On breathing noisily, when puffed

I have decided to begin breathing noisily again when I am puffed, rather than trying to conceal the breathing.

In the past, I must have decided that breathing noisily when puffed was a sign of weakness, and that anyone who noticed the noisy breathing would say to themselves, ‘That woman is unfit.’ I can’t remember how or why I decided this, but it might have been something to do with climbing a mountain while on a school trip, and a boy was lagging up the mountain behind everyone else, breathing noisily, and the person beside me muttered, ‘John is unfit.’ As we waited, John crept very slowly towards us, crablike with his huge pack, and his eyes were lowered as he breathed noisily.

It might have been that, or it might have been something else, such as climbing some steps with my mother, or a combination of things.

For years now I have tried to quiet my breathing, when puffed, by letting the breath out thinly, like a slow leak from a puncture, or even pretending that it was a sigh, as if I had just remembered an important task. So whenever I was riding my bike up one of the many hills that I ride up each day, I tried not to move my mouth too much, because this would betray my noisy breathing. I also tried to maintain an unflustered, slightly bored expression, as if I was making so little effort that I could mentally absent myself from the scene. I didn’t want to attract the attention of any of the people walking up and down alongside the road, especially not anyone who would recognise me, and who might say to themselves, ‘Ashleigh Young is unfit.’ One of my bigger fears, and one that I thought about every day, was that an old boyfriend of mine, who I know goes to the university, would be passing in a bus and would look out the window and see me there at the roadside, breathing noisily. ‘She has got unfit,’ he would think to himself. I suppose this might still happen sometime in the future.

I am slightly puffed after walking the three flights of steps from my flat to the street with my bike over my shoulder. I am averagely puffed when I begin the climb towards the university. I am very puffed when I get to the top of The Terrace, and I am extremely puffed by the time I am creeping through the roundabout at the top of the parade beside the university; I use a last bit of energy to throw my arm sideways to signal the turn. When I am locking up my bike, I am so puffed that it feels like my lungs have turned into a pair of excited dogs and they are jumping up and down, trying to get at the air. My lungs paw and salivate at the air, tearing bits out of it like stuffing. By now I am defeated. Anyone who walks down the path behind me will see a woman untangling a bike lock while breathing not just noisily but extravagantly, on a breathing spree, and the thought will probably come to them, even just for a second before it is gulped up by a stream of other thoughts: ‘That woman is unfit.’

Sometimes I have been stuck behind slower-moving male cyclists who I could tell were breathing noisily, but I still have not been moved to allow myself to do the same.

Once I had a slow crash when a woman in a parked car opened her door into my path. But even that didn’t remind me that there were more important things to worry about than my breathing.

Last week a couple of teenage boys shouted abuse at me when I was just at the steepest, most difficult part of the hill, and I didn’t have enough air in my lungs to shout abuse back, but even that didn’t make me think I should let myself breathe noisily, as required.

Today, nothing in particular happened to make me decide to breathe noisily again when I am puffed. So, just as I am not sure why I decided that I had to breathe quietly, I am now not sure why I have decided that I don’t have to. I pushed my bike through the gate and my cat Jerry immediately came running out from under a tree, screeching at me. He screeched loudly and continuously as he ran down the steps just in front of my feet. I leaned my bike against the fence and put its special bicycle raincoat on, which is always more difficult than I think it will be, like putting a pair of pants on a car. Then I came inside and lay down on the floor and breathed noisily until I was no longer puffed. All this time, Jerry was prancing around me, screeching for food and maybe, I hope, because he was glad to see me. Maybe it just felt like enough time had passed and that I could breathe now.

Posted in bicycles, Working | 4 Comments

Which way Half Moon Bay?

Last year I wrote a short essay called ‘Sea of Trees’ that mentioned a Japanese woman, Keiko Agatsuma, who in the late 1970s came to New Zealand and lived alone on Stewart Island for a short time, in a cave in Doughbay Bay. She was eventually deported back to Japan because she had overstayed the time she was allowed to be in New Zealand, and she became something of a legend: Peter Wells wrote a short story based on her, which in turn provided the inspiration for a film by Niki Caro, and later the playwright Eileen Philipp wrote a Noh play about her. Anyway, the other day I got this little email from writer Matt Vance (author of How to Sail a Boat):

I have just re-read your essay ‘Sea of Trees’ from the Griffith Review.

In one of those short loops that can only happen in a place the size of NZ I recognised Keiko Agastuma.

I was eight years old and on holiday with my family on Stewart Island.

We were walking on the beach somewhere west of Oban when what turned out to be Keiko wandered out onto the beach from the bush.

This was something different in 1978 so my sister and I just stared at her. She smiled and said ‘Which way Half Moon Bay?’

We continued staring and just pointed the way.

Her quote became part of the family vernacular for decades.

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Bad, but not damned: On Tim Upperton

Would you eat your family?


Tim Upperton is the kind of poet who tends to have his poems shared without people asking his permission or paying him money. They’re the kind of poems that you want to share with another person immediately. So you do, which I can’t help but feel is a kind of stealing. I have done it often. I tell people they should buy the book, but how can you be sure they’ll follow through? When it comes to poetry, people don’t follow through. I need to repay my debt to Tim Upperton somehow, and rather than giving him money like a decent human being, I am going to write about his book The Night We Ate the Baby, like a writer. His book has been reviewed in only one place, briefly. Why hasn’t it been reviewed elsewhere? Probably because of shrinking arts review coverage on all fronts, or maybe because it was published by a small press, but a more interesting theory is: because it’s too good.

This isn’t a review. If it was, it would be effusive and dull. I actually just wanted to talk about the book. The first time I read these poems I thought of Larry David saying to Jeff Garlin that the Larry of Curb Your Enthusiasm is a fantasy – an embodiment of the things the real Larry would like to say. ‘I cannot tell you the pleasure, the pleasure that it gives me to have a moment of honesty in my life, albeit fictional. There is nothing that feels better to me!’ I’ve always thought there’s beauty in the way this honesty is delivered on the show, and watching it feels cathartic at the same time as it feels slightly unbearable. Because outside of that moment of honesty, ‘We’re full of shit all the time! It can’t be helped, you have to get along in this world, that’s the way to do it.’ In the end it’s always Larry against the world, holding his small triumphs close and being swallowed by a mob of Michael J. Fox fans. Anyway, my point is, it sometimes feels a bit like that in a Tim Upperton poem, especially when he’s not going easy.






(The poems aren’t all like that. This one, ‘Fonnet’, has the most swearing in it.) Like Larry, the speaker of this book is alone with his convictions, which take some poems to brutal places and others to very poignant places. Even his own body is against him, like the insolent lazy eye that looks at him stonily: ‘Who do you think you’re looking at, who the fuck do you think you are?’ (You can hear Tim read the lazy eye poem here.) The speaker looks back at himself and at others just as stonily. He never shrinks away from seeing. I think the best kind of poetry doesn’t shrink away. Like in ‘Drive’, where each line builds in weird, cold intensity, the kind where you’re asking, ‘Is this funny or is it menacing?’

I’ve got a new car.
It goes better than my old one.

The places it takes me to
aren’t better.

It just gets me to them
in a better way.

The places are the same,
only worse

for being looked at again.

It seems like the narrator of these poems (and I’ll be honest, I can’t help but read the narrator as an idealised version of Tim, just as Curb‘s Larry is an idealised version of non-Curb Larry) is often speaking from inside some awful predicament or entrapment. But because he has nothing left to lose and no sensibilities left to offend, he can speak bluntly. I’ve heard Tim say before that he is interested in the idea of ugliness in poetry – a poetry that resists lyricism, sentimentality, pleasing rhyme and metre, the epiphany easily reached. I think it’s through this resistance that these poems arrive at something else, something that feels real and hard-won, a language that feels new because it never falls back, always reaches. (The obvious irony is that in resisting poetic beauty these poems often arrive at another sort of beauty. Sorry Tim.) It’s not always easy to read a poem that clunks along where we might expect it to hum, that insults where it would usually placate, that speaks of death with relief not regret, that’s harsh where you’d expect kindness.


There is no sense of gratuity in these utterances, just directness. I think these hard edges are why I like this book a lot.

At the cemetery the gravestones
are hilarious. This woman died
aged one hundred and two.
We sit on her tomb for an hour.
You kiss me. I kiss you.

The more I read these poems, the less the Larry David analogy is quite right. In Curb, I feel like Larry never realises the futility of his predicaments. He cares so much about being right and his frustration with other people eats him alive. Whereas in many of these poems, many of which are indeed bleakly hilarious, the speaker doesn’t particularly care. He has stopped railing. He exists in a kind of Purgatory, a place that Tim talked about once on a blog post on evil as ‘a kind of waiting room where those who were bad but not damned sat around’. This speaker is bad, but not damned. His acceptance of his lot is not without sadness and sometimes rage, but it is an acceptance that frees him to acknowledge what is true. And sometimes he turns bleakness inside out and shows its sweetness, like the precious items ticked off, one by one, in ‘Valediction':





The most alarming poem in this book is probably the prose poem ‘Would you eat your family?’ a brutally reasoned argument on why, in a plane crash, you should eat your family. By the end of the poem, I am seriously considering eating my family.

You are alive now. I want you to live.

My dad is a pilot, so it’s a question I should have really thought about before. Thank you, Tim, for leading me sure-footedly through this decision-making process.

This is an important book because it turns upside down notions of how poetry should behave, and especially the notion that a poet’s voice should be likeable and relatable. After reading it I was questioning my own writing voice and wishing I could be as brave. The patron saint of disagreeable poetry is probably Frederick Seidel, but I would argue that, despite his greatness, Seidel’s poetry sometimes crosses over into being gratuitously, absurdly disagreeable. In poems like The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri, he becomes a caricature of himself. With Tim, and this may not be a compliment, I never feel I’m being wilfully provoked. Each poem begins from somewhere new.

The last thing I will say is that the book contains the most unbearably sad poem that I read last year and will probably read for some time. The poem is ‘Late Valentine’ and it contains the lines:

I don’t cook you breakfast
on Saturday morning,
and this makes me perpetually hungry.

I don’t run out of patience,
or shampoo, and this makes me wait
for you with clean hair.

There are many other sad details in this poem but the saddest of them all is the clean hair. Tim is the master of the detail that shouldn’t be particularly significant but that somehow is: a hardwood floor in rain, a coathook, a speckled hen, an upturned bucket that at first looks like a white cat. But, the clean hair! The purgatory of the clean hair.

Buy The Night We Ate the Baby.

Follow Tim on twitter.

Posted in books, Poetry | Tagged , | 2 Comments

On the ‘tad’

A couple of people this week have said ‘a tad’ in relation to my person. This is unusually frequent use of the expression ‘a tad’. But more importantly, each time, the context of the ‘tad’ has made me wonder how you would define ‘a tad’. What is a tad, in the world? I have given it some thought, probably too much thought – and I see now that this post means I have taken it too far – and I have come up with some analogies for a tad. One is that a tad is a mosquito-like insect, a type of midge, a very tiny but nevertheless living thing that burrows into a person’s skin and sometimes their eyeballs. A tad might also be a skin tag, like those that sit on my father’s neck, each a tiny bookmark, and also the tiny, tiny ones that are appearing on my own neck; so in essence, a tad is a protrusion that offers you nothing other than a slightly bleak similarity with someone else. A tad might also be a minor-seeming argument with someone, like the argument of being waved across a road by a waiting driver, when you don’t want to cross the road in front of that driver, and then the previously polite driver yells something at you and blasts off. A tad is always pretty small, very small, maybe even invisible, but its hunting territory is wild and various.

I have joined a new gym and as part of joining a new gym I had to meet a personal trainer for one hour. This was so he could measure different things about me and have me step over things and hold a big stick at certain angles. Having been through a few of these sessions at previous gyms, I was prepared for some upbeatness, some asking about my weekend plans, and some cheery undertones of disapproval. For this is the ring of fire we must leap through before being set free to do what we want. After tidying away the big stick and the measuring devices, and solemnly writing down some things, the trainer said, ‘In terms of fat, you could lose a tad.’ So I swept all the things off the trainer’s desk with one arm and then did the fingers and said, ‘Measure this.’

Well, I didn’t. Instead, to the irritation of my future self I nodded and said ‘Yes I know.’ But later I thought about how different ‘a tad’ was to that guy and me. To the trainer, a tad was a flap of the wrist, a couple of digits to write on his form. To me this tad encompassed many, many tads, more than fifteen years of tads: a tad more, a tad less, a tad further, a tad longer; each tad with its own swarm of failures and triumphs. None of these tads would seem significant to anyone else: each was a near-invisible midge, just a speck of life, but at certain times that midge had been eating me alive. Each of those tads was the opposite of how it seemed. Each was truly going somewhere else and meaning more than it appeared to mean. At an Outdoor Pursuits trip I went on as a 13-year-old, my group’s leader, Ron, would say ‘Just around the next corner, folks’ when we asked if we could stop for morning tea yet. Ron was generally annoying, but here he became annoying in a very specific way. Two hours later, hungry and knackered, we would not yet have reached this mythical corner where we would be able to sit down and eat our defrosted Anzac biscuits. Maybe my memory is exaggerating the length of our miserable slog towards the corner, towards the terrible biscuits. That is not the point. All slogs are relative. All tads are relative.

The second instance of ‘a tad’ was more straightforward, perhaps, but it still made me reflect on the gap in meaning between the person’s ‘tad’ and my ‘tad’. I told a friend I was feeling down, and he said to me, ‘Yes you seemed a tad low.’ There was a minimising element to this, as if my lowness were next to nothing, as if I were a bit peckish instead of ravenous, as if I must be a bird instead of a person. It came from kindness, from wishing to dignify. But it made me feel tired, and indeed lower, because it meant I would need to explain that the tad was bigger than a tad. I mean, it was still a tad, I suppose, but the tad was behaving differently for me than it was behaving for onlookers.

I apologise for saying ‘a tad’ so many times in this post. My reason for doing it is so you see what a bad expression it is, and never use it again.

I’m not sure what it would have been better for either of these people to say instead. I like to think that each instance was an attempted kindness, an attempt to dignify something that they saw as a problem or even shameful, and also something that could be quickly stepped over and forgotten. This kind of kindness troubles me because it is only really kind to the person who is saying the words; it means they don’t have to speak openly with you. I like frankness better, a frankness that does not need to measure.

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Memorandum of Understanding


Understand that we will be working together / and this means / we do not have to
like each other. / Understand that we have common goals / and aspirations, we
have aspirations / most of all. / Understand, that in the end, / the unspoken is
always spoken / and usually by someone not qualified to speak it. Understand, /
the rhythm of this agreement is not always symmetric, / sometimes the drummer
starts to lean / on one thigh, slowly sags to the side, / and as a result the song
can sound like mud and honey. / Understand, that I love you. / Understand, that
this doesn’t necessarily concern you. / Understand, that this is a bridging
agreement, / just a place-holder / until the full programme of individual projects
that need to occur to realise the full potential of the programme which addresses
all the individual and specific concerns and develops a full and proper
understanding of all the aforementioned concerns / is in place. Understand, / that
there are no place-holders. Understand, / that between two place-holders is a
river of uncertain places. / Understand, that the most interesting thing about the
river / are the bridges that cross it. That bridges / always cross something. That
bridges always burn. / That bridges can, and often are, / rebuilt. Understand, the
gravity / of all this / and how I’m waving my arms about / to indicate the All of
This. Understand, / the specific weight of at least / some of it. Understand, / the
specific body is important. / Understand, that no one can really understand
gravity, / it exists only on a piece of paper, / as in, like, an equation, / as in the
things between the things / we can understand. Like a bridge. Or the complex
science / that goes into a bridge. / Understand this. / This is a bridge, quite a long
one. / Understand, that we should be wary of long bridges. / If we find ourselves
seduced / by long bridges, we should strip off, / stand in front of the mirror, /
squeeze all the wobbly bits. / I understand / that’s what you do when I’m not
around. / From now on, let’s do that together, / let’s squeeze our secrets, / but
only with one another. Let’s understand the wobbly bits and squeeze them. /
Let’s be wobbly, let’s be squeezy. / Let’s remember what it felt like to be
memorable. / Let’s stand under this understanding and marvel / at her structure,
the curve of her thought-bearing hips / as she takes our concerns, / one by one,
without complaint.

[NOTE: Bill Nelson read this poem at the Wellington LitCrawl on Saturday. He read it in a strangely expressive monotone – I wish I had a recording of it – and it was my big highlight of the LitCrawl. I was sitting behind Bill and when he returned to his seat I prodded him appreciatively in the shoulder but I don’t think he noticed, so this is my chance to make my appreciation more boldly known. Obviously Bill is a writer of poems (here are three great ones: ‘Giant Steps’ and ‘The Evidence’ and ‘All the love poems’) but he also writes for the brilliant NZ outdoors journal Up Country (which he edits with fellow writers John Summers and Thom Gower). He is also a player of squash, football, hockey and possibly tennis. He is on twitter. Bill’s poems always hit a real nerve with me. They have a tone and a temperature unlike anyone else, and his stuff tends to stick in my head. Like the line: ‘She had legs like a Saturday night movie’. And they’re often dazzlingly uncomfortable. Once, at Te Papa Marae, Bill read a poem that featured masturbation and I have never forgotten it.]

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or, Ode to Jerry



Small boy dressed as barn owl.

Barn owl with mouth of shark.

Cover of Whitley Strieber’s Communion

but smiling.

Boiled can of condensed milk.

Neighbour at RSA on Sunday afternoon.

Slow prattle of Singer, in sewing room.

Duvet inner draped over fence.

Constant minor expense.

Jittery tail of rattlesnake.

Ice cream cake.

Convivial beanbag. Wayward white bean

escaped from the bag.

Final pavlova my mother made.

Lemon meringue dropped on carpet.

Softness of morning armpit.

In the leaves, a snowman’s stomach.

Boot on doorstep, covered in snow.

Biscuit fallen into tea.

Warm flank of cow. Helpless manatee.

Sea cucumber rolling in the sand.

Sea foam skittering in the wind.

Iceberg, knowing it will become sea.

Open arms metamorphosing into Jerry.



[NOTE: Last night was the Wellington LitCrawl, and I was part of a short event called Little Beasties, along with Damien Wilkins, Kerry Donovan-Brown, Helen Heath, James Brown, Therese Lloyd, and Chris Price. The idea was that we each had to read something on the theme of the animal kingdom. I had a few animal-ish poems kicking about, but not, like, a core one. I needed a core animal poem. So yesterday afternoon before the reading I hastily wrote this poem (is it really a poem? Maybe it is more of a simple list) about my cat, Jerry, in which I try and fail to find the perfect descriptor for him. I had resolved that the ridiculous Jerry poem would exist solely at the reading, after which it would self-destruct, but when I revisited it this morning in the sober light of day, I felt oddly OK with its bottom-of-the-barrel cheesiness, so here it is.]

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Window seat

At 8:20 on Thursday morning I found my seat, the middle of the row near the back of the plane, sat down, and switched on my Kindle. I was reading The Examined Life, Stephen Grosz’s account of his experiences as a psychoanalyst, and I had reached the last section, ‘Leaving’, in which Grosz has taken on a new patient, a young man, who has just been diagnosed with HIV. The young man is beginning to spend all of his psychoanalysis sessions in deep, still, heavy silence, sometimes even falling asleep. I was at the part where Grosz is describing the different kinds of silences that patients sometimes bring to him – silences of refusal, or discomfort, of repression – when a tiny withered woman with a huge puffy black bag over her shoulder indicated she had the window seat beside me. I got up and helped her manoeuvre her bag into the overhead compartment, then she sat down and set about making herself comfortable; she took off her shoes, revealing papery brown feet, and arranged a blanket beneath her seat so that her feet had a resting place – her legs, in leopard-print leggings, were too short to reach the floor. She took out her own Kindle, which was in a proper zippered case, and I went back to Grosz and the young man in the therapy room. ‘Under ordinary circumstances,’ Grosz was saying, ‘I might ask a patient who has been silent for some time what they’re thinking or feeling, and once or twice I did this with Anthony. But I soon realised that my speaking was an intrusion, a disturbance.’ I stopped reading then because I couldn’t focus. I was getting a sense of slight but building pressure between the window-seat woman and myself – a sense that she was about to say something; that she wasn’t really going to read; she was just fiddling with the device while she decided where she would start with me. Sure enough:

‘If you see me popping pills or dragging on an inhaler, don’t you worry.’ She had a bright Queensland accent, with an unexpected burr, almost Scottish-sounding. ‘Bronchiectasis. Much worse than asthma. Had it for years and years, so I’ve got all these scars on my lungs. Big knotty scars. Bronchiectasis. Last time I left New Zealand I took this sickness with me, now I’m going to give the bloody thing back!’ She motioned at her tiny chest. ‘I’ve had about a hundred pneumonias and a fair few operations. It was all the mould in New Zealand. That’s why I moved away to Australia. But I’m tough. Don’t worry if you see me puffing away.’

She looked at me sideways. She had blue eyes in a small tanned face, and one of those open-mouthed smiles that made it look as though she was silently saying ‘Aaah!’ She pulled a plastic lunch container out of the front seat pocket, cracked open the lid and took out an egg sandwich, which she ate while swinging her feet and looking out the window. We were right above the wing. Outside on the tarmac an electric cart was shuttling about, a hi-vis figure at the wheel. ‘Sometimes when you’re between New Zealand and Australia,’ she said between mouthfuls, ‘if you look down you can see a rainbow circle in the sea. A glassy sort of rainbow, like a big bowl. I always get the window seat so I can see it, because it’s beautiful. But we won’t be able to see it with that darn wing there.’ I said it was a shame about the wing, and she said, ‘No, not a shame, it’s just the way it’s happened.’

She was quiet for a while, and in the meantime an elderly woman sat down in the aisle seat, to my left. She had white-blue hair and was dressed in shimmery black clothing, with bronzer on her cheekbones and scarlet lipstick. She had the look of a dulled but beautiful gemstone, which seemed obvious even as I thought it, but I couldn’t discard the impression. An opal, probably. (As I was thinking about what sort of gemstone she’d be I remembered how in Brisbane I’d thought aloud that the crows had eyes that looked like sequins. My friend James had said, ‘Maybe the eyes have evolved to look like sequins, because crows know that humans like the look of sequins.’) I helped the opal woman to adjust the direction of the tiny fan above us so that it was blowing directly into her hair, then we sat down. I was probably a frustrating barrier between the two women, making it less likely that they would talk to each other, when they might have more to say to each other – but then a middle-aged woman came down the aisle and handed the opal woman a packet of jellybeans. ‘You’ll need these for energy, Mum.’ Her mother tucked the jellybeans away and reclined her seat and put her sleeping mask on.

‘Last time I flew, I got terrible altitude sickness,’ window-seat woman whispered. ‘It was years ago. I remember lying on the floor under the seats thinking I might be dying. Suddenly the word “God” came to me. “God, God, God, God.” I felt like the word was beaming into me right down the centre, like a torch beam, filling me with the word “God”, and I thought, well, if this is dying, it’s all right.’ That must have been incredibly stressful, I said, and she jutted her chin upwards, squinting. ‘It’s how it happened, and it got me to where I needed to be.’ She looked out at the wing. ‘This is the first time I’ve flown in many, many years.’ The Scottish burr again. ‘I haven’t been able to, with my sickness. But if I make it this time, it’s a sign I’ll be able to make it to Switzerland, where my son lives. This is my test flight, you see.’ She gave the Aaaah smile again. ‘I’m meeting my sister in Wellington. First time I’ve seen her in five years. We were born in Invercargill. I had to leave because of the mould.’ Then she told me about the first time she’d been up in a plane, when she was sixteen. Her friend’s father was a pilot, and he had a small plane. They all went up together in the small plane and did acrobatics for half an hour. ‘Straight after the flight, my friend and I went off to a dance. All dressed up in our miniskirts. I was feeling so sick. My very first dance, I vomited all over my partner! He was very annoyed with me.’

We were still on the tarmac, and I was already feeling tired, because I’d had to react with surprise and delight at these stories. My energy for talking to strangers gets quickly depleted. Maybe sitting next to window-seat woman would be too much. But she was quiet now, and soon we were in the air, and Brisbane, with its pale sky and all its evenly tanned people in sunglasses and sleeveless tops, was dropping away. Window-seat woman nudged me and said, ‘Look.’ She had something in her hand. It was a white rock with corrugated, granular swirls in it, the swirls like the movements of a worm or a centipede. It looked like it could be a fossil, but I couldn’t tell of what. ‘I couldn’t resist picking this up on the beach early this morning. Nature! I don’t suppose they’ll let me through with it.’ I started to laugh. I said I didn’t think they would let her through with the rock. ‘Well, it’s here now,’ she said, and put it back in her bag with satisfaction.

I had been up since quarter to 5 because I’d had to walk to the train station, with James, who was flying back to Darwin. I closed my eyes and fell into a blank doze. When I opened them again I felt heavy and sad. I always feel a bit sad on flights between countries. I can’t help thinking about the past and the future and where I will end up. The geographical limbo seems to emphasise a limbo I feel in myself. I was staring into space, thinking about all this, when the woman said, ‘My brother’s a cross dresser,’ and I was jolted back into our little row. ‘Been doing it for ten years, and has never been happier,’ she said. ‘He’d always felt pulled in all directions as a young man – he just wasn’t ever himself. What grief. Imagine it. And when he was fifty, he met this wonderful woman who told him to just let go. Just let it out. And he started dressing like a woman, these lovely skirts, colourful shoes, and he and this woman who’d told him to do it, they ended up married. It was a real eye opener for our whole family. We all loved him but now we had to learn how to love him as a lady, too.’ I got the sense she’d told the story numerous times but that she liked to tell it because it confirmed something she’d long believed. ‘It’s an amazing way to have your whole world opened up, you know – to have your brother or son or father say, I’m Harris, but I’m also Paris.’ She prised another sandwich from her plastic container and began to eat. We were flying over the clouds now.

The opal woman took off her mask, shakily stood, and made her way towards the toilets, clasping one seat at a time in a kind of rowing motion. I stood up too, and the window-seat woman followed. Ordinarily I would’ve felt irritated, but I didn’t with this woman. She didn’t seem needy or searching with her stories, the way some fellow passengers are. She didn’t seem to expect anything from me. We queued together at the end of the aisle, while the people in the toilets took what seemed like a very long time. Window-seat woman looked at me incredulously. ‘Funny how some people take so long. Just like life, isn’t it?’ Then she looked fixedly at me and said:

‘About forty years ago my brother – not the crossdresser one, the other one – was flying over Saudi Arabia, and the plane got hijacked. It was in the days when it was easy to hijack a plane. The hijackers made the pilots land in a desert.’ The thought crossed my mind that window-seat woman must be lying, at least exaggerating. ‘They had to stay there for two days until they were rescued. My brother was fine in the end, and no one was killed. But he came back to us very much older.’ She gave a strange sad laugh. ‘And later on he ended up dying of AIDS. What a mystery.’ A toilet door finally opened and she went in while I stayed waiting in the aisle. I thought about the book I had been reading and the young man lying silently on the couch in the psychoanalyst’s office. It had taken Grosz a long time to understand that all Anthony needed was not to feel alone. He didn’t need to talk, but he wanted to fall asleep without fear, knowing that when he was gone, he stayed present and alive in the mind of another.

Back in our seats, it wasn’t long before window-seat woman spoke again, and for the next twenty minutes she told me that she’d once been a biker in the Hell’s Angels – had probably been one of New Zealand’s first female bikers – but had got in trouble with the police so had to give it up; that she’d been thrown out of numerous nightclubs as a youngster because her skirt was too short; that once she went to an auction at Lyall Bay and her young daughter had tripped over in front of her, and when she reached out to pick her up she made a particular motion that made the auctioneer think she was bidding, and she ended up buying a big oak table. She told me that it was in Lower Hutt when her real life began, because it was here that she realised she was a healer. A friend had arrived after a long flight and he had hurt his elbow lifting a heavy suitcase, so she put her hands on his elbow to comfort him. ‘I felt this strange, powerful tingling in my hands and arms, and I thought I must be getting pins and needles. After a few moments I had this strong feeling that my friend’s elbow was better now. I took my hands away, and he said, “Gosh, my elbow feels much better.” I said to myself, “I’m a healer, I’m a healer!”’ She said that many years later, she ended up with her own healing practice in Zurich. Her husband earned all the money, so she didn’t charge for her healing services.

It was possible that she was recklessly inventing. Who easier to tell an imagined life to than a stranger on a plane who you’ll likely never see again? The geography and timescale of her life was erratic – she had mentioned Invercargill, suburbs around Wellington, Paekakariki, all over Europe, all over Australia – and it was hard to figure out who she was without being able to connect her firmly to one particular place. The past seemed so vivid to her that it was also hard for me to grasp that some of the stories she was telling took place more than forty years ago. I made my mind up to not decide there and then whether she was telling the truth. I wanted to stay open for as long as I could. I was wide awake when she said, with resolve: ‘Now, I’m going to tell you about you.’ She had not expressed any particular interest in me until this point, beyond asking me how old I was and what I did for a living.

Opal woman was having a close, whispered conversation with her daughter, who had come down the aisle again holding a miniature hairbrush.

‘You love your cat,’ window-seat woman said, ‘you love your cat very much, and you love all animals,’ and then I realised that she must think she had psychic abilities, along with healing abilities. There was nothing to do but play along; I was trapped here. I told her she was right about the cat and the animals. ‘You’re very gentle,’ she went on. ‘At your core you are very gentle, though you can be spiky on the outside.’ How does one disagree? Isn’t that the basic human condition? ‘Where do you live… I’m seeing you living on the top of a hill. Steep hill. And you’re zipping about on the roads, very quick, very zippy. An explorer.’ She motioned with her hands. ‘You’re very like your mother but you think she talks too much. Your father is a bit hazy to me.’ She frowned for a while. ‘You have more of a connection with one of your brothers than the other one, perhaps.’ Then she shook her head. ‘I could go on and on, but it wouldn’t do either of us any good.’ She laughed and said: ‘I will just say, I don’t see any black marks ahead. Isn’t that great!’ She peered at me. ‘I also will just say, you need to clean your glasses.’

We spent some time in quiet. I tried to read my book again. Anthony had not died – in fact, after being told he might have two years left and that essentially he had no future, he had lived for a very long time. ‘I now think that Anthony’s silences expressed different things at different times,’ Grosz was saying. ‘Sorrow, a desire to be close to me but stay separate, and a wish to stop time.’ Anthony was still alive at the chapter’s close, and then I began a new chapter, about a woman named Alice P., who was trying to grieve for a baby she had lost but wasn’t able to.

We were ten minutes from landing when window-seat woman turned to me and said, ‘I wanted to save this till the very end. I see some big changes ahead for you. Your life is going to go like that.’ She made a zigzaggy motion with her hand. ‘Yes, you’ve spent so much time putting others first, and it’s your turn now.’ She looked at me with such kindness that I put aside, for a moment, the knowledge that this is what psychics routinely tell their charges, because this is what people want to hear. Everyone wants to feel chosen. Being told ‘it’s your turn now’ feels like being praised, or needed, or pursued. But then she said, drily: ‘I don’t suppose you’ve met the love of your life.’ I was flustered and felt a surge of annoyance. It was her knowingness, and her flippancy. I told her, ‘I’m not sure I believe in that expression “love of your life”. But I feel that maybe I have, actually, back home.’ She said, ‘Well, let’s see. You’re at the perfect age. Women come right at your age. Men never really come right.’ I got really annoyed then – maybe she would go on to ask someone else if they had found the love of their life, and that person would grow doubtful about all of their decisions and throw everything away – and turned on my Kindle and read that Grosz’s sister had been to speak to a clairvoyant when she had lost her home and all her possessions in a brush fire in California, in 2008. Grosz’s sister says that through the clairvoyant she spoke to her and Grosz’s mother, who has been dead for more than twenty years, and Grosz is surprised to find himself tearful. ‘What did Mom say?’

We were descending quickly into Wellington now and I could see the hills and houses taking on their familiar edges. The pilot had just announced that the local temperature was 12 degrees, with a strong Southerly, and a shriek had gone up from all the Queenslanders on board. I finished my book, and found myself crying. Window-seat woman murmured, ‘Jerry must be missing you.’ Jerry is the name of my cat. She said, ‘Is that his name? Jerry? He’ll be glad to see you.’ I managed to say, ‘Yes, yes it is,’ even as I was shaking my head. At some point I must have said Jerry’s name, I must have, but as I combed carefully back through our conversation, I was sure I hadn’t.

After we landed and were waiting for the seatbelt sign to turn off, she said to me, ‘Do they still call Wellington the City of Angels? They always said that the angels help planes to get down safely to the ground.’ I said no, I was sure they had never called it that. Then I helped her to pull her bag from the overhead compartment and a few minutes later she was swallowed by the steadily moving line of passengers behind me.

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