Ockham Shortlist 2019: ‘Memory Pieces’ by Maurice Gee
Below is an excerpt from the memoir Memory Pieces by Maurice Gee, which is shortlisted for this year’s Royal Society Te Apārangi Award for General Non Fiction at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
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About the writer:
Maurice Gee is New Zealand’s leading living writer. He was born in 1931, grew up in Henderson, and now lives in Nelson. His landmark novel Plumb (1978) was recently voted by writers and critics the best prize-winning New Zealand book of the last 50 years.
About the book:
Memory Pieces is an intimate and evocative memoir in three parts.
‘Double Unit’ tells the story of Maurice Gee’s parents – Lyndahl Chapple Gee, a talented writer who for reasons that become clear never went on with a writing career, and Len Gee, a boxer, builder, and man’s man.
‘Blind Road’ is Gee’s story up to the age of eighteen, when his apprenticeship as a writer began.
‘Running on the Stairs’ tells the story of Margaretha Garden, beginning in 1940, the year of her birth, when she travelled with her mother Greta from Nazi-sympathising Sweden to New Zealand, through to her meeting Maurice Gee when they were working together in the Alexander Turnbull Library in 1967.
“Maurice’s story…captures time and place brilliantly. It made me think– as I frequently do – that we need to get our family stories told before those who can provide much-needed facts and anecdotes are unable to do so….There’s a great deal in this book to reflect on, and in which to find similarities of upbringing, belief and experience. I found it a fascinating read – it’s sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes drily humorous and often extremely touching.”
(From a review by Sue Esterman for The Reader, October 2018)
The other person at Peacehaven was Uncle Dick. He was Mum’s younger brother and the second youngest of the Chapple children. His real name, Maurice, was never used, so unlike my brother Aynsley I never had to be Junior. All the same I knew I was named after him and that we were meant to take an interest in each other. He was a quiet man, not often seen, and although usually friendly had an uncertain temper. He chased us with a leather belt for some piece of mischief and we hid behind Grandma’s long skirts while she spread her arms and kept him away. During the Depression he had worked on the Chapple property – food from the garden, milk from the cow – or had laboured on relief. His younger brother Aynsley left for America and Dick was left alone with his parents. He was a balding red-haired man who smoked a pipe. He always seemed to be in the distance, up the paddock or at the bottom of the garden, turning away, or else was resting or reading in the shed where he slept.
……..The bond that was supposed to exist between us became real only once. I must have been seven or eight. Uncle Dick took me to a rugby match. Saturday afternoon: we walked along Millbrook Road and over the creek to Sunnyvale Station, where we caught the train to Kingsland, the station beside Eden Park. It was a big match, Auckland playing Taranaki, and I was excited. I’d only seen rugby (footy, we called it) played at school, where it was mainly the big kids barging and the little kids getting scragged. We found a seat on the terraces and watched two high school teams play a curtain-raiser. Uncle Dick was happy and easy, smoking his pipe. ‘Good boy,’ he said expertly when someone on the field ran with the ball. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but enjoyed the sudden roaring of the crowd and the hollowing into silence as it died away.
……..The teams for the big match trotted out of the cave under the grandstand – it was breathtaking the way they appeared, big men in hooped jerseys, light-footed on the grass, spreading out and taking positions that must mean something. I don’t know who won. I remember only one moment, in the second half, when the forwards heaved at each other in a scrum and the ball came out to the Auckland halfback, who passed, long and hard, to his first five-eighth, and suddenly, from nowhere, someone else appeared, the blond-haired Auckland winger, Jack Dunn, taking the ball before it reached his team-mate and running with no one to touch him, running into a huge space; almost, it seemed to me, running into the sky. I still find it lovely. Jack Dunn ran fifty yards before he was tackled. Then we had to leave to catch our train.
……..It was getting dark by the time we reached Sunnyvale Station. We walked along Millbrook Road to Peacehaven, Dick smoking another pipe. He stopped me under a row of pine trees black against the sky. ‘Listen,’ he said. I heard the trees breathing. ‘Pine trees are never quiet,’ he said.
……..Mum and Dad were waiting at Peacehaven. I told them about Jack Dunn, and how we’d seen a curtain-raiser between King’s College and – I stopped. The name on the scoreboard had puzzled me all afternoon – ‘And,’ I said, ‘Scared Heart.’ They laughed and I didn’t mind. I was filled with the excitement and pleasure of the afternoon, and Jack Dunn running into a space he had made out of nothing. Uncle Dick had given me ‘footy’ and I’ve loved the game ever since.
……..Dick stayed on at Peacehaven until, in 1940, he married a woman called Christine Jones. My mother tried to conceal her disappointment that a favourite brother had married a girl she found – I heard her say it – coarse. ‘Common’ must also have been in her mind. Christine seemed all right to me – friendly, cheerful, except when we found her and Dick, in their courting days, lying on a blanket in the orchard. They were getting ready to ‘do it’, my older brother said, but even this near-encounter with the physical side of love failed to persuade me that ‘it’ was something grown-ups really did.
……..Dick and Christine had a child, then Dick was conscripted and went to the war. A second child was born when he came back. Several years later the marriage broke down. Christine set up house with her newly widowed brother-in-law, Phil Reanney, and Dick, in my mother’s words, ‘went bush’. I met him only once again, in the early 1980s. He was living in a tiny flat in Te Kūiti, where he worked as a council handyman. I had written to him, thanking him for his kindness to me when I was a boy and reminding him of our afternoon at the rugby match. He wrote back inviting me to call. He had some books he wanted to give me. They might be valuable, he said. I did not recognise him when my bus pulled in beside the Te Kūiti railway station; then the shrunken old man with the walking stick and pipe and grey beard turned into Uncle Dick. We did not have much to say to each other as he took me to his flat just down the street. He sat me at the kitchen table and brought out the books. I’d hoped they might be rare and that I could sell them for him, but they were a two-volume Cassell’s History of English Literature and a couple of similar things. In size and condition they reminded me of my old Chums Annual. I thanked Dick and said I’d be happy to take them away, and he was pleased.
……..‘We’d better get some tea,’ he said. We went along Te Kūiti’s main street to a milkbar, where he bought two meat pies from the warmer. Back at the flat we drank a bottle of beer and ate the pies with tomato sauce. He had a television set and we watched for a while, then talked about Peacehaven and his brothers and sisters and my parents. He smoked his pipe and coughed a lot and spat into an old baked beans tin he kept beside him on a chair. My visit pleased him but I saw he was a loner and that he didn’t want too much of it. At nine o’clock he said it was time for bed, and he dragged an old mattress from the washhouse and laid it on the floor by the table. He gave me a sheet and two blankets, and I slept there with lumps of kapok pressing in my back. In the morning a breakfast of Weetbix. We tied the books in a winebox, he came with me to the bus, we shook hands and he stood with his stick raised as I went away. Maurice Chapple, the uncle I was named after. My visit made both of us happy. I never saw him again and he died in 1989.
© Maurice Gee, 2018, published in Memory Pieces, Victoria University Press.