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Sunday Essay Daniel Blackball Alexander header

The Sunday EssayFebruary 13, 2022

The Sunday Essay: Two-toned shoes

Sunday Essay Daniel Blackball Alexander header

Charles was murdered on a trip to Thailand. New Zealand reporting left out some key details.

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Original illustrations by Daniel Blackball Alexander

In August 2011 my father was watching the news in the front room of a house in Lyttelton that we don’t own any more. He had driven over from the West Coast that afternoon and he was tired. His cousin had died a few days before, but he was fine, he told us. In our family we keep a tight, impenetrable seal over our emotions, and I didn’t ask again. Dad was sitting on the couch with his legs curled to the side when he started to cough. It was awful to listen to, but then he stopped and that was worse. His eyes were closed, and his head slumped forward, mouth gaping open. He stayed like that a moment or two then he opened his eyes and insisted that nothing had happened. “I fell asleep,” he said. I knew then that he wasn’t fine, but I also knew there was no point in asking him about it.

Heart conditions run in our family. A few years later Dad had a triple bypass. In 2011 his arteries would have been narrowing and hardening, slowly restricting the transmission of blood and oxygen like a faulty antenna on an old transistor radio. The stress of hearing about Charles’s death restricted the flow even more, but only temporarily. If Charles hadn’t died when he did, he probably would have ended up with the same condition. He and Dad shared a similar physique as well as a family history. I understood how Dad felt, even if my reaction wasn’t so visceral.

Hearing about Charles made me anxious. Or maybe uneasy is a better word. Anyway, I couldn’t bring myself to talk much about it. I tried experimenting with language. Sometimes I said “killed”, other times “murdered”. Or else I would be very precise and explain that Charles was “stabbed”. It didn’t matter how I said it, the words sounded hollow and insincere coming out of my mouth, as if I had miscast myself as the lead in the narrative of someone else’s misfortune. Before I left for the funeral, I told friends that my father’s cousin had died and let them assume it was of natural causes.

Charles was murdered in Thailand in August 2011, on his way back to New Zealand from London where he’d been officiating at a series of croquet tournaments. He’d been elected president of the World Croquet Federation the previous year and part of the role involved handing out large trophies while making colourful speeches. He was pretty good at it. After the tournaments, he’d planned to spend six weeks at a beach resort in Pattaya. It wasn’t his first visit to the region – he went every year.

I remember trying to talk to him about these annual visits. It was a warm evening, and we were sitting outside on my parents’ veranda in Westport. “Thailand’s an amazing country,” I said with all the hubris of a young backpacker, even though I was neither. “I once spent New Year’s Eve on Koh Phi Phi.” I looked at Charles as I spoke and noticed his face was red, the spider veins that trailed across his cheeks clearly defined. He drank his beer and changed the subject. I only realised how drunk he was when he stood up unsteadily to leave and let out a long fart that nobody mentioned.

It’s only when I start writing about Charles that I realise how little I actually knew about him. I Skype my parents and Mum answers, brightly lit against the backdrop of the kitchen. She arranges her fringe over her forehead as she sees herself on her computer screen. We talk about the weather and then I ask if she can tell me what she remembers about Charles, starting with croquet. “He probably learned from Nana Rob and Auntie Con,” she says, “he went everywhere with them.” She calls out to ask Dad, but he can’t recall the specifics, just that Charles had always played. A news report claims his mother – my Great Aunty Jean – taught him to play around the age of nine. I imagine him in short pants and a white polo shirt buttoned all the way to the top, flourishing a small wooden mallet. In my mind, he looks like Dad does in boyhood photos: hair parted to one side and standing up on his head instead of lying flat like it’s meant to.

Mum remembers that he was a New Zealand representative. According to the speech given at his funeral by his successor as president of New Zealand Croquet, he was also a solid administrator and the manager of several national teams. At some point he was awarded a Queen’s Service Medal for services to sport.  

“What else do you want to know?” Mum asks.

“When did everyone find out he was gay?”

“We always knew. Even if it wasn’t in the open.”

“How? How did you know?”

“When he was a kid, he was one of the only boys to do dancing.”

“Dancing?”

“Tap. And singing. He once performed Burlington Bertie.” 

“Did his father know?”  

“No.”

“His mother?”

“Jean? No. Or if she did, she never mentioned it.”

I’m Burlington Bertie I rise at ten-thirty

and saunter along like a toff

I walk down the Strand with my gloves on my hand

Then I walk down again with them off.

It’s fair to say that Charles’s sexuality defined him in our family. Sometimes we used it as proof of our own progressiveness in the same way we conjured up names of Māori acquaintances to reassure ourselves we weren’t racist. But in practice we ignored the fact that Charles was gay and, when we couldn’t, we laughed about it. Not when he was around of course. 

In 1986, Charles came home to Westport for my grandfather’s funeral. The night before the service the family sat around drinking and telling stories. Charles perched on the sofa in my parents’ living room, trousers riding up above his ankles exposing his leather brogues. “God, it’s so conservative in this town,” he bemoaned, catching me looking at his feet. “I almost didn’t want to wear my two-toned shoes.” The brogues were brown and black, and to me they didn’t look much different from shoes the other men in my family wore. I was disappointed. There was a story about another pair of two-toned shoes that Charles had worn to Nana Rob’s funeral. Black and white with a heel so high that he stumbled at the gravesite and nearly fell in on top of the coffin. Those were the shoes I’d hoped to see. Of course, even then I knew that the story wasn’t about the shoes. It was about what those shoes represented. His queerness.

I don’t remember much queerness in Westport. Some rumours. The local policeman who had recently left his wife and kids; my third form English teacher who lived with her girlfriend in Millerton, a tiny town north of Westport. Ms Quinliven was my favourite teacher with her curly red hair, love of Bryan Ferry and an incredible story of not washing a pair of togs for an entire summer so that they disintegrated one afternoon while she was swimming in her local pool. The humiliation of having one’s nudity on display had such an impact on 13-year-old me that I can never hear Slave to Love without picturing a flame-haired teenager cowering naked in the deep end of a 25-metre pool. She didn’t stay in Westport long, a couple of years at most.

A few years later, the mother of a girl in the year below me left her husband for another of those Millerton lesbians. I heard a story that the pair of them were kicked out of the Cosmopolitan Hotel for holding hands. People around town were quick to gossip so the story may or may not have been true. Either way, the couple didn’t hang around long. Westport wasn’t a town where openly gay people were embraced. Although now I come to think about it, my first kiss was with a girl. Actually, it was with two girls. We were rehearsing for the next day when we had plans to meet up with some boys from school. Practising for the real thing. 

“Did he ever bring a partner home?” I ask. Mum doesn’t think he did. It seems unbearably sad to me that someone could live an entire life without experiencing that discomforting feeling of simultaneously seeing the people you love through each other’s eyes. “But he lived with a man in Wellington?” I insist. “That was his flatmate,” Mum tells me. In the late 1990s I worked with a woman in Auckland who often spoke about her flatmate. Leanne was 10 years older and taught me how to mollify our chain-smoking mercurial boss who had his fingers in more pies than a dozen bakers. I told Leanne about my boyfriends and she told me she was taking a break from men. She’d had a couple of rough relationships, she said. After she resigned, I found out that her flatmate was her girlfriend. I was hurt that she hadn’t confided in me, but I understood why. I ask Mum if she’s sure the flatmate wasn’t really Charles’s lover, but she’s adamant that he was just a flatmate and he lived downstairs. 

“We stayed in his room when we went up to Wellington for Sue’s funeral.”

“The flatmate’s?”

“Yes.”

She tells me the room was bright pink, and I can hear Dad laughing from the other room.

“And Uncle Scott pissed in the pot plant,” he calls out. 

“Why?”

“It was the middle of the night and he couldn’t find the toilet.”

“What did Charles do in Wellington?” I ask. Mum has a section of the newspaper next to the computer keyboard folded into A4 size. The sun is out in Westport, and when she finishes talking to me she’ll take the newspaper onto the veranda and work through the cryptic crossword. She tells me that Charles worked for the defence force. In a civilian role. Neither she nor Dad are sure what this involved. 

“We’re not good with detail,” she says. 

I remember in my early 20s seeing Charles at my Uncle Ikey’s house in Aro Valley. Ikey made us cups of tea and told me it was OK to smoke inside. 

“Claire doesn’t smoke,” Charles said.  

“Then why is she sitting with a packet of Park Drive in her lap?” Ikey retorted. 

I guess Charles wasn’t good with detail either. 

I find his obituary online and read it out. He was director of coordination, land command and was also employed by veterans’ affairs as an overseas commemorations coordinator. Dad suddenly remembers that Charles worked in London for a few years and calls out that he arranged an Anzac Day commemoration in Gallipoli. “That’s where he converted to Catholicism,” Mum says, “in London.” 

My parents aren’t sure what prompted the conversion. Charles was a professional organist and Mum thinks he played for a High Anglican church in London while he was living there. “Maybe that was behind it,” she says. He’d had a lot to do with Catholics growing up. Plenty of his relatives – my family included – had become Catholics by marriage. And as a child Charles learned music from the Sisters of Mercy. Whenever he came back to Westport he played the organ at the local Catholic church. St Canice’s is a stark concrete building with acrylic glazed windows in primary colours and is always in need of decent organists. I used to attend mass there twice a week when I was at school but now I only go when someone dies. That’s where Charles’s funeral was held. Father Raymond prayed for his soul and told us about the time he met Charles and his sister shopping at the local supermarket. “This is Alison, Father,” Charles said. “She hates Catholics.” 

Five years before he died, Charles took early retirement and moved back to the house he grew up in on the corner of Palmerston and Bentham. When I was a child, retired men were old blokes who staggered from houses, smelling faintly of boiled vegetables, out to their mail boxes and back again. Charles wasn’t that sort of retiree. He was animated and energetic and more Versace pour Homme than cabbage. When the season was right, he’d be out whitebaiting on the Buller river trawling a large scoop net through the water. Charles inherited his “posie” from his father, and then it went to his sister. To be a good whitebaiter you have to be willing to tolerate a certain degree of physical and mental discomfort: sleeplessness, a damp river bank, sandflies, interminable conversations with other whitebaiters about shifts in the river and how the Department of Conservation is trying to ruin the season for everyone. Charles was a good whitebaiter.

He was also a good son. Aunty Jean was unwell when he moved home. He’d sit beside her in their dim, pleasant living room and talk about whatever came into his head. When they went out, he’d patiently take her arm and she’d lean on him as they walked. Family was important. Charles was the one who kept tabs on what everyone else was doing, apprising my parents when he called in to see them. He went around to Mum and Dad’s almost every day. He’d make himself a cup of instant coffee, carry it out onto the veranda and sit and talk to Dad. Neither of them was in any hurry. 

I only remember visiting his house twice. Once after Aunty Jean died and once when I was a child. In the front room was a loom that in my memory took up the entire space, but probably wasn’t that big. I watched Aunty Jean pass the shuttle from side to side and she let me push the weft yarn down with a reed while I pretended I was a clothmaker from the Emperor’s New Clothes. 

And of course there was his volunteer work at the local rest home. 

“What did he do there?” I ask Mum. 

She’s not sure. “Maybe played the piano? Or just talked to the oldies? Whatever it was he would have been very entertaining.” 

She’s right. Charles always acted as if he was in front of an audience, even if he wasn’t performing to a sold-out house. He was a talented musician and an excellent sight reader, with the ability to play and sing pieces that he’d never heard before. After he died, the New Zealand media focused on his altruistic nature – his volunteer work in particular –  but I remember him as equal parts showman and family man. 

Neither of these traits made it into the Thai media accounts of his death. Instead the Pattaya Mail referred to him as the “World Croquet Boss” reporting that he often visited Pattaya in between “jaunts around the world to promote croquet”. After reading this I picture Charles as a Tony Soprano type, smoking Cuban Montecristo’s and negotiating back-room deals. In croquet whites, of course. As inaccurate as it was, I think he would have appreciated the comparison.

In the Pattaya Mail I read that Charles hadn’t been in Thailand long when he met a “handsome Syrian” who – just like the title character in the movie The Talented Mr Ripley – “befriends rich gay men in order to steal their fortunes”. Again, that’s not quite right, not least because in the movie it was Tom Ripley who was gay, not the man whose fortune he stole. And Charles was hardly rich. Or if he was you wouldn’t have known it because as well as being a showman and a family man, the other thing I remember about him was that he was tighter than a parked croquet ball. “He’s so bloody cheap,” my mother fumed during the five years he lived in Westport. “He only comes around so he won’t have to buy coffee and toilet paper.” According to the Mail, Charles was planning to move permanently to Thailand. And set up Pattaya’s first croquet club.

I look at photographs of Mohamad Shanar Ryad, the “handsome Syrian”, taken during the trial. He’s wearing a black t-shirt and wrap-around dark glasses and I agree with the Mail, he is good looking. He was much younger than Charles too. Depending on which newspaper report you read he was either 21 or 22 when they met. The Thai news reports provide me with other information that the New Zealand media omitted. Ryad and Charles had met on two previous occasions. Money exchanged hands. They had sex. But the third time was different. The third time they met they argued and, according to Ryad, Charles pulled out a knife and attempted to sexually assault him. After a struggle, Ryad was able to turn the knife on Charles. It was self-defence, he said. Charles basically stabbed himself. Twenty-seven times. When he was arrested at his girlfriend’s apartment, Ryad had Charles’s mobile phone, laptop and watch. Hardly the fortune that Tom Ripley netted in the movie.

When I look back over the New Zealand news reports of his death, there’s no mention that anything of a sexual nature had taken place. It was theft and murder. A burglary gone wrong. Some things are better left unwritten, such as paying for sex. The reports give a brief outline of Ryad’s background. In Syria he was in the army. He fled as the conflict began and drifted between Thailand and Malaysia for about four years.

He is a United Nations-registered refugee. In fact, Ryad is one of 6.6 million Syrians who have claimed refugee status around the world. Thailand is not a signatory to the refugee convention and so refugees have no legal status and are trapped in a life of insecurity knowing they could be deported at any time. Ryad had a job as a chef but was fired shortly before the murder. In March 2013, he was sentenced to nine years and five months in prison for Charles’s murder. Less any annual royal birthday discounts for good behaviour. If he hasn’t already been released, he soon will be. What then? If he’s lucky he won’t be sent back to Syria. But, irrespective of international law, there’s no guarantee he won’t be deported.

None of this changes anything of course. Charles didn’t stab himself. Despite what Ryad told Thai police after he was arrested. Knowing Ryad’s backstory provides context but not much else. Understanding that someone has a tragic past and an even more tragic future doesn’t remove his culpability. And at least he has a future. And Charles? Why was he drawn to seek out someone like Ryad? He was 56 when he died. Around the age men start to dig out their old vinyl albums and try to shag anything that moves. Was that what killed him? A mid-life crisis? I’m not sure.

The man in the Pattaya Mail isn’t the same man who drank coffee with Dad out on the veranda. (Not that Dad drinks coffee any more. He went right off the taste after his heart attack.) Messy situations don’t often produce simple explanations, no matter how badly we want them to. And I think that’s the point. The shoes Charles wore to Nana Rob’s funeral may have been black and white, but not much else is. 

The Sunday Essay postcard set is now available from The Spinoff shop. The set features 10 original illustrations from the series.

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