Catalogue of loss, Dianne Pettis

The End of the Century and other stories
Christine Johnston
Canterbury University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 0 908812 82 5

Inca Girls Aren’t Easy
W P Hearst
Random House, $24.95,
ISBN 1 86941 374 1

No – The End of the Century is not another book about the end of the 20th century, the hallowed time before “the new millennium”. And yet. The stories take place between the 1940s and the end of the century. They begin with “the five o’clocks” and trams, and progress to cell-phones and psychotherapy, shifting back and forth across the decades like the kelp of the title story – “a metronome, lazily marking time”.

The story “The End of the Century”, which recounts a family’s perfect day before the end of happiness as they knew it, includes a visit to the Century Theatre in Dunedin – now a vacant lot sprung with weeds. This story is signposted throughout with the loss that is to come. In spite of the fact of their three children, there is the loss of the parents’ innocence – “the last day of their adolescence” – and the “shock” of the mother’s suspected pregnancy which “turned her blood to ice and he was blighted in the womb”. When they emerge from the dark picture theatre, the children, having slept through the film, are disorientated. The story-teller “sought my father’s hand but he would not give it.” Even the film itself – Deep in My Heart – is lost.

And the title story also foreshadows the loss underlying the whole collection: of babies, marriages, relationships, friends, light, sound, life itself. The stories assembled are a catalogue of things already gone or about to be taken – as the “I” in “Stone Angel”, “cutting through the cold night air with my sharp bones” is painfully aware.  For Ambrose Allbright, of “Ambrose in the Afternoon”, seeing the sparrows pluck the seeds from the toetoes sharpens his own sense of loss. The “Allbright seed” was destined to fall on barren ground – like his and Elsie’s backyard behind the gasworks – “sunless, rank and without issue”.

This vein of childlessness, miscarriage, and stillbirths running through the body of the work is most prominent, and the imagery used to explore it is haunting. Elsie Mullen’s “rose-tinted rags” soaking in the bucket; the “blood-hot pennies” in the hand of the eldest of the red-haired children; and the bloodlessness of their milk-white skin signalling their mother’s miscarriage. The little stone boy in “Dinner at the Lone Pine” is perhaps the most chilling. He is love gone cold, hope frozen like his face under Lenny’s hand. The one who escaped being taken away in a stainless steel dish, but lost nevertheless.

For all the inherent tragedy, these stories ripple with humour – the same wry humour that underpins much of Johnston’s work. And it is in “They”, my favourite piece, that this humour explodes on the page. It has the same tongue-in-cheek quality of Dylan Thomas’ work. “They” are as eccentric and funny as Miss Prothero in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, who in the middle of the blaze, asks the fireman if they would like anything to read, or one of the small aunts who, primed with parsnip wine, sings  “My heart is like a bird’s nest”.

There is a kind of gathering of speed in this story until “They”, once grounded in the reality of contact plastic and spit, tin fences and forty-four gallon drums, levitate. Suddenly They find Themselves floating under the ceiling near “the fly-spotted light-shade and the cobwebbed cord.”  “They” are sad and funny and immediately recognisable. I feel the chill of those “cold and cluttered front rooms”, smell the gas and the sheepmeat, see the “folded eiderdowns” at the ends of the beds.

Johnston has a gift for taking the ordinary, the recognisable, and highlighting it so that we, too, can see the funny side of it  – “100 per cent acrylic”, and “plants, rigid with fear … tied to stakes” and the excess of roller blinds, nylon curtains and drapes to “exclude the light and eyes of strangers.”  There are the shining Dunn girls, beside whom most people look “so ordinary” they “could be an ex-husband”. She invests the most commonplace things with meaning until they appear extraordinary: a tightly Glad-wrapped piece of chocolate cake with the potential to “blow up in her face”, the four children who, united in their grief, “stood … close together as if for a photograph”, who moved as one and became “the red-headed animal” at the end of their mother’s bed.

After several readings of the stories, I found some of the endings less satisfying. I felt the stories would have been stronger if they’d finished, sometimes just a sentence, earlier. But this did not detract from the collection as a whole, which, to me, is as powerful a body of work as I have come to expect from this author.

2

Inca Girls Aren’t Easy, written by “an established New Zealand author” (according to the blurb) “under the pseudonym of W P Hearst”, is about as far removed from The End of the Century as Hearst’s mind is from reality.  In a chance meeting with Melvyn Bragg, who is in Wellington to judge the Listener short story competition, Hearst is confronted by Bragg about the disturbing nature of these stories: “I had to have counselling … they’re all about violence, horror and death.”  He could have been talking about Johnston’s work.

Hearst, whose real identity is still a mystery to me, is writing a film script at the beginning because “to hell with pianos, we need to silence some lambs, spot some trains”– and it is this filmic quality – the “in-your-face” approach to the diverse themes of sexuality, betrayal, death, and travel that distinguishes the work.

Inca Girls is funny and familiar. Muldoon and Geoffrey Palmer rub shoulders with the muttonfat-reeking Kiwi tourists in white singlets. Goldie and the “Foxton Forger” both get a mention. It’s one of those racy, satirical books that occasionally makes you laugh out loud in spite of yourself. But like a good joke, the punch-line is instantly forgettable.

Dianne Pettis is a Dunedin writer and editor.

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