Ockham Shortlist 2019: ‘The New Ships’ by Kate Duignan
Below is an excerpt from the novel The New Ships by Kate Duignan, which is shortlisted for this year’s Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
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About the writer:
Kate Duignan’s first novel, Breakwater (2001), was published by Victoria University Press. She has published in Landfall and Sport, and has been anthologised in The Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Short Stories (2009) and The Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature (2012). Kate received the Louis Johnson New Writer’s Bursary in 2002, and held the Robert Burns Fellowship at Otago University in 2004. Kate lives in the Aro Valley, Wellington, with her partner and children.
About the book:
Peter Collie is adrift in the wake of his wife’s death. His attempts to understand the turn his life has taken lead him back to the past, to dismaying events on an Amsterdam houseboat in the seventies, returning to New Zealand and meeting Moira, an amateur painter who carried secrets of her own, and to a trip to Europe years later with his family. An unexpected revelation forces Peter to navigate anew his roles as a husband, father and son.
Set in Wellington after the fall of the Twin Towers, and traversing London, Europe, the Indian subcontinent, The New Ships is a mesmerising book of blood-ties that stretch across borders. A novel of acute moral choices, it is a rich and compelling meditation on what it means to act, or to fail to act.
Excerpt from Chapter One
Afterwards, I slept badly. The wind got up, and the branches of the unpruned ngaio scraped against the glass sliders. In the middle of the night, I went down to the study and found the golden book, a foot high and heavy as a box of files. I spread it open on the desk. Daphnis and Chloe. It was supposed to be a gift. In the end I kept it, and brought it back to New Zealand with me. The book is easily the most valuable object in the house, although a burglar would be unlikely to notice it.
……..The text is in French. In 1971 I learnt whole phrases by heart to recite to Geneviève. I can’t work out the sentences anymore. Chagall’s lithographs tell the story: the boats beaching on the shore, lovers washing in the shrine of the nymphs, an altar, spring wine and bird-snaring. Towards the end, a double plate awash in red: a feast is laid out for all the citizens of Mytilene, where the girl is at last recognised by her high-born father, who had exposed her on a hillside as an infant. The final plate shows the wedding night, bride and groom on one side of the door, the villagers pressed against it, lamps swung high. It’s a story of comic innocence, about a boy who didn’t know how to make love to a girl. The prints are housed in a museum just outside of Mytilene, on Lesbos. It would be something to see those prints, it really would. It would be worth going to Rob’s for that alone. Moira would love it.
……..But Moira’s dead.
……..And now this waitress, serving tables where Chagall painted. This girl who looks like Geneviève, who must, ipso facto, look like Abigail.
……..Abigail was my daughter, born when I was twenty and Geneviève a year older. She was born on the Amstel river on a houseboat called the Lychorida, a former coal barge owned by a secondhand bookseller. Rob, Clare, Geneviève and I had spent an entire Amsterdam autumn sanding, hammering and caulking, and in December, we moved in.
……..Abigail arrived in the middle of a storm. The boat pulled on the mooring ropes and rocked on the currents. It was difficult, as births can be, but nothing went wrong and she was perfectly formed.
……..She died at six weeks old, at Geneviève’s father’s home near Lyon. I was in Amsterdam at the time. The cause of death, according to the doctor’s certificate, was acute septicaemia following on from pneumonia. The certificate has a date and a municipal seal, and is signed with an elaborate flourish by one Docteur Gabriel Barreau. It’s a flimsy, xeroxed copy, but it looks official enough. For seventeen years I had no reason to question its veracity. The last time I saw Geneviève in Lyon she told me things that sent me back to stare fixedly at that certificate time and time again. It has now been eleven years since that meeting, and for all of those years I have found myself paralysed, neither able to seek out answers nor to put the questions from my mind.
When I step out of the lift, the new receptionist gives me the kind of startled half-smile that suggests she knows I belong here in spite of my jeans and Nikes, that she recognises my face but hasn’t got a clue what my name is.
……..‘Afternoon,’ I say.
……..When I fish in my pocket I realise I’ve left my swipe card in the car. I mime a little hand show and gesture to the glass doors.
……..‘Could you let me through, Rebecca?’
……..She looks sceptical. It’s six weeks now since the towers came down. High security everywhere.
………‘Peter Collie,’ I say firmly. ‘I’m going through to see Richard.’
……..There’s a subtle eye-flick to the list beside the phone, an apologetic smile, and she reaches for the button under her desk. The lock on the glass door makes a soft pop, and I’m through.
……..To be fair to the receptionist, she hasn’t seen me here often. There have been weeks and months of absence, half-days, quarter-days at best, coming in late at night for a scrambling two hours after Moira fell asleep, or sitting on the couch beside her with the laptop warm against my thighs, Pride and Prejudice running on the TV while I fire off the emails needed to keep it all at bay for another twenty-four hours, another week. Keep it in a holding pattern, a hundred balls in the air, flights waiting to touch down, a flock of irritations, nothing that I could attend to or bother with, nothing that mattered. Now nine months since the oncologist showed us where the cells had metastasized to Moira’s femur, sternum, skull and liver, four months since we called a halt to treatments, one month after her funeral, I am, it seems, ready to get back to it.
Richard, the firm’s managing partner, is in his office. I go right through and stand beside the window. The harbour is a pattern of erasures and smudges.
……..‘Peter.’ Richard’s voice and eyes brim with the apparent pleasure of seeing me. ‘I didn’t know you were in the building.’
……..‘Just briefly,’ I say. ‘Dropping in.’
……..He tilts his head on one side and considers for a moment.
……..‘I’ve been in Queenstown all week,’ he says. ‘Got back last night.’
……..‘How did it go?’
……..‘Gus made me try white water rafting. An afternoon of pure terror.’
……..We’re laughing. How well he creates ease, easiness.
……..‘And you, Peter. You’re looking well.’
……..He keeps his eyes steady on me, his gaze doctor-like, wise, concerned, diagnostic. I’m almot ten years older than him, but I feel fathered: there’s no other word for how it feels to have the full beam of Richard’s attention swung round onto me.
……..‘I’ve lost track. You’ve been with your parents in Wanganui?’
……..‘No,’ I say. ‘Aaron flies out tonight. I’ll head up after that.’
……..He closes the door, and leads me to the two red wing- chairs at the coffee table by the glass. A Hotere hangs on the wall opposite, a treasure of the firm’s which has migrated around the walls over the years, from reception, to boardroom, to hallway. It’s startling all over again to see it here in Richard’s office and I wonder just how he managed to comandeer it for himself, the fat black cross, the white text which I’ve mentally fiddled with through many a long partnership meeting: LE PAPE EST MORT. Le pape, pope, papa. Mort, mortal, moribund, from the Latin, mortalis, one destined to die, brotos in the Greek. Below, a text in Mäori: E hinga atu ana he tetekura e ara mai ana he tetekura.
……..Kura, which might mean school? I can’t begin to unravel it. The painting brings back the taste of peppermints, the smell of coffee served at partnership meetings, the jangling silver bracelets of our secretary Natasha typing up the minutes, and gazing out at the blue, or silver, or white-whipped plane of the harbour when the discussions got bogged down.
……..‘How’s the house going?’
……..Richard hesitates, gauging whether I really want the switch in conversation.
……..‘Bit by bit,’ he says. ‘We’ve found a blacksmith in Otaki. Can you believe it? He’s working with us on designs for the gates. We’re deciding whether to go for a plain look, or a William Morris-y kind of thing, more the late Victorian style. Excuse the technical detail.’ He gives a mock grimace. ‘I become very boring when you get me started on all this.’
……..Richard and his partner have been renovating their Mount Victoria villa for the past five years. They have both the perfectionism and the substantial income necessary for the task.
……..‘It’s much fiddlier to do the Morris, of course.’ His brow frets up, the variables of the decision clearly weighty upon him. ‘I would prefer it, if he can pull it off.’
……..‘And is he, do you think? Up to it?’
……..‘Oh, look, the man’s highly skilled. He has his own forge.’
……..‘Do they deliver by horse and cart too?’
……..Richard laughs gently. Out on the water the rain is gathering, soft funnels of grey passing over the island and Oriental Bay.
……..‘You know, I’ve never been to such a large funeral,’ Richard says now. He stood in the back row, along with a handful of other colleagues. Throngs of people showed up. Moira’s choir, who sang ‘The Lord is My Shepherd’ and ‘Abide with Me’. Her Tuesday lunch girls. Aaron’s friends from school days. People I didn’t expect. Aaron’s fifth-form music teacher, a tall Indian man, his hair starting to silver now. I spotted him in the back row standing beside his sister Sangeeta, a childhood friend of Moira’s. Sangeeta raised her fingers in a tiny salutation as I walked back down the aisle, my left arm taking the weight of the casket. When ‘Amazing Grace’ struck up, the church boomed with sound. I once was lost but now am found.
……..‘Yes,’ I say. ‘It took us by surprise.’
……..‘That mother-in-law of yours,’ he says. ‘Quite a woman. You know what they say in Ireland? She’d eat you without salt.’
……..Claudia gave a eulogy that, as throughout Moira’s life, put herself in rather more important a light than her daughter. She wore flowing blacks and a wide-brimmed black straw hat. I alternated between bitterness and relief at the way she took over as mourner-in-chief. She got her High Anglican service, with the Order for the Burial of the Dead, and I gave up on my idea to have the choir sing something from Mozart’s Requiem, which Moira loved. I did put my foot down about her coffin outfit, smuggling her favourite floral dress into the funeral home after a set of devious conversations with the funeral director. Her mother wanted her in a tailored suit, and although I wondered what kind of stupid man would get between mother and daughter on the matter of clothes, I couldn’t lose this one last battle. Moira and Claudia, when at their worst, would get locked into a kind of mutual stubbornness that onlookers could only shake their heads at. Moira was my wife though, and I was almost always on her side. And she did hate suits.
……..I’d seen Claudia at the tail-end of that long day, sitting in her armchair, the tide of visitors gone out, her youngest daughter fixing a cup of tea in the kitchen. Her face, without an audience, fell slack and grey, cheeks falling inward, her eyes sunk back into the expression of someone who is composed almost entirely of pain. She is seventy-eight. She’ll never recover.
……..‘She’s a softy, really,’ I say. ‘I’m not sure how she’s going to get through.’
……..Richard shakes his head. ‘Such a terrible time,’ he says. ‘For all of you.’
……..Over all these months and weeks I’ve never worked out how to respond to platitudes. But Richard says these ordinary things with such sincerity.
……..He leans forward. ‘How can we help?’
……..Now, from nowhere, I wish I could weep.
……..‘I’ve been cut a lot of slack already.’ My hands are waving in the air, a gesture I hope might distract him from my face, which I sense I’m not controlling well.
……..‘You’ve had a few weeks at home?’
……..‘Tidying,’ I shrug. ‘Sorting.’
……..Richard presses his lips together and puts his fingers into a steeple under his chin. ‘You’ve needed it, Peter,’ he says. ‘It’s not unreasonable. Although.’
……..A fizz erupts in my chest, and shoots down to my fingers. Both euphoria and the desire for weeping are cleaned out in a second. I’m a rabbit in a field, snapped to attention.
……..Richard runs his tongue along his teeth, under his lip.
……..‘I might mention. You’ve always brought in major clients.’ The steeple pulls apart. His palms come down flat on the glass table. ‘Look, we understand what you’ve been going through. But when you’re back on your feet, say, in the next month or two, it would be a good time to concentrate on’—his head gives a little weave, to and fro, to and fro—‘client maintenance. Keeping those big names happy.’
……..I lick my lips.
……..‘The bean counters are at it, then?’
……..It comes out rather more defensive than I intend.
……..‘When do they ever stop?’ He says it for laughs, but he looks pained, serious. ‘You’ve been through the most awful . . . well. But it’s been the best part of a year since we’ve had you at full capacity. That’s the difficulty. To be plain.’
……..On the wall, the painting seems to flicker. Tetekura, tetekura. I want to try the word aloud. Maybe it’s a transliteration? Tetekura, petticoat, petticoat, billygoat. What does it mean to Richard, to keep company with this painting all day? It’s possible he cherishes it as I do, that he has held conversations with it and that the work is a friend occupying part of his brain, history, heart. It’s equally possible that it’s a piece of morbid cultural real estate hanging on his wall.
……..Richard follows my gaze and cranes around in his chair.
……..‘What does it mean?’ I ask. ‘I’ve always wondered.’
……..‘Oh. When one chief falls, another rises to take his place.’
……..I consider this.
……..‘The king is dead,’ I say after a while. ‘Long live the king.’
……..‘Yes.’ Richard seems surprised. ‘I suppose so.’ The mottled beginning of a blush rises on his neck. ‘When are you back from your parents’?’
……..The answer I am supposed to give is Monday. Monday conveys what Richard needs to hear: resurrection, focus, loyalty.
……..My mother’s anxiety, my father’s heart.
……..I’d like to take a week. I’d like to spend long quiet days with my parents, and then come home via the Wairarapa, spend a night or two at our bach on the exposed, windblown tip of the coast at Castlepoint.
……..But Tuesday is a compromise. I’ll show my face here at the office, demonstrate focus. And I’ll make it a daytrip up to the bach on Wednesday. I want to show a real estate agent through, get the ball rolling on selling the place.
……..‘You’re an asset, Peter. I’m on your side.’
……..Adrenaline again, chest to arm.
……..E hinga atu ana he tetekura e ara mai ana he tetekura.
© Kate Duignan, 2018, published in The New Ships, Victoria University Press.