Four Wellington university students, Meg, Henry, Steph and Diana, are thrown together in the broad sphere of leftist politics, love and betrayal. Set in the 1970s.
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By Anna Smith, Rachel Scott
Canterbury University PressCopyright © 2012 Anna Smith
All rights reserved.
* * *
I was born on Black Friday in a brick house with a frosted stag on the door. My name is Margaret Shepherd, Meg to my friends, a diminutive my mother didn't stoop to until I reached middle age. I stand 5 feet 5 inches without shoes and last week at the doctor's I weighed 55 kilos, which if we were using numerology would add up to 2 (5+5+5+5 = 2). Two has brought me nothing but trouble. Seeing every single one of my numbers is unlucky, it doesn't make much difference.
Not that I've always thought like that. I used to believe in bliss before I went to university, where everyone said bliss was unfashionable and if you wanted to grow up, you had to stop thinking that life was going to be kind to you. Ecstasy was for immature teenagers. What we should be doing, these people said, was trying to change the world and make it a better place, but not because you wanted to bring more of your friends into the circle of bliss. No, you had to do it because the human race needed to accept that we were like a disease and smelt bad. Jean-Paul Sartre called this the unhappy consciousness, and my lectures at university were full of ideas about how to get into an unhappy consciousness and stay there.
In those days, women went around wearing black skirts or voluminous dresses covered in flowers. Men wore jeans, and strange facial hair that made it look as if they hadn't bothered to wash when they got up. Once, I went to an encounter group where a man had hair growing all the way from his cheeks to his ears. It did not feel soft and silky as I had imagined, but crisp and dry, while his eyebrows, which were like lobsters' feelers, had an unpleasant, menacing quality.
I went to other encounter groups after that first one, and weekends for activists, and I slept the night on an urban marae. I marched with fellow students, bellowing out songs for peace. It certainly felt companionable standing in front of foreign embassy gates waving placards and throwing eggs at diplomats' cars. But as soon as I started talking about inner happiness and real love, the activists shuffled their feet.
'They're tired words, Meg,' said a man I wanted to impress. 'They've lost their currency. What young people are after now is social meaning – meaning that can be shared by a collective.'
I met a hippy on the street one day coming home from a noisy march on Parliament. He had bloodshot, pale blue eyes that made him look like a fish that had died a long time ago.
'Free love,' he said, 'that's cool. Why don't you come with me to Sweden? There's this great commune there. Girls do the meals, guys work in the gardens. Far out, man.'
The hippy hung around the city trying to get women to come to Sweden with him, but as far as I know, they never did.
'Look what happened to Katherine Mansfield. I mean, I only have to see a pear tree to get disillusioned.' Steph had black stockings and long dark hair she could almost sit on. It was massively dense with curls, and she sometimes wore it in a squashed roll on the side of her head. The weight of her hair used to make my neck exhausted. Seeing my own hair was as thin and feathery as the down on a duckling's behind and the colour of overcooked pastry, I took to staring at women better endowed than myself, and began a scrapbook of pieces of my friends' hair.
'You're so morbid, Meg. It's weird to steal people's hair,' one of them said when we were all having dinner one night, I can't remember who now, Gillian or Lou. I stole from Steph, the roll-wearer, later.
I didn't have a clue what a pear tree had to do with disillusion, or who Katherine Mansfield was, but I found out soon enough. Now my garden is full of pear trees, planted by myself. When I look out the window on certain nights in spring at the sheet of white stretching skywards, I know that the ironies life throws up take everyone by surprise, most especially the J.-P. Sartres and Katherine Mansfields of this world.
* * *
If you could describe the learning curve I took when I left home to go to the city, it would have looked like this:
passage the first: in which the heroine feels joy at her prospects
passage the second: the heroine builds a Happy City and makes some worldly friends
passage the third: an unexpected shock
passage the fourth: in which the classic reversal of fortune occurs and the heroine's downward slide begins
passage the fifth: disillusionment at every turn
passage the sixth: revenge
passage the seventh: bliss is restored and the heroine plants her orchard.
Note that not all points along the curve are equidistant. The first two appeared in a matter of weeks, whereas the fifth lasted more than two years, and even today breaks out when least expected.
Once foresworn, the path back to bliss is long and narrow; its end comes and goes with the seasons. I still never win Lotto, I'm just not a lucky person by nature. But if I were to see my old friends again as I am today, a middle-aged woman selling pears at the gate, I would be able to tell them that only last week the bone-density tests arrived back from the laboratory and the doctor shook his head and told me I was getting younger. Notionally, he said, I had the bones of a thirty-five-year-old woman, which, given my history, he said was a great surprise.
So nothing is predictable, I would say to my friends. Nothing lasts, not even the passage of time. Not even those seeds of disillusion we sowed when we were young.
* * *
It takes only an instant to slide from one state to another. I remember the first day when the city that had held out its arms to me slammed its doors in my face and I was shut out. Shut out from bliss, from inner happiness, from finding true love. I did my best not to notice, I pretended the waves were as high as ever and I was still riding their tops. What girl of eighteen set on dancing into life wants to know that when she's sitting pretty, fortune can pull her down faster than gravity?
Let me tell you how it happened. How one little thing, small as the knot in the end of a piece of thread, pushed me off my perch, and suddenly I found myself sliding faster and faster down waves steep as houses, watching my handful of treasures skitter away from me, bobbing towards a horizon I could no longer see.
I was noseying around the shops after lectures. I'd taken to rushing through my reading and going down into the city to explore, to catch the life wriggling there like a glittering fish on a hook.
The morning breathed on my face as it always did, pulling me down the ziggurat of steps to the shops. Before I knew it, I was dreaming in front of palaces of glass, smoke-coloured fragments of my face darting everywhere; feeling the slub of fabrics; weighing a green pepper in my hand, the exotic fruit so bright it looked like a globe of wax; watching the men in heavy coats asleep on benches. You know that feeling. You're restless, all over the place, but quiet as a lizard. You can feel the slow, slumbering currents of the earth under your feet, while inside you're sending flickering pieces of yourself into the atmosphere, a million per second. I circled the streets with the pigeons, scooped water from a fountain, mulled over old glass jars in an opportunity shop and brought adzuki beans and a porcelain bowl from the Chinese warehouse.
Then I saw him. Worn jacket, athletic walk, down-at-heel tan shoes. How could I help it if I remembered?
I called out across the cloud of pigeons and the traffic. He was disappearing into Cuba Street, being swallowed by the lunchtime crowds. The wind pulled the words out of my mouth, tossing them into the air. He turned around for a moment but his face was far away, too pale, melting into a sea of other faces.
I began to run, cold sweat trickling underneath my clothes. I ran past early newspaper hawkers and men who tried to give me little pink cards. I ran past students picketing a bookshop, and a group of men with shaved heads and yellow robes.
I knocked into a pile of boxes leaning from a doorway. People were beginning to look strangely at my drunken passage, this young woman with hair flying, shouting incoherently at the air. I lumbered along behind him, heavy-footed, with something bursting in my chest.
We drew level as a line of buses swept by at the lights at the end of Lambton Quay. I reached out a hand. As soon as I'd touched his shoulder, I knew it was too thin under the jacket, the fabric flapping where my father's bulging arms would have been.
'Oh.' Amazing what words come to the rescue when you've had a shock. My heart still flinging itself against my ribcage like a trapped sparrow, a mouth belonging to a stranger opened politely. The thin man gave a tepid smile, stepped away from the kerb. A horde of pedestrians poured past me, and I hated the flashing Cross Now letters for turning me into an orphan again.
All right, I confess. I did believe in bliss, but not because that's all I knew. He left us. My father left us when I was twelve. For years, I still went on believing in bliss, in happy families and in real love. I couldn't help knowing that the next day would be different.
It often was. Long, hot days walking down dusty roads picking wild apples; watching motionless cows, and white tufts of sheep needled into the hills as the sun set. Catching frogs in the swimming pool, hunting their spawn. And travelling down to Wellington, running into the future. I had an eager mouth, Mum said, hungry for change. To be a chief in my life, not an Indian.
So what if I had thought it was my father. So what?
I found myself wandering into Kirkcaldie and Stains. The windows were being dressed for autumn. There were desolate mounds of leaves waiting to be artfully scattered, and bits of mannequin lying half-dressed against chairs and dust-cloths.
My mother had been on a trip to Sydney and came back to Cambridge with photos of window displays from David Jones.
You should have seen the store, Margaret. It was a mass of flowers. Such luxury! I felt like a princess. You know, you should do a course in design, dear. You could be a talented window-dresser and it's a very respectable profession with a real tradition behind it.
The thought of window-dressing made me nauseous, to tell the truth. The dingy backdrops and little heaps of plaster dust that no one saw, crotchless men, and all that faded pink flesh waiting to be covered. Grotesque, Henry would have called it: grotesque, and very working class.
I crossed the store until I reached Haberdashery, the least dressed of Kirkcaldie and Stains displays. Pairs of socks and gloves and mittens for the winter season lay stacked against embroidery threads and tapestry kitsets. Forests of metal hoops waved from slopes of linens and calicoes and muslins. Minarets of glass phials waited to be filled with perfume or beads. Haberdashery was perpetually in chaos, its counters a wild collection of goods for odd parts of the body mixed in with cottons and sewing notions for the city's dressmakers and supplies for its handcraft artists.
All the nameless items the store could not find a home for elsewhere made their way over here. What's this curious thing? I can imagine the store manager saying to one of his assistants, holding out a set of needle-threaders and emery boards. Take it over to Haberdashery, there's a good girl. When you found something, you pulled it out triumphantly as if it were a rare treasure you had been searching for all your life.
I wasn't here today for supplies. Ordinarily I might have been. Hadn't Peach Grove Girls' given me the sewing prize? I'd cashed it in the next day for a Pink Floyd album. Still, that didn't mean I'd forgotten my needlework. I was an ace embroiderer, taught to fill a sampler by my grandmother on my seventh birthday.
It was a pair of cream gloves that finally caught my eye. There was just something about them, the way their purple stitching marked a shiny path of silk from wrist to fingertip like the trail left by a crawling snail, or a silkworm. Mum would have called them delicate. Dad would have laughed at her.
If I could have sat down and drawn a pair of hands, they would have had tiny mouths pinned to them. Tiny, hungry mouths.
When I was ten I had seen a picture of St Sebastian stuck with dozens of arrows, his eyes rolled back into his head, the palms of his hands trickling blood. Underneath it explained how 'suffering turned to sweet manna in the saint's mouth'.
Mum told me it was a lesson against masochism – against confusing pleasure and pain, Margaret. – Why is he a saint, then, Mum? – Hush, dear. Catholics have some very confused ideas.
Here I was on Tuesday afternoon in Wellington's largest department store, a thief with hungry hands, pierced like Sebastian, stuck through like my school needle-book, the one Mum had made out of cardboard from a Weet-Bix packet and covered in brown corduroy and charcoal flannel with 'Margaret Shepherd, Standard One' written in red pen on the inside.
The soft leather of the gloves gave off a faint brine smell of cured skin. I saw my mother stroking my cheek when I was sick with scarlet fever, bringing me drinks and ice blocks. And I saw Dad tickling my ear with Little Ned, buzzing the cream and purple stuffed elephant into my hair.
I pulled the gloves down over my fingers, stretching them as far as they would reach into the leather, noticing how the tips of the gloves collapsed inwards, empty and fleshless. My fingers were shorter than the standard size, a fact I knew to be true because I had been told before.
You haven't aristocratic hands, I'm afraid. Oh, dear me no, they're quite working class. And look at those lines on your palms. You know, if I wasn't a woman of faith I'd say you were going to lead a tortured life. But, as the world's greatest dramatist once wrote, our lives are our own fault; our stars don't make us underlings.
A plangent wave of fragrance from the perfume counters drifted over Haberdashery and mournfully circled my head, my palms prickled and prickled, Little Ned whispered in my ear.
I tweaked and straightened the gloves and marched out of the store. It was close to 5 p.m. Kirkcaldie and Stains was due to shut. I edged around the last-minute bargain-hunters, my shoes trailing leaves from the errant window display, and set out for the door.
As I approached the main exit, there was a commotion. Behind, a sound of voices knotted together, shouting. They were coming after me, baying slavering dogs only seconds away from plunging their fangs into my neck. The store intercom crackled: there would be a voice instructing me to stop. People were turning their heads. I hung back, dragging my feet, criminal eyes fixed on the polished mushroom floor.
When nothing happened, I wondered if someone could have been giving away free perfume samples. Mum told me that sort of thing happened at David Jones.
Sometimes they get stuck with perfume samples, Margaret. They come round with a wicker basket and spray perfume in the air and give out little bottles of it. You know, I've always thought you had a nose for fragrance. I could just see you working at a parfumier's in Paris.
It was some other thief they were after; they hadn't spotted me at all. I felt a mean gratitude for the diversion when I saw the guilty woman in a winter coat being propelled towards the back of the shop.
'She was filling her pocket with Belgian chocolates. Right under my bloody nose!' exclaimed an indignant shopper as they were herded towards the exit.
I took a furtive glimpse at the store detective before I left. She looked cool as the shadows that were falling directly down from the hills, filling the city with an inky-blue light and reminding me – Meg, Klepto Girl! – that it was time to go back to the hostel or I would be late for dinner.
* * *
Everyone steals. A psychologist will tell you that people who take things can be suffering from adjustment problems. Maybe their parents didn't give them enough pocket money or cookies, or they've just lost their jobs and it's Christmas. Or maybe they had kind parents but they like the challenge, the rush of it all. Besides, kids steal constantly: it's a part of growing up, of learning about boundaries, about where one person's property ends and another's begins.
So I reasoned to myself on the Newtown bus, wearing my cream leather gloves, which pulsed like the siren on Z-Cars. I was no different. I'd taken money from my mother's purse, picked Mrs Clark's strawberries when she was asleep. I'd even raided the local dairy for Fru Jus and choc bombs. Seeing a man who resembled my father had given me a shock and I'd temporarily flipped back to childhood. Simple.
I hadn't counted on repercussions. Cast your bread upon the waters, Margaret, and it will come back to you. Effects, a child learns, always follow causes.
That theft, small as the knot in a piece of cotton, small as a seed, started to sprout somewhere on a cluttered counter at the back of the universe. While the city ate and slept and went about its business, the seed poked down a snout of a root, and then sprouted a prickle of leaves. One day when I wasn't looking, it moved in. I think my first years away from home were spent in hacking at this giant invisible plant that had surreptitiously taken over my life and, in its turn, had begun stealing from me.
* * *
Meanwhile, dinner was getting cold. At the hostel, oblivious to my brush with crime, Gillian and Lou were waiting.
When I first met Gillian she reminded me of a hyperactive corgi, darting everywhere and crackling with energy. She'd been dating since we arrived, studying law and accounting so she could meet a suitable man to take home to her Hawke's Bay family, who were a cut above Lou's and mine.
Excerpted from Politics 101 by Anna Smith, Rachel Scott. Copyright © 2012 Anna Smith. Excerpted by permission of Canterbury University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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