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Name: Henry Feltham
Bio: ... feels as though he is living in a foreign country. But he isn't. It just looks that way sometimes.
Photos: henry's photo libraries
Here I am in London ( 9th Jan, 2007 )
Under the rose ( 30th Nov, 2006 )
Partially finished rant about moving round ... ( 4th Oct, 2006 )
To the uninitiated, all things are foolish ( 4th Sep, 2006 )
Bull Creek is 180 derees of sea, 180 degrees of grass, with a few wind-sloped manuka and a handful of batches strung along a dirt road. We'd come out there for a birthday, a night of drinking, drugging, dancing until the stereo died, and were recuperating the next morning on the deck, lying out in bright sun frosted by a cool september breeze strait off Antarctica. In the field beside us was a gully full of native bush, and a handful of rambling sheep. I was wearing a t-shirt that said 'Tourist'. We were talking desultorily, reclining, trying to expose ourselves to the sun and shelter from the wind, eating crosants and drinking bloody marys, when we heard a cough. A sheep stumbled out of the gully, past a cabbage tree, and then collapsed on its side. It lay there. Looked to be breathing weakly. The entire party, about twenty people, turned to stare at it. 'what's going on?' 'is it sick?' 'aawww.' 'is it giving birth?' 'i think so yeah maybe.' Discussion flowed around us like stones in the stream of sympathy. Some empathised, ending on the impossible note of doing anything at all for it. Others speculated, skidding through explanations, as if incanting reasons was an action in itself, unction for the moment's strange pathos. Four other sheep soon shambled over: 'oh, they're coming to see it. 'they know it's sick.' 'they care', nudged the dying ewe a few times, bleated the way you imagine, then wandered away. I could only stare at it. Watch its woollen flank lift and fall weakly. I was vaguely upset, not by the sheep, but by the people around me, myself, I suppose, embodying a middleclass futility born of our alleged distinction from that sheep. 'but what could we do?' asked my wife later, and i nodded: 'exactly. Nothing'. Nothing to do, nothing we knew of. If the sheep had been giving birth, and any of us had deigned to get off the deck and go and inspect her from behind, we might have done something. But we didn't, and so I suppose I resent myself for that, too. It had the utter nature of spectacle about it. As well as death. An audience, on our purpose built platform (finished the day before), watching the end of an animal. Gradually fading away from interest. Our impotence diffusing into the day. We remembered that we did not care. But the show had not finished. We heard a motorcycle, the farmer appearing exactly on cue. Riding along the crest of the hill. 'is he coming over here?''I think, yeah.''Here he comes.' Ten meters from a deckful of onlookers, 'Hi, John' shouted Sharon, and he nodded, unsurprised. Then, as though he felt something was expected of him, he said: 'She's fifteen, almost had enough'. 'Fifteen?' several voices proclaimed, the number of power, explaining all this. Then, having done nothing, he took off on his bike again. And we went back to our breakfast. The sheep lay there. Twenty minutes later, his wife came trundling up, a dumpy and slightly sullen woman, maybe embarrassed to have us watching all this so closely. She proceeded to get strung up in the barbwire fence, several minutes to get herself through three rusty wires. Meanwhile, John had lifted the sheep upright and walked it to the fence in a sudden packet of motion, where it collapsed again. John's wife decided she was now on the wrong side of the fence, spent another age crossing back over, so they could begin the process of trying to pass it to the other side. Lifting one wire, pushing down on another, sliding it through. But the wife seemed unable. Her efforts made every motion more difficult. Pushing on the wire so that it only constricted the space they were trying to create, a dilation fit for shovelling a sheep through. They were still struggling, so I offered an extra pair of hands to lift it over, and she said, 'We're trying to push it through the fence.' I didn't offer anything else. After four permutations, maybe five, they puckered it across. Onto the fence's far side. Perhaps five feet away from where i sat. Still watched by twenty silent, slightly drunk people, they picked it up. Slung it between them. His wife holding its forelegs and he it's hind. So that as they shambled down Sharon's driveway, the wife kicked the semi-conscious animal with each step. Obliviously booting it in the head. Halfway down the driveway John saw this, and rearranged things. They carried it out of sight, holding one side each, a battering ram, as if to break down future doors with this dying sheep. Because of where i was sitting, I watched them disappear down the road, while the party went back to its recovery. I would like to say something poignant here, or summary, but that seems contrary to the absurd, pointless, open-ended act performance we had just been treated to.
As soon as I landed, the feeling disappeared. My apathetic fug. Released from the stasis of flight and unsure of my next movements, I’d begun to jitter, fingers clenching and unclenching at my side, a tensing across my shoulders. Arduous sardine seconds overtook me on the travelator and I began to mutter something, I couldn’t tell you what. In the green lane, I was one more body in the geriatric shuffle towards a perfunctory interrogation, and a knotted irrational anger swept over me like radio static: customs checks, luggage waits, transport arrangements ... not so much endemic to Heathrow as exaggerated by its primate status. Taking deep breaths, I focused on a vague sense that if I could just find my way out of the airport quickly, I would, in some small way, have evaded London.
It’s not fair of me, I know – or clever. I’d never been to London and was judging it purely on reputation, indicting it for its place in the minds of my unimaginative comrades, teeth gritted against its lantern glamour. Our relationship had decomposed before it even began and a rapprochement was out of the question – I just needed to get out of there, into the rest of Britain, and as quickly as possible. If there was some road I could take, a train I could catch, some passing microlight that might take me in the opposite direction, then so be it, hooks cast into the air and lifted away, my satchel swinging merrily beneath me as I skirted fate, baggage be damned.
Money was no issue – wads of crisp, serried bills bloomed like an accordion each time I checked my wallet, but I lacked a direction, nor had I settled on transport. The question had occupied me during the flight, but I’d lacked the faculty to consider it seriously, something about the distant buzz of engines, its low curving roof and the chubby matron dozing next to me produced a sense that my little in-flight world was poorly resolved, too fleeting to make an important decision – in the low light of our cabin’s ersatz-night, I’d felt as though I was wearing a pair of bad night-vision goggles.
Public announcements played over me, a patronising attempt at mollification, but they only compounded my agitation. Where was I going? It might have been faster just to get on a train, but something about self-direction appealed after the forced involution of travelling alone in economy class. And as far as I could tell, those trains, all bound from terminal three, were determined to take me to London.
The blunt-fringed woman at the Avis counter gave me the car keys and a London map, but I wanted to see England, not its capital, so it didn’t really matter where I went as long is it wasn’t on that map. Like a receipt I waved it away and tacked off through the crowd in the direction she’d pointed.
Piloting it out of Heathrow was easy enough, towards the M4 where I planned to pivot approximately North and escape the city proper. Mid-stream in a pressing throng of traffic, a decision was needed, a toss up which direction, left or right, might lead me sooner to the country’s jugular. In the absence of a map the Orient won out – a right turn, guessed more likely to connect with the major routes that must surely skirt London. I bottled along for a few minutes in the far lane, quietly digesting the fact that Britain drove on the left. Which was probably the reason New Zealand drove on the left. It irked me. Such mindless obeisance riled my harp-tight nerves almost as much as the sense of descending on London despite my best intentions.
Strips of cubic housing passed by in blockish threads, their glum density suggesting I was technically within the Greater bounds. It was a worrying development. Thickets of signs were planted along the verge, and somewhere near my reptilian core I judged the unseen M25 as connecting to the imagined artery that would whisk me away. I had just passed a turn off, but if the M25 sounded obscure, the A312 was arcane: Hayes sounded the sort of place I might have to milk cows in return for directions. I hustled on, desperate enough by the time I reached the hermetic A405 to peel thoughtless right and then, regretting my haste, attempt to dilute its effects with a left turn onto the utterly ineffable, terrifyingly zeroed A4000.
I was somewhere called Acton and, for the first time since turning it on, I was able to stop the car. The small engine panted while I took in my surroundings, as though a moment’s scrutiny might resolve the question of how things had gone so far awry. As if the focused force of my distaste could be enough to displace me – and the steering wheel over which I was possessively slumped – to some finer, less London-esque clime. Electric-lime digits assured me that it was three oclock.
The sky around was clear, tainted with a miasmic hint of yellow at the street’s far end, and possibly much further than that, but it was hard to tell. Houses of indeterminate age and architectural influence knelt behind low pebbledash walls, generally two stories and – excepting a trend towards faux-alpine latticing – clad in a reassuring lack of ‘chic’ excrescences. I had imagined accumulations of cartouches, pointless finials in the inner suburbs and was relieved to find things much the same as at home, edged with a dreariness that I found somehow encouraging. This was the world I had imagined confronting the legion Kiwis who, often without seeing more of their own country than a couple of beaches, perhaps a mountain, relocate themselves to London. I was amongst it now, the diffuse reality of existence, essentially unchanged, banal and hiding almost anywhere: in shop fronts and restaurant kitchens, swept into the corners of bars and lurking at the back of shelves, on balconies in the early morning and behind the thin plastic window of a certain sort of envelope, waiting for them to eventually discover. But me? I wasn’t searching for a change – I knew about kitchens, balconies ... envelopes. I just wanted to see some of the country, yet was terrified that just being from an ex-colony was enough to lose me in the basement of Britain’s immigrant economy, entrapped in some third-rate task, surrounded by the voices I’d just left, unctious in my offers to the locals of desert as I handed them their fourth watery drink of the evening.
The process of assimilation was vague, but the danger was all too clear and I wanted out before it could possibly take hold. If this meant exiting my vehicle to ask directions, and actually presenting myself to London however briefly, then I would do it, no matter the menace. As I drove along they gave way to a shopping district of familiar ilk: simple brick and stone facades, much more the truth of suburban life everywhere than the thinly-restrained hedonism imagined by those who continue to flock to the throbbing heart of the former British Empire.
Pulling up at the curb I glanced into a cafe, but my fear returned. The air in my lungs felt cool as I stared beneath its awning, the serrated red and white canvas casting a dark, jagged line on the footpath. There was a suggestion of activity within, clouds of steam, the sound of hammers knocking on steel. No. That was the music. I turned the radio off, suddenly aware of the insidious, mechanical air it had leant to the voyage thus far. Next door, the quiescent interior of a bar, and I stared for a moment at the name. The Southern Cross.
For a while after that I sat, percussing the transom of the steering wheel with my fingers. Was this auspicious or some uncharted depth of sinister? Should I seek direction from that sign, here? in the Northern Hemisphere? I had no idea. I was in an ostensibly foreign place, dealing with portents fickle at the best of times. Every few seconds my body would urge out of the car, only to bounce off the still-closed driver’s door as though, like a dog barking beside an open gate, my subconscious was really no more enthusiastic about the prospect than I was. The seconds smudged obligingly and I found myself on the footpath, skirting the bi-spinal parabola of a pair of pensioners, each bending forward to hear the other. I caught the rickety strains of their conversation as I passed.
‘... ah knaaw. Iss soo haard now, what weth the ... these uthas, ya know.’
‘Aww, ah knaaaaaw. And iss nort gorn to git inny betta. They’ve got the doors whard open. Iss already so ‘ard for my Gary to find a penny. Ee can’ even pick up a mop, for someone’s alreddy got a hand on it. And it’s rare if et’s a pale hand, too,’ she cocked her fluffy white cumulous head, ‘if you fullow me?’
‘Oh, ah knaaaaaaaaaaaw ...’
What little calmness remained seemed to evaporate with their chirruping, on autopilot, my body already in motion, barely enough to ensure my movement took me toward the bar, through double doors and into the gloom within, the air warm, approaching fetid, but cut with the bite of cleaning products. Beneath that, lurking like pondweed, the tired fug of cigarettes and the scents of mixed alcohols, stools upended on tables and, behind the epoxy-laminated wooden bar, a young guy, not much older than myself, was doing something with a rag.
Vague music came from unlocatable speakers, so he didn’t notice me until I was almost up at the bar, my jaw clenched after the biddies’ calumny, the effect of their strange scouser-chipmunk chatter on me. He looked up, registered my agitation and flicked a few strands of shiny black hair away from his face. He was half-smiling now, a movement at the edges of his mouth, a tilt of the head.
‘Hey man,’ he said, the lights overhead leaving facets of his face in shadow, a Mephistophelian menace, while his quiff added a sense of movement, like a rudder for his head. There was a pause while I waited for him to ask me what I wanted, but the question never came and I began to speak, blithering, about not meaning to be where I was or wanting to be somewhere else or not wanting to not be anywhere else and sorry about the double negatives, haha, but it’s just a bit confusing at the moment for me and if I could just ...
... calm down. The guy’s eyes widened and he leant slightly backwards, away from me, though we were already at least a meter apart, with a bar between us. Then he looked around, as though he might need to ask for help, but there was no one else to ask.
‘Sorry,’ I breathed. ‘I’ve just driven in here, but I meant not to.’ The words sounded alright, but I was scared that I might start to cry – a strange feeling was bristling around my nose. ‘I was wondering if you could give me directions out of here.’
‘Out of London.’
The guy considered this, put his rag down in front of him. His eyebrows lowered to a horizon and his sharp features became somehow more angular; more British? But as he was thinking, and I realised something: he didn’t have an English accent. To my ear there was nothing. My jaw, which had up until that second been tingling, stopped and anxiety retreated. It was as though someone had abruptly adjusted the scene’s focus, from murky background to the solid, brutally-lit foreground. Suddenly I knew exactly what it meant to be in that room, I swear I felt the thought hanging between us, waiting for it.
‘You from New Zealand?’ he asked.
I nodded, sighed.
‘Hey, me too.’ He didn’t quite exalt this, but his eyes seemed to lighten and he leant forwards, the shadows leaving his face. ‘I’m Gus.’ We shook hands over the bar clumsily. ‘Where you goin’?’ I admitted I wasn’t really sure, that it was more of a negative process. I explained that I wanted to see whether I had any response to England, withered roots and all that, but didn’t really feel that London counted.
‘What’ve you got against London, man? It’s a cool town,’ his voice rising in pitch. ‘You should stick ‘round, come’n have a few drinks later. There’ll be heaps’a Kiwis here.’
‘Ah ... yeah,’ I stalled, turned up my palms, smiled without teeth. ‘I should really get going.’ Though it seemed impossible to just vanish now. I looked down at the wooden floor in which I could almost see my reflection, then back up at him. ‘How long’ve you been working here?’
‘Ohw ...’ he thought, ‘’bout eight months.’
‘How is it?’
He smiled as Gaugin must have, ‘Iss’ cool,’ then glazed over briefly. ‘I like it. It’s a party town, ya’know?’ I had a suspicion that I did. ‘So, yeah, it’s good. Or d’ya mean the people?’
‘They’re okay too, I mean, the sort of people you get over here, travellers, they’re just after a good time, ya’know?’ He grinned, recollecting. ‘Man,’ he said, a catalogue-model’s glaze to his eyes now. ‘It can get pretty wild ... som’ve the Brits don’ get it.’
‘Yeah,’ I said meaninglessly, unsure how to connect with this. A part of me felt like asking what his plans for the future were, but suspected I knew the answer. The rest of me just wanted to get out, and the pause seemed solid enough to change the subject. The kind of silence that introduces an exit.
‘So, do you know how I can get out of here?’
‘You should hang ‘round, bro. It’s Friday night, you can come out with us.’ I looked around for ‘us’ and he laughed. ‘Nah, my friends, man. The boys, after work, it’ll be cool. You might even, ya’know ... know some of ’em.’
‘Mmmm. No, look, I ...’
‘Whereabouts you from?’
I said Wellington and he looked thoughtful.
‘Hey, do you know ...’ he stopped and laughed, but in a way that made me uncomfortable. I segued into a pointless question.
‘Are all your crew working late?’
‘They’re bar staff, waiters ya’know,’ he nodded. ‘Hospo.’
And I had this sudden picture of myself getting drunk with blur-faced strangers, sitting in a bar that might as well have been in Auckland or wherever, maybe Sydney, getting more drunk and telling the faces how funny it was coming halfway, no, all the way round the world to work in a restaurant ... that they might as well be Algerian refugees feeding the Mighty Pound with name-tag labour. Maybe, during a brief pause in the unbroken hour that stretched from Friday night to late on Sunday afternoon they heard the rattle of chains somewhere, behind a distant music they pawned their restless dopamine for, but assumed – these faces – that only the underage and blatantly foreign could ever be truly exploited ...
You might not think this could all strike me at once, but it did. And I winced mentally, twice over. Once for the scene, and then again for its fiction. How bad would I sound at that imagined table, dismissing the city unseen with pious, left-handed patter? I disliked myself for being there, for thinking that way. Then again, how much of London did they really see? Gus put his hands into the pocket of his apron, peered at me. I tried to wipe any expression from my face and failed. His next words came out quietly.
‘It’s good money.’
Lost for a reply, I threw words together.
‘Yeah, bro. I know. That’s ... ’
The silence rose up and swirled in my mouth. I wanted to say something to diffuse this, to make him realise that he might know me better than a Brit could, but he still couldn’t quite see through me. Yes, anxiety flew across my face like soap bubbles, but could he see I didn’t think he was a serf? I hated myself for needing to prove it, for feeling superior; hated him for making me feel that way, for being so touchy about. Okay, I hated him for being there.
But before he could actually retract the invitation, condemn me to the moment, I pulled myself together. Unconsciously, I placed a hand on each side of my chest, pushed my ribcage together. The effect was negligible, but maybe my post-flight blood pressure was low, because a bolt of blood went strsight to my head and I could think clearly all of a sudden.
I met his eyes. ‘Thanks for the offer, Gus.’
His face said uh-huh.
‘But I’ve got to get out. London’s killing me already, man. It’s too much.’ He raised his eyebrows. ‘I mean, look what it’s done: made me sound like a fucking wanker.’ He laughed.
We could talk again, but I really needed to leave. It was now or never – if I stayed any longer I’d be lured into a night on the town, curiosity stronger than my distaste, repeating this conversation, inevitably, drunk and less able to extract myself from offence, getting more and more confused as I prised myself into the crevices of their ambivalence. Not stuck, necessarily, but ... fuck, perhaps that’s how I’d become indentured: inane conversation, drunkenness, a coin at the bottom of my Steinlager ... the mechanics were still fuzzy, but there were clearly forces I hadn’t grasped at work. Arcane energies. An ancient social magnetism I nearly lacked the energy to resist. I should have stayed in the car. My hands started to clench at my sides again. I forced them open and left them that way.
Gus scrawled on a napkin, lines and circles, a code wheel for the alphanumeric language of road signs. We shook hands again.
‘Nice to meet you,’ I said and meant it.
‘You too,’ he said and I almost believed him.
I turned, walked quickly out of the bar, my steps resounding on the wooden floor, feeling it might have been too fast. I broke onto the street where the rise of true evening was just beginning. Its silence surprised me. The two crones remained, nodding rustily to each other but saying noything.
A car swished quietly past.
As I pulled out of the line of parked cars an alarm went off, apropos of nothing. I jumped, then listened to the sound fading away behind me. Gus’s directions got me out of Acton, and from the M4 to the M25, but there was a big hole between the two. He’d said that I’d be ok, that I’d make it if I just went straight. I drove around for a few minutes, trying to find my way back to the A405, through streets indistinguishable in their niceness, and back on to the long pale tape of asphalt that would take me as far as I wanted to go.
After that, it was easy.