A semi-fictional memoir by Jackson C Payne, son of the late Bill Payne, an ex-con busted for drugs, winner of the 1993 Sargeson Literary Fellowship, author of a classic book about New Zealand gangs, and writer in residence at the Alhambra in Three Lamps.
The year after he died they sprinkled his ashes at the house of the famous writer. His friends and family stood in a circle in the backyard of that grey shack and said nice things about him. It felt like a second funeral; one for his body, one for his ashes.
His son had to say something but all he could think about was the acne on his chin. It started to rain and he said a brief thanks, something about how nice it was for everyone to have come. His aunty squeezed his shoulder in encouragement. But once the ashes lay in a heap on the dirt no one knew what to do. The wind moved ash across the grass and people thought that sprinkling ashes sounded more romantic than it actually was. The pile became sodden as the rain became heavier and one by one people started to leave, each saying a kind word to the boy as they made their way.
“I think in many ways your old man was the better writer,” one man said, motioning to the shack of the famous writer. “But what do I know.”
As the last of them left, the boy looked at his aunty. Her mouth moved into a smile without actually forming one. She had accompanied him in place of his mother who had refused to go. Just like she had refused to go to the funeral.
“No point in being nice about him just because he’s dead,” she had said.
The boy wondered how they could have loved each other so much to have had a child and then hated each other just the same so she could not be there then.
“We should probably get you to the airport,” his aunty said.
She and the boy were the only ones in the family with red hair. As she became older her feminine features had dulled and the family’s large ears and nose became dominant. The boy hoped he would not face the same.
In the back of her car was a banana box of paper stuffed full. Through the square hole at the top the boy could see it had yellowed in the year since his father’s death. It was his last obligation, to get that box. He would take it with him on the plane.
“The best thing I’ll leave for you when I’m gone is my unpublished work,” his father had said.
The boy was only young then and it was many years before his father had become sick. He looked up at his father and didn’t know what to say so hugged him tightly, not wanting to think of his death.
And there it was. Leftovers of his father’s life in one box.
“Good thing you’ve got that, eh?” his aunty said.
The box sat in the overhead compartment as the plane descended, just like it had in Doha, in Melbourne, in Amsterdam. He had lived in many cities in the years since his father’s death and had taken the box to each with the same intention: To look in it, to sort through his father’s unpublished manuscripts, to make sense of it. But he could not. He had taken the lid off only once, seen the letters of his father’s name punched into a page by an old typewriter, and quickly closed it.
In the first years his aunty had called him from time to time and asked, “Had a look through that box?”
He lied and said he had, there were some interesting things in there. She would ask him what he was going to do with it and he was happy he could answer honestly to at least that one question.
“I don’t know.”
Over time the aunty stopped asking and he was thankful for he did not like lying to her.
He had not been back to that city since he first got the box. He could hear it shifting in the overhead compartment as the plane touched down and he was surprised, as he had been each time he had moved cities, that he was allowed to take something with such weight as carry-on. He could feel it above him and looked forward to when it was not.
The seatbelt sign turned off with a ding and passengers murmured with relief. They did their best to be ahead of the person behind them, to get off the plane. The boy waited until the last of them made their way up the aisle before getting up from his seat to extract the box. It was exactly as he had left it before the plane had taken off: Directly above him.
“Are you any relation to–”
“Yes, he’s my father,” he said, cutting off his lecturer.
“‘I just loved that book of short stories he wrote.”
His classmates looked at him and he read many things in their eyes. It was the first day and everyone was sizing each other up and he had been singled out.
“Didn’t he win the–”
“Yep,” said the boy, cutting him off.
“Big shoes to fill.”
“I prefer jandals.”
He was thankful when the lecturer resumed the introductions. Each person in the room told the class why it was they had decided to study creative writing. He was envious of the confident ones, the ones who had been published already, but thought the shy ones were probably the better writers.
He looked from the twelfth floor classroom out to the island in the harbour. Shadows appeared and disappeared on the streets below. The clouds moved so quickly across the blue sky that it made him feel like it was the building moving instead. He closed his eyes until the dizzy feeling went away and turned back to his lecturer.
After class he walked through the park that had in it the writers’ residence in which his father had lived for a year. Inside the apartment were pictures of other writers, many of them dead. As a boy he had stayed there on weekends and would return to the pictures each time.
“Was he a good writer, Dad?”
“He was okay, Son.”
“How about her, Dad?”
“She was a very good writer but a very unhappy dyke.’
“What’s a dyke?”
“A woman who likes other women.”
“Mum likes other women.”
“In a different kind of way, Son.”
“Oh, okay,” the boy said, not really knowing what he meant but not wanting to ask and feel stupid.
The park was filled with the heat of a late summer’s day but there were not many people: Two teenagers in the grass with their legs tangled, a man holding a map and looking confused.
He followed the path to the writers’ residence. On the rise he could see onto the top of the apartment where the skylight was. His father would stand in the kitchen and lift him through it and onto the roof. He would pass up water balloons for the boy to throw at the rollerbladers as they raced down the hill.
Opposite the writers’ residence was a hollow tree. He had been there many times before and it was both a happy and a sad place. He remembered crawling in it as a boy, so large and cavernous, a place of great mystery. Standing there as an adult it seemed much smaller. He looked inside: It was filled with bits of screwed-up paper. He sat on its roots that cocked out of the earth like elbows. The last time he had been there was the day his father had died.
“He’s not well,” his aunty had said over the phone. “You should get here as soon as you can.”
His plane arrived late. His aunty met him at the airport and said: “I’m glad you get to say goodbye.”
But he did not get to say goodbye. At the hospital the lights were off in his father’s room but he could still make out his sunken figure, the notches of his bones on his legs and arms beneath the sheets. The person in the bed did not look much like his father; his ears and nose were much bigger and his body much smaller. The room was silent but for the heavy rattle in his father’s throat.
The nurses made up a cot for the boy next to his bed but he barely slept. When he finally drifted off he would awake thinking his father was speaking to him only to find that rattle in place of a voice.
The boy spent two straight days in the hospital and from the window watched Winter turn to Spring on September one as if the weather knew the date. Many people came to visit and they all said how sad it was to be losing such a great writer. The rattle in his father’s throat became louder until the boy could not take it anymore and had to leave.
He did not know where he was going but that it was from the hospital. The sun felt good on his skin, the breeze a relief from the sick hospital air. He walked over the bridge with the concave fence that stopped people from killing themselves. He walked down the street with the many brothels and remembered a photo on the back of one of his father’s books, standing there in black and white next to a woman in leather. He walked up the hill to a park until he found himself sitting beneath the hollow tree and looking at the writers’ residence, unsure how he had made it there. But as soon as he sat down on the tree’s sprouting limbs he knew he had to return to the hospital.
When he arrived back and short of breath his aunty moved her mouth into a smile without actually forming one. The rattle in his father’s throat was now deafening and the few friends there said nothing and stared at their feet. He took the seat next to the bed and held his father’s hand. It had become very cold. His father’s skin was now yellow and lay over his sunken face like a thin sheet. His breathing was uneven, desperate for the last air he would ever taste. The boy lay his head on the pillow next to his father’s. He could smell the death. And then he went quiet.
The boy rubbed the tree’s skin and looked up to the writer’s residence. It was as though no time had passed. He thought about the banana box of yellowing paper that now sat on top of his wardrobe. A desperate feeling came over him and he knew he had to get to the box.
He walked along the road where all the brothels used to be but where there were now cafes instead. He walked past the luxury car dealerships on the sites of old state houses. His keys shook violently in his hand as he unlocked the front door. At his wardrobe he stood on his tiptoes to reach the box and felt the unbelievable weight of it as he pulled it down.
Through the kitchen, the laundry, the backdoor and onto the lawn. Clouds moved over him and the wind whipped at the long grass. Off with the lid, the black letters of his father’s name still burning in the yellowed page. Lifting the box above his head, the paper fluttered to the ground, half in a pile, the rest off with the wind. From the shed he took a petrol can and poured it over his father’s final pages. With a match the pages made a sucking sound, the flames hungry for the oxygen. Words turned to embers and then to ash, carried off in the wind. The heat warmed him.
The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.