Sport 15: white horse black dog
When We Stopped
Much of my New Zealand is from the road. Places I knew only in passing would appear to me, now and then, with the force of an assault or embrace when the car pulled over into the banked gravel for my carsick sister to throw up, or for me to walk away and find a bush to crouch behind.
Uncle Colin put his old, fawn, boxy car in low gear and tackled the first few turns. The road was unsealed then, and narrow (the slopes on the Riwaka side were replanted sometime in the early seventies and trees gradually filled the view to a halfway mark—the horizon—then AA signs appeared: ‘Lookout 200 metres’). At five I’d just been in my first aeroplane; had that revelation—contour, coastline—I hadn’t the words, but I do remember noticing that the thick air between me and the fields made a blue filter, like tinted cellophane. I remember that and—how equitable are our memories of early childhood—the four-pack of Wrigley’s Juicyfruit I’d been given to ‘make my ears pop’. My ears popped again on the hill. It was just like the plane. For a kid there’s not much to tell between three and twelve thousand feet—especially a kid whose landscape is a flat valley notched by a river: the Hutt; or a city street whose course was not determined by survey, but a shoreline beached by an earthquake: Lambton Quay. The Takaka Hill is high, is a heap of lesser hills culminating in a hilly summit and a signpost ‘Summit 3500 feet’ (later ‘952 metres’). The Takaka Hill is grazed, its grass as smooth as sifted flour, but with limestone outcrops like butter not properly rubbed into a scone mix. The hill’s turf crumbles back from what is underneath, limestone caverns, and a hole that could swallow any large European cathedral—I’ve never seen it; it’s nowhere near the road.
Uncle Colin said, ‘I’ll drop back from this fellow’s dust.’ He went easy on his car. I cried. Dad said, ‘We’re nowhere near the edge, Lif.’ The mountains on the other side of the Riwaka Valley fell to their knees, the page 21 sea reappeared and was offered around again like a tray of drinks when no one had expected to get another. The road wouldn’t stay put under the tires, chunks of gravel shot off like tiddlywinks over the edge we were nowhere near. Then a bus came around the corner. Uncle Colin and its driver locked eyes in grim assent, and tried to pass each other. I looked out my side and saw the road’s selvaged edge, a growth of gorse and dusty ragwort; then it disappeared under the rusty rim of vestigial running-board.
The bus scraped along our side, the car rocked, and the bus was past us. Both vehicles stopped. Dad and Uncle Colin got out and Colin picked up the chrome handle from the right back door. The bus driver joined them and they examined their scratches. Us kids weren’t allowed out: ‘Too much traffic’ (no one went by). But the engine was off and the car still, so that day and bend’s particular winds blew in the window and, well, I had met my first divinity.
That hill. In the seventies we went back over it one morning at four a.m., summer, on our way to the early ferry sailing, in Dad’s record time—twenty-five minutes from the first turn at Canaan to the last near the road to the Riverside commune. (That corner is a karanga to me, the last teasing veil of hops on their strings, and then the road rises.) We met one other vehicle, a logging truck, travelling very fast, as we were—a grid of headlamps, the rough prehistoric hides of logs back-lit by twilight, air brakes. Dad’s chocolate brown ‘72 Torana S darted back over the white line. Dad let Mary out to vomit, and me out to pee. Mum said, ‘Don’t go too far, Lif, remember there’s holes.’ (There’s holes in that thar hill). I went out of view. The sun was coming up over the Abel Tasman National Park and a few sheep raised their heads and looked at me, as sentries on point might regard a scout from another army, then came a crack in the reactor behind the horizon—golden light—and everything living exhaled steam: me, the grass, the sheep. I crouched to piss and folded myself in a flower of steam.
My country has come to me in visions wherever I’ve stopped. And that goes for lesser pauses like when I lie on my back on the swing seat in the Botanical Gardens play area, my husband has our son and, for a moment, page 22 I haven’t to read or work or talk or watch, gravity has reversed itself and I’m strapped to the seat, a casualty on a gurney flying through hospital corridors, between me and the gulf only three sparring gulls, very high, the swing’s frame and my polarised-plastic clip-ons and prescription glasses. I mean—how naked can you get?
These curiously momentous pauses are like the silence in a score, the small measures of silence that work in music as yeast does in bread dough.
Once, when we were coming back from a day trip on back roads to the West Coast just over from Golden Bay, Uncle Colin lost his exhaust pipe against the hump in the middle of the road. The car was a Zephyr, I think, two-tone, off-white and red. Dad was behind, driving his second Torana, the olive green SL (1974)—not as startling as his first (Dad used to top up its tank in small installments; apparently only gasjockeys could fully appreciate his little, dark, aerodynamic car).
From behind Colin, we saw the exhaust drop and drag sparking along the road. The men got out first, followed by my boy cousin. Dad and Colin lay down on the road to get a better look. Mum got out to have a smoke. The contents of the boots of both cars were consulted. Us kids were told not to stray and we sat down to watch Dad and Colin walk away towards the distant weathered birdbox of a coal mine. They’d find some wire to fix the exhaust, some that hadn’t lost its pliancy in the wet. They went into the bush and appeared ten minutes later to climb the edge of the black tailings, the slope behind them suddenly animated by glitter. Us kids ambled back to a turn-off, went along it till we, too, walked into the bush. As we did a farmer hailed us—a farmer he was when we told the story later, but I don’t know what I’m looking at when I regard the picture my memory presents me—his greasy wool pull-on hat, the holes in his clothes. He said, ‘You’re not going in there, are you?’
‘A little way,’ said the oldest cousin.
‘I wouldn’t go in there, they’ve lost whole herds up the back of there.’
‘Up the back of’ suggested that there was a limit to the territory, rather than a long wilderness in which things were lost (a peculiarly New Zealand view of wilderness—a limited, deceptively manageable space, no thousand-mile walks without more than one look at an ocean). The page 23 farmer’s ‘up the back’ was a very dense wall, as water is, or a bog of brambles.
We went into the bush. The boy cousin said, ‘He was having us on. Coasters, they love to have you on.’
‘Lost tribes and giant slugs, eh?’ said my older sister.
The track was an old bullock trail. It led to a gold camp, in a bend of a stream from which all the topsoil had been stripped by dredging. We found several tin shacks and, on the joists of an unlined inside wall, a row of small bottles, stoppered by cork and full of the dry, or syrupy, residue of medicine. I remember the smell, a smell quite other than bad food, fresh poison, other people’s prescriptions, a smell of superseded science, of mortal danger, of magic potions. We washed the bottles in the stream, got out the worst of it, and carried them back to the cars for my aunt’s bottle collection. Colin had jacked up the back of the Zephyr and was underneath with wire and pliers. Dad lay on his side on the road, watching. We wanted to get back to Tata in time for a last swim, so were quiet to let Colin concentrate. Our silence had surface tension, it filled the valley, glassy, and bulged a little over the rim of the hills.
The roadsides we see passing through are a litany, especially roads we know to places we love. Highway dust over all the Rai Saddle forest, clouds of nerve gas, yellow pine pollen; the ragged spume of grass, blurred as we pass, a foamy wake falling behind us. To stop is a celebration, a quartered orange in a rest area, Mass, half-time in a rugby game. Even a busy stop is, somehow, like silent prayer, contemplation. Even the high street of Buller where we stopped to have tea and filch salt and pepper from the cruet set on our table—we were camping and had none—even the dullest places declare themselves deep after all those rapids.
We had winter holidays, Driving up to Waikaremoana in two cars— the Knoxes and Johns—I rode with Daph, Olaf and Robin. We were in the lead, driving sedately, we had seen Dad pull over, probably so Mary could be sick or walk off nausea. They hadn’t reappeared. It was 1975, Robin and I were listening to her tape of Yellow Brick Road, to my anthem, the all-out, grandstanding sentiment of ‘Don’t Let the Sun go Down on Me’. Teenagers—always rehearsing for oblivion, as though page 24 adulthood is oblivion. Sure. Some few months later a friend went to lengths we morbid throat-clearers didn’t—four feet approximately, of taut rope.
Daph saw the feral goat caught in a fence. We did a U-ee and drove up on to the rest area above the road. Olaf crossed the highway and stood assessing the goat. It plunged and struggled as he approached then stilled and simply watched, its yellow eyes trapdoors open a slit on a dark attic.
Robin and I were told to watch for Dad and wave him down. I had my first look at the rough hills up the back of Hawke’s Bay: pasture, not of the King David variety, but an undistinguished green, thistles, scrubby hills silvered by that mid-North Island light, not quite as clear as the light at Cook Strait, or the white anvil of Hauraki Auckland smokes on. So many hills, such badly trampled land (you could still hear Maui telling his brothers, ‘Let it set.’). To me the land was a prodigy, so many thicknesses of landforms, and no sea in sight. These were ordinary circumstances, I was just seeing some place for the first time, but the appearance of the ocean in almost all extensive views is essential to this country. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but that view—Olaf and the goat in its foreground—is exhibit A of my evidence, my evidence for a case. Good visibility, few mists, a couple of skinny islands—when we have done enough travelling in our country we develop, perhaps, very fine proprioception (the brain’s map of the body), and even blinded, or balance-disturbed, we are still in touch with our toes. Our hinterland isn’t a great space but ‘up the back of there’, where lost herds of hairy black bog cattle hide, and the bush is so thick it flattens into a wall— green, with black espaliered supplejack—everyone’s back fence.
Dad’s Torana appeared on the straight, doing one hundred and twenty, in a hurry to catch us up. Only my younger sister saw us. Sara peered up at us out of the sloping back window—two smirking fifteen-year-olds, hands on our hips. She looked stricken, as if it was my ghost she had seen. It took them a while to come back, a while for Sara to persuade Dad she had seen us and for him to reason that we hadn’t somehow escaped Olaf or been put out on the side of the road with Robin’s cassette deck and our thrashed Elton John.page 25
Dad and Olaf freed the goat, not before it made a bloody puncture in Dad’s forearm. It bounded away, its hundreds of dollars of daggy mohair gleamed as it went.
Livestock. There was the time we stopped in the suburb of Stoke, because I was about to burst. Searching for a toilet in some sportsgrounds, I walked into a rugby changing rooms. The smell! A wet shearing-shed reek, steam, and several pressings from my only male template— my father—hairy skin and muscle. I appreciate it now, I place my palms flat, reverently, on the photograph my memory makes. At the time it was a shock, like an unexpected drop, and I was a juvenile leopard strayed into a tribe of chimps—several shrieked ‘Whoa!’ and the rest bared their teeth (covered their dicks but bared their teeth) and guffawed. Never say a frightened girl just won’t hold water; I did all the way to Takaka.
This is an essay about comfort stops and mishaps. The time Dad locked his keys in the boot at Bainham and Mum, Thel and us kids explored an abandoned farmhouse. The walls were vibrated by beehives, the kitchen floor tiled with the flattened corpses of mummified possums. I stood by myself in a room under the eaves and smelled must—must, the necessity of decay in old wooden houses—and took in the hand-blocked wallpaper—Harlequins—an iron child’s bed, a mirror with rotted silver, all in red, perilous, fading light while borer marked time in every wall, reliable clockwork against the electricity of bees. Or the time I walked into the hot fringe of the State Forest along the highway from Taupo to Rotorua and found, thirty feet in, a stinking massacre of feral goats where cyanide had been put down for pests. Mishaps and comfort stops; sacred moments and sacred beings.
We would ‘get away’ at least once a year in the seventies. Out of our notches—Tawa College for us kids, New Zealand’s Heritage for Dad (though he’d take it with him. We’d tour gold mines in Central Otago, or take a look at St Joseph’s on the shore of Lake Taupo. We asked permission from someone at Waihi Village then drove up, walked along the verandah. Mum admired the garden—it was August—thick with flowering honesty; Dad disgorged historical information; and me, I page 26 peered through dark pages of little panes into classrooms, miserable, musty, fruitless classrooms).
We got away, drove and stopped and stayed where we’d stopped. My ghost has stopped, while I’m passing through. Us kids are waiting for the exhaust to be reattached, or the boot broken into with a crowbar, and Dad is still that angry active fifty-year-old who threw curses at women hitchhikers two abreast on a tight left hand curve of The Hill: ‘May all your children be born square and you have bloody pain bearing them!’ He had to slow down to get it all out. If only we’d stopped.