mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Sport 15: white horse black dog

East Born

page 75

East Born

I was born in the East and my family was German. Or so I imagined, in the game that went from east to west, from street to street, between Eastbourne and Westbourne Roads and along the moon-shaped crescent connecting them. Skateboarding or walking or most often running between the parallel streets, we would project our muddled Berliner accents over the barricades of hedges and parked cars, pitching our battles, volleys of pinecones, too old or new apples and acorns at each other. As far as we, as children, were concerned, the two streets would never be reconciled to each other, just as the world they were modelled on would remain divided into East and West. From the family home in Eastbourne Road, the West was only a stone’s throw away so, playing at Spartacists or something, we would throw stones at it.

Home was a place to stagger back to. Beyond the division of each day, it embodied a unity and oneness, with its L-shaped corridor and its orderly progression from one room to the next, each of them linking up with the other, embracing.

Europe, looming in the far distance, seemed to us a continent of longing, whereas home was that which we had been granted and, it followed, had no longing for. And whereas Europe was a place haunted by its past, as children we had yet to discover or construct our pasts—the corrugated iron and weatherboard of our histories. Beyond our embattled neighbourhood, ours was a country of fences as opposed to walls, of skeletal structures, of openings.

On the other hand, East and West were as separate here as they were anywhere and they were destined to remain so, just as we were certain what we had at home would remain intact or, if not exactly intact, then at least in a kind of musical arrangement with itself—an arrangement which included the way light entertained itself in each of the rooms, playing among the frosted interior windows, the crystal wind chimes. Every moment shimmered in the unified world of these four walls— page 76 walls that could quietly accommodate all manner of dreams including dreams of peace and even some of war.

Just as East and West were, for the duration of our childhood, divided, a decade later—not long after our parents sold it—the house we lived in came to be divided. We will come to that.

It was a house in the grand manner. My father bought it because it reminded him of Corfu. He moved his Lawrence Durrell novels (their pages marked by willing yet often incomprehending fingers), his wife and three children into it. He had named his daughter Justine. He would sit her at the front of the house so she could watch the vines as they grew over the archway, died in winter then were revived again. She learnt to count the grapes rolling down the side path. The vines wrapped around the house like strands of chaotic ribbon.

It was in this house that our parents gained a tenuous hold on their world, a world which centred around the three of us—their three European-looking children—each growing older and more like them. We grew proud of the house, its luxuriant greenery and the cellar full of red and white wines which seemed distantly related to those vines. The imported bottles would invariably be left too long and have gone off by the time our parents came to drink them, but that didn’t seem to matter—our parents paid more attention to the years on the labels and how quickly those years had gone by.

One thing our parents said which remains with me is that you should always respect the house in which you were born, that you will always be a citizen of that place.

East/bourne and West/bourne Roads—the places we were born—two streets trickling down the side of Mt Hobson, intent on remaining parallel, some distance apart. Only in retrospect it seems the two streets, like the two halves of Berlin, were ticking like clocks—or perhaps they were the arms of a broken timepiece, laid out side by side, surrounded by all the other broken pieces.

Later I came to recognise two reasons for the ongoing battles we, as children, were immersed in and to understand the nature of that conflict. page 77 First, there was the fact that we—the children of the East—were so similar to the children of the West and this similarity was a territory to be competed for. Second, there was the simple fact that if we were ever united then the game would be over—a state of affairs we could neither entertain nor allow.

The subject of my final intermediate school essay was the division of Germany into East and West—as rational and irrational as that, as clear-cut and as chaotic. The essay mentioned our parents watching the Berlin airlift from a small stained window, a sliver of the Gulf in one corner, Westbury Crescent—the street spanning East and West—in another.

I was born the same year as the Berlin Wall and with this fact came a certain knowledge and authority on my part, or so it appeared the way I justified my essay to the class.

While the haircuts on the eastern side were severe, I pronounced, the clothes dowdy and the young people too good at sport, far worse than that was the graffiti on the western side of the Wall. The verges on the West, I pointed out, were covered in television guides and cassettes with their innards unspooling across the ground. Pink Floyd mostly. The young people there clearly did not know what to do with themselves.

The children in the class who hailed from Westbourne Road took my presentation to be an insult. I felt their discomfort but proceeded regardless. As a member of a family from The East, I felt a dogged loyalty to all those tattered Eastern greatcoats, the woollen hats and worn-out generations of gloves even if, as it appears to me now, they were snagged on a kind of ideological barbed wire.

After the class, the teacher took me aside and showed me a photograph of dozens of tiny Russian children, all wearing identical clothes and with identical closely-cropped haircuts. The teacher intoned that this was what living in Eastern Europe was actually like, but I replied that they looked like American haircuts to me.

Just as my school essay about the division of Germany could never have anticpated the reunification of East and West, neither could it have foreseen the division of the family home.

Who would have thought that, in our lifetime, East would meet West, page 78 the wall between them exploding into a spray of tourist souvenirs and historical mortar? But then who would have thought, at about this time, our family home would be divided in two, sliced clean down the middle and driven off with in the dead of night?

I am standing on the pavement in front of Number Five, Eastbourne Rd, Remuera, staring through the crack which now divides the house into two equal parts. Everything about my childhood is divided by this gap: A couple lying on a bed find themselves separated by a thin strip of sky. A wall on which a world map once hung is torn down the middle, about where the American continent was. To cross the kitchen while drying a plate would now entail levitation or, at least, extraordinary speed.

The house is neatly dissected and will remain, for a few days, divided by a wall of sky a metre thick, a space through which the manoeuvring of distant aircraft can be made out, interspersed with figures and numerals in white—clouds in fact—which look like graffiti in German.

As a matter of course, the letterbox which was a replica of the house itself, small and pink (it would be repainted each time the house was repainted) with the number 5 affixed, has been demolished…

Signs of change in the street have been evident for some time—gates have been fitted with alarm systems, powerpoles have disappeared under the footpath and the dangling lines on which birds thoughtfully swayed are now buried.

The lawn in front of our house has been carved out, along with the skeletons of birds we buried therein and the tunnels we abandoned which pointed in the direction of the Free World or the other side of the world. Our family house has been inscribed with words in chalk, details of its pending removal. We will come to that.

Oh, as the singer sings in the adult songs, what these streets have seen.

I notice the vines, recently unfastened from the walls, in a bundle on the front lawn, a few strands growing hopelessly back towards the house. I am thinking, also, about the reunification of Germany and how time which to me always resembled a flat field, has now become steep and even, in places, treacherous. The house which we had reasonably page 79 supposed would never move is about to travel in two parts from Auckland to, it is rumoured, a small Waikato town where the halves will be reunited…

They backed a truck in and drove one half of the house south before the second vehicle reversed into position, a neighbour later told us. The living room, bathroom, kitchen and lounge followed fifteen miles behind the three bedrooms, study and corridor. The neighbour suspected a few rooms went missing, but she was not certain of this. It was past midnight.

I am told there are men—developers—who buy old houses and move them from towns like Taihape and Wanganui—and Auckland, I suppose—to any place they can rid themselves of them at a profit. These men shuffle and reshuffle towns. I have seen settlements of the houses they have bought stranded in the middle of nowhere. Like gypsy caravans, they are set up in camps, stationary in the daylight hours before resuming the road at night.

I can see clearly all these houses travelling by night, in all directions about the country.

North and South.

East and West.

Houses being stolen from their pasts, being driven off into the darkness.


Wide loads.

If I had known then what I know now, my school essay would have been incomplete if it did not mention the empty section that replaced our childhood—the large hoarding that stood over the property, the words suggesting a new development—four bedrooms, a swimming pool, 6000 square feet…

It seems probable, when you consider the way the city disposes of itself, that in the fullness of time this new house will likewise be expelled from its surrounds and cast adrift, to end up in a similar situation as our family home—the Waikato River burbling behind it, children with page 80 small-bore rifles shooting targets hung against its south-facing wall which was once its west-facing wall. And the clouds above like lettering in white spray-paint, the words in German, likewise cast adrift.

Oh, as the singer sings, what these streets have watched go by…

All those houses travelling the back-roads and highways by night, looking for their previous owners. Driving north and south, hoping to pass us coming the other way, freshly plucked from dreams, wide-awake.

I can see the separate halves of my father’s daydream of Corfu motoring through pitch blackness, from time to time driving back down Eastbourne Road and surveying the blank facade they have been replaced with. And the collected works of Lawrence Durrell travelling a parallel course around the North Island with nowhere that could be called their home.

We have never ascertained where the house—Number Five, Eastbourne Rd—went, but in the small hours of morning we can hear the wheels of those two trucks driving the length and breadth of the country, looking for each other and looking for us.