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Authors: Vincent O'Sullivan

Owen Marshall Selected Stories (27 page)

BOOK: Owen Marshall Selected Stories
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‘True, true,' said Tucker. Neville was thinking of Tucker's wet-weather gear. In the old dairy next to the back door there had been an array of Locke coats going back into rural antiquity. Tucker's favourite had been a sou'wester which must have defied the last ice-age, and although the cuffs were frayed completely away, the coat itself remained so stiff that if Tucker took it off between cloud bursts, it would stand like a tent in the wet grass. And it blended in with the landscape so well that even the wiliest mallard couldn't pick Tucker out in the mai-mai.

‘That new nylon parka, for example,' said Neville.

‘An anorak,' said Tucker. ‘You ever heard of an anorak?'

‘Oh yes,' said Neville complacently, as a well-married man.

‘A bright, red anorak.'

‘Very fetching.'

In frosty July, Tucker and Neville went to a euchre evening at Wally Tamahana's. Afterwards as they stood in the moonlight to enrich the nitrogenous content of the lawn, Tucker spoke with unease of the range of alternative milks with which he was forced to become familiar since he was persuaded to abandon a house cow. Red tops, blue tops, green tops, banded tops, low fat, non-lipid,
reduced cholesterol, anti-coagulate, mineral free. Tucker claimed he could see a logical trend in it all: the more things were removed from the milk the more the product cost. ‘You know,' he said to Neville, ‘soon we'll pay the highest price of the lot for milk with everything extracted — and it'll be water.'

‘It's all progress, I suppose,' said Neville, but he too could remember the cream jug of his boyhood in which the spoon would stand upright.

‘Right. Right. Of course I wouldn't have it any other way,' said Tucker bitterly.

Neville was deliberately cheerful as he drove Tucker home, but Tucker, having lost fifty-seven dollars at the euchre to Wally Tamahana, was in a mood to resent any hint of extravagance in others. They rattled over the cow-stop at the entrance to Tucker's farm and drove up the track. The median grass not yet brittle with frost whispered beneath the car, and the lights and the moon picked out the massed stinging nettles by the hen-house and sheep yards. Tucker's house was a focus of activity and warmth: every room seemed to be lit, and one of Tucker's new daughters was singing along with her cassette player. Neville thought it grandly welcoming, but Tucker gave a whimper. ‘The door. Ah, God.' The back door was open in defiance to the vast, surrounding winter night, and the glow of double bar heaters could be seen. ‘Look, look,' said Tucker brokenly. ‘We're heating the world.'

I
saw him first in the pool — a blue, free-standing motel pool set in high duckboards and with a fence of the same boards for privacy, and to stop toddlers from straying in to drown. Wesley Smith was very thin. He gripped the pool ladder and floated like a spider monkey, with his arms and legs spread yet bent. His feet were lunar pale beneath the clear water, and his shins sunburnt. I don't suppose there is a great opportunity to build up a tan in prison administration.

My wife and Jean had taken a liking to each other as soon as they met in the motel laundry. They had been to the gallery together, to the shops. ‘Her husband runs a prison,' my wife had told me. It was an indirect introduction to Wesley Smith, and I briefly indulged the fancy that he was the Mr Big who manipulated the occupants and staff of all the cell blocks, although I knew that even such a power would hardly be on holiday in a Tahuna motel. ‘Don't be absurd,' Liz said. ‘He's the governor, or whatever, there.' And so he was; the head of the largest prison in the nation, and getting away from it all by having a fortnight in Nelson.

‘Ah yes, of course,' he said as Jean and Liz introduced us, and from a sense of courtesy he came out of the pool to talk to me. The dense hair of his arms and legs lay in scrolls from the play of the water, the shaving line on his chin was blue-purple, and within his rather taut face the eyes were oddly lustrous, expansive. ‘Our wives have decided that we shall be friends,' he said, ‘and so we must comply.'

I brought out to the poolside a carafe of the local apple wine, and
the four of us got on with friendship. Wesley told a story against himself as a city man getting lost in a shopping mall at Richmond, and in the relaxed mood of holiday we were all able to stretch to an anecdote or two, so putting our best feet forward in acquaintanceship. We were couples of a similar background, outgrown by our children, and without any clash of temperament. It is no disrespect to marriage to say that there are times on holiday when another couple is welcome. My wife was glad of a more knowledgeable shopping companion, and I found that Wesley was a golfer, and not intimidated by silence. It was in fact that casual friendship hoped for while on holiday, and uninhibited by any likelihood that I would fall within Wesley's workday jurisdiction, or he within mine. He already had a competent dentist. I could tell by the quality of his capped upper incisors.

I wouldn't class myself as a particularly curious man, not prying into other people's lives I mean, but it was difficult to be with Wesley Smith without wondering at times about the nature of his job: the responsibilities of it, and the special pressures of the whole criminal and penal aspect of our society. With just a few people it's like that, a poet maybe, or a professional soccer player, and you wonder how their particular frame of mind must affect their view of the day's ordinary experience that you share.

Occasionally when we were walking up to the tee, or tending the motel barbecue, just saying commonplace things, or nothing at all, I would look at thin Wesley and imagine his gaol with its tiers of mezzanine cells, and similarly hierarchical prisoners, exercise areas, security devices, staff with needs for promotion or counselling, and all that bitterness, deceit, despair, malice, pressing outwards. Dentistry certainly isn't an ideal lifestyle. Working in people's mouths all day is a good living financially, but not an easy one, and the figures show the profession has one of the highest suicide rates of any career, but I imagined that Wesley Smith would smile at any stresses I could mention.

Jack Spratt could eat no fat and his wife could eat no lean, the old
rhyme says, and I normally expect the close proximity of personality in marriage to highlight differences, but Jean and Wesley Smith seemed similar in essential temperament: both intelligent, self-possessed, slightly rueful. Jean had her weaving, which success had made more an art form than hobby, and Wesley was a wood carver with his work in several important collections.

It was wet on the second Monday of our vacation, and cool as well. The city was swollen with campers with nowhere else to go, and the concrete block cathedral tower at the head of the main street was a fulcrum for an uneasy swirl of cloud. After leaving Jean and Liz at an exhibition of pottery, I drove back towards the beach, and later went over to Wesley's unit to find him carving, his tools on the window sill and the chair as close as possible to seek the light. Wesley's carvings were smaller and more elaborate than I had expected. Two of them stood on a tray by the motel window. One was a wood pigeon in kauri, the painstaking and precise detail of the feathers only partly complete. The other was carved in a macrocarpa canker, Wesley said, and the grain had a wonder of its own. It, too, was incomplete but enough had been done to show that one pygmy had snared another with ropes about a tree trunk, and with exultation, yet caution, leant forward to torment his enemy with a spear. The whole thing no more than ten centimetres high, and yet scores of hours needed to show the two creases on the crouching pygmy belly, or the pattern on the woven twine that held his enemy, whose individual fingers had been carved around the coil he tried in vain to keep from pressing on his throat.

I won't presume to make comment about artistic merit, or the talent of the carver, but fine work is an element of my profession also: almost a worker in ivory, I could say, and I could appreciate the patience and precision that amount almost to a trance to work such detail on such a scale. Wesley had a wooden vice with padded jaws and a suction base, and over this in the window light he bent to carry on his almost oriental art. We talked for some time of the
levels of dexterity needed, and he was very interested in the added constraints imposed by working inside somebody's mouth. He had in fact been considering buying one of the old dental service treadle drills, he told me, and he asked me questions concerning them, and also the advanced, high-speed modern drills. Wesley said he often did a model in soap first to check on balance and technical problems before committing himself to wood. He'd done some scrimshaw work, he said, and some in meerschaum, sandstone and jade, but hard wood he loved best of all. Wesley said carving was popular with the long-term prisoners, and that he took a class himself of the three or four who grew to love it: their obsession perhaps to blot out the reasonable, unreasonable world. When Wesley told me of the most skilled prisoner, I had a sense of undeclared envy in his heart that the man had more time than the governor himself to perfect his craft. From the motel window I watched the rain bounce on the road in a sudden fury and the water flow off its curve and fill the hollows of the lawn alongside as Wesley quietly talked.

The leisure of a wet day can be a time for confidences, and the carvings, the discussion of common practices to an extent, had moved us on from our usual trivial subjects. I had a measure of natural curiosity about the prison and his work there. His eminence in an unfashionable career: what it was like to be in charge of the underworld that society wished to see only through safe and entertaining fictions.

‘What do you imagine it to be?' Wesley said. He loosened the carving of the pygmies from the suction vice and put it gently aside. He leant back and drew his finger along the blue-purple rasp of his chin. I was close enough to see the grey, downy light reflected in the noticeable curve of his soft eyes.

‘I visualise a job demanding a good deal of administrative skill, and judgement as well, and elements of sympathy, even compassion.'

‘The system squeezes out compassion,' said Wesley. ‘Perhaps you will understand that everything there has to do with responsibility
and power. We have all the responsibility and barely enough power, strange as it may seem. They have no responsibility and considerable power. Think of me as a general manager of a firm whose clients are willing it to fail. There's no goodwill, and the best of policies, the most secure of theories, can be destroyed by apathy, by spite and viciousness.' Wesley and I watched the rain, and he twirled the most slender of chisels in his fingers.

‘It can't be easy,' I said.

‘Not a week passes without a stir of some sort, an effort to screw the system. Not a week without accusations from inmates or their outside supporters, and whatever deceit or animosity is discovered they suffer little and just lapse back sullenly to await another opportunity. But oh, let there be a hint of negligence or oversight on our part, something not done quite by the book, and it's a different story. I can be front-page news then.' Wesley's eyes lit, and his voice, still quiet, had nevertheless a tone of savage fun. ‘We're never bored,' he said. He smiled at me, as the veteran smiles at the new chum who cannot know the significance of what he hears.

‘I can imagine that,' I said.

‘It's a difficult game when only one side is bound by any rules, and when it's only us who have anything much to lose, any character to be discredited. Do you see what I mean? One of my best department heads is fond of saying that we manage the anal end of society. No one else much wants to know how things are in our prisons, our psychiatric wards, our front-line welfare services.'

‘You seem able to cope with the pressures well enough.'

‘When has the pitcher gone too often to the well, though,' said Wesley. ‘That's a question, isn't it.'

I thought about that when we drove back through the cool rain to collect our wives. It was the only talk of that sort we had, for the weather cleared for the remaining days, and Wesley put away his carving and his frankness, for golfclubs, tourism and studied cheerfulness again.

We worked something out for the last day of the Smiths' holiday. They were to drive their rental car through the Lewis Pass and fly out from Christchurch in the evening. Liz and I took our car with them as far as Shenandoah, and we found a picnic spot there with meadow grass on one side of the river and native bush to the water's edge on the other. Wesley loved the bush, Jean said. She and Liz had made a special picnic lunch with fruit and fresh rolls, and I brought a bottle of Barossa red to mark the parting of the ways. It was a hot, blue day and the sunburn was intensified on Wesley's thin legs and the shoulders of our wives.

We got on well till the very last, and it was more than regret at the recognition of another holiday's conclusion that made us sorry to part. Jean said it was time Liz and I moved to the main city, and Wesley said that instead of being content with just one captive at a time in my chair, I could become the official prison dentist with as many patients as I could manage, and paid with no bad debts by the state as well. We talked in an inconclusive way of meeting again during next year's vacation. The Coromandel perhaps, or even Singapore, said Jean hopefully. It could all be worked out in letters, we agreed. Growing sleepy in the sun between the cars, and with the red wine drunk to mark our parting, we allowed our personalities a certain abandon before return to workaday selves.

The Smiths left before two. We waved them out of the meadow grass and bush at Shenandoah. Wesley held up one slender hand and wrist in salute, and Jean smiled back until the corner. There was anticlimax, of course, with their departure, and Liz and I had only two more days ourselves before returning to the world which had caries at the bottom of its garden.

I was asleep on the tartan rug in the shade of the car, and Liz was reading, when Jean came back to Shenandoah alone in the rented car. Liz woke me even before Jean had stopped and, in the stupor of that sudden awakening in the heat, I was at a loss for a moment to realise that Wesley should be with her, and both of them over the
Lewis and on their way to Christchurch. ‘I didn't know what else to do,' said Jean, embarrassed by her return. ‘Wesley didn't come back and I waited and waited, and then I went into the bush a little way, but you can't see anything, there's no tracks.' Liz put an arm around her shoulders.

‘It's all right. You'll see,' she said.

Jean explained that just past Springs Junction the trees crowded the road, almost reached over it for one lovely section of the growing slope before the top of the pass, and Wesley had pulled over to stop and enjoy the bush: a last opportunity before the barren heat of Canterbury on the other side. A last walk in the calm trees, hundreds of years old, before he was back to work. He just walked in, she said, and never came out.

Oh, we said that he'd be waiting on the roadside now sure enough, that he'd be wondering where she'd got to, but I had a feeling of desolation about it right from the start. When has the pitcher gone too often to the well, Wesley had said. I packed up in a hurry, even in those circumstances struck by my own selfish concern at not being able to find the red thermos top.

Jean came with Liz in our car, while I drove the rental after them back towards the pass. Just a few kilometres past the buildings of Springs Junction was the place where Wesley had gone missing, and it was beautiful right enough. The bush was drawn up to the sides of the road and formed a canopy so that the road was part shadow, part dappled sun, in degrees of direct and indirect light. The air was tunnel cool and fragrant, the banks plump with moisture which kept a rich green in the tumbling ferns. Liz pulled over where there was a slightly wider road edge, and Jean was standing among the first trees when I joined her. There was no sign of Wesley. The road ahead wound out of sight towards the summit. The bush was high on our right and undulated away down the valley on the other side.

‘He must have lost his way, or twisted his ankle,' I said. ‘He's sensible enough to work his way down the watershed if he's got lost,
and so come out further down, no worse off and just feeling a bit foolish.' I wasn't convinced: why should Jean be? She must have understood her own husband, had some knowledge of the things which would make Wesley walk into the bush and not return. I walked in myself, so that it might seem I was taking positive action. I followed the direction Wesley had taken, and within a few metres the road was lost above me and the bush closed up in intense scrutiny.

BOOK: Owen Marshall Selected Stories
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