Sport 22: Autumn 1999
Tim Corballis — Efforts at Burial
The goldfish, which I have named Oliver North and Hugh Grant, are in a fishtank on the table in the kitchen. I have put a picture behind the fishtank and visible through it, of a lake set in native bush, and in the background is Mount C. The effect of this is that the goldfish appear to be swimming above the surface of the lake.
The goldfish were a present from my father—the first present he has ever given me which is not a book. At first I tried to read them.
At an Alpine Club meeting men and women in fleece and down jackets listened to a talk on the tendency for climbers to take less and less equipment when climbing a mountain. The speaker had slides of some of the Himalayan peaks, which he had climbed not only without bottled oxygen, but without ropes or ice tools. In fact, he had used nothing but love. At the top, he had cried for the loss of that love. He told his audience: if you love it enough to take it, make sure you hate it enough to lose it.
Afterwards, they argued about whether love was enough to climb a mountain safely. Jon was a new face there. He was unusual in his eloquence, and in the careful attention he paid to his clothing.
He said to me, ‘Climbers talk about fear, and about love. I don't know if love is enough—perhaps you need the love of fear?’
I said, ‘Sorry?’
He said, ‘Perhaps you need to love fear, if you climb a mountain.’
I said, ‘Well, a lot of people say that sort of thing. I suppose.’ Then I said, ‘I'm J, by the way.’
‘Oh, yes, J. I'm Jon.’ He was looking at me. ‘Maybe what you need, then, is the fear of love.’page 18
Jon was thin, of medium height. His hair was curly, his face glowed with enthusiasm for the minimalism of the mountains. Jon had climbed Mount A and Mount B, and by the end of the evening he and I had decided to make an attempt on Mount C, easy by comparison, later that winter.
People started to leave. ‘I'll call you, then, and we should arrange some time to meet and talk things over,’ I said.
He said, ‘OK, J. Ciao then.’
I tell all this to the goldfish. And more: I tell them how Jon carried the spectrum around with him, but that in the alpine world the only colours are black and white
It is my first day in this house, after a long absence. It has been empty for a long time—though it still belongs to the family, it has been almost forgotten. My grandfather built it in his twenties—which coincided with the twenties of this century—and added rooms throughout his life as they were needed. It sits in the middle of a lush, New Zealand landscape.
The house itself, however, is still-life. I am given a pen, and I try to write a painting.
The goldfish seem a little nervous in their new environment. I try to calm them with tales of my childhood visits here.
That guests came around, helped themselves to drinks, which the grandfather was always happy to give, provided he matched them drink for drink. There was an open fire, the guests stayed a little longer, and dinner, which the grandmother had cooked, was held up. The guests were invited to share it. More guests arrived, uninvited like the first. There was only enough dinner for a mouthful of food each. The children asked their grandmother for more. The grandmother said: ‘In good time, in good time.’
The next night the situation was the same. Hundreds of friends and neighbours were hidden in a landscape that seemed only to bear page 19 sheep and thistle. The children learned to do without food. They dug an underground chamber, cooked mud and rocks there, and managed to survive. The feet of the guests muddied the paddocks and the grandmother's garden and lawn. The church was demolished. Only the sheep, the thistles, and the headstones remained.
And then, of course, there is the reason for coming to this house, which is to discuss the accident.
The funeral took place within the strong lines and muted colours of a McCahon, oil on canvas. I recognised a woman, who met my eye and came to talk with me. It was Jan, my personal banker. She is a middle-aged woman with a nervous demeanour. Her eyes are tiny, like the tips of two ballpoint pens.
Jan said, ‘That's a very nice coffin.’
I was not sure what to say. Jan said, ‘This will sound terrible. I mean I know it's a sensitive topic, but I've seen such awful things.’
I said, ‘… Yes …’
Jan said, ‘I like to be as involved with my clients as possible. Up to a point of course.’
I said, ‘You were Jon's personal banker?’
She said, ‘Oh yes yes. And really, Jon had the best cover possible. Actually it's quite fortunate that I ran into you here. I've got to talk to you. I mean, have you got a family yourself, J?’
She said, ‘Well, phew! Ha, I mean, that's fine, that's OK, that's easier. I know it's upsetting to talk about this, but have you ever thought about, you know, what would happen if … A funeral costs a lot of money. Three thousand dollars, minimum. This would have cost a lot more, nice coffin like that, and all. And his kids are well set up now. But as I say, he always insisted on the best cover for everything, health, life, superannuation, you name it.’
I said, ‘Yes …? Then, Jon had children?’
Jan said, ‘Yes yes. Now, would your parents or loved ones, say be able to afford a funeral? And, people get very upset. Oh really, some people really get upset when someone dies. Need counselling and all sorts of things. I've seen some awful stuff, families devastated by grief page 20 and so forth, and not covered, clients who just said, no thanks. I do my best, but it's their decision. I mean, it's your decision. With your income, as a, well you're a beneficiary aren't you? You can still afford basic life cover. You really should have that I think.’
I said, ‘Yes. Or, well, my folks are fairly well off …’
Jan said, ‘Good. Good! Really, I don't like to mention that. It's awful. Really rotten.’
I said, ‘No, it's fine. You must understand that this isn't the best time?’
Jan said, ‘Death is an economic event. And it makes me so ashamed. God. So ashamed. I mean I like to do my best for people, but it's all just … ah God. This is so sad.’
A few tears rolled upwards over her forehead, and fell up into the sky. As they fell, the drops turned to snow, then to cloud.
I said, ‘Where are Jon's children? And his partner? That is, if …’
Jan smiled, then said, ‘I can't tell you that. They're not here. I'm sorry I can't discuss the details of my other clients. I'm sorry, I really am, I mean, sorry. Here, take this—I worked this out for you. Basic life cover for just $3.85 per fortnight. Think about it.’
I said, ‘Is there something wrong with Jon's children? He never mentioned them to me.’
She started to move away, making eye contact with a smartly dressed man.
She said, ‘You should forget him, J. His account is fully balanced now.’
And she walked away.
The fish are casting looks upward. Towards the top of Mount C, behind them. Towards the lid of the fishtank
Somewhere up there, an avalanche occurred. I witnessed the death of my friend Jon. Or: I witnessed an avalanche, and Jon disappeared underneath this. The avalanche was in the shape of an hourglass. From the slopes above, I watched myself walk over the moving surface of the avalanche, which bubbled like surf.
I dug holes in the avalanche looking for Jon. But since the avalanche was moving, the holes were also moving and it was difficult to keep page 21 track of them. As one hole moved past, I caught a glimpse of Jon's face, glowing with enthusiasm for the minimalism of the mountains. But it moved past too quickly. I kept searching for my friend.
I was right there. The avalanche was silent, for the sound took some time to reach me, like the hammer fall in the distance preceding the sound of its blows. The sound continues to travel, taking the long way around, and it still hasn't reached me.
There is a lean-to out the back where my grandmother made pottery. My grandmother was a cold woman—cold to the touch. The diagnosis was too much contact with earth, pottery and gardening—the warmth had flowed out through her hands, into soil and clay.
This was a present she gave to the children one Christmas: she agreed, straight-faced, to stay home from church for the first time in her life, so that her extended family could unwrap plastic toys, bottles of whisky and wine, clothes (trousers and socks), wooden puzzles, musical instruments, perfumes, candles and candleholders, recordings of Mozart symphonies.
If she said grace before meals it was quickly and quietly. If cancer came and took her away it was quickly and quietly.
I can only imagine my father's upbringing here. I imagine that his mother's gifts were all sacrifices. I imagine that his father's gifts were all demands. I imagine that he learned that gifts are either one or the other. His gifts are all books. What am I to do with the information contained in them?
But now, he has given me a pair of goldfish.
Hugh Grant says, ‘It seems the more people you want to bury, the less holes you have to dig. This story is all about you. It might seem like it's about other people, but it's about you. No one will read it, for it will not be of interest to anyone else.’
I say, ‘But there is history only if you know history. If you don't, page 22 there are only places. A house on a farm. A mountain. What else can I do?’
So I keep talking to them.
I walked down the mountain again, down a track past a skifield and out to the carpark. There were people waiting, as though they were waiting at the airport for a friend. I hoped that I might see someone holding the sign with my name on it. And it would be me holding the sign-I would have been waiting for myself, and holding the sign in case I didn't recognise myself.
They were the media. I was not sure how they found out about the accident, as I had been alone—there had been no one to tell about the death of my friend. I asked if the police or Search and Rescue had been contacted, and they said, ‘No, we hadn't thought of that.’ And some of them rushed off to interview the police and Search and Rescue.
I was interviewed by a woman in a down jacket. Her looks and hairdo were icy like the surroundings.
She said, ‘You were on the mountain when the tragedy occurred? How was it up there?’
I said, ‘Bad. Bad, not good at all.’
I noticed that the camera was remarkably small, and found it surprising that it would send my image to so many television sets.
She said, ‘Has a body been found to your knowledge?’
I said, ‘Not to my knowledge, no.’
She said, ‘What would you say caused the accident?’
‘Snow builds up on lee slopes. Windslab under tension can break and slide easily on an icy layer. It's just one of those things.’
She said, ‘You were a friend of the victim?’
I said, ‘Yes I was.’
She said, ‘Would you say he was qualified to be where he was?’
I said, ‘He had climbed Mts A and B, and he knew what he was doing.’
She said, ‘But did he have formal qualifications or training?’
I said, ‘I don't know, he had climbed a lot.’
She said, ‘Tell us a little bit about him.’page 23
I said, ‘He had climbed Mounts A and B. His face glowed with enthusiasm for the minimalism of the mountains.’
After the interview, I wondered who would watch it. Then I realised that I had my balaclava and hood on, and would probably be unrecognisable.
Oliver North says, ‘Since we seem to have some sort of role in all of this, we'd like to ask a few questions. Firstly, we would like Jon's full name, age, height, weight, occupation. And how long did you know him?’
I say, ‘I don't know any of that. He was Jon, and I have his phone number on a piece of paper. I knew him for a few months. That's all.’
Hugh Grant says, ‘Family? Any other connections?’
I say, ‘No one at the club seemed to know him but me. I talked to a man at his old phone number.’
I said, ‘Hi, this is Jon's old number?’
The man said, ‘Yes. What is it?’
I said, ‘My name's J.’
The man said, ‘Who are you with?’
I said, ‘What?’
He said, ‘Who are you? Newspaper, TV … How did you get this number?’
I said, ‘… I was with him, when he died.’
He said, ‘Why are you calling?’
I said, ‘I don't know. No, I do know!’
He said, ‘You must understand that this isn't the best time?’
I said, ‘I would like, maybe, to talk with his children?’
He laughed, ‘Then this is certainly the wrong number! … You're the one who took him away climbing?’
I said, ‘We went together. We both went.’
He said, ‘Jon was terrified of climbing.’
I said, ‘No. He had climbed Mount A, Mount B!’page 24
He said, ‘Yes! I was there. He had been going on at me to take him up Mt C too …’
I said, ‘You climbed with Jon.’
He said, ‘We needed next to nothing to climb those mountains. Look sorry I don't want to talk about this.’
I said, ‘Jon was my friend! I want to know something about him!’
He laughed. Then coughed, or wheezed. ‘Hang on, I'll just get someone else. Ciao.’
I could hear him move away from the phone, then say, ‘Someone called J on the line. Can you talk to him?’
This time it was a woman's voice, ‘Hi J. It's Jan.’
I said, ‘Jan? Personal banker?’
Jan said, ‘Yes.’
I said, ‘What are you …?’
Jan said, ‘David says it's comforting to have me here because I only ask about finances and so on, keep my nose out of things. I guess I'm non-threatening, J. You know, I don't get appreciated like this much. But J, what are all your questions for?’
I said, ‘His children?’
She said, ‘They won't go near you. They only put up with me for much the same reasons David does. And there is money from Jon's estate. But you've got better things to worry about. You know, they're going to cut your benefit.’
I said, ‘What?’
She said, ‘Sorry, really.’
Then she hung up.
Hugh Grant says, ‘Right. Dead end on the family and friends then. I guess the next question is, what are we doing here?’
I say, ‘Um.’
Oliver North says, ‘Or, to put it slightly differently, what are we doing here?’
I say, ‘You were a present …’
Oliver North says, ‘Nice! I like that, a present! I'm glad we've enriched your life. And this lovely picture, just to give us an impression page 25 of what it would be like to have unlimited space. Goes well with the, well, Impenetrable Glass Walls, don't you think?’
Hugh Grant says, ‘Um, I think the point here is that it's all very well for you to lock yourself away and all that …’
Oliver North says, ‘… and indulge in a good bit of grief …’
Hugh Grant says, ‘… but it actually doesn't really concern us.
Oliver North offers, ‘… cold-blooded?’
Hugh Grant nods.
After the removal and subsequent death of my grandfather, this house was forgotten by the family, or lingered in the subconscious like a letter which was never written. Out of sympathy and love for the old couple who were gone, their house and their farm, the locals have banded together to keep the farm running—mending the fences, shearing and dipping the sheep. There is no profit in it. The effort required brings the local community together in a way which it has not seen for years. They regard the farm as a work of art, a collaborative project which has value in its own right.
A neighbouring farmer comes with a bale wrapper. He wraps huge old trunks of macrocarpa and rusting farm machinery in black plastic.
Today, I wake up to find that the fish are gone. The lid of the fishtank has been forcibly removed from within, and lies in pieces on the ground.
I return to bed and lie there on my side. Soon, I think I feel two small shapes brush lightly against my cheek, but I do not open my eyes. Then they are gone.