We lock up the house, load up the car, and head north from Christchurch over the Waimakariri River towards the bright arch hanging over the mountains. This is the country I was born in, travelled from, and am now returning to in life’s circle. Smoke drifts up in front of us. Morgan, my grandson, is probably burning forests and houses down to show his prison background isn’t a waste of time. His sister, Michelle, is driving, sneaking little glances at me, chuckling to herself, hello and goodbye, as we will shortly drop in on my old homestead unexpected. Michelle loves surprises. Her brother, young fence paling, does not.
We are in the foothills of the bright arch, when we arrive. I am so excited I don’t have to be woken up to tumble out of the car.
I see at once he’s been working on the house as an artwork. Like I am, it’s more than a century old, yet he is not destroying it. He’s standing in front of me with wood shavings in his hair, and a skin browner than the wood.
One side of the veranda has sagged since I was last here, the other side has been cleared of rotting timber, and new wood braces up the house. Perhaps prison taught him such skills, as he couldn’t be expelled from that school? Michelle turns, winking at her brother. I hurry through the house, feeling the rooms gather around me, murmuring history, creaking, sighing, now, if only I could have some new timber replace my rotting beams.
M and M are almost doing cartwheels as they follow me, grabbing the house and hitting me over the head with it. What comedians. Young fence paling has made a beautiful job of the kitchen – hardwoods, stained, oozing with juice. The whole room glows with golden honey.
And dreams. My dreams.
My grandchildren are examining my face anxiously. The house continues to have a funny effect on me, my old ticker goes, boom-boom, don’t tell me the house has reached into me and pulled the pin out? ‘How have you paid for all this?’ I ask my unemployed grandchildren whom everyone but me sees as abject failures.
They need the township of hope.
‘We forged your signature,’ says Michelle, sounding pleased with herself. ‘My idea. Morg’s always been good with his hands. He can write your signature better than you can.’
‘Wonderful hands you have, Mr M.’
I have no idea why I call him this, but young fence paling seems to enjoy the idea.
‘You like it?’ Morgan hops from one foot to the other.
‘Like? I love your work.’ Hello, the waterworks are going without my permission. ‘I can’t get over what you’ve done here.’
‘That’s why you couldn’t find your cheque book when you looked for it a few days ago,’ says Michelle. ‘We know you don’t mind about the money.’
‘I only regret not getting to know the pair of you sooner. The deals we might’ve done.’ I pause. ‘Two foolish men, your father and I.’
Of all my children, their father had taken off as soon as he could, and I never heard about him again until his death, and these grandchildren appeared to take me out of the old peoples’ home I’d never liked, and was scheming to get out of, even if my attempts failed.
She runs to me, and I hug her. ‘No matter, I’m getting to know you now.’
‘We’ve cleaned the family graveyard,’ says Michelle. ‘It’s our present to you.’
‘I’ve always wanted a graveyard.’
‘And the house,’ says Morgan. ‘You weren’t meant to come out here this soon. We decided to fix the place up like it must have looked when you lived here last century.’
He winks, or is that an optical disorder?
His sister stares in my direction. ‘This is all his idea you know. Couldn’t talk you out of returning when I brought it up, could I Granddad?’
I appear to be drifting away.
They start grinning. The grin spreads from one side of the room to the other. Fancy thinking I can be conned by a couple of smart-arse kids. I know the tricks, the swerves, the plays, hook, line and sinker. Fancy being taken in so easily, effortlessly, simply, facilely, smoothly, just like that, hand over fist. It’s on with the show. They tell me how they loved Mt Thomas as soon as they saw it, went and got me out of that home for the ancients, only to have me buy the house on the hills at Sumner. ‘For you, my lovelies,’ I say. ‘Payment for putting some current back into these worn circuits.’
My voice slows down. Dearie me, I really do nod off.
‘I’ll put the kettle on,’ says Michelle, as she shakes me. ‘You still with us, Granddad?’
‘Weather looks like holding,’ says Morgan.
I laugh and laugh at their presence as presents. Alliteration. I choke, I gasp, I wheeze, I pant, oh boy, what a pair they are, young off the block, and about to go further on time’s hand.
My first night at the residence of much of my life is for Aggie, mother of all my children, out here in farmland, burying myself in warm clean sheets. The room looks a treat, everywhere the new – paint, polish, glue. Downstairs our grandchildren are disappointed I didn’t look at their architectural plans for the entire house. Time enough for this; I couldn’t wait to get these bones up the stairs into bed, wanting young memories to surround me. Yes, to show my infantile return, I’m busy remembering the day my sperm hanged over everything in this room. That’s got Aggie’s attention, as she was a critic of anything close to a metaphor. Is that you I hear laughing, you sound relaxed, death agrees with you. What do you mean this is why God has kept me alive? Excuse. You loved this house more than you loved me. Am I getting warm? Seventy years here, Aggie, it seems like….seventy years. You’re laughing at my soft comedy, a national tradition, you know. I’m suspicious; you’re up to something. What do you mean I never gave you credit for having a sense of humour? Let the clichés begin. I’m ready for platitudes. I sink down in our bed. The bed lasted better than we did, more laughter, you sound hysterical; I hope you’re not close to any shotguns. I continue to draw the house in around me like folds of flesh, examining the walls for signs of Aggie. Nothing, ah, well, I can’t expect miracles, even if I think I am one myself.
Aggie gets hysterical.
The following evening, I bring my grandchildren into a kitchen of cream of cauliflower soup, boeuf a la bourguignonne and apple strudel. I am turning out to be a surprise packet as well. ‘And you let me cook for you at Sumner?’ asked Michelle. ‘How embarrassing.’ I never told them I was once a connoisseur cook, as that was before they were born and, as a testament to youth, they think not much happened that far back, other than in the township of gloom. I shall be the cook who smothers them with chocolate-covered kisses, orange duck, peach chicken, the last supper to which we are all invited, all knowing that when we walk in the garden, we will also be betrayed. We shall sing to the host of roasts, hammering our chops with howls of love, tearing our steaks with shrieks of happiness.
So, my last career is off and running once more. It may last a week, a month, or a year. I will be the same. My grandchildren may get bored, pack up and leave Mt Thomas. This will be okay, too. They mustn’t feel burdened by me. I’m telling lies. We cannot help feeling burdened by each other. I hope it’s the weight they want. I wonder what they’ll be like at farming. I could teach them everything I know in the modern world of agriculture. That will be over by lunchtime! I open a bottle of red wine, even if it is ancient from the vineyard at the back of the house, and toast M and M, before walking outside on to the veranda. I sense the wings of birds above me in the dark. Like a boy who knows nothing at all, like a careless and go-to-hell person I drink to them. I drink to my parents, and other ghostly figures dancing on the lawn. I drink to my family, wherever they may be, and to the animals snuffling around me in the darkness, and to the moths who dive to their deaths in the ponds. I drink to the closed eye of the moon, to the trees that nod and sigh. I drink to the amazing stars, and to the voice in the wind until, already dreaming, I sink back upon the cushions of long ago, every tap opening up. I drink to you all. Let the orchestra begin. What was it Michelle said to me before I came out here? ‘Here’s to your second hundred years, Granddad?’
Now, won’t this be something if my pipes stay open.