The fumes were acid and sugary at the same time. The polish seemed to melt under the remover-soaked cotton ball. There were many stages to this ritual. The nail file, that strange shape of hash-cut metal, a surgical instrument, hook at one end, blade at the other. Cuticle-bullying blade. My own cuticles were so sensitive, I flinched as if she were cutting herself. Sometimes she would skip this stage and go straight to the shaping.
Her nails were almond-shaped, rounded at the edges and filed to an almost-point. Like almonds, there were also striations on the surface – vertical grooves, the result of some nutritional deficiency or other, or perhaps just years of polish and remover. Nowadays the girls wear them square.
When she was finished there’d be a pile of cotton wool in the blue glass ashtray. By the next day the middle of each cotton ball would be almost solid, a hard, pink wad, and the edges would still be puffy and white. The smell was sweet and faint.
She would walk her fingernails up my arm. It was part of putting me to sleep. Perhaps I was an anxious child, she would read to me, sing to me, teach me harmonies, and how to harmonise – the one, three and five of it. Then I would say to her Tickle my arm, mum. She would shuffle a bit closer and push up the sleeve of my nightie. She’d sing an old-timey song about dancing. Left, right, left, her fingernails tapping and stroking the inside of my elbow, the top of my hand, my wrist.
LION PARK TARTAN
Australia. It was a place that people went when they left home, it was where my Uncle Gary lived. It was hot and had lots of awesome stuff to buy, in places known as shopping malls. I was twelve when we went there, me and my mother, and we stayed with my Uncle Gary and Aunty Edie, who had a pool and lots of large indoor plants. My older sister was already staying there. We were visiting her. She said Mork and Mindy was on every night over there. She said there was chewing gum with liquid inside and it was called Spurt. She said the spiders were the size of dinner plates and they could kill you.
I had brought all the wrong clothes because I liked to wear them at home. Mum tried to explain that different fabrics had different properties, and I wouldn’t need wool in Brisbane, but the colours pleased me. The brown and yellow tartan of the trousers and the plain yellow of the hand-knitted, short-sleeved shirt with its large collar made me feel like a small work of art. Occasionally I did a cartwheel.
The Lion Park was where it all really came home to me. The lions themselves seemed okay with their outfits of fur, though they moved very slowly on their heavy, hinged paws. It was 40 degrees outside the car. It was the first time I realised what it meant to be able to open a window, and what it meant to not be able to open a window. I had never breathed air that was warmer than the inside of my body.
I held a koala that holiday. It sat, huge and stinking on my two flat palms, which I had placed in front of me face up, one on top of the other. Onto this sweaty seat the attendant lowered the koala. It was much heavier than I was expecting. It seemed to be only half-awake. I smiled at it, and my inside upper lip caught on my braces, as it always did. The tiny, pink rubber bands that stretched between my upper and lower jaw are visible in the Polaroid photograph. My long, wet hair is plastered to my neck, and the gold ribbon which holds it off my face is flat against my head. I am red-cheeked and my head is leaning slightly away from the koala.
HEAD OF STEAM
We’re swaying along beside the Bremer River – on the banks of which, Ian the Conductor tells us, the first trains were constructed. We’re in first class: black leather upholstered into diamond shapes with black buttons. The wood is a bronze colour, the fittings are heavy and dark. The lightshades are off-white, scallop-edged glass with large, loopy, eco-bulbs poking out of them like stamens.
All along the line there have been pockets of people with sound equipment and cameras on tripods, flags and hoisted children, cheering the train and our blurry, waving hands as we steam past. I walk out through our 1920s Pullman Sleeper Car, soot crunching underfoot, to stand on the small verandah between carriages for a while, taking in the view. Cattle, pale green long grass, a few train-racing, or train-startled, kangaroos.
This is the Q150 steam train, also known as ‘The Writers’ Train’. The train’s journey is part of many events celebrating the sesquicentenary of Queensland becoming a state, separate from New South Wales. There really isn’t an equivalent of this kind of thing back home, not even the Treaty of Waitangi sesqui ‘celebrations’ in 1990. I wonder what mana whenua think about this 150-year thing. I don’t really have to wonder long.
There’s a truck following us that normally sprays weedkiller along the sides of the tracks. Today its job is to spray the tracks with water to quell any risk of sparks starting fires.
As we hit the base of the Toowoomba Ranges the train slows to a stop and the temperature starts to climb. I wonder for a moment if we are waiting for another train coming the other way. I thought perhaps we were building up a head of steam to make the haul to the summit. Out here, lots of things seemed to become non-metaphorical. I’d just got back from a visit to the actual Black Stump, for example. Soon it becomes clear that we’re waiting for another steam engine to come and help haul us up the hill. As we start to move again, clouds of steam drift past me, changing from white to grey to black to mustardy brown. A swallow-shaped bird flies through it, looping back and forth.
The welcome at Toowoomba is spectacular – the platform’s swarming with flag-waving locals and a small brass band is playing The Girl from Ipanema. There are many baked goods, most of which are being given away for free.
Later that evening, I write what might pass for the beginnings of a poem:
Walking along the Maiwar River yesterday and a guy asked me about my tā moko, wanted to know if it was Tahitian. Turns out he’s Māori too, his name’s Nuku-mai-ngā-iwi-ki-te-motu-take-nui. He calls himself Nick.
‘Nick Williams,’ he says. ‘I live on that boat there.’
Sixty bucks a week, he says. Not glamorous. He was brought up a Mormon but he came back from overseas drinking and smoking. Tells me about his mate rowing a dinghy up in Darwin, looks over the side and sees a shadow in the water, three times the length of the dinghy. Sees the croc’s eyes.
‘No such thing as rollbars on a dinghy,’ says Nick, cracking up.
Dave has a band of shark’s teeth around his Akubra. He’s a Kiwi who worked in the mines near Kalgoorlie. Forty-five degrees, he tells me, is the angle of the seam gold grows in, and he owns the world’s largest mobile train setup.
Fortitude Valley is the kind of suburb my Uncle Gary calls ‘colourful’. The view out my window is cranes and visiting ibis birds that perch on the roof. There’s a Queers Welcome rainbow sticker on the Westpac Bank door. But even here, the Brisbane equivalent of Cuba Street, everyone’s shoes look new. The punk-rock dykes wear brand new jackets and their dye-jobs are faultless. All the fruit is sweeter, especially the bananas. At the reading, the woman I have dubbed ‘Gold Coast Jane’ has flecks of gold in her eyes. Last night I had dreams of blue and gold butterflies that became peacocks. The pillow sings in my ear all night about mountains, cops, poisons. I am planning exercises for our young writing students: Ruin This Poem! Writer’s Tennis! Poetry Skeleton! Welcome Ghosts!
BEING SPAT AT
I walk a lot with our dog. His name is Tai, he’s a farm-dog, an eye dog, black and white, border collie-huntaway cross. The beach that we prefer is the beach at Queen Elizabeth II Park, which spans the kilometres between the township of Paekakariki and Raumati. It’s a series of rolling hills, the occasional pocket of cattle, the odd lightning-struck tree, lots of fencing, and beautiful sand cliffs. Off the coast about five kilometres is Kāpiti Island, looking for all the world like a dark, long reptile with a blunt snout, sleeping in the weather.
The island is big enough to create its own weather. It’s a Department of Conservation reserve, and it’s Māori land. Ancestrally, through my father and his mother and her mother, I connect to that island in several different ways, some of which I understand, many of which I don’t. To me, looking at the island is like looking Te Rauparaha in the face. Because I’m from the Ngāti Toa tribe, I love our chief Te Rauparaha, and I am grateful to him for providing for his people. Because I’m from the tribe Ngāi Tahu, I’m terrified of him.
There isn’t much beach today, and what’s there is soft, the sand sucking at each step. On the sand there’s the odd pile of ankle-turning driftwood, large spreads of white pipi shells. Everything is several shades of black, white and grey.
Because it’s a Monday and it’s early morning, we are alone here, me and the farmdog Tai, son of Lucky and an anonymous huntaway bitch, Tai whose two brothers and a sister all succumbed to the parvo.
It wasn’t until we got Tai that I learned how the parvovirus takes a few years to die in the soil. I heard recently that the reason there are so many parks and green spaces in London is that there are plague victims buried under them. Any time there’s an idea to dig them up and build something, someone quietly points out that the plague wasn’t so great first time around.
The counsellor I have been seeing for post-earthquake anxiety tells me that grounding is the most important thing I can do. Grounding involves walking on the beach, or it can mean using a small, solidish, foam ball, the likes of which you can buy from a two-dollar shop. These usually come in very bright colours with patterns of stars or polkadots. Lime green with black stars. Bright fluorescent orange with black polkadots.
The technique involves taking off one’s shoes and breathing, shifting the consciousness from the head down through the body and into the feet. Then you drop the foam ball under the sole of one foot, rolling the foot over it. The amount of pain I feel when I do this is extraordinary, but I continue because I can sense the wisdom in what she is saying. Grounding, yes, the opposite of what happens to me when my upper chest starts to rise faster with my breath, my jaw aches, the tendons in my neck begin to feel like bungee cords at full stretch. What are they holding down? What will fly off if they are loosened?
The white shells used to have creatures inside them, of course, which the birds have dug out. Maybe they picked them up in their beaks and flew to a height, then dropped the pipi on rocks to smash out their tasty, animal contents. The drifts of shells seem very interesting to the nose of the dog, as well as being a relatively reliable non-ankle-turning pathway for me this morning. Occasionally, even though I’m far from the tide’s edge, I feel a cold splash of water on my ankle or shin, and I realise I’ve stood on a half-shell full of sea-water.
ALIVE VS DEAD
A feeling of visceral dread came over me as I looked out over the landscape from the top of the jump-up near Winton. We’d just been through the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum. I’d met the bones of Banjo and Matilda, two very large creatures who were being slowly put back together with the help of the museum volunteers, staff and an impressive array of drills and chisels. The one I remember was a pneumatic chisel called an ‘Air Scribe’. The walk around the exhibits was longer than I’d expected, and I was feeling tired and hungry by the end of it.
When I stepped outside into the bright, and looked out across the vast landscape – our guide, Trish, called it a ‘gondwanavista’ – I found I was having trouble breathing for a moment. My heart started to pound and I felt a bit sick.
When my father was teaching me to scuba dive, he started by taking me and the other students to a shallow lagoon near the Rurima Islands, just off the coast of where he lives in Matata, in the Eastern Bay of Plenty. We had done descents, ascents, hand signals, underwater navigation. I knew about atmospheres and nitrogen narcosis. We’d got to the stage where I had to take my mask off under the water. This is done to train us for any instance in which something or someone, the current or a fish or a colleague, might knock our mask off accidentally, and you have to know how to calmly retrieve it, put it back on your face, clear the seawater out of it, and continue with your dive – all while under the water.
I wasn’t prepared for the feeling of panic that rose in me. I couldn’t understand why I was so scared. My breathing apparatus was completely intact, my regulator was still in my mouth, I was still breathing air in and out, so by definition I wasn’t drowning. But something about the ocean making contact with a previously dry part of my face, and my eyes in particular, when I was deeper than I had ever been, was terrifying beyond all expectation. It was a feeling of being completely at the mercy of something huge and indifferent. It was irrelevant that I could still breathe, because I now understood, on a purely physical level, exactly how fragile, almost accidental, that fact was.
Dad told me later he has more trouble with this part of the training than with any other. Many times he has had to grab a student’s weight-belt and hold them down, to stop them from tearing back up to the surface too fast and risking the bends – ‘getting bent’, as he would say. It’s the point where students pull out and decide not to finish the course.
My father says that when he dies, he wants to have a traditional Māori funeral, where there is no embalming, and where the tūpāpaku is wrapped in a specially woven whāriki in a plain wooden coffin. He saw one of these tangihanga on Māori TV, where the family of Parihaka kaumatua (elder) Rū Wharehoka carried out his last wishes by reviving these ancient practices.
‘That’ll do me, too,’ he said.
‘Oh dear,’ I thought. ‘My weaving sucks.’
The other morning, I was in bed with my partner watching a YouTube channel called ‘Ask a Mortician’. This is what we sometimes do during the odd couple of hours that pass for leisure time in our house, but which are more often just me and Christine trying to stay awake long enough to talk to each other about things other than what time the alarm is set for. We have big plans for these rare occasions when we can spend time together, but instead we tend to collapse into the internet, or telly, or just fall asleep.
We had just finished watching a video called ‘Dangerous Dead Bodies’, which talked about how toxic (or not) the dead are to the living. At the end of it, YouTube offered us, as it does, a digital patchwork quilt of other videos we might be interested in watching. One of them was simply called ‘Cadaver Dissection’. Fortunately neither of us had our glasses on, so we weren’t quite sure exactly what the still picture advertising the video showed. But it looked a lot like a dead body, quite heavily discoloured with what looked like concentric rings of bruising at the shoulders and other joints, lying face down (unusual?) on a dissection table, with a man in whites standing beside it.
I am convinced that one day I will be the person who finds a body on the beach. Especially now that I have a dog. It’s just a matter of time. I feel ill when I think of it. The way I did at the First Aid Course I attended recently, whenever I thought of having to put into practice any of the things we were learning.