1. The day New Zealand stood still
A literal and metaphorical dark cloud has descended over the country.
With the end of the All Blacks' World Cup campaign, both the people and the weather have entered a mourning period that it seems we can never escape from. At the final whistle, shock overtook everyone's thoughts, grown men were reduced to tears, and if the statistics are to be believed, domestic abuse incidents would have shot through the roof in the hours afterwards.
We all handled the grief differently. My mum dipped into the sugar-laden high-fat dessert she had reserved for dinner, while my dad is now trying to justify whether time spent over the next few years watching rugby games will be time well spent at all, and if it is even worth renewing the Sky subscription to continue watching the Super 14. As for my brother, his faith in the game is now teetering over a precipice as the French win shoved, pushed, and kicked him into this precarious position. As he rocks back-and-forth over that chasm like a mental patient might rock back-and-forth on a bed as they hug their knees to their chest, you can hear him saying the same thing over and over again, the syllables in time with his backward and forward motions: 1999... 1999...
It wasn't only the people that were affected, but the weather also had some empathy for our plight. The normally sunny spring days left us on that Sunday morning, and turned to grey skies and torrential rain. The occasional lightning and thunder strikes acted like parts of a 21 gun salute at a military funeral, further adding to the feeling that somebody everyone knew has just died.
A day into the aftermath, a Monday no less, and the hollow feeling still remains. The rain continued through the night and heavy rain warnings are now being issued to all of the most-at-risk suburbs. Trains were only at half capacity on the way in to work as a majority of the workforce, my dad included, took an emotional sick day off. Looking around on my floor, at the few who did brave the weather's tears to get here, there are no smiles, nor do I fool myself into believing that a smile exists within 30 miles of anywhere in this water-drenched sun-deprived city.
It's probably just as well that I have such a simple job this afternoon: to take part in an international conference call filled-up with very sleepy, very tired Americans.
Last week our American-based work colleagues requested one of us in New Zealand to sit-in during some web hosting failover testing, which by their time would've been 1am of some obscure morning. By NZ time however, it translates to 5pm of some obscure afternoon. I drew the short straw, so here I am.
The graveyard-like silence in the building made the low hum of the air recycling system very audible, feeling almost as loud as a car engine's lullaby. I was hoping for the voices on the conference call to bring some variations to the silence, but all I heard was the static that built-up from having the signal come from (almost) the other side of the planet. There were people on the line - the nice voice lady told me some 25 others were in the conference call - but I guess 1am doesn't exactly inspire the vocal cords to make noises other than short, low-decibel affirmations and grunts. Maybe that's what it feels like to be an undead zombie: it's 1am, all the time.
Once the testing got underway, those who managed to speak more complete sentences revealed a few more details about how they were all feeling. They were sleepy for sure, and on a scale of 1 to 10, attendance was at a surprisingly high 9. On that same scale however, enthusiasm peaked at -3.
During the lulls in-between tests, I managed to read some news from a few websites, and when the news ran out - and the recycling of short-term memories kicked-in, reminding me that this is a tragic, tragic day - I pulled-out my current library book, but never got to read it as I instead started to think about better, brighter days...
2. Engagement party
2 months ago...
It's a late Friday afternoon as I leave work and start walking towards the Fisherman's Table; venue for Giles' and Sheree's engagement party, which also doubled as Sheree's birthday party. I concentrated on that destination, and let my legs and internal map of Wellington take me there on autopilot. Doing so gives me some time to take notice of the minor changes that take place around here. Case in point: the sandwich boards that line the walkway, as eternal and constant as barnacles on a pier.
Here's one for Wishbone, claiming that their food is "...made with 100% love". Eww.
And now here's one for Michael Hill jeweller, advertising a diamond ring for only $13695. For something that claims to be only this price, I'm sure I must've misread it, so I spend that brief moment before I pass the board, searching for a decimal point that was likely cast aside several decades ago by the laws, subsections and paragraphs of economics.
"Emanuel?" says a familiar voice somewhere behind me.
Although not familiar enough as I start wondering... where have I heard that voice before? The answer was a mere turn-of-the-head away.
I turned my head left. Whoops, wrong way. I quickly turned my head right.
"Siobhan?" I say just as surprised.
And insert a run-of-the-mill "I haven't seen you in ages" conversation here, an unfortunately short one which takes us from one end of Courtenay Place to the other.
I met Siobhan several years ago during one of those multi-week preparations for Confirmation; a church event that's right up there with Baptism and Communion, except this time you're old enough to remember if they dip your head in water (not that they do that to you for this ceremony) and you're old enough to have an opinion.
She's a short girl (only because she hasn't really grown since we first met), with curly brown hair and glasses. It's none of those things that make you remember her though, but rather her positive and forthcoming attitude, and the uncanny ability to keep a conversation going with even the dullest of people. She also happens to be the best friend to one of my neighbours, so she was never that far away. Although considering I can count the number of meetings we've had since Confirmation on one hand, the distance between us would be better measured in canyons than houses.
"Oh, before I go," she says as we reach the end of Courtenay place before having to go our separate ways, "you should come along to my play."
"Yeah, our French club is doing a play on Tintin."
"Tintin? Wow, that brings back memories. I remember reading all the comics when I was in primary school."
"Yeah, it's on..." and at this point a rather loud bus passes by making me miss all the details. "OK then, bye!" and she was gone.
I didn't get a word of that. I said to myself as I continued my walk to Fisherman's Table. Ah crap.
I didn't have to hit myself for not coming-up with ways of remembering whatever it was that Siobhan told me; the wind did a pretty good job of that, blowing so strongly it sent enough flying debris into my face that the total volume of all those stray objects amounted to your average Acme anvil. Not the large ones, but rather the smaller kind used by Wile E. Coyote in his eternal pursuit of the Road Runner; never large enough to kill Coyote when the contraption went horribly wrong, but always enough to make him look like a complete idiot when you look back on it.
That's me, always a fool in hindsight. Hindsight should start some sort of loyalty program. That way, I'd at least get something for my troubles on a fortnightly basis.
By the time I made it to Fisherman's Table, the night had removed all of the natural light from this little corner of the world. Only man-made light remained, shining from towers, houses and vehicles several kilometres away, reflecting onto the dark and almost invisible waves of the bay. The Fisherman's Table doesn't have much in the way of neighbours, making it the only large light source on this side of the harbour; a lighthouse against the darkness, drawing hungry travellers to it's doorstep instead of warning ships against landfall.
Once inside, I immediately noticed the large crowd of people that is bound to contain Giles and Sheree in it somewhere. Having looked at my watch before going through the front door, I was afraid that I'd show-up too early, but the number of people already here made me feel casually late instead.
I spot Giles sitting on a couch and wave hello as I approach.
"Hi Em." says Giles, pivoting his hand at the wrist to make a wave without lifting the rest of his arm.
He continues conversation with the guys sitting next to him, wearing a genuine smile whose source I can only guess at being either the subject matter of the conversation (The Simpsons Movie, and who wouldn't smile at that) or that this is his engagement party and he'll smile if he wants to.
"Eeeeehhhmmm!" Now it's my turn to smile because I know of only one person who can shove that many soft E's into my name. Sheree, standing with Janna and Glen by a high table, waved me over. I obeyed.
"Hi guys," I say to Janna and Glen, "Sheree." You can tell it's a special occasion tonight, not just because Glen has made his way down here from wherever he is based up north, but also because Sheree is wearing those shoes that elevate her eyeline from my collar bone to my chin.
We don't get to say too much as one of the staff pulls her away to tell her something. Glen and I eavesdrop for a bit and hear that our tables, 3 large ones at the end of the restaurant, are ready and awaiting her party.
"So where we gonna sit?" Glen asks.
"As much as I'd like to sit by the birthday girl," I tell him, "I've learned that big events like this never give me the chance." And as I say that, the table that will be occupied by Giles and Sheree, a large circular one, is filled-up faster than I could say, "I told you so."
The second table was occupied by what looked like Sheree's workmates from Whitcoulls, leaving the rest of us (which for the most part seemed like the Tawa bunch) at the last table which was just as close to the round one as the second, but still left me feeling uncomfortably far from the bride and groom to be.
Our table filled-up the slowest as the later arrivals finally came in. I picked a seat in the middle of the table with my back to the window, denying me an easy look at the night-time Wellington skyline, meaning I got to face a white wall with 3 simple pieces of artwork instead.
To my left: Glen, Janelle, Claire. Opposite me and left: Matthew, Janna (whose drunkenness tally now sits at a much healthier 5 / 16, or 31.25%), John.
Opposite and right of me were Deborah and Kahiwa, soon to start talking about Harry Potter, to which I promptly covered my ears.
"So have you read Harry Potter yet?" Deborah asked, noticing my reaction.
"I did pre-order it and pick-up my copy earlier this week, but no I haven't read it yet." I tell them, hands still firmly over ears.
"OK then. We were just about to talk about it, but don't want to spoil it for you." Which was mighty considerate of them, because seeing as my hands did little to prevent me from understanding them now, they'd do little to protect me from any life-altering spoilers.
"Hey Em, Glen," says a pleasantly accented voice to my right belonging to none other than Lydia, "how are you guys?"
"Hey Lids, I'm alright." says Glen.
Lydia, who has, in her own words, 'stood me up' for our last 2 lunches was deserving of a different response to this common pleasantry.
"Ouch," I say, "and there's the sound of my heart breaking."
"Heheh, awww, I'm sorry Em, we'll try again some other time." she says as she pats/rubs my back both condescendingly and reassuringly.
"How come I don't get a back rub?" asks Glen.
You still have a heart, I imagine saying to him, I've got less than 30 seconds to live.
She and the later arrivals filled-up the rest of the table. To my right: Lydia, Sarah, Jamie, and another Deborah at the end. Opposite and right of me: Deborah, Kahiwa, and Stacey.
When Stacey arrived, those 3 girls took off their coats in unison, revealing dresses that in turn revealed enough skin that I had to make a conscious effort to keep my eyes above their necks for the rest of the night. I turned to my left and saw that Glen was making no such effort.
Then the waiter came around, taking everyone's orders. Matthew and Deborah were devising a way to get extra chips without having to pay as much, whereas I was in some sort of I'll-eat-everything mood and didn't really care about saving money when asked if I wanted fries with that.
"So that's the shrimp cocktail for starters and seafood lasagne for mains." said our waiter. "Any drink?"
I pointed to some random thing on the drinks menu.
"Do you also want a half-plate of fries?"
"And all-you-can-eat salads?"
And a foot-long chicken fillet sub?
What can I say, I'm really hungry.
Whatever I ate, Janelle definitely didn't approve. Everytime she saw me eating, she turned away more disgusted with me than ever:
"What's that you're eating Em?"
*Janelle mimes putting finger down throat and puking*
The second time:
"What's that got in it Em?"
"Seafood lasagne: fish something, scallops, and some other unidentifiable mollusc."
*Janelle mimes putting finger down throat and puking*
And it didn't take long for me to learn that I shouldn't have pointed at any old drink: the drink killed my manliness as it came in the girliest-looking champagne/brandy glass I have ever seen, with a cherry that exuded even more effeminate vibes than Brokeback Mountain. Coupled with my hair which desperately needed a cut, all my arguments that night fell flat as they usually ended with me either taking a swig from this most-womanly glass, or pulling hair back from covering my ears, or both.
Hindsight once again taught me a harsh lesson, kicking me in the balls, replacing them with ovaries, then kicking me in the ovaries.
"What's that you're drinking Em?" asked Janelle.
"The worst decision I have ever made."
*Janelle mimes putting finger down throat and puking*
Beyond the loss of my testosterone, the night was a night well spent: Lydia trying to spoil Harry Potter for which I promptly noogied her (noogie? noogy? For my spelling's sake, I'm glad she only attempted it once) and the girls making comments on Sarah's short and leaving-much-to-the-imagination coat which left her feeling like a cheap 50c stripper; comments which they quickly recanted and reworded, lifting her spirits to that of a more expensive $2.50 version.
"I love what university has done to us," I say to Glen loud enough so that everyone at the table can hear, "the conversations are much more intelligent."
Less like Friends, and more like Frasier on crack.
The only time I really got to talk with Sheree was when everybody started leaving. And it wasn't a lot either, just her reminding me that she's only got 1 more Friday at Whitcoulls, marking this night as the beginning of the end of the only perk my job ever had: a friend (outside of work) within 100m.
"I feel kinda bad." I say to her. "I should be happy that you're moving-on from retail work into something better paid and more enjoyable, but only half of me feels like that." Try to ever ask me for an objective opinion on a decision that'll put an ocean between my friends and I, and all you'll get is my biased and honest response.
"Awww, that's 'cause you're a good friend Em." she replies, hugging me.
"How come I don't get a hug?" says Glen nearby.
"I'll see you next week then Sheree?"
That pretty-much concluded the night for me. Everyone was headed to... I forgot. I tagged-along with those who were walking there, until I had to make my own way home. We stopped only twice along the way: once for the girls to mess-around on a playground, and the other time for Lydia to catch a ride home with Jamie and Sarah.
I stood part-way between Lydia and the rest of the group as they continued walking ahead - acting as a human breadcrumb trail should Lydia's plans for a fast-track home fall flat and she needed to find her way back to us - my ears trained on conversations taking place on either side of me.
Glen was telling the girls about some sort of 1(guy)-to-many(girl) slavery plan he wished to implement, with a business model similar to that Chrisco Christmas hamper thing. I admit that line of conversation drew most of my attention away from Lydia, meaning I only caught specific keywords from her.
Glen: "It'll work like a rotational schedule, with like week-long shifts..."
Lydia: "......(something something)..... w00t!"
Holy crap, Lydia just said 'w00t'.
I think I'm in love.
3. The last Friday ever
1-and-a-half months ago...
Another Friday night, another working week is over. Another after-work Friday talking with Sheree as she stands behind the counter at Whitcoulls, counting-down the hours before she leaves this place forever. And another week of Wishbone's sandwich board revealing a vital ingredient in their secret recipe: "Wishbone cookies are made with butter and love". More eww.
I've spent a good portion of my Fridays after work over the passed year-and-a-half to 'bother' Sheree as she continues her shift at Whitcoulls Lambton Quay. Sometimes when she was busy herself, I'd help in what little ways I could: stacking calendars, removing labels from books, rolling posters, and arranging stickers.
Ever since she joined university during my second year, Sheree has never been too far away. She used to read me entries from her biology textbooks like a mother would read bedtime stories to her child (although I doubt the adventures of the mitral and tricuspid valves could ever compete with the likes of Grimm's Fairytales), and sometimes I could assist her when she took a mild interest in computer science and maths. Between classes, she was never that far away, and over the years I became quite used to just knowing she was around.
Being able to continue our geographical closeness was sort of like a bonus once I left university and started my first full-time job. But today would be the end of it.
Having come to Whitcoulls so often as a non-paying customer, the floor on which Sheree works has become a very familiar sight, and I'm quite confident in my knowledge of the general placement of items on this floor. From where I stand by the counter, pens and art supplies line the wall and shelves which I face, children's stories take-up residence on the opposite side of the floor, and directly behind me is a display cabinet of planners/diaries/calendars that seem almost as ridiculously priced as that diamond ring from last week.
I'm actually surprised that this place hasn't been a more common setting in my dreams. Although the only time that happened, this whole place was blown-up.
"Thanks for coming out to my engagement party Em. You're coming to the wedding right?"
"You should already know the answer to that!" I reply, almost too defensively.
"I'm already planning to write about it and include it in my stories a month or 2 afterwards. I'll be kind of like the literary wedding photographer, except the photos would take longer to develop."
"And there'll be no photos."
"And there'll be no photos." I admit. "That makes me pretty crappy photographer then."
I continue about how the style of that story will depend a bit on the kind of books I'm reading at the time, explaining to her that I've noticed I draw a lot of the general 'feel' of my own stories from the books of authors I'm currently reading. She then tells me about something that they were taught in her English classes, a little philosophical thing about how our own ideas always stem from the ideas of others.
"I mean, if you haven't read poetry before," she says, putting the question to me, "would you ever know how to write poetry yourself?"
"Hmm, I dunno," I reply thoughtfully, "but I don't usually think in 3-word 5-word 3-word stanzas."
"No! Not haikus!"
"Well, what about 'There was a man from Nantucket'?"
"Not limericks either! Waaaaaaa..." and with that she brings her head down onto the counter, pretending to knock the stupidity that associating with me injects into one's head.
"Oh," I say, revelation striking me, "you mean like Yeats and shit!?"
See, I can be cultured too.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
"Huh?" she says, looking at me weirdly after I recited the above.
"That's Yeats, one of his poems."
But Sheree continued staring and blinking absent-mindedly. Maybe she didn't know that poem, or maybe she was surprised to hear it come from me. Regardless, it was my turn to bang my head on the counter, except my portion of the counter was home to many bits of stationery. I mean, I could've... if I had some sort of pencil-stabbing-into-my-eye fetish.
I settled for sighing loudly instead.
I hung-around for a long time. Night once again fell on what was becoming a good day: no girly drink, no long hair, no disapproving Janelle, etc etc.
When the poetry ran out, she picked-up rubber bands and taught me how to fire them by wrapping them around my thumb, aiming with my forefinger, and making a firing mechanism with my pinky or ring finger. When that got boring, she tried to spoil Harry Potter for me (although this time I only warned her about rubbing her head in). Afterwards, she gave me a new long-term goal:
"You should write a novel Em." she just said, out of nowhere. "And I can be your editor."
"Eh?" She's kidding right?
"I'll give you 2 months to come-up with an idea, then you can run them by me and I'll pick one on the 3rd. I want a complete draft in 2 years, and it published within a year after that."
She said it quite authoritatively, and I couldn't find a trace of jest in her requests at all. I was still raising an eyebrow at the whole idea, so just decided to play along, see if there was a punch-line in it somewhere.
I still couldn't find one.
Hangman was the next game we played to pass the time. She gave me what seemed like an infinite amount of tries. After I used-up half the alphabet, and still nowhere near guessing what the word could be, she stopped drawing the stick figure in the noose and instead started drawing fish in the sea. After another several letters, she moved from fish to adding a sun and clouds. If the alphabet were any larger and I kept guessing wrong, she would've drawn an entire ecosystem complete with forest, mountains and tributaries, revolving around this sad picture of a stick man at the gallows, kept alive by his missing left leg.
What the hell kind of word could this be?
Just when I had started to give-up and was willing to let the stick man die in this 2B pencil rendition of the Elysium Fields, a miracle occurred, granting that stick man another chance at life.
"Oh, umm..." said Sheree, counting-off the letters in this mystery word. "Whoops, that's not how it's spelt."
"What!?" And this is the girl who wants to proof-read a draft novel. "Sure you don't need a co-editor?"
Soon enough, it was time for me to go.
Gathering my jacket and bag, and putting on my headphones even though I won't remember to start the MP3 player for another 10 minutes, I slowly made my way towards the stairs that would take me back down to ground floor, and ultimately, away from here. I glanced back over my shoulder to where Sheree stood behind her counter against a backdrop of bookstore bits and pieces.
The picture was all waves and sad smiles.
And then I left.
The failover testing finished sooner than expected, much to the delight of it's sleep-deprived participants, and just when I was finally starting to grasp the nuances of the zombie language too.
I headed home, still feeling a bit down. Although the All Blacks' loss was starting to fade, the negative enthusiasm from the conference call managed to make its way across several thousand kilometres of phone cable and rub-off on me.
When the train guard asked to see our tickets, I reached into my jacket pocket and found instead a rubber band, the same one Sheree gave me to practice my rubber band shooting. It's not as if I kept it around as a souvenir or anything, I just forgot to remove it (you should've seen the Extra chewing gum I left in there a while back, made the words 'biological specimen' come to mind).
I wrapped the rubber band around my hand exactly like I was taught, and fired it at the seat in-front of me. As the rubber band fell, I started adding to the 2 major events I had just re-lived, convincing myself that things will somehow work out for the better.
For example, Siobhan's play (which I managed to get to after getting her number from my neighbour) turned-out to be another good night. As well as not having remembered the details of the event in our first encounter, I almost forgot that she said it was being performed by her French club. I was afraid I was going to be there by myself, watching a play in a language I didn't understand. Kind of like opera really.
But just before the play started, I saw Lydia and co. in the audience. I went to her, and was able to sit with her, Kahiwa, and Stacey. So now the situation was that I was going to be sitting by people I knew, watching a play in a language none of us really understood. Kind of like opera with friends I guess.
And as for up-and-coming events this week, I have paintball as part of a 'team building exercise', a day-off for my birthday, a dinner at my favourite Italian restaurant, and ten pin bowling for the Wellington Business Games.
Maybe things are starting to look up?
As soon as I made it home, the phone started to ring. I picked it up to discover my auntie in Auckland on the line, making her obligatory phone call to check that my brother and I haven't burned-down the house while my parents enjoy a long vacation in New York and several other eastern seaboard destinations.
After assuring her that yes, we're eating right, no, nothing's broken, and no, the house hasn't been burned-down, she put my nieces on the phone (not technically my nieces, but my cousin's 2 and 5yr old daughters).
"Hi uncle Scanner." says the adorable little voice on the line belonging to Chelsea, the older of the 2.
I'm left wondering if she even remembers who I am. The last time I saw her she was 4 years old and had to keep being reminded what my name was. When I left, she kept calling me 'hey dude', and didn't even know we were related. Maybe her mother (my cousin) reminded her that it was I who helped them pass that troublesome level in Crash Bandicoot, and after that she would be able to associate me with some sort of achievement.
She tells me a little about the dinner she just ate, before passing the phone along.
"I'll get Amber next." says Chelsea.
Amber, the younger of the 2, wasn't even speaking when I last met her. Her most stand-out feature was that she was an energetic 10-month-old baby. You could never keep her still long enough for a photo. There was no way she would know who I was, so I wasn't surprised to hear my auntie telling her what to say, acting like a not-so-invisible cue card for the nervous speech maker.
"Hi uncle Scanner." says a shy voice.
Wow, talk about heart-melting cuteness.
Before I could manage a sentence of my own, Amber started randomly pressing buttons on the phone.
And so on.
Hmm, I wonder if she'll find the...
Haha, yes, things are definitely looking up.