Damien Wilkins is an outstanding New Zealand writer of novels, short stories and poetry. He is the current Director of the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University, Wellington. He received the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship 2008, and was named an Arts Foundation Te Tumu Toi Laureate in 2013. This short story was penned as a creative response to the 2023 Matariki holiday.
Auction night at my sister Jane’s golf club. I arrived late and joined a table with a rowdy group of women who’d started drinking much earlier. They told me they’d helped set up the room and had ‘partaken’. They were all on the fundraising committee, headed by Jane. Pizza was coming later, too late for some, I thought. There was an empty bowl of chippies in the middle of the table and from time to time they’d run their fingers around the bowl and lick up the salt. The women asked me why I was there. For the eligible men, I said. But the average age is about seventy, they shrieked. I do find financial security very sexy these days, I told them. We all drank to that. They thought I was good value. In some affectionate way, they all hated Jane.
There were balloons tied too close to the lights and every few minutes one would pop. Each time this happened the cry was louder. Someone had made it part of a drinking game. Pop! ‘Scull!’ One of our table was the successful bidder on a massage voucher. Cue lewd commentary.
The auctioneer was in his sixties, dressed in plus fours and soft cap. He was always bending to scratch his kneecap. Any woman passing near his rostrum had to perform a limbo under a golf club he held up. We need to work on our flexibility ladies!
When another table won a painting of a horse, a woman jumped on the back of a man and rode him around the room until they fell.
It was Matariki.
Jane found me and said, ‘I know you think this is all dreadful.’
‘I don’t actually,’ I said. ‘I’m having fun.’
She peered at me closely.
I said, ‘You have Māori people here and everything. Did you hire them for tonight?’
‘Ha ha,’ said Jane.
Since my marriage had ended a few months before, Jane had tried to ‘reach out’. I was sure our mother had suggested it. In the Venn diagram of our lives there was little overlap. Now came invitations—like this one. Why had I finally said yes?
There was a break in the auction and people were on the move. The line to the ladies stretched back past the bar causing mayhem and hilarity. Which line are you in? Can I join your one?
I said, ‘It takes me back.’
‘I used to hang out with Granddad at his golf club.’
‘That’s going right back.’
‘I was a member.’
Jane of course had been too young to remember. One year our grandfather gave me a junior membership at his club. So I played a bit. I whiffed at it. But just for that one year, and no one thought to give me a lesson, an astonishing omission when I consider it now but back then unremarkably stupid in the way of most things.
There were a couple of other girls at the club—sisters who wore matching outfits of red polo shirts and white slacks—but they kept to themselves, turned away when they saw me coming. I would have appeared contemptible to them. Suddenly I saw that I was poor, and wearing the wrong shoes, just some old sneakers, whereas they had the correct footwear: white leather shoes with spikes and a fringed tongue of leather.
‘How’s work?’ I asked my sister.
She wasn’t listening anymore.
I wasn’t sure what Jane did at her job but who knows what anyone does at their job. She was managing things connected with the electricity sector. She was quite senior and bossy. We—Mummy and me—had to nod when we heard the phrase ‘lake levels’. Occasionally there was a trip to Twizel, the town that always reminded me of the word twinkle. Stars!
‘You know,’ I said, ‘he was a bit of a cheat.’
Jane turned back to me. ‘Who? Richard?’
‘No, Jim. Our dear grandfather.’ Richard was my ex. It would have pleased Jane to have some intel there, to come out more firmly on my side. I think she felt I was just being capricious, ending things with Richard. Leaving his children. Failing again to commit, to see things through. She had to be so solid since I was so flimsy. My choices had caused others anxiety and pain. She had to be blameless. We were locked in that balancing act though no one required it. Perhaps she felt she owed it to our mother. As it was, the collapse of the marriage was a murk. I was as puzzled as the next person. I’d had to get out.
She said, ‘What are you talking about?’
I felt at once that this period of Jane ‘supporting’ her big sister was coming to an end. It would be a relief all round. We were frozen after all in our positions. Me, age sixteen, Jane, about ten. I’d pulled her hair out in a clump. She’d spat at me and torn at my eyes with her little claws.
‘I just mean at golf. I know nothing about the rest of his life.’ I saw at once Jane disliked me for introducing the idea, disliked me more. ‘Anyway, ancient history. Must be the Matariki in the air.’
I discovered I was a little drunk. The women at my table had seen to that. They clearly found Jane to be a pain in the neck and wanted all my disloyalty. I said to Jane, ‘Acknowledging the dead and all that. Releasing their spirits.’
She stared at me again. ‘Why are you like this?’
‘I’m here, aren’t I?’
‘You’re here—oh right. I’ll ask the MC to announce that. We should have recognised you. Only you arrived late.’
‘Not by much.’
‘No, we should be grateful.’
‘Anyway,’ said Jane. ‘I have a role here.’
I said, ‘It’s a great success.’
‘I can’t trust anything you say!’
‘I meant it.’
We stood in silence, looking around. Who were all these people? For a second it was as if Jane and I were about to tear at each other’s bodies again, like those children we’d been and still were.
At that moment I felt a sharp pinch of guilt for abandoning Jane—not just at the table of women but always. I’d left home as soon as I could. I’d left her with Mummy. Suddenly I wanted to do something for her, as a mark of protective care. I was her big sister. I said, ‘Are you going to bid for anything?’
She was back to scanning the room. ‘What?’
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I should get back to it. You seem to be okay by yourself. Did you drive here?’
Old Jim kicked his ball out of the rough when no one was looking. He nudged his ball away from trees. He took a fresh ball from his pocket and ‘found’ it when he’d lost the first one. And he did it all with me for company, with me as caddy. He did it with a little glint in his eye, a confiding smirk, as if we were in on it together. Jesus, my heart raced, wondering what would happen if we were found out. I believed absolutely there’d be consequences for me. Was it one of golf’s million arcane rules that the caddy was responsible for a player’s misdemeanours, as the parent is responsible for the child? But I was the child!
He liked to point to any obstructing tree and say, ‘Less than two club length’s high’. You could get what they called ‘relief’. He said it to mighty oaks. He said it to towering pines.
My grandfather had a fold-out seat clipped to his old trundler. The cloth of the seat was faded tartan and the mechanism for stability was a metal spike which he drove into the ground. He’d sit on the seat waiting for his playing partners, looking smug. Did he think that sitting down, as though without a care in the world, made him seem more innocent? I thought so myself, and I’d been the one who’d seen him cheating! What had I seen? For a while I’d accompany him when he played on club Sunday. Despite the stress, I enjoyed it. Because it was a new world. This was before the gift of the membership. Perhaps he was testing me. What’s this girl like? Is she like . . . me?
By the time he was showing off his cheating, or showing me how truly to play this wretched game, my grandfather was brittle and stiff in his bones. His insides were mobile and audible. When he drank you heard the fluid travelling along, slushy and impeded. Often when bending to retrieve his tee, he’d let go a wet fart he tried to cover with a cough. If the tee flew off, it was my job to hunt for it. ‘This one has eyes like arrows.’ Despite his ancientness, when he lifted his fold-out stool, old cheatin’ Jim managed to come down with some force, driving the spike mercilessly into the ground. When he sat down, a puff of breath was blown out of his mouth. Boof! Sometimes I thought he would die on the course and I would be the one with him, doing nothing, crying over his body, disturbed at the relief I felt that it was all over.
In the clubrooms after the round, my grandfather would give me money to go up to the bar and buy a Coke and a packet of chips, items I was never allowed at home ‘because of little Jane’. He’d drink beer with his mates while I sat on the window seat next to their table, looking out at the finishing green by the clubhouse. It was so pretty, with the sun setting and a dew forming sparkles on the grass. Sometimes a late group of men would be putting when the sprinklers came on and they’d shriek like girls. I’d pick the damp grass, blade by blade, from my socks and hide it beneath the squab.
One time a man on his way to the bar with an empty jug veered over to me and lightly pinched my cheek, saying, ‘How much is that doggie in the window?’
For him, I barked twice, and he thought it was the greatest thing. Woof! Woof! The whole table did. Old Jim raised his glass.
He won three cups for holes-in-one. They sat in a glass cabinet in his living-room beside the good china. Old Jim can’t have cheated to get those and this makes me think his game must have been useful even if his scores were a fiddle.
A final fact about my grandfather came to me. As a young man he was a champion triple jumper. The hop, skip and jump. What an odd skill. Was it a proper event? Something about it made me suspicious. Compared to, say, the long jump, it lacked seriousness. But why? Because it introduced variables when we didn’t want them. We wanted the single vision of a body flying through the air and landing. The cleanness of that. But old Jim when he was young Jim was a bouncing dancing thing, now you see him now you don’t. There were photos. Beyond the gift of golf—ha!—he gave me that too, heedlessness and velocity. By comparison I thought of my little sister as all one thing—the run-up, the leap, the landing. She hated it about me that I was in many parts, and she hated that this far into life, I was insisting on adding another and another and another. I was mid-air again, wasn’t I? I was a spectacle again.
I’d come tonight to see myself, to know myself in another’s eyes.
Now the next item, ladies and gentlemen, is quite special.
I told the women at the table I needed some air. ‘A ciggie, I bet,’ said one woman.
‘No, no,’ I said. ‘At one time, for sure. I’m a reformed character now.’
‘I doubt that,’ said the woman.
I took my wine glass out on to the deck of the golf club which overlooked the practice area—a putting lawn, a chipping green, and three wire cages for hitting balls. It was cold. Once again I regretted that I no longer smoked. I’d hoped my head would clear but all I felt was a strange squeezing in my temples. At the far end of the deck was a group of men, younger than most of the blokes inside. Perhaps they were the elite players. Conspirators somehow. The snatches of conversation I could hear were foul and connected to past sporting exploits.
I finished my wine. They’d been plying me with full glasses. For an instant I had the notion of throwing my glass off the deck into the darkness. Was there someone down there? I heard movements though it might have just been the pūkeko.
What else did I know about old Jim? From our mother: that he would come home from his work as a primary school teacher and lie on the daybed in the tiny downstairs room for half an hour of ‘recovery’ and all the kids would have to creep about. ‘He’s had kids all day,’ their mother would say. ‘Last thing he needs is you lot.’ He had a broom beside the bed for bashing on the ceiling. If he had to get up because of them, he would come for the child with Nana’s hairbrush and he would strike, no mistake. Our mother might have told us this when we were adults to correct any sentimentality we might be harbouring about old Jim, with his large beaten hands and his beautiful long white hair streaming from under his cloth cap like some mix of coal miner and pop art painter. This is what it was really like. To be fathered. We hardly knew our own. There was also a kind of relish in her telling, as in ‘cope with this as I coped with it, I doubt you can’. She disliked the illusioned, our mother. We must all stare the Gorgon in the eye. While Jane believed the Gorgon wasn’t real, or that one could look away and survive.
I could not love Richard’s loveable children. I could not.
The bar at my grandfather’s club was staffed by young women. They might have only recently left high school or been at university. They were always kind to me, refilling my Coke without asking for payment, quizzing me about myself, about school. One afternoon, I was waiting to be served. One of my grandfather’s group was ahead of me, buying another round of jugs. He checked no one was watching—he missed me—and when the girl leaned forward to slide the jugs towards him, he reached across and stroked the material of her white blouse over her breast. She recoiled sharply and said ‘No!’. You’d warn an infant in the same manner if they came too close to a heater or a flame. No! The man was grinning as he collected the jugs and walked back to the table.
Through in the clubroom, the bell was ringing for the resumption of the auction. The larger ticket items were up. The island holiday, the date with a famous person, yet to be revealed.
Earlier when the auctioneer had brought his hammer down, the sound made me jump. ‘Look at you,’ said the woman beside me, laughing. ‘You’re wound tight. What are you so stressed about, I wonder. By the end of the evening, we’ll know your story. Drink up!’
In the night sky it was difficult to see many stars. The best viewing was down south apparently. Twizel? I should ask Jane. Had she ever regarded the night sky there in a moment of wonder?
And our ancestors—were they looking back at us? Was their vision impeded or clear?
Could they see the person down there below me—oh how I felt for her—bent over in the bushes by the putting green? Could the ancestors hear her retching?
I was aware that the men who’d shared the deck with me were now passing behind me, moving back inside the clubrooms. For no particular reason I was afraid, as if I’d suddenly found myself alone in the dark with some threat nearby. I told myself that there was nothing to fear. I told myself, you are the thing to fear.
As I turned, one of the men was looking at me. He was in his early thirties, I guessed. The top three buttons of his dress shirt were undone. He paused, holding the door open and gestured with his beer bottle. He burped. ‘After you,’ he said. I saw it then that he had no curiosity about me. I was hardly there for him. I was old. I was forty-seven. He might have been waiting for his cat to come back inside, except that when I ducked through the space he’d left, I felt him press briefly against my side. A balloon above us disappeared with a cracking sound. ‘Scull!’ came the shout. ‘Scull! Scull! Scull!’ Moving from the darkness into the light, I blinked to see properly, unsteady. Somehow I didn’t know quite where to place my feet.
The hammer was being bashed against the wood of the rostrum. Please ladies and gentlemen!
Someone had taken my hand and was leading me forward. ‘Here,’ said Jane. ‘Sit down here.’
‘Why are you holding my hand?’ I said.
‘So you don’t raise it and accidentally buy a cruise.’
‘I might want a cruise.’
Now the next item is a real beauty. Ladies and gentlemen, can I have some quiet!
We were sitting at the back of the room now, in a small alcove by a window. It felt suddenly as though we were in the private compartment of a train, tired after a big day, going on to the next place whose name we’d both forgotten. I leaned against the glass and the cold through my cotton shirt made me gasp. My jacket was on the back of the chair where I’d been sitting before, along with my handbag. It seemed very far away. I didn’t want to go back there.
‘Hey, don’t go to sleep on me,’ said Jane. ‘I know I’m boring.’
I leaned against my sister and she let me. She let me take up her warmth. Whoever she was, she was this. And whoever I was—
I would like to think at that moment we both looked out the window and regarded a constellation. Fell into the silvery sweep of it. Certainly we both turned at the same time to stare and what we saw were two women looking back at us. The reflection was fuzzy and broken by the warp in the glass and the scattering lights of the room so that where one woman’s face should have been, the other’s face was there, painted over it in smears. I closed my eyes. Perhaps it was only for a few moments, or longer. When I opened them again, Jane had begun to tidy her hair, using the window as a mirror. She leaned in more closely towards the glass and flared her nostrils, exploring her image, recovering from me, rebuilding herself with a few deft touches. I watched in awe. I sat up, sober, ready. It was a new year.