Walking along the bank above the grey green waters of the Ishikari, running full and fast due to snow melt, I disturbed a fox. It was up ahead, sniffing by a wooden post, tawny-coated below the silver-gold sky of a setting sun. It turned my way then ran down towards the water, a dark blur against the snow, brush tail flouncing.
There it rested beneath a bare branched willow and I saw that there were two. They were larger than I expected and I later read that they were most likely Kitakitsune. I tried to capture them with my iPhone but it was twilight, they were far away and on the move, and after three attempts my phone’s batteries expired and it shut down.
I walked on a little then turned and looked back. They’d stopped running and were standing immobile, heads raised, watching. I resumed my walk with a feeling of loss. It’s unlikely I’ll see those two again. Ahead, the sun dropped below the clouds and a sharp wind picked up dry leaves from the snow at my feet. A solitary Tobi circled high in the sky above.
The Kitakitsune, the Tobi, the fluttering leaves, the roiling river, and me. Nothing else moved in the silent landscape. To my left, the Ishikari flowed swiftly to the north, banks stacked with dirty piles of snow sculpted into strange shapes by wind and sun. To my right, rows of pastel houses, shabby-seeming in the twilight, displayed yellow-glowing windows.
You can walk in a foreign country and forget to see the differences while you tread the unfamiliar city footpaths and unexplored tracks by the river. You can investigate routes through powdery snow or earthy tree litter, while disregarding the strange smells and ignoring the different angle of the sun. You can choose to be in the moment or to let your mind drift away.
About a year ago I was contacted by editor Bryce Stevens and asked if I’d be interested in contributing to a new Lovecraftian anthology, set in Aotearoa/New Zealand.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was an American writer who achieved posthumous fame through his influential works of horror fiction. He was virtually unknown and published only in pulp magazines before he died in poverty, but he is now regarded as one of the most significant 20th-century authors of his genre. (Wikipedia)
Cthulhu: Land of the Long White Cloud, was released on 14 September in Australia; its New Zealand launch will be at Armageddon in October.
The Caverns of the Unnamed One
The story I contributed, The Caverns of the Unnamed One, commences in present-day Auckland, with the discovery of a mysterious unidentified man, washed up on the shores of Rangitoto Island.
As the tale unfolds, the reader is taken back to 1950s Auckland and we find out what transpires when second-hand book dealer, Frank Woodburn, comes across a journal from the late 19th Century, while clearing a house-lot of books.
This discovery takes him from the safety of his home in central Auckland to the eerie darkness of the military tunnels that honeycomb the promontory of North Head.
Our flight touched down at Heathrow too late in the day to fly on to Helsinki, so we’d booked one night at a hotel close to the airport. I felt comfortably smug that I had it all organised. Imagine my shock when I discovered that I’d booked for the 29th of the wrong month. And it was a ‘no refund’ booking.
My distress quickly turned to disbelief and then to dismay. I suppose we were lucky that there were still rooms available for the night we were actually there, so I had to swallow my pride and fork out another £65, adding the experience to my ever-growing list of ‘lessons learned’.
Blocked up and miserable
To make matters worse, on the drive to LA airport I realised I’d contracted a cold, and by the time we arrived in the UK I was feeling pretty grim. The next shock was the weather. After the 40+ temperatures in California, the 16 C with drizzling rain was hardly a warm welcome.
Back in New Zealand a few months earlier, I’d been browsing ‘What’s on in London’ for the night we were there, and had been surprised to read that The Modern Māori Quartet were performing a ‘one and only’ gig in London on the exact same day. The show was scheduled for 4 pm at Bush Hall in Shepherd’s Bush, so we’d booked tickets thinking it would be a fun thing to do. We’d also be able to say ‘Hi’ to our son’s friend, Maaka. But now that we were actually in London, I was questioning the wisdom of that ‘bright idea’. We were both still recovering from the non-booked room screwup, the weather was crummy, and we were a long way from Shepherd’s Bush. Nonetheless, we decided to stick with our plan, so caught the shuttle bus back to the airport, purchased a couple of Oyster Cards, loaded them with some cash, negotiated a couple of different routes on London’s Underground, then walked as rapidly as we could to Bush Hall. We arrived at our destination with just a few minutes to spare, despite having to switch trains due to delays on one of the lines.
According to Bush Hall’s website, the venue was originally built by a publisher in 1904, and is one of a trio of London dance halls he built for each of his daughters, Bush Hall being the only survivor of the three. The hall has enjoyed a varied existence since then. In WWII it served time as a soup kitchen, before being reinvented as a bingo hall, a rehearsal space, and a snooker & social club. It was restored to its former ‘musical glory’ in 2001 by its current owners.
At the hall we bought a couple of cheap red wines and settled in to enjoy the performance. The place was fully booked (well, as far as I could tell, as they had to bring in more chairs from the back) and the audience seemed to only comprise of Kiwis – a motley assortment, at that. The Modern Maori Quartet was as polished as ever, and everyone around us was having a good time, singing along and channeling their ‘kiwiness’. I can’t say my heartstrings were plucked, but then we’d only been away from home for less than a week. Unfortunately we didn’t get to catch up with Maaka as he wasn’t on that particular tour.
After the performance was over, we wearily trudged back along the road in the rain, ordering a £4.95 meal from an Indian restaurant on the way to the Underground. We thought this a good deal, until they stung us £2 each for two small bottles of water. When I’d asked earlier for a couple of glasses of water, I’d thought we’d be given tap water. Won’t do that again. Then back on one train, then another, then the airport shuttle, then the short walk (still in the rain) back to the hotel.
Once again, it had been a long day, starting with our departure from Indian Wells at 6.30 am and moving on to the drive to LA airport, the disposal of the rental car, the horrors of US Customs, UK Customs, the non-booked hotel, negotiating public transport in London… perhaps we’d overestimated our energy levels, but at least we did manage to achieve all that we’d planned.
That night in the hotel we barely unpacked, just fell into bed and slept fitfully until our alarms woke us up around 4.00 am. The flights to Helsinki departed at 7.30 am so we had to get organised early. But as we departed from our hotel in the grey early light, I was filled with a sense of optimism. That feeling of being ‘on the road again’ with a whole new country ahead of us. Helsinki meant summer and seeing family. The air b n b we’d booked looked lovely (online, at least), and we wouldn’t have to travel anywhere far for the next five days. And surely my health would improve.
We stayed at Indian Wells for four days, which was the duration of the conference that had sent us there to begin with. During that time, an out-of-control fire raged on the other side of the San Jacinto Mountains, sending dark plumes of smoke into the western skies. I first noticed the change in the light on the second afternoon, when I asked one of the bell boys whether the dark clouds above the ranges were thunder clouds. It was then that he told me it was from a purposely lit fire and I immediately noticed the smoky smell in the air, and the unusual golden tinge that was beginning to affect the quality of the sunlight.
As the day progressed, and indeed, over the following four days, the smoke became worse, and the conflagration became known as the ‘Cranston Fire’, spreading until it had engulfed over 13,000 acres of land, destroying at least five houses and leading to the evacuation of 7000 people. At one point, on a visit to Palm Springs, the sun could barely be seen through the haze.
Exploring the Coachella Valley
To make the most of our rental car (if not to enjoy the air conditioning inside) we made several short excursions into the Coachella Valley. I’d pored over the tourist brochures and circled the places that looked most interesting and were within local driving distance.
The first we investigated was the Oasis Date Gardens. There we could expect to see, ‘a video show on date history and cultivation, a picnic area surrounded by our beautiful palm garden, a date palm and ornamental palm arboretum, a cactus garden and an antique farm equipment exhibit’. This sounded all very interesting, so we turned on our GPS and made our way there.
I think the information in the tourist brochure was somewhat out of date (excuse the pun) as there weren’t any gardens you could walk in, just a neglected patch of grass to the left of the run-down looking shop-cum-café. The cactus garden was a bit sad-looking, too, in fact the whole ‘garden’ area was very neglected.
Despite the less-than-encouraging exterior, we swallowed down our trepidation and went inside to investigate – we were hanging out for a cup of coffee, if nothing else. There was one girl working behind a counter and no-one else in sight. The left half of the room had some tables and chairs, and the other side had a table with bins of dates, a set of scales, bags, tongs, etc., surrounded by some packaged date products, and other ‘for sale’ items. In a back section there were some tired-looking posters with historical information on them.
The café didn’t appear to still be running, but we ordered a coffee anyway, only to be told that the machine wasn’t working. There was a comprehensive array of date-related products on the café menu, but we didn’t really care to try any. They all sounded too sweet and milky. The date shop itself was well worth the drive. There were about twenty different varieties of dates for sale, and you could taste them all before purchasing (which I did). We ended up buying quite a decent-size bag of Barhi dates. The usual ‘fancy’ and expensive dates you can get in New Zealand are Medjool, and I do like those, but to my taste buds, the Barhi* were the best of all. Smaller, very sweet, soft, tasting like butterscotch or caramel, and with very soft skins. Our bag cost us about US $3.50, which we considered very good value.
I was also fascinated by the date palms with their enormous bunches of dates. There were acres and acres of these in the area. If you can picture barren, arid, jagged hills, dusty ground, huge blue skies with tinges of smoke around the edges, and row upon row of date palms, then this would possibly give you an idea of the look of the place.
On another day we drove to ‘old’ La Quinta. The old part of town had the classic southern US border town look – dazzling sunlight, white plastered buildings, palms, fleshy plants (such as yucca and aloe), dark shade, tinkling fountains, and a hot, dry smell. Streets empty in the middle of the day, shop doors closed to keep out the heat, and the necessity of scurrying from shady patch to shady patch.
We’d encountered this same situation on a February trip to Hawker, north of Adelaide, where the locals know not to venture outside in the middle of the day and the place ends up looking like a ghost town. In the Coachella Valley, mist machines are deployed to keep the store entrances and outside seating areas, cool. We were intrigued by these as we’d never seen them before, so walked into the cool clouds whenever we could. And they worked!
We drove the thirty or so minutes to Palm Springs a couple of times. The smoke from the Cranston Fires was more evident there, as the city is nestled against the foot of the La Jacinta mountain range, and the fires were directly on the other side. A nice touch was that Ben’s brother Dennis and his wife Lauren drove all the way down from northern LA (about a 3-hour drive) to meet us for lunch the first time we visited. They suggested meeting for lunch at El Mirasol Restaurant and it was an excellent choice. The restaurant served very inexpensive, enormous Margaritas, and after a few gulps, there was no way the meal could go badly. But even without the Margaritas, we’d have loved the meals. The service was great, too.
On that visit to Palm Springs we were inside most of the time and didn’t really notice the heat, but on the second visit, it was so hot, I felt I could barely walk up the street, and it felt like the smoky air was sucking every drop of moisture out of my body. Needless to say, our visit was brief.
We fled to a mall, which turned out to be another Westfield – I guess they are everywhere, but I was still surprised (and not in a good way) to see the identical logo to that of our local mall in West Auckland, on the wall as we drew near.
In summary, the California leg of our trip was interesting and opened my eyes to a completely different part of the world. It was hot there… and we had expected this, but according to the local TV channel, the weather we experienced while we were there was the hottest for several decades and quite a few records were broken in the area. Only the smoky skies kept the heat from soaring even higher. Our only disappointment was the final night ‘gala dinner, of the conference.
The dinner cost the equivalent of NZ $145 per person, and the gap between my expectations and the reality of the meal, was enormous. We were given only one measly glass of wine for the whole meal, and the entrée was a small bread-and-butter-plate sized, flat selection of salad greens, just like you might purchase bagged up in plastic at the supermarket all ready to serve, but it had no dressing and nothing other than leaves in it, (i.e., no tomato, or carrot, or red pepper or cucumber). It looked very tired and as if it could do with a good rinse in some fresh water. The Main was okay… it was a piece of filet steak, cooked medium rare and tender, but small. Alongside this was a smear of possibly Béarnaise Sauce, with two spindly strands of asparagus trapped in it, and a tiny piece of roasted potato with skin on – perhaps the size of my watch face, and hmm… I think there was something else – perhaps a small flat mushroom or two. Dessert was some kind of ready-made tart – the kind you could buy from a generic cake shop. You had to crack the pastry crust to break into it. It was okay but adding the three courses together, plus the one small glass of unmemorable wine… well, we were very disappointed.
On our final day, we arose at around 5.00 am, and were on the road by just after 6.00 am. Then we retraced steps and drove to LA, dropped off the rental car, and joined the very long line crawling its way through the US Customs. This line moved somewhat quicker than on our entry and even though we’d been told to arrive three hours prior to our flight, we actually had a good two hours to fill in before our 5.15 pm flight to London.
* Barhi Dates – “Barhee or barhi (from Arabic barh, meaning ‘a hot wind’) – these are nearly spherical, light amber to dark brown when ripe; soft, with thick flesh and rich flavour. One of the few varieties that are good in the khalal stage when they are yellow (like a fresh grape, as opposed to dry, like a raisin). (Wikipedia)
Flare of turquoise, flash of emerald swifter than the eye can see glare from windows, crash of impact lifeless body, spirit free
Earlier this evening, a beautiful Kotare flew smack-bang into our living room window. It lay senseless on the grass, and my heart sank. I gently retrieved it and placed it on a bed of soft wood shavings in a clean cardboard box.
When I checked an hour or so later, the body hadn’t moved. It was limp and warm, but clearly, dead. I’d been hoping it was merely stunned, and would wake up, ready to fly (as has happened with other birds that have flown into our windows).
Poor little bird. It lay there so perfectly, its plumage iridescent in the light.
E rere te kōtare
ki runga pūwharawhara
kei mate i te ua.
Fly Kingfisher up onto the clump of Pūwharawhara. Shake the raindrops from your wings lest you catch a chill.
(Verse from Tīhore Mai te Rangi, Hirini Melbourne, c. 1978)
Sheer and utter relief, those are the emotions you experience upon the completion of a story. No matter how short, no matter how long, the writing takes its toll.
I’ve just now finished a piece for this month’s Flash Frontier. Flash Frontier is a great site that supports writers of flash fiction both in New Zealand and internationally. It’s some time since they’ve published anything of mine, but it feels good to be finally getting back into writing after a couple of years off helping a friend with less creative writing work. In fact, for a while, I wondered if I’d ever be able to get started again.
Flash Frontier’s theme for March is ‘flora and fauna’. As usual the guidelines are non-restrictive; how you approach the theme is up to the author. This leads to a wide range of stories being submitted for consideration, and once published they make for thought-provoking reading. I think it’s magic that a simple topic can be interpreted in so many different ways.
I started my story the way I always start stories, with the germ of an idea. I’ve mentioned before that when it comes to writing, I’m a ‘pantser‘. This means that I “fly by the seat of my pants,” don’t plan out anything, or plan very little. I’m frequently surprised at where my stories end up. It’s as if the characters have been inside me all along, vying for the chance to share their experiences.
(The other type of writer, by the way, is a ‘plotter’. I think you can figure out for yourself how that kind of a writer works.)
If my story is successful you’ll be able to read it when Flash Frontier’s March edition is published. And if not, there will still be many excellent stories to enjoy. It’s definitely worth checking out every other month.
There’s actually a funny side to this particular project. The fiction published by Flash Frontier generally has a word limit of 250. Occasionally, there is a special 1000 word edition. For some reason I thought the March edition was one of those and I’d been working at shaving the final 10 or so words off my 1000 word version. Then I re-read the submission guidelines. Uh-oh!
It’s such good practice to cull huge chunks of unnecessary words out of a story.