Read an Excerpt
By Patrick Evans
Victoria University Press Copyright © 2010 Patrick Evans
All rights reserved.
Sometimes I think I've made her up. I think she's a ghost from one of my earlier novels come back to haunt me, or a character from something I haven't got around to writing yet. And sometimes she seems like a ghost of her own, a phantasm called into being from her strange disturbing imaginary world. At other times, though, she's like one of those animated cartoon figures being drawn onscreen as you watch, moving and speaking while she's taking shape and the artist's hand works inside the frame, adding details or rubbing them out, a leg appearing here, a hand vanishing there.
And whenever I think that, I wonder if there's a way to rub her out myself, a way to make her disappear so there's no sign she ever turned up on the other side of my front hedge in the back seat of a pea-green Morris Minor one Saturday afternoon late in the summer of 1955, no sign that she ever came back a few days later and moved into the army hut in my back garden to my surprise and dismay, no sign that she lived and wrote there for the sixteen most extraordinary months of my life.
If I could do that, if I could rub her out like that — then the house would be mine again and free of the memory of her, it'd be no more than it was built for a few years before she came into my life, a place for me to live and work, somewhere to conduct my friendships and my other passions and to live my imaginary life in solitude. If I could rub her out I'd be able to go through my back door and across my tiny square of lawn to the hut, and open it to nothing more than the bed and the bench and the bare coat rack across the corner. And I'd have the garden back too, often neglected during her time with me but ready to be reclaimed and cared for as it used to be, ready to renew me, the loquat tree tapping its loaded branches at my windows to remind me it is still there, it is always there, the peach tree down the back showing its bright spring confetti once again, the apple trees and the nectarine behind them, and everywhere the bud upon the vine. Yet another summer: and myself untouched by her, not marked, not changed, not graced —
It seems always to have been in my life, this beachside section of land I live on, taken for granted like my tongue or my toes. When I was a child, our family home was ten miles away on the far, southern, side of the harbour, in a leafy suburb of bungalows east of the city. From the veranda of this wooden villa my father went at a half-trot to the tramcar at the bottom of the street every morning, and hence to the city as he used to call it, to wedge his ample posterior into the carver chair behind his solicitor's desk. From the same veranda my mother went each day to the shops up the road (butcher fruiterer draper and general store), or west to the church in whose rear hall she and other worthy middle-class trouts schemed charitable harassments of the poor. As for my tiny older brother and me, each weekday morning we trailed off to the east, creeping like snail unwillingly to school. And then, every Sunday, that endless ritual that would look so ridiculous if observed in a tribe of Hottentots: down on the knees and then up to sit, then down once more and up again, again and then yet again, until the harsh, indifferent Jehovah of my parents was placated wherever He hung his not inconsiderable Hat. Methodists, my parents, of a subsect now melted away but given then amongst other things to forcing grooves into the knees of its young: my brother and I used to compare our wounds as we stumbled back from the church to the Sunday mutton.
And yet all this predictability could be relieved any Friday summer evening when oh joy we would suddenly find ourselves being packed off in the tram to town, towards jetty ferry and wine-dark sea: epi oinopa ponton — well, just the harbour, in fact, but exciting enough in itself with the promise of its north-eastern corner, on the far shore, where another jetty and a brisk walk always brought us to the tangled half-acre my father had purchased as a rural investment, and to the little wooden dwelling he had built upon it: the family cottage, as my parents insisted on calling it, for all its modesty.
In front of this my father would stand, fumbling the hunter from his heaving paunch and the key ring out of a pocket:
Twenty-five minutes, he'd say, snapping the watchcase shut and dabbing at his red, glistening nape.
Then he'd fumble importantly with a padlock the size of a pensioner's reticule, until its jaws were parted and the door was opened and the little place was ours once more with its bosky, halitoxic puff of dry-rot and rat-droppings. Our beachside cottage —
Well, that is how my parents used to describe it to their friends: although, once the place had actually been sighted, the term tended to fall a little from use. Members of their church group, encouraged to take the fifteen-minute ferry trip across the harbour on a sunny summer Saturday afternoon and a further thirty-five in the bracing ozone of their slow, bovine stroll from the Bayswater jetty, paled, once delighted greetings had been exchanged, at the sight of the horrid little hutch that made our home-away-from-home. This was a jest, surely, surely the real beach cottage was somewhere nearby? — alas, no: tiny, primitive, even crude, this was it. Each time my recollections become too flattering, I rummage up the three or four snapshots that survive and remind myself how significantly different our holiday home was from the scoured, scrubbed domain in which, on the far side of the harbour, we lived our daily lives. A single room built up on shallow totara piles, the beachside cottage had a sort of porch at one end and a window in the side, a roof clad in corrugated iron and walls sheathed in weatherboards we tamed each year with yet another coat of Stockholm tar. For cooking, the driftwood-fired stove inside the porch, through whose roof it poked its metal chimney: for washing up, a system of buckets fed by the rainwater tank on the stand behind the hut: for evacuations, a noisome one-holer up against the farthest hedge, as near to being off the property as my parents could manage it. And, for all-over bodily hygiene: the snotgreen scrotumtightening sea, no more than a few furlongs distant.
This little wooden box I put to the torch several years ago, in a Viking funeral I knew was burning half my life away. For, as it was to turn out, I lived my first twenty adult years in it, mostly on my own but not (if I am to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth) entirely so. I started there a refugee, and have ended up somewhat better: richer, admittedly, in those things that cannot be seen weighed or counted than in those that can, but able, although with considerable difficulty, to scrape together the means of replacing, in due course, a mode of living that could still shock the more conventional of my friends who happened to drop by. Then, after eighteen years of living in my inherited and decaying little beachside cottage on the smell of a dry oil-rag, and with more conniving scheming and patience than I have ever managed in my life and not a little elbow grease of my own, I managed to shoo the last of the builder's gang off my property and take possession of the brand-new home they'd built for me — the house in which I sit now writing these very words, a dwelling modest enough, I must admit, and barely worthy of the name at merely twenty feet in one direction and the same mere twenty in the other, and but one each of bedroom outside door and fireplace: but, compared to the tiny, abandoned hovel whose exterior I was free to inspect (when once I'd shifted into my new cottage) through the clean, unflawed post-war glass of my brand-new linseed-smelling window, a veritable paradise on earth — earth which, to tell the truth, I'd been forced to sacrifice from my precious vegetable garden.
A flush toilet, a wireless radio built into the bookcase, running water, electric light bulbs — after twenty years of living in that terrible little family dogbox come rain come hail I had capitulated at last to Progress. It wasn't an easy decision, making the leap from the nineteenth century to the twentieth like that. And that is what I'd done. There was a New Zealand we've all forgotten and I felt that I was one of the last people who knew about it and cared about it: and I felt I'd left it behind, deserted and betrayed it, that night I abandoned the old hut and moved into the new place twenty feet away with its linseed-and-putty smell and a floor that thumped like a drum whenever I walked across it. Electric streetlights, even they had reached the beachside by then, they'd put one the other side of the macrocarpa hedge, and as I lay abed in my new house for the first time looking at its glow reflecting in strange places, on the half-filled bookshelf and bouncing up to the slope of the ceiling, it all felt so utterly wrong that I couldn't get to sleep. At two in the morning I half thought to go back outside to the old hut again. But I knew better, I understood that in carrying my few bits and pieces across the lawn from the old place to the new I was crossing a temporal Rubicon, that the hand of history had got hold of me and I could never go back.
And so it was that when one of my friends happened to mention he was trying to get rid of an army hut a few months later, it felt like that historical hand knocking on my door once again. What he referred to was the little sheds the army sold off to the public as surplus now the Hitler war was over. You could see them all over town and country, in suburban backyards schools camping grounds and what have you, perhaps twelve foot long and a Biblical seven in width, with a door at one end a window at the other and nothing much else in between. You could bed four to six men in each: a pleasant and diverting thought that kept me going as a friend and his boy helped me carry the disassembled sides of the new hut from his trailer through the gap in the hedge and onto the property. Then, once we were done, the two men abandoned me to my funerary rites, knowing me well enough to understand that that is what they would be.
And so I waited alone till dusk and its moths, passing the time by hosing down the hedges and the shrubs and the ground nearby: and then, as darkness closed in, I tossed a lit rag through the little building's door. There was a soft crump as the petrol ignited that I'd splashed about inside, and within ten seconds the place was lighting up like Guy Fawkes Night and I was backing off with heat on my face and arms. As I played the garden hose against the macrocarpa hedge and the little burning flakes floated up I tried to settle the emotion that I felt, to identify it and make it shapely. Fed by the aeons of Stockholm stored in the wood the fire spread, climbed, making a soft insistent roar as if some animal were being consumed. I tried to remember that day I landed there a refugee, and my father turning up to find me the following morning as he did, and my first night there six years later with my dear friend Harry, whom eventually you will meet. And I tried to remember the time before all this, when I was a child and had a family and a shape of life around me, for whatever it was worth.
All this fed into the moment when the board walls had burnt out and just the frame was there in outline, incandescent with fire, no longer a structure but an image, held briefly at the moment the material disappeared into the imaginary, the past disappeared into history: and then the whole thing fell in on itself and was gone. It was as if everything I knew and felt had been changed into something else. It was as if there was nothing left but what was new.
The next day, my friend and I reassembled the war surplus hut on the still-warm ashes with his son pitching in as well. It took two hours, fewer, and when we had finished it stood there sturdily as if to say the army had arrived, although in all truth its squared-off blank sides and the neat peaked roof above its single end door gave it more the look of a large dog kennel or perhaps of a very small church. It was thoroughly out of place, in other words an anachronism, and it took me a long time to accept it, to work it into my own private mythologies and narratives of being, my own personal romance. By the time I'd done so, many people had graced its graceless hearth. Young and old male and female artist and civilian normal and strange: all stayed there for brief or longer spells. And none of them for longer, and none of them more unusual, than the young woman I mentioned at my outset: the dweller in my army hut. Her name is Janet Frame.
She came into my life heralded by trumpets, or in fact by a car horn, two peremptory parps irrupting into my early Saturday afternoon snooze, followed ten or twenty seconds later by a rat-a-tat-tat! at the door. I'd got to the stage where I expected the odd visitor without welcoming them. Friends were another thing, friends knew to leave me alone till the afternoon as the sign by the gate instructed: No visitors till 1.00 p.m., please. Would that put them off? Not this one, it seemed. Still half-asleep from my post-lunch nap I was ripe for the plucking: and there she was before me as I opened the door, a plump-faced matron looking eagerly up at me, her eager vivid mouth already half-open.
Mister Sargeson? she breathed up at me. My standard nightmare visitor: age indistinct, medium to heavy tonnage, with a bosom like a bed bolster and her autograph book in her hand. I knew what came next: would I like to address her book club her church group her daughter's class at school? — Why no, madam, as it happens, I would not. I am merely a working stiff, as our American cousins put it, though I admit to finding the phrasing unfortunate. In the morning I work inside at my desk, and after a modest bite to eat at the kitchen counter you see behind me I spend the afternoon under the sun, working in my garden. At night I read and, occasionally and in a variety of ways, enjoy the company of others.
None of this of course was what I was actually saying to her, and, in all truth, it was taking me quite an effort to catch up to what it was that she was saying to me —
Your friend, I said, as if interested. Is she —?
I stepped down beside her onto the path, with its heat and its light.
Mm, yes, the woman said. I've got her out there in the car —
The name she mentioned was not unknown to me. Janet Frame, Janet Frame — I'd read something by someone called Janet Frame. But I was going to have to bluff this one out, by the look of it —
Yes, I heard my voice say. I'm bound to say I have read her —
But was it a single short story I was pretending to have read, or was I pretending to have read an entire book —?
Molly, the woman said her name was: I followed her up my path.
To exit 14 Esmonde Road one has to duck down through a hole in the hedge. Watching her do this from behind was not a sight for me — rather than skirts, for my own reasons I prefer women to wear what they nowadays call slacks. I can't explain this to you, and on this occasion I tried not even to think of it. I tried to concentrate instead on the torrent of words that came back to me over the woman's plump, heaving, scented shoulders.
And there, on the other side of the hedge, I had my first glimpse of Janet. There is no way to convey its colour to you, by the way, I mean the colour of the car. I am not used to the dreadful things themselves and have yet to accept them: at best I expect them to be if not black, then brown or fawn, or possibly even dappled — horse colours, at any rate. What kind of animal might have the colour of this monster I really don't know: but there it was, and, in its maw, brooding in silence, there, too, was the young woman in question, sitting in its back seat and made so anonymous by dark glasses and headscarf that there seemed hardly any point at all in my coming out to meet her. Especially since, as her friend rapped briskly at the window beside her, she made not the slightest sign that she intended to acknowledge us, and instead just sat there, staring fixedly through the windscreen as if something very important was attached to the end of the bonnet that she alone could see.
Excerpted from Gifted by Patrick Evans. Copyright © 2010 Patrick Evans. Excerpted by permission of Victoria University Press.
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