Looking at a house

Hundreds of dolphins are in the Cook Strait. Dolphins and dolphins. The water is leaping with them. I look and look. Their bodies gleam and fizz, silver and white. It’s more dolphin than water. I will remember this crossing forever. The man sitting beside me on the plane – the same man I sat next to on the way over – is looking down at them too. We’re at the part of the crossing where it’s only sea in both directions. I look ahead and see that the dolphins go for miles and miles. They leap and gleam all the way to the horizon, and now I see they aren’t dolphins, they’re just waves that have a dolphin-like aspect to them, breaking out in the middle of the sea and reforming and breaking.

Earlier that morning I went out running early. My bad leg was hurting and I knew I’d pay for it later but I kept going, thinking I might as well enjoy the last few moments of running when I still could. I crossed the bridge and in the river a pair of ducks were leaving their tiny ribbons of wake and a boat was moored in total stillness. Around the corner from my parents’ house a white-haired man was walking towards me. About 100 metres away I saw that it was my dad. I hardly ever see my dad walking along a street – usually he’s sitting down or padding around the house in socks. It was almost unnatural, like when you see someone standing perfectly upright as they glide down the street on one of those one-wheeled scooter things. I kept running, and the man got closer and slowed to a stop, and it was Dad again.

Usually my dreams disperse quickly but lately they hang over the whole day. And I can’t sleep well because I find it hard to commit to any one anxiety. I lie awake for hours arguing with myself over what I should feel the worst about. Eventually I fall asleep for a short time, then wake up again with some even better ideas.

Although the house looks small and barren, standing up on little sticks that keep it clear of the mud, we’re feeling hopeful. The lawn has a tree on it, and a sprinkler. A feeling of prosperity is in the air, as if some things might be within reach again. This house was formerly owned by a family of bears, the real estate agent tells us, but they’ve taken good care of the place. He shows us inside. A rapidly flowing stream runs through the house. There are giant eels and salmon in the water, though they are all belly-up and being swept along by the current. The house has no windows, and also one room is filled with green peas. To look inside we have no choice but to push through the peas with our arms held out. ‘Please be careful,’ the real estate agent says. ‘The family loved these peas, and a condition of ownership would be their upkeep.’ Before he has finished speaking, before the two of us have discussed it, you’re already promising, ‘Of course. We’d make it a priority.’ I know it will fall to me, though; I know those peas will be my responsibility. But I know that this is the best we can hope for, and as the agent says the number I reach for your hand.

I’ve downloaded this experimental app called Woebot. It’s meant to help you with your mood and so on. It’s not perfect because its responses can only go along a few particular paths, and sometimes it gets stuck going in circles. ‘Tell me in a few words why you are feeling anxious,’ Woebot says. ‘Afraid of being forgotten,’ I type. ‘Did you mean to delete something?’ Woebot replies. ‘No,’ I reply. ‘OK. Tell me in a few words why you are feeling anxious.’ ‘Afraid of being forgotten.’ ‘Did you mean to delete something?’ ‘No.’ ‘OK. Tell me in a few words why you are feeling anxious.’ I give up and say, ‘Can’t sleep.’ The bot has an upbeat, empathetic persona and it praises you for saying things that it know how to respond to. It knows what to say about ‘black-and-white thinking’, ‘self-blame’, and ‘defeat’. But the truth is that the bot is almost completely useless. At the end of an exchange it asks you to give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down for the session. Sometimes I give it a thumbs down, but I feel bad about doing it. It’s like when an engineer kicks a robot dog to see whether it can get back up. The bot replies to my thumbs down, ‘Okay. Thanks for letting me know’ and something hardens between us. The next time I open it up again, it says ‘I’m so glad when you reach out!’ as if nothing ever happened.

I meet my friend for a beer and he mentions, quietly, ‘We have a new baby in the house.’ It almost sounds like they’ve just discovered that the house has been bugged and they’re still deciding whether to go to the authorities, or just play it cool for now. My brothers and I used to be very interested in bugs – I think we assumed that by setting up a tiny recording device in a hidden place, we would immediately be privy to top-secret information. If people were ever out of your earshot, secrets would fall from them. A secret house would rise around them, secret rooms would open up, secret lives, but if you had been smart enough to plant a bug in there you would know all of it and you would become immensely powerful. Not being a spy wasn’t an option.

I get into the habit of repeating ‘Calm and safe, calm and safe’ in my head when I can’t sleep. I wake up looking forward to when I can look back and see that nothing is what I thought it was, it’s just a wave breaking.

I’m in a crowded stadium to see a band that my brother is performing in. My friend is somewhere in the audience too, but far away, on the other side of the stadium. I search with my binoculars and eventually find them sitting in a row far up in the sky. They’re sitting with their new family and a long time has clearly passed, years, and we’re both so much older, older in a way we swore we would never be. But they are so high up in the cloud that they keep appearing and disappearing, the way the South Island does when you look for it from the North Island, and I feel homesick for them. I’ve never forgotten, I have just been waiting – though, for what? Soon the band starts playing, and it’s a new sort of music, where the songs are actually just heated arguments about different subjects, set to a laser light show.

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Send in the clowns

A while I wrote something about clown collars for Metro magazine, but a month later Metro folded. I thought I’d post this here anyway – something from the Before times. I remember being a bit nervous about this piece because I thought I’d get in trouble with anti-cat people about it. But I’m pretty sure none of them read my blog, so we should be safe here.

Six months ago my cat brought in a young sparrow. I recognised the sparrow immediately. It was the same one he had brought in just the day before. I’d thought I had saved that sparrow’s life. I had scooped it up and it chirruped and flapped and looked like it might be okay. I locked Jerry inside and carried the bird deep into the scrub below my flat and released it into a small, seemingly hidden nook. It had flapped away energetically. Now here it was again. Both our nightmares, playing out again.

‘Dammit, Jerry,’ I yelled. I scooped up the bird. It barely moved. As I carried it outside, it died in my hand. I have never felt anything like it: that tiny life fading away.

That was when I knew I had to recommit to the BirdsBeSafe collar. ‘That’s right,’ I said to Jerry, now lolling like a failed pavlova on the floor. ‘You brought this on yourself.’ But I had brought it on him too. I was the one who let him roam freely outdoors. The times I’d tried to keep him consistently indoors during the day, he’d go so stir-crazy he would develop a urinary blockage. It was time to put him back in costume.

The BirdsBeSafe collar is a brightly coloured ruff, both regal and clown-like, designed to detract birds, especially songbirds, whose eyes are especially sensitive to bright colours. The idea is that the birds are more likely to notice a clowned-up cat from a distance, so they will have enough time to fly away. It looks like the collars detract reptiles too. Field studies in North America, Australia, and the UK have found that they make a difference, with a reduction of at least 50% in birds and reptiles caught, and in a 2019 study a reduction of 78% birds. They’re said to be more reliable than the old bell-on-the-collar trick, which cats can sabotage with some especially judicious creeping. I first tried the collars in 2016, as part of a short Wellington-wide study of their efficacy, and after the study finished I kept Jerry in the collar for a few months. He brought no birds or lizards home. But he kept losing the collars – he’d go out in full regalia then come home naked. I wondered, darkly, if someone in the neighbourhood was stealing the collars, and entertained the idea of fitting Jerry with a Go-Pro so that I could catch the culprit. The collars were making me paranoid. And broke. BirdsBeSafe is a US company, and ordering a pack of three ruffs and the safety breakaway collars that go inside them, plus postage, is over US$100. After Jerry lost one collar too many, I gave up. The lost collars issue was one of the reasons why the 2016 Wellington study was ultimately inconclusive, the lead researcher Heidy Kikillus tells me (though there was anecdotal success).

Still, after the sparrow incident, I was determined. I got more collars. Each morning I fussed to get the collar on properly while he waited – he seemed almost to enjoy this ritual – then he would trot out the door cheerily like a kid off to clown school. He wore the collar well. I would glimpse him around the garden, sprouting up like a weird flower. Disconcertingly, he reminded me of an Anne Geddes baby. I read that to other cats he might look more formidable, which would discourage fighting, so I hoped the collar would give him an advantage in stand-offs with Kevin, the tallest cat in the neighbourhood.

I was about to move to a new suburb, though. It was nestled right up close to Zealandia, where over forty different native bird species have been recorded. This was high risk. I kept thinking of the horror story of the lone cat that decimated a colony of banded dotterel in Eastbourne, wiping out all of the eggs and chicks – two years in a row – and how conservationists were powerless to make the cat’s owner do anything about it. I thought of the small, drab, but iconic Lyall’s wren, said to have been both discovered and exterminated by a lighthouse keeper’s cat. Forest and Bird estimates that New Zealand’s domestic cats alone kill more than one million native birds each year. (This doesn’t include feral cats, which also do great damage.) In the new neighbourhood, while keeping Jerry indoors to adjust, I saw collarless cats plodding about freely.

Many cat owners, myself included, see their cats as extensions of themselves. We don’t like to be reminded that cats are apex predators that, if we’re honest, shouldn’t be here at all. Some people take this personally and get defensive, like the wild-eyed guy in a bandana who came up to me once when I was buying cat biscuits at the dairy and hissed, ‘This bloody council is trying to take away our cats!’ He told me to check out his website, before riding away on his motorbike laden with Fancy Feasts. Underlying a love of cats is the human susceptibility to soft, podgy, friendly creatures. If Wellington’s most gregarious cat, Mittens, were a bird or a lizard, he’d be a nobody. But at the sight of a cute creature, our brains are flooded with dopamine, the same neurotransmitter involved when we fall in love, and most of us have a strong urge to pat that belly. In 2009 scientists found that when people looked at pictures of kittens or puppies, their fine-motor skills were enhanced, as if readying to hold a newborn baby.

The collar didn’t help in reminding me of Jerry’s inherently villainous nature. In fact, it humanised him further. In certain lights, it made him look like a nice man on his way to a poetry reading. Again the collars seemed effective – he brought in neither birds nor lizards, though his mouse-hunting skills were clearly uninhibited – but before long he lost a collar during a brawl. I heard the unmistakeable yowl of fighting cats and went outside; Jerry was sprinting down the driveway naked. I half expected to see the other cat parading about triumphantly with the collar on.

Jerry in clown collar

Jerry is getting older and slower now. He spends a lot of time sleeping on a bunch of tomato plants. But when awake he still surveys his territory like a nerdy detectorist, and I don’t trust him. I wish it were possible for my love of Jerry to end any argument about whether cats should be allowed here. I wish all I had to do was rhapsodise about this tiny presence who shapes my days, who follows me to the top of the driveway each morning to see me off, practically waving a handkerchief as I cycle away. Embarrassing to say it, but there was a time that Jerry’s calm, jolly presence saved me from a full-blown mental breakdown. But it is difficult to justify owning a cat when you also love and fear for native wildlife. It’s possible, obviously, to love both fiercely. I understand why some people are vehemently anti-cat, but extreme calls for eradication are, frankly, messed up. Cats are too deeply interwoven in our lives. Caring for an animal teaches us how to respect more vulnerable creatures than ourselves and to consider sensibilities beside our own; these are skills that humans need more than ever. So we have a responsibility to minimise their impact, and clown collars are really due a more comprehensive study here. Also, imagine if every cat you saw was wearing one. It would be like the greatest circus came to town and never left.

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Rehashing (ii)

It’s a strange feeling to revisit some of my old Canvas columns. Last week I was trying to write a short piece for Essential Services, a new magazine by former Metro editor Henry Oliver, about writing a column and why I decided to stop writing mine. I went back and looked at some of my old pieces and mostly it’s like someone else wrote them. This one is from February this year, a few weeks before lockdown.

On moving

I’m standing outside my old flat, waiting for an Uber ride to my new flat. I feel bad about the Uber, but I’m tired enough to let myself off the hook of ethical conduct – which in itself is a worrying thought. Maybe the tireder we get, the more evil we become. But the bus wasn’t due for another forty minutes. I am carrying a vacuum cleaner, a mop, some sponges, Jif, and about 700 cables in a bucket. I can’t remember what any of the cables are for. It seems important not to throw them away. Cables will always hold an aura of preciousness to me, because they used to be so hard to get. Now I feel overwhelmed by them.

This is the last bunch of stuff from my old flat. I have been cleaning the ceilings there and worrying about landlords and money and the future.

When I get into the car with my things, the driver says, ‘Take it easy!’ I think, maybe he has a point. Maybe easy is right there and I just have to take it.

We are going up a twisty narrow hill and the driver seems uncertain. I don’t blame him. It’s a stingy bit of road with lots of sudden blind corners, like it was designed for a psychic stunt driver. There is a car coming fast towards us. There is also a cyclist just in front of us. The driver pulls out anyway to pass the cyclist, but the road is too narrow with the car coming the other way. The driver clips the cyclist and the cyclist falls off, with a dull clank, onto the road.

My blood goes cold and I open the door and jump out. ‘Are you okay?’ I say. The cyclist is a young woman and she is dragging herself and her bike up off the road. There is no obvious blood but she looks upset. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I keep saying. ‘He shouldn’t have done that.’ It is terrifying not knowing if someone is okay and the reason that they might not be okay is because you called an Uber to take you up a hill that cars shouldn’t even be allowed to drive up. ‘I’m okay,’ she says, but her expression is one that I recognise from being knocked off my bike and almost knocked off my bike by cars a number of times, when they haven’t seen me, or have seen me and decided to just drive into me anyway. There is some anger in the expression, and shakiness, but also bewilderment, like: ‘Did you just forget I was a person? Did you think that maybe I was a supermarket trolley trundling along the road, instead of a person, and it didn’t matter?’ I sometimes have this sense – and maybe this is unfair, but it’s just my sense – that certain drivers see cyclists as body-shaped piles of debris moving around in the air and if you drive into them it will scatter the debris gently, like a leafblower scattering leaves, but it won’t cause any real harm.

The driver does not get out of the car. He sits there idling. Eventually I’ve established that the cyclist is okay, so I give her my cellphone number if she needs a witness and tell her I’m sorry again and then get back in the car. ‘Did she lose her balance?’ says the driver as he continues on. ‘It looked like she lost her balance and shouldn’t be on the road.’ I want to ask the driver if he has lost his mind. Instead I say, ‘No, you didn’t give her enough space.’

I feel myself puffing up, the way I sometimes do when any conversation turns to drivers v. cyclists. It’s like the Hulk, but instead of muscles popping out, it’s like Lycra pants suddenly appear on my legs and a helmet pops onto my head. ‘I’m a cyclist,’ I huff, ‘and often people don’t give me enough space either. You have to be more mindful when you are passing.’ This outburst over, I subside back into my ordinary form.

The driver repeats his assertion that the cyclist lost her balance. I give up and hug my bucket of cables.

We continue on and the hill grows ever more full of itself. The hill is verging on prima donna, now. I think about the cyclist and how someone’s day can be turned crappy while someone else’s day rolls along just fine, and how if there was more basic thoughtfulness and care then they both could continue to have fine days. It takes a long time to reach the new flat. It’s been ages since I lived in a different neighbourhood. Finally I am out. Rattling and staggering, I carry the vacuum cleaner, mop, sponges, Jif, and my 700 cables in the bucket through the door, and they are going to power my new life, and the sun is out and I feel incredibly lucky.

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I had a thought that I might revisit (well, rehash), every week or so, a column from my old(ish) Canvas column. This one is from October last year. I had just been to a writers’ festival. Looking back on some of these columns, I realise I wrote about writers’ festivals quite a lot, mostly to complain that I was bad at talking to other writers. But this one was a bit different.

On finding yourself in places

A dog has a special kind of run when it’s about to get you. Its head and torso barely move but its legs are like four little tornados tearing up the earth. I was thinking about that as a dog streaked towards me. The owner, in shorts and jandals, was weed-whacking nonchalantly in the backyard. The dog looked aggrieved as it ran, like a parent rushing towards a child about to break something. Probably it wasn’t used to seeing people walk past its house, because sensible people drove. I froze and said, ‘Hello!’ to the dog, because I only have one way of talking to dogs, and it is to greet them over and over. Maybe I, too, would attack a person if they kept saying ‘Hello!’ to me over and over. The dog bared its teeth as I greeted it again, and I thought, Why am I in this situation.

I asked myself the question again a few moments later when I was walking along the edge of a busy highway. I was going to a small literary festival in Mapua. I’d decided to do a Will Self – the novelist who walks everywhere, including, once, from Kennedy Airport into Manhattan – and walk the few kilometres into town from where I was staying in the countryside. My walk had felt good for a while. I felt carefree, with the steady pace of the old millennial. But then, as traffic rushed past at 100 km/h and I broke into a sweat on the narrow roadside, I started to wonder what I was doing. A car pulled over and the writer Paula Morris stuck her head out the window. ‘Ashleigh . . . what are you doing?’

A few hours later I was on stage at the festival. I tried to ‘be present in the moment’, but each question seemed to widen into an impenetrable forest. The chairperson was saying, ‘It seems to me that when animals appear in your writing, they provide points of certainty around which the more tentative elements of the piece can move about without getting lost – elements about human uncertainty, perhaps. Where do you locate yourself in relation to the animals in your writing? How about your relationships with animals in real life? What do they provide that your relationships with humans cannot? Is there a special reason for including so many animals in your writing?’ It was a good question; it was a terrible question. I said, ‘Yes.’ In these situations I am suggestible, blowing this way and that like the plastic bag in American Beauty. I hoped I would come up with something to say next. Surely, in the future, in three seconds’ time, I would be better equipped.

Many things seem like an okay idea at the time, so you say yes. Yes! You will do it! It feels so good, so hopeful, to say it. The self who will have to deal with the fall-out of your decision is always a smarter and braver self than your current one. ‘She’ll think of something,’ you say. It’s not just a matter of failing to think things through properly, although there’s plenty of that; it’s a reckless faith that you’ll figure it out when you get further along, disregarding all the times when you just became more panicked and uncertain. I think the only reason I do anything is because at some point I tricked myself into it – persuaded myself that in the future I wouldn’t be scared; in the future I would have things to say; in the future the answer would be obvious. Jobs, speeches, university, relationships, going to a party – all have been subject to this self-trickery. It’s a soothing delusion that the passing of time is the same thing as readying oneself, the same thing as learning.

I do most of my learning in short, sharp bursts – in the moments of panic, when the thing I decided to do is happening and the situation is disintegrating. In those moments, I finally locate myself. There I am, still hoping for the best.

The dog sprinted towards me with its teeth bared. I thought, like some sort of climate change denier, ‘Things will work out, in the future, when the dog attacks me.’ And I was lucky, and they did. The weed-whacking man whistled, and the dog retreated. And then the car full of writers rescued me. And I got through the interview, and now that it is in the past I can say that it probably went okay, and I can say yes to something else that I am already, brainlessly, imagining I will be well prepared for in the future. Maybe averting disaster is sometimes just a combination of luck, other people’s kindness, and standing still instead of running away.

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I was eating an apple when I got self-conscious. The student on work experience sitting at the table nearby would be able to hear my crunching and was probably bothered by it. But I also thought how freeing it would be to just continue to eat the apple with abandon. The idea excited me. So I did.

In my first office job, I got into the habit of eating a carrot most afternoons. One afternoon I was sitting at my desk eating my carrot, and another editor who sat in same pod as me cleared his throat and said ‘Ah –’, the way he always did when he wanted to say something. I looked up and he placed his hands on the top of the dividing wall and leaned over and hissed, ‘You’re enjoying that goddamn carrot, are you?’

A poet came into the office. There was a problem with the illustration on the cover of his new book. The dog in the poem was male, but the dog on the cover was decidedly female.

‘I was hesitant to mention this,’ the poet said, sliding the drawing out of his bag to show us.

‘You want me to draw a penis on the dog?’ the illustrator asked him.

‘Well –’ the poet said. ‘It doesn’t have to be … an enormous production, but if you could tweak it somewhat, it would put my mind at rest.’

Most days, we get in at least one expression of disbelief about the passing of time. ‘I can’t believe it’s only Tuesday.’ ‘How dare it be August.’ ‘How is it ten o’clock already?’ We’re almost indignant as we say it, as if time is an old-fashioned family values party that refuses to adapt to the realities of people’s lives now. I say it even though the passing of time is one of the few things I believe in unwaveringly. How would time really have to behave for us truly not to believe it? I think it would have to start glitching pretty seriously before we paid attention. Maybe we would see slivers of twenty years ago in it, like noticing a run in a stocking and seeing your skin through it: you’d be walking along and a bit of the street would peel back and show you what used to be there. Maybe your cat would just never die. Twenty, thirty, forty – still snoring, making a sound exactly like that ancient mummy with the vocal tract that scientists reconstructed with a 3D printer. ‘I don’t believe it,’ the vet keeps saying. ‘I just don’t believe it.’

The man in the running shoe shop put me on the treadmill, had me run for a bit, then called me over to show me the video. He got lost and we had to scroll through a whole bunch of other legs until we got to mine. We watched them for a while. ‘They’re moving well!’ he said. I couldn’t really tell what I was looking at. He rewound the video and we watched the legs again and he slowed them down then sped them up again. The legs looked like they were excited about something, and were trying to explain it to us – either that, or tell us some kind of elaborate lie about what they were actually doing. ‘I’m excited,’ I said when I paid for my new shoes. I’d told him I was coming back to running after two years of getting injured all the time. ‘I’m excited for you,’ he said. ‘One time I couldn’t run for eight months, and I would’ve stopped doing anything at all if it wasn’t for my dog dragging me outside at the same time each day.’

I was up late because I had this idea for a poem about going rafting with my aunties. All of them, living and dead. Just all of us on a raft, going along the Waitaki River. I tried writing it and realised I didn’t know any of my aunties well enough. I didn’t have good details. Uncles would be easier. The poem became about going rafting with my uncles. The first bit went like this:

I’ve gone rafting with my uncles.
Earlier, Uncle Neil lost our only paddle.
The river tore it out of his hand like corn from a husk.
‘Aw, no,’ he said, as the wind came up
and my other uncles and I looked down into the water
and back to Uncle Neil’s hands. His carpenter’s hands
from the 70s. How good he once was at everything,
how hungry we were for salad bowls and cabinets.

The poem ended with my mother appearing in a bush on the side of the river, with a small dog in her arms, and she called for help and everybody was saved. As a poem it didn’t work. The problem was Uncle Neil’s losing the paddle at the start. Also it wasn’t a poem. More and more I think I will have to give up poetry. Every time I start a poem these days I immediately lose it. It feels like looking at a playback of my legs and trying to figure out what the hell they’re saying. But also, more and more, the idea of giving things up excites me.

I had a dream that I was eating. I ate seven jam sandwiches and kept going, casting around the shelves for the next thing – old biscuits, half a bag of chips. I was like a massive tunnel borer. I had to keep the eating going, because it was hard to throw up bread and I needed to delay that process, even if delaying it was only making it worse. I knew that once I couldn’t eat any more I’d have no choice but to make myself throw up, and that whole thing would go on for at least an hour. Then there would be the recovering, and who knows how long that would take. I woke up feeling a heavy dread, then relief when I realised that I hadn’t even eaten any sandwiches. I felt excited too: there were all of these things I could do, now that I didn’t have to recover. It was like the end of that Raymond Carver story: ‘It is August. My life is going to change. I feel it.’

On Saturday I spent a couple of hours watching a series of YouTube videos called ‘The Worst Pain’. I was supposed to be reading manuscripts or maybe writing something. The video series was devoted to a physiotherapist giving men sports massages. The physio had the nickname ‘Thumbs’. After he’d been introduced at the start, the camera always zoomed in on one of his thumbs, and you could see that the thumb looked unusually strong, almost like a horn or a talon. The physio wasted minimal time warming up the muscles: it was just a few brief strokes over the skin with his palms before he went deep into the trigger points.

Like with this guy I was watching now, the feet were often a problem. Typically, the feet were the root of hip and knee and calf injuries. But they were painful to treat. The physio was kneeling at the end of the table with one of the man’s feet in his hands. He had wedged the ankle underneath his armpit, which allowed him to cradle the foot and also stop it from escaping. In his tattooed arms the foot looked tiny, like a face in the window of an airplane. The physio worked mostly in silence, though sometimes he murmured gently when the man on the table was in a special kind of pain.

In every video, the physio had a solid, serene presence as he carried out his work. He was like a rock on a cliff while, below, the man on the table was a sea, thrashing about in both predictable and unpredictable ways. I should have been disgusted with myself, but I didn’t feel like I was. But whenever I was watching I did get pretty tense – my face pushed back into my neck – and maybe my body was trying to tell me how I really felt, reminding me of a time back before the internet was showing us things like this. Still, there would be a before and after shot of this guy’s feet soon – twisted and sore-looking in the before, relaxed and pain-free in the after – and I can’t lie, I was looking forward to seeing those feet.

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Feet of clay

Feet of dirt.

Feet of tree that will not fruit.

Feet of elephant that died and was buried at the school.

Feet of someone walking down the driveway with torch.

Feet of pay day.

Feet of landlord at the door with a spanner.

Feet of neighbour turning to me with horror.

Feet of air.

Feet of stars. Feet of sun again.

Feet of England.

Feet of clay.

I run and I run but never quicken my pace.


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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.’ He’d wanted to tell me earlier, but hadn’t been able to come out with it.

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

A wave of grief rose up in me. This person had hair, hair that needed cutting, and presumably also then a whole head with a brain inside it, attached to a body that was alive.

After the phone call, I sat in a chair crying, 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. Eating the bun was a miserable experience. It grew larger and larger in my hands, and my mouth kept changing its location and soon I was smashing the raspberry bun at my face, hoping some of it would get in. I felt that my childhood sweetheart was somehow in the room with me, watching me trying to eat the raspberry bun and feeling relieved at how things had turned out between us. A part of me still believed that he was realising what was lost.

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The fastest route

I was riding my bike to the train station. With me was a large dog that was very old and sick. I was carrying it in a large white sling. Behind us in a trailer were all the things we would need in New York City, like dog food and clean towels. The dog was well-behaved, and I could sense from it which streets I should take for the fastest route to the station. The streets were empty as we rode along together, and I thought how relieved I would be when we finally got to New York and could relax.

When we reached the station, an attendant looked at the dog in the sling, then at me, and said, ‘Unfortunately, the train that goes to New York City rides through the station too fast for anyone to actually get on.’

I wondered if we should continue the trip by bike. I looked into the dog’s eyes. I could tell that it wanted to go home, and suddenly I was 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 to New York!’ I turned the bike around and we started riding back home, and once again the dog showed me the best streets to take to get there.

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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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