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Sport 26: Autumn 2001

Tim Corballis — Geologic

page 135

Tim Corballis


Part 1

His grandfather's house is separated from the beach by a dirt road which leads towards the southern headland, then turns and runs up to the head of the valley. It is surrounded by cabbage trees, an overgrowing garden, fences.

A long-established conflict is playing out between land and sea. People have long gathered to support one or the other. Supporters of the sea point to its relentless pounding, wearing away at the rock, carving it into tortured shapes over the millennia. The land's supporters point out its persistence, that it is still there, despite the obvious erosion problems hereabouts. A certain flexibility, a fighting spirit, in fact an almost liquid nature, mountains thrusting upwards on an unimaginable wave of molten rock. The two factions stand on the beach and cheer their favourites. They set up close to the high-tide mark, and though the old man has tried to evict them, they claim a legal right to remain.

His grandfather said once, ‘Queen's Chain indeed. Chaos and stability. Whatever happened to the middle way, between the two?’

Mending fences, dipping sheep, a stream flowing close by the woolshed to the ocean, where it fanned out in a brown, nutrient-rich stain, thrown back at the sand by the waves. His grandfather's arms brown in the sun. His grandmother, inside, or in the garden, pale under a broad hat.

Childhood holidays. The old man would say to him, ‘What do you want to sit around and read for?’

He would follow reluctantly and be forced to try and shear sheep, failing to control the animals while the shearers laughed. Later, he would secretly find his way out of the house, towards the beach, where page 136 the crowds stood about close to the water.

He once said, ‘My grandfather's shed burnt down.’

A man nodded and said, ‘Arsons have been going on around here for about thirty years. Maybe longer. It's a local tradition.’

He said, ‘Why?’

There was a woman standing with him and the man. They were silent for a minute.

She said, ‘Maybe it is not surprising that buildings on the land do not survive for very long. They are people's attempt to claim it, conquer it.’

He searched for some adult implication in her words.

The man said, ‘It is the sea which conquers the land.’

The woman said, ‘Is not.’

The man said, ‘Is too.’

There was a long, awkward pause. The woman said, ‘People invest in concrete and steel industries, hoping to cash in on the building boom in inner cities, the slums of the Third World. Thinking that land is something that you can just build on. But things don't last. There are earthquakes, for example. No one really knows when the next one will occur.’

He looked up at her, admiring her forcefulness.

The man said, ‘Tidal waves.’

The woman sighed. She said, ‘Landslides.’

The man said, ‘The Titanic.’

The woman said, ‘Mount Vesuvius.’

His grandfather barely tolerated this argument for many years. It was around this time, however, that there was a change: perhaps having seen him with them, his grandfather invited the beach people in, gave them drinks and entertained them with his stories. It was a sudden easing of relations, and made him suspicious. His grandmother smiled and clenched her teeth in the corner, sipping sherry. His parents drove somewhere up the coast, to spend the night alone. The old man would point to him, with his arm around one of the supporters of land or sea, and discuss his upbringing in the city.

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In his grandparents' bathroom, dust, red-brown stains on the enamel of the bath and basin. He later had a theory that his grandmother also hated the buildup of mess, but long hollow days drained her energy to mention it, or clean it up.

His grandfather has been alone, remaining stubbornly in his isolated place, for six years, since the death of his wife. People from neighbouring farms or the nearby town come and bring him food, and give the place an occasional cleaning.

The management of the farm has been reluctantly taken over by neighbours, whose house is some way up the valley. The old man can hardly walk now. He will totter to his ancient truck and drive out to where they round up his stock, hoarsely stating his orders, which the boys on four-wheelers follow.

They occasionally move the trees, the hills and fenceposts, mixing up the land so that it is unrecognisable. There are trees like pylons, hills like apartment blocks, a steady, noisy traffic of commuters moving about the rough grass and fencewire. His grandfather feels pain in his legs, looks about his property, recognising nothing, and turns and leaves them to their job.

People are captured in phrases, gestures. His grandfather in a squint as he said to him, ‘Coming?’ His grandmother, in a sudden smile, always directed at a tangent to his grandfather's radius, glancing off him, and falling on a suddenly halted grandchild, stunned by the rareness of that expression as much as by the presence of her husband, his skin hanging loosely where muscle used to be.

Much later, as a young adult, he again visits his grandfather's house.

Since his childhood here, over the course of geological time, many small changes have added up, to give the appearance of a catastrophic event. He recognises the house, the cabbage trees…the hills have shifted, erosion and uplift locked in battle, trees fallen and risen again, fences drawing and redrawing their lines across the land but never satisfied, trying a new partition, leaving the marks of former incarnations here and there.

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The house is still standing. His grandfather moves about in it, treading dirt from the garden into the carpet. Outside, the land and sea shine, as though with some inner light.

On the beach, there is widespread disagreement about whether the land is best thought of as male and the sea female, or vice versa. They are writing down new mythologies of this place. He wonders what has become of the old ones.

Part 2

I had a theory about loss: that other people's loss must be as difficult as one's own—because loss was intrinsically sad, and not sad as a function of self-interest. I was trying to reach the house, peeling amongst hills and headlands, where my grandfather had lived for most of his life.

I was picked up by a woman driving an old white station wagon. It was late—I had been standing for several hours, and there was not much light left for hitching. I told her I was going north, as far as possible. Her hands were small and weathered on the steering wheel, with dirt under the nails. Under the view of pine forest and farmland the dashboard was a faded, cracked brown. Shells and stones lay about against the windscreen and on the floor. Her name was Jos. She looked at me, holding out a hand for me to shake.

I said, ‘P.’

She said, ‘Nice to meet you, P.’

I said, ‘Thanks for picking me up.’

She said, ‘Maybe you'll have the opportunity to return the favour.’

She was still looking at me, and smiling. The car was travelling fast—she handled the curves between hills and bridges easily, without watching the road.

She said, ‘I love the country around here.’

I asked her if she was a local.

‘I spend my time driving up and down this coast. It is an exciting, sad place, full of change. I have a house a few hours north of here. And, I live just out of Dunedin, with some friends. I keep going from one to the other.’

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I said, ‘You're going to your house, now?’

She said, ‘Yes. No. It burnt down recently. Apparently. I've got to go and see what's left.’ When I said that I was sorry to hear it, she said, ‘Don't be! Things like this happen. It's part of life's journey. It'll be for the best.’

I said, ‘How?’

She said, ‘I'm not sure yet.’ She looked down at the views, across farmland and patches of gorse. Shadows were lengthening towards the sea. She said, ‘Where are you staying tonight, P?’

I said, ‘I haven't arranged anything.’

She smiled. She said, ‘You've got to pay careful attention, amongst these hills and streams, and beaches. You can go away, and come back again, and things won't be quite where they were.’

I hadn't been to see my grandfather for several years. I wondered what would have changed when I arrived, the next day or the day after that.

Layered clouds to the east reminded me of eyes and fingers seen through Venetian blinds. When the sea was visible past Jos's profile, white lines of surf formed and connected briefly, then merged suddenly into darkening sand. I relaxed into periods of silence, in between which I told Jos about my grandfather, who had lived alone in the house since the death of his wife. ‘I thought, today, that I might make it all the way to the house.’

The sun, setting behind glowing high cloud and the silhouettes of mountain ranges, was like a theatre backdrop. Then, later, it was fully dark: Jos had one working headlight.

She said, ‘I would offer you a night at my place, but…’

I said, ‘Where are you going to stay tonight?’

Jos said, ‘I don't believe in coincidence. Do you?’

I said, ‘I don't know.’

She said, ‘I think everything has a meaning.’

I said, ‘I have a tent with me. I borrowed it from my girlfriend. It will sleep two people.’

Jos said, ‘Is that an invitation?’

I said, ‘You can sleep in the tent if you want to.’

Jos looked at me and said, ‘That's very nice of you.’ She looked page 140 back at the road. ‘We could put the tent up on my front lawn. At least that's still there.’

We turned off the main road, winding our way inland on smaller sealed and unsealed roads. Soon Jos stopped the car in a driveway. There was another driveway nearby, and a house with lit windows. This was in the flat valley floor between dark concealed hills. Pasture stretched away along fencelines on either side of the road. She got out of the car.

She said, ‘Come in.’

I said, ‘In? Hasn't your house burnt down?’

She said, ‘There are friendly neighbours. The MacIntyres.’

I opened the door and stretched upwards beside her. It was difficult to see her expression in this light.

The MacIntyres were a couple in their late middle age, with hands and faces reddened from farm work. They eyed me with suspicion.

Mr MacIntyre said, ‘Friend of yours.’

It was unclear whether it was a question, a statement, an attempt at ostensive definition. He pointed at me.

Jos said, ‘This is P, a good friend of mine.’

Mrs MacIntyre said, ‘I see.’

I smiled at her. She was a short, thin woman with greying hair. She smiled back, knowingly. We went through to a large kitchen area, where we sat down at a marbled formica table. There were furnishings and utensils lined up neatly, or hanging from hooks above the kitchen bench.

Mrs MacIntyre said, ‘Terrible shame about the house, Jos…’

Mr MacIntyre said, ‘What are you going to do?’

Jos shrugged. She seemed filled with a lightness, which buoyed her limbs into large gestures, and in which the fire was a small event.

Mrs MacIntyre said, ‘Well, we've made up a spare bed for you.’ She glanced at me.

Jos avoided my eyes and said, ‘P has a tent, and he's said that I can stay in that with him.’

I took a squinting interest in the fruit bowl and embroidered napkins lying on the table. There were lace curtains covering the lower half of the windows—above them only darkness was visible.

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Mr MacIntyre said, ‘We were in town when it happened, Jocelyn. I'm sorry, there was no one here to raise the alarm.’

Mrs MacIntyre said, ‘I can get you a sandwich or something. Tea or coffee?’

She brought bread and various fillings to the table. On the wall opposite Mr MacIntyre, and behind Jos, there was a calendar with photos of rural New Zealand. There were awkward pauses, into which Jos fixed her smile. She raised her eyebrows at me from time to time. Once Mr MarIntyre opened a conversation about whether the farm where Jos was staying, north of Dunedin, might be considered a commune.

Mrs MacIntyre said, ‘Well, that's a matter of language, isn't it?’

Jos said, ‘I might make myself a cup of coffee. Though it means I'll be awake all night.’ She said this with a smile towards me.

Later, we looked at the damp remains of her house by moonlight and the light of a torch which I fetched from my pack. It was almost completely destroyed, reduced to a rectangle of ash, scattered with the charred remains of beams and metal furniture.

Jos said, ‘Don't you love it?’

I said, ‘Excuse me?’

She said, ‘The mess…the destruction. I love it. It's so freeing.’

She stepped inside the boundary of the house, then leant down and took handfuls of ash. She walked towards me, rubbing her hands together, letting the ash slide between her fingers. I directed the torchbeam at her, and she squinted into it, a yellow figure against the blue moonlit surroundings. She reached out to smear ash on both sides of my face. I flinched backwards. I spat and wiped at my cheeks. I took a handkerchief from my pocket, leaving the torch on the ground. Her hands were cold, blackened, soft.

She laughed, then said, ‘Sorry…?’

I said, ‘It's OK.’ I stepped back further from her. She turned to the burnt house again, kicking and scratching about in the dirt. I turned the torch off, allowing my eyes to adjust to the moonlight. I watched her and tried to clean my face. She stood, then moved a few paces, staring downwards, then crouched, then stood again. She made small exclamations when she found some small object which she page 142 recognised. She approached me again and showed me a pan, mottled blue-black by the flames; an old bottle; the turned leg of a wooden table which had somehow survived; shards from pottery items which she had made herself.

She said, ‘These are some memories.’ I nodded. She frowned and said, ‘I'll help you put up that tent.’

We pitched the tent on the lawn, some distance from the remains of the house. It was a dome held up by flexible aluminium poles, with room for two people to sleep or sit up. She had a sleeping bag which she took from her car, faded green and threadbare, with broken zips. I placed my pack in the middle of the tent, between Jos and myself.

She said, ‘How are you feeling, P?’

I said, ‘Fine…’

She said, ‘You don't seem very relaxed.’

I said, ‘I don't know.’ There was silence for a minute. I said, ‘Well I'll get some sleep.’

She said, ‘All right.’

I turned around so that my head was facing away from the door to the tent.

It was an awkward manoeuvre, and I finally settled, lying on my side.

She said, ‘Is there anything you want, P?’

Her feet and ankles protruded from her sleeping bag, not far from my face.

They were pale in the dim light. She rubbed them slowly together.

I said, ‘No thank you.’ I turned over and look at the grey light through the wall of the tent.

The morning was bright, though the sun was obscured by thin high cloud. I was up early. I rolled up my sleeping bag, and packed everything away except for the tent. I sat on my pack, looking down the valley.

Finally I said, ‘Jos?’

She said, ‘Good morning, P’

I said, ‘I'll get going, soon.’

She didn't say anything. There was some movement as she page 143 extricated herself from her bag and emerged. We took the tent down in silence, shaking it to rid it of dew.

She said, ‘I don't think you'll get many rides along this road.’

I said, ‘I'll start walking. Something might come along.’

She said, ‘I'll probably go out to the coast later. I can take you to the main road if you're still walking.’

I said, ‘Thanks for everything.’

There was no visible sign of traffic, or habitation, other than the road and the nearby house. Jos was looking at the ground, as though she might find more artefacts from her past there. We hugged. She seemed tense, and gave me a sidelong look as she turned away.

When I look back, she is standing, again, amongst the ruins of her house, but this time her body is heavy and slow, and she doesn't lean down—again, I wonder what will have changed when I arrive at my grandfather's house.