Monday, August 31, 2009


Winter is officially over. I nearly missed it. Auckland doesn't really have a winter: it enjoys a benign climate, one that drifts along without any dramatic changes.

When I was a child, I lived in a small town called Mangakino, on the banks of the Waikato River. Mangakino was then very much a frontier town, a rough-and-ready purpose-built village that sprang from nothing, and eventually shrank back to nothing. Summers there were hot and still, Autumns sullen and chill, Winters were frost-and-fog blasted, and Spring came with a triumphant shout of life reborn.

Winter in Mangakino was an adventure. The town was built over the course of just a couple of years to provide a base for the families of the thousands of men who worked on the great hydro-electric dams that were developed and built in the 1950s. I was a cross-eyed boy of two when our family pitched up there, and I was nine when we left. I saw seven Mangankino winters, and I shall never forget them. At the time I had nothing to compare them to: winter was just winter, a time when fog and frost reigned. Walking to school was an adventure: the fog was often so thick that one had to walk along with arms outstretched. The walk was roughly a mile long, and involved the crossing of several streets, but we children were privileged. It was a decade since World War Two had come to its final, bloody end, and children were a precious commodity: everywhere we went there was an adult, making sure we were safe. The puddles at the sides of the roads were often deep, and often frozen. To be the first to stomp on a six-inch deep puddle of dirty frozen water was a rare trhrill: someone always seemed to have gotten to it first.

The cold was intense. Even though we were dressed up in several layers of home-knitted New Zealand wool garments, it was a rare morning that didn't see us arrive at school with thoroughly numbed hands and feet.

I don't recall that we complained. The weather and the climate were simply what was: we had no experience of anything else. But when I hear someone talking about being frozen, and the temperature's still in double digits, I have to smile to myself.

Auckland doesn't have a proper winter and is, I think, the poorer for it. Give me Autumn's golden and fiery leaves, give me Winter's bitter chill, give me Spring's glorious bursting forth, and let me enjoy the baking heat of a cicada-shrill Summer's day. Auckland is an excellent place to live, but it could do with some weather.

READING: William Bernhardt, "Nemesis - the final case of Eliot Ness".

LISTENING TO: The Small Faces, "Ogden's Nut-Gone Flake". Excellent.

WORD OF THE DAY: Hope. Spring does bring hope back into the world.

More Henry:

Where in the world do we belong?
Q: So, Mary: comfortable?
A: No. Never. Never again.
Q: It’s the quietness of the hour. This is the time they die, did you know that?
A: Thanks, buster. Look - if it’s OK with you, would you just mind pissing off?
The constant strain was telling on Mary now. They’d been back in New Zealand, back in Northridge, for four weeks. Her bruises and scrapes had healed, but Henry’s health had collapsed. She thought of him on the river bank, strong and brave, a man in despair, throwing the rope, and a tiny part of her withered and died. Dust in her heart. Star-stuff.
Q: What do you mean by that? You’ve mentioned it before.
A: Star-stuff? It’s something Henry read. Carl Sagan. He wrote about the cosmos in a way that made it so very touchable. He said that everything on earth, including Earth itself, was made up of the stuff from exploded stars. We are all made of star stuff, he said.
God, it was a big star that gave us Henry, she thought.
It’s three in the morning, and Mary hasn’t slept for 29 hours. Wolf, John, Charlie - they’ve all been here, trying to convince her to go home, to get some rest. But she can’t leave. She looks through the window into Henry’s room, where he can just be seen. A dim light shows him lying there. She stands from the seat in the hospital corridor, and peers closer. The monitor twitches with his life-rhythm. It flickers a green light against the curtain, a steady blink, blink, blink of his life winding down. She knows now that he is slipping away from her, and she is deadly afraid for him. He is asleep now, blessedly so. The pain she’s seen him cope with over the past few days has weakened her. He’s refusing the medication now, preferring to keep lucid. He says that the pain is now a friend: it keeps him sharp, keeps his mind working.
Q: Do you really mean that, Henry?
A: Yes.
Q: But surely a little hit now and then of morphine…
A: Get thee behind me. It’s a funny thing, now. I’m here in the hospital, about to die, talking to some voice in my head that Mary tells me she can also hear, and I know that I’m about to die, and -
Q: Yes?
A: I’m quite content.
Henry didn’t know it, but he suspected that he was being drugged. He was right. His courage notwithstanding, Mary and Joe Know had both agreed to get a little morphine into his saline drip, to help him sleep.
Q: Can you tell me what it’s like?
A: You mean you don’t know? All right then: it is, in almost every way imaginable way, depressing. I’d like to be able to fling these bed-covers aside and go and make love with my Mary and give Adam a little bowling practice, and I can’t. I’m going to be like my Father, and not know my grandchildren. Who’s going to cut the firewood for Mary now?
Q: Firewood? Is it that important?
A: It’s probably the most important thing I have ever done for Mary. I handled all my problems while chopping the wood. Boiled everything down so I could take a good question to her for her wisdom, or take a solution for Adam, or find a way for John. Just as I didn’t -
Q: Yes?
A: I brushed aside my very best friends problems once, because I was too dense to listen. And I’ve never forgiven myself.
Q: Adam? Your friend Spot?
A: Yes. I ignored him because I just didn’t know how he was being bullied, and he couldn’t cope. Damn me for a fool. I’ve carried the pain of his death with me every day since then.
Q: I think, somehow, that he would have forgiven you.
A: Yes. He was a far better man than I am.

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