Saturday, February 24, 2007

Round the Bays for a Root

It is 2 o’clock in Wellington and windy. It is a generic sort of day in the capital city of New Zealand, too many clouds to be summery, too few to be wintery, and a morose, stippled ocean. Te Papa, the national museum, stands to my right, and it slopes to the sea in a way that may be an imitation of a whale, possible of a ship, perhaps of the warehouses and skyscrapers that fill the skyline with their clutter of vertices, perhaps of the bank of rocks that fill, with their gray sides and random edges, the gap between sea and promenade; or even the houses that jostle for position on the hills of Island Bay or Kelburn. It is hard to say: in Wellington, everything slopes towards the sea. I am most attracted, however, to the whale option: the museum, with its hooded green eye and broad flanks, squints out to sea like something you would find in Kaikoura.

To my left are street lamps made of giant ping-pong balls. These may be designed to match the giant silver bowling balls that sit in a row behind me, on the wooden planks of the wharf. Over the water towards Oriental Bay there is a nest of yachts, white and naked without their sails and squinting out to sea like Te Papa, their cabin windows catching the sun. To my left there are ships, cranes and containers, and a wharf jutting out into the harbour, its struts round and closely spaced, like the tops of sunken collonades. Loud music comes up from somewhere, and it give the place a communal feel, as if the whole waterfront is someone’s backyard during an afternoon party. A young man sits on the plank next to me and starts reading a book. After a while he goes away again. After another while I go away as well.

I go around the bays. Oriental, Evans, Kau, Mahanga, Karaka, Worser, Breaker, Lyall, Houghton, Island. The road wobbles around the coast, and cyclists wobble around the road. All around the coast, dark brown rocks crumble into the sea like bits of loose shingle. These rocks are and ribbed and pooled and pitted, and you won’t get across them very fast in bare feet. If you do get across them, you can see dark brown seaweed, the same colour as the rocks, swishing around in the surf and sliming up the rocks. In Oriental Bay, people with good bodies play volley-ball and sit in vans and generally don’t do a whole lot of swimming. In Worser Bay, people with less good bodies paddle in the opal sea and look out for jelly fish. The beaches are small and embraced by peninsulas of rock. There are one or two snorkelers, and one or two upturned dingies with white peeling paint and names with stories behind them: Martha, Slingshot, Seahorse.

One of these bays is home. It is strange to go home, like coming back from the dead. Everything is spectral and strange, not because it is ghostly but because I am. It is strange to see that everything has moved to 2007 in the same way that I have. I feel that if I just peeled back a layer or two of this place then I would find that really, under the present-day surface, it is just how it was when I was there, its true self. But I know that there would be nothing like that at all. It’s all been peeled away or forgotten or taken down, like the old wallpaper; or been taken somewhere else and changed in the normal way, like me. For example, everything is smaller than I remember it. When I was here last, the walnut tree was a great, tangled, swooping thing, something in which you could get lost and giddy. Now it is a modest sort of bush, not much taller than I am. It feels as if somewhere in the present, just behind the surface of the present world but present nonetheless, is a little boy climbing an enormous walnut tree. But the only place where that scene exists is in myself, and I am tall and the tree is not much taller. This is not an unhappy thing to know, just strange: I have come back from the dead to find that everything I knew is as dead as I am.

There are places, however, that are strange because of their familiarity. There is a park near the house. In the park there is a large pine tree with a root that curls out of a bank and makes a circle that is perfectly sized so that a boy can sit on the edge, wriggle down into it, sit there for a while with the root around his waist like a lifebuouy, and then find that he can’t get out. One day, I couldn’t get out, and I wet my pants. The circular root is still there. I visit this root, touch the bark on it for a bit, look around at the trees for a while, hum a tune, then walk away.