The light in the evening looked old, like light from the time when I was growing up on the loess hillsides of Christchurch’s Port Hills with their volcanic rocks rough with lichen, with pale tussocks and small banks pocked with tiger beetle holes, where little owls and hares hid, and finches scattered up into the sky from rickety wire-and-batten fences and long, dry grass; from the time when Birdling’s Flat meant the possibility of geckos. The light looked soft, as if all the edges and angles had been worn off it. Perhaps the wind had done just that. It certainly seemed wild and strong enough, thrashing the trees about, churning the hay paddocks so the seething air took visible form — the wind incarnate. Once, a gust caught the car as if a giant had poked it sideways with an invisible finger.
The light seemed old, and the age carried me back to another time when both my parents were alive and the thought they might die was inconceivable and unbearable. They both did, long after that time, in a time long ago, separated by two decades. The light took me back not just through memories but beyond, to a time before I'd even been born, to a time before any human left a footprint on an empty beach, a time when the only footprints might have been made by moa and birds with pseudoteeth cruised the coast around Motunau Island. I felt the presence of that time, re-entered it even as I drove home through that strange soft light with the wind pushing at the car, and I realised that time is sometimes neither linear nor regular. Time makes no sense — at least none I can comprehend — but the idea of time as something measurable makes even less. Time makes its own rules.
I drove on, not sure where I was and less sure when. Space and time can’t be separated, the physicists say, and maybe they’re right, but if that’s true then I don’t understand why we think of them as so utterly different. Why is it so easy to understand great distance (particularly when it separates you from someone or somewhere you love), and why can I believe that crossing that distance is just a matter of travelling in space — no big deal in theory even if the difficulty in practice drives me to despair — yet at the same time I know so clearly that I can never, meaning in no possible way, cross the time back to the past? Tell me why it’s so impossible to understand how the past is irretrievable and the future inaccessible if space and time don't differ. Tell me how it happens that, moment by moment, the future becomes irretrievable.
I drove on, moving through the old, worn-out light, with the future changing into the past and the past haunting me. I drove the Napier Road towards Ashhurst, through a wild sky scattered with finches from the past and hung now with a hawk here and there; driving through memories of clay banks with tiger beetle holes, a goldfinch nest high in an old willow, herons roosting at dusk and owls starting up with their beautiful sad calls, a hare disappearing beyond the curve of the empty hilltop, Pegasus Bay stretching out green and luminous in the nor’west light of the place I left so long ago, Motunau Island crouching there in the far distance. When the past returns it takes you to another place, and sometimes you know neither where you are, nor when.
1. Birdling's Flat: a long, low, shingle spit that stretches south from the south-western hills of Banks' Peninsula and separates Lake Ellesmere from the ocean. My father told us he'd caught geckos there in his younger days, but we never found any.
2. Motunau Island sits in the northern curve of Pegasus Bay. Fragments of a prehistoric pseudotooth bird (Pseudodontornis stirtoni — the taxonomy's debated) were found on Motunau beach, opposite the island.