50 Years of NZ Book Awards: Charlotte Grimshaw

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.

 


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‘Plane Sailing’ published in Opportunity (Vintage) | Montana Prize for Fiction & Montana Medal 2008

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Charlotte Grimshaw writes:

I’d written three novels and was beginning to wonder what my next project would be, when I received an email from Fiona Kidman. She was editing a book of short stories (Best New Zealand Fiction 3, published in 2006) and asked if I’d like to contribute. I’d never written a short story in my life, so I immediately sat down and wrote two, both of which I called ‘Opportunity.’ As soon as I’d done this I knew I was onto something. I wrote more stories, linking them by plot and character. They became the first collection, Opportunity, published in 2007. It won the fiction prize and the Montana Medal at the 2008 Montana NZ Book Awards, and was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Prize. I went to Cork in Ireland for the Frank O’Connor festival and ceremony.  A story in the Opportunity collection, ‘Plane Sailing’, won the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Award in 2006.

I wrote a second collection, Singularity: stories linked to each other and also to Opportunity. Singularity was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Prize, so I was able to travel to Cork again. The book was also shortlisted for the Pacific section of the Commonwealth Prize.

The stories in the two collections formed the basis of my subsequent novels. Even my latest novel, Mazarine, although it strikes out in a very different and international direction, has some traces of those early stories.

Writing Opportunity, I wanted to explore our many and varied New Zealand voices, accurately, without sentimentality. I love the idea of La Comédie Humaine, Balzac’s linked novels and stories, and so there will always be echoes and links in my fiction.

 


 

‘Plane Sailing’ from Opportunity  (Vintage)

 

Plane sailing: The art of determining a ship’s position on the theory that she is moving on a plane.

 

I gave my baby the middle name Max after his father. He already has a son called Max. Max junior. My son is Matthew Max Grace. He never sleeps.

Well, he does sleep, but in restless snatches. He tosses and turns and makes loud snuffling noises, then wakes with a loud wail. He has never slept through a whole night. People warned me about this. They said it would be hard bringing up a child on my own. They urged me to consider it carefully. They must have been mad if they thought I wouldn’t do it.

When I first took Matthew home from hospital I had to go to the supermarket, and I went to pieces in the aisles. I wanted to hang on to a shelf, crying. I thought I would fall, that the floor was lurching under my feet. I got through it. I made it home with my shopping, then I stayed in the house for two days, recovering. I’ve always been independent, reasonably cool under fire. Interesting to find that a trip to the supermarket could be harrowing, terrifying, defeating.

A month later, when I was walking along Upland Road pushing Matthew in his pram, I saw a ship in the sky over Mt Hobson. It was three-masted, gold, with glittering rigging, like a picture in a child’s storybook. It hung in the air, sails rippling, banners flying, and the air around it glowed, pearly white. I watched it sail over the edge of the mountain, disappearing into the blue distance, the shimmer of the sky.

I went for a check-up with the obstetrician, Dr Lampton. I didn’t tell him about the ship specifically, but I mentioned that I’d had very little sleep. I said something about the edges of reality getting a bit blurred. He gave me a long, cool, assessing look. Then he asked me some careful questions about my mood.

‘I’m happy,’ I told him. And it was true.

When I think back to how it was before . . . I was in love with Max but he had a wife and two sons, Max junior and Charles, and a big house, and a settled family life, and although I knew this when I began having an affair with him, I still hoped that he would leave it all for me. He wasn’t getting on well with his wife. He suspected she was seeing someone — there was a man hanging round, and he was hurt by this, although he said, ‘Of course I don’t find her sexually attractive any more.’ He was tall, handsome, elegant, beautifully dressed; he had a habit that I found irresistible of coming out with shocking statements in his patrician King’s School drawl, and I longed to take him to my stolid, timid mother’s house in Penrose, just so he could horrify her with some dreadful, languid dismissal: ‘What a bastard so and so is, just a bastard.’

He smoked cigarettes, and though I begged him not to (I’m a dentist — ‘You don’t want to get oral cancer, darling,’ I said) I found this habit endearing too, his fierce disregard for niceties and pieties, his refusal to care what other people thought.

I liked being seen out with him; even, I’m ashamed to say, liked the throbbing, ostentatious racket of his Porsche Turbo. We’d been an ordinary, middle-income family — my father was a clerk, my mother worked in a shop — and I was excited by Max’s wealth and glamour. It wasn’t that I was materialistic. It was just that he was rather . . . sensational. I loved him. I suppose I always will. I can’t say it without tears. I go into Matthew’s bedroom and look down at his face. His eyes move while he sleeps. Sometimes he half opens them and looks from side to side, wildly, under his lids, like a crazy little animal. He gnashes furiously on his dummy, plugged in to his dreams.

I was so in love with Max that I spied on his family. It was summer. They lounged out by the pool. I could hear the boys shouting and fighting. I watched Max’s wife cooking dinner. I’d go cold at work the next day, imagining the embarrassment if I’d been caught. But still I’d end up driving towards his house. One night he rang my mobile when I was two houses down from his. He wanted to come to my place. I had to race to my car and drive home before he got there. When we were in bed a bit later I kept laughing. He said primly that I sounded hysterical. Then he propped his head on his hand and told me he’d been talking to his wife. He was going to rent a townhouse. They’d agreed to separate.

I hid a rush of tears. I chattered excitedly, what about? I suppose — how pathetic — I started making plans. He left, moody and preoccupied. I was full of hot sympathy. I glowed. Poor Max, how hard it would be for him, starting all over again. I wondered what would be a decent period of time before I could move into the townhouse too. I saw myself being kind, nobly considerate, when his poor wife came to drop off the boys . . .

Soon after he’d moved to his new place, I got tired of waiting for him to call. I went there. He’d been ironing his shirts. He threw himself down on the bed, tired, surly, unwelcoming. He gestured at the ironing, ‘Want to do them for me?’

I hesitated. I said I would. He watched me from the bed, his expression cold and mocking; he was forcing me into a parody of what he knew I wanted: domestic bliss. I was upset, chilled. Later I rang him. Then the tears, recriminations. His coldness. Did I — I cringe to think of it now — did I appeal, plead? He turned evasive, hanging up, leaving his phone off the hook. There were a few more unsatisfactory meetings until he finally came clean. He said he had met someone new. He was seeing someone else.

After he told me I walked home to my flat. There’s a kind of horror in finding out you’re not loved. Imagine discovering that someone you love wants to kill you. It feels like that, doesn’t it, the end of an affair? He doesn’t care if he never sees you again, doesn’t care if you live or die. I remember how the world turned, in an instant, into a dark, pitiless place. I discovered that I minded living by myself. I heard noises in the night and was afraid.

During my check-up, when I told Dr Lampton I was happy, I was remembering the moment when I realised I was pregnant. To be left alone, grieving, and then to find there was something that wasn’t lost! Everything broken, in pieces, and then I discovered . . . Oh my child, my treasure. Out of the ruins. I say these ridiculous, half-joking things to myself, out of happiness. My treasure, my precious jewel.

Okay, his father was a bastard, but he was a classy one. I’m sure my son will be devilishly handsome.

 

When Matthew was seven months old I needed money to pay the mortgage, and I didn’t want to lose my place in the city dental practice, which had been filled until then by a locum. My mother was retired, and offered to look after Matthew during the day. He was healthy, thriving, radiant — and nocturnal. The district nurse gave me a book on infant sleep problems. I read: ‘Only a tiny percentage of children will not respond to these techniques.’ My son (his perverse father’s child) belonged to that small, rugged group. He slept slightly longer stretches, that was all. And then the loud wail, the rattling at the bars of the cot, the stunned roll out of bed, the glazed, blundering hours when all options — ignoring, soothing, feeding — were exhausted. Watching the sun come up, sitting on his bedroom floor. Black silhouettes on the ridge of Mt Hobson. A finger of sun moving across the floor.

The nurse told me ‘leave him to cry’. My neighbours held out for a fortnight before they began to complain. They went so far as to insinuate that I was ill-treating my boy. How he screamed, left to himself. As though he were being torn away from the world.

At work I took things slowly, stopping often to double-check. What was it I told nice Dr Lampton — that the edges of reality sometimes got a bit blurred? I never lost my grip; it was just that my dreams sometimes entered reality and ran alongside, so that I might see some light, bubbly, surreal thing at the edge of a perfectly prosaic scene and blink, and secretly watch it, as it glided slowly away . . .

People have recurring dreams in which their teeth fall out. They’re meant to have a particular meaning, although I’ve forgotten what for the moment. Anyway, I was the dreamer who pulled out people’s teeth. I hope I don’t sound cavalier. I believe I was perfectly competent. To try to explain that strange time, my dreamtime: I felt I was living on the junction between two different planes, the sleeping and the waking, and at odd moments I could see into both. I kept all this to myself. God. Of course I did.

It was summer again, long hot days, the city emptier than usual. It was a good time to go back to work, there was a relaxed, holiday mood among the secretaries and hygienists, who gathered at the front desk to chatter about their sunburn and their boyfriends; the upstairs consulting rooms were hot in the afternoons as the sun angled in, and I got away as soon as I could after work so I could take Matthew and my mother to the waterfront for a late swim. At the beach I relaxed, and the afternoon turned drowsily, pleasantly incoherent. My mother eating an icecream. My son’s hands patting the surface of the water. The dazzle off the sea. Sounds muted in the mellow air, cloud shadows on Rangitoto Island.

One day at midday, storm clouds moved over the city. There was something bruised and greenish about the sunlight before it dimmed and disappeared. The dark was surprising. It was hot. The secretaries had been whispering about the next patient I was to see: Scott Roysmith, the newsreader. Our practice was near the TV studio, and we saw a lot of their staff, but Roysmith hadn’t been in before.

For a moment that morning, I’d been surprised he’d booked himself in with me. Why surprised? Because I gave him such a terrible time every night. I was irritated by his mannerisms. Watching the TV news I’d often startled Matthew by giving Roysmith strident tellings-off. He was obviously clever but there was something naïve about him. He could be perky or melodramatically pompous; most often he was excessively cosy and cute. Yes, cute. He had a combination of blink and smile that said: What an ingratiating chap I am; I am unassailable in my charm. His flirting, his over-egging, was unnecessary. Stop hamming it up, I wanted to tell him. Please, play it straight!

Night after night I’d snapped and nagged at Roysmith, and now here he came, bounding up the stairs, full of beans, open-faced, holding out his hand to shake mine.

‘Goodness me! The sky’s looking peculiar! Great to meet you,’ he said, or ‘exclaimed’. His hair bristled with the humidity. I felt a little snag of sympathy for him. His hair was over-large; it sat on top of his head like a brown turban. Beneath it, the bridge of his teeth was too narrow for his mouth. He glanced away, smiling. His hand was slightly damp. Probably he hated seeing the dentist.

I invited him to sit. ‘What can we do for you today?’

He settled himself, made some adjustment of his face before he answered. He held the edges of the armchair. How strange it must be to have been previewed, to be reviewed, by the people you meet. I saw myself two nights ago, hurling a cushion at his face.

He said in his soft drawl, ‘I’ve had a woonderful chap I’ve always gone to.’

I looked at the form he’d filled in. ‘Yes. Mr Dumbleton.’

‘He’s over Ponsonby way. Do you know him? Dentist . . . artist, fisherman, raconteur. Just a great bloke. We got on like a hoouuse on fire, for yeeeears.’

I nodded. He shifted on his seat, leaned forward. ‘But he’s had enough. He wants to retire. He’s going to write novels, would you believe. And I thought, Bugger. I’ll have to find myself another dentist!’

I thought, because of his job, he thinks I think I know him. So he doesn’t try to break the ice; instead he tries to ‘be himself’, so that I will ‘recognise’ him.

‘Do you have a particular problem?’ I asked.

‘Well, I’ve got a bit of a dodgy old tooth back there. I think I might have a hole. Two, actually.’

‘How long have you being seeing Dumbleton — Mr Dumbleton?’

‘Six years.’

I glanced at Rowan, my assistant. I hoped Bryce Dumbleton’s novels were better than his dentistry.

I explained what I would do: examination, X-rays and so on.

‘Goodness gracious me, it’s humid!’ he said. The sky had got darker. There was a rumble of thunder, the air crumpling. Rowan, a tall, slim Indian woman, came forward to prepare him.

‘Lovely to meet you,’ he said. I caught her flustered little tremor of nervousness — his fame — also his look of faint humiliation as he was pushed back, swathed, cranked to horizontal in the chair. Patients, feeling helpless, stare at Rowan’s beautiful hands, at her pretty necklace, as if everything very near has become intensely important. When I lean over them they close their eyes, open them, laugh, look around for Rowan, but she has gone, withdrawing silently behind the screen, where she sits at her computer, ready to appear when I need her.

I adjusted him, and the light. I looked in. There was a lot of plaque — so much so that his gums had receded in places. He had a couple of other issues, things that should have been taken care of earlier. (What a hack that Dumbleton was.) I told him I would take X-rays. I leaned over him, my arm around the head that appeared every night in my sitting room, I said, ‘Open, wider, now bite gently down,’ and the mouth that was so familiar with its jawing and joking bit down, and opened, and I shone my light in there, picked, probed, scraped, prepared him for another X-ray, and the sky outside seemed to swell in the square of window and become astonishingly black. There was a boom of thunder, abrupt, close, and he started, his head against my arm, and laughed, and tried to say something, ‘Goodness . . .’ and I said, dreamily, holding him steady, my eye on that glossy black square of glass, ‘Don’t.’

‘Ug?’ he asked. I had his jaw clamped between my fingers.

‘Don’t say anything.’

He looked at me.

‘Just now,’ I added, holding him.

He nodded. Co-operative.

‘Less is more,’ I murmured.

His eyes flicked up. Rolled around. He wrinkled his nose.

Lightning flashed. There was another roll of thunder. We watched the rain, light at first, then big heavy drops, hissing past the window. I thought, how I love the rain, the warm, blind, melancholy.

He tried to speak again. ‘No,’ I said. I held him gently for three more seconds. We were very close. Then I let him go.

‘What do you mean “less is more”?’ He cleared his throat and spoke thickly.

‘Oh, I don’t know. It’s true, though, don’t you think?’

He lay back, puzzled but obedient.

‘And bite gently down.’

His hair was stiff, spiked up at the front with a hint of widow’s peak. He looked like a hedgehog. I smiled. He moved. I held him, let him go.

I said I would give him a quick clean, then we would look at his X-rays on the computer. ‘Do you have sensitive teeth?’ I asked, turning to my tools.

‘Not that I know of,’ he said gamely.

The storm had a kind of weight; it seemed to be right over the building: thunder followed lightning in quick succession, paper flew up into the air and whirled around and floated down. From the street below came the mournful swishing and tooting of stop-start cars.

‘Auckland rain,’ I said, and silenced his reply by inserting my instrument, the one with the most powerful head, into his mouth, and working it along a section of his lower front teeth. He strained away from it, more sensitive than he’d let on. Those neglected gums. I stopped. ‘Too rough?’ I changed the head. ‘Try this.’ He nodded and settled against my arm.

I looked down at his face. I did my best not to hurt him, but he flinched and his forehead was sweaty. I mopped it with a paper towel. I let him rinse and spit. Bloody water swirled into the plughole. Thunder cracked, the sound echoing in the deep spaces between the buildings. He put up his hand; his many tiny reflections slid across the rounded silver surfaces of the instruments. I hummed as I worked. Quiet humming, the buzz of the machine. I moved his big, boyish head this way and that. He was calming down. But a corresponding hum started, began high-pitched then droned lower and slower; we looked at each other and heard the machinery dying, the instruments letting out a last whine of exhausted momentum. The device went silent in my hand. The lights flickered, the neon tubes buzzed, and blinked off.

Roysmith’s face was pale in the half light. He raised his head. ‘Goodness gracious . . .’ I put my hand over his mouth, gently. With a tissue, I pressed down on his bloody lips.

‘It’s a power cut,’ I said. I left my fingers on his lower lip, just for a second. He gazed up, wondering. The thunder cracked. The rain streamed down. We were silent, looking at each other.

‘What do we do now?’ he said.

‘Shall we wait for a minute?’

‘Well, I’m quite comfortable here!’

‘I love the rain,’ I said. Along the dark corridor people scampered and laughed and chattered. Rowan looked in.

‘It’s all down the street,’ she said.

‘Blackout at noon,’ Roysmith said absently. He put his hand behind his head.

I leaned against the top of the chair, watching the clouds moving, swelling, in the square of window.

He closed his eyes. ‘So dark. It’s like being in bed.’

I had a fancy that the sky, full of its own essence, was pressing against the window, that it would burst through and flow into the air of the room like ink in water, languorous swirls of sky, of rain.

‘I watch you on TV,’ I said, murmured, in the quietness. Swish and rush of the rain, the laden air.

‘Oh yes,’ he said, and yawned.

I yawned too.

He laughed. ‘I don’t get much sleep. Kids. Have you got kids?’

‘I have a baby who never sleeps.’

‘Aaah. It’s a bugger, isn’t it?’

We heard a sudden blast of car horns.

When I blinked, particles in my eyes exploded, sprayed out to a point, then began to sink through the darkness, rising, falling with my eyes.

‘We’ll have to reschedule,’ I said. The air seemed to bend when I spoke, sensitive to sound.

His eyes were closed. ‘Let’s wait a bit longer. Goodness gracious me, I’ve got . . .’

‘Don’t say that.’

He opened his eyes, jutted his chin and looked up at me.

‘Those exclamations . . .’ The air turned over on itself, spun, swirled, flew out in all directions. ‘They’re too cute. On TV.’

‘Exclamations?’

‘Less is more.’

‘Jesus!’

He was silent for a moment.

I said, ‘I used to listen when you were on the radio. I liked those long openers you did. On Afghanistan, on America. Preachy but good.’

‘Glad you approve of something.’ But he said it dreamily. ‘I liked radio. Now I see my face on billboards, on the back of buses. My big face, riding away. Or I look at the back of the bus and my face isn’t there.’

‘Must be strange.’

‘I shouldn’t be looking, should I? To check if I’m on the back of the bus.’

‘Why not?’

‘Seems egocentric,’ he said, vaguely anxious.

‘It sounds normal to me.’

Lightning, another crump of thunder.

I told him, ‘There was a big storm last year, up north. It was night. The storm was right over the house, but the sky over the sea was clear, and when the lightning flashed, the sky was lit up — blue. Bright blue sky, in the middle of the night.’

‘How surreal! Once, on a camping trip, my partner Theodora Davis and I . . .’

But there was a great welling surge in the building, the neon panels buzzed and flickered, the instruments jerked and whined, and we were blinking at each other in the white glare. We looked away: he at the ceiling, I at the floor.

I finished cleaning. Rowan told him he would have to come back for his X-rays; the computers were down. He said he would make an appointment. I saw him to the stairs. We smiled at each other.

‘Great to meet you,’ he said.

‘Yes,’ I said, and meant it.

Later, as I stood out on the shiny wet street, buses surged past, and I watched Roysmith’s face borne away through the curtains of rain; he was real and unreal too — part of the other world that entered my waking days, the secret, the dreamtime one.

That evening Matthew took up a lot of my attention. By the time I’d got him properly settled it was late. I turned on the news. Roysmith appeared. The room was dark; his face hung in the square of bright light. I lay on my sofa. Outside the rain had thinned into drifting showers, falling through the orange streetlights. I dozed.

I dreamed someone was banging on the front door. I sat up. Roysmith looked at me, blinked, gestured. The knock started up again. I went to the door and opened it, not very wide.

A thick-set man with tattooed hands and wild hair stood on the doorstep, the rain falling behind him.

I looked at him. He said, ‘You need to come out and shift your car. We’re moving a house up your street. Your car’s in the way.’

I peered out. The street was empty. There was no one around.

He said, impatient, ‘You got a note in your box today.’

‘I didn’t.’

‘Yeah, you did. You got to come and move your car.’

I rubbed my eyes. ‘I don’t know who you are. It’s late. I can’t just come outside with you.’

He reared back, indignant, not believing I would argue. ‘I’m from Farr. Farr’s House Movers. You got a note.’

‘I didn’t.’ Hadn’t.

‘Your car’s going to get crushed. There’s no way you can leave it there.’

‘I’m alone in here with my baby. I can’t just come out.’

‘You got a letter!’

‘Where’s your ID?’

‘I don’t need ID. I’m from . . .’

I closed the door.

He swore and walked away up the path. He slammed the gate.

I watched him go off up the road. There were no trucks, no workmen out there. Could they be moving a house up this narrow street? I had seen them moving one along Remuera Road recently. Amazing how they could put a whole wooden bungalow on the back of a truck. I looked at Roysmith. A man has come in the night. If I don’t come outside he will squash my car. You smile, you look down at the paper in your hands. It does sound amusing, I know. But can I ignore him? I need, I value my car! Roysmith shakes his head, looks grave. Indeed, he acknowledges, something must be done.

I dithered. Then I thought of asking the police. I rang the station, was put through to an orchestra, made a cup of tea while it played. Finally a policeman answered. He asked for my name. He told me my address.

‘A strange man’s come to my door . . .’ I said.

‘At eleven o’clock at night!’

I paused, surprised. I supposed I was being assessed. Perhaps a drunk or mad person would begin to rant at this point, encouraged by the expression of sympathy. I pressed on, explaining. ‘I’d just like to know,’ I finished up, ‘is it possible they could be moving a house up the street? Will my car be squashed?’

‘He was threatening, you say?’

‘Aggressive.’ I paced on the wooden floor.

‘What’s that banging? Is he banging on the door?’

‘No, he’s gone away.’

‘Good. One moment.’ The orchestra again. He came back on. ‘I can’t find anything about a house being moved. Don’t go outside with this man. I’ll send someone to find out what’s going on.’

I thanked him and hung up. Outside the street was silent, empty, the rain drifting. I went to bed, left the curtains open, Roysmith watching the street.

I dreamed Roysmith was warning me of something, his head framed by the TV. ‘Don’t go outside,’ I begged him. ‘I’m alone. Stay in there. Stay with me.’

Someone was knocking on the door. I pulled on jeans and a shirt. A voice said, ‘Police.’

There were two cops, one young and handsome, the other older, sallow, bored.

‘You’ll have to move your car,’ the younger one said.

I swayed, dizzy. There was a film in front of my eyes.

He told me, ‘Farr’s are moving a house up the street.’

‘I’ll get my keys,’ I said.

I went out into the drenched garden. I backed my car into the neighbour’s driveway. I passed the sitting-room windows. Roysmith had gone. When I came back the young policeman was feeling the glass panel in my front door. It moved when he pressed it.

‘That’s not secure at all,’ he said. ‘It’s not safe.’

I said, ‘Want to stay the night then?’

‘Sorry, I’m on duty.’ He grinned.

The older cop fidgeted sourly. ‘We gotta go,’ he told me.

They left. I stood on my doorstep. I waited. The dripping garden, the stormy sky. Something scurrying in the bushes. Orange lights flashed in the branches of the trees, the wind roared. Thunder over Mt Hobson. And then it came over the crest of the hill, a wooden bungalow under tow, a large, slow, stout vessel lit by blinking lights, struts creaking, planks groaning; crewed by torch-lit men, it sailed by in the drifting dark, cruised grandly on up the rain-slicked street, slid over the swell of Upland Road and was gone, into the liquid night.

 

© Charlotte Grimshaw 2007, published in Opportunity, Vintage.

'I started to feel very guilty, as though I’d perpetrated a crime, a rort' - Stephanie Johnson

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