Latch got his nickname in eighth grade owing to the fact that he was short and not particularly popular. As it turned out he was one of those guys with too many follicles, the whole crop the color of tobacco. Normally, you’d think, he should have owned a garage. A car-yard. A gas station even. He should have been successful in a small town kind of way.
Latch and Abigail drove through the night, hooked by the head-lit roads, the windscreen wipers and the rain. The world was washing itself. Around 5.30am, Abbie slid the Oldsmobile between two parked cars in front of a bungalow on Fryer Street.
Time had marched to a standstill. Abigail and Latch hadn’t spoken a word for seven and a half hours and weren’t about to start now. With no coffee-pot (Latch’s place had coffee grounds but no regular way of making coffee) Abbie sieved the grounds cup to cup. She sat down and rolled a cigarette. After the cigarette, she found a bowl of mash in the fridge, spooned it into the frying pan and watched it cook.
“Please Do Not Use The Fireplace,” read the sign in the toilet where Latch was basking under a lamp. A large furry spider, still dead, lay in the same place as two days before, beneath the jamb.
By eight o’clock both Latch and Abigail were gone.
“I don’t believe in fairy stories,” said Latch.
“We’re screwed then?”
“If you say so.”
Eleanor, Latch’s ex, was a handful. He switched her off.
“Thing is, women of my generation are trashy. The lowest of a lowest kind,” he announced.
“Maybe you attract the wrong ones, Latch,” said Sarah from the far corner of the office. Sarah was anything but trashy. Blonde, nineteen, a conservative outdoors type.
“Yeah? Y’ever met one wouldn’t sell their grandmother for a quarter?”
“There’s evil men and women in the world,” avowed Sarah.
“And I’m one of them,” said Latch.
“Oh yeah? Which one?” said Harvey without looking up from the screen.
Latch’s landscaping firm was in full swing. Grown from an everyday blow-job into a full time, freeway-size killing machine.
Mommy came through with the order to take out an entire town. Baldwin, Missouri. Population 1,982. The sort of project Latch had dreamt about since kindergarten. Mommy’s rationale was anyone’s guess. Maybe it was just an experiment to see if anyone noticed. Maybe someone had mentioned how beautiful the place was in fall. Maybe her son’s tiddlywink business had had an order cancelled from there. Who cared. There was so much planning and killing to be done that Sarah got to get involved, hands-on, starting at after-work drinks.
Given the problem of how to dispose of nineteen hundred and eighty two bodies Sarah came up with the idea of packing them all into transport planes and dropping them, alive and without parachute, into the ocean.
“The closest one, twat-brain.”
That was enough to convince Latch of her potential. Besides which, as Latch knew, she was dead-eye-dick with a rifle and had trophies to prove it. As the conversation progressed, Sarah’s practical farming background and good sense, which somehow made Harvey and Tom laugh raucously, proved irresistible to any problem.
A code name for the operation?
What did she figure a job like this would be worth?
Someone’s gonna miss all them people for sure.
How was the landscaping to go, once the town had been zeroed?
“I suggest Ghost Town.”
“Ghost town..” echoed Latch suspiciously.
“A terrible accident. Gas,” continued Sarah. “Whole area cordoned off.”
“No can do,” said Latch.
“Place has got to be leveled. Whole new town.. everything. You think I’m fucking mad?”
But even the improbable ‘Ghost Town’ scenario somehow got wangled into the scheme of things.
Montreal. Greatest city on earth if you like six foot of snow. It took fourteen hours for the subject to die. Most of the day and some of the night. By the time the stars came out Abbie had the whole thing figured. She’d invite Tom for a drink. And then bonk him silly. She could taste the champagne already. It’d be like a love triangle, but they’d only be two.
There weren’t too many places to stay. Latch picked the cheapest motel he could find. To his amusement, Sarah bluntly refused to get out of the car. She wouldn’t wear it. It was pus, she said. She wasn’t in the mood for his sense of humor neither. So Latch drove her to some place else. She was her own boss. She could sleep where she liked. Latch stayed put.
All the same, they ended up together, strolling about. They found a park. Baldwin wasn’t that big a town. Since working at Middleton Scott, Sarah had developed an interest in plants. She rattled off some names of shrubs and trees as they walked by. If she didn’t know, she maybe walked over, looked at the bark or something and came back and said “I don’t know what that is.” If Latch knew, he wasn’t letting on. They sat down at a table and studied the graffiti.
“People are weeds. Or else roses to be picked or pruned. This lot is weeds,” observed Latch. Their gaze drifted across the park. It was that time of day where the sun had gone down but was still shining on the hills. People remained in the park, playing ball, or walking, or just plain looking at the lake. Dogs were on leads. Rectangular beds of crimson and red flowers were waking up. Springtime. But the park trash hadn’t arrived.
“Let’s go back,” said Latch.
“Let’s not,” said Sarah.
When Latch got wiped out, Sarah wasn’t sad. She wasn’t nearly anything. She’d seen so much death on the farm it didn’t matter.
Thursday evening the whole team met at The Vineyard.
“We’ll be staying here forever.” Latch had his glass in the air. “This is our assignment. This town here. Mommy wants a new one. New fences, new schools, new houses, new people! New streets! New farms, new fucking animals! The current design is crap! But you know what? Mommy thinks we’re fuckheads. We’re hard labor. We got no vision. We swapped our vision for ashtrays..”
Latch put his glass down. The seventeen followed, more or less. The camera crew hovered like robots.
“Look at it this way. I am Subman. We are Submen! With our sub-powers, we have come to rescue ourselves from life! From work. From marriage. From any fucking thing we feel like! I say: we like ashtrays! What are we, half-Submen?!”
There was a silence around the table.
“What sub-powers, then?” queried a voice out the blue.
The silence continued, not knowing which way to look.
“Principally, my enormous, donkey-size cock!” announced Latch.
Everybody laughed except the camera crew. The camera crew hardly ever laughed. Latch raised his glass again, this time higher. “You know the rules. Let’s eat.”
All raised their glasses.
Sarah ate oysters, together with the best sauvignon blanc money could buy. After all, she was Subwoman.
Later that evening Sarah hooked up with Abigail at the swimming pool. Abbie was at a loose end, between boyfriends. Her last boyfriend had taken her calling off the affair so well she almost wanted him back. Before that, she was chewing through them as fast as she could go. Now she was confused. She swam the backstroke.
Afterwards, when Latch was no more, Mommy made contact with Sarah. Latch had been recalled. Sarah could take charge.
“Tell me the joke again?” Sarah protested. “I’m only the secretary,”
“The Secretary,” corrected Mommy.
Sarah didn’t reply to that. Instead, she listened.
Latch got recalled in this way. Stopped at the lights, his car window mostly open, a hand came through the window and lightly touched his neck. Latch wouldn’t make it back to the hotel that early morning, or nearly any place else.
It was the morning they were meant to leave. As planned, Sarah turned up at The Roswell at 7.00am. A film of water clung to the street, waiting to be evaporated. From the lobby, she took the lift to the top floor. Like every place Latch had ever stayed at, all was vile, including the old lady carpet, the architraves, the scummy cream, flower-patterned wallpaper, the ceiling height, the light fittings, the door handles, you name it.
Room 521. The door was unlocked. A living room, everything tidy. Sarah called out but there was no answer. She checked the bedroom and bathroom. Bed made, suitcase packed. Clean clothes were lying on the couch. No sign of nobody. All plastic décor and shitville furniture. It was like the whole show had been hollowed out from the inside.
Sarah headed back down to the lobby. No one was up. She pressed the buzzer a full ten seconds and waited. As though the message had gone through to the wrong person, some guy walked in and began loading laundry bags out to his truck. He looked up at Sarah, his hair long and bright red.
“Who you looking for?” he asked.
A lady in a purple dressing gown appeared from behind the counter.
“My boss,” said Sarah.
After that, Sarah drove back to Burton Lodge and got everyone up and running, including the film crew. Someone had to do it.
Sarah and Abbie arranged to meet at Remy’s, mid afternoon. They sat at an outside table.
Sarah thought Abbie the most strikingly beautiful woman she had ever seen. Green eyes with friendly eyebrows. The world’s most fascinating lips. Skin for a blind man. Together with a perfectly proportioned personality. Honey pullover and cream trousers. Abbie’s shoes matched her hair (cut shorter than before) and her hair matched her pullover. Honey, honey, cream, honey. Abbie was perfect. As every woman is. Only more perfect.
It wasn’t easy to keep murder out of the conversation.
“The monster?” repeated Sarah, taking a sip of wine.
“The monster inside,” confirmed Abbie. “Tame him like a stray dog? Not so cute. You’re a farmer. You ever seen a sheep go wild?” She paused, lighting a cigarette. “Sheep in the field are the dumbest animals you’ll ever see. A new born lamb will just as likely mistake an aeroplane for its mother. There are several species of insect smarter than sheep. But the sheep that gets out the fence, finds a little hole down the creek and crawls through cos the weeds look so good, and then all of a sudden she’s on the outside chewing up herbs she’s only read about, and they taste so good. And you know what? Within three and a half days she’s clicked into action. She’s awake on all cylinders, aggressive, cunning, resourceful.. she does everything right. Because she knows who she is.” Abigail put her hands on the table. “We are that sheep,” she said. “Problem is, we move in both worlds. In and out. Two at once. Both sides of the fence. And look, Sarah, if your overalls are covered in shit and you wash them with your other clothes, then all your clothes get washed in shit.”
Sarah remained silent, not quite having understood.
Abbie’s expression lightened. “Wash your overalls separately,” she said with a most beautiful smile.
Sarah clicked. Keep things separate. Like men. Who knows, if you put them together, they’d probably like each other. “We’ll do it our way,” she said.
They clinked glasses.
“Let our monsters be friends,” said Abbie.
“I sleepwalk,” said Sarah out of the blue. “All the time.” As if that was something her new friend ought to know.
“Good. You can kill while you’re asleep,” said Abbie and flashed her tits at the waiter serving two tables away.
Baldwin was yesterday’s crossword. Wiped out and filed under ‘F.’ Sarah told Abbie how she’d even managed to find time to dispatch a few herself, one entire family who lived over the river in a gray colored farmhouse. She figured, what was the point in organising a pie fight if you didn’t get to throw a few yourself? So she got dressed up in her riding gear. Mom, pa and two teenage boys. Mom went first, shaking hands at the front door getting her photograph taken. Fried to a toast with forty thousand volts. Likewise the dog. Really funny. As planned, the boys were around back working on some piece of equipment looking vaguely like a tractor but which wasn’t. Dad stood up at the sight of the shotgun.
“Can we have your names, please?” Sarah asked in her best voice.
“You must.. er.. my name’s.. Dan Huber. And m..” he said. That was as far as he got. The beauty of shotguns, apart from anything, was the way they could, if fired at the right moment, by the right person at the right target, blow that bulls-eye backwards. Almost off the ground. A beauty not wasted on Sarah. Neither her assistant Harriet, as it turned out.
After that, she turned to the younger boy. “And you will be?” She put on her best angelic-mommy smile. In the imaginary click of a trigger his poor little virgin heart got blown clean into the next world.
The other boy, Ed, just turned seventeen according to the paperwork, was already scrambling towards the barn. It was then, in the moment she put a shot through his shin, that Sarah decided she was good at this job. The boy rolled over in agony, clutching his leg with both hands. He had blond hair and was kind of handsome. She walked closer. His leg was a mess.
“Please ma’am, don’t shoot me!” he pleaded. Something like that. Their eyes met.
“Already have,” said Sarah. It was a funny feeling, strangely close to falling in love. She placed the end of the barrel against his chest.
“Getta life,” she said, and pulled the trigger.
Harriet duly noted the death on her organiser.
Anyway, the razing of the town had gone hummingly well in a mayhem kind of way. God! Zombies writhed in agony or gasped in surprise. One went down, another popped up. They were almost congratulating each other on their bona fide acting skills. So much fun! But in the end, they all ended up dead. The cops that hadn’t wanted to die as Zombies died as cops. Mommy was right. Sarah was a born pie-fight angel. Although she hadn’t, after all, got to get involved with the re-design, or even the clean up. Diggers, trenches, body counts, water blasters. Wrecking balls, dozers, hiabs and bobcats. Reconstruction and reconstitution. Shovels, laser levels, pea-metal, drainage pipes. Pouring concrete. Building shit. Planting shit. Just thinking about it made her horny. Instead, she was back pen-pushing. Numbers, numbers. There was always a new job. Mommy was fickle like that.
“But here I am, talking about myself.”
Latch’s legs never woke up at all. They were hanging on meat hooks above the bed. Instinctively, he closed his eyes. But there was no going back. The will to be had stirred. Neurological messages got sent, arrived at the stump of a limb and got sent back again. Wrong address.
A sweet, putrid panic took over Latch’s brain like a toy steering wheel. Above, his suspended rotting limbs were saying goodbye the only way they knew how.
As he looked down his naked body (the stumps of his limbs neatly bandaged) no words or screams or feelings arrived to match the vision.
No longer willing to look up, he tilted his head to one side. A telephone, a vase of flowers and a card sat on the table. “Welcome to Vietnam,” it said.
He threw up.
Four hundred and three miles above the Pacific Ocean, Dimitri sat aboard his TCIS staring at the screen. The photograph of a woman stared back at him. He scrolled through the other shots. The Chinese, God bless them, were always exactly half an hour late.
“THE SECRETARY,” read the file. “Born Sarah McLaughlin, December 19, 2013, Baines, Oklahoma. Parents: James and Susan, goose farmers.”
“Fuck me,” said Dimitri. “Farmers of geese.” He took another swig on his bottle of firewater.
A swig in space is a funny thing. Of primary importance is the customised shot-pourer calculated to deliver a globule of colored firewater of adjustable volume capable of hovering and bobbling indefinitely before the mouth. One swallows the globule as the frog might a fly, though lacking a tongue. Tongues are of no use at all in space apart from tasting. But then they are without equal.
On a good night, Dimitri might release four or five globules in one go, breathing lightly on each (funnily enough, air too is weightless in space, much in the same way that thoughts are weightless on earth), then spending a pleasant thirty five minutes or so hunting them down, all the while talking to himself in his native Russian dialect.
Coloring was optional as the globules were sometimes hard to see.
Occasionally, a globule might self-destruct upon contact with some nasty object, which could also be a funny thing, although harder to swallow.
A murder in space is a funny thing. Likewise making love. Lots of things are funny in space.
Sarah’s new job was the roadworks contract for the entire Fresno area. There was a catch however. Deconstruction and repair (repair ought to be essential for the sake of appearances) was to happen, near as blankets, at tortoise pace. Mommy had made it fairly clear. Disrupt the traffic as much as possible. Ultimately, say within a certain period of time, roadworks vehicles were to be the only viable means of transport. Though not, of course, available to the public.
Sometime before “The Zombie Queen,” Sarah had Harriet hire the appropriate people, one team of which now had the on-going job of figuring out the worst time of day for road works, and the worst place. Preferably both. Generally speaking, all road works were good.
The Baldwin movie was the rage. A coast-wide hit. “The Zombie Queen.” Sarah hadn’t seen it, but nearly everyone at The Cornerest Bar had.
“They even got Latch in there getting swiped, and then his arms getting cut off,” Abagail told Sarah. “He wakes up in some hospital. You should see it.”
On top of being supernaturally beautiful, Abbie was also a heavy drinker. Mostly champagne. One pleasant problem she’d had with her boyfriends was that they often weren’t up to scratch alcohol-consumption-wise. Bob would end up in tears, kneeling in front of her cunt, begging it to conceive. Jack would get insanely jealous, 3am in the kitchen, and start washing the dishes. For that matter, the week after she’d dumped him, she remembered her husband of three months staring in through the bedroom window with the look of a hairless possum, she being in bed with her next man.
Some just talked a river of shit, which was cool with Abbie as she liked poetry.
“Men are totally stupid, and totally stupid at the same time. Plus they wear out. Would you think I haven’t had an orgasm in three weeks?” she yelled over the top of the bar noise. A band was playing in the corner.
“William’s cool,” Sarah yelled back. “Come horse riding tomorrow.”
“No. I gotta find a man.”
Sarah pondered for a second. “Looks like you might have met your match.”
In the company helicopter, Sarah circled higher and higher until Fresno looked like some kind of high tech camp for miniature lesbians. She knew she was dreaming. On screen was a video game called “The Human Nest.” Or “A Nest of Humans,” it was hard to tell. Anyway, in this game, life carries on as per normal, wherever it is supposedly happening, for example like the freeway, but then you have your little X button at the touch of which some kind of mayhem ensues.. the freeway bridge collapses, cars splat onto another freeway below, and you get one enormous pile-up, plus a lot of wreckage slash injured and/or dead people.
Your opponent is in charge of all the soldier ants. Police, ambulances, the fire department, social services, the IRS, workplace support, the army, the Navy Seals, the United Nations, the IMF, Immigration and Customs, the Salvation Army, Interpol, the CIA, the Feds, the National Guard, Alcoholics Anonymous, the Nigerian Secret Service, the Freemasons, the Jesuits, the Coastguard, NASA, the SPCA, etc.
The object of the game was to..
“Sarah,” said a voice in her ear, but it seemed far away. Then it said her name again and put its hand on her shoulder. Her cockpit chair swiveled round to meet the hand. At the same time, she reached into her hand-bag with her left hand, felt for the Glock, and without hesitating, fired one round into the middle of the imposter’s stomach.
The crack of the gunshot woke her up. The ghoulish, grey-green glow of the computer screen seeped into the room, otherwise dark. Her boyfriend Jimmy looked on with a pained expression. She swiveled round to the screen, then slowly back again.
“Oh my God,” she said.
She looked down at the gun. Luckily, it was only a tampon.
That night in Ho Chi Minh City, through the windscreen, the rain looked more beautiful than every single movie ever made.
Latch turned the wipers on and pulled out on Strasbourg. Now he could see.
They were the two personalities of a schizophrenic, except they lived in different bodies. Hugo was French. That was also his nickname. Huge and ugly. A sullen son of a bitch. And Claire was this diminutive, cherry-pie type sweetheart, originally from Mozambique. Together they owned the place, an American style burger bar on Rue Boh San. ‘White & One’ was a good place for a burger and coffee. Latch’s favorite was the McStupid, a kind of fish burger. Latch once asked the guy at the counter why it was called the McStupid.
“Cos, when you think about it, fish are exceptionally dumb,” the guy answered in a perfectamondo accent. That guy on the counter knew all the company wisdom.
THE LAST DAY
“Sleep is brilliant, but you can’t enjoy it while you’re having it.” Vladimir stopped in the middle of the street. “I’ll need a coffee,” he thought. He spun slowly around on his heels. The morning sun threw odd patches of light above a butchery. A car pulled up behind him and tooted. He turned again to face a light blue Renault and walked as far as the left headlight. “I know you, swimsuit,” he shouted.
“Name of..” the driver fumed, winding down the window. “You are standing in the middle of the road!”
“I need a coffee,” explained Vladimir. The driver opened his door, got out, walked right up to Vladimir and looked him in the eye. “Get outta here!” yelled the driver, motioning toward the butchery. A car swerved round them.
“Hey, fuck off!”
“You look like you’re in a big hurry. Give me ten francs. Or better, take an hour off and have a coffee with me. You’ll need to pay.”
“I’ve got no time for this!”
“I got no money.”
“Get outta my way.”
“Alright,” enthused Vladimir without moving.
“What’s your problem?”
“I need a coffee. I haven’t slept since last Thursday.”
“You look like shit.”
“You gonna buy me a coffee?”
“Give me ten francs then.”
The driver made a farting noise with his mouth.
“You owe it to yourself,” said Vladimir. “You put all those spare coins on the dresser at night when you undress. Tonight you’ll go home and pay yourself back.”
Another two cars pulled in behind the Renault, both tooting their horns. The driver of the Renault looked in their direction. “We’re busy here! Go the fuck around!” He waved them past and turned back to Vladimir. “Look friend, I advise you to get a job.”
“I already got a job. Researching sleep deprivation.”
“Species of drainpipe!” The driver shook his head.
“A week ago I turn up from Avignon and go straight to the hospital with my cut hand.” He showed the driver the scar on his hand. “Cut bad with a pocket knife. And the nurse looks at me and says have you read that? I say, read what? She points to the wall and there’s a notice asking for volunteers. I have to report there every day for an hour. Seven hundred francs they’re gonna pay me. A hundred fucking francs a day.”
“The hospital put me on speed. Except they call it Mosicol. It’s speed. I’ve run out of that now too. I need a coffee.”
“You’re kidding me.” The driver pulled his cap further forward. “I’m going to work,” he intoned, turning back to the car. “Keep out of my way.”
“I was crossing the street,” Vladimir chimed back.
Once inside the Renault, the driver adjusted his cap once more, and sped off.
Walking towards town, Vladimir could smell the snow a month and a half away. “The last day,” he said aloud. There were still a couple of hours to kill.
The building had nothing to say what it was there for. Vladimir walked across the lobby and up the stairs. Passing a door on the third floor he heard the murmur of voices and stopped. German. German TV. He walked to the next door and turned the handle. It was locked. Turning right he came to the end of the corridor where there was a window. He pulled it open and leaned out. After a moment’s reflection, he climbed through and stood on a ledge three stories up, facing outwards. Before him lay an unsuspecting street. A silver rubbish bin. A tree losing the last of its leaves. A man wheeling a bicycle. Holding his arms out either side, he crept along the side of the building. Passing the next window along, he checked for an entry. At the corner of the building, where the ledge ran out, he stopped. He placed his leg around the corner of the building, searching for a footing. A woman exiting the building across the street chanced to look up. Their eyes met.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Trying to break into this room,” said Vladimir replacing his foot. “Keep quiet.”
“Are you mad” remonstrated the woman, raising her arms. “I’m calling the cops.”
“I am the police. Keep your voice down.”
“You’re breaking into that building?”
“Don’t be nosey.”
“Why not break the door open?”
“Help me around this corner. It’s too far. Have a look for me.”
The woman seemed to want to stand her ground. “Who’s in there? You have an accent.”
“I used to be Austrian. Hurry.”
Arriving at a point where she could see the southern wall of the building, the woman stopped. “What’s your name?”
“Vladimir. What’s there?”
“Another ledge and some windows.”
“It’s too far. You can’t make it.”
“As far as this one?” he asked, looking at his feet.
Vladimir edged backwards to the window and, holding the shutter, turned himself around to face the wall.
“You won’t make it,” repeated the woman as Vladimir once more approached the corner. Hugging the wall as tightly as he could, he reached round with his right leg and touched the ledge.
“There’s a.. there’s a plug..” the woman advised.
“There’s some sort of thing on the wall. A box.”
“That’s good. Where is it?”
“Put your hand a little higher..”
Vladimir felt it, inching his hand around a small box, checking its stability. Then, in one movement, levering himself off the box, he pulled himself round the corner and gained the ledge with his whole weight. The woman closed her eyes. A few steps took him to a further window. He looked it over.
“I’m going in.” Vladimir jimmied open the window and climbed inside. Casting a quick glance around the room he turned and leaned out. The woman remained where she was. “Thank you,” he said, then held his finger to his mouth and pushed the window shut.
The room was full of boxes of various kinds, as though someone were moving in. By the curtained window which Vladimir had passed from the outside was a table, and to its left, a couch wrapped in plastic.
Through one door was a kitchen with a yellow formica table and two matching chairs against the window. He opened the fridge. It was empty but for a single bottle of beer. A set of keys lay on the bench. He turned them over in his hand and, dropping them in his jacket pocket, opened the remaining door leading to a room devoid of furnishings but offering the beauty of a balcony at its far end. Lighting a cigarette, he sat down on the tiled floor of the balcony pushing his feet against the wrought-iron balustrade and for the first time in a week felt tired. He closed his eyes. A sudden rush of images careered through his brain. He staggered to his feet, found the bathroom, and threw up. Then he took a shower.
Dressed in a towel, he wandered room to room, not daring to close his eyes. He tried his newfound keys in the main door to the hallway.
“Food,” he thought.
“Go to the hospital early..” he said aloud, opening one of the boxes. “From now on it’s eyes open..”
Vladimir carefully searched the contents of the boxes, methodically placing items across the floor and table, as far as the kitchen. The sight of explosives calmed him down.
Eventually he sat on the couch, his hands lightly touching the plastic. Satisfied, he stood up and peered through the curtains. Down the street, three men were getting into a car, soundlessly talking among themselves.
Back out in the corridor, Vladimir put his ear to the German TV apartment. Hearing nothing he tried the door. With one of the keys the lock clicked open. He eased the door open with his foot. There was no one home. The TV silent as an elf.
At the hospital, the doctor ran the usual tests and asked Vladimir the same questions with slightly obscure variations. The doctor seemed generally oblivious to the miracle he had achieved. But a free lunch was a free lunch.
Doctor Cooper was young, not a year or more older than Vladimir. His was a correct and precarious way of doing things and consequently none of his clothes fit. He was English.
“What are your eating habits?”
“I don’t have any money.”
“So you don’t eat?”
“I wasn’t saying that..”
“When do you eat.”
“When I can.”
“Have you slept?”
“Have you felt tired?”
“Once. I threw up. Speak in English.”
“Good. Good. Any hallucinations you’ve been aware of?”
“As I’ve told you, I can see fairies..”
“Oh? And where again are these fairies?”
“I told you. You have to find them.”
“And where do you find them?”
“At night time.”
“In places where people don’t go.”
“And where is that?”
Vladimir ran his hand through his hair. “For example, I don’t know.. on the street.”
“People go on the street, Vladimir,” the doctor pointed out.
“Just off the street. Like in people’s wardrobes. They hide.”
“From whom do they hide?”
“And do they have anything of interest to say?”
“They’re like a sitcom. They know everything about everybody. They’re super-poetic.”
Doctor Cooper wrote something on his pad.
“Just like what you’re writing,” said Vladimir.
“You seem chirpy,” said the doctor without looking up.
“I found a whole room full of weapons.”
The doctor stopped writing..
“And some clothes.”
“Vladimir..” he started writing again.
“And a book.”
“You are stealing.”
“I left them all there.”
“Except the jacket.” Dr. Cooper finally looked up and eyed Vladimir from the neck down.
Lunch was tiny sausages, mashed potato and stir-fry vegetables in cream. Sauce was extra.
“What do they look like?” Dr. Cooper seemed even more awkward outside the surgery. More like himself.
“Like nothing we would recognise.”
“Not like us?”
“Vladimir, this is our last meeting.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“Think not for tomorrow, Herr Doktor.”
In the hallway they said goodbye.
Outside the building, Vladimir touched his shoes. Goodbye was goodbye. He took them off and left them on the steps.
In the library, Vladimir wandered from section to section, taking down a book here or there, sometimes not bothering to open the cover, sometimes removing to a table in order to read. Eventually he arrived at the counter and asked to borrow a pen, a ruler, some twink, scissors, and to use the photocopier.
The bells chimed out three o’clock as he emerged with new shoes and an updated prescription. He made his way to Rue Madeleine looking for a place to read. On the way he bummed ten francs from an old lady walking her dog.
He was stopped by two cops in plain clothes. They wanted to know about the old lady, about his finances, about his passport, his address. While they looked at his passport he spun them a line about getting back to Avignon, to his girlfriend, and how did they know he was not a multi-billionaire? He meant: what would they do if they were multi-whatevers? Still be cops? Or buy some slapped up mansion on the coast of Portugal? He bet they would get bored, no?
“What’s your job?” asked the larger cop.
“Guinea pig. I’m a guinea pig. I’m working for my girlfriend’s company. They wanna know how little you can pay a guy before he starves to death.”
“Smart ass. What company?”
“It’s a shoe company. Drêle. We make shoes.”
“What’re you doing here?” the shorter one wanted to know.
“She kicked me out. Don’t come back without a mammoth, she says.”
“You fucking loser. Now you’re wandering round with no place to be.”
“Look, that old lady gave me the time of day. What should I do? Steal rabbits?”
“Go home.” The cops looked at each other.
“As it happens, I’m going home in the next day or so.”
“Go home tomorrow.” They gave him back his passport.
“And say sorry,” said the shorter one.
Vladimir wandered into the nearest bar and ordered a beer. He pulled out a book from his bag, set it on the table, found a page, and began to read.
By the time he looked up his beer was gone, the sun dipping. He packed up and left.
Vladimir turned into the narrow streets running back towards the bottom of town. Some way along he came to a small square, drenched in the afternoon sun, with several people there sitting, talking or reading. He began to ask each in turn for ten francs.
“Can you give me ten francs? I have a nervous disorder. I need medicine. I have a prescription,” he repeated to each in turn, holding up the prescription. All shook their heads. The very last candidate, who had been reading, gave him the answer he required.
“I’ll give you ten francs,” he said in an accent. He pulled out his wallet. “I have only a fifty franc note. Let me come with you to the chemist.”
“Sure,” said Vladimir as the other stood up. He was younger than Vladimir, blonder and taller.
“My name is David,” he said.
Not far from the chemist, Vladimir explained that it was a prescription for speed. The other nodded in reverse, from down up.
“I’ll present the prescription and you pay for it. Ten francs. OK?”
The girl had handed over the bottle. Vladimir showed it to David.
“You see? Mosicol.” David admired the bottle and gave it back.
“David,” said Vladimir walking out the door, “why don’t you join me for the evening? See, there’s ten pills here,” he said, stopping. “We’ll split them. I’ll have seven. You can have the other three. I’m used to this stuff. OK?”
“You want to eat? Let’s get some food. We’ll drop these pills later.” Vladimir put the bottle in his coat.
“Sure. Where will we eat?”
“Let’s have a party,” said Vladimir. “To celebrate. A party on the street. We’ll go to the supermarket.”
With this plan, they walked to the supermarket. Vladimir told David to wait in the car park. Twenty minutes later Vladimir emerged with a carton full of food and wine.
“How did you do that?” asked David incredulously.
Vladimir looked him in the eye. “Better you don’t know.”
With the sun going down they walked towards the centre of town. On the way, Vladimir had another idea. He’d steal his friend’s car and they would drive to Avignon. All they needed were the car keys from his friend’s apartment.
They shared the lift up with three others.
“Want to join us for a party?” asked Vladimir. They didn’t understand. He repeated the question in German. David showed them the box of food. “We’re having a party in the street,” he said.
They weren’t interested.
Strangely, Vladimir’s key wouldn’t open his friend’s door. “Must’ve changed the lock,” he said.
They continued their walk towards town.
“You speak German,” noted David.
“I’m Russian-Austrian,” said Vladimir. “My dad was Russian. But my mum was Austrian. I was brought up in Austria.”
A man exiting a clothes shop managed to bump into Vladimir. On a whim, Vladimir asked him for one franc.
“No,” said the man plainly.
“You know, I get this quite often down here in Aix, this “no” line of..”
“Really,” the shopper butted in. “That’s sad.”
“Actually, it’s quite educational. My guess is you work for a company selling photocopiers and you learnt the word “no” from your nanny.”
“And you are who, now that I’m all out in the open?”
“I am a blend of total bum and total bum. I ask any particular person I like for any amount of money that comes into my head. One franc per minute, if that makes sense. All this makes me, average, fifteen thousand three hundred francs per month.”
“OK. Not from me.”
“Of course, you will give me a franc.”
“I will not give you one franc.”
“I bet you a franc you will give me one franc.”
“Fantastic! You’ll give me a franc!” laughed the shopper.
“By the way, if I lose, it’ll be my friend here who will pay,” said Vladimir, turning to David.
David reverse nodded.
“There, you see! On top of which I can give you tips for selling photocopiers. Right here outside this..” Vladimir looked up at the sign on the window “ ..this shop. The answer is this. Fear. For a single franc I give you fear. Fear to live. Fear to give a franc. Endless fear on all sides. Fear of the truth, my friend. Is this boring? I’ll cut it short. I am, after all, on my way to a street party.” Saying this, Vladimir patted the box in David’s arms. “You have a wife, a lover, kids.. certainly a television. Even your customers, I guess, have wives and TV’s. God knows, your wife has a wife and a TV. Why am I telling you this? I don’t know. But I only charge a franc. Sound silly? I still only charge a franc.”
“What’s the point?”
“The point is, I’m a bum. That’s what I do. I tell stories. I make it up.”
“So what about fear?”
“Your wife is having a affair with a woman called Jeanne. Today you are well off, tomorrow you will have nothing. By springtime you will be camped out in Céret, waiting to pick cherries with a bunch of chicken-stealing hippies. The cherries will never come. In three or four or five years your two children will not even recognise you.”
“Who told you this?”
“You’ll be driving a truck.. containing milk, I believe. There will be an accident. And you..”
“Who told you this?”
“No one will remember. You will have achieved next to..”
“Now you are scaring me.”
Vladimir composed himself. “And why is that?”
“I have two kids. I know a Jeanne. Where did you get this stuff from?”
“I got this stuff, as you say, from the diminuitive nature spirits who frequent our suburban gardens, and who like nothing better than to gossip incessantly.”
The shopper was silent for a few seconds. “And what course of action do you think one should pursue?” he said finally.
“Well. These small, pathetic creatures are adamant that if I should ever bump into a dark-haired man, namely this day.. and that if, when asked, when confronted with.. well, if this man should be able to cough up one franc, a single franc, then that particular man, possibly the man I am now looking at, will be blessed for the rest of his life, and that all I have recently told you will be averted. Especially the bit about the hippies. The bumping was, well, that’s the way these creatures operate.”
“One franc.” Vladimir held out his hand.
The shopper smiled and pulled out his wallet.
It was a short walk to the Place des Chapeliers. David and Vladimir sat down on a street corner with the carton, and began asking passers-by if they would care to join their party on the street. Three or four people passed before two men, of a similar age to Vladimir and David although better dressed, stopped. After a short discussion the four decided to move into the lobby of an apartment building across the street.
With the large foyer to themselves, David distributed food and glasses of wine, and then sat on a step listening. Vladimir, Philippe and Stephane remained standing.
“Where will you sleep?”
“We won’t sleep. David and I are on speed. Tonight, we will look for fairies. I met David this afternoon. He don’t understand too much.”
“Our friends are on speed and look for fairies,” said Stephane.
“You have a job?” asked Philippe.
“No. I have no money. David has money, I think. I’ll have a job though to find the fairies.” Philippe and Stephane both smiled.
“And after that?”
“I have no tomorrow. No possessions, no money. Haven’t you heard? This is 1979. We stole this food from the supermarket. What do you do with your money?” Vladimir looked at Stephane. “Go to the supermarket?”
Stephane didn’t reply.
“You see! We’re nearly the same,” concluded Vladimir.
“You’re from Aix,” proposed Philippe.
“Avignon. I am a cop.”
“You’re a cop?!”
“I’m a cop on the trail of some nasty fairies.”
All three laughed.
David pulled another bottle of red wine from the box and walked over.
“Philosophy is for ghosts,” Vladimir was saying. “I take what I want. I do not believe in any kind of ownership.”
“So you do have a philosophy!”
David refilled the plastic wine glasses and returned to the steps.
“Of course. I am a ghost," said Vladimir. “People assume an ownership of things but in reality have nothing but the clothes they wear,” said Vladimir. “The difference is, I know I have nothing. Look. We wake up. We spit and fart like animals. Aeroplanes fly overhead. Underneath, we rush about searching for the perfect milkshake. Assumptions are the lies told us by our own brains. We see what we want to see. And what if I don’t belong to this shit-hole program? Then? And what if there is another colour scheme, some other footpath in another suburb where ownership is four notes on the bass guitar? And where the point is not who owns what, or who has what, but what are we doing?”
“You are fighting the whole world, Vladimir,” proposed Philippe.
Vladimir looked at David.
“I am not fighting,” he said. “I am drinking.”
Vladimir and David walked uphill toward Vauvenargues.
“Did you see that guy put a fifty franc in your pocket?” David wanted to know.
“No.” Vladimir began searching his coat.
“In that pocket,” David pointed.
Vladimir pulled out the note. “I’ll buy you a coffee,” he said, holding it up. “Let’s drop this speed.”
They stopped while Vladimir dished out the pills. They swallowed them on the spot, and chased them down with nothing.
Two thirds the way up the street, they found a café and sat down at an inside table by the window.
“Where did you learn English?” David asked.
“I spent three months in London, a couple of years ago. Also a little at school.”
David was amazed. “How many languages do you speak?”
“Well, Russian, and German. Portuguese. The country for me is Portugal,” said Vladimir. “The weather. The people. I can work there. I don’t know why. Of course, I am French. I did my military service here in France. I have a French passport. France is my country now. I owe it to her and she.. she allows me to stay.”
“What other languages?”
“Ahh.. of Spanish, pretty well. What else?”
The coffees arrived.
“I speak a little French is all,” said David, and he pulled out some book he was reading. “Vladimir, can I read you a page of this book?”
“Miller.” He handed the book to Vladimir. “This chapter I’ve been reading.. actually, in the square, when I met you. It’s really brilliant. You’ll like it.”
Vladimir handed back the book. David found the page and began to read. Vladimir immediately stopped him.
“No, no. You need to sit up, like this, back.. sit straight.” Vladimir demonstrated the art of sitting straight and breathing.
David tried again, and got a little further.
“David. Reading aloud is.. you must..”
“No no. Go on.”
David got to the end of the paragraph and gave up.
They drank their coffees.
“There is one thing I can tell you, David, a thing I learnt in the military.”
“That you are your own worst enemy.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that you..” Vladimir leant forward across the table “are your own worst enemy. I learnt that in military service.”
David somehow absorbed this advice.
“Here’s my passport,” said Vladimir, and he handed it over. David studied the passport. “You keep it,” continued Vladimir. “But give me something of yours. That way, we’ll get to be in the same army.” David pulled a pocket-knife from his jacket and handed it over.
“That’s funny. I just lost my knife,” said Vladimir.
They left the café and continued up the street.
“Let’s just keep walking,” said Vladimir.
They walked on, street after street. In a little square they came to a drinking fountain where David stopped for a drink. As Vladimir took his turn, he showed David the right way to drink from a fountain. Splash your hands and face first, then drink.
They continued walking uphill, the speed beginning to push them on like a breeze in the back. More and more streets.. At length, they were confronted by a large metal gate blocking their way. A dead end street. Without hesitation, Vladimir climbed over. As David followed, Vladimir turned in the darkness and said “Be careful, David. People here have guns.”
On the other side of the gate was the crunch of a gravel driveway and a house. They skirted along the driveway towards the garage. Beside the garage was a wall too high to climb. Vladimir shifted a garbage can into place. Above the wall was a shrubbery. Vladimir led the way and climbed into the shrubbery. As David took his turn, struggling with the height, he kicked over the can. Vladimir hauled him up. They stopped to listen. A dog had thought to bark, and someone came out from the house. Footsteps stopped on the gravel, then turned in another direction.
After a minute or so, the footsteps returned inside.
From there on, Vladimir and David decided, in a whisper, to be more circumspect. So they crept from shrub to garden ornament to shrub, across an expanse of lawn, towards the darkness of trees. They crossed a path to another shrubbery. They climbed a wall. They nearly walked right into a pond. They climbed a fence. If they walked, more often they crawled or crept on their bellies. So it went for an hour or more.
Vladimir burrowed his way beneath a bush beside an empty dog kennel. David waited on the lawn. A minute, two minutes, ten minutes. Vladimir backed out on hands and knees, grabbed David over the shoulder and, in a triumphant whisper, said “see! Do you see!” He pushed David under the bush. David saw nothing.
On they went garden by garden searching for fairies. Climbing over a stone wall, they landed back in the street. Vladimir searched along the wall for another point of entry and climbed over. David’s feet stayed put. After half a minute he called out Vladimir’s name. He called again. There was no answer. He called one last time. Then he walked away.
By daybreak, having twice circled the entire town, David found himself at the top of a peak overlooking Aix. He sat down on a rock. A faint rain fell. In the pre-dawn light he could see far out over the surrounding country. He lit a cigarette. He poked his tongue out. His tongue stayed out, pointing north, east, south, not willing to go back in.
There was an explosion in the town. An enormous BOOM! sounding towards the outlying villages. A moment later there was another. Then another. Returning booms! Boom after boom! Church cannons!
What if the world were coming to an end? David was glad. He had the box seat. His tongue made circles.
And he? Which side was David on?
He was for the dogs barking! The earth, the melting of her ice-caps! For fountains gone crazy, ejaculating into the street! For shops exploding, cars stopped, the trains piled up like chromosomes.
THE CORPSE IS THINKING
A woman was walking down the platform of a suburban train station when suddenly she slumped and fell to the ground. There she lay, her head propped against the end of a bench seat, her eyes wide open, staring along the platform.
“They’re such funny things, shoes,” thought the woman, who had only just at that moment died of a brain haemorrhage. A man stopped in front of her.
“Canada Street,” he said. An elderly couple stopped beside him.
“I was the first here,” he said in a matter of fact sort of way, looking at the corpse. The other two were silent. The old woman, however, began searching through her handbag. Finally, she pulled out a packet of menthol cigarettes.
“Cigarette?” She held the packet out to the first man.
“My name’s Walter,” he said and took one. “Walter Zink.”
“I seem to have misplaced my sack. You wouldn’t have seen it by the way,” said the corpse, but no words came out.
“Canada Street,” repeated Walter Zink as the old lady lit his cigarette.
She turned to her husband.
“Of course, there’s a Canada Street in Morrinsville but that won’t be the one. We should telephone a taxi, Bub.” The old man grunted a reply.
“You go ahead. I’ll be fine,” she told him. “Walter and I will stay here.”
Mr Menthols took himself off to find a telephone. Meanwhile, some woman in a tracksuit had found the corpse’s sack which had been hiding beside a concrete tub in which was growing something resembling an enormous pineapple. She began emptying its contents onto the pavement.
“Cannibal!” scowled the corpse in her thoughts.
“Empty,” said the woman in the tracksuit in disgust, holding the sack upside-down over the pile of rubble which she had tipped out of it. She dropped the sack and walked away.
Presently, a man in a grey suit stopped beside the pineapple. He bent down and gave a whistle of astonishment.
“Somebody’s typewriter,” he said. Mrs Menthols and Walter Zink turned and looked blankly in his direction. “An Olivetti,” he added, and tapped a few of the keys. “You don’t see many Olivettis around these days.”
“No, that’s true,” the corpse was thinking. “I bought that in Florence from dear Mr Scarpa, the actual feet of Jesus. They even came in their own sack.”
“I think I’ll sit down,” said Walter Zink, and he sat down, the green railings of the bench making grooves in his nonsensical bottom.
But the corpse was thinking: “Nothing is really lost, Signor Scarpa. In fact, everything winds up somewhere, wherever it should be.”
“Wonderful these Olivettis,” said the man in the grey suit who was still fiddling with the typewriter.
“Frank!” exclaimed a voice close by.
The corpse was thinking: “How true! How right you are! It’s uncommon the way our two minds work together!”
A pair of brown trouser legs, feet in plastic sandals, strode across the platform in front of her. Beyond, Walter Zink dropped his cigarette to the pavement and stubbed it out with an elegant, Italian made shoe.
“No, I don’t think so. I’m sure not. That is unless I’m seeing things. You know, I think it’s you who are seeing things,” continued the corpse.
“You don’t see many fingers about these days,” said the Olivetti.
Walter Zink shifted his bottom on the bench. Out of breath, Mr Menthols was back from telephoning the taxi. “We gotta go,” he said.
An eerie silence descended over the platform.
“Signor Scarpa told me,” the corpse was thinking, “that when, in 1652, the monks put a door through the wall below Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ in Santa Maria delle Grazie, they managed to lop off Jesus’ feet. The monks for some ungodly reason needed to get through to the next room. Though one, a particularly zealous monk by the name of Charles, decided that the feet were too precious to throw away and, without the authority of anyone, gathered up the fragments of holy foot, placed them in a sack and delivered them to his brother-in-law. This brother-in-law, apparently a fat merchant type, in turn sent them to a certain lady of Pisa, a very good customer of his. The feet were never missed by any at the refectory.”
A policeman had arrived on the scene, and although nobody was particularly crowding the dead woman, he began to usher everyone to one side. “Come on, move aside.. give the lady a bit of air.”
“She’s dead,” said Walter Zink as he got up from the bench and sidled over to the cop. “Completely dead.”
“Suppose she’s drunk?” speculated Mrs Menthols.
The policeman crouched beside the corpse.
“Hmmm..” the corpse was thinking “they’re such funny things shoes.. tongues, and eyes for looking through..”
Looking as though he might yet motion all to the other side, the policeman stood up. But evidently, an ambulance had arrived. Two orderlies were wheeling a stretcher along the platform.
The corpse was thinking “Charles. The feet were too precious to throw away.”
The stretcher stopped beside her. One of the orderlies took her pulse.
“She’s dead,” repeated Walter Zink.
“That’s right. And where would we be without nails?” pondered the corpse.
Placing a finger on each eyebrow, the orderly closed her eyes.
THE HONE HEKE STORY
The year is 1850. Or is it 1851? Either way, we must go back to June 1845, to Kororareka beach, to the man sitting at a table in the small, lamp-lit back room of his frontier store. His name is John Weavell, and he’s momentarily stuck. He reads again what he has written..
..and now commences the most eventful period in the history of New Zealand and which has caused as great a sensation (I have no doubt) at home as anything that has happened for many years. In June 1844 a native chief named Hone Heke came to Kororareka beach to demand utu from a woman who was one of his slaves some years since for an insult she had given by calling him a “pig,” one of the greatest insults to a chief which can be given. This woman, now named Lord, having married a whaler of that name, came running to me to intercede for her with Heke who threatened to take her away as well as her property, and with her husband being in Auckland at the time, she was considerably alarmed.
Heke was at this time seated on the beach opposite my store surrounded by fifty of his tribe and wrapped in his blanket so that scarcely more than a forehead could be seen. The woman mustered all her Maori friends who did all they could for four hours to pacify him by bringing him blankets, gown pieces, handkerchieves, in fact all sorts of things, throwing them into the midst of their circle, and when he found that he had exhausted their means, he coolly ordered the goods to be placed in one of his canoes and then marched the poor woman into his own canoe after all.
Hold up. Heke is seated on the beach at Russell. What was on his mind? It was this..
“The hero is the nipple of his tribe, well placed, imagined to be a little larger than life. ‘Pig’ the woman called me. Perfect. And that the matter doesn’t rest here I’ll take the woman, and see if her husband doesn’t come running.”
When her husband returned from Auckland he went to Heke’s pa and demanded his wife. Heke demanded more payment and Lord foolishly promised him a gun, tobacco etc, and brought his wife away. Early in July, then, Heke came to Kororareka for his promised payment but Lord had nothing. This enraged Heke and he began to destroy the house. This brought forth the police magistrate and his party, but Heke deliberately told the magistrate to go home and be quiet or else he would send him off Kororareka beach altogether.. he had no business there, or the Queen either, and that he intended pulling the flagstaff down for it was that which drove all the shipping away and caused them, the Ngapuhi, to have no trade now.
What Heke was saying was true. Since the treaty of Waitangi, which he himself had signed four years earlier, the benevolent English had begun taxing all and sundry, and with a higher rate being applied to ‘foreigners,’ they had by this method driven away the American whalers.
“You think I don’t see through that treaty? Should I gape and do nothing like a fish with legs while my people are robbed?Should we starve because you have forced the whalers away? You are mistaken, mister paper magistrate! This is my land, the land of the Ngapuhi, and it is not yet made of paper!”
Heke turned his back on the magistrate and seemed to search the waters of the Bay. His men were already waiting with the canoe, half on the beach and half in the water.
“Do you like Thursdays,” he asked. “I like Thursdays. Thursday next, when I return, the flagpole goes.” So said John Heke to the magistrate.
As to the chopping down of the flagstaff, the magistrate smiled at the threat but it was found that Heke was to his word, for the very day he said he should come..
“It begins, it begins!
Hear the sparrows chirp like mad!
How sweet the taste of an axe..
Niaaaoou poonk! falls the flag
Tears? Who me?
But this instant I’m in ecstasy!”
After pulling the flagstaff down, Heke told the magistrate that if another was put up he’d have it down too. A second staff was put up and Heke, true to his word, came two days after and..
“It’s begun! It’s begun!
You’ll protect our freedom? What a dag!
I’ve never had so much fun!
Whhhiiouu pooka! goes the flag
You see done what before you heard.
Hypocrites! Believe your eyes!
I am my word!”
Before the chopping down of this second flagstaff Heke had written to Governor Fitzroy asking for a meeting to discuss the matter. He received no reply. However, upon hearing of this second affront to Her Majesty’s empire Fitzroy did, by proclamation, offer a hundred pounds reward for Heke’s capture. To this, Heke, according to his sense of fair play, offered a hundred pounds for Fitzroy’s capture.
A third flagstaff was soon erected. Indeed, Fitzroy had outlawed the flying of any but the British flag at the Bay. Within days Heke was once more at Kororareka beach. This time leaving his men below, and despite the presence of Tamati Waka Nene’s men (Nene having sworn to the Governor to keep Heke in line), he made his way up the hill and chopped the flag into pieces himself.
“It begins, it begins,
it begins again!
So many beginnings
for but one end.
Devourer of the skies
For the devourer of the earth
The deed done, Heke walked back down to the beach, boarded his canoe, and with the Stars and Stripes fluttering nonchalantly from the stern, he set off home across the Bay.
A party of thirty soldiers was sent from Auckland to protect a fourth flagstaff which was in due time erected, the lower part cased in iron. A block-house was built and a moat of considerable dimensions and depth was dug around it. Before midnight on March 10th, 1845, a select number of Heke’s men placed themselves among the scrub in the gully some eighty to a hundred yards below the block-house where they awaited the dawn of day, at which time they crept up to within about thirty yards of the flagstaff. Some of the guard of the block-house, not suspecting the enemy so near, and hearing a movement in the town, opened the door of the block-house, threw the plank used as a bridge across the moat, and proceeded tool in hand to the unfinished breastwork.
Patience. A sun was about to rise. A glorious pink of life that was the food of trees was sure to climb its way above the horizon. Upon sight of the first ray of this same sun, Kawiti (chief, devout pagan, fully seventy years old and fighting fit, and ally of Heke’s) would lead an attack on the township of Kororareka so as, among other things, to distract the soldiers at the block-house.
Only one thing more need be mentioned before this scene is set and that is Heke’s fascination with animals. The number of different kinds of land mammal that Heke had seen with his own eyes was no more than about six or seven: pigs, rats, dogs, and some few recently imported domestic animals. For apart from birds and the native bat, and the small number of species introduced, New Zealand had no animals of its own. Heke had been amazed to hear of the many strange and wonderful creatures that existed in other parts of the world according to the testimony of the pakehas he had talked to. And he had made the pakehas draw them, and colour them in, and explain their natures, and cry their cries..
But enough! The sun is rising! Heke is crouching with his men in the scrub. The soldiers’ minds are elsewhere..
Heke and his men stormed the block-house, routing the soldiers, and a fourth time gained possession of the flagstaff.
The soldiers who were not shot found their way down into the town. The labour of destroying the flagstaff was not small, and required time. During the operation a constant fire was kept up from the HMS Hazard, a man-o-war in the Bay, but in the course of an hour and a half the flagstaff fell.
“It’s done! It’s done!
We’ve won the war for the piece of rag!
And a fourth time I drop my prize..
after all, it’s just a flag.”
Heke looked around at his men. “I say chaps. I’m famished. Anyone care for a spot of breakfast?” he ventured in as much of an English accent as he could muster.
Now I am sure it is 1850. Five years later. Heke was dying, bleeding to death. Bandages and dressings were not enough to stem the flow for he was bleeding from within, slowly but surely pouring himself out on the land he had fought to save from being turned into paper. He sat outside his whare looking at the stars, at the myriad lights which cast no shadow, and which were perfect unto themselves.
The past? What of it?
May 7th, 1845. Troops sent from Auckland were disembarking at Russell to join Tamati Waka Nene in putting an end to this nonsense of Kawiti and Heke’s. Nene had an old score to settle with Heke and relished the thought of paying it back with the British army to help him. Meanwhile, Heke and Kawiti had built a fortified pa at nearby Mawe. On May 9th the two sides met in battle. As the day wore on the pa proved itself to be impregnable to the outside forces and most of the fighting proper took place on the surrounding plain, much of this being hand to hand. At the height of the battle Heke had the Union Jack raised within the pa.
“Flags. Everywhere flags, flags, flags,” said Heke as he watched it go up. “What the hell.”
Some of the troop, thinking that the pa had been taken, hurried to join their victorious comrades and were understandably surprised to be met with a barrage of fire from Heke’s guns.
On May 11th, after a day of rain on which the Reverend Robert Burrows, Heke and others buried the dead (Maori and pakeha, the troops having withdrawn to Kerikeri).. on the night of May 11th Heke and Kawiti abandoned their pa and after some days commenced the building of a new pa at Ohaeawai.
May 23rd, from the diary of Reverend Robert Burrows: A messenger brought a letter from Heke to be sent to Archdeacon Williams, who was to forward it on to the Governor. As he had read the letter to his people in my presence, I am acquainted with its contents, but do not feel at liberty to quote any portion of it. Suffice it to say that it displayed a great amount of independence and he said it was for the Governor to decide whether there should be further war or not, as he was on his own land, meaning thereby that he should not seek for further hostilities but wait for the soldiers to come to him if the Governor wanted more fighting.
May 26th, from the same diary: Saw Heke today. The treaty of Waitangi came under discussion. To my reply that I fully concurred in what Archdeacon Williams had again and again told him, namely, that that document was their salvation, he looked at me and said “I suppose those rockets and guns fired at our pa at Mawe must be taken as evidence of the truth of what you say.”
June 6th. Saw the government brig and another vessel entering the Bay. Later in the day heard that two other vessels are behind with more troops; that the whole force including volunteers when all have arrived will amount to over six hundred besides Nene’s men, who are approximately three hundred.
June 12th. Heke and his men attack Nene’s camp and after a day of the fiercest fighting both sides retire with heavy casualties, one of whom was Heke himself, shot through the thigh whilst dragging one of his comrades to safety. On June 24th, the troops besiege Ohaeawai pa. Heke, meanwhile, had removed to Kaikohe and was there recovering from his wound. A week into the siege and the British forces’ commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Despard, frustrated by the lack of success of his cannon and rocket fire against the pa’s defences, orders the pa to be stormed. Within minutes of the sounding of the charge over a hundred British soldiers have fallen, and a retreat is ordered. Ten days later, having proved his eight week old pa to be immune to British subjects, Kawiti deserts the pa overnight. Within the next few months he builds another at Ruapekapeka.
In November, the new Governor, George Grey, arrives to take the place of Governor Fitzroy. He reiterates Fitzroy’s demand that, in compensation for the cutting down of the flags, Heke must forfeit a large part of his land to the government, in a letter to Heke signed “George Grey. The new Governor.” Heke replies that he is not about to give up any land, and that if the Governor wants it he’ll have to fight for it like any other upright citizen, signing himself “the new Hone Heke.”
New year’s day, 1846. The troops, reinforced by more soldiers sent out in two ships, one from India, one from China, and now commanded by Governor Grey himself, reach Kawiti’s pa at Ruapekapeka. Two days later, Heke and his men arrive to join Kawiti in the defence of the pa.
Sunday, January 4th, from Burrows diary: Neither the force outside the pa, nor the enemy inside, calculated upon this being the last day of fighting, although as I heard afterwards from some of the natives who were in the pa, there had been a talk of deserting it shortly, and they had no intention of allowing themselves to be surrounded, but had made every preparation to leave the pa before their avenues of escape should be closed.
On this Sunday morning, with a view to hold their religious services without being exposed to the fire of the guns, which from past experience they could not calculate would not be used on that Sabbath, the great body of those within the pa left it by the ‘back door,’ and dividing themselves into two or more parties, were engaged in worship when a few of Nene’s men, having probably surmised from the lack of voices or noise in the pa how they were employed, made their way towards it, and meeting with no opposition, they were quickly followed by others, and in a short time the pa was virtually in the hands of the troops.
But here we must interrupt the Reverend. Heke and Kawiti knew that the pa, complete with its trenches and underground shelters (a thing the troops had never before seen), in all likelihood could not be taken by the British. If any real fighting was to take place it would happen outside the pa. They considered that if a conclusive victory was to be gained over the British they would need to draw them into the forest surrounding the pa. And so they formulated a plan whereby they would desert the pa on the Sunday, in daytime, hoping that the soldiers would follow them into the forest. For once, they miscalculated, for as it turned out, the loyalist Maori now in possession of the pa, realizing that their enemy was still close by, began hurling insults in their direction. And so the war ended as it had begun, with insults. For as Burrows says: The rebels made a strenuous effort to regain possession, but after an unsuccessful struggle lasting several hours, the rebels retreated, and Her Majesty’s forces were left in possession of the place.
The pa was partially demolished, and the whole force shortly afterwards returned to the Bay. In a short time a proclamation appeared allowing all who had been in rebellion against Her Majesty to return in peace to their homes. As far as I could gather, the number of Heke’s and Kawiti’s men at no time exceeded four hundred.
1850 is surely running out. Heke was very weak. He knelt down to say his prayers before going to bed. Hone Heke had fallen in love, if such could be said, with saying his prayers. In a dream once, Jesus had appeared to him, so that when he prayed he would picture Jesus standing before him so, and then, upon saying hello, Heke would begin by relating what had happened during the day, how such-and-such a building was going, what the next steps would be. Who had arrived just after lunchtime and was a particular pain in the ass. Who was to give birth any day now and whether it would be a boy or girl. And they would talk about pakehas, or they would wonder if a particular piece of bush would yield many pigs, and pretty soon they would be talking about strange animals with strange markings, animals with three toes, or those with noses as long as two people. Some who cried like the full moon, others leaping a nikau palm in a single bound. Or the peoples themselves, each with his own outlandish way, some black, some yellow, or brown.. and the trees which were different. Or then, the waterless, dizzying lands.
And every now and then, when he prayed, Hone Heke and Jesus would end up talking about the pakeha and how the pakeha had wanted to take away Hone Heke’s land, and everybody else’s land, even the whalers’ houses at the Beach who were pakeha themselves, but that Hone Heke would rather die first, and that Hone Heke was a man of his word. That the treaty was a trick to steal the land from the Maori, and how the pakeha had a mania for paper because he didn’t have a very good memory. And maybe that suited them not to have so very good memories. But anyway, what was the use of being free without some room to move?
Heke stood up, went inside and, coughing all the time, climbed into bed.
Now he was lying beside his wife. Hariata, for that was her name, was a princess from tip to toe. To begin with, she was the daughter of Hongi Hika, the mention of whose name was during his lifetime enough to make the person who valued his skin shake in his boots, that is assuming he had any, which is doubtful. Hariata herself was a petite woman, dignified, graceful, a representative chieftainess. She was also strikingly beautiful. Her hair fell in shiny black ringlets about her face, a face of pale complexion, the chin and mouth strong and thin and somewhat cruel. Her small, exquisitely shaped hands and feet would have been the envy of any lady of high society of the time. As for Hariata, she was high society and it suited her down to the ground.
“My Hone,” she said softly. “What will I do with you?” Her husband was silent. Neither had it gone unnoticed that he had had less and less to say with each passing day.
“I do not believe you will ever rest,” she added to cheer him up. “You and your ideas.”
Hone shuffled his body under the blankets and coughed once more.
“What is to be valued in this life?” he asked out of the dark. "Our skins?" In a fit of coughing he sat up, groping for the bowl beside the bed into which, when he had it before him, he spat. Blood. Hariata too sat up. He wiped his mouth with his hand. Hariata put a hand on his shoulder, and straightaway removed it.
“When I was a young man I had a dream,” said Heke. “In this dream I found myself in Africa, in a town where every house was white. I was in the centre of this town, in a huge square amid a chattering, expectant crowd. What were they expecting? We all gathered around a wagon in which were two soldiers and a prisoner. There was to be an execution. And I heard the two soldiers making jokes about the prisoner, and I heard also the laughter and the jokes of those around me in the crowd. But what was in the minds of those two men who approached the wagon? I thought I recognised those two men. The soldiers raised their muskets to warn them away but the two men kept coming, and walked straight up to the muskets and put their noses to the ends of the barrels! Then a shot came from one of the muskets! And the two men were grappling with the soldiers, and the people all around in a pandemonium, fighting, screaming, jostling. My feet! My legs were rushing me toward the wagon! And there, lying on the seat, was a penguin! I picked it up and held it in my arms. It was so blue! But there was no time. I ran like hell through the streets of Africa.”
“A penguin, Hone?”
“That was a dream.” Heke took a deep breath. “Could I go on forever? We must learn how to stop before we start.”
Hone Wiremu Heke Pokai died of tuberculosis in the year 1850 and was buried, after some disagreement on the matter, in the traditional Maori way. Later, perhaps in 1851 (who am I to say?) his bones were brought down, cleaned, and taken to their final resting place.
As a result of Hone Heke’s war against paper, Russell was declared a free port, exempt of taxes, and the British flag wasn’t flown again on Flagstaff Hill until 1858, seven years after his death. The Ngapuhi retained the land which both Fitzroy and Grey had threatened to confiscate.
From the beginning Hone Heke’s idea had been to declare Aotearoa an independent state. Without the support of even the other northern tribes this had proved to be unachievable. Some, no doubt, will imagine Heke died a broken and bitter man. But listen..
It began, it began..
the mad chirping of sparrows it began
a flag and a thud it began
the swing of an axe it began
Tears.. who me?
No. That moment I was in ecstacy!
For the long weekend Mike and Isobel drove all the way to Elaine’s Bay where they picnicked on the beach out of the wind, below the boulders supporting the path to the jetty.
And at the end of the bread, the goat cheese and gherkins, the tinned mussels, the tomatoes, Isobel took the dishes to the water and washed them there. Mike continued to read the Sunday paper.
“Mike. I’ve cut my thumb.”
Mike looked up.
“I’ve cut my thumb on the knife.”
“Well Izzy that’s.. that’s really silly. How bad is it?”
“It’s alright. Is there a tissue in the basket?”
Mike looked in the basket.
“There’s one. You’ll need a plaster from the car.”
Wrapping her thumb in the tissue, Isobel walked up to the car. Mike went back to his paper. After ten minutes or so he looked up. No Isobel. Just a funny looking truck and trailer making their way up the road across the bay.
Of the whole Sunday paper, Mike liked best the book reviews. Not that he had any intention of reading a book as such. Mike did not read books. He feared they would by some unaccountable seriousness bore his brains out, but then once started, for the very same seriousness, require him to read on to the end. Most often he got just enough of the idea of it all from the paper. Now and then an author might be interviewed, invariably kindly. Authors were amazing people.
Having read every review, Mike reluctantly stood up. He looked at the Mexican blanket spread out on the stones. Its tassles were tangled. It had a hole, and its once bright colours were slowly fading. Isobel’s socks and cigarette lighter lay on the stones beside the blanket.
Mike walked up to the car.
He stood before the space where it had been parked. Isobel and the aubergine Nissan station wagon were gone together. Mike’s sigh knew so. And his eyes too.
A venetian blind fluttered loudly in a sudden draught. Awake, Mike listened to the traffic. By the frequency of cars going by and the dim light he guessed it might be nearly six.
The previous afternoon? Most other people had wandered further along the beach. And how to ask for a ride to Picton? My wife has left me? My wife has driven off. Actually, my wife has driven away in the life which we own together.
He turned over. No sleeping position seemed perfect anymore.
Daryl, a builder with dark brown, bullet-straight hair, was already gone to work. Gabrielle, a big-boned woman in her thirties, cooked bacon and eggs and made coffee. She worked at the vet clinic.
After breakfast Mike said thank you and goodbye and walked into town. He phoned home from the bus station. A woman answered.
“Hello. Is Isobel there?”
“You’ve got the wrong number.”
“Is this five seven three nine eight five five?”
“She’s not here. There is no Isobel.”
Mike was momentarily silent.
“Hello?” The woman at the other end had a distinctive, drawly way of talking. “I think you’ve got the wrong number.”
“Don’t worry. I’m coming.”
Mike stopped on the footpath outside his house on Hazel Street. He looked over the garden. The familiar picture sent a wave of relief through his body. Opening the gate, he walked up to the front door and turned the door-handle. It was locked. Mike winced, realising he had no key. He pressed the buzzer and knocked on the stained glass for good measure.
Hearing footsteps, he braced himself. A huge man with long greying hair in a biker’s leather jacket opened the door and stood astride the threshold. As they stared at each other Mike put two and two together. This was even worse.
“And you are?” The stranger was first to break the silence. He spoke with some sort of Scottish accent.
“Mike. Mike. I live here.”
“You live here.”
“We live here. Isobel and I.”
The biker tilted his head. “Eve. You better come and see this.”
Before long, the incongruously pleasant face of a middle-aged woman appeared.
“Mike lives here,” explained the biker. For two or three seconds all stared at each other, the woman smiling a faint, bewildered sort of smile. “But come in, come in,” she said, ushering him into the hall. “I’m Eve. This is Knut. Come in.”
They sat around an antique dining-room table Mike had never seen before. Would Mike like a cup of tea?
Isobel wasn’t living here anymore. Who exactly was Isobel? Yes, the furniture was almost certainly different. Where had all the furniture gone? That was a good question. Funny though, the wallpaper being the same.
“We’ve rented here two and a half, nearly three years,” insisted Mike.
“You must be mistaken. I’ve been here.. well, ever since.. Would you like a drink?”
Mike nodded and made some noise with his throat.
As she poured a ginger beer into a long since stolen pub-glass Eve continued her version of events. “We bought this house in ninety four. That’s fifteen years. We certainly haven’t rented it out for any time. Do you think there’s any possible way you could have lived in a different house?”
“No,” said Mike.
Mike recounted how Isobel had disappeared at the beach. That is, she had left him. She had disappeared. Or otherwise..
Eve was very patient. Even Knut smiled. “We should tell the police,” he shrugged.
“The police,” said Mike. Eve got the phone from the kitchen and dialed 111. She handed it to Mike.
“Police. Thank you. Hello. Yes. I believe my wife is missing. Mike Rainey. Rainey. Isobel. Rainey. Yes. Elaine’s Bay. She left with just the car. We were on a picnic. Forty five. She took the car. Because I’m at our house in Picton. Where would she be? Now? She’s not here! Maybe she’s.. Excuse me? Nissan station wagon. Registration? One minute. Yes, I know she’s run off! Aubergine. Egg plant. Average. Maybe five foot six. Black hair, curly. Pointy nose..”
While the drawly-voiced Eve rummaged around in the sun-room, Mike tried to remember his life with Isobel. Somehow he could remember nothing. The barest detail. Mangled wires. Hundreds of white butterflies. An uncommonly circular hole of a bedroom window the size of an apple.
It all happened so slowly.
Having found the piece of paper she was looking for, Eve held it out to Mike. Mike spontaneously passed it on to Knut. And so Knut read aloud the contents of the page in his gravelly Norwegian accent. It was Eve Rosalind Turner’s title to a property at number 39 Hazel Street.
Mike bought a newspaper at the gas station and continued walking into town, feeling better. In town he bought a souvenir bag, two souvenir t-shirts, three pairs of souvenir boxer shorts, three pairs of souvenir socks and a book from a shop selling worthless things to tourists.
In the motel he drank instant coffee and stared at the newspaper. He disturbed himself with frivolity. Matter-of-factness. Bad news. Nothing Happened Today. Poisoned milk sachets. No one was missing.
He thought of Eve and Knut and of their amazing kindness. Twenty four years was a long time. Actually twenty five. Quite a lot. Too much to throw away. Only, the explanation hadn’t yet landed.
In the bedroom mirror he looked himself in the face. He looked at his hands and clothes, examining himself for signs of normality. Eccentric eyebrows. Wild eyes. Clothes awry. Smelliness. A goatee beard.
But there was no use. Instead, he took a shower.
He rang Isobel’s parents in Auckland. They mistook him for someone else and hung up after a half a minute. He rang again and they hung up straight away. He rang her best friend Marie, but Marie wasn’t home. Only Terry. Terry was the new guy.
So he walked down to a restaurant near the water and sat at a table by the window. He eyed the other diners. A pleasantly vengeful feeling presented itself in his stomach.
Walking back to the motel, Mike stopped to admire the view: houses with a backdrop of cut-over bush. A hawk swooped up low to the hills chased by two magpies. They disappeared behind some trees.
“I am mad,” he told himself. The thought was somehow reassuring. When she found out he was mad.. Mike heard already the tone of Isobel’s mother’s voice telling her friends he had been removed to an asylum. “Mike couldn’t see her. Isobel simply disappeared from his field of vision. Utterly strange. He tried to find her but went in the wrong direction.” It was so intriguing.
Later, while seeming to examine the motel key, Mike watched TV with the sound off. Later still, he found some biscuits in the kitchen. He examined the crossword. He studied the title of his book, along with its publishing details. He washed and dried a very small number of dishes. He became tired.
Without re-phoning Marie, he put himself to bed. After all, he had a bank account. A job. A beginning. An end.
“Unique is the study of the certain.” The words rang in his ears. Mike sat up in the darkness and listened. He touched the motel air.
Isobel’s was not a scent you bought somewhere. It was hers. The perfume “Isobel.” It was the smell of..
Mike pictured Isobel as she bent over the dishes in the tide at Elaine’s Bay holding out her cut thumb. He pictured her in his arms so close her eyes were fuzzy. He breathed her in. But she was no longer there.
It was impossible to remember specific smells. Smells had no memory. Smells evoked memories and yet memories were not smells. Things happened, and then they evaporated.
Calmly, Mike thought through the facts.
Isobel was gone.
All trace of their life together had disappeared.
He himself was mad.
“It won’t be so hard to find out where she is,” he told himself. "She won't even know me."