Read as part of The Rising Gale, GNS Science, Sunday 29 February, Common Ground Public Art Festival
An edited extract from Dad Art by Damien Wilkins. This novel was published in 2016 by Victoria University Press. It is reproduced with the kind permission of the author and the publisher. Image: Dionne Ward.
The river was sparkling and full. For a moment Michael was proud to be associated with it. He’d parked with the engine still running where they could have a view of good width and current. In many other places, of course, Te Awakairangi wasn’t much more than a scrappy stream between mockingly wide banks.
His father had been quiet throughout much of the drive. Taking the back route from Waikanae to Paraparaumu they went past a line of trees that had been struck by lightning a couple of years before and Derek had pointed, smiling, ‘I like those blokes.’ Michael explained about the lightning. Derek clapped, ‘How wonderful!’ When the lightning had hit that area it was on the news and they’d discussed it in some detail. It was tiring not to be able to draw on even these simple past exchanges. His father lapsed into silence.
Michael told his father that they were only stopping for a minute to have a look and then they’d drive on to meet Samantha and Matiu at the agreed spot, near Avalon where they could get out of the car and go for a walk. His father was staring straight ahead in the direction of the river but Michael had the feeling he might just as easily be looking at something on the windscreen.
What was Michael hoping for from this trip? To look at the Hutt River as if it might mean something to his father and to him? Whatever, at least Derek was out of the home for a few hours. Konei, he said aloud. Haere mai ki konei! His father gave him a look but didn’t say anything. The coiled tail of Ngake had created Awakairangi when the taniwha was smashing his way through to make Cook Strait. River of food from the sky. Derek wouldn’t have been keen on any long-view talk about the Hutt River that wasn’t geologically based. Growing up in the deep South in the 1930s and 40s—same as Sylvie—and having no contact with Māori, they’d never quite believed in them. Pākehā such as his parents were like some primitive tribe only crediting what was in front of their faces. In the past few decades, people they’d been aware of had changed into Māoris at some opportune moment. Any Tipene was particularly suspect. Steve, his mother would correct. He was Steve.
The track they drove down ended in an open area of gravel and low bushes. In one corner there was a rusting skip with its lid padlocked shut. Bags spilling household rubbish were beside it. An old trailer, its wheels missing, rested in weeds nearby. Inside the trailer was a mattress. Periodically women went missing along the banks of the river. They were jogging or walking in daylight hours. Their terrifying stories were instantly summoned. Michael almost decided to swing the car in a circle and drive out again. They could rendezvous with Sam and Matiu up at the road and find a better spot. But another car was coming down the track. In the passenger seat Sam waved at them.
Michael pulled alongside and opened his window. ‘Charming spot. Wondering if we should try somewhere else.’
‘This is fine,’ said Derek. ‘This is fine. Let me out.’ He was rubbing his legs. ‘My ships, my pips, my pipsqueak shitspeak—’
‘Your hips, Dad,’ said Michael.
‘Yes! Fucken bastards.’
Sam leaned towards Matiu’s side of the car. ‘Once we walk through to the river, it’ll be good. Is Grandad okay to walk?’
‘Let’s give it a go,’ said Michael.
He watched the roped pair climb awkwardly from the car.
He hugged his daughter with difficulty, again because of the rope. ‘How are you?’
‘Your favourite circus act,’ said Sam. ‘Hello Grandad!’
Derek was flexing his right leg and grimacing. Sam kissed him on the cheek. ‘So great to see you, Grandad.’
Derek’s face lit up. ‘Oh, this is such a coincidence!’
‘I know!’ said Sam. ‘Who would have thought.’
Derek turned to Matiu and Michael. ‘Have you come to look at the ones? I mean the ones who can stand tall, who had their heads set on fire?’
‘I think he means the trees that were struck by lightning up on the Kapiti Coast,’ said Michael.
Matiu was shaking Derek’s hand. ‘They sound incredible, sir.’
‘Oh, only if you like that sort of thing,’ said Derek. He’d instantly dropped back several gears from euphoria. He began wandering stiffly in the direction of the river. ‘Follow me, troops!’
The track was only a hundred metres or so and ended at the river which here was a narrow and swift channel another thirty metres from the bank. Michael helped his father down onto the stones of the riverbed. Derek landed on his feet with a cry of pain as if he’d jumped from a distance. He regarded the rope for a moment but said nothing and continued across the stones.
Immediately they felt the chill of the nearby water and the exposed terrain. The sun was still out but figuring only as direct light and the cold breeze was stronger. Matiu was rubbing his hands together. Sam had stopped to tie a lace on her sneakers and he had to stop too. When she stood up, she said, ‘This is Dad’s awa.’
‘Is it?’ said Matiu.
‘Te Awakairangi,’ said Michael.
‘Sweet. That’s the old name, eh, from Ngāi Tara. Later some iwi called it Te Wai o Orutu, after Orutu who was Ngāti Mamoe. You probably know all this.’ Michael shook his head, he didn’t. ‘And when the Pākehā came it was known as Heretaunga.’
‘The great river guide, I love it!’ said Sam.
‘What do you know it as?’ Michael asked him.
‘Aw, the Hutt River!’ Matiu laughed. ‘Nah, I don’t know. Depends who you’re talking to.’
They turned and saw that Derek was suddenly close to the water and moving more easily. ‘Gosh,’ said Sam. ‘Is he okay out there?’
Michael called out to him but his father didn’t appear to have heard. He began walking quickly towards him. But his father was jogging now. How was that possible? ‘Dad!’ he shouted. His voice seemed to disappear, carried off just in front of his face. ‘Dad, slow down will you.’ Behind him he heard Sam’s voice and Matiu’s, also calling. They were coming but slowed up by the rope and the uneven ground. The stones were getting bigger, more haphazard, and yet Derek was making good progress towards the channel of water.
It was all happening with the fabled slowness of any disaster.
It passed through his mind in an instant and was gone but the thought was his: imagine if the others weren’t there and it was just him and his father? After all, what was his father’s future? If he was expressing a last wish in running towards the river, shouldn’t the old man be allowed it? And would Michael, had there been no one else as witness, not have granted it? Who had the clearer mind at this moment—the desperate man seeing his chance or his frightened son?
What was he doing, bringing him in proximity to a hazard like this?
Michael was already tearing off his jacket, throwing it behind him. What about the shoes? Did people saving others drown with or without footwear, or didn’t it make a difference? His heart seemed to be pulsing in his temples.
Michael was still several metres away when his father reached the edge of the racing current. He’d stopped yelling, thinking maybe the sound was driving Derek on. For the same reason, he stopped running at that moment and held his arms out so that Sam and Matiu would also pause.
His father staggered a few steps, his feet almost in the river. But he, too, had halted. He bent over, hands on his knees, clearly fighting for breath.
On the far side of Awakairangi they could see cars traveling on the motorway. The river’s flow was the loudest sound by far. The cars moved as mutes, as if they were hovering on a cushion of air. Michael thought again about the international sound preference surveys. Did anyone hate hearing a river? He didn’t think so. The world was divided on the sound of airplanes but rivers were an uncontroversial meeting-point, more so than even the sea and the ocean. A river was like a fire crackling or a breeze through a tree. Universal.
When they came alongside Derek, he was examining the stones around where he sat, picking up contenders before discarding them.
‘Are you looking for flatties, Dad?’
Derek looked at him with annoyance. ‘They’re rubbish around here, you know.’
Michael bent down and began searching. His father was right. The stones were mostly round or broken. But he found a nice one, flat and long. He handed it to his father, who without looking at it, threw it into the water. Plop. Michael laughed.
They all began scanning the ground for flat stones and of course they were there. Matiu was the first to skim one—it hopped a few times.
Derek then opened his palm on the most promising-looking stone of the lot. He bent his knees and with an expert flick sent the stone skipping across the water to the other bank.
Sam and Matiu applauded.
‘The competition is on,’ said Michael. He flung his next stone low and hard and it, too, made it all the way across.
Damien Wilkins grew up in Woburn, attended Hutt Valley High, and found his direction in life somewhere between the soccer fields of Te Whiti Park playing for Stop Out and the Lower Hutt Public Library. The Library finally won out. He has returned frequently in his fiction to Lower Hutt and this evening he’s reading a scene from his most recent novel Dad Art, in which a middle-aged man takes his father, who is suffering from dementia, on an excursion to the Hutt River. They are joined there by the man’s daughter and her friend who, as part of an art performance piece, are tied together by a rope.