20 October 2015

An hour upon the stage

An old friend and I were drinking flat whites at Café Cuba on a Friday, late in the afternoon but before the influx of the after-work crowd. Even then the place had the trendy café buzz I dislike, but I liked it anyway, partly because the coffee surprised me by being excellent, which made me feel disloyal to my favourite café (closed by then), but mostly because I hadn't seen her for a long time. Besides, perched at a high window table where we looked out to the street instead of back into the ant-nest of the interior, we weren't tempted to make snide sotto voce remarks about the fashionistas and cafelatti and could concentrate on our own conversation.

We talked, inevitably, about travelling we'd done, and about styles of travelling. I said how I liked to do nothing in particular: wander around looking and falling into conversations; mostly not bothering to visit the famous sights; writing a lot, mostly just for the sake of it; going back to the same places to eat, so the staff eventually just grinned and checked I wanted dahl and rice and naan or whatever, as usual. She said she thought I'd turned into her, meaning I'd become the person she'd been, and I thought I heard a little melancholy and a trace of envy, as if she mourned the person she once was. Maybe she felt a little trapped by her success.

I might have felt similarly trapped if I'd been able to claim anything more than trivial success. I can't, though, except for the success of having escaped entrapment by success or being aware of the evil of that entrapment. Others would call that irresponsibility or a refusal to face up to reality, but those accusations smack of envy — and not the gentle, appealing sort of envy I thought I heard in my friend's voice.

'I work hard,' they say (not out loud but clearly enough), 'and you should too,' the subtext of the unsaid jibe being, 'I'm not happy and it's not fair that you're happy.'

Fortunately, none of those people are my friends.


'We should have a glass of wine,' she said. I resisted at first, pointing out that I had to drive myself home, but she pressed a little harder and I thought one glass would be O.K. We peered at the bottles in the chiller and she suggested the Palliser Estate Riesling. When I agreed she got up and bought a glass for each of us. I saw her wince as she put her purse back in her handbag.

While she'd been at the counter I'd glanced around. I wasn't the oldest person in the café but almost everyone who wasn't me looked younger and more competent. All of them, meaning more than a few, were leaning over their phones, poking fingers at screens I'd need glasses to read, and I thought how the first i-phone had begun shaking up the world just eight years ago. Android phones didn't arrive until a year later and only started taking off — I mean trending — five years ago. A lifetime ago, in other words, and if five years is a lifetime, what should all the years of my life be called?

My friend returned and some of her youngness and competence transferred to me, and I relaxed. The excellent wine helped, too, and I might even have become garrulous but she didn't mind.

We talked, also inevitably, about photography. Before I could tell her I was thinking of ordering the Olympus 40–150 mm f2.8 PRO lens with the MC-14 1.4x dedicated teleconverter, a lens she'd owned for some time and, like all owners of that lens, loved, she told me she'd just ordered the Olympus 7–18 mm f2.8 PRO. I felt a twinge of envy.

Digital photography, unlike smartphones, doesn't have a clear birthday. (The first digital camera, on the other hand, arrived in December 1975. The engineer credited with its creation worked for Kodak — a company eventually killed by the digital photography revolution. Irony doesn't come much more ironic.) I believe a few cousins of flat-earthers still deny the existence of digital photography in a form superior to analogue photography — like Holden drivers, they count beliefs and loyalty far more important than facts — but more than a few photographers accept that digital photography truly arrived around the time Canon released the EOS 10D in 2003, or at least when Canon superceded the 10D with the 20D in August 2004.

I still have my 20D. It looked and felt like a monster when I bought it but eventually I grew accustomed to the bulk and heft. Now, on the rare occasions when I pick it up after using my EM-1, the 20D feels like a monster again.

A woman held a phone out at arm's length and leaned against her companion, who leaned against her, and they laughed. I could just hear the fake shutter sound.


Outside the library, a guy with a shiny black BMX helmet cruised up alongside me on a mountain bike with skinny tyres. He wore dark wrap-arounds, baggy shorts, and unlaced high-top boots that looked like they’d been rescued from a skip.  Varicose veins knobbled his hairless pale calves. He stopped the bike and took his sunglasses off.

‘Howya goin’, Pete,’ he said.

‘Good. How are ya, Fred?’

‘Yeah, good. Got plenty of books to take home?’

‘Nah. Been doing some writing.’

‘Yeah? Good on ya, mate. What’s it for?’

I asked if he knew my blog.

He grimaced and said, ‘No. I can’t use a computer.’

All I could think of to say was ‘Bummer.’ I wondered if he was badly dyslexic or had some other kind of disability — the sort of thing that years ago we’d have called a handicap. Now you're not allowed to say that, even if it is a handicap. Sometimes you’re not even allowed to say disability; you have to refer to the person as ‘differently abled’. That sounds absurd to me but I’ll happily use whatever terminology makes the differently abled person most comfortable.

I didn’t know why Fred couldn’t use a computer and didn’t want to risk embarrassing both of us by asking. I changed the subject.

‘How’s your ankle?’

He’d smashed it up a while ago. O.K., he said, but he couldn’t go tramping on it. It had metal pins and screws and a bit of arthritis in it. At least he could bike though. He loved biking and was grateful for that and also for still being alive. I hadn’t realised the accident had been that bad.

I thought of another friend, ten years younger than me, who had arthritis in her foot. Like Fred, she couldn’t go tramping now. I heard doors slamming — behind Fred, behind my friend with the arthritic foot, behind me. Then I realised that all doors behind us have already slammed shut. None ever remain open; you can't return through a door to your past. What I'd heard — metaphorically if not actually —had been doors closing in front of us.

What doors had started swinging shut in front of me?


I woke in the middle of the night and realised the radio was still playing, with Kim Hill interviewing the Welsh duo who were touring New Zealand with their play Hiraeth. From time to time she'd play a song they'd nominated. I dozed and listened and dozed and almost woke, never rising fully from the half-dreamt world, and then I became aware I was listening to music that had begun to draw me up into full consciousness. A powerful orchestral backing dominating the strange vocals; a structure that tricked the listener into believing the track was finishing before suddenly resuming with a wave of sound.

In the morning I checked the playlist on the programme's web page and learned I'd been listening to Hoppípolla, by the band Sigur rós. No wonder I hadn't been able to discern the lyrics — they'd been in Icelandic. Some had even been in a kind of language the band had constructed; the name for that language loosely translates as 'Hopelandic'. It has no consistent syntax.

I found a video of the song and, while I listened, glanced at the YouTube suggestions. One, with an arresting photograph of a girl drew my attention because the girl resembled a younger version of another friend. The piece was a simple but beautiful piano composition, Nuvole Bianche, by the Italian composer Ludovici Einaudi.

I listened, and thought about other piano music and blues and jazz, and about jazz pianists; about Keith Jarrett and Mike Nock and the Australian trio The Necks. I started listening to my favourite Necks track, Open, but had to shut it down because I needed to leave for town. I thought about my grandmother, who had been an accomplished pianist; as a child she'd been considered a virtuoso but, coming from a poor family, she would never become the concert pianist she might otherwise have been. Towards the end of her life a stroke slammed the door on the one thing for which she was most highly regarded. I don't remember how long she lived after the stroke, but I wonder whether she thought she had anything much to live for after that.

She lived on the other side of Christchurch and fought with my grandfather and taught piano. Keyboards in the modern sense hadn't been invented, but she played the organ wonderfully, too, and I have no doubt she'd have been brilliant at anything else with a keyboard — harpsichord, spinet, clavichord, etc. — although maybe not the piano accordion or harmonium. I daren't think what she'd have said about those.

I, too, grew up in a family that scraped by only because of my mother's good and careful management. A piano was out of the question, so my brothers and sister and I never had the opportunity to learn the piano from our grandmother. I'd often wondered what I might have been able to accomplish if I'd learned to play the piano as a kid, and, with the self-confidence of one who knows nothing about the thing they think they'd be great at, I'd more than once thought I could have made a name for myself as a jazz pianist.

Recently, though, I heard a young friend and her mum discussing the technicalities of a keyboard piece she'd been working on. Timing and keys and flats and sharps and signatures and stuff I'd never heard about. I had only the vaguest notion of what they were discussing; they might as well have been speaking Hopelandic. My conviction that I could have been a great jazz pianist vanished at exactly that moment.


Another Friday had ambushed me but late in the day I'd escaped to the City Library, where I'd hidden myself at a desk behind the shelves of film stars and fashion advice and guns and warfare. I was trying to finish an article I'd been writing for too long. Downstairs, someone began playing the beat-up old piano, and at first I took no notice, other than thinking vaguely that whoever was playing sounded confident. Then I started listening harder. This was no plinker practising scales or grinding through Remembrance (which my grandmother and mother both detested, as do I). I packed the laptop away and headed downstairs.

A young man in a faded dark tank top sat at the piano, playing furiously, utterly absorbed in his music. All he had were his hands and the keys and what was in his head. No sheet music. The notes poured from his fingers. The music and the scene were elemental.

I looked down from the ramp and listened for a while then hurried back to the car to pick up the camera bag. The young guy was still playing. I took a seat near another man who was smiling and nodding in time with the music. He looked at me and grinned, and I said something about the music and he agreed and shrugged, spreading his hands to show he had no idea who the musician was but thought him brilliant. The young guy kept playing his extraordinary music.

He wasn't perfect. Occasionally he stumbled as if, momentarily, his hands had decided to go somewhere different from the path his mind was creating, but those slight imperfections made the music even more perfect, in the way the slight imperfections in something handmade make that thing immensely more beautiful than a machine-made perfect product.

I didn't want to interrupt him to ask about photographing. The other man extended a large hand, which I shook. His tattooed biceps looked as if they were about to split the sleeve of his T-shirt.

'I'm Dion,' he said.

I'd been scribbling a few notes about the music in the little cahier I carry everywhere for every kind of purpose.

'Are you an author?' he said.

I replied that I did a lot of writing, but this didn't satisfy Dion.

'Are you an author?' he said again.

I hesitated, then replied again that I did a lot of writing.

'I'm an author,' he said, and explained that his book would be published shortly before Christmas.

'I'm a life coach,' he added. He pointed to some lettering tattoed on his wrist: T.A.N.O.M.

'This stands for "There Are No Ordinary Moments",' he said.

I wondered whether my life was about to be coached, but he must have guessed I was beyond help, so we talked briefly about the music. We agreed that this was no ordinary moment.

The P.A. announced that the library would be closing in fifteen minutes. I took the camera out and walked over and waited until the player noticed me. I gestured with the camera and he smiled and kept playing. I tried different angles and compositions and camera settings but the light was difficult and I couldn't find a way to convey what the moment meant.

When he stopped playing, Dion started clapping and I joined in. The piano player's name was Reuben. I asked him whether everything had been improvised.

'Most of it,' he said, pointing out it was loosely based on something by someone I'd never heard of.

He said that when I'd asked about photographing he'd wondered whether he'd look weird because he'd just had work done on a root canal. He pointed to his right cheek, which was noticeably swollen. I'd been photographing from his left, so the swelling wouldn't show. I didn't ask him whether he'd come to lose the pain by losing himself in his music.

Reuben was in his mid twenties. I asked him how long ago he'd started learning the piano. He thought for a moment, then said, 'About eleven years.'

I added eleven years to my age and for a moment wondered whether I still had time.


Drizzly rain arrived just after dawn, then stopped. The pink and white flowers of the magnolia in the deer paddock looked even more spectacular than usual against the dark dull grey of the overcast sky. I drove into town on a wet road, thinking about the past and the future; of metaphors of doors closing; of smashed ankles and arthritis and friends with new knees and hips, the originals worn out by too much tramping and mountaineering. All my joints still work well — no arthritis, no bone-on-bone grating, no need for ceramic and alloy. So far, that is. I should be grateful, but I couldn't help thinking that maybe my good fortune merely reflected the fact that I hadn't done as much tramping and mountaineering as I'd have liked. Some people wear out; others ossify.

I bypassed the market and drove straight to Tomato, where I ordered a large flat white. At the corner window table I uncapped the pen and began to write.

Yes: as you get older, doors close. Eventually you realise you've missed your chance to make a name for yourself as a mountaineer or an All Black or a jazz pianist. What makes that so sad, though, is that you've become O.K. with that knowledge. You've become happy enough doing comfortable climbs that won't kill you. You're happy enough watching test matches and can even accept occasional All Black defeats. You're glad you discovered The Necks and Keith Jarrett and have become resigned to knowing you'll never play like them or with them. You no longer burn. To salve this malaise of resignation, you seek the consolation of landscapes, and light, and light on landscapes.

A slamming door can snuff out a flame. For you, though it's the vacuum created by the dying flame that pulls the door closed.

But while those doors swing shut, what you've learned opens others; the urgency of increasing age unlocks doors you wouldn't otherwise have bothered opening. You write more, and you think harder about what to do with that writing. You say yes, sure, why not, more easily.


The café started to fill. Couples, small groups, a fair few people on their own. The other loners read newspapers. Almost everyone ate eggs on toast and drank coffee. Most wore unremarkable attire but one regular customer, a short man whose every movement seemed carefully deliberated, wore a slightly-too-small trilby, a straggly goatee, an unbuttoned waistcoat over a white skivvy, and enormously baggy basketball shorts. His shins appeared briefly below the shorts before disappearing again into black ankle socks and well-worn, once-white New Balance trainers. He looked comfortable, unconcerned about what others might think of his attire, and he made the place look interesting. After ordering a small coffee he sat at a tiny table and studied a newspaper through reading glasses, turning the pages slowly and occasionally sipping his coffee.

I was wearing my camo bush shirt. The friend I'd met on Friday once said I was the only person she knew who carried fountain pens in a bush shirt pocket. I liked that, in the way I like things that aren't supposed to go together, like waistcoats and basketball shorts.


Along the Pohangina Road the light was fading fast but the drab landscape lacked the colours to make the Purkinje Shift noticeable. The grey trunks of old macrocarpas shone dull and sinewed under the dark bulk of their foliage, and the car floated along the road as if it knew its way home and just wanted to get there and park up for the night. I, on the other hand, wanted to keep going forever.


A few days later I stepped outside into the evening and stood near the back door, looking at the light after the sun had gone down. The wind had died down, too, and the gales that had blown the sky to bits, leaving churned-up drifts and ragged scraps of cloud in the worn-out sky, had diminished to intermittent breezy gusts. The evening appeared at any moment about to turn to dusk; a huge, dark, ominous bank of cloud sheeted rain down in the west, and in the east the southern Ruahine lay beneath more black cloud. I looked at the old fuel tank perched on its rickety stand, its dull silver paint flaking to reveal the orange primer beneath. I saw its patches of rust and its pentimento of a forgotten oil company’s logo; I noticed the dark brown corrugated iron shed behind the tank, the dull shimmer of the poplars by Te Awa o te Atua Stream and beyond them the pale off-white of the clay cliff above the old quarry. I saw the cropped paddocks, and the silver birch and bead tree just coming into leaf, and I thought that if I didn’t know any better I might think I was back in Patagonia. It was something about the light and the remains of the wind and the almost-broken rural paraphernalia, and I wondered how two places that looked almost identical despite being thousands of kilometres and an ocean apart could feel so different.

That was it — this identical scene in Patagonia would feel utterly different. The fact that it looked identical and would therefore remind me so strongly of here, where I stood watching the light of dusk, would only accentuate the difference. Perhaps, I thought, here I’ve had time to become part of the place, but there on the pampas or the broken farms elsewhere in southern Patagonia I’d be a newcomer. The land would not yet have assimilated me. I wondered whether I’d ever have the courage to return there, not because the travelling would be hard (it wouldn’t) but because the memories would be too much to bear.

Time can turn a journey into an elegy.

But time can create memories out of imagination — what you remember vividly might never have happened. The more elegiac the memory of the journey, the less you should trust it.

And time always turns a person into someone else. Maybe I wasn't turning into my friend's former self, but as I stood in the fading light, haunted by memories and imagination, I shivered, although the wind wasn't cold, and I wondered whether, like my friend, I was beginning to mourn the person I once was.

1. Some names have been changed.
2. The title refers to Macbeth's famous soliloquy.
3. 'I'd been trying to finish an article ...' — this one, in fact. The one you're reading. I'm still not sure it's finished.
4. Because I've mentioned a couple of George Street cafés, I feel I should also mention Café Jacko, where the staff go out of their way to make green tea (real tea, not bags) according to my recommendations.

1, 2. Reuben playing at the Palmerston North City Library
3. Sculpture (?) outside Moxies, another George Street café.
4. The magnolia not far from my back door a few weeks ago.

Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor