- Published: 2 June 2020
- ISBN: 9780143774631
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 304
- RRP: $36.00
Stephen McDakeldy, sixty-five years old, lover of poetry and Jesus, was crouched on all fours between a eucalyptus tree and a hedge of gorse in the furthest corner of Waikumete Cemetery. A corner of tilted tombstones, memorials decayed to rubble, and a wooden chapel so perfect it belonged on the front of a postcard. The crickets chirruped around him, and occasionally a cicada would belt out its boisterous mating song of clicks and whirrs and buzzes before realising the season and abruptly giving up.
Someone passing Stephen at a distance, perhaps walking a dog along the ragged-edged tarseal road, might believe he was bent over in grief. They wouldn’t have seen his bare feet. The nails black, chalky toes, and heels as thick as the pork crackling sold by the roast shop two hundred metres away.
Feet for measure. Twelve inches from here to there.
Who wants to look at feet?
Across the road, a mere stone’s throw from Stephen, the grey headstone of the influenza memorial fronted an empty patch of grass the length and shape of a cricket pitch. Twice a day, for eight days in November 1918, the train offloaded bodies while teams of men dug graves from dawn till dusk. Contrary to popular belief, the 1,128 Auckland victims were not buried in a mass grave. Only thirty-eight graves were left unmarked, scattered throughout the cemetery, the final resting places for people without homes, occupations or family.
Stephen wasn’t grieving for them. Nor was he grieving for a friend or a family member. Thirty-seven years since his father’s murder and the emancipation of his entire family — time for a celebration. He’d already paid a visit to his father’s grave on the other side of the cemetery, where the tombstones and plaques were still shiny even though the dandelions, gorse and blackberry had long ago overtaken the olive trees, roses and camellias. Devoted father to Rose, Stephen, Tony. Loving husband to Laura. At rest. Three lies. No goodbyes. Byways and highways. Maze of thought. Fought and still fighting.
Filthy boy. Filthy filthy boy. But he didn’t have to listen. There were ways out, out and out and far away. He tucked his bristled chin into the neck of his blue jumper. The baked-bean-stained cuffs slipped over his thin wrists as he lifted one hand from the ground and began to pump back and forth.
And what is this? What is as beautiful as a waterfall?
Fine hairs on fine arms, thumb down the backs of knees and necks, and her breath moving into him, and his breath moving into her, exchange of life, moist and sweet — she ran a finger down the centre of his face, he kissed her wrist, his lips skimmed her chest, the sheets smelled of her, and all we have, she whispered, all we have is right here —
But someone at the door, someone shouting —
— the voice grew louder and louder, angrier and angrier, threat- ening to obliterate the entire universe. And then — it stopped. Stephen shuddered to a finish, perched back on his heels and zipped up his jeans. He wouldn’t say he was satisfied. Satisfaction indicated desire, need, longing. Today, he was letting it all go; today, the Lord had granted him freedom from all of those things.
From a scuffed backpack he pulled out a pocket dictionary, a small notepad and a pen. The dictionary, ‘50c’ written in pencil on the inside cover, a gift from another streetie. The pen, blue, BNZ written across its side, he’d collected from a government employee conducting surveys in Aotea Square. The notepad — he’d found that in a rubbish bin, underneath a polystyrene takeaway container holding a dribble of sauce and six florets of broccoli.
Stephen flicked past a grocery list that included t-paper, smelly thg, chick drums, coff (bulk?), tooth-p, and ended with the comments ‘you can do this!’, ‘be in the moment!’ and ‘read 2x books to Liam’.
So much to write.
Plans that were poetry.
But a sound nearby — footsteps — and the swish of long grass parting around polyester trouser legs. A small creature crawled up his hand. The blue lines in front of him blurred. He shook his head. Now was not the time to lose focus. There was work to do. He opened his dictionary. Linn: Gaelic word for waterfall. Phosphenes: the light and colours produced when you press your eyes. Oblivion: the state of being unaware of what is happening around you. He pressed on his eyes — sparks of orange and a rising drift of snow. He wrote the words on the notepad.
He put the pen, notepad and dictionary in his bag, checked his zip and plucked the creature from the back of his hand, returning it to the grass. Two informants stood over him. One fat, one skinny. Both dressed in the navy uniform of the lower authorities. Hands-in- pockets, nonchalant, smiley — they were like people out for a walk who had stumbled on something amusing like a dog playing with a cat. Until suddenly the cat scratches the dog. The dog bites the cat. And who is laughing then?
The fat man crossed his arms and the skinny man talked, his words flowing out of him in a mindless string of utterances.
There were two possibilities:
1. A naïve citizen, worried about Stephen’s rough clothes in the cold weather, had made a call to the authorities without understanding the implications.
2. His father’s spirit had followed him from his grave, had witnessed Stephen’s rebellious act of masturbation, and with pure fury and a desire for vengeance had summoned (or even possessed) these two hapless idiots.
Regardless, Stephen could deal with them. Like Daniel in the lion’s den, he had God on his side. He nodded to show his compliance. His hands up and palms outwards, he flicked his fingers at them in a half-surrender. They stared at him, stunned. Then, in a neat reversal, the fat one uncrossed his arms and the thin one crossed his. Smiling. Smiling sharp smiles. Masculine wiles and mental trials. They thought they had it in the bag.
But Stephen McDakeldy would never surrender. He whooped out loud (a decoy), grabbed his backpack, spun on his heels and ran. He was not the most elegant of runners. His legs were gangly and his arms flopped up and down like a giant car-yard inflatable. But he was fast. Dear Lord, he was fast. The wind rushed through his hair; he was zoetic, he was poetic, he was free. He leaped over graves and flew over gravel.
Where were the lower authorities?
Standing alone, speechless, with dust in their mouths and handcuffs glinting off their back pockets in the early-morning sun.
Discarded medical equipment litters the floor: surgical tools blistered with rust, broken bottles, jars, the scratched spine of an old invalid chair.
As the new year of 1910 moved closer to its second month, the world marvelled that there had been so few deaths in Paris when the River Seine rose more than eight metres and flooded the city.
As I reach for the doorbell, my phone bleeps with a text and my head instantly fills with a roll call of possibilities.