Catastrophist of Newtown
Con navigates the streets of Wellington's Newtown, encountering its colourful identities and his own demons.
Con walks down the streets of Newtown from Berhampore, past the damp, narrow houses, tipped into the wind, cold rain spitting into his face.
There’s the Eskimo Man, dressed in his Eskimo suit: yellow jumpsuit, ski boots, ski gloves and motorbike helmet. He lifts up his face guard.
‘G’day Con! ‘
‘Beautiful day, isn’t it? He gave her this ring but then she lost it then everyone had Christmas in the garden.’
‘Lost the ring but then there was a pukeko in the garden. Con. Can I touch your hand? Can I touch inside your hand Con?’
Con offers his hand and the Eskimo Man turns it over and traces around his palm with his finger inside his ski glove. His stomach softly growls.
‘You have red hair on your head,’ he says to Con.
‘That’s right,’ says Con.
The Eskimo Man flips his faceguard down. A plastic cheese wrapper swoops towards him in the breeze and adheres itself to his helmet, briefly blinding him, before flying away, free.
Outside Dom Polski on Riddiford Street, where Con was sent violently protesting to folk dancing lessons as a child, there’s a sea of white sports jackets and golden bling bling, kissing and hand shaking. Uncle Con, the birthday boy, is holding court in white shorts, white cardigan, long white socks, aviator sunglasses and cigar between his teeth. When Con’s Uncle Con 70 71 sees him, he takes him in a firm masculine hug and kisses his cheeks.
Doctor Bolek the family doctor says to Con: ‘Con, I could light my cigarette off that hair’ then flicks his butt under a passing car.
‘How’s that beautiful girl Nancy?’ asks his Uncle Con.
‘Wasn’t that girl beautiful?’
‘Beautiful,’ echoes Doctor Bolek.
‘That was six years ago,’ says Con.
‘She might be back on the market,’ says Uncle Con. ‘You should call her up.’
‘I don’t think so,’ says Con.
Upstairs, on a table dressed in a pink tablecloth, there are drinks and sausage rolls. Uncle Con’s aunties sit on a bench and pass a black-haired baby between them. He has long black eyelashes and his eyelids are fluttering, which means he’s dreaming. The silence calms Con’s mind.
Uncle Con’s friend Lucky sits at the upright piano, fat hands flat on the keys, and sings Uncle Con’s favourite song, which reminds him of his dear dead sweetheart.
A hundred and one pounds of fun/ That’s my little honeybun!
Uncle Con is first on the dance floor.
In front of New World Newtown, Radio Rob is singing La Bamba accompanied by static from his radio. Con opens the door and sits on the steps. He hears a clickety clack, clickety clack. His heart leaps. It’s the woman from Penina’s Pacifica Hair Studio in her sparkly sandals. He hides behind the door and watches her cross the road to the supermarket, sees in silhouette the intricate tapestry of hair extensions piled high upon her head.
The pins and needles start in Con’s stomach. He jumps up and follows her into the supermarket.
He watches her browse the fish section. She looks disappointed. ‘Is that all you have?’ she asks the kid. ‘Fraid so,’ says the kid. She picks a single sweaty cut of cod. As she leans forward to take it, Con sees her purple tracksuit jacket rise to reveal a slick of dark brown back.
She moves through the checkout, past the pot-plants and flowers and helium balloons that say ‘It’s a Boy!’ and ‘I Love You’, up the stairs and onto the roof. She walks across the carpark and unlocks her car. He thinks about coming in from behind, putting his hands around her waist, sliding his hands up and feeling her ribcage, sliding them down and pulling her tracksuit pants off. She gets in her car and drives away.
He crouches down and breathes slowly. I am a good person, Con thinks. I have as much right to inhabit the earth as anyone else.
In his bedsit, Con finds a number in the phone book. Kean, N, 14 Mountain View Road, New Plymouth.
‘Hi Nancy, this is Conrad Jablonski.’
‘Oh my God.’
‘How are you?’
‘Fine, Con. Why are you calling?’
‘I just wondered what you’re up to these days.’
‘Working at the optoelectronics centre. Like before.’
‘What are you working on?’
‘Go on, I’m interested.’
‘Ridge waveguides in lithium niobate by differential etching following spatially selective domain inversion.’
‘Right. Are you well?’
‘Great. But I’ve got something on the oven.’
In Doctor Anna’s room, there’s a painting of a unicorn on the wall. It poses hopefully for its portrait, balancing on hind legs. Doctor Anna smiles. Her blonde hair shines wet from the shower. She’s like an ice cream: her cheeks creamy yellow, her forehead sticky white. She’s filling out a questionnaire.
‘Sadness makes me feel…?’
‘Sad,’ says Con.
‘How do I express my sadness?’
‘Too often,’ says Con.
‘What makes me cry?’ asks Doctor Anna.
‘A sad advertisement,’ says Con. ‘A compliment.’
He looks at Doctor Anna’s glistening white forehead and he longs to touch it. To take it in his hands and lick it. To lick the stickiness from her hair, to lick her throat.
‘Let’s talk about best-case scenarios,’ says Doctor Anna. ‘Instead of, oh no, everyone’s looking at me because I’m ugly, how about everyone’s looking at me because I look like a really nice guy that they’d like to get to know. Instead of, oh gosh, I might get run over and die today, how about something wonderful might happen to me today. Yeah?’
‘Yeah,’ says Con.
Doctor Anna hands him a little cane basket filled with coloured affirmation cards.
‘Choose one,’ she says.
He turns it over, but it’s blank.
‘That’s the best one,’ she says, ‘because it can be whatever you like.’
Con walks away, feeling level as a ruler, even as a keel.
Con’s Seven Scotlands game:
1. If you see or hear the word Scotland, you get one point, meaning something nice will happen today.
2. If you encounter a real Scottish person, this is worth three points, and your day is looking pretty good.
3. If the real Scottish person says something to you, this is worth five points, and your day will be awesome.
4. If the Scottish person talks and the Scottish person is known to you, congratulations, you automatically get seven points, which is the maximum, which means you will have an incredibly great day.
Con is walking to the dairy with his face full of wind. The hills crowd around his ears, the houses chatter like teeth, the sky is grey and low.
Old Man Jandals crosses the road, tapping his cane in front of him, his pale blue eyes rolling up in his head. As he reaches Con, he holds a wizened finger to one nostril and snorts, releasing a long wobbly blob of snot. Con freezes. The snot lands in front of his shoe. Con stares at the snot, then at the old man, then back at the snot. But the old man can’t see him. He can’t see anything.
The rain gets heavier. Con wraps his scarf around his head. He runs down to the dairy and buys his milk and newspaper. On the way out, the woman from Penina’s Pacifica Hair Studio comes in. Con stands outside the dairy in the rain, stunned to the spot, glassy eyed. Pins and needles stab him in his stomach. She comes out.
‘Excuse me!’ he shouts.
‘You’re from Penina’s Pacifica Hair Studio.’
‘What’s your name?’
Con loses his balance, falls, hits his head on a rubbish bin. The dairy door goes ding-dong.
‘What’s wrong with you?’ asks Penina.
‘Can you pick me up?’
‘I’ve got to go,’ she says. She turns away.
Con grabs her ankles. She screams. Con screams. He releases her. She runs away.
Lying on his back, on the street, the slimy pages of his wet newspaper slapping him in the face, Con falls into a kind of sleep.
Doctor Anna says, ‘We’ve trimmed off the gorse, Con. We’ve thought about ways to make the stinky thoughts go away. Now we have to slash away at the roots, the things that cause the stinky thoughts. How do you feel about that?’
‘Good,’ says Con. He hasn’t heard his own voice in three days.
‘Let’s have a look over the week that’s just been. What’s your take on it?’
‘Disaster,’ says Con.
‘There was a girl. I grabbed her.’
‘In what capacity?’
‘Outside a shop.’
‘So let’s put a positive spin on that. You wanted to meet this girl?’
‘Well, you met her. You made an impression.’
‘She ran away.’
‘She might have been in a hurry.’
‘No. She was frightened.’
‘Ok. What did you do then?’
‘I fell asleep.’
‘I woke up, and now I’m here.’
Con walks into Newtown from Berhampore on a Friday night. The wind rattles his brain. The houses are tiny, sharp, electric blue and orange. The sky is coming down.
The guy in the Motorhead t-shirt who walks up and down the street is walking up and down the street. As they cross paths, he slaps Con on the shoulder.
Penina clickety clacks down the street after twelve hours of shampooing, weaving, dyeing and perming. She’s been on her feet all day and she is dying to lie on the couch and eat chocolate yoghurt.
She walks to her car and curses when she sees there’s a ticket on the windscreen. But as she comes nearer, she realises it’s a letter. She unfolds it and reads.
‘Dear Penina, I am Con, the man who grabbed your ankles outside the dairy. I’d like to apologise for my disgraceful, aggressive and maybe also illegal behaviour. Sometimes I do things and later I can’t remember why I did them, but I’m a good person and I’m learning to be better. You’re lovely Penina and you didn’t deserve it, Con.’
Penina smiles. She reads the letter again. Then she makes it into a paper plane and sends it flying down Riddiford Street.