Sunday, March 31, 2013


Charlotte is 15. She has been going out with Kyle for about four months. It has not been an easy ride, and she argues with him one night on facebook. Upset, she goes to the medicine cabinet and takes a handful of paracetamol tablets. She texts Kyle, and a few other people, and tucks herself into bed, still crying. She hears shouting, and then there is the car ride to the hospital, and then she sleeps.

She wakes in the hospital, and her phone is full of texts and some missed calls. The only ones that matter are Kyle's, and his are worrying. He says he feels betrayed; she had promised him she would stop self harming. She texts him. He does not text back. She phones him. He does not answer. Charlotte is scared now. He always said he would be there for her. She phones the landline, and Carrie, Kyle's little sister, answers. She takes the phone to Kyle.

Carrie, who is 12,  is off school today and she has spent the afternoon watching the cable guy install new TV channels. He is really helpful and shows her how to set the decoder and how to get all the new channels. After he has gone, she flicks through the channels and watches half a movie. Then the phone rings. It's Charlotte, and she sounds worried.

Carrie takes the phone upstairs and knocks on Kyle's bedroom door, but as usual he doesn't bother answering her. She goes in. Kyle is hanging in his wardrobe, a guitar string around his neck. Because the guitar string has cut his throat, the confined space of the wardrobe drips with blood. He has voided his bowels and bladder. Carrie has never seen anything so unimaginably dead.

With a presence of mind she didn't know she had, she hits 111 on the phone she is already carrying. Then she rings her mum, Tina. All she can say is 'Get home, get home...'

First on the scene is Omar, the ambulance officer and his colleague. Omar cuts down Kyle, lays him carefully on his bed, and waits. There is nothing else to do.

Tina arrives home after getting Carrie's panicked call. The ambulance is in the driveway. Perhaps there has been an accident. She runs into Kyle's room, sees him, sees Carrie, and then the world just caves in. She flings herself at Omar, screaming, vomiting, dragging herself down his body, now on the floor, Omar's voice, this stranger, saying something, it is all over, Carrie is with her.

Omar finishes his shift. Because he didn't have to take Kyle to hospital, he is supposedly ready for his next job as soon as he's changed his uniform. He gets home. Jen has fed the kids and is getting ready for work. They have about twenty minutes together. He tells her about Kyle and finds he is actually quite shaky in his hands and a bit tearful. I can ring in sick, says Jen. It's OK, Omar says. I'll put the girls to bed and watch a bit of Top Gear and I will be OK.

Jen drives to work, to the hospital where she works as a nurse in the emergency department. She is assigned Charlotte to care for.

The cable guy has gone to his next job, unaware that a young man was killing himself in the bedroom at the house he connected up earlier that day.


So, i am an admirer of Gus Van Sant's film Elephant, which is about the Columbine High School shootings, as seen from that one day in the lives of many different people at the school. i assume it is called Elephant after the proverb about the blind people who were asked about the elephant. They all felt the elephant. The one who felt the ear thought an elephant was like a giant leaf. The one who felt the side of the elephant thought it was like a wall. The one who felt its tail thought it was like a rope. Nobody knows all of the elephant.

i wanted to tell this story from the points of view of everybody except Kyle, who is almost a hidden character, even though the story is all about him.

Because this is real life, however, there are sequels. They go on and out for ever. Here is one.

Kyle's funeral takes place five days later. The first wash of horror and grief has passed. The funeral is huge. There is a lot of crying and hugging. You could say teens love drama, but teens also have compassion and very easily put themselves in each other's shoes. Charlotte is not at the funeral. But Dezrae is. She was Kyle's best friend.

Dezrae's big sister Broghan stands in the doorway of the chapel, too scared to go in. A part of her life is in that coffin. She didn't know Kyle well, but she remembers her own suicide attempt two months previously. She doesn't want to see Kyle. If she saw his face, his dead face, she may see reflected in it, her own.

This could go either way. Suicides can run in waves. Broghan could think, well, it was that easy, it is just that bit more possible now to do it again. But Broghan has used her time wisely. She has confided in people she trusts, and over the last five days she has talked to Dezrae, her annoying little poser of a sister who is nothing but a selfish cow most of the time, in ways she never thought she would. Now Dezrae and she are allies. They know how much they love each other. Broghan stands in the doorway of the chapel, too scared to go in. But now there is love, enough love to go round, enough for all the world, enough to live.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Water wars

It seems like every Saturday my neighbour washes her car. Last Saturday i heard her with the car in the driveway. The hose went on for ages. i hung out the washing and picked up the dog poo. Still going. Sometimes the damn hose was on but idling, not even being used. Just hosing out water. i heard her turn off the hose and drive the car back into the garage. Then, on went the damn hose again. So much water! i wondered, should i leap over the fence and take her to task?  Probably not. Valerie is in her 80's and would probably say something like, oh, but i do like my car to look nice and clean. i took a shower. Turned off the shower. The hose was still going. Seemed like she was hosing random bits of house. Random hosing! Or watering the garden in the middle of the hot day! Good grief.

i was incensed. i flung myself  into the hallway and took my husband to task instead. Although i think he was less concerned about the hosing than he was startled by my sudden appearance in the hallway, wrapped only in a towel, pointing and jabbering.

Most of the country has been declared a drought area. Sun for months. In the North Island the land just looks parched, brown and cracked, farmers really suffering. Wellington has been a week away from waterless. Christchurch has had no real rain all year. There aren't watering restrictions here, but i can't understand why not.

i have been extra conscious of water since the earthquakes. Then, we had no water for a bit over a week. We were among the lucky ones in our area. i learned to use washing machine water for the garden, and for flushing the loo, once that started working again. i learned that the yellow is mellow and the brown goes down. i still collect the washing machine water in buckets, and put it on the garden. Not much at our place gets watered in Summer. Just the containers and the plants we eat, which are often the same thing. And hand washing takes place into a bucket, and then down the loo. i do this erratically, mind, because it is time consuming and awkward, and because i don't always live up to my values, but it does give me food for thought as i lug buckets around. There has got to be an easier way, some way of storing grey water and then putting it through an irrigation system. We need a rain barrel. It is good for me to be conscious of water.

So Valerie's random hosing drives me a bit nuts. But she has a back story. Valerie and Pete have lived behind us for years. Valerie loves her garden, and when they are away we mind their place and it is a pleasure to walk on their cute putter's lawn with the curved plantings and the ornaments, and the small careful fruit trees. One Winter Saturday night someone stole about half our front fence. They just tore it of, perhaps for firewood. The untidiness of it bothered Valerie. She would have a word with Pete, and Pete would have a word with me, and i would have a word with my husband, who would tell me he would see to it in his own good time. Eventually we got it done. Pete died quite suddenly ten months ago. Valerie still thinks he will just walk in the door any minute. i think that the charming, understated virtue of orderliness has become even more important for her now. After Pete's death, she never missed a beat. The garden still needs watering. The car still needs cleaning. Life goes on.

Perhaps if i want to go nuts at someone i should try the dairy farmers. Dairying is very intensive in Canterbury. It uses an insane amount of water and pollutes the waterways. i suspect the climate was always too dry for it. There is a tension between farmers and townspeople over water that has at times got really political. And most of Canterbury has been marked out for fracking, which will use as much water as the dairying and pollute even more.

i don't come from farming stock and although i was brought up to believe that farming was the economic backbone of the country i have little sense of country life. i met a farmer who had fallen on hard times, because of climate change and the economy. He was dangerously depressed. He feared he would have to relinquish his farm, the farm that had been in his family for generations. He couldn't begin to describe what that was like for him. He was very, very concerned that whoever bought his farm would not understand it, not just the economics of it, but something else, something he could not talk about, because the word was so painful it tore at his throat and he could not utter it. In the end his wife supplied the word. The word was beautiful. The farm was beautiful, and he loved it.

Friday, March 15, 2013

A psychic map of London

2005, London bombings. i was at a course with a group of people mostly my age. The course facilitator, an Englishwoman, began the day by suggesting we remember, and honour in some way, the terrors of that day.

People said, we could have been there. We used to live just around the corner. We used to use that tube station, get on that bus. Our sister still lives in London and it could have been her. Our kids work in pubs near there. When we were doing our big overseas trips,  in London back in 1979 or 1989 we remember, we remember....

Most of us had ties to London. i have never been there, but i have in my head a psychic map of the place, the London of my imagination.

It has a long history, the London of my imagination. Even in the nineteenth century, Pakeha New Zealanders saw London as their rightful capital city and their own country as London's agricultural hinterland. It was the place to go to find our roots, and to be inspired by a heritage we felt we owned. Our frozen lamb went there. Our young people went there - to study, to fight two world wars, to party.

My grandfather, who lived all his life in the south of the South Island, called England Home. With the capital H. When my parents were children, New Zealand fed the troops fighting World War Two. There were privations. Everything good went to England. Kids ranged the hillsides looking for rosehips, to make syrup, to send to England. My mother smuggled bottles of cream from her aunt's farm back to Dunedin, in her schoolgirl luggage. My grandfather tried growing his own tobacco. None of it was begrudged - everyone knew that Londoners were surviving the blitz, and they saw it when they went to the 'pictures', the plucky Cockneys putting their milk bottles out amidst the rubble, Buckingham Palace bombed, St Paul's standing against all the odds.

My childhood literary life was almost all British and much of it featured London. Especially post war, all austerity measures and fireweed and old griefs. That's where i developed my own psychic map. It seemed like mine - i could tell you roughly where Hampstead Heath was based on reading A Dog So Small by Phillippa Pearce, and where the Otterbury Incident took place - except actually that wasn't in London, but it ought to have been.

At the time i didn't realise how my psychic map was a typified London, as it had been for Kiwis for a century.  It was London as experienced by Victorian era artists in search of real history and real civilization, of troops on furlough in 1917 being guided by YMCA staff around all the right places (and none of the wrong ones!), of the propaganda films and educational short travelogues shown in schools. It really was a psychic map, not a real one. i guess it will stay with me until i actually go there, and even then it will be my psychic guide to the past.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Civic duty - yeah right

5 March is census day here in Aotearoa/New Zealand. In theory, every good citizen will sit down and fill out their forms, and the government will then have the information it needs to plan the best life for us within its means.

The last census was due the year of the earthquakes, and it was cancelled. Too much change, too fast.

The last actual census, i had a job as a census taker. i took a set of blocks around the Christchurch city east area. i was comfortable there, as i had lived there earlier in my life, and thought i knew it well. My beat took in the City Mission men's night shelter, and a detox facility, and several backpackers' hostels. i knew it to be an area of transients, multicultural, poor.

i found layers of weird -as random sociology on my doorstep. i had no idea. The oldest layer consisted of a few original houses with elderly people in them. They had lived there since the area was a suburb. Imagine me arriving at a door and finding it wide open, with that old person smell and the tick of a grandfather clock and the dust motes dancing in the shafts of sunlight and no one in sight. Where were they? Who were they? Are they all right?

The second layer was the one i was used to - the bedsits and doss houses and manky old neglected villas. There are strict rules for census takers. You are Not Allowed to Cross the Threshold. You are Not Allowed to Help Them Fill Out Their Forms. i found refugees and people with little literacy and ended up having to explain to them what was a mezzanine floor, for heaven's sake, and doing the forms with them. The refugees were very helpful and offered me refreshments, thus meaning i broke the rule Not Taking Any Refreshments.  There were a surprising number of flats very crowded with young people from eastern Asia, who would not talk to me at all. i interrupted crimes and people having sex. i got shouted at a bit. The men's night shelter was fun. i went there for dinner time. The men there would not give me any address because they did not want anyone to know what bush they slept under. Kind staff gave me biscuits which were promptly and carefully stolen.

The third layer was for me the most disturbing. It was the layer of the Dark Towers. These were gated apartments where there was no access apart from keypads. Sometimes i could ring a bell and talk into a speaker. Sometimes i had no access at all. There could be thirty flats in a Dark Tower. They would advertise themselves as walking distance to the CBD, to clubs and restaurants, but nobody walked. They drove their cars into the lockup basement garage. One of the census taking rules was You Must Deliver The Forms in Person. i broke this rule too. It was difficult to talk to people even if they were accessible. They would first look out the window to see if i was harmless, then unlock and unbolt and peep through the security chain. i tried to specialise in looking harmless.

i thought that the third layer was a reaction to the second. The Dark Tower people  wanted to protect themselves from the doss house denizens and the City Mission men. And perhaps from bad shit in general. And the oldest layer had no clue that right next to them were towers dedicated to that low grade paranoia engendered by late capitalist thinking. They just pottered in their blowsy gardens and left the doors open.

The success of the national census is predicated on the idea that our society is relatively stable and homogeneous. It hearkens back to an age of six o clock news and dinners eaten as a nuclear family, when everyone sat down on the appointed day and filled out their forms with a sense of civic duty.

Well, that ain't happening. When the people i found weren't actively hostile they were mostly indifferent. They couldn't tell me anything about their flatmates. They didn't know where even they themselves would be on the day of the census. They couldn't give me a time to come back. And people lived and worked erratically; they had two homes or none and they were often in neither.

The organisers of the census seemed unprepared for all of this. Their maps were out of date. Their rules were unworkable. My strike rate was about 64%. That means about 36% of people did not fill in their forms. At the time i thought i was doing badly, but it transpired that in inner city areas all over the country the strike rate was about the same. This means the census is woefully inaccurate, a fact that historians have known for decades in part because it takes so long to collate it is out of date before it's published. Our society, if there is one, is changing even more rapidly than we know.

It is easy to avoid the census. Just don't answer the door. If you refuse to fill in the form a supervisor will be notified. They are supposed to call on you and heavy you, but the will probably be so exhausted with the work they won't bother.

You could also give amusing answers. The best religion i saw was Muslim Jedi. The best occupation was Playing Kick Ass Rock and Roll. All these answers are presumably treated with due care.

i found the whole thing both fascinating and appalling. i was a wreck by the end of it. For some months i avoided the area, and i would get an obscure twinge of terror whenever i knocked on anyone's door for a long time afterwards.

So, whatever your views on the census, if they come to your door please be nice to them. They are poorly paid and generally worthy people who really are - mostly harmless.