless blue, the long string of mountains always on my right. I made it to Burnham without being stopped, but they arrested me there and the hearing and my discharge followed.
After the funeral I decided to stay in Dunedin. I felt listless and resigned, and the city, its emptiness and winds, the heavy days of autumn hanging over the streets like dead weights, matched the way I felt inside. They buried my mother on top of my father, and as we lowered her, someone, it was pouring great beads of rain, made a comment I wasn’t supposed to hear. But it didn’t bother me, it just made me wish people were better than they are.
It’s strange the things that do affect you
though. For example, the incident with the nurse upset me in a curious
way. It made me feel in danger of losing myself, my individuality. It
happened one morning when I was wandering through the shops, staring
in windows at casserole pots and rayon skirts, thinking that my mother
must have looked in the same windows, at the same displays, wondering
at the sorts of thoughts that had rolled around in her head. I got on
a line of contemplation and found myself
outside the hospital. I looked up at the concrete edifice, at the name
of the hospital cut into the stone, and higher up the rows of windows
signifying wards. I decided I’d go in. Once inside I followed the
signs to the Accident & Emergency department. It was a Saturday
and already there were several people dressed in sports clothes,
spattered with mud, sitting on the seats nursing arms and legs and
heads. I sat with them, quietly, as I know my mother would have, and
waited. Nurses came and went, doctors appeared and disappeared,
orderlies travelled to and fro, and there was a steady stream of
passing faces. Only the injured sat still and about them was an air of
resignation and hopelessness. A young girl was wheeled into the
waiting area lying flat on a trolley, and for a moment the orderly
left her while he fussed in a bag. Her face was pale and there was
dried sweat on her forehead; she looked anxious and very concentrated,
sucked into herself. I imagined she felt sick or that she was in
pain. Then the orderly wheeled her away and his footsteps clacked on
the linoleum. As I sat there I thought how it was that all these
hopeless people had chosen this for themselves, and how it was the
fittest end to their strivings. The nurse came over and asked me if I
was waiting for anything. On her chest was a badge with her name. It
was Laura, the same as my mother. I told her what I was doing there,
probably because of her name, and a look of concern came to her
face. She told me she was sorry but I’d have to leave. It occurred to
me she must have thought I was crazy and so I touched her arm, made a
small laugh and told her I was just thinking things over, and that it
was her name had made me so frank with her, it being the same as my
mother’s. I asked her where the cafï¿½ was and she said she was going
for coffee in five minutes and we could have a cup together if I
liked. She smiled at me, friendly. She was a solid, calm-looking
woman, her smile wide, and coppery hair. It was clear she pitied
me. And I could feel my fingers where they’d brushed her. I’d wanted
to touch her all right. I realised that. She went off to finish
whatever it was she’d been doing, and as soon as she disappeared I got
to my feet and left.
After checking my equipment I’d often sit looking at the weather out at sea. I used to mull things over, watching the clouds blowing by and listening faintly to the radio. I have a collection of magazines on weapons and survival and if I was ever feeling diligent I’d comb through them once again. Or, if the weather was fine, I used to go for a walk about the suburb. Sometimes I caught a bus to another part of town and walked around relating street names to the maps I’ve tried to memorise.page 95
I usually had lunch in town. Around the Octagon there are seats where I’d sit and watch the people passing. I always came to the same conclusions. They’d all wear such intense faces, taking life so seriously, and I’d imagine them in their offices sniping behind the boss’s back, trading gossip and stories of misfortune, bitching at petty injustices, complaining to one another how dull their work is. But they wouldn’t miss it for the world. You could see how it gave them that sense of being badly done by. They were victims of an uncaring system, mini-martyrs. That they continue on in the face of such strife. And they gain a sense of solidarity from it, the way they all suffer together, caught up in the middle of their great dramas. And everything they hear—the media, banks, politicians, companies, judges, the sergeants—fuels the sense of impending calamity. The economy is bad, crime is rife, our children sleep in gutters, prices going up, war victims, starvation, floods, cancer from the sun, pollution, rapists stalk the streets, all that. It gels people together and numbs their hearts. Who’d want to face it all alone. Be responsible for all that. They’re quite happy to be the hoi polloi, to live in their soap operas.
And in the afternoon I’d normally go to the gym in Dowling Street and work out for a couple of hours. I’d pump the weights and look around and think things through. At the gym they have mirrors on the walls and everyone stares around vacantly, admiring the curves of the women and the bulges of the men. The regulars, the big men, stand in front of the mirrors grunting the barbells up and down. They stare at themselves and of course want all the other eyes on them too, not because they’re proud—pride only needs to see what it’s better than—but because in their hearts they’re weak and unsure of themselves. They want to confirm their existence, their importance, by seeing in the eyes of others that they’re acknowledged and admired.
After that I’d usually go to the library and read over the books they have on the art of war. I know sections of von Clauswitz almost by heart. It’s fair to say however that I didn’t always go to the library; sometimes I just sat on the seats again and watched the people passing by: the slow trudging of the shoppers, the smoking schoolkids, the gossips, the hand-holding couples, the poor, all the victims.
The evenings I used to spend making my plans. It was
plain to me that most killers do it for the same reason, not because
they have a point to make, but because they can find no other way of
communicating. Most of them do it on impulse and don’t know how to
handle the consequences of their
actions. They either kill themselves or allow themselves to be killed,
which is the same thing. They have no foresight. No framework for
understanding what they do. Personally I believe the human condition
is hopeless, that we’ve created systems that blind us and are now too
powerful to stop. The unchanging systems: the schools, the armies, the
governments, the courts. These create the worlds we live in, insisting
we’re individuals, that we have total freedom, and then they bind us
together and set the limits of our actions. True individuality
threatens the fine balance of things, even just because people don’t
like to see what it is they could be.
But it’s a struggle to escape being what you are. To see the things you can’t see.
This is how it was. A fine morning. As usual I woke early, put on my running togs, latched the door behind me, hid the key under the brick by the gate and headed off along the Esplanade. The morning was still dim and there was moisture in the air. The breeze was fresh and full of salt from the sea. I was invigorated. I remember it clearly.
I ran along the Esplanade, down the concrete steps that led onto the beach and out toward the water. The water rolled up on the beach and as the waves licked at me I dove in. I must have passed through the wave and hit against the bottom; I felt a thud. Then I lost all sense of the water and the cold. I tried to move my legs but there was nothing. The waves came in and pressed me under. Then the water moved out and I went with it till I was left floating on my back in a hissing break of sea. I couldn’t move and I knew I’d broken my neck. above me I saw the early morning sky already clearing and the shape of a gull wheeled through the compass of my sight. The sounds of the surf and the barking of the gulls reached me and then once more the sea took me down into blackness. I could feel my head being shifted and thrown, but my body was lost to me. I held my air till I was once more tossed to the crest of a wave and the light. Then again I was ragged back and forth. I came to rest floating on my front and found my neck wouldn’t turn. But for some reason I couldn’t just let go my breath. The sea took me again and rushed with me. It surged over me and around me and dallied with me for a time and then at last it shovelled me up on the sand and ran away leaving me lumped on the shore with grit in my eyes and the weight of my body behind.
I heard the slapping of feet and the ringing of voices and then beside me there was a foot. An arm reached down and circled under my shoulders. I page 97 felt no contact but the empty sky spun into view as I was turned. A face dipped before me and I recognised the surly features of the lifeguard. Behind him were the shapes of people, too many people, all clustering around. The lifeguard said something and there was concern in his voice. He was quiet and steady. He looked down at me. I lay in his arms like a lover; we were pressed close and together and I realised this is the way it would be forever. A wave swept over me. He slipped his hand behind my head and steadied me. He steadied my head till I met his eyes, and in them I found all those inevitable things: knowledge, pity, brotherhood, love, relentless compassion.