from High Lonesome

31 January 2013

1
Here’s a day I’d like to have back: the first
weekend we stayed at Flock Hill – Ken and Rob,
the gang from the Harbour – in the shepherd’s
cottage with Andy and Liz. The dawn of
the decade, a tawny February,
Jimmy Carter was still in the White House,
I was six months back from Sydney, full of
beatnik derring-do.
Sunday, first thing, grey
and foggy, Rob and I got our hands on
a threadline and caught a brace of skinny
little brook trout to take home for breakfast
(hippie stoneware and gumboot tea at the
big formica table in the Lockwood
kitchen). Andy killed a sheep for the dogs
and stood a while talking to the boss who
pulled up in his Range Rover. ‘Andrew, you’re
not going to work today’, warned Liz, and
he waved her away, laughing shyly. Ken
said, ‘Hey Sis, where’s your guitar?’ and Liz came
out with her lovely old Maton, and rolled
up a joint – she was pregnant, not smoking, but the
rest of us got stoned as crickets – and she
fetched her autoharp as well, and out came
the old family songbook. And we were
family, too.
Back then, to hear Ken play
guitar, his flat-picking so crisp and sure;
and Andy, cigarette glued to his lip
as he rattled off those locomotive
banjo rolls, Earl Scruggs in hobnails and home-
spun jumper, tearing into ‘Eight Miles to
Louisville’ and ‘Armadillo Breakdown’.
Then Ken on mandolin, Liz on guitar
and singing, her fluid soprano, un-
studied and effortless.
So . . . did part of
me want to say Aw c’mon! to that bad,
old white-trash gospel? Maybe. Yet I was
hearing something else as I gazed out the
window of that kitset kitchen at the
wide hay paddock opening green where it
sloped to the lake at the foot of the blond
mountain. Giants had laboured here, it seemed,
and left behind hay-bales tall as houses,
hay to feed every last sheep in the
high country, broadcast over the prairie
like megalithic knucklebones. And the
cottage echoed with our sober joy, and
as Ken’s mandolin figures flowed like spring
water and those tight, lonesome harmonies
lifted the roof, I knew, as you do when
you’re high, that, yes, I was family too.

2
But what can I say about the City,
its vapours, its wickedness? There, once again,
we were mostly confounded. We took off
our clothes and played our instruments in the street.

Sometimes months would turn into years as we
failed to accomplish the simplest thing. As if
our young bodies would forgive us anything, we steeped
them in poisons and tortured them with improvised jewellery.

Vehicles were driven heroically:
to Kaikoura for a crayfish, to the Coast for a plait of garlic,
to the badlands of Bishopdale to liberate a cactus
and render it down to a noisome liquor.

Friends embraced, then sheared off,
trailing cinders. One joined an oil firm and learned to use a sjambok;
others found the saffron-coloured East and set out to fuck their way
to enlightenment. A climber was last seen hefting an ice-axe,

face an ardent cathode blue, carving
footholds in the lath-and-plaster as if he meant to walk upside-down
on the ceiling. One fell asleep with his head in a bass bin
and woke with an evil tinnitus he mistook for the voice of God.

Bait-fishers, skate-punks and other degenerates
crowded the lanes of the liquormart.
Diet pills flattered the will to intelligence.
One joined the army for a weekend but later thought better of it.

We had not given up on our elders, but their choices
were now unhelpful: they handed in their weapons
and worked for the government; a cousin
imported half a pound of heroin and left it on the tarmac.

Somebody’s uncle
beavered away at a fictitious fiction the size of a
garage, and no one was so indelicate as to inquire
when it was likely to be completed.

Still, despite everything, we looked to the mountains.
Thick cream of winter, blue of mid-summer,
we’d climb to the rim of the harbour
simply to feast our eyes on them.

From Mt Aspiring to Tapuaenuku, their granite
imperative ringed the horizon, and Erewhon,
Kekerengu, Algidus, Flock Hill, the names of
those elevated stations were one more voice in our confusion.

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