It would be a winter’s evening. The day would close itself up. Music While You Dine would play on the radio. Its theme music was so desperately sad it was more Music While You Die; it would just wrack the soul with obscure terror. Birds would settle in. Kitchen lights would go on and the cabbage put on to boil in all the damp wooden houses. There was always this little death, like this simple ending was too much to bear, over and over, every day, each day the same, the grey of closing, the lowering of the light, the end, again.
I would go down the hill and look at the road. Then it promised north. North was where everything was. Up north there were cities and seas and warmth. I could go to a city and live a life. I could go to London and have a wonderful house where fucked up teenagers whose parents didn’t understand them could live however they felt, and never be judged.
When I was thirteen I was caught shoplifting and ran away from home. My family, those small minded fools, thought I would go south to relatives. Of course I went north, on the road, hitch hiking for the first time. The police were called. There was even an announcement on the local radio station. At school the next day the general view was that I should have run away on Tuesday, when Dial A Disc was on the radio. Then everyone would have known.
It seemed I was not entitled to even this amount of drama.
When my mother was dying, I drove this road many times to see her. 150 kilometres of straight two lane highway. I would do it at awful speed, towards the end, in a kind of angry regressed state, listening to My Chemical Romance very loud, drinking Red Bull, struggling with what seemed like a permanent chest infection as I filled up with phlegm and gall. One time I was caught speeding and thought of saying to the cop, but my mother is dying, and then I realised I had no excuse, no excuse at all.
The day she died I drove down. I had packed my sleeping bag and my lunch, but early that morning the dog had broken into it and eaten most of the sandwich. I took it anyway. I got to the hospice and watched as the last reflexive breaths tore themselves from her body. Then I drove back.
I got as far as Rakaia and lost my nerve. I checked into a motor camp. They gave me a small bottle of milk and I staggered up the darkened steps into a tiny motel room. The heater didn’t work. It wheezed cold air at me. I wrapped myself in everything and put the White Stripes on and whenever I closed my eyes I watched my mother die again and again, her face caving in and eventually greying out.
Arriving the next morning, before going home, I immediately bought four new tyres. It was a gesture of commitment to the road, to all the work ahead of me.
I stayed in Rakaia recently, in the same motor camp .I explored a bit. Rakaia turned out to be mostly gravel. I tried to walk to the river in the evening and got lost in pits of gravel, bedevilled by moonlight and the distant grind of traffic on the road. I wasn’t scared; nobody died of gravel. Thirst, maybe.
East of the road is the coast line. East coast lines are lean spare ribs of the land. More gravel. Agates. Thumping great surf. Wakanui Beach lies east of Ashburton. I drive through flat fields blighted by dairying, under a huge sky that could do any damn thing. On this day it hangs gravid with rain. The beach itself rakes the edge of the fields, and fog clings to the cliffs even at midday. It is desolate, in a Derek Jarman way. I love it. This is the place angels come to drown.
There is something wrong with the cliffs. They have been severely smitten. I wonder if it was earthquakes, but certainly something has driven a giant axe through them and their insides have come out in places. It has done weird things to the skyline; it looks like some sort of archaic pain. I clamber up into the riven gap. It spits me out of its maw like a pebble. I land on the beach again. , Maybe this is how pebbles are born.
Actually, there is a story about these cliffs. Some people say two Chinese junks were thrown up onto the cliffs during a tsunami, some hundreds of years before the Maori arrived in Te Waipounamu, the South Island. Charred remains of boat wreckage have been found embedded in the cliff face, and it is thought they were on fire when they landed. Imagine that. Imagine smashing into those cliffs in a flaming junk on the wrong side of the planet.
Me, I more or less belong here. No flaming tsunamis. No fabulous breaks for freedom hitching north on the lam. Just breathing.