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Sport 33: Spring 2005

Free At Last

page 105

Free At Last

Men have this thing called the futile cycle. For some reason we can't store body sugars as well as women, and once in a while we have to spend some energy, just to make room for more. Like, perhaps we're watching a quiz show and our body temperature suddenly goes through the roof. Or our girlfriend calls us by some pet name she's just thought of, and we take it all wrong and get shitty. Or some guy tries to chat us up while we're sitting alone in a bar, too close to the window, pretending to read a book by Old Weaselpiss herself, and half-expecting to die in a drive-by shooting.

I'm trying to be philosophical about all this. Guys always hit on me—it's been happening all my life. And the guy who's doing it now is just doing what his futile cycle tells him to do. He's just this guy made up of other guys. I look at him with my best friendly face, as if God sent me forth before he finished making me, and I say nothing. He's expecting little nods and all that stuff as he talks, but I'm not there. You can't miss a signal like that. But he does.

I thought I knew him for a while, but then I worked out his haircut had once belonged to a boy named Gary Pou I went to intermediate school with. And while we're at it, his sideboards belonged to a man called Noel Barber who used to drink with my Dad every Sunday until they had a falling out over a second-hand car. He has fingerless gloves too—those ones where the fingers stick out halfway. They're banned in prison because they're the perfect place to hide a weapon. Come to think of it, fingerless gloves go all the way back to Phil Mackey who later died, and turned out to have been sleeping in a paint shed for the last two years. Was that true? The smelly kid who lived in the paint shed?

Seventeen years is a lot of time, but it's not as simple as that. This whole retro thing has made my homecoming kind of weird. There are still sideburns; still duffel bags; still horn-rimmed glasses and oversize second-hand herringbone coats. It's as if nothing has changed; just page 106the chunks of my memory have become jumbled up.

The drunk guy starts telling me about Oleg, a Russian soldier who showed him around town in the late 90s. He's very, very drunk. He is drunk now, and he was back then. Actually, he's not that drunk. I have to take it easy. This is New Zealand. I have to be gentler and sillier. I have to stay quiet until he picks up on the fact that I am not here. And as they say, or if they don't they should: if you can't say anything at all, don't say something nice.

I go back to my book. I mean, speaking of signals, you can hardly miss that, can you? I'm starting to get a bad feeling about what will happen next. I'm not very good at strife. Generally I pretend to be tough and hope nothing happens. Failing that I panic and do something dumb. In a few seconds I will try and avoid everything by putting the book down on the table and walking out the back towards the toilets. The book will sit there and make him think I am coming back. The worst thing that could happen would be for him to follow me.

I don't really want to go before I've finished my drink, so I try and buy some time by looking up and letting the whole stinking mess that is in my head shine out through my eyes. He stops halfway through his sentence, and, yes, at last, you can see him starting to catch on. You can see his eyes change as the little bell tinkles in his head. Then his whole face changes. He looks as if he just opened a fridge in the dark. A minute later he is winding up his story with an unfinished excuse, and then he's off.

Damn it. I hate this stuff. Shit. People like me make me sick. I hate it that I'm not a tough kind of guy, and I hate it that I don't even want to be, but I still have to pretend I am. That whole thing might have gone wrong, and it still could. Who knows what evil friends he has lurking around the bar? He'll probably turn up again in a minute with a bunch of drunken Russian soldiers. I finish what's left of the glass and close the book; it's time to move on. It's time to clench my armpits and box in that foul thin sweat, and do a final scan for new faces and go. There are none. There are no new faces. I'm telling you that right now.

Far out. The light outside is too strong. I have to squint and put my hands over my eyes to look around. I have never owned a pair of page 107dark glasses in my life because someone at some stage said they were for wankers. Probably me.

The streets are so busy; I don't think they've been truly empty since I arrived back. Even at four in the morning there's always people heading off somewhere, or making their way back. What happened to that thing they used to say: 'We went to New Zealand last weekend but it was closed'? That's a long time ago now. Did we decide we didn't like it that way, or something?

It was a shitty trip over. I had to drink warm wine on the plane in a row of people who called themselves The Kaipara Elk, and who knew enough jokes, and I mean old fashioned joke-jokes, to tell them all the way across the Tasman Sea. I knew I was going to have to change before I got back to New Zealand. Being a bit of a wooftah by Australian standards would not be enough—I would have to change the way I saw things. So for an hour I practiced by exploring Elk world. They were okay, to begin with. They explained their jokes, and pointed out to me what was wrong with each other, and gave me a hard time in their best chummy fashion. That was fine, but it got out of hand because I didn't know how to act all chummy back. Soon they were just competing for the best insult. I became their punchline rather than their audience. The short guy complex kicked in. I went to the loo and tried to chill out for a while, then I took an empty seat up the back of the plane. Two of the Elk came looking for me. It got stupid. I let them see how fucked I was. It was all shit. That's the end of it.

Most of my money was gone by the time I arrived in Wellington so I had to spend the first night at the airport. Then I spent two more nights at the railway station. During the days I used phoneboxes, and between phone calls I tried to come up with a ceevee down at the library. Nine years of seasonal work; five years unemployment; three years in prison and a record for going crazy with other people's credit cards. Hey, hey, pick me.

All I have to show for seventeen years in Australia is a duffel bag and a suitcase I left behind at the airport. It was full of clothes, CDs, and a couple of unfinished sculpturey things an ex-girlfriend left behind. With a bit of luck, with the terrorist thing, they've taken it away and blown it up.

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I went for long rides on buses. It's a beautiful town. There are views everywhere. In the end the only old friend I could track down was Barry Strang. Barry was always a bit of a fake. He wasn't happy to hear my voice on the phone, and he wouldn't give me anyone else's phone number. He was so unenthusiastic about the idea of meeting up that after a minute he just put the phone down and walked away. He didn't even hang up. I heard him talking to his wife about whether or not you could freeze pita bread. Take that. He's lucky I'm not some other people I know.

Is this supposed to be a street? It's tiled all the way across, and the cars are giving way to the people, rather than the other way round. It's all just so bloody fucking nice. And here I am, wading around like I'm chest-deep in sewage. There's a scene—I've seen it a dozen times on teevee—where the good guy wakes up to find himself strapped to an operating table on an alien spacecraft. He escapes and overpowers the guards, then puts on an alien uniform and goes out into the spaceship. You get a close up of his face as he goes down long steel corridors, with long steel corridors coming and going behind him. Act natural. Act normal. All you have to do is master alien behaviour and language, identify a suitable shuttle, slip past the security guards, learn how to fly the thing, trick them into opening the hatchdoor, take off, find Earth, and land safely. Free at last, great God Almighty, free at last!

You can see why the Far North Elk thought my jokes stunk. I wish I could just stop and stare at a wall for a few days. There used to be a pub on every second corner round here. I'm not sure—either they're gone or they've changed so much that my memories of them has been evicted. I spent most of my teens about here with a girl called Shireen Peato. Everybody knew Shireen; she played drums and sang in a band called Little Maps of Africa. She beat up wives; she sniffed ether and drank cough medicines; she was a legend for committing suicide at parties. We slept together once, and after that she had a kind of breakdown and went back to her bass player. I remember making sure that everybody thought I was relieved, but I was really gutted. It still hurts, even though I've forgotten what she looks like. No, that's not true. I may as well tell the truth because that way I get to find out what it is. I can remember exactly what she looked like.

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Another bar. It's mid-afternoon now, and the people inside all look as if they're waiting for their best friend to arrive. I'd love to sit down and ask them how they've been, and what their plans are for the summer holidays. Going away? Taking the kids? It's almost the kind of country where you could do that. Almost. But instead I go to the furthest end of the counter and order lime and water in a tight little voice. Lime and water has seen me through many hard times. Beer makes me paranoid. I wanted one of those medium size glasses, we used to call them a seven, but the woman fills up one of the tourist glasses. Then for some reason she starts wiping down the bar rather than giving it to me. I don't look surprised—that's another thing I picked up in prison—but a moment later she sees that I'm waiting and says: 'I'll bring it to your table.' Why? It's not like it's a Guinness. They do that now, even in cafés, but not every time. How the hell are you supposed to know? I give her the eyebrow thing, the friendly way of saying 'yeah, sure thing', but she reads it all wrong, like I've winked at her, and she turns away.

Oh God.

I sit down in the corner and do a quick head count. There are about fourteen people in here. To pass the time before my drink arrives I tote up the changes I've found around town. They've got the water-bucket sculpture working. They've done away with tea rooms (no cheese rolls or scotch eggs, nothing filling). Pubs seem to be places to meet now, rather than places to drink. They have bistro sections instead of pool tables. There are menus written in psychedelic chalk, instead of blackboards where you book your next game of pool. There are no more old blokes with guitars. Instead, there are gambling machines and hidden sound systems producing oily bass runs. They've gotten rid of the alkies in op shop jackets. Either that or they've bought them all short sleeve shirts and haircuts and stopped them smoking. Instead, there are yuppies with novelty ties. Except there are no yuppies. And there are no streetkids or punk rockers. Everybody has been boiled down and injected into the mainstream. Everybody except me.

But the strangest thing of all is that everybody is younger. I didn't notice that in Australia. Over there I stopped looking at people. Here I'm at least ten years older than everybody else. And I can see what page 110they see too. I'm this grubby old street freak slinking around and thinking out loud. I'm the guy who always gets found dead one day, and probably did something to deserve it, but nobody knows or cares what.

The woman brings my drink over and I manage to take it without doing anything stupid. Then I say thanks without catching her eye. I have to try not to drink it too fast. More than that, I have to try not to think about the people I've spent the last three years with. This must be how granddad Niall felt when he came out here, whenever it was, leaving behind his country and his past … his family, his friends, the lot. He never even talked about them. He lost every trace of his Irish accent except once when he was telling me off. He must be dead now—that's one of the things I'll have to find out when I get home.

I haven't been followed. Act natural again.

It's five nights now since Chappy Oakum sneaked up behind me and said: 'I have a last request. Leave me your misties.' Chappy's 'last requests' carry a lot of weight inside. If he asks you for something on your last day, and you want to stay alive after you've got out, you give him what he wants. But for me it wasn't that easy. I didn't have any misties. I never had had. Somebody had been putting that rumour about for reasons of their own—and in that last week I had an endless stream of junkies grizzling at me. But then Chappy came along and the whole thing stopped being a joke.

You meet Chappy's needs, you know? You do what he says. One old guy, I forget his name though I've heard it a dozen times, was hit by a semi on a bridge a week after he got out. Eddie Gill was beaten to death in a motorcamp toilet. Terry Hannah hung himself. Charlie Katene, who was a born-again Christian who had never taken drugs in his life, overdosed within a month of getting out. Chappy makes things happen.

Hoki mai, hoki mai. I'm trying hard to forget his voice. I take a good pull on the glass and grimace as if it were hard liquor. And then, out of the corner of my eyes, I see an old jukebox. It's amazing—it's the same as the ones they used to have back in the 80s. I go over and take a look, and yes, it's the real item. And what's better is the track listing. It's all late 60s and early 1970s stuff—songs I'm surprised I haven't forgotten: 'Love Grows (Where my Rosemary Goes)'; 'Indian page 111Lake'; 'Hitchin' A Ride'; 'Yellow River'; 'Walkin' in the Sunshine'; 'Walkin' in the Sand'; 'Everything is Beautiful' … They're are all songs from before things went wrong. I go back to the bar to get some change and what do you know—the woman smiles at me and gives me ten dollars worth of coins for only five dollars. Things are looking up.

I pre-select at least an hour's worth of hardcore nostalgia, beginning with John Rowles, and the hoariest of them all:

The old home town looks the same as I step down from the train ….

There's no denying the lime and water any longer when I hear this. But before I'm even halfway through the glass the spoken bit begins. I'd never realised what the song was actually about.

I wake and look around me

At four grey walls that surround me

And I realise that I was only dreaming

For there's a guard and there's a sad old padre

And arm in arm we'll walk at daybreak …

And so, instead of a misty-eyed moment, with my bottom lip starting to wibble, I get a panic attack. It's like an evil message straight from the black heart of Chappy Oakum. The only way out is deeper in. There's only one thing to do, and that's to get the hell out of there before they get the noose over the poor guy's head. Forget the drink. Leave the book on the seat.

But no matter how complicated things get, it's never that simple. I don't know if it's lack of sleep or what, but for the third time that day I find myself standing in front of the door and waiting. I can't get used to the fact that there are no keys and no guards to come along with them; that to open a door you just turn the handle and walk out. I know people will have seen me stop, and they'll be wondering why and probably pointing at me with their eyebrows and their friends are thinking up little things to call out, but by the time I realise that it's up to me to open the door it's too late—a group of young kids comes in—the beginning of the after-work crowd, or maybe even the after-school crowd, and I have to stand there and wait while a whole page 112bunch of them brush in and past and around me. They all bump into me, one by one, and half of them look up and apologise. If this were prison a scene like this would be a set-up. The guards would sense it and everybody would feel things stirring up. Somebody is about to get hurt. I almost wish it were true. But it isn't, and it passes, and I cough and run my fingers through my hair, and by the time I'm walking out I don't even knowing if the song is still playing.

'Hey, there he is!'

The door opens behind me again, and three young women are standing there waving me back in.

'Come on Mr Man, come back in and be Deirdre's bit of rough for a while. She's very nice.'

'And very clean. Come on.'

'Not too nice.'

'Not too clean either.'

They laugh like a choir. I want to say something, but I can't think what it is. So I smile at them and then my mouth fops open and I blush. And then what? And then I stick two fingers up in the air and turn around and run. Oh God oh God if you had to make me so fucking stupid why make me so aware of it too?

This is such a load of fucking shit. Here's me—running down the Mall with my mouth still open—a total social mutant—and there's them—the first people to speak to me all day—thinking bloody hell, that was a close shave—quick, let's get back inside before he turns around.

I find a park bench around a couple of corners and sit down and close my eyes and look up at the sun. Such a fucking load of fucking shit. Five days of freedom and already I'm wanting to go back. I'm just a guy with long hair and yellow eyes; the sort of guy you avoid even in prison. Day five and it still isn't any easier.

And my money's almost gone. You wouldn't believe how much phone calls cost these days. In the end I gave up trying to fnd anybody and left a message on the answerphone of the only people left: my mother and father. My bloody mother and father. Long story. Let's just say that this wasn't even supposed to be a last resort. And so at six o'clock I'm supposed to be catching a train and going out to Waitaki Bay. And until then the best I can do is just stay here on this page 113bench, eyes closed and watering in the sun, in full view of hundreds of passers by, making Chappy Oakum's verdict harder to enforce.

You know what I wish? I wish I could get my hands on another credit card and start all over again. The first thing I would do is buy another pair of moleskin pants with huge pockets on the legs. And a new white teeshirt made out of really thick cotton. I'd get all my head shaved and stay in a central city motel. I'd buy a car on HP and then change towns every few days, even though I know that doesn't work.

It's the old futile cycle playing up again. I stand up and walk around the bench. My skin is crawling. When I close my eyes I see things I shouldn't see. The need for sleep hangs over me like a thug who's after my jacket. I jog on the spot for a while, and then sit down again, and then stand up again.

Out of nowhere a young guy appears where I was just sitting. He sits back and folds his arms in defiance. Then he wheezes:

'I was taken to the wilderness and suffered to escape. Cargo Cyclatron lost his fingers counting. It was a straw poll. Numberless hordes: One, one, one, one, one.'

He laughs in a long quiet rush of air. It's a contrived laugh.

'We were too quiet. I went to look for money but somebody came.'

I know his sort. There were dozens of them in prison at any one time—sent there because they have broken some law on their way inwards. He's only twenty, if that, but already he plays his psychosis like a busker. I stand there and look down at him. His face changes. He changes expression like a comedian who is interrupting his act to deliver a sponsor's message.

'You know what your problem is, don't you?'

'And who are you to tell me that?'

'I am that I am.'

'Oh is that right? Well, you can get your fucking being off my seat.'

'Look, do you want diagnosed or don't you? Sure you do—and prognosed and brown-nosed. You're a paraphrenic—that's your problem.'

He does his agonised laugh again, and then moves his lips as if he is adding a silent disclaimer.

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'What's that supposed to mean?'

'It's like schizophrenic, but nobody notices. You don't even notice it yourself. You just have a crappy life.'

'You made that up.'

'Kind of.'

'So what's the cure? And give me back my seat.'

'In the beginning was the diagnosis. You owe me five dollars.'

'If this was Sydney you'd be dead.'

'Sit down for a while.'

'I don't want to sit down. I just want my seat back.'

'That's your condition. That's, like, one of the worst symptoms.'

'Are you after a hiding?'

'You're not going to pay me, are you?'

'No, I'm not.'

I think we are both as surprised as each other to find that I'm smiling. More than anything else I just want to rake my knuckles across the top of his head and say 'noogie noogie'. I sit down beside him and we both watch as a man in a suit walks past with a bicycle tyre over his shoulder. He glances at us for a moment then lowers his eyes. We are frightening.

The young guy turns to me and says:

'I am Doctor Procter. My friends call me ZM.'

'It's not very nice to meet you. I'm fucked. My name is Weimar.'

'That's a pretty bad name.'

'You can bloody talk! It's not as bad as my real name. My real name is Yma. I was named after a singer from the 1950s. At least pronouncing it "Weimar" makes if sound like a boy's name.'

'Far out. I'm glad I'm me, not you.'

'It's an Irish name too. An Irish girl's name.'

He pulls a bottle out of his pocket and offers it to me. It has not been opened yet. You can tell drinking is not his real thing. He's new to all this.

'No thanks, I just look like I drink.'

'You know what your problem is?'

I don't want him to say anything anymore. He's a perfect stranger; a fine specimen of his race. He looked like this in the 60s, following hippy chicks across sand dunes. He looked like this in prison, afraid page 115of nothing, sneering at Chappy: 'How can you kill me, I'm already dead.' And on Sundays he is bustled out of a dozen churches by petrified wardens who recognise him from every chapter of the Bible. At the end of the day all he needs is the buzz of freaking people out. Well he's not getting it from me.

'I think it's time you were running along.'

'If you say that again I am going to kill you. Nah, just kidding.'

He sits back and looks around with a contented sigh.

'There is a song, isn't there, about a boy with a girl's name? Sue. I'm going to call you that. Oh-ho no you're not, or Oil Sue! Oily Sue. Benzine. Ben Zedrine.'

He pulls a face and does his long deathly laugh again. I can't believe he talks like this to strangers. Does he think he's got some kind of forcefield around him? He looks at me and smiles. His hair is clean and brushed. He looks like one of those guys from the music shows in the early 70s. He is Shane. He is Craig Scott. He's Steve Gilpin. No: he's Steve Allen. That's it—he's Steve Allen, but with Steve Gilpin's eyes. He's waiting for me to bow down before his demon, at which point he will leave feeling one degree stronger. I can't just sit there and do nothing anymore, so I lean over towards him and whisper: 'We've got to join together, let our laughter fll the air, it's time for every race and creed to blow away their every care.'

That does it. His little demon gets a fright and so he bolts. There is just a bad smell of week-old socks to show for him. How come his hair was so clean? How come we talked at all? There are two old men disappearing into an alley further up the Mall. When they see him running towards them they fee. That's more like it.

No it's not. I miss him. Then I stop missing him and head off for the railway station. How did I know he was harmless? I was absolutely totally sure he wasn't going to pull a knife. Hey—some of them do, even in New Zealand. I am all right now. I am paraphrenic. I have a human condition. Two minutes with Doctor Procter has made up for everything else. He has made up for lack of sleep; he has made up for three years in prison. I don't know why; perhaps just because I said so. He has made up for the fact that now I have to do everything for myself, and I've only got enough money for the ticket plus one more drink and then I'm at the mercy of my countrymen. It's the first time page 116since I got out that I feel like I have reason enough for a drink—a real one this time. There are good drinks and bad ones. And the station bar is just the place.

Nope. Premature. By the time I get to the station I know for sure that I am being followed. It's not ZM; it's the man with the cartoon tie. He's one of those people nobody would notice, even in a line-up. I go into the toilets and he follows me in. I buy cigarettes and he buys a newspaper. I go to the station bar and a few minutes later he comes in too. Then he sits at a table directly in front of me, so I can only see his back.

Dearly beloved we are gathered here today to mourn the passing of old whats-his-name, you know, the jittery one, face like a loaf of wet bread, oh shit shit shit, it's on the tip of my tongue …

This is exactly what happened to Eddie Gill. He was crushed under an oncoming train, and everyone said it was suicide but they knew damned well it wasn't. Eddie was a happy guy. He was supposed to have given Chappy his computer, but he asked one of the guards to take it out the night before. You don't do that. But that was then and this is here. This is my country. This time I'm ahead of the game. The man with the tie doesn't know what to do. All I have to do is know who he is.

I open the book again. Somehow I keep bringing it along. This time I'll make sure I finish the page so I don't end up on the same sentence. But after a while I close my eyes and the sentence I'm reading ends with ominous music and bad incantations.

The man is still there.

Why are you following me? Who are you?

He doesn't react.

'Chappy sent you, didn't he? It's about the misties, isn't it?'

He stands up and moves to another table.

The thing that wakes me, if it is true that I have gone to sleep, is an echoing voice announcing the next train to Waitaki Bay. Except it is the wrong one. It is still too early to go. I've got at least half an hour more to wait. The man with the cartoon tie is still there. I walk past him and he turns to look the other way. I bump his table and knock his drink over. Fuck him. Whoever heard of a nemesis with dandruff?

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Outside the sun has got brighter again. I really am going to have to buy some dark glasses. I make my way back to the Mall. I'm a good runner. I think half the trick with running is knowing how to put all your shyness aside—if you can do that you can go like hell. People see me coming and make more room than is necessary because I might be coming for them. I have got enough time—I could kill a few people on the way. What the fuck. Except they'd just fight back. There he is again; the one without the knife. He is sitting on the bench again, with his arms crossed. He really ought to be fat.

'Doctor Procter!'


'We i ma r.'

'Ym a.'

'Z M.'

'You've come to pay me!'

'No, I have come to take you to Waitaki Bay. To be my bodyguard. Or my hostage. Or my bail. I don't know why.'

'It'll cost you five dollars, plus the five you owe me already.'


I am shaking all over. I turn to leave and he follows. We walk quickly and without speaking, weaving roughly between the … what would you call them … the workers? They don't look like workers. When we get back to the station the sun has gone behind the clouds. There is a light rain falling on the warm asphalt. It is a sign. That smell is the closest thing to nostalgia I've had all day. In prison that smell is the equivalent of a spring morning. We don't even notice it.

ZM and I climb into an empty carriage and I light another cigarette. He takes the seat behind me. He looks as if he does this every day. The man in the cartoon tie walks past on the platform, going the wrong way. He can't see me; he looks panicked. Is he going to get on one of the other carriages? Good on him if he does. Good on him for choosing Waitaki Bay as a destination, or a place to live. It's a good place. Good luck to him.

ZM leans forward and whispers: 'I am privy to secrets. That is why my face is flushed.'

He laughs in his wheezy way, and I try to copy the sound as I pretend to laugh too.

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An old man walks past the carriage with tears glistening on his cheek. Or was it sweat?

'Let's make a deal. You don't try to freak me out and I don't pretend to be tough. You look out the window and think about your life; I look out the window and think about mine. It's what people do.'

ZM makes a little explosion noise.

'Don't use the word M I N E. It's a thing I have.'

'How do you mean?'

'You know, mine.' He makes the noise again. 'Don't say it.'

'Oh, okay. Deal.'

He can have that. He probably gets a bit extra on his sickness benefit for having a weird phobia.

'And you're not going to call me Oily Sue, are you?'

'I am ZM; you are Weimar. More than that I cannot say.'

'Your name is better than mine.'

He makes his explosion noise again, under his breath this time.

'What was that?'


'Oh, okay. I said mine again, didn't I?'

He makes the sound again and nods.

'Cut it out.'

'Have you noticed that you've started to make sense? Not a lot, just some.'

He does his laugh again, drawing it out for so long that it fades away into the buzz of conversation that has started up around us.

Outside a group of pigeons are sharing a bag of chips. Seventeen years ago they would have been hopping about on deformed feet or stumps—the Council must have stopped laying poison on window ledges. There's no doubt about it—a lot of the changes have been for the better. I have to stop being so negative. This might be good; this whole returning home thing might be just what I needed. I mean, I never really fell out with Mum and Dad—we just stopped communicating—as everything turned very gradually to shit. It was better to take off. Mum wrote me a few letters over the years, whenever she found out where I was, but I never answered them. I was a really bad son. I don't know how that happened. It's not as if page 119I was abused or anything. And I didn't write to them from prison because I didn't want to explain why I was there. I didn't even want to think about it. Sometimes people go silly with credit cards. What's strange is that it doesn't happen more often. Stupid things happen all the time.

Anyway, Dad and I will be okay now. So long as he lets ZM stay around for a while. Otherwise we'll argue. And what if he doesn't? Then I'll know I have come to the wrong place. I'll have to do something else. People do something else all the time.

An elderly woman hoists herself up onto the train. When she gets to my seat she stops and glowers. I hold her gaze, wondering what she is looking at. She is sniffing the air. Perhaps it's a non-smoking carriage. Or is she telling me I stink? Thanks a lot, lady—that's not news, but why do you want me to teach you some manners? She walks on and gets out at the second door. A moment later a boy who looks exactly like Cory Vander Something, a kid I used to play with in form two, comes and sits at the far end of the carriage. I smile at him and he looks frightened. Slowly the seats begin to fill up. Everybody seems to be looking at me angrily, and the seats around me are the last to fill up. A schoolgirl sits next to ZM. The carriage is full and people are sitting in the well of the steps, but still nobody sits beside me. When the doors finally close I sink back down into the vinyl seat and take a long deep breath. There are no ashtrays, so I poke the butt out the window.

ZM is standing out on the platform.

He looks at me and waves. I turn and check behind me. Sure enough, the seat behind me is empty. I look back and he says something. No, he mimes it. He points at his mouth as it opens and closes. The train starts to pull away. I stand up and cross to the window, looking back to see what the expression on his face is telling me. He is looking at me. That is all there is to say. He is looking at me, and I can't work out what his facial expression means. Why is he looking at me like that? You would think he would be smiling, or scowling, or any one of those million things between. But even as he disappears from view I still cannot understand what his face is doing. It is a nothing face. It is just sitting there on top of his neck, getting smaller and smaller. It's just looking at me, watching what I do.

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A whole lot of stuff happens in my mind. I try not to pay any attention because I know it is sadness and loneliness and all that shit. Insensitivity has always been my first line of defence. The important thing, I suppose, is that nobody has followed me. And now I am going home. It doesn't matter that I am going home alone. In fact it is a good thing. Phew, actually. At last I am moving again, rather than just treading water in a city I'm pretending to know. Thank God that's over. It feels as if I've just been released for a second time. A sneaky tear has been welling up in my right eye, but gradually it gets sucked back in. It's all right to be in a mess. It's what you'd expect. Some people get tough, others get fucked up. Now let's just leave it all behind and go home. The spirit of John Rowles puts his ever-loving hand on my knee and gives a dirty little squeeze.

As it turns out, the train trip is wonderful. I look back at Wellington and Port Nicholson over the harbour and think about the little yellow dinghy we used to have, and the Saturday morning rugby matches all over town. I was the world's worst fullback. I could run and kick, but I never really learned the rules. It was the same with guitar. I never learned how to play chords, although this time it was on principle. I thought I'd get good just by playing my heart out. The train goes through the two tunnels, and the sodden hills fall away, and suddenly we're home. I'm home.

The station is totally different. I stand on the platform and look around. Behind the mesh fence there's an enormous collection of completely different buildings. But that's okay. The stream has banks now, and the banks have tiles. What is it about these people and tiles? I follow the crowd out. We emerge onto a new walkway. The buses are a different colour. I climb onto the old Number Six, but the driver tells me it's the Number Two I'm after. I change buses and sit up the back. I never sat in the back seat when I was a kid. Never once. The front seat, the one which runs side on, that was mine. I liked the old people. I remember once an old woman got on and an old man tried to give her his seat, and she told him to sit down and stop being so bloody silly because he was much older than she was, and they had an argument.

The bus pulls away with its pre-select lurches. The birds in the estuary, the cabbage trees, the 'Austrian pre-cut' state houses … page 121There is so much the same that the changes are lost. The bus driver manages to make a dopey crack to almost everybody that gets on. And best of all, as stop by stop goes by, every single passenger who gets off says thank you. Even the ones who slip out the back door while he is clipping new tickets call out their thanks.

I am the second last person to get off. Of course I get the thank you bit all wrong. I think I say it too earnestly or something, as if I really, really meant it. Rather than giving his usual little nod the driver makes an embarrassed noise in the back of his throat. Then I stand on the footpath and wait for the bus to pull away. He waits too, so I can cross. Finally, just as I am about to step out on the road, he shakes his head in annoyance and pulls away. That could have been me: dead on arrival.

Haere fucking mai. Excuse the language. I really hate swearing. Far out. It's just as well my heart is beating so fast, otherwise it'd be sinking. This next bit is going to be intense.

It is a three-minute walk from there to Mum and Dad's house. Past the gas station, which turns out to be a dairy now; past the house with the new panel-beating workshop; along the top of the park; past the lane where petrol-heads used to compete to leave the blackest marks, and then left and up the hill into Te Awa Crescent. I can feel myself changing as I get closer.

The homemade letterbox is still there. Land values in the street must have plummetted the day Dad cemented that thing into the berm. It was supposed to have been a leaping blue marlin, but he had cut the hardboard all wrong. The shape was too round, and then somebody made things worse by breaking off the sword so the whole thing was just a skewed pear with one eye. My brother and I got really embarrassed about it. When we brought friends home from school we used to park our bikes in the carport and walk them around the back of the house.

And there's the latest old Mazda. Okay, so at least they haven't moved away. They've gone for a sedan this time. It looks like any other car. I ring the doorbell and stand there. How long have I been holding my breath?

Strangely enough nobody's home. I'd envisaged this moment in page 122a lot of different ways, but it never occurred to me that they might be out. They never go out—that's their thing. Perhaps they're away, and didn't get the answerphone message. No—people don't change that much. Do people change at all? Is it true that I am no longer the person I was? Since I got off the bus? According to my watch I am exactly on time, down to the last minute.

I sit on the porch and rub my eyes. I didn't know you could be this tired, do you know what I mean? I didn't know it was an option. In the few seconds it took before I opened my eyes again I had a dream. It was a storyless dream—more a series of indescribable images—but if I had watched them they would have taken me along.

Hopefully the drama of seeing them again won't last long. Mum will show me down the hall with some pyjamas and a towel over my arm, into my old bedroom, with a bunch of bull-fighting posters on the wall and a duvet covered in hussars or tractors or deep sea fish. That would be so great, if they hadn't changed my room.

Then, drifting around from the front of the house, I hear familiar music. At first I think it is an hallucination. It is a song straight out of the worst years: strange old Robert Wyatt singing 'At Last I am Free (I Can Hardly See in Front of Me)'. I walk back around to the front lawn. There are two speakers up the tree. Then there is a loud knock on the window behind me. It is my sago-faced brother Bill, waving wildly from the lounge. His features are all bent out of shape because he is pressing his face and his tongue hard into the glass.

Then two men jump out from the hedge. One of them is the man with the cartoon tie. How the hell did he get here? He must have caught a cab. It is … what is his name? Wayne Robinson. Wayne Robinson? He was my friend in primary and intermediate school. And beside him, the bald guy … by God, it's Dad. God, he looks so old and happy! Everything is out of control. Old Mrs Duke emerges with an elderly whoop from behind Dad's car. Shireen Peato and Joanne Ahinui drop out of the macorocarpa. Len Tohill comes around the corner in his electric wheelchair, laughing like a chainsaw. Behind him is Aunty Helen, still wearing her aquamarine smock from work, and with her is some barking mongrel on a leash. With each face I have to swallow seventeen years whole. And then Mum appears beside me from God knows where. She is half her height and twice page 123her weight, crying her fucking eyes out. Before I can say anything another guy I don't recognise jumps out with a great yell from the shed, and then somebody grabs me from behind.

I've spent the last three years hiding in a gym, and an attack from behind is one thing I am totally rehearsed for. I drop down onto one knee and bring my head crashing back. It is Ono Burgoyne. He drops to his knees without a sound. Then Wayne Robinson steps up, and I hit him in the face. You would have done the same.

The others fall back in a semicircle, and we all just stand there looking at each other. I can feel the space behind me, where Ono used to be. Now Lorne walks through it and joins the others. He is blushing. Only the dog knows what to do. He is going nuts trying to break the lead and have a piece of me. Act natural. Inside me there is a competing rush of obscenities and apologies. My ears are pinned fat against my head and I can smell everything for miles.

It could have gone either way, that moment. The whole thing just hung there, waiting for something to make its mind up. Luckily Wayne Robinson hardly reacted to the blow—he must have been pretty out of it—and then the wonderful Shireen Peato stepped up and changed everything. She started to laugh. I look over my shoulder. She was laughing at Ono Burgoyne. He was sitting there clutching between his legs and making weird noises and faces. That's his thing—he makes noises and faces. Then Mum and Aunty Helen start laughing too.

Instinct took over at that point. Before Ono could finish his show, and before Wayne Robinson could turn around and show everybody his blood, I was up on my feet and shaking their hands. I gave Mum and Mrs Duke a little kiss, and started saying little things and moving up and down the line faster than their eyes could follow me. Even the dog fell for it. He jumped up and licked my hands as if I'd just come home with a fresh forequarter. Ono lumbered over, still swearing at me, and Aunty Helen shushed him up for language.

E noho ra. It's another great moment in the life of Yma Martin. I still can't believe you got away with it. What more can I say? You jammy bastard—you got away with it.