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Writing Wellington: Twenty Years of Victoria University Writing Fellows

1985 Patricia Grace

page 38

1985 Patricia Grace

When the Lights Go On Again
All Over the World

While it was still dark Mereana went up to the front bedroom and waited with her mother by the window, looking down. 'There's a southerly coming up,' her mother said.

If it had been daylight they would have seen the rooftops of the other houses layered down the hillside below them. They'd have seen the road curving down, the terraces and crescents, the zigzag paths and the white handrails.

On the flats at the base of the hill, they'd have seen more housetops, in rows with roads between, where trams followed each other back and forth, small, far away. Beyond the houses and roads she knew there was the aerodrome where, in the daytime, planes dawdled about like bees before facing on to the runway, picking up speed and suddenly lifting to fly. Or they came out of the sky above the sea, dropping, roaring along the dark strip, stopping, turning, and making their slow way towards the sheds or the hangar.

At one end of the aerodrome was Lyall Bay and the coloured ocean where they saw ships come out from behind the hills and move across the water, becoming smaller and smaller until they went from sight. At the other end was Evans Bay and a shaped sea, which seemed to be enclosed by roads and houses, the distant city, the cut-out hills.

On the far side of the 'drome were more houses on more hillsides, and way back, where there were no more houses, were the faraway hills, dark and sharp. Between them, here and there, were glimpses of the sea.

Some mornings, when there was a moon, they could make out the two silver patches of water and the ghosts of houses, the shapes of buildings and hills. But this morning, there in the dark, it was as though there was nothing about or below them at all, apart from the rattling wind. It was as though she and her mother, her brother who was asleep, and their father on his way to work, were the only people in the world, living in the one and only house. Sometimes Mereana's mother would say, 'One day the lights will come on. There'll be lights in the streets again. People will let their blinds up and take the blackouts down. We'll look out and see everything lit for miles.'

Now, kneeling on the big bed in the dark, there was just one light that they waited to see as they looked down to where they knew the road to be.

'There,' her mother said, and she saw the faint, bobbing light, knowing it was her father with a shade on his torch and his lunch in a tin bag, going to his job at the freezing works.

They watched, and at the place down there where they knew the corner to be, they saw the little light stop a moment, jig from side to side as her father waved goodbye, then it was gone.

She got into bed with her mother who said, 'He'll be at the top of the road already.' After a moment she said, 'He'll be on his way down the hill.'

Running past all the animals asleep in their cages—Nellikutha in her page 40 concrete house; the scabby polar bear who walked back and forth, back and forth all day in front of the white painted rocks by a pool of bright green water, while people waited for him to dive and swim; parrots, budgies, canaries, finches, cockatoos, and old vultures that looked like nothing but dusty brooms hanging up against the wires; bison that rubbed themselves into strips and patches against the barbed wire fences; tigers, monkeys, lions; old horses.

Sometimes on Saturdays she would go with her father over the hills at the back of the zoo to collect horse dung for the garden. He'd take his spade and sack and she'd take the hearth shovel. They'd make their way through the gorse and broom to the clearings, and the old horses would snort and walk away, whacking their big feet down, their tails and manes lifting and falling. 'They're for the lions,' her father told her. 'They're lion tucker.'

When they'd filled the sack they would walk back to the slope above their house and her father, with her on his back, and pulling the sack and shovel, would run down through the prickles and broom to the fence. When they'd climbed through it they could almost have stepped on to the roof of their house which was set right up close to the bank.

The southerly was flapping the blinds, banging the windows, rattling the dustbin that had a brick on its lid; rattling the chimney pot which sometimes came apart, clattered down the roof and dropped on to the square of lawn before bouncing down on to the square of garden.

Sometimes at night, when she was supposed to be going to sleep, she'd get out of bed and watch the searchlights, like long, blue arms, reaching, criss-crossing, looking for enemy planes that could be in the sky. She'd wait, hoping to see an enemy plane trapped in the light, but after a while she'd feel tired of waiting and get back into bed wondering what an enemy plane looked like, what an enemy looked like. What was an enemy? In one of her books there was a story of Bertie Germ who lived in a rubbish bin. You had to fight against him with soap and toothbrushes.

Her brother was still asleep, she thought her mother could be asleep too, and her father was in a dark tram, on his way to catch a train with blinds down over its windows, taking him to the meatworks.

But what would it be like when all the lights came on again, lighting everything for miles? Would there be no night at all then? Would she play and play in an everlasting daytime, up and down all the lit-up streets, in and out of houses that would now have their lights on, their blinds up, their blackouts taken down?

'This week, or next,' her mother said, 'his call-up papers'll come. He'll be off to war.'

Patricia Grace (b. 1937) has won awards for her novels, short fiction and children's writing. Potiki (1987), which she wrote during her Victoria University Fellowship, won the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction and international awards. Her most recent publication is the novel Baby No-Eyes (1999). She is of Ngati Toa, Ngati Raukawa and Te Ati Awa descent. She was awarded an Honorary DLitt by Victoria University in 1989.