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.

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