Eleven

I was cleaning up my desktop while avoiding writing my column, and I came across this old photo of Jerry. It’s him at the vet’s in July 2014 after he’d been hit by a car. Not pictured is his big shaved bottom, which took the impact. He came to the Waikanae SPCA as a flea-ridden stray when he was about five (though, his age is a guess). I often wonder what his life was like before. I feel jealous of this other life he must have had. Sometimes I imagine his old family turning up and he runs towards them, overjoyed – like in that video with Christian the lion in Kenya, in the 1970s – then they pick him up and bundle him into their car and speed away, brakes screeching. Jerry turns eleven soon. He’s just a really good cat.

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The haircut

My childhood sweetheart rang. We hadn’t spoken in twenty-five years. He said, ‘Also, I am seeing somebody else now.’ It was as if we’d been in the middle of a conversation, as children, and he’d only just remembered to mention it now.

My whole body started to tremble. I said, ‘Can I speak to her?’ but he told me she couldn’t come to the phone because she was out getting a haircut.

A wave of grief rose up in me. It was the thought that this person had hair, hair that needed cutting, and presumably also then a whole head with a brain inside it, and a body that was alive. She was a whole person, and I was not.

After the phone call, I sat in a chair, sobbing, and tried to eat a long raspberry bun. I had read that when you’re feeling down you should eat, and this was all I had. The bun was delicious, but eating it was a miserable experience. It grew larger and larger in my hands, and my mouth seemed to keep changing its location, until eventually I was just smashing the raspberry bun into my face, hoping some of it would get in. I had the sense that my childhood sweetheart was watching me trying to eat and feeling relieved at his decision.

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DREAM

I was riding my bike to the train station, because I was going to catch the train to New York City. I had a dog with me. The dog was very big but was old and very sick. I was carrying it in a large white sling around my front, like a baby. I was also towing in a trailer all the things we would need for the trip, such as dog food and medicine. The dog was well-behaved, and I could sense from the dog which streets I should take for the fastest route to the station. The streets were empty as we rode along together, and I kept thinking how relieved I would be when we finally got to New York and could unpack and sit down. When we finally arrived at the station, the attendant looked at me with the dog in the sling and said, ‘The train that goes to New York City rides through this station too fast for anyone to actually get on. I just thought you should know that.’

I didn’t know what to do, and wondered if we should just continue the trip by bike. I looked into the dog’s eyes. I could tell that it wanted to go home, and suddenly I felt angry. ‘I care about you,’ I mouthed, with no sound coming out, ‘but why didn’t you tell me before that you didn’t even want to go!’ We started riding back home, and once again the dog showed me the best streets to take for the fastest route.

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New Year’s Eve Paragraphs

A couple of years ago a friend asked me, ‘Are you someone who is easily contented?’ I don’t know why I’ve always remembered that question. We were sitting in a bar next to a window and the sun was shining in my eyes. I can’t remember what I said. I think I was conflicted, because the question seemed to be about whether I wanted things to change or stay the same. Afterwards I cycled home, ate a big dinner and got into bed with a book and felt completely happy then fell asleep.

I walked into the lounge and immediately forgot what I was there for, so I said what I always say when I forget, which is, accusingly, ‘What the fuck was it?’ A song by Guillaume Teyssier called ‘Shadow Dancer’ had just come on the stereo. In the video for the song, two French guys (one of whom is Teyssier) wearing shiny bomber jackets saunter into a classroom and give disco lessons to the students. I don’t understand why Guillaume Teyssier isn’t more famous. Every so often I google him and see if there have been any developments in his career, but there never have. In the lounge, I thought of the bomber jackets and suddenly I started dancing. It was the usual dance which I have been doing for twenty years. A series of rippling, bubbling movements, sometimes a geyser, sometimes a jug coming to the boil. The last time I’d done this dance was perhaps a year ago, and it took more effort than I remembered. Then, as I was dancing, I thought of a line in a James Brown poem about dancing, from his most recent book. The line is, ‘Her body made a kind of qwerty motion.’ Thinking of the poem took me out of the moment and I was suddenly incredibly embarrassed. I stopped moving around. I remembered what I was in the living room for. Nail clippers. 

I tried to write an essay about ‘New Zealand’s terrible year’. I was not happy about it – the year, obviously, or the essay. I kept telling myself, you will figure out how to describe it. Halfway through writing it I realised I wasn’t figuring it out and wasn’t going to, because it was impossible and because I should not have agreed to write the essay. A feeling of dread came over me, then panic, and I thought, I shouldn’t be a writer anymore. Then I said out loud, ‘Don’t be so dramatic. God.’ Then I thought, Still, though. You think about that.

A big blackbird was sitting in a relaxed, almost spreadeagled way on the fence outside my bedroom. I wanted to take a photo of it. When I moved, I saw the bird’s eye swivel towards me and seem to widen as it saw me sitting on my bed in my dressing gown while the sun outside was shining, and the bird straightened up and flew away. 

When I think about happiness, which I am doing because it is New Year’s Eve and unavoidable, I think of it in kind of a mocking way, telling myself off for wanting it. You can’t just wish for happiness, because happiness isn’t a place at which you arrive and then can stay. And the more you strive for it, the more elusive it gets. As far as happiness is concerned, the best you can hope for is to catch it for a moment, like a tail wind. It’s just logic. When I’m saying all this, my inner voice is both jolly and defensive, like a sunburned man on holiday about to lose his temper in the car. But I’m no longer satisfied with the knowledge that happiness isn’t something to be achieved and that I have to embrace my unhappiness first. I worry that it means that it will always be like dancing to ‘Shadow Dancer’ – for a few seconds my moves are impressive, until I remember that they’re not.

For Christmas my mother gave me a book called Words on Words: Quotations About Language and Languages. When I was struggling with the essay I turned to the chapter ‘Writing: The nature and functions of writing; techniques of successful writing’. I read: ‘Writers, like teeth, are divided into incisors and grinders.’ (Walter Bagehot.) I put down the book and googled types of teeth. Walter Bagehot had left out the canines, premolars, wisdoms. Regardless, how was the statement meant to be helpful? I read, ‘No iron can stab the heart with such force as a full stop put just at the right place.’ (Isaac Babel.) I didn’t think it was right to equate punctuation with murder. I knew the statement was hyperbolic, and I was being disingenuous. But I couldn’t get past it and I still can’t. A full stop will never have the force of someone stabbing someone in the heart, not even close. Then I read a French proverb: ‘Where paper speaks, beards are silent.’ What the fuck.

I have never been less sure of anything.

At high school I remember a friend said that a good title for a novel would be ‘And She Went’. I agreed, it would be a good title, because it indicated that the character was decisive. The last line of the novel, we agreed, would be ‘And she went’.

One of my problems is I often have just a small scene that feels kind of meaningful, but it’s not a story. It’s barely an idea. I’ve thought I’d like to write about learning to ride a horse. More specifically, about being carried away by horses. Being carried away by a horse feels like something that should mean something and that I could write about. My mum and brothers and I all learned to ride horses together in Te Kūiti, and at different points each of our horses panicked and carried us away. I have a memory of being carried away by my horse, Alicia, which went galloping along a ridgeline far above the teacher’s, Mrs Bakewell’s, house. Alicia cleared a couple of fences and then went sort of clambering, monkey-like, up a steep hill – her legs seemingly unstoppable, like one of those military robot dogs – while I clung on to her back, instinctively lying myself down on her neck, screaming. I saw the small riding paddock in the distance, with its brightly coloured jumps made of barrels and logs. My brothers, my mother and Mrs Bakewell were standing down there. I remember rolling down the cold wet grass, so I must have unhooked myself from the stirrups and thrown myself from Alicia.

And I remember watching my mother being carried away when we were on a trek near Piopio. It was one of the most terrifying moments of my life to see her disappearing into the distance on the back of the horse. Then she, too, threw herself from the horse and rolled neatly, like Indiana Jones, along the ground.

I wrote to my brother JP to ask about his experiences falling off horses, and he wrote about an event at a gymkhana. His horse – rotund, black with a white star on his nose – was named Sparky. ‘I remember falling off Sparky repeatedly as we attempted to canter over a series of small wooden logs set in the ground. The crowd were keen to see me succeed, and it seemed to become an important test of character (though I can’t remember to who) that I perform this event satisfactorily.’

I remember thinking this was a great anecdote, but then I didn’t know where else to go with it.

I don’t mean this to sound like a joke, because it’s true – I’ve had a lot of sex dreams these past few nights. They are not normal sex dreams. In one, I was wrapped in wet muslin because in the dream people had a sexual fetish for cheese and were trying to form me into a kind of cheese. I was trying to stay calm, and keep an open mind out of respect for others’ predilections, even though I was struggling to breathe through the muslin. When I woke up, I was grumpy with myself for having these things in my head. How did they get there? I didn’t care if there was a simple explanation. 

On Christmas Day my oldest friend and her mum and I were swimming in the sea. There’s always a moment in the sea when the sky looks very huge, almost glamorous, like a beautiful face on a cinema screen. Then my friend shrieked, ‘What the fuck was that’ and immediately I felt it too – a thick bed of slime under my feet. Awful. The slime felt old, somehow. It had been there a long time. How far did it go for? Impossible to tell! The water was brownish, cloudy. There were just too many things you couldn’t see. We paddled back to the shore and walked up the beach in our togs. We all hobbled back to the car, dusted off our feet, and went.

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DREAM

I was reading the weekend newspaper when I came across a story about a prolific writer who had started a petition. Tens of thousands of people had already signed even though the petition had only started the day before. The petition was titled: ‘Petition to convince Ashleigh Young that she is not a peacock.’ The wording was something like: ‘We are sick and tired of Ashleigh Young pretending that she is a peacock. The fact is, she is not even a bird. She is a homo sapiens. We have evidence. She has been allowed to get away with this for too long.’ As I read the article, I felt a terrible, sickening feeling of guilt, and I knew that finally I had been found out, but I also felt a keen loss, somehow, knowing that I couldn’t behave like a peacock or any kind of bird anymore.

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Special time

It’s that special time of the year when people are asking themselves what to do about the social media accounts they’ve deactivated for the holidays.

‘Should I go back,’ they’re asking, ‘and if so when? Should it be soon or later or never?’ And they’re asking, late at night, ‘Should I announce that I’m back, and if so should I announce it sort of swaggeringly, or self-deprecatingly, or matter-of-factly? How irritating is each of these modes or do they all fall under the same banner of quite irritating?’ People don’t know the answers yet but they keep asking more questions, and they’ve got up from bed and they’re stomping around the room, maybe they’re dragging some furniture around, heedless of their downstairs neighbours who are actually trying to have a peaceful time sometimes. ‘Should I just slip back in without ceremony, like a smelly seal rolling back into the water before going to eat some molluscs? Would I prefer no one to remark on my re-entry, so that I can go about my business of complaining about buses and describing the times I lock myself out of places and retweeting certain posts that I think will reflect well on me, or will I secretly be hurt that no one has noticed my return and take out that hurt on people who post things about gratitude and home renovation or whose achievements I am jealous of? How long until I break into someone’s shed and steal their ride-on mower and drive through a fence? Will I apologise and say, “This was an important learning experience for me” or at 4a.m. will I find myself staring into my ravaged open palms while whispering, “I don’t know who I am anymore, or who I even was before all this”?’ And now people are walking around the neighbourhood at night, out there with the timid January fireworks, asking, ‘Will I be able to hold on to this new feeling of space, perhaps something close to peacefulness, or maybe it’s a vague empty confusion, inside my head, in a part that I wasn’t aware could feel space, or even anything, anymore – or will I watch the feeling steadily departing from me like the number 23 bus that the schedule board said was cancelled but apparently wasn’t? Does it matter if I no longer have that peacefulness, since in exchange I’ll have the gift of a platform where I’ll be exposed to many voices, as if standing naked while a chill wind blasts through the tunnel? What is peace to a person? Is it something about learning what to hold on to, and what to let go of? What if I can’t hold on? What if I can’t let go? What if my hands are on backwards, and they have tiny sieves where the fingers should be, and I’m letting go of all the things I should be holding on to, and there are strips of velcro in other places and they’re holding on to things I should let go? What other parts of me are on backwards –my brain? What is the exact nature of my wrongness and how visible is it to others? Am I having a flare of visible wrongness, like eczema, or am I managing it okay right now?’ It’s that time of year when people have finished their night walk and they’re back home now, and they’re searching for their door key in their pocket, but they can’t find it; it must have fallen through their sieve fingers and they’re locked out again, and it’s the time of year where they’re pulling a towel off the washing line and wrapping themselves up in it and curling up on the grass, with the bugs and the mosquitoes, and they’re being eaten alive, and a hedgehog is at the dark periphery of the garden, just waiting to visit them and shriek at their face before running away on its freakish long legs. And it’s that time of year when people are curling up a bit tighter outside on the lawn and asking, ‘What if the planet is an immense round cat, and I’m buried in its fur, like the princess carried on the white bear’s back in that fairytale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon”, and what if right now I’m being carried to an enchanted castle, and this roaring wind is actually the cat purring, or eating some wet food, and this is how I’ll be lulled to sleep.’ And they’re finally falling asleep, and they’re waking up stiffly at five in the morning, when the night is just newly deactivated, and they’re slowly standing and brushing the grassy bits off themselves, and they are feeling a surge of fresh and righteous anger because they are not in an enchanted castle, they’re on the lawn, and today is the day they are going to steal a ride-on mower, yes, it’s that time of the year where people are bracing themselves against a tide of unanswerable questions and also against the irresistible pull of mistakes, and today is the day they are going to drive through a fence.

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THE RADIO

I’m at my parents’ house for a few days. The radio is almost always on. It’s talkback radio. I think it’s Newstalk ZB. New Zealand’s #1 Talk Station. During the day, the talkback radio is overlaid with the tennis commentary from the TV. This, in turn, is overlaid with my parents’ commentary on the tennis, especially if there are female players and there is any suggestion of a tantrum. All of this is occasionally overlaid with the phone ringing. Three different phones ring at different pitches and intensities whenever someone calls the landline. But at night it’s just talkback radio – a tinny, dyspeptic gurgle.

I’d just started writing this when my mum drove up outside, after running errands around town. She opened the door and the car radio blared out. Two men were talking on the radio. ‘What you’ve gotta do when you’re buying new shoes is make sure they fit you and they look good. If you start there then you’ll be fine, but no point in buying shoes that don’t fit and that don’t look good.’ ‘Well, when you put it that way –’

Last night I was trying to read my book and I heard what sounded like a high-pitched, repetitive conversation outside. An argument at the neighbour’s. Then I tuned in properly. It was ‘Roxanne’ by Sting. The neighbour had the radio on outside, at night. Maybe the radio was hanging in a tree. It sounded like it was, because the sound was spilling all through the garden. After ‘Roxanne’, which is close to #1 in terms of all of the worst songs to overhear when you’re trying to concentrate, it was ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’ by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I kind of like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, for nostalgic reasons and because Tom Petty was in the Wilburys, but when it’s coming from a radio that’s hanging from a tree in a neighbour’s garden when you’re trying to read, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are nearly the worst thing of all, worse than mosquitoes, worse than getting sunburned or covered in burrs or all three. After that, it was Blondie’s ‘One Way or Another’. I stood up and stared out the window with a venomous and helpless feeling.

Earlier today I was cleaning the pantry. I try to make myself useful sometimes when at my parents’. I put on a podcast (the Adam Buxton podcast) to listen to while I was cleaning – on my cellphone, which I propped up on the bench. My dad came in, from the garage, and he looked sort of uneasy. ‘There’s a radio somewhere. What’s that radio noise?’

Mum said, ‘It’s Ashleigh’s podcast.’ On the podcast Adam Buxton was talking to the comedian Roisin Conaty and they were talking about restaurant reviews. Adam Buxton was reading out a Trip Advisor review in a silly voice.

No more was said about this but it was clear that the podcast was an uncomfortable deviation.

Sometimes when my mum has come to stay, she has slept with a portable radio next to her head. The talkback is going into her brain all night. I don’t like the idea of sentences such as ‘People who are anti rodeos are insane’ and ‘I think people should be charged to use public toilets, like they do in Europe’ and ‘New Zealand gets nothing in return for housing all these immigrants, we have to house and feed them and we get nothing back’ going into anyone’s head when they’re awake, let alone when they’re sleeping and their defences are down. We know what happened to Homer when he listened to all those vocabulary-building tapes by Dr Marvin Monroe while sleeping.

When we lived in Te Kūiti, it was Radio Waitomo that was on all the time. The main DJ was named Chulu (a name I haven’t heard since; I also can’t find any information online about Chulu to see what became of him). I remember my Dad doing an impression of Chulu once, when we had friends round for dinner. ‘He’s quite incredible. One moment he’ll be reading the weather forecast –’ he did a muttering, horse-racing-like impression of this – ‘then the next minute he’ll be –’ and here Dad leaned over and shouted at his dinner plate – ‘”BIKES BIKES BIKES!” Doing an ad about bikes, you know.’ Everyone nodded.

We were talking about Chulu because my mum was the scriptwriter for a weekly five-minute radio show about the local high school, where she taught. Sometimes I’d help with the scripts, typing out the words on the computer as Mum came up with lines. The show was meant to be an irreverent but informative conversation about high school life and news. A group of high school students would go into the studio each week to record the show, reading from Mum’s script. Mum had also written an ad for the show, which would come on the radio every so often, and we’d all stop what we were doing to listen. ‘Hey everyone,’ the ad went. ‘Get a lifestyle!’ My mum found this phrase hilarious – this was around the time that the word ‘lifestyle’ was everywhere, usually in the context of ‘lifestyle block’ – because she felt that the word ‘lifestyle’ was essentially meaningless. The phrase ‘Get a lifestyle!’ was therefore the perfect slogan for the show. One of my brothers had come up with a little electric guitar riff which played before the show aired – a punky thing, with some edgy drums. It was lo-fi and – in my memory – meant to be ironic. All of this must have been quite subversive at Radio Waitomo, which didn’t do irony. It was a family station with loud sexist ads.

Chulu sounded like a nice guy on the radio, but apparently he had a temper, and would sometimes get annoyed with the students if they had to do multiple takes. There was a story that once, he’d exploded in a fury at everyone and they all had to leave without recording the show properly. I don’t know if that’s true. I never went to the studio, so even though I was proud that Mum was a cool scriptwriter, both Chulu and the station itself remained distant and annoying to me, an ever-present burble, insisting on commenting on everything and talking over everyone.

The tennis commentary has changed to the trivia show that my parents watch every night. Every so often there is a sparkly ‘BREE!’ noise when a contestant gets something right, followed by my parents exclaiming.

In some ways all of this commentary at home is sort of comforting. The talkback burble is an ancient burble. No matter how technology progresses, it is a burble that will go on forever. People lost at sea or falling down cliffs, still queuing up to have their say on plastic bags; phones ringing from freshly buried coffins because there are still things to say about immigrants and climate change. Commentary settling in a thick haze over the planet, with the formic acid smell of a billion ants. But in another way I’ve always found talkback dispiriting. Like being cursed to hear other people’s inner monologues forever, no room left to ask a question, no room for uncertainty, no room to try out your story, no room to let a fact settle and take root before someone’s trying to pull it up and figure out if it can be eaten.

I know this conclusion wasn’t unexpected. Happy new year anyway. On New Year’s Eve I was the person shoving earplugs in my ears at 11pm to block out the fireworks.

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