29 November 2005

Fossil fools

Near Wellington, the grey afternoon light seems thick, almost tangible, coating the sky and land rather than illuminating it. Kapiti Island crouches in the West, a dull silhouette over sea the colour of zinc; on the edge of the world the South Island’s dark ranges rise beyond a narrow strip of brilliant, sunlit ocean. Sometimes light like this makes the world seem old. Older than your childhood, when anything seemed possible, before you knew the names of all the birds in the little valley where you grew up, before you realised the small caves led nowhere and contained nothing but dust and dry sheep droppings; when you never knew the limits of what you might find. Sometimes that grey, dense light with its occasional shafts of yellow sunlight seems so old it’s prehistoric. You know it’s not possible but you keep looking out to sea because those wheeling shapes might have been pterosaurs, soaring over a school of amoured fish. You can almost see them, there, on the fringe of the present, not quite breaking through.

Keep your eyes and mind on the road, Pete. This is the notorious Centennial Drive, the coastal section just a few kilometres long but averaging a fatality a year and who knows how many horrific but nonfatal accidents. The crashes are head-on; according to the ambulance officer interviewed on the radio this morning, drivers become “enamoured of the view” and cross the centre line. It pays not to imagine the consequences and it pays to pay attention.

It’s good to be safe and comfortable at John’s, settling down in the evening with a good feed and a glass of wine, yarning about possible reasons for the absence of rats in our respective ceilings this year, ranting about the environmentally irresponsible views of the NZ AA’s CEO (be assured the AA will fight vigorously to ensure we can drive as much as we need or want—oh yes, and we’re not going to run out of oil anytime soon) and later, watching the slow, strange, beautiful Solaris. Partway through the film, John turns suddenly and nods towards the window. “There’s a morepork,” he says, and I listen. Sure enough, the two notes return a minute later, distinct, slightly eerie, and fitting the surreal mood of the film. Before dawn a morepork begins to call right outside the window, so loud it wakes me; so loud only logic tells me it isn’t in the room. Light from the street lamp filters through the old curtains, filling the room with shadows and pale shapes the way the full moon illuminates a room full of dreams. I lie half awake, listening, smiling. Dreaming.

In the morning I looked out from the lounge through the big windows, through the gap in the trees to the native bush on the far side of the deep gully. Fine, misty drizzle drifted and floated in brilliant sunlight—the genius of a weather spirit apparently able to entertain two contradictory ideas simultaneously. It stayed like that all weekend, until I began to wonder whether the weather was the genius I’d imagined or whether I’d infected it with my own delight in unpredictability—or, as some of my friends must think, my own inability to make up my mind. Persistent cloud and rain or a fine sunny day? I just can’t seem to decide... But it didn’t matter; I met R1 and R2 at JK, A & R3’s house in Eastbourne in the afternoon and no kind of weather could have dampened that.

I woke several times during the night and heard rain drumming on the conservatory roof; a comfortable sound as I lay in my liner under a thick duvet on the lounge floor wondering if Ralph (R3) would check me out, perhaps stand on my chest and purr cat breath in my face, but when morning arrived the weather reverted to its indecision and Ralph still hadn’t appeared. I turned over and went back to sleep, which seemed to be his cue. Having snubbed me all night, he suddenly materialised from a vapour of purring and started walking back and forth next to the mattress, wiping his tail across my face. I reached out, still half asleep, and ran my hand along his back. He moved away but the purring got louder. I opened my eyes and found myself looking straight at his unwashed arse.

The whole way home I had to keep switching the wipers on and off and constantly adjusting the demister as I drove through seemingly random patterns of weather. There were no pterosaurs over the ocean, but behind Levin, the Tararua receded in a series of progressively fading silhouettes, each ridgeline higher, fainter, a more faded grey than the one in front. The aerial perspective conferred a sense of legend, of myth; a kind of wild hope that if you crossed beyond that last, grey, remote horizon you could walk out of time into another world where not everything’s mapped and surveyed; a world where exploration is something you do, not something you read about.

But you know that all there really is beyond that haze of misty rain is the Wairarapa: farmland, fences, roads, Masterton and Eketahuna, sheep, 4-wheelers and ragwort and real estate agents. All of it parcelled up, owned, possessed, used. You’re not a guest—you’re an occupier; you don’t belong to it—it belongs to you. Kind of sad, really. It makes you wonder whether the pterosaurs were brighter than us; after all, they were around for far longer than we’re likely to be. They might be the fossils, but I can’t help thinking we’re the fools.

Photo 1: This kereru alighted during a light drizzle on the kawakawa outside the conservatory at the JK/A/R3 household. I think it was a young bird; it seemed smaller and sleeker than the fat old birds back in the Pohangina Valley. I took the photo through the glass of the window.
Photo 2: Wellington rain at sunset, from Eastbourne.
Photo 3: The more appealing end of Ralph.

Photos and words copyright 2005 Pete McGregor

1 comment:

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