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Sport 41: 2013

Gemma Bowker-Wright — On the Radio

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Gemma Bowker-Wright

On the Radio

My first job was a nine-month placement at a radio station in Nelson. It was small, community-funded and broadcast on a frequency that faded by the time you got to the mountains. During the nine months I would get to have a go at everything—researching, post-production, news reading, presenting. That was the idea at least.

‘You’re temporary,’ the manager, a guy called Harry in his early fifties, told me during the fifteen-minute interview. He held a copy of my degree in Media Studies to his nose, as if checking to see if it was forged. ‘Got it love?’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I get it.’

I found a flat that day and drove back to Christchurch to move out of home.

The station was broadcast from the second floor of a two-storey office building. It was cramped. A messy open-plan desk area led to a corridor with two recording studios. On hot days, a small kitchen at the back with north-facing windows heated the place like an oven.

Other than the occasional volunteer, there were only four staff. Harry ran things and presented a show in the mornings, discussing local issues—the City Council’s new recycling policy, pollution in the estuary, the state of state housing. Leon was on air from midday—he focused on the arts and current issues. Clare, the part-time receptionist, did the filing and accounting, and answered the phone. Then there was Summer. Her desk was empty when Harry showed me around on my first day.

Summer presented the night show from eight until midnight on weeknights, interviewing local musicians and playing music requests for the late-night listeners, the number of which, Harry told me, had increased dramatically since she started.

‘She’s a natural. No background in it. Not much older than you. Listen to her tonight—if you’re serious about radio, the best way to page 204 learn is to listen.’

I turned on my radio at five to eight. It was a warm evening and my new flatmates were out. I poured myself a glass of wine from the bottle in the fridge and sat on the couch.

‘Welcome to Late Nights.’ Her voice was cool, edgy. She had an American accent.

I listened as she interviewed a band. She laughed and the band members laughed. There was something about her laugh. I woke up the next morning with the sound of her voice still ringing in my head.

When I met her a few days later she looked nothing like I’d imagined. She was taller than me—dark hair, narrow hips, great legs. On her wrist a man’s watch. In the dim light of the studio I could feel her eyes—a clear, unnerving shade of blue—processing me, deciding.


I wanted to make an impression at the station. Being on the radio was a fantasy I’d latched onto in my last year at university. Now I was here, I wanted to give it a real go. My first job was doing background research for one of Leon’s afternoon interviews. The subject was possum control and the use of 1080. I spent ages researching the topic and typing up a set of notes, checking and re-checking the facts.

Leon returned the notes a day later, coffee-stained and covered in highlighter, illegible scrawl filling each margin. ‘Have another go at this.’ He pushed the hair out of his face as he spoke. It was fine, blond. He was handsome in a thin, artsy way—not the kind of guy I would go for, if I was into guys.

‘The trick with live radio is to be over-prepared, but not let it show.’

Frustrated, I went back to my desk and opened a new Word document, typing ‘take two’ at the top. Leon, on the other side of the office, had his back to me.

‘He can be a prick like that,’ said Harry when I went to see him the next afternoon while Leon was on air. Harry’s desk was a mess of papers, pens; cup-stains circled his mouse. Behind him a window looked out on a row of recycling bins and an illegally-parked car.

‘I’d do what he says though—’ Harry winked at me ‘—he’s a bloody good broadcaster.’

Clare stopped by my desk at the end of my first week, tapping her page 205 fingers on my screen to get my attention. ‘Look at you working away,’ she said. ‘Looks like you’ve got the hang of things already.’ She paused and looked at me, as if waiting for me to give her something.

‘Um—thanks,’ I said.

‘So how are you finding Nelson?’

‘It’s great—I like it.’

‘You don’t miss home?’

‘Not really.’

She smiled. ‘You haven’t left someone special behind? No broken-hearted young man?’

‘No,’ I said.

Her index finger left a smudge on my screen.

During my first few weeks I hardly saw Summer. She didn’t come into the station until six or seven, after I’d finished. When she did come in earlier she sat at her desk with headphones on, writing things on a loose-leaf notepad she held balanced on her knee. Once or twice we had brief conversations in the kitchen. I asked her how long she’d been at the station.

‘Almost a year,’ she said, fingering the coffee jar. ‘It’s gone fast.’

I said I liked her show and she looked away, an expression moving across her face—I wasn’t sure if it was a smile. Then she moved past me to get something from the fridge.


It began the night of the Christmas party. Clare had decorated the station with balloons, tinsel, streamers, draping them from pin boards, shelves—every available surface was covered, making the place even more of a mess than usual. Initially I hung back, nursing a beer and feeling new and out of place. Everyone seemed to be getting drunk. Leon sat on the couch with one of the volunteers. She looked about my age. Harry swayed across the room with Clare. They made an oddly compatible pair—short and plump—dancing unselfconsciously.

Summer arrived late. She walked into the room, a cloth bag slung over her shoulder. I saw her glance around, her gaze settling on Leon. Then, without talking to anyone, she got a beer from the fridge and walked outside to the balcony. I waited for a while before following her out.

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She was standing at the edge, elbows resting on the railing.

My heart started to beat faster. ‘Hi stranger.’

She turned, startled. Then her face relaxed and she smiled. ‘It’s sure loud in there.’ She sat down with her back against the railings and I copied her.

We sat in silence. I could feel her breathing beside me and knew, without looking, where the outline of her body began and ended. I glanced at her quickly—tight jeans, a turquoise top, pale skin. The cloth bag was resting on the ground between us. Reaching out, I pulled it gently off her shoulder. Her blue eyes followed. She didn’t resist, letting me take the bag.

I opened it, removing each item and laying them carefully in a row in front of us—an assortment of discs, a notepad, an apple, a recorder.

‘What do you use this for?’

Without answering, she picked it up and pressed play.

Nothing at first. Then a smooth squeaking noise, a sliding. It stopped.

‘What is it?’


‘A mouse slipping on a bench,’ I said. ‘The bench is covered in oil.’

She laughed and selected something else. ‘What about this?’

A loud sloshing, rhythmical.

‘A fat man running down a bank after sculling a couple of beers.’

She laughed again, found another place, pressing play. Nothing. Then a faint crack—the splitting of something fine, brittle. The sound grew, morphing into many sounds, different crackings, cracklings.

I listened for a while.

She looked at me expectantly.

‘I’ve never heard anything like it,’ I said.

‘It’s the sound of ice thawing. I was at a glacier down south on a hot day and a pool of ice was melting right in front of me. You could actually see the cracks forming.’

She turned it off and gathered her things, putting them back in the bag. ‘I write radio plays. I’m collecting sounds for a script I’m working on.’

‘I’d love to read it,’ I said.

She shook her head and her hair came loose. ‘I never show anyone until it’s finished.’

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When we went back inside the music had been turned down. Harry and Clare had stopped dancing. Leon was still talking to the volunteer, his hand almost touching her knee.

‘Do you want to go someplace else?’

Before I could answer Summer was going to the fridge. Taking out bottles of beer she shoved some in her bag and gave me one to hold. Outside it was cooler. We walked along the pavement. At some point Summer reached out and took my hand, her fingers curled around mine. We went to a park by the waterfront and drank the beer.

Later we walked to my flat. I sat on my bed, unsure what would come next. She sat down beside me and started kissing me, hard; the sensation was a shock, her mouth pressed firmly against mine.


From then on Summer and I were together—there was no conversation or discussion about previous relationships—it just began. She started staying at my place the nights she was working, climbing through my window well after midnight and getting in beside me. I pretended I hadn’t been lying awake. Each morning I left for the station, leaving her in a twist of sheets. She was a tidy, compact sleeper—one hand under her head, body in a tight ball. In the slot of time between my day ending and hers beginning we sat in the kitchen at the station eating takeaways and talking. I loved the way she described where she was from in Minnesota—so flat it made you tired to look at it, blue sky, a horizon that moved the further you drove.

On the weekends we went to a cafe around the corner from my flat. Summer always ordered black coffee and, although I hadn’t drunk coffee before I met her, I started to get the same thing. Away from work we talked about work. Summer told me she’d got the job through Leon; she’d come to New Zealand for a year to study music in Wellington and met him at a concert. But she didn’t see radio as a long-term thing.

‘What’s your long-term thing?’

‘I don’t really make plans—I’m not that kind of person.’

I told her I wanted to host a programme on National Radio.

‘I’m sure you’ll get there,’ she said, smiling. ‘You’ve got the confidence.’

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I loved her smile. The expression, each time, seemed a surprise—to her as well. It started slowly then suddenly caught hold, changing her whole face in one swift movement. I kept trying to find new ways to make it happen. One time I made up stories about our workmates.

‘Harry lives alone in an apartment. He’s had three failed marriages. He recently got a fox terrier.’

An edge of a smile, it didn’t quite ignite.

‘What about Clare?’

‘Easy—she’s gay but doesn’t realise, and maybe never will. I think she has a thing for me. ’

She laughed.

‘Leon,’ I picked up my coffee cup and held it in the palm of my right hand, ‘used to be a woman.’

When I looked across at Summer she was looking out the window. ‘We should be outside,’ she said, ‘enjoying the sun.’

As it got hotter our weekend coffee drinking morphed into trips to the beach, bushwalks, a day paddling a row boat on Lake Rotoiti. In the long afternoons we hung out at my flat, covering my flatmate’s TV with a cloth and listening to famous radio broadcasts downloaded onto Summer’s laptop—the 1970s recording of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Orson Welles reading War of the Worlds.

‘How’s your script going?’ I asked one hot afternoon. We were lying on the lawn outside my flat. ‘Read me some.’

‘No.’ She grinned, rolling onto her back.

I picked a handful of grass. ‘Can you tell me the plot at least?’

‘It’s still developing.’

‘What’s it about then—roughly?’

‘A couple,’ she said, sitting up, ‘on a road trip around the South Island.’

‘What kind of couple?’ I picked a daisy and began pulling out its petals, one by one. ‘A girl and a guy, or a girl and a girl?’

She looked up at the window checking to see if anyone was looking. Then, leaning forward, she kissed me.


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At the start of March, Summer and I moved in together. The lease on her flat had come up and my landlord wanted to sell. We found a place not far from the radio station.

‘Don’t you think it’s a bit soon?’ said my mother when I told her over the phone. ‘You hardly know her. And you haven’t been together long.’

‘Is this because she’s a girl? Christ Mum!’

‘No honey—’ I could hear something being dropped ‘—that’s not what I meant at all.’ She coughed. ‘She’s not from here. One day she might want to go back home and where will that leave you?’ She coughed again, clearing something from her throat. ‘It’s a trusting thing to do, moving in together.’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I know.’

She put the phone down and I could hear the muffled sound of her talking to my father. Then she picked it up again. ‘Well as long as you’re sure.’

My parents came up from Christchurch the weekend we moved and took us out to dinner to an Italian place that turned out to be nicer from the outside.

‘Well congratulations,’ said my mother. She’d brought two bottles of wine—one red and one white. ‘I wasn’t sure which colour you drank,’ she whispered to Summer as we arrived, ‘so I got both.’

We all clinked glasses.

The food took a long time to arrive.

‘So you’re from Canada?’ said my father.

‘Close,’ said Summer. ‘Minnesota.’ She was wearing a blue dress that made her eyes look bluer.

‘You’re a long way from home,’ said my mother.

‘I am.’

‘You must miss your family; do you have brothers and sisters?’

‘Only me.’ Summer glanced across the table at me.

‘What about your parents, do you go back to see them?’

‘I haven’t so far,’ said Summer. ‘It’s expensive. They live on separate coasts now.’

My mother refilled her wine glass. When I tried to catch Summer’s eye again she was looking at the menu.

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I persuaded Harry to let me do a live interview in April. A writer from the US was staying in Nelson for a while—I’d read about him in the local paper and recognised the name. At uni I’d read one of his books and loved it.

Leon wasn’t keen. ‘It’s too soon,’ he said. ‘You’re not ready.’

But Harry, eventually, agreed to it. ‘Just don’t do anything stupid.’

From the start I knew something wasn’t right. The guy didn’t look how I’d pictured from his writing. He was older, mid-sixties at least, and black. When he came into the station twenty minutes late, I just smiled and pretended I wasn’t thrown.

‘Zoe,’ I said, and shook his hand.

He nodded. His hand was heavy and warm.

I grabbed my notes from the kitchen where I’d been sitting nervously. I’d been at the station since seven, leaving Summer asleep.

‘You’ll be fine,’ whispered Clare who’d come in even though it was a Saturday.

‘I’m not worried,’ I said, trying to pretend it was true.

Harry opened the door to the recording studio for us and adjusted the equipment. ‘Fifteen minutes,’ he said to me, ‘will feel like a lifetime.’

And I was on air. I paused, waiting. The guy looked at me—his eyes were deep brown, almost black. I asked if he would read something from his latest book to begin and passed him a copy of a passage I’d photocopied. He took it and I watched him scan down the page. The whites of his eyes were startling against his dark skin.

‘I’ve never seen this before.’

‘Sorry?’ I tumbled through my notes, dropping several pages on the floor. Digging out the book I handed it to him. On the cover was a pattern of leaves. ‘You wrote this—didn’t you?’

He picked it up and skimmed through, letting the pages fan out. My heart was beating fast; I could feel the throb of it.


‘So you didn’t write this book?’

He face was blank. ‘That’s the same name as mine on the cover,’ he said, ‘but I spell mine differently.’

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‘So—’ my voice was too quiet ‘—you’re not a writer?’

‘I’m a writer young lady,’ he said, smiling, ‘just not that writer.’

I tried to ask a question but it came out wrong, a jumble of words.

‘Pardon?’ he said, ‘I didn’t get that?’

Leaning my elbows on the table I took a deep breath, and started again.

Summer was still in bed when I got back half an hour later. ‘Well?’ I said.

She sat up and wound her hair into a bun, holding it in place with her hand. ‘Sorry?’

I was holding my pile of notes against my chest. Dumping them on the bed, I sat down on the crumpled duvet. ‘My interview—what did you think?’

‘I’m sorry Zoe.’ She yawned. ‘I missed it. I slept in.’


‘It’s no big deal. It’s recorded. I’ll listen now.’


She got out of bed, pulling my dressing gown from the dresser where I’d left it. She put it on, tying the cord around her waist. ‘Why? It can’t have been that bad.’

‘It wasn’t—in the end.’

‘Great—I’ll go listen now.’

‘But I don’t want you to listen to it now.’ I could feel my face getting hot. I stood up. ‘I wanted you to listen to it then.’

Turning back to face me, she held up her shoulders in an exaggerated shrug. ‘What difference does it make?’

I pushed past her and went into the kitchen.

‘Don’t be like that,’ she said. ‘Come on—grow up.’

Outside the day was warming up. I walked down the path and out to the street. At the park I stopped and sat on the swing, dangling my feet in the bark chips and replaying it all. The tide was out in Nelson harbour, leaving a long stretch of muddy sand. As I swung higher the metal chains started to creak.

Summer was in the kitchen when I got back, her laptop balanced on the bench. I watched her through the window for a while. She was leaning forward, chin in her hands. The jug had just boiled and was page 212 letting off a funnel of steam.

I crossed the threshold. ‘Okay, I’m sorry.’

She turned towards me, smiling quickly. Her eyes rested on my shoulder, as if she was expecting someone else to come up behind me.

‘I’m sorry too,’ she said. She was still wearing my dressing gown.


‘You carried on,’ said Harry on Monday morning, ‘that was the key.’ Clare bought in a chocolate cake she’d made to celebrate—it was slightly dry on the inside. ‘I hardly noticed the mix-up,’ she told me, ‘you recovered so well.’

Leon’s reaction was a surprise. He brought in a series of live shows he’d done when he first started for me to listen to and offered to set up a pre-recorded interview.

‘It’s like he’s a different person,’ I told Summer that evening. ‘All day he was so—nice.’

‘Some people take a while to warm,’ she said and went back to sorting through our mail.

Something had changed between us—a slight repositioning that I couldn’t put my finger on. Perhaps it was to do with moving in together. We’d started to argue about small things—which of us had left the lid off the milk, the towel on the bathroom floor, the dishes in the sink. Summer seemed cautious around me, as if she was waiting for me to come out with something.

At the start of May I suggested we take two days off and go to Takaka for a long weekend. Summer was reluctant at first, but agreed. It was raining the morning we left and became heavier the further we got.

‘It was like this when I went to the West Coast with Simon,’ said Summer, her hand pressed to the window. ‘The weather always seems to be miserable when I go away.’

I looked across at her. She had her knees up, feet on the dashboard.

‘Who’s Simon?’

‘Just a guy I was dating in Wellington.’

I focused hard on the road. ‘A guy?’

She wiped fog from the passenger window. ‘Ah-huh.’

‘How long were you together?’

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‘Not long—it wasn’t serious.’

As we got to the top of the hill, the mist cleared. Wet boulders dotted the fields on either side. It looked cold.

I could feel Summer watching me. ‘Why are you acting upset?’

I didn’t look at her. ‘I’m not acting upset.’

I’d booked a bach for us to stay in—a friend of Clare’s owned it. The bach was large, eight bedrooms, each of them cold and dusty, a place that would have been great in summer. It rained the whole time and a thick mist descended on the sea so we couldn’t see much past the breakers. On Sunday we went for a walk in the rain then waited in the cold for a café to open.

Everyone at work was grumpy when we got back. Harry stalked around the office. Clare’s cat had died in the weekend and she hadn’t been in since.

‘It’s a cat,’ said Harry, throwing a stack of paper on his desk. ‘Three days mourning for a bloody cat.’

‘She doesn’t have kids,’ I said, surprising myself at wanting to defend her.

‘So that makes it okay?’

‘That’s not what I meant,’ I said.


I happened slowly. At first I hardly noticed. Leon began to stay later at the station, finding jobs to do, planning his programmes. Then he started to bring her recordings—the sound of waves on the beach in a southerly, wind chimes knocking together in the rain, a rubbish bin being blown down the street. Summer stored the sounds on her laptop where she mixed them with her own recordings, making sequences of noise. Sometimes she used them on her show, playing a game where listeners had to call in and guess different sounds. She did this around eleven, long after Harry had left so no one was around to object. I’d been recording her shows to replay during the weekends when I’d listen to them while doing other things. Now I stayed awake every night to listen to her live

One evening I saw a motorbike stop at the curb. I didn’t realise it was Leon at first. Then the helmet came off and I saw his fine blond page 214 hair. He nodded at me. Before I could say anything Summer was coming out the door. She stopped at the top step, her bag slung over her shoulder. Leon lifted up the seat and took out a spare helmet, holding it out to her.

‘What’s going on?’ My voice was brittle—I could hear it ringing in my head.

‘Nothing,’ said Summer. ‘Leon’s giving me a lift to work.’ She walked down the steps, leaning forward to kiss my cheek as she passed, but her lips didn’t quite make contact and all I could feel was her breath, the warmth of it.

I watched her get on the bike behind Leon, then as it disappeared down the street, turning the corner.

Instead of going inside, I walked down the street and into town. It was after seven and already dark. At the first pub I found I ordered a glass of wine and sat at the bar, kicking my feet against the stool. I hadn’t eaten since lunchtime. Two guys in suits came in soon after—one of them went up to the bar to order.


He turned to look at me. He was wearing a tie. ‘Hi.’

‘I’m Zoe.’ My voice sounded slowed-up, unfamiliar.

He looked surprised but shook my hand. ‘Dave.’ Then he asked if I wanted to join them.

The flat was dark when I got home. The bed unmade. I got in and must have slept for a while because when I woke Summer was sitting on the end of the bed. She started to cry and I started to cry and we both said we were sorry. I told her about Dave and said nothing had happened and she told me nothing had happened with Leon, they were just friends. I tried to go back to sleep later, but kept waking. Beside me, Summer tossed and turned, twisting the sheets. At six I got up and made coffee in the kitchen, waiting for the sun to come up.

When I got home from work that evening Summer was already gone. On the kitchen table her cloth bag—left behind. Before I could stop myself, I was rifling through it. Discs, pens, a pear, the recorder. I picked it up and pressed play. A bird call, a tapping sound, violin music. Each sound was simple, distinctly itself. I was disappointed, but I couldn’t figure out why.

As I replaced the items my hand touched something else. A clear, page 215 plastic folder. I pulled it out. ‘My script’ it said on the front. Inside was a pile of typed A4 sheets. The writing was covered in highlighter, illegible notes filling each margin. The last sheet had a coffee stain.


Harry held a midwinter party at his house in July and invited everyone from the station. With one week left on my placement, I’d had a go at almost everything—pre-recorded interviews, news reading, the weather. Now I was helping Harry with editing.

Summer and I went the wrong way so we got there late. When we finally found it we realised we’d driven past twice. Harry’s house was completely different to the apartment I’d made up in the stories I told Summer that day. It was a tidy place with cream weatherboards and a garden. In the hallway photographic evidence of two teenage children.

The lounge was full of people I didn’t know. Someone handed me a glass of wine and I drank it quickly. All around me talking, noise. Summer went to find the bathroom and I had a brief conversation with a guy whose name I immediately forgot. Clare waved at me from the couch.

‘Zoe—I’ve saved a space.’

I went over and sat beside her. Harry was sitting across from us talking to a blonde woman.

‘So what do think about working in radio?’

I glanced around the room and caught sight of Summer and Leon together in the far corner. Summer was laughing, her hand held up to her mouth. When I looked back, Clare was smiling at me, widely.

‘It’s not what I expected,’ I said.

Harry turned towards us; I could see he was half-listening.

‘Why’s that?’ she asked. ‘What did you expect?’

‘I thought the whole being live bit would be easier. I don’t understand how people can talk for hours and hours and make it sound so unrehearsed.’

From the corner of my eye I could see Leon touch Summer’s arm, moving her aside. Then he walked in our direction.

‘It seems to me,’ said Clare, ‘that you just be yourself.’

‘You have to think of it as a performance.’ Leon was standing beside Clare now, looking down at us. He sat on the arm of the couch, page 216 his long legs in tight black jeans. ‘It’s like acting.’

‘Acting?’ said Clare. ‘Really?’ She rubbed her eye. ‘It seems to me that the people who are best at it are just being themselves.’

‘It’s giving a performance,’ said Leon, ‘of yourself.’

Suddenly Harry leant forward, breaking free of his conversation. He held up his hand, fingers splayed. ‘The trick is to be almost yourself, but never quite yourself. It only works if you hold something back; if you’re almost you. Do you see the difference?’

‘Yes,’ said Clare.

I nodded too, but no one was looking at me. I looked around the room but couldn’t see Summer anywhere.

Later I went to the bathroom and sat on the edge of Harry’s bath. It had started to rain. Large drops hit the guttering in torrents—stopping, starting, stopping again. After a few minutes it faded to a background hum—a sound you have to listen for to notice. Like when you’re driving a long distance and realise, suddenly, you’ve lost reception and been listening to static.