I'D HAD A successful trip to several South American countries and was boarding a LAN Air flight back to Auckland from Santiago, flying Economy as I always do, but reflecting that if my company, Preston Products, went on like this, bringing in new overseas orders, I would soon be able to think about an upgrade to Business. The time hadn't arrived when we would be instructed to switch our electronic gadgets to flight mode, or off, and I was catching up with a few messages. There were several old ones from Mahinārangi Marsden, signed Lucy Matariki, the name she'd recently taken. I regretted the change. Māori words very often have several meanings, sometimes quite distinct, and Mahinarangi could mean (or in my free translation I might read it as) 'gift of the sky'. But equally I could see it as 'maker of songs' – and among her many talents that's what she was. I liked both versions, and the sense that I did not have to choose: she could be both.
But I had to admire the cleverness of her reasons. Matariki, she had explained, was that little star cluster, the Pleiades, and its appearance in the night sky of mid June marked the beginning of the Māori new year – the shortest day, the exact equivalent of St Lucy’s day in the northern hemisphere. It was the dark point after which (though the days might sometimes get colder) everything would slowly improve – days would get longer, nights shorter. ‘If winter come can spring be far behind’ was what it meant. So the new name, Lucy Matariki, was combining her Māori and her Pākehā heritages. But she cast a slightly grim light – or darkness – over this change when she told me there was always, in her mind and in her life, a doubt about whether the light would really return. So I would rather have been able to think of her as the gift of the sky and maker of songs than as our Māori St Lucy, the blind girl (as she was in the northern hemisphere mythology) representing mid-winter’s day.
Mahina (as everyone still called her) had been our most useful IT person – very eccentric, often unsettling in the office, with great swings between what I, in my layman’s shorthand, called her manic and depressive phases. She once told me she had been officially designated as ‘somewhat bi-polar’ – and we had both laughed at that word ‘somewhat’. There were times when I had to warn her to ease off, quieten down, even take a day or two off work, because she was unsettling the staff. I sometime grumbled and even thought of being rid of her. But she was a constant source of entertainment. And finally, and I suppose most importantly from an employer’s point of view, her work was always good. She could do things with computers which none of the rest of us in our little company were capable of. She was our mad, indispensible Mahina.
She was a frightful sentimentalist, so full of the milk of human kindness, and the honey as well, I had to protest and tease her about it. But I was careful too, aware that she was precarious. I treated her gently and with respect. In fact I’m afraid I rather prided myself on being ‘good with her’, able to handle her, manage her, get the best out of her – and though there was an element of delusion in this, it can’t have been entirely wrong or I’m sure she would not have stayed with us as long as she did.
I believe I was the employer who lasted (who endured her, others would have said) longest. In the end she left, not to go to a rival firm offering more money for the same work, but to an organisation that helped people with (as they were described) ‘mental issues’ – people like Mahina herself, who’d had a period of hospitalisation and treatment and were out in the community again. They were such lovely people she said, hearts of gold every one; and she insisted on taking me to their office to meet them. It struck me as a scene out of Dickens. Just a normal office, but in which the jolly ones were jollier and noisier, the glum ones glummer and more withdrawn – normality, you could call it, but with a very broad brush. And it was clear they all loved Mahina, and she was happy there.
But the emails between us continued after she left, sometimes brief and infrequent, others (at least from her end) copious. Why did I keep it up – or allow her to? It was in part an addiction I suppose, because her messages could be very clever and original, and she got something out of me that no one else could. It was also a feeling of friendship and responsibility. So though I saw her seldom now I thought I could have told anyone who wanted to know – a doctor for example – pretty exactly how her inner landscape was looking.
Lately that landscape had been dark. She’d told me she was full of fears which had caused her to move some of the furniture in her bedroom against a door that opened on to a deck overlooking the garden. She said, too, that she suspected someone might be trying to poison her so she was being careful about what she ate.
I suggested she might want to report to the psychiatric ward that had treated her before, to receive some therapy and drugs. But she wouldn’t do that. She said the rooms there were bugged and the bugs were bugged in turn by beings from outer space. She told me these things in a tone that made it clear they were jokes. But I knew by now there was a part of her mind that believed them – that’s why she was scared. It was a question of which part of the brain was in charge at any one moment. If I’d known people she trusted out of her past I might have alerted them. I knew she’d been married and divorced, but to whom, and what their relations were now, I had no idea.
She told me she was hearing voices too; and that one she called the Bad Voice seemed sinister, sometimes threatening. This was where I persuaded myself I’d been useful. I adopted the calm, reasonable, unsurprised tone of the practical man. ‘Use my name,’ I told her. ‘Tell the Bad Voice that Peter Preston says it should go away.’
That had been my last message, sent in fact from Medellin in Colombia, once the murder capital of the world and still a dangerous city, where my focus had been on staying close to our small party, taking care not be robbed, or kidnapped for ransom, and where the trauma hospital had a sign in Spanish which meant, ‘We never close’. Paranoia seemed hardly possible in Medellin: any threat or danger might be real, and every fear reasonable. That, I suppose, might have been part of the reason for my taking Mahina’s anxieties less seriously than I would have at home: I was in a state of anxiety myself.
But at this moment, waiting to taxi out for take-off at Santiago, there was nothing new from her. I skimmed other messages, then turned my attention to my fellow travellers and recognised the anxiety of a woman across the aisle from me. She might have been trying for some minutes to catch my eye. Could I just stand up, she asked me, and see if there were two engines on the wing on our side or just one. I stood up and could see only one. I thought probably there was a second, out of sight forward of, and below, the window – though there are plenty of these wide-bodied jetliners now that have only one on each wing. But since I could see she was anxious, and that it was important to her, I confirmed there were two out there on our side. ‘And no doubt two on the other,’ I joked.
‘Oh yes, thank you,’ she said. ‘I’m such a bad traveller.’ She was very handsome, of indeterminate age, plus or minus forty, a real estate agent in California, she told me, formerly married to a man from Transylvania – ‘And please,’ she added, ‘don’t make the usual joke.’
I assured her I wouldn’t, though it’s probable that only a hesitation about how to frame it (‘Madame Nosferatu I presume?’ or perhaps, ‘Countess Dracula?’) had prevented me from making that crass mistake.
‘It’s like names,’ I said. ‘You can’t make a joke about a person’s name that they haven’t heard before a dozen times.’
I foresaw a lot of chatter as we crossed the vast unbroken reaches of the South Pacific between Chile and New Zealand, and took out the book, a thick thriller, behind which I planned a protective retreat.
My attention however was now drawn to a woman in late middle age who was telling a steward of uncommon Latin American good looks that she was somewhat breathless and would he bring her a glass of water so she could take her pills? He was back in a moment, leaning over her, attentive, producing such an effect that I felt it must be a game he liked playing, inducing in an older woman the illusion that he might be the devoted son she didn’t have – or even the young lover, the man of her secret dreams. She was breathless now indeed, with the thrill of it. He exercised a practised, and even cynical, talent, full of charm and subtlety, while her husband sat stone-faced beside her, ignoring the game which he had no doubt seen before, but seldom, I’m sure, played by such an artist.
But it went on just too long. Now she was truly agitated, and complained of a pain in her chest. The steward’s smile faded, he seemed to drift away from her, and a moment later was back with his senior, a commanding female who bent over asking questions I couldn’t hear, to which the traveller, though still panting delicately, dismissed. She was fine, quite recovered. It had been just a momentary thing…
But it was too late. The mention of chest pain had been a mistake. Combined with breathlessness, and pills, it could not be ignored.
‘She’s quite alright,’ her husband said, gruff, frowning, displeased. ‘She gets angina – that’s all. I assure you, there’s nothing wrong with my wife.’
But already the call had gone over the intercom for a doctor – and soon two appeared, an Australian woman and a younger New Zealand man. They bent over the traveller who was now the unhappy centre of attention. After a few minutes they moved away, nearer to my seat, to talk out of earshot. I pretended to be absorbed in my book.
The Australian didn’t believe there was anything seriously wrong. The New Zealander wasn’t so sure. Probably not; but did they want to be responsible if they were five thousand miles out over the ocean, with nowhere for a landing, and the old girl’s heart…
So it went back and forth, and in the end they agreed they should play safe.
They returned to her and explained that in the interests of her health and the welfare of all they’d decided she should have tests. There were very good hospitals in Santiago that would check her over and she would soon be on her way again.
This was no part of the poor woman’s plan and she protested. She was soon in tears, insisting she was quite well, pleading. The senior cabin staff, then the captain, finally two security guards, were brought in to reason with her. When she flatly refused to budge she was told her luggage had already been removed from the hold. A wheelchair was brought and she was taken weeping away, followed by her husband whose rage was silent but unmistakable. He was white with it.
It had all taken time and our departure had been delayed. In the final minutes before we began to taxi out for takeoff I checked my laptop again. There was a new message from Mahina. It read:
‘I told the Bad Voice that Peter Preston said it should go away. The Bad Voice said “I am Peter Preston”.’
She had signed it ‘Matariki.’