Christmas in Redfern

27 Jan

Tongan ch 2 ros

At my son’s desk – a few books – Banksy, Hicksville, The 10 PM Question – but mainly, turntables, boxes of records and coils of connections lying like sleeping snakes. He’s somewhere in the States. Spokane perhaps. On Christmas day he Skyped from a van outside Seattle and I saw a moustache beneath a checked cap, but happy eyes. Having a great time Ma – driving around in a van is cool. He’s travelling round with Apollo 13, Mission Control – small towns to gauge American reaction, but there’s been a publicity glitch and audiences are small. One American is like ten Kiwis if they like something but they like different stuff from us. They really like that it’s about them. They don’t laugh at the same stuff we do.  The audience has to make decisions – must programme computers to calculate space, distance and time. It gets tense.

Why am I fixated on his caps? There’s a shelf above the bed in his room where he has an altar of official onfield caps made from felt or tartan; no, plaid because they come from America. There are letters or words on each, and although they all look pretty much the same (to me) there’s a hierarchy: some may be worn, others revered, and sisters may not borrow if the sun gets too hot. They’re not about the sun of course. They look both hopeful and forlorn arrayed above his bed and  there’s a gap where a sister has recently filched one.

The States are great but the food weird, so sweet, even the bread. They understand pretty much everything except for water. Say what, they say. Wottah I try. Gotcha they say.

Redfern is quiet, or forsaken.



Regent Street is go-downs with handwritten notes on corrugated iron promising opening hours in the new year and wishing everyone a good one. Today I wander down to the IGA to buy bread and meet a man with a bushy beard beneath his cap.

Hello Aunty. Where you going? You beautiful Aunty. Any loose change?

He follows me inside; we pad around the aisles together – he has large brown feet with long nails the colour of dirty ivory that slip slop over the linoleum in worn rubber jandals. He takes me to the bread and suggests what sort I should buy, but when we come out on to the street again, he sees someone else and melts away.

Frank’s shop is open. He knows the girls. He shows me a teapot one had wanted to buy for another, but he won’t be able to sell it to them now because a mate had come in and told him he could get $250 for it. Stelton. Flawless. Those Danes…was it them or the Swedes who started Ikea?

How was his Christmas?

Better than expected… After all.

He had dinner with a lady I went out with once and her two sons. It had been looking bad; his daughter had gone to her mother’s with her daughter who was also four.

A couple come in and ask about a sideboard. It’s a Parker. A credenza, Frank emphasises, teak; the better end of Parker. The man says that’s what he sat round – me and my sisters or something similar but not as good – when he was growing up in the country. It was weird that these things were having a revival. Plus ça change says Frank.

I pass Mitch in A Pair of Chairs.  He’s sitting in one on the pavement reading The Far Side of the World. Chairs from the fifties and sixties – armchairs, dining chairs, some to be repaired and others newly dressed in Florence Broadhurst, loom over him on hooks. Their legs turn out slightly like dancers in first position. I have a friend who often tells me I walk with turned-out feet and I’m in danger of arthritic hips. Sometimes she makes me walk in front of her and sees all kinds of things I don’t know about myself – my turned-out feet, my uneven shoulders, a tendency to veer left when walking. And those are only the physical things. If I concentrate and walk with my feet pointing directly in front of me, I feel pigeon-toed; if I try to make my shoulders level, I feel like the crooked man but she assures me these feelings will pass if I’m prepared to make the effort.

Inside the shop are tables, more suspended chairs, and a boy bouncing on a sofa – his movement and the frozen chairs produces a kind of paralysed expectancy. He wears a small red skull cap and striped shorts and stops and stares at us appraisingly. I’m hungry.

Mitch is irritated. Abdul, I’ve told you not to jump when there are customers.

On one of the tables is a packet of cigarettes, a crowded ashtray and a black paperback entitled Mozzad, a present, but not a Christmas present. He has curly reddish hair and thick spectacles. It’s good if you’re a believerthey slide over a fair bit. Is he a believer? He takes off his specs. His fingers are a little bit yellow.

You know what…? It’s complicated . How much do you know about the Israeli Question?

I admit I know very little – that sometimes it seems very simple, but other times – especially when I’m reading, my head hurts.

Mitch agrees. That’s why I need Patrick O’Brian – when thinking becomes so hard, you need comfort, something that goes on and on like a saga; something you know really well – I’ve been reading Patrick O’Brian since I was a kid – he numbs complication.

We leave Adbul on the sofa – he’s waiting for us to go – he knows Mitch’s routine – and wander back out on to the street. Mitch pulls another pack of cigarettes out of a pocket and taps it.

Actually I have a problem; well it’s a client problem…I like my work; I stand by it, but my chairs are at least fifty years old, and you know they can break break; they do break. But this client…I don’t know how to deal with him – the best way…you mind if I talk a bit…I’m processing.

The client has a broken chair, a cat, a dog, a certain hauteur…

What can I say – he comes from way the other side.

He’s on the pavement with Patrick O’Brian, occasionally Mozzad, and his cigarettes waiting for the chair which must be fixed by the following morning because guests are coming. He told him on the phone he doesn’t expect to pay because he’s only had the chair for six months.

Fifteen actuallyBut the dog

Mitch has seen the dog, and the sound of the break, and if the man had spoken just a little bit differently…

I walk back to the flat thinking about the comfort of something that goes on like a saga. A saga is a long  heroic tale, it’s inspiring, it lifts you. I suppose you could say  it’s about certainty. There are twenty books in Patrick O’Brian’s saga of the Napoleonic Wars in which the life and friendship  of Jack  the captain and Stephen the surgeon – prevails despite almost every kind of hardship. When you read a story like that,  just as when I read and reread Emma or Persuasion­ when it’s too hard to do anything, you always know they lived happily ever after.  We read to know we’re not alone; when a client is difficult, houses are going up on the West Bank and you wish they weren’t even though you believe in the state of Israel, you feel hostile or alienated – not so different from the German word for alone – allein. Israel goes on and on of course. A saga but  no happy ending. Biblical. My concerns are smaller but we share anxieties.

Redfern is very hot so the mornings my granddaughter and I stay inside while her mother is at work. We discuss what to wear  – we examine her dresses and I suggest possibilities but she is not in a mood for clothes except her mother’s high-heeled-leopard-skinned-once-worn-‘best’-shoes, and a pink, of course, sunhat for when we hang out the washing. We make houses out of blocks, water her new plant – a frangipani in a pot with hopeful tendrils, and repair the damage Alfie ‘her’ dog has inflicted on the parsley in a planter on the terrace. We agree that Alfie is just like Harry the Dirty Dog who also buries bones for later savour, and we take parts reading little red hood.[i]

I’ll be the Wolf and you can be Hood till she gets to give him the poison and then you can be the Wolf.


Red Hood

 After lunch she says we should go to Redfern Park – she will go by scooter and consents to shorts and a pink singlet.

I always have an ice cream and you can have a coffee from Coffee Tea and Me.

She scooters across to the BP station outside her apartment where even the usual convocation of ibises seems too tired to scavenge, and chooses a huge Magnum. We walk slowly along Redfern Street keeping under the awnings which are few and far apart. She is serious and silent and licks systematically and rejects any offers to tidy up the dribbles. We pass the Aboriginal Health Centre next to Coffee Tea and Me and while I wait for my coffee, a man tells me that if I really want to do something for my kid, I should let her scoot.

The next day I go to see my friend who has a card – MAN WITH A VAN CAN. He lives in a row of crumbling buildings on one side of Centennial Park – elegant palings and a screaming motorway separates you from a beckoning greenness. He lived until recently in the top storey of one of the houses, but a fierce tenant in a neighbouring house took a shine to it.  After a considerable amount of argy-bargy which included my friend’s being knocked about, he went to the owner of this terraced strip – a redoubtable Greek Sybil. She bristled; she puffed; she pronounced but she finally acknowledged there were spaces among her abandoned houses; if the fierce neighbour wanted his house, there was this… and she showed him.

And he showed me.

You walk between a slit of stone and stone. The traffic noise fades. No birds sing; there are weeds, cracked concrete; beside you broken windows. Electric flexes slither from one window to another. You can hardly tell they’re windows they’re so encrusted with dust and greasy grime; they’ve long ago lost the glint you expect of glass, and behind these shards lives the colonising fist-free neighbour  and his girlfriend.

There is an opening in the wall – a kind of punched alcove where two or three ladders hang beside a door. My ladditorium. He pushes the door which leads directly on to a flight of open stairs covered in violent orange and black carpet. The theme is protection or survival. Saws. Gloves over railings, like supplicant fingers. There are scarves, a helmet, a gas mask, a row of water bottles. China dogs and outsize open Swiss army knives are sentry men at the top of the landing where is a small table and chairs – my room with a view (of a secret about to be tamed paddocks and a washing line). Above everything, on a high shelf, glass vases glitter and glimmer like a fractured crown, and to complete a crazy conjunction of church and state, a totem of buttons, watches and rosary beads.

leroy 2

My friend is a magpie, an instinctive installation artist. His eye and his hand are always aligned. He gets obsessions – on clocks, knives, bakelite bangles or jardinières. He loves markets and demolition sites, but not junkshops because generally he thinks they’re too organised – it’s spontaneity and surprise that delight him and arouse his own urge to arrange. He’s a flâneur of lanes and alleys, a photographer of shoes, of himself – for a year he took a self-portrait every day – scary, of edges, or fragments or lost things. He hates contrivance: there must be, and always is, eccentricity in his collections. He can even make brown beautiful. He can’t wait for an exhibition to open of Song Dong, an artist who’s arranged the entire contents of his parents’ house as a tribute to their resilience during the Cultural Revolution, including the skeleton of the (tiny) house, in meticulously delineated piles on the gallery floor.  The exhibition is called ‘Waste Not’ you can see some of  the images on Facebook

In my son’s room I lie on his bed and think about bravery. Most mornings in Ponsonby Road I’d meet a man with long hair, a lined yellow face and long lean legs which are usually encased in red striped rugby socks. A scarecrow of a man with long sight who’s never still. He tumbles along the road all day, one hand outstretched ready to greet you if your eyes meet.

Back in Auckland I learn he has died.

[i] Subversive minimalist retelling of Little Red Riding Hood by Marjolaine Leray.


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Steph Matuku

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