Shadow stands up #6

Last Wednesday I was up in the attic of the old house in Wellington where I’ve stashed boxes of stuff connected with writing. Some of it goes back a long time, to the late 1960s – earnestly labelled notebooks. I didn’t look at them. It was a bit like crossing the road to avoid someone you quite like but don’t want to have to talk to. Mostly, though, the boxes contain drafts of books that I kept because I thought I might want to come back to them and use bits that had been edited out. I never have. Now, their uselessness is a kind of comfort. No pressure!

Because I’ve made my living precariously as a freelance writer for extended periods of time, there are lots of boxes irritably labelled 'projects'. Some of these 'projects' saw the light of day, many didn’t. I guess I kept the strike-outs for the same reason I kept drafts of books – in case they might be worth coming back to. They never are. This, too, is comforting. New ideas may not always be better, but they are always more optimistic.

There are boxes of things evasively labelled 'treasures'. One contained a sliding-lid pencil-case with funny hot-poker drawings on it that my son Carlos made when he was at primary school thirty years ago, the wooden mould-template for a car universal joint that Frank Stark gave me as a birthday present about as long ago as the pencil-case, and other objects about which floats a miasma of vague guilt – objects that should have been thrown out years ago but weren’t because I couldn’t bear to; and their close relatives, the objects that I wanted to throw out but knew I’d be cursed if I did (neither the pencil case nor the wooden mould template belong to either of these categories, though one is useless but interesting, while the other would be useful if I needed a pencil-case, but is in fact also useless but, in its case, emotionally beautiful).

There are boxes labelled 'family snaps' that I know will reveal weirdly scrambled narratives of time and place when I get around to looking into them, which, I swear, I will, some day, sooner or later.

Because we’re leaving, 'the kids' have cleared their boxes of junk out, and there are strange bare rectangles on top of the MDF flooring which are like the ghosts of evacuated secrets, which I suspect will haunt their hoarders for years to come, until they finally give up and toss the collections of beer-cans, munted hardware, and dysfunctional video cameras.

Boxes of tax returns, of long-ago-anachronistic exhibition pamphlets and catalogues, of 'research material' whose purposes have been gnawed into filigreed ruins by the industrious silverfish of the redundant. Boxes that I suspect (but am not going to check) contain things I was meant to do when I got time.

I imagine what a liberation it will be when I get up in the morning and the attic in my head will be full of a new day’s early morning sunshine and precious little else. But I also know this isn’t going to happen – not, at any rate, until the condition quaintly known as AD (suggestive of an immensely long time-span of memory) sets in, when the pencil case and the wooden universal joint will come into their own, since it won’t matter anymore whether they signify anything or nothing. For now, I furtively look for a place where they can stow away.


I get up early hoping
I’ll encounter the line drawn
under night time, the red streak
that bisects the shadow of
dawn standing up, horizon
of dark buildings in the east
whose windows begin to flash,
the gassy aquamarine
sky pouring itself into
the gaps between high-rise glass,
laser-streaks of gulls lit by
the afterburn of early
sunrise over there where hope
appears inevitable
and unwise, but worth getting
up early enough for, to
remember why you do this.

Shadow stands up #5

Last week we sold our big old house in Wellington. Everything in it will be moved out by the end of the year. We’d lived there for some twenty years by the time we left, and some of our kids as well as a grand-daughter went on living there when we came up to Auckland at the beginning of this year.

We kept a room in the house, and came and went most months. The first time I went back I realised it wasn’t my place any more, it was Mischa, Laura, and Bella’s; it was Penn’s, and Conrad’s. It was also in a way the place of people I didn’t know – they were there having dinner and greeted me politely, as if I was an unexpected guest; which I was. This was okay: the old place was doing a good job and had adapted to it quickly.

What was stranger was that the kids had installed a number of household rituals which I recognised as tribal, and which in the past they’d sometimes accepted with a certain amount of resignation. The big meal around the table that Carlos and I had made, for example, the extended family plus hangers-on. Now, they were dismayed and even culturally offended when I sometimes preferred to slip out and sit alone in a corner at Kazu, like an exhausted ethnologist needing a break from field-work.

In the house, I noticed those standard signs of family memory, such as the pencil marks on the door-frame marking off the startling growth of boys. The French doors at the back had been gnashed into strange contours by Vinnie, our Rhodesian ridgeback, when he was a lonely, locked-out pup. His bones are in the garden, along with those of several eccentric cats. I recognise some scrape marks on the floor, about which the less said the better; some scorch marks on the deck marking a crisis of oblivious hospitality; an olive tree gifted by our friend Abe when we first moved in against his advice (the place was a wreck); and the huge, ancient, sprawling taupata that has fed a million birds but which one neighbour wanted to fell.

There’s the window I used to look out of when I was working in my room upstairs; another neighbour used to see me staring out of it, and would sometimes swish the drape across their kitchen window. But I wouldn’t even have seen them or their kids mucking about – I‘d have been looking at something else, something inside my head not inside their kitchen.

The old house is literally an archive – there are lines of boxes in the attic, along with kids’ stuff that will have to move on somewhere else. But now the house is beginning to resemble the place in my head, the one my former neighbours didn’t know about, a place I’ll be looking into with that not-here expression of someone moving memories into a kind of defile, at the end of which they will fall into patterns they may never have had when they were events that were taking place in the house, when we still lived there.

I imagine myself pulling down the blinds of the house we live in now, because that weird bugger over there is staring at me – who does he think he is?


A green Link bus goes past with
Sorry in lights on its fore-
head, windscreen-wipers dashing
tears from its face, the shadows
of empty seats on fogged-up
glass, and I am, too – sorry
I’m sorry that life’s too short
and the memory of it
much shorter. Magnificent
obsession sale now on reads
the shop-front signage the next
unapologetic bus
passes not long afterwards
with my confused face looking
out through the wet, blurry glass,
messed up somehow, unable
to settle for sorrow or
jubilation – but then it’s
over, it’s gone, that moment
when I thought I’d remembered
something that reminded me
you just can’t hope to do that –
remember, I mean, too late,
when it’s too late to do that.