50 Years of NZ Book Awards: C.K. Stead
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Book Awards in New Zealand. Our national prize has had different sponsors and incarnations over the years: it’s now the Ockham NZ Book Awards, held each May on the Tuesday of the Auckland Writers Festival.
Over the years many of our brightest and best writers, and classic books, have been recognised in the awards. Many of these authors are part of the Academy of New Zealand Literature. We’re celebrating their work this year by publishing excerpts from one of their award-winning books, along with notes from the authors on writing those books. Here’s to fifty more years of great books and our constellation of writers.
All Visitors Ashore by C.K. Stead (Penguin)
New Zealand Book Award 1985
All Visitors Ashore was written partly under the influence of the prose of Gunter Grass, particularly his novel Hundejahre (Dog Years) with its bizarre verbal play and on-running sentences. It was a rejection of what I used to call ‘conventional fiction’, and there’s one chapter in particular, Chapter Five, the ‘Pass me the butter, Cecil’ chapter, in which the ordinary mannerisms of fiction writing are mocked, and a difference from them is marked out.
The novel was seen here in New Zealand as being a portrait of the young C.K. Stead (as Curl Skidmore) in his relationships with Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame. There is no escaping the fact that there is a connection between Melior Farbro and Sargeson, and between Cecelia Skyways and Frame, but they are not simply portraits, and there is as much invention in those two as in any fictional characters. The novel was probably more accurately read in the UK where the connection with local literary figures could not be made. The Guardian reviewer said ‘It seems ironical that for sheer immediacy, for the annihilation of distance between reader and writer, for that intimacy and precision which most novelists seek and seldom find, we should have to turn to a novel located on the Auckland waterfront.’ On the other hand the reviewer’s comment I enjoyed probably more than any other came from Susan Graham in the NZ Herald: ‘Auckland as never before in poetry or prose.’
Extract from All Visitors Ashore (Penguin, 1984)
She looks from left to right and moves forward in little darting runs, furtive through two further streets and down an alley between two fences of corrugated iron and through a gate into the back garden of a little house where in the dark Curl makes out what looks like a vegetable patch with a few old cabbage heads running to seed. They go inside and the woman who is leading them switches on a light and suggests they sit down. She is probably the same age as the other woman but so glaringly brightly made up she looks like a stage clown or a scarecrow, with wispy dyed hair on top through which the light shows broad gaps like tracks through a forest. She sits down on a hideous mottled couch away from which three China ducks are attempting to escape up the wall, and she hands them cigarettes and lights one herself and is immediately convulsed with a coughing spasm that lasts the best part of a minute. That over she doesn’t tell them she knows what it is to be pregnant when you don’t want to be. She tells them ‘he’ will be here soon, that it isn’t her house, they merely have the use of it, and is there anything they want to ask before they hand over the fifty – and she hopes they brought it in singles as instructed. Pat and Curl both speak at once, they have each been worrying, Pat wanting to know how she can be sure whatever they will do will work, Curl wanting to know is it likely to leave her sterile. Both these questions set the painted lady laughing which in turn stirs up her cough but the answer to both when it comes is the same. It works all right, and it doesn’t stop you getting pregnant again. Half the shop-girls in Karangahape Road have been through her hands (it’s the expression she uses) and most of them are back for a second go before they start to learn some sense. Pat has shown no sign of nervousness but she asks now will it hurt and the painted crone is glad of this question, she smiles receiving it and is happy to deliver her prepared answer, that when you pick a ripe apple it comes away easily but if you pick it green you have to pull. This is so horrifying to Curl Skidmore he feels the blood drain from his face and he has to bend over in his chair pretending to tie a shoelace for fear of fainting. But now ‘he’ can be heard in the next room, and at a knock on the wall the painted crone, who has been passing the time counting the fifty used single pound notes they have handed her gets up and ties a blindfold around Pat’s eyes. ‘Just a little precaution,’, she says; and signalling to Curl to stay right where he is, she leads Pat into the next room, closing the door behind her. No father-to-be, let it be said, paces the floor more anxiously than a father-not-to-be, and Curl Skidmore has no great space in which to stretch his long legs, but the ever-escaping China ducks see him passing to and fro the length of the couch and a little to spare at either end forty times, fifty, one for each year of the century and on into the eighties perhaps before there is any sound or signal from the next room. The ducks are beginning to get used to him, but still bent on flying away from that couch which looks like a huge padded mouth wide open and ready to shut on anything that sits in it, when the crone with the forest-walks through her dyed hair returns to say ‘he’ is packing up and the young lady will be ready in a moment. And when Pat appears, removing the blindfold, she looks a little pale and shaky but none the worse for it. The crone says she’s sorry she can’t make them a cup of tea but there will be a taxi waiting for them on the corner in five minutes. She leads them out by the back way again, turning off the lights as she goes, out into the back garden, through the gate in the iron fence and along the alley, down the road and down another road, possibly needlessly around a block to confuse them, and there on the corner she leaves them telling them to wait and the taxi will come soon. ‘Have some towels ready, it should start to work in a couple of hours,’ she says, and it’s only then Curl Skidmore understands that whatever has to come out is still in there and that it’s not all over yet. And now they look in pockets and purse and find they haven’t the fare for a taxi and they have to hurry away before it comes. They go in the direction they think will take them to where the trams run. Pat is feeling wobbly but they hurry nevertheless. When they stop to rest Pat supports herself against a fence but it is Curl who is sick in the gutter.
Tram, ferry, bus – all the shaky way home they are worrying because Pat says she felt very little, no dilation (‘At your cervix Madame, you’ll be dilated,’ had been Melior’s joke), no knitting needle, no puncture, only something in there, an instrument, a certain amount of pressure but no pain, and then an injection of some fluid and a smell of chlorine. Has anything happened, or have they been tricked out of fifty pounds? But as they get ready for bed Pat reports that the bleeding has started. She settles down beside him padded with towels.
‘And all are false that taste not just like mine.’ So much the poet Donne claims for his tears of true love, and so much we claim for the scene which follows. Accept no imitations (there are some). This is the real story. As you will see we have gone to the only available source for the truth. So here is Takapuna beach empty at perhaps 2 a.m. and here is Curl Skidmore carrying a soaked towel and a bowl of blood. Could we just check on that Curl.
It was a bowl of blood?
It was an old po lent me for the occasion by Nathan Stockman. He used it for friars balsam. For inhalations. He suffered from catarrh. It was horribly brown stained with balsam . . .
So we see Curl Skidmore in his pyjamas and dressing gown carrying a large ornate brown-stained chipped china bowl full . . . Was it full?
I don’t remember. Half full perhaps. There was a lot of blood.
Down to the sea. Why would that be when across the yard in the outhouse there was a lavatory?
There was no light in the lavatory and we shared it with Nathan and Felice. I was afraid of splashing it about.
So Curl Skidmore carries the bowl across the lawn, down the steps under the tamarisk feathers, over the sand and down to the shallows. It is one of those nights with high-flying spaced-out clouds and a big moon and when he looks up the moon appears to be racing through static fleeces which it lights up as it goes. He is full of some unresolved and swelling emotion, part fear, part horror, part guilt.
Look here, aren’t you laying it on?
Is that not what you felt?
I was prone to melodrama.
So you didn’t, as reported, feel a sense of sin?
How do we know what we feel? We find words for what we think we feel and that puts a limit on it. Perhaps falsifies . . .
Thank you for that reminder. But you see we haven’t yet got the blood into the water. We have you in pyjamas and dressing gown and we have the blood in the stained china jerry and we have the moon travelling light up there and we have you feeling – something. What was it?
All you’ve said and more. Love, Guilt, Ecstasy, Fear – anything you like. It was a big moment in my life. I was a father-to-be for the first time and now I was a father-not-to-be, and in the bowl was the child-not-to-be of Curl and Pat. I tipped the blood into the sea and I thought of the German momma and the Anglo-Saxon Kiwi father and the Tuhoe forebears and the de Thierry forebears and even the godamn dark Celts – it was a powerful mix I was throwing away. And up there was the moon and out there was Rangitoto. I was afraid.
Afraid of what?
That the gods might punish I suppose.
And did Pat feel . . .
Pat was a practical girl. She said, ‘My Tuhoe forebears practised infanticide. So did yours probably.’
So now you have rolled your pyjamas up to the knees and you are barefoot in the shallows. You are tipping the bowl of blood into the sea. You think of Macbeth and the multitudinous seas incarnadine. In one of those flash floods of moonlight when the clouds are travelling fast you see the dark stain in the water, you see it spreading, you watch it fade. There is no other witness . . .
There was one.
Someone else was there?
Hiroshima, mon ami.
Ah, the little dog. Rosh.
He sometimes slipped his chain at night and went roaming. He wanted me to throw a stick. I wasn’t in the mood for it. He jumped up and pulled at the tassel on my dressing gown. I whacked him on the nose and he ran off whimpering. It was the only time I ever hit him. I called him but he wouldn’t come back . . .
So the bowl is empty. There’s still the towel. It’s soaked through with blood. You try to rinse it and wring it out in the shallows but it’s hopelessly sodden and in the end you simply swing it and throw it as far as you can. The tide is on its way out and will take it out to sea. Back in the bedroom Pat reports she thinks the flow is easing. She pads herself some more and you settle down on towels to sleep.
But the flow wasn’t easing. In the morning the towels were soaked through, the mattress was sodden, Pat was pale, whether with fright or loss of blood. Curl was paler without loss of any blood at all but in the matter of pallor he had a head start. He was quick on his feet however, and he panted up the steep drive and through the early morning streets to the phone box and had an ambulance there in – well, however long it took. Pat was driven to Devonport in time to cross on an early vehicular crossing and she was already anaesthetized and being spooned out on a table in a theatre of National Women’s Hospital before the tide which had carried away the dream that was to be called Siegfried or Sieglinde had returned uncarnadined.
She was none the worse for it. She was fit as a flea – a box of birds. The doctor’s reassurances made Curl feel he could breathe freely and he silently put up with what followed about not getting girls pregnant if you didn’t intend to marry them and not taking advantage of a girl’s racial origins and what a beautiful girl she was anyway, there weren’t many pakeha girls who could hold a candle to her . . .
© C.K. Stead, 1984