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Sport 33: Spring 2005

The World of Children's Books

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The World of Children's Books

This all happened on a writers' tour of the Far North. It was our day off and we drove to the top of the Island. And do you know, there really is a lighthouse up there. We walked around it. Then we went back to the van and drove to the beach for a swim. The day was hot and windless and blue.

After our swim, we sat on the beach, with our bruises. That sea, we said. We'd all been dumped by waves, sucked and tossed. You stood on the steep shelf and felt a few thousand little stones move away under you. It took some effort to stay upright.

Tina said, I didn't know Gavin was a good swimmer.

Neither did I, said Kate.

But he was out beyond the breakers. You could see his feet, then his head. He was long, like a stick, careless as timber, floating and drifting.

You think he's all right? said Kate.

He's playing silly buggers, said Tina. My husband does things like that.

Then we heard the faintest shout over the surf and we walked down to the water. Carl was just coming in; his chest was scraped. He said, I've had enough of this. We said we had too. Great though, he said and we agreed. It was invigorating. It was a great violent swim full of stones and we were hungry.

Gavin's staying out there a long time, said Kate.

Carl looked out to sea; he wasn't wearing his glasses. They were up by his towel. Is he out there, he said.

Then we heard the shout again, even weaker.

I don't like it much, said Kate.

No, I said. It's a bit strange he never told us he was a good swimmer.

Why don't you go and get him, Carl, we said.

Do you think he's in trouble? said Carl.

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Yes, we said. Hurry now.

Carl had done life saving. There was no one else in our group who could swim like that.

Every school holidays, Carl re-wrote kids' stories such as The Three Little Pigs and Cinderella for the theatre. I remember thinking, God, maybe I could do that. Carl said he made enough money from these productions to finance his other writing. A nice guy, plus with skills. Point me in the right direction, he said. I'm blind as a bat.

So we lined him up with where we thought Gavin was, and Carl ran back into the sea.

Then we watched as Carl saved Gavin's life.

When Carl brought Gavin in, we laid him on the beach. He was grey, almost metallic, and he looked older, skinnier, shinier. He was panting. We covered him up and said take it easy and you gave us a scare, Gavin.

Gavin said, I'm not sure if I'll be able to drive the van any more to day.

We told him not to worry, we'd drive the van. What he had to do was rest.

In the van we were all quiet. Gavin said, I think I had another two minutes. Tops. I didn't know which way I was facing and every time I tried to look, I lost all my energy. I tried to shout but I swallowed water. How stupid it would have been. On such a beautiful day, having seen the lighthouse and everything.

I was ready to punch you, said Carl. But you were a good person to save.

What were you thinking about out there? someone said. Your life and stuff?

Gavin was a children's book illustrator, well-known. A real artisan. Famously particular, exact, diligent. The previous month, another of the top picture book artists, and a friend of Gavin's, had died. She'd lived in a house filled with dolls, which seems like a cliché about the person who devotes her life to children's books. Nevertheless it was true; Gavin had visited the house. Her work featured photo-realistic drawings of children eating ice creams or riding on their father's shoulders. These pictures often caught the child's face just before or just after some moment of pure emotion: joy or fright or surrender. page 56The images were very much like those recorded by cameras when the shutter is pressed too soon or too late; the photos which are discarded. Pages, then, of children whose faces showed confusion, awkward concentration, or some odd and fleeting private struggle. I always thought these books were a little creepy and hurried my own kids away from them in bookshops or libraries. She'd even written one called A Day at the Beach.

I was thinking, said Gavin, of my friend who died. I thought first her and now me. I said to myself, that's going to leave a big hole in the world of New Zealand children's books, for a while at least, until some new talent comes through, as it always does. Then Gavin laughed. Plus I was thinking of Tom Thumb, he said. Six months of my life I've spent drawing that Tom Thumb, almost going blind, drawing that tiny creature, peeping out from behind egg cups, running along people's fingers. Six months with a magnifying glass and a brush made up of about three fucking bristles.

Gavin never swore, or not that we'd heard him. He'd taught art in the best private schools. He was tall and somewhat immaculate.

We drove up the road away from the beach under the same blue sky we'd driven in under. Not a sign anywhere of our crisis. People were still entering the surf. We passed the outdoor shower where two women in their underwear were washing themselves. They were both blonde and tanned. It was easy to imagine them as Swedish. Carl and I looked at the women through the van's windows. Kate said to us, it's good to know that even a near-death experience doesn't change the basic male need for a good perv.

It was getting dark when we reached town. We bought fish and chips at a seaside restaurant, and sat outdoors at trestle tables that were set up on a wooden platform, a kind of pontoon thing built out over the water. It rocked gently. The sea through the wooden slats was oily black.

Fish and chips! said Gavin. I didn't think I'd want them but I do. He ate a piece of fish and smiled a bit sadly, or maybe that was just us, looking at Gavin as if he'd changed.

Thing is, Gavin, we said, worst case scenario today, they could have been having you for dinner.

We all laughed with our mouths full, full of the sea, which sounded page 57all around us and underneath us. Then Gavin brought out a double-page spread he'd been working on from his book. He said, can you find him? Who can find him? For the first person who can find him, I'm buying them a drink. The light wasn't good for the search but we bent into the page. We leaned in close so our elbows were touching and our shoulders. And we all looked for him. We looked everywhere.