Elizabeth Knox

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True Story 1

(This is the first of the stories I’ve come up with for True Stories Live. I don’t want to perform any story more than three of four times. I’ve done this one in Auckland and Whanganui and Wellington, so here it is now on my blog, with a name changed to protect the then youthful)


Friday night in the summer early 1978—a long evening planned, and my friend Brian arrives to pick up me and Sara. Brian was at school with older sister Mary—that’s how we know him. He is doing honours in biochemistry at Victoria. Sara is in the sixth form at Tawa. I’m a file transfer clerk at the Porirua Inland Revenue. So—Sara and I are part-time punks. When we set out Brian and Sara are wearing jeans with the inside leg sewn up so they’re straight—you couldn’t buy them that way. They’ve got their hair spiked—Sara’s with soap, Brian’s with K-Y jelly—which is what we used. Because I’m a part-time punk I haven’t coloured my hair with carpet dye, like our friend Kevin from Shoes This High, whose hair is marigold orange and smells like a chemical spill. Because there’s no rain forecast I’ve dyed my hair dark green with Greg’s food colouring. Brian and Sara have suit jackets and narrow ties—if it was winter they’d have fur coats, hip flasks, and straight razors too, like some kind of jazz age hoodlums. The outfit I’m wearing means I’ll be stopped in the street every 50 metres to explain myself— “Why do you want to dress like that?” I’m nineteen and have the body of a thirteen-year-old boy with bumps. The bumps are useful to keep in place the black pantyhose that I’ve pulled up to here—the bumps are otherwise uncovered. I’ve got on red cut-off shorts, and a belt made of a length of copper chain fastened with a padlock. I’ve got to be really, really careful to hang onto the key, because otherwise I’ll have to be cut out of my clothes when I want to pee.

So—we set off for town. The three of us are crammed to the cab of Brian’s Chrysler truck. Our first stop is in Kaiwharawhara where Brian’s 1957 De Soto is having bodywork done. He’s run into a refrigerated truck some weeks back, and wouldn’t have walked away if the De Soto wasn’t built like a tank. He is pissed off that the panel beaters yard would be very easy to break into. He’s complained to them about it and they don’t seem to care. He is worried that someone is going to pinch his eight track tape deck. The panel beaters have just closed, so after a few minutes rattling the gate, we continue on our way. Our next stop is a poky laboratory in Easterfield where Brian has to count as weevils. He is doing some experiment where he has to monitor the population growth of weevils in different kinds of flour—wheat, rye, white, wholemeal—at this point in my life I’m not aware of any other kinds of flour. Brian has to count his weevils with a camel hair artist’s brush. He mustn’t maim them. They have to go on breeding. So, he scooting weevils about and trying to make sure he’s not counting the same weevil twice, and all the time he sweating, and fidgeting, and scratching because he’s talked his doctor into giving him a prescription for ephedrine. “Dr, I’m having trouble staying awake to finish my home work.”

The weevils are counted. We have time to kill. There’s a party but when we call from a pay phone no one answers at the party house.

Brian thinks its him. People have been hiding from him—or playing dead, like some of his weevils. We say we don’t think this is very likely because, for a start, he’s the one who drives everyone everywhere. (This is 1978, before Roger Douglas’s lot changed all the import duty laws. Kids don’t have cars—or one in twenty does, and everyone is his friend.) Also—we say—you are the one with the ephedrine. You have your resources. You have friend Donald whose basement is lined with tinfoil. And when Mum and dad were away in Sydney you used our oven to sweat your block hash to make resin. And you’re currently up to something that requires you to steal some order forms from your dad’s work, the DSIR, to buy bulk cyanide to use as a buffer for some chemical reaction—we don’t know how it’s supposed to work. But we do know that, if the worst comes to the worst and you get caught with your amyl nitrate—which will keep eating its way through the lids of its bottles—you can say you have that amyl in case you accidentally ingest the cyanide, because amyl is an antidote, right?

Sara and I say, “People aren’t hiding from you, Brian, it’s just that thing you explained about how dope changes the pressure in your eyes which means reduced peripheral vision, which causes paranoia.”

“Oh, yeah.” Brian says. Then, “Let’s go to the movies.”

The old Lido is still running continuous movies. We sit through halves of two films. Brian is happy when he doesn’t have to try to work out what’s going on. It’s hot in the theatre and they’ve opened the emergency exit onto Bond Street. Below the velvet curtains we can see the feet of people passing on the pavement.

Brian is too fidgety to wait for where we came in, so we go to over to Preston’s butchery to buy chicken. If we arrive at the party house with chicken, they’ll stop hiding.

They’re not hiding, Brian.”

At the house we knock and knock and can’t raise anyone. We walk around the veranda peering into every window.Eventually, one window shows us the residents. They’re sprawled in armchairs. They’re slumped in beanbags. They’re lying bent and boneless on the floor. They are all looking at us, but they don’t seem to be able to move.

“Oh,” says Brian, “they’re Fensing.” There’s this cough mixture called fenisdrol that has opium in it. The flat buys big bottles of it from this Chinese grocer in Newtown.

We slide a window open and climb in. Sara sits down by Kevin, and has a conversation with him, and holds his hand. Kevin is very sweet. Also he is someone you can be more than one person with. Depending on which drug he’s using he seems on different occasions to greet, and relate to different Saras and Elizabeths. It makes us feel terribly interesting. Sometimes it’s hard to keep who you are to him straight in your head. Like—are you the person who was carooming around the dance floor with him at the Thistle Hall when the Amps were playing. Or was it you with him when he was firing skyrockets out of a vacuum cleaner hose—and eventually the hose itself—at the houses on the other side of the valley. Kevin remembers both things. You remember both things. But he never remembers that you were there.

Brian makes everyone fried rice with chicken and cashew nuts. The people who have been fensing eat very slowly and keep touching their faces, waiting for the numbness to wear off. Brian puts on music. We start slow with the stuff he introduced us to—Lou Reed, Nico, then, picking up, with the stuff we brought to him—Souixie and the Banshees, the Ramones, XTC, the Residents, Devo. The house fills up. And everyone is off their face and no one notices that Sara and I are straight. Sara because she standing on her dignity, and because our dad is a drunk. Me because our Dad is a drunk,  and because I see things anyway, just often enough so that I can tell myself that it’s my brain trying to entertain me, but also enough so that I am scared that one day there will be more than enough and the phantoms and visitations will all link arms and form a curtain.

Around 2 AM—when the clubs down town are closing—as many of us as can fit pile into the Chrysler and run down to Courtney Place to drive by the discos and shout at the guys in black shirts and white ties and the girls and their off-the-shoulder ruffles. Everyone calls everyone else bunches of wankers. We take off with guys pounding after us—in their shoes with white patent leather spats—and throwing bottles.

Brian drops people off all over town. Eventually it’s only us and Kevin. Kevin’s trip is just kicking in and he can’t be left alone. He’s wrapped in Brian’s coat and is lying in the tray of truck. I’m keeping my eye on him. Watching out the back window. His eyes are bright, and roaming about. We going through the new Terrace tunnel and its white-tiled sides make bands of slick light that slide over the car and over Kevin’s upturned face—while the view out the back window vibrates like a film when the gate on the projector isn’t properly shut.

We make one last stop. Brian tosses his and Sara’s jackets over the barbed wire and he boosts me up to the top of the fence—it has to be me because I’m light, and because my skinny arm will fit through the gap the gate to slide the bolt. I help Brian break into the panel-beaters’ yard and he steals his own tape deck. He says, “That’ll show them.”


My story isn’t a story without its coda. In 1991 the City Gallery Wellington had an exhibition on the history of television advertising. There were several stations with continuous loops of video. The Kentucky fried cartoon with the jalopy. Ches and Dale: the boys from down on the farm. Beautician Madge: “You’re soaking in it.” At each station there was a menu of what was playing, and, in one, I found myself not watching, but waiting. And as I waited other people gathered. We gathered in a kind of giveaway fashion—still, and sober, and thoughtful. Then someone eventually said to someone else, “Are you waiting for the BASF ad to come on?”

We were all there to see Kevin, in costume as a GI in the “Dear John” ad. I remember hearing how wasted he was the day he did it, and of course it was visible—sweet, lost, shiny-eyed Kevin, who we’d all stopped to see again. Kevin, who had used, and got AIDS early—and had taken his own life.



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