HQ

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The girls in Duty Free, smiling vacantly before the perfume counters, wear tight black sheath dresses and hot pink wigs. Monday morning. It’s raining outside. We drift like somnambulists towards Gate XX and there learn the flight has been delayed. Bad weather, a medical emergency, the usual obfuscations come through the tannoy. Still, it feels alright to be waiting in this limbo full of warm bodies with their urgent physical needs and their empty minds. And natural, later, to choose that title for the inflight movie that will lull me across the Tasman. Warm Bodies is set mostly in a derelict airport, outside the city walls, and its hero, Arr, lives, if the undead may be said to live, inside the fuselage of a passenger jet much like that in which we are flying. He plays records on an old phonograph and at one point I glimpse the cover of a Doors album: This is the end / Beautiful friend / The End. Watching the zombies lurch and stumble through the concourse of the defunct terminal makes me feel peculiar, as if this is a veritable image of the place we have just left; or, equally, the one we are going to. After they serve breakfast Maggie orders wine and, reaching for her zombie book to make a note on the flyleaf, upsets the plastic tumbler, which spills its contents in a great wet stain down the front of her burgundy dress. There is a thin sour smell in the air and the IT guy sitting on my right purses his inscrutable lips. By the time we commence our descent, however, the stain has dried to a barely perceptible watermark and Arr, miraculously, is no longer a zombie. It’s cold outside, the streets deserted for the public holiday and when we make a quick foray down to Cuba Street for a glass of red and a steak, I sense the ghosts of nightclubs past haunting the southerly air. Lou Reed is dead but I don’t find that out until lunchtime the next day. His liver gave out and the new one didn’t take. I remember him in the old Town Hall thirty years ago, a little pot-bellied fellow in tight jeans and a T-shirt snarling into the microphone, making us feel, as we were, unbearably provincial. I think of Laurie Anderson, alone now, who at the Opera House beat upon the drum pads concealed beneath the sleeves, the trouser legs and the jacket of her white suit; and played a violin with a bow that used a string made of audio tape to scrape a few syllables out of a pick-up affixed to the body of the instrument. White lily, she whispered, evoking Berlin Alexanderplatz. We are in the World Head Quarters of the Verb or so my mother wrote and after lunch we find, near the western end of Para’s Bridge, the actual concrete slab with those words upon it. I stand there, as I have a few times before, reading the quatrain and trying to figure out what it means. Everything? Or nothing? At the ceremony I think about beginning my speech with that equivocal line but in the end decide not to because it might sound derisive, like a bad joke or a deliberate wrong note, and I don’t want that. The venue turns out to be where the Murder House once was and some among us recall getting drilled in the very place where now the little stage stands, in a bow window, in front of the dark trees moving mysteriously outside. There isn’t much more to say except that Roger Steele is present and if I’d known this before I spoke I would have acknowledged him as the person who published my first essays and reviews. He says I have to get back up on to the stage and do the whole thing again, which is funny because how can I do that? They are already giving us truffles and shooing us out the door. Next morning, while I’m waiting for Maggie to dress, I wander up the road and find the Sexton’s cottage at the entrance to what’s left of the Old Bolton Street Cemetery. The stones are inscribed with familiar names, Barraud, Blundell, Pharazyn, Plimmer, and then I come to a place where a brass book lies open upon a concrete plinth, saying that in a vault beneath the green dell below is the mass grave that holds the bones of those whose resting places were bulldozed to make the motorway that now bisects the cemetery. About 3700 of them. It must be that phrase, mass grave, that causes a hot prickle of tears behind my eyes, a catch in my throat, and turns my brief walk back to the hotel into a zombie lurch and slouch. The dead have a lot of time on their hands and they do not relent. They are still with me at the reading, great clouds and thickets of souls that will not let us be, panting after our blood and breath. We do what we can, as always, to appease them and then for a moment they remember who we are and graciously stand back to let us pass. Then, as always, crowd in behind again. In Victoria Street I remember Hans Bones clutching his genitals as he shouted his anabasis: There are no fences on the sun . . . why should I pay for light? The wind has gone northerly, there is a sleety, slanted rain falling on The Terrace as I go in to look at St Andrew’s in the City, the first place I ever stood up in public to read. At the pulpit, from the Bible, in a Nativity Play. Towards Bethlehem. Half of those I appeared with are dead now too. There in the hotel lobby is James in his Astrakhan hat, taller than yesterday, with his big teeth shining beneath the slick of a very good Riesling, talking about Richard Coeur de Leon. Things begin to blur, this is the third day, too much has happened or perhaps I mean not enough. They come again in the night, whispering their imprecations, their holy disappointments, their ineffable tormented desires; my father my mother my sister like the three black birds that perch among the bare branches of the tree on the plain before mountains in that Rita Angus water colour from 1943. Of course the flight out is delayed too but when we finally take off I see a flume of souls mingling with our vapour trail then falling away as we hit blue sky. And say again those words we always have to say: Te hunga mate ki te hunga mate; te hunga ora ki te hunga ora. Aue, aue, aue.

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One response to “HQ

  1. Ellen

    That reminded me …
    I went to a talk about the cemetery, and heard that when it was established, the Anglicans and various other denominations were allotted areas to bury their dead. But not the Jews who spoke up for their share. They were given the most inaccessible, steepest part. When the motorway went through, the Jewish graves were untouched.

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