My son is beginning to be obsessed by things – leaning on the sill of his four years of ages, he casts his eyes on the novelty of the world outside and then retreats with a new store of endless curiosities.
He has started on roads now. He looks at the silvery twists of the roads on the hills across the valley and wants to know where they lead.
‘Daddy,’ he says, ‘is Brooklands off Raroa? Who lives in Cluny Avenue? Is it true that Kowhai Street is a cul-de-sac? Daddy, do you know what a cul-de-sac is? I do. Grandpa told me.’
I have promised to buy him a map as soon as he learns to read. There is a steep, zig-zagging series of steps mounting from Te Aro to the top of a nameless hill which has held him spellbound for days.
‘Daddy, where does that twiggly road go? Does it end in another street? Or do you have to come back the way you went? You can’t drive the car on that road, can you?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘If you do, you’ll wreck it. Crash, bang. The car is a write-off.’
‘Daddy,’ he says, ‘let’s walk there. I want to know where it goes. Perhaps it might end in Albermarle road.’
# # # #
So we walk. It is a quiet Sunday morning. We hear the bells from a church in the city and they thrill him.
‘Why don’t you ever go to church, Daddy?’ he says.
I don’t want to bother him with problems he wouldn’t understand.
‘It’s cold for me there,’ I say. ‘I’m old – I need to be warm.’
‘I’ll go to church every Sunday,’ he says, ‘and I’ll sing and I’ll play. Grandpa will take me.’
He has now reached the steps that lead to the top of the hill and I don’t know if the weight I feel is due to the climb or to the words he has said.
I have never been there before.
One lives for years a few hundred yards from a particular place and then one discovers it unwillingly and casually, with a sense of shock and surprise.
I hold him by the hand, a warm and palpitating presence which never fails to move me.
We stand at the end of a very narrow path, all stony and broken, that loses itself in a series of haphazard turns.
Houses, some colourful and bright, some dull and miserable as if unattended for years, quietly on either side, basking in the mellow sun of the day and the purity of the air.
‘Daddy, Daddy, look!’ he says with the excitement of a discoverer, bending to pick up a sharp-edged pyramidal stone that twinkles faintly from its scales of mica.
# # # #
On my right, not more than ten paces away, immobile as marble, this young man watched us without interest.
I nodded to him with the timid friendliness of a polite stranger, until my mind focused on him with sudden sharpness and I recognised him. I had known him for a long time.
‘Think of it, think of it,’ I said. I almost stretched my arms out to him, because I felt like drawing him close to me and crying for having found him again. ‘How long have you been here? You know I live down the road? I am married now … I …’
He was still as young as he had been when we used to be friends; he had not changed at all. His face was still beardless; his skin was still fresh and unblemished.
‘You haven’t changed at all,’ I said.
Only the sadness surrounding him was new: it seemed to enclose him in an invisible straitjacket of air.
‘Think of it,’ he said slowly. ‘I waited for you, but you never came back. What happened? You said you would come …’
‘Oh … ,’ I said, remembering. ‘Oh, I am sorry. When I went into the town everything was in chaos. Nobody knew what was happening; everybody seemed to have disappeared. When I told them to take the armoured car to the pill-box and pick you up, the lieutenant said that there wasn’t time and that he was sure you’d have gone. The lieutenant died, you know? But how did you manage? What happened to you?’
‘I waited,’ he said. ‘I had an idea you wouldn’t come back, but then I thought that you had promised. I waited, because what would you have said when you’d come back and not found me …’
‘And how did you manage?’
‘I didn’t. They came about an hour after you’d left. I let go at them for a while, then my gun jammed …’
I felt again the scent of that April morning; the promise it carried of a beautiful day; the silence of the countryside and the deserted road; the pill-box at the end of the bridge and the river swollen by the thawing mountain snows.
‘And what happened?’ I said.
‘They caught me and shot me,’ he said. ‘Then they threw me over the bridge into the river.’
‘No,’ I said, unwilling to believe it. And then, ‘I am sorry.’ I added, ‘I am so very sorry …’ and, at the same time, I felt my curiosity urge me to question him carefully, more deeply, more thoroughly, as if, from what he would tell me, I might somehow make sure that it hadn’t been my fault.
# # # #
‘Daddy,’ he says, ‘Daddy, look! It’s a lily of the valley. It’s a lily of the valley!’ He pulls me away, he almost drags me further down the path, to the front of another house. He pulls me along with unsuspected energy. As I follow him, I see them basking in the sun, rigid as effigies flanking a sacred way, the people living on this hill, sitting or standing in their old-fashioned gardens.
If I were the boy who is pulling me along, I would perhaps voice my sense of rediscovery to the winds. I seem to know them all. They seem to have changed slightly, but underneath their heavier flesh, their lines, I find again the familiar effigies.
‘Good morning, Mary,’ I said to her.
‘Good morning,’ she said dubiously.
‘Mary,’ I said, ‘Mary, don’t you know who I am?’
‘No – not really.’
‘But, Mary. Your name is Mary, isn’t it?’
‘What does that mean?’
‘If I know your name, we must have met somewhere.’
She looked slightly apologetic for not remembering and suspicious that I might be teasing her.
‘Everybody knows me here for miles around.’
‘You were the first girl I ever kissed,’ I said. ‘Don’t you remember? It was an early winter night and it was cold and I knew nothing and you taught me – and then we said that we would never forget. Don’t you, can’t you remember?’
‘I don’t believe you,’ she said. ‘But go on. It’s fun.’
And there was nothing else to say: within me, she had never changed, and whatever it was that she might have wanted to hear could not have been put into words. Time was now playing on her face, with recurring, restless waves, and I saw her only as if distorted by the haze of some non-existent heat.
‘The best words of all are those that are never spoken,’ I said, and I sighed and tried to find a reason to leave her to herself, all of her, the one who had been with me for so long and the one she was, the way one wants to leave behind a useless burden.
‘I know who you are,’ she said then. ‘The man from the cuckoo house; the man who ran away this morning. I heard it on the air.’
‘I’d better go, Mary,’ I said. ‘I was joking, of course. Everybody here knows of you. I’d better go … My boy, you see …’
# # # #
He is there now, ahead of me, just before this crazy path turns out of sight. It could end in a precipice, with steep walls where nothing grows to stop one’s fall, or in some private property where they set dogs on strangers, or in a deep pit now full of mud, built at the time of the tanks and then forgotten.
And I have undefined fears for that slight, fragile figure which keeps moving on unconcerned.
I go by the houses, waving to all their people, wanting to stop for a while, just to tell them my story from where we left it off and exchange it with theirs.
It is a beautiful hill; it is a beautiful day, but it is again as it has always been. I am so short of time.
Click here to read Renato Amato’s Only a Matter of Grammar.