In our new series The Lockdown Letters, some of New Zealand’s best writers tell us what they’ve been up to in the days of Covid-19 alert level four. Today, writer and doctor Glenn Colquhoun, with the second of his Letters to Hone Tūwhare and his Travelling Band of Constant Companions.
I knew once I started coming down here I’d bump into you sooner or later. The dead are always wandering this beach. Maybe it’s that old magnet-tree up north putting them to the leans… but it might just be that wandering is all there is to it sometimes. Being under a sky. The sound of gulls. The sea throbbing. When I stand here, away from the clutter, I reckon they all add up to some kind of giant pulse. It’s good dead-people-medicine I suppose. Once I fall off the perch I’ll come back here too. Pulses will mean a lot more to me then.
Today is sparkling. Blue sky. Blue sea. A few white ribs poking through. Calling themselves surf I suppose. All mellow, patient roar. We have the same sounds inside us. But I only get reminded of them here. And at night sometimes. When I’m beautifully lonely. Or in the middle of a consultation, when what really needs to be said is being said without words. Landscapes echo us. Or perhaps we them. We come with our own small tides, eddies, currents, and roaring. Recognise them in something larger.
Christ! Give me a slap, man. It’s so good to see you. The whānau is good. You know. Doing what it does. The grandkids are growing up now. Olive is the only one at school. The others are off conquering the world. Jack’s a chippie. Same as you. Karyn’s a pastor – no one saw that coming. But she’s magnificent. Better than me. And wiser. And mum is stunning. 80 this month. We’ve got her locked down. Even had her on a Zoom meeting last week. There’s so much grace in her. Acceptance of life. Such an accumulation of experience. Kindness. I don’t have a clue how to live with that sort of humility. I’m full of want and reach.
I’m not sure what the dead-and-alive rules allow us to be honest… but I thought if I caught you down here I’d love to spend another day with you. Funnily enough I’ve found myself with a bit of time on my hands. Not just any day though. It’s one I’ve kept up my sleeve for a while. I bring it out now and then for the warmth of it. August 3, 1977. I don’t even know if you remember it now. That day Counties played the Lions at Pukekohe Stadium. You came in and picked me up from Mr Westlake’s class in the morning. Knocked on the door. Stood there all broad and working-man-strong and said I had to go with you. I remember your silhouette against the light. Jesus, I was puffed up. Gave my mates the eye and walked out between the desks, making sure they knew. I’d see them on the other side of the border. I was OldKing in those days. That’s what you called me. “C’mon OldKing,” you said. “It’s time for the footy.”
I remember the overwhelming expectation too. The build-up for months before. It was as though Jesus himself had mounted the cloud and was on his way. And only you and I knew what to do about it. I followed the tour from stop to stop. Wairarapa-Bush. King Country. Lancaster Park. Carisbrook. Phil Bennet. Moss Keane. J.J. Williams. Walking out of the classroom that day my body felt the way it did whenever it hit the water in the Papatoetoe swimming pools on a burning day in summer. As though it was enveloped by the clean calm cool of water. Wrapped in some kind of light. A timelessness. I was eternal. For a moment. I wonder if that’s what eternal life is. I get that feeling from writing now. It’s my swimming pool. My rugby. My day at the beach. I’m always surprised by what a physical thing it is. A visceral, wrestling, urgent thing.
I remember the trip out there too in the gold Kingswood. That one we crashed I think. Or maybe it was the white Charger. I haven’t really got a clue. But I can feel the spring in the grass walking across the field towards the east bank. It’s still in the soles of my feet. It was sunny and you lent down towards me, just behind the northern goalposts, and said, “Ooh, OldKing, it’s a dry day, Bruce Robertson will be dancing all around them today. Cutting them to ribbons.” I looked up and believed every word. Right then I thought you knew more about rugby that anyone else on the planet. So that’s what was gonna happen. You’d seen it. It was our day. We ate pies and sat on the grass with Patrick Tavai’s dad and his mate from Ōtara church. You’d been helping them to build a new one and I remember the way they talked and their humour. I knew they were different from us and brown. But it was the shape our family was sailing towards then. It was a world of wide open smiles and corned beef and taro and potato salads made out of beetroot and mayonnaise — and a whole new way of laughing and taking the piss. I liked it that we were their friends.
We lost though eh. We actually got thrashed. 35-10. Bruce Robertson did twinkle… but they shut him down pretty quickly. Bastards. I remember the standing and sitting. The almosts and oh nos. The crowd acting like it was one big organism. I remember our man eating too. Hot dogs and buckets of chips. And just sitting next to you. We were a small equation. A dad squared. That was before all the falling down. The Parkinson disease. The reductions. The secret lives brought out into the glare. I loved you through all those things. But somewhere I grew bigger and you grew smaller. That day though I was your son and you were my dad. I was little and you were big. I shiver to think of it. And if we weren’t shut down right now and hiding from death I might not have bumped into you and come to spend it with you again. So whatever or whoever I have to thank for that. Thanks.
I love you Dad. You are never far away. I carry you with me. You’re in every consultation. Especially when I need to talk to men. And to put up with them. Understand them. Or when I am with someone who has broken. You are in so many poems too. Mainly when I don’t want to sound like a wanker. We have so many adventures still.
Go well, OldKing. Next time we’ll lie around on the floor up home and watch a western or two. One with a cavalry in it. Or vengeance. Perhaps a gunslinger waiting to meet someone who can outdraw him. Stick close to Hone and the aunties. They’re pretty tidy at cards. But watch his drinking. And their cheating. You’ll like them. Maybe even Mickey, if you give him a chance. Tell John Keats I’d love a word. And Aunty Maude. Te Rauparaha too. Catch you in the great throb, brother. Lub-Dub. Lub-Dub. Lub-Dub. Lub-Dub.
Kia ora Aunty Maude!
Hmmm. Kiss. Kiss. Kiss. Maaaann, it’s good to see you. You’re a long way from Motuti and those flour-sack undies here ?. Our whare is still in good nick. Twinkling up there by the harbour. Last time I was in town I could tell it missed you. Make sure you drop by sometime. Hey, take care of my dad eh? He’ll be OK. Just keep chatting to him. And stopping for a rest now and then. Tell him your pillow story. That’ll crack him up. And, oooh, fuck! Tell Aunty Flu that pickle was soooo good. She’s a bloody pickle tohunga. Good to see the ukulele is out. Tell Hemi Reeves he could learn a few things from us. Let’s do a song… just for the hell of it.