Lena Fransham is a Massey University student living in Wellington. Her essay Arrows responds to her experience of researching for this anthology on a summer Pukeahu scholarship, following on from a paper in creative nonfiction. She explores problems of place and identity, moving through spaces and stories that have shaped her understanding of, and her relationship with, Pukeahu / Mount Cook.
‘ As if, by coming up with metaphors for it, they might be able to say what it was. ’
—Elizabeth Knox, Dreamquake
In reading about a sense of place I keep falling over this word. Autochthon. A beautiful word. Just articulating it is new muscular territory for me. I am autochthonous. I am of my own earth. Stephanie Pride talks about it in her thesis on writers who write themselves into relationship with a place.
I think that when I go anywhere, when I try anything new, and when I write a story, I am guided by the longing for home.
I’ve been reading books to try to find Pukeahu. What does it mean, what is this place? There are glimpses in poems, old histories. It’s like lifting bricks to peer at their undersides. I discover the traces of hidden stories. Unremembered things. In Patricia Grace’s Cousins the unborn twin, kept secret by his great-aunt, never known to his family, narrates a thread of the story. What are the stories I am not hearing? What is forgotten in the shadow of the war memorial, the hulking grandiosity of the museum on the hill?
The silences, the darkness, the blind spots, the forgetting, these are the cost of the reign of one official narrative of a place, or as Doreen Massey says, the ‘long, internalised, linear history’. And the silences are like holes we can fall down. Blind spots are empty spaces in the world. The stories that are lost.
Thinking about Doreen Massey; she reflects that if human identity is multiple, faceted, even contradictory, then a place is too. Indeed, as I grow older I see that viable identity, for myself, is a process of reflection and revision of who I have been, who and what I have believed myself to be, and who is responsible for making me who I am. And finally, what I make of it all now at this intersection of time and space.
When I first came to the Wellington campus of Massey, our class went for a walk around Pukeahu. We passed men at work in a great pit in the ground, installing underground cables. The walls of the pit reached two storeys down through layers of the hill. We left the campus and walked along the road toward Buckle Street. The memorial rose above us on ground hemmed in from the street by a wall of red bricks with arrows embossed into them. They were the robust, visceral red of old volcanic soil. The prisoners who made them were real people who had lives before being in prison. The arrows on the bricks were tiny memorials to their makers.
We were welcomed onto the marae, Te Marae o te Kuratini, and marae manager Dale-Maree Morgan said it was now our place. The karanga is a call to bring the newcomers to the house. The ritual whaikorero are exchanged to find connections, overlap, shared genealogy. To establish a dialogue of community, not colony.
Now I have been here for months, turning over bricks. Time is collapsing in my walks through Mount Cook streets. They are peopled with the work gangs making bricks; the early English immigrant arrivals crammed into the barracks; the Taranaki prisoners marching with their hands tied toward Pukeahu (tui atu tui mai o tāua nei ringaringa), conscientious objectors shipped off to the front, the Ngāti Hinewai kūmara growers in the Basin Reserve, pulling up their crops in the night before invaders come. Displaced, misplaced people, people stripped of identity and home, wander with me.
In my roaming through found texts, explorations that have become a mental amplifier of my walks through the physical dimension of Mount Cook, I begin to stumble on recollections of Elizabeth Knox’s Dreamhunter books. In these novels she writes of the Place, an invisible territory accessible to few. Like a mind in itself, the Place holds memories, or dreams, with which it communicates with the people who are able to pass through it. The dreamhunters catch the dreams and convey them to the people. The Place reveals itself through them, like a mind becoming conscious of itself. Perhaps it is not so strange that, scouring the landscape of this suburb for clues as to its nature, searching archives and books for memories that will reveal its character and illuminate the corners of its history, I have a growing sense of having walked into Knox’s story. So in the midst of my wanderings I find Dreamhunter at the University library and read it again. The interaction of text and life and history intensifies for me when the story’s main character, Laura, discovers a hidden plot within the official narrative of a dream from the Place, in which she meets a work gang of convicts with arrows printed on their clothes, making bricks that they are marking with arrowheads. One of the convicts gives her a fragment of a letter, which leads to the revelations of a suppressed history and of the true nature of the Place.
Somewhere in Prince of Wales Park, high above the roofs of Mount Cook, there’s a miniature house, one of the little experiments in public spaces by the artists Kemi Niko & Co. My friend Emma and I go hunting for it. On our second venture through the park, near Bell Road, we spot the bluegreen eaves peeping above the low gorse. It’s made of flattened tin cans nailed to a frame and painted to look like a bach. It’s big enough to sit in with our legs hanging out. Someone has considerately left tea bags and a plastic wine cup. There’s a child’s book tucked into a wall recess. Below, I can see the carillon and the University and lots of ant-like cars. I sit there and feel full of possibilities, as I did in a hut made of blankets when I was small.
I walk through a service alley in Hopper Street and I find the back ends of warehouses made into living quarters, rows of letter boxes lined up at the entranceways. A drain running past the low doors and proud layers of graffiti on the outer walls. Scrawled tags, stencils of John Key with horns, half-finished pastel figures by the street artists Pie-rats, and a BMD work across two walls with a dissected dog-like animal and the metre-high words If I was more forward I wouldn’t have to look back. An old sofa on its end, an empty beer bottle and a looped bale of number 8 wire. A brown-haired girl sits in a doorway painting on canvas. I pause, wondering whether to ask her about her work. I wonder if she lives there and if the landscape inspires her. The cracks in the concrete, the flaking walls, the weeds in the asphalt. All the dirt swept under the city’s carpet. The street is an organism; unhygienic, but alive and moving.
She’s painting a picture of the carillon on a red hill. The hill (we will remember them) is the colour of poppies, of pohutukawa blooms. If I step back, the real carillon can be seen above the warehouse roofs. The words coming out of the painted tower are not the pealing of bells but a waiata, Tui atu tui mai o taaua nei ringaringa i mauhere ai ki Pukeahu.
When I leave the girl in the doorway it seems she says something. I look back. She wants to show me her painting.
I remember when I was five. One day I saw him kissing my babysitter in a wrong way. When I asked him about it he said, that never happened. That was in your imagination. If you tell anyone they will laugh at you.
She has painted a river under the ground, far beneath the bell tower. Prisoners dig the red hill. Their faces are tattooed with lines like arrows.
I was afraid of seeing something that wasn’t there. Forever afterwards, I was afraid to believe what I saw. I thought people would laugh at me. I could not speak of what I saw. And so it became part of an invisible region that was still there, but not really there.
Under the painted ground beside the tower, an empty, coffin-shaped darkness.
‘Have to go,’ I tell her as I step down from her doorstep and turn away, and the dog-creature watches over my shoulder. I’m late. I walk past the upturned couch and the beer empties, the snarls of graffiti, the cracks and the weeds, and turn the corner. Two stencilled silhouettes on the wall look like they’re running for their lives.
But I think this might have been a dream.
Ten metres up the road, I’m walking toward the demolition site where the Beaglehole house used to be, and pushing the door into the welcoming smells of Coffee Supreme. An English guy in a soccer jacket is reading out the trivia questions in the paper. ‘Muezzin, that’s the guy who does the call to prayer,’ I tell him helpfully, hoisting myself onto a stool. The host, Richard, smiles over the machine. He has a curled moustache and he makes a cracker of a brew.