A Piano (Abandoned)
Daylight fades along the passage, shadows darkening. A piano note echoes from the other side of an air vent made of steel lattice, embedded in concrete thick enough to hold up the earth and to withstand mortar fire. I am in a tunnel carved into a volcano called Maungauika: North Head, a strategic location overlooking the Waitemata Harbour at the southern tip of the North Shore peninsula, Devonport, Auckland. This is a lookout from which defenders might detect intruding naval forces, which seemed a legitimate concern a century or so ago. Centuries before, this same spot had been a Māori fortification and settlement, a pā, as well as a purported landing spot of the Tainui waka, a sea-faring canoe among the first to break land in then-unnamed Aotearoa: New Zealand.
Now this mountain, this maunga, is open to public exploration, including stretches of abandoned munitions tunnels in which cars on rails would shift shells from secure concrete rooms to unfathomably powerful eight-inch “disappearing guns,” cranked above ground to aim, recoiling beneath the maunga with the force of a firing, and wholly undiscoverable from the sea. Somewhere beneath the earth, they say, are hidden the first two Boeing aircraft ever built. Despite great efforts, they’ve not been rediscovered, their existence uncertain, rumoured to have been burnt on a local beach. For sure, the North Battery once housed two four-inch guns from a battle cruiser of the Great War. And in a tunnel connecting the two gun emplacements, and since just before Christmas 2015, there has been an upright piano.
In this a mystery, and in this mystery an occupation. With my impulse to explain and my obsession for answers, I shall track the piano’s path. My journey shall be the piano’s journey, and I shall embed myself as an investigative reporter, on the scene dusting for prints and detail, the resulting report a holographic view of this space, this world, my world: in each part an angle on the whole. In the details of one day, an expression of life itself. Lofty. Philosophical. Perhaps guided by a self-imposed and otherwise unvetted brief, but a worthy assignment nonetheless for an apparent man of leisure on a late summer morning, drifting and uncertain, one child in school and a second about to sprout.
From my kitchen window I can see North Head’s upper car park and the entrance to the main tunnel of the North Battery. Above the entrance is a flat earthen roof from which paragliders leap silently into the wind. Today is hot and humid, a feeling that a strong rain might finally break the back of this weather, but not a cloud in the sky behind the volcano across the harbour.
We live in a flat one level off the ground. I walked out the French doors to the verandah, down the stairs past the grapefruit tree and the crooked banister separating from its post. I walked down the driveway toward the road, and at the Vauxhall corner I looked right then left, and when clear enough I crossed. Ten metres up the hill I took the footpath that leads down to the cul-de-sac of Beaconsfield Street, sea level and a shortcut to the shore. Surely a piano-laden traveller would choose this route.
It’s a sharp late summer sun, so I wore my Panama hat. With me I carried two notebooks, one sized A5 and one A6. Clipped to my back pocket, a UniPin fine line marker, 0.3mm, my preference. I carry the big notebook in case I feel a need to write paragraphs; the small notebook I reserve for sentences. The small one is French-made, narrow-ruled, folded-and-stapled, pocket-sized and that’s where I keep it. I took it out and began writing in it before I reached the Beaconsfield Street cul-de-sac.
Along the road I noted rows of white picket fences. Some were punctuated with volcanic stone pillars, some with rose woven trellis entries, and one with an old U.S. Mailbox, shaped as a mini Quonset hut with a bright red flag folded to its right side. Posties don’t pick up residential mail around here. They deliver on bicycle. Should you need it, there’s a post box at the Vauxhall shops just outside the café by the bus stop.
I also noted the gym at the rugby club was open. Jangling pop music streamed out the door, a soundtrack to the clanging of weights and the squeezing of muscles. I stopped to scratch this observation into the French notebook. As I wrote, a couple holding hands walked past and I watched their shadows elongate. I noticed my own shadow as well. This was strange to me, because for as first-person as I typically tell stories, I rarely figure into them much beyond the role of narrating observer, as though conveying an experience only to be experienced by a reader in an imagined world unto itself.
A few houses down, just before the corner at Tainui Road, I heard a radio. The announcer announced news and promotions, his voice as tinny as the shed roofs along the gardens. Mind you, this wasn’t the sound of a hifalutin satellite-streamed bass-enhanced docking station. This was a good old fashioned single speaker, dial-adjustable transistor radio operating on D batteries and with a handle built into its case. What a glorious day for some gardening, I thought. This radio. That shed. The boys at the rugby club gearing up for a fresh season. Trellises blooming. I walked on, grinning like any other fool in a Panama hat, stopping abruptly along the sidewalk to scribble in a notebook, ogling his own shadow — and who would guess, in pursuit of a piano.
Across Tainui Road and a few sections further toward North Head I noticed a ramshackle tree house and a kid’s bike tipped over in the yard. The tree house looked to be built of off-cuts from some larger construction project, perhaps an added room on the first floor. In this I found a certain familiarity, the sort of construction I’d use as a kid to build forts under the cherry tree. In the small notebook I wrote “This is a good place.”
In the moment I realised I could have taken a step to the left and made the same note. “This is also a good place.” I could have walked to the corner at Eton Avenue and made the same note. I predicted that I would hike up the side of North Head and, of course, make the same note. And I realised: we realise the simplest of things at the ordinariest of times, such as this moment, standing beneath an olive tree whose roots have buckled the asphalt footpath just outside a ramshackle tree house a block removed from Cheltenham Beach and a block further from the base of North Head, where, I happen to know, there’s an upright piano tucked away in an abandoned military tunnel. Forward I marched.
Around the corner and across Oxford Terrace is the Balmain Reserve, with a centuries old pohutukawa tree at the edge of the grass by the beach. Directly across the channel is Rangitoto, the dormant volcano I see from the kitchen window. Across the grass kids scramble and drag their hooded beach towels and run circles around their mothers, laughing and carrying on in the roots of the tree. An old man in a Speedo kicked a shorebird off his towel, and a mum in a bikini top coaxed her intrepid little boy out of the pohutukawa. With our second son due in June, I saw in this visions of my life one year from now, two years, three, chasing kids and scattering birds.
I followed the beach along to McHughs, which in the past was a tea kiosk. Now McHughs caters to tour groups and private events, a full-fledged restaurant with the best view in town. Once a friend and I dropped in to see about their food. It was a buffet, and on the buffet was chicken (overcooked), broccoli (limp), and soup (watery). I think there was a tour group in at the time, or at least that’s how it seemed. Not only do tour groups tend to cluster and cluck as migratory birds, but they distinguish themselves with a style of dress (especially their overuse of white socks), their accents and vocabulary (“I say, this is proper chicken!”), and I suppose, most obviously, their tendency to photograph such things as buffets.
The sidewalk around McHughs continues for maybe fifty metres past a flagpole whose cord bells in the breeze. A couple of Optimist sailboats and a kayak or two nearby are the residue of these good summer days. The path ends into the sand and oyster shells and the sonic palette of my walk shifted from gentle waves lapping to harsh underfoot crunching. I stopped to make a note of this, as well as the unending piles of seaweed debris blown into the tide from all the easterlies we’ve been getting. Put simply: it stinks. The McHughs group walked past carrying glasses of wine masking the smell. They stopped for photos in front of the volcano.
I made my way to the stairs at the base of North Head, adjacent to an abandoned pillbox with a little window through which one could shoot at invading forces, keeping them at bay. Nobody shot at me. As I walked along I watched a paraglider drift up and down and around ever so quietly. From my kitchen window the paragliders are noiseless as clouds, yet I never imagined their silence so close up.
The stairs left me winded, so I stopped at a bench tucked under a cove of trees at the top. The wind was quiet in the cove, and from here I listened again to the receding waves scraping sand off the beach. I made notes about the oyster shells underfoot, echoes of summer holiday banter, seabirds squalking and pecking at dollars in the tide-packed sand. The pen scratched the paper as an engraver etches stone, and I noted this sound as well (dissatisfied by the comparison). As I wrote, a leaf fell into the crook of my left elbow, fluttering noisily, and clicked on my cotton sleeve. The McHughs group muttered past again, glasses of wine sloshing up the stairs. They broke left to a vista from which you can see the whole of Cheltenham beach, dotted with lovers and seabirds in the lowest of tide. The cicadas, the luff of the sails tacking along the shore, the hummm of the speedboats whoomping the swells, the receding tide scraping sand out to sea.
Notebook: “This world is an orchestra, and these sounds its symphony.”
Now rested, I walk up the shallow side of the hill to the right, to a switchback, and I walk back to precisely where I had been, only ten metres higher. If it weren’t a school day, kids would slide down this hill in cardboard boxes, laughing and flipping and tumbling. They would scramble back up here and gravitate downward again and again until their parents saw their flushed faces and would stop them for a water break, then back at it until patience wore too thin to continue. I know this because I’ve done this, and I know I shall do so again.
The switchback ends at a plateau adjacent to the upper car park. Below me the McHughs group points to the sea, sips wine, snaps photographs. Beside me cars and buses jockey for the next available space, the maunga crowded with revellers. Looking away from the beach I see the cricket club, the rugby club, and in the middle of this, on the next hill over, my kitchen window: my world.
This is the north side of North Head, and the series of tunnels here is called the North Battery. I follow a freshly mowed path around to the east side of the plateau, just beneath the concrete and earthen roof from which the paragliders leap faithfully, defying gravity and logic. Around the corner, facing east, is the entrance to the first of the four-inch gun emplacements.
The gun emplacements are two open-front concrete boxes embedded in the grass and earth, each with a British Steel peak extending flat a few metres over the mowed path around the maunga. Years of thatch spills over the sides of the concrete boxes, green grass giving way to butterscotch straw giving way to the crumble grey concrete. The front of the emplacement is painted white. Two iron brackets are affixed to the face at roughly sixty degrees above horizontal, and I imagine at one time they supported shields along the sides, possibly to shade the gunners’ eyes from the morning sun rising over the volcano.
I step down a concrete wall about a half metre to get into the emplacement. Here is a circle of bolts embedded in a half-round concrete stage. A four-inch gun would have been mounted to these bolts in the early 1940s. Behind this, the stage drops off another half metre to a path around the back of the would-be gun. Compartments under the stage would have held munitions, but now they hold discarded cigarette butts and designer water bottles and stubs of burned down sticks, the residue of Bonfire Night. “Remember remember the fifth of November.” At this same level, a tunnel connects this emplacement to a matching emplacement twenty metres south.
The walls of the gun room are curved to roughly a bowl shape. Around the lip of the bowl behind the gun stage there is a wide cut-out in the concrete, perhaps five metres long and a metre high. Behind the cut-out is a wood retaining wall, which I can only imagine has been installed in recent decades given its relatively pristine condition. Likely it shores up some decayed wall of yesteryear or seals off a formerly open channel, perhaps a path to the rumoured Boeings. In front of this retaining wall, atop the lip of the concrete bowl, ferns grow. They spill over the lip away from the darkness and dankness of the tunnel and toward the harbour, as though appreciating the ideal view from this vantage, especially as it would have appeared to those aiming to fire a four inch cannon.
All the concrete in here is painted white, though at the bottom edges you’ll find the slop of colours past. Some greys, some blues. A history of cheap exterior mistints sourced in the Devonport area, splattered and dripped, now a graffiti canvas repainted regularly in what appears a fruitless battle. Adjacent to this entry at the northern end of the tunnel there’s the object of my quest: the piano.
Through the air vent in the tunnel I hear voices of visitors on the other side, a mirror of the sound that had originally alerted me to the piano. Outside, the occasional tourist marvels aloud at the volcano. Aeroplanes grind, motor boats chop through the swell, cicadas and birds click and whistle, leafy breezing flutters, and that inimitable ambient rush of the distant sea. In here, the world is muffled but not muted. The air is tight.
Notebook: “This empty tunnel, full of details, though surely more remain, undiscovered: I am not author of this space.”
I sit on the gun stage and lean against the wall facing the ferns. Ants who had swarmed on a discarded lolly nearby notice me and alter their path. A cool breeze blows through the tunnel from one emplacement to the next, air conditioned as a termite mound. The ferns sway.
Notebook: “The piano is a sculpture waiting to be seen for what it is. But who am I — who am I to judge?”
On this side of the piano, etched into the mahogany, names and a date, some young lovers, I imagine, Christmas Day.
Notebook: “When words and memories fade, impulses remain.”
I notice the piano is missing its casters, yet there are no indications in the paint splatter that the instrument had been drug one way or another. Could they have lifted it and set it down gently?
Notebook: “What difference would it make to know who put the piano here? It is simply here.”
I move from the gun stage and walk down the tunnel to the front of the piano. Another munitions compartment in front of the keyboard is a good spot to sit. I sit.
Notebook: “Are we meant to play the piano?”
The front of the piano has been removed, exposing the hammers and all the inner workings, as well as the maker’s mark and serial number. H. Hicks & Son Ltd., London SE, #13839. It’s an iron birdcage beast, which I know because I had one in California. These are notoriously difficult to tune and fall flat at the drop of a key, or so I learned from a piano tuner, a man in his mid-eighties at the time, who refused to work on our California version of this artefact.
Notebook: “I don’t even play piano.”
I must confess: this is not my first trip to the piano. It was in far better shape the first time I saw it, a couple months ago. You could play a chord or two then. Most of the keys worked, save one or two. The pedals had a little action left in them. A clever pianist could still have worked around the dulled hammers and flattened strings and twinkled out a reasonable tune. But now, March and the end of summer, it’s different. The piano is slightly more decayed every time I visit. A scattered octave of hammers function and I strike a middle-G, one of the few completed connections left. The note resonates throughout the tunnel and the sound drifts into the adjacent chamber through the air vent, fading as shadows at dusk. Never experienced. Around the piano, more cigarette packages and a pizza crust. Some drug paraphernalia on the keys and a burned patch across the dampers.
Notebook: “The piano is an anonymous comment. Ethereal words manifest in matter.”
It is quieter here, away from the emplacement entrance. I am alone.
Notebook: “The worst leave their marks, others take the lesson and leave without a trace.”
As the piano’s popularity grows and peaks, I imagine it will decay to a shadow of its former self, in need of rehabilitation before anyone can make sense of what made it so great in the first place.
Notebook: “The piano is doomed to nostalgia. My fear: History repeats not from ignorance but from human nature.”
Only once while I’ve been in the tunnel has another person entered. He wore a bright red shirt and sporty sunglasses and no hat. He carried a camera. He came in the south side and stood on the gun stage and surveyed the room. He saw nothing of consequence, took no photographs, and simply turned back from where he’d come. Flesh turned to shadow, shadow turned to nothing. I and the piano remained, undiscovered.
When I saw the man, I felt an urge to call out “Here! Look here at this piano.” But I didn’t. Content to observe, I suppose. Content to feature this man in a story about an experience he never had. Turned on itself, I wondered about the experiences I’ve never had, where I might have featured in a story, the man with the notebook, the man in the Panama hat, assigned an identity, perhaps an identity I’d prefer to this man I am, alone in a tunnel, a searcher questing an object already found a hundred times.
Notebook: “In this quest, not the significance of existence, but a lesson in empty discovery.”
I recall and answer my self-assigned brief: With my impulse to explain and my obsession for answers, I have tracked the piano’s path. I have embedded myself in its space, and dusted for prints and details. Through this journey I have catalogued the unnoticed, the parts of my world that make the whole of —
But in this, the inversion of philosophers making molehills of mountains. This: my attempt at simplifying and re-expressing all existence with the crystalline purity of logic beyond the gods. Sterile. Lifeless. In this inversion I find myself grandifying a barely-functioning upright piano. Sitting in an otherwise empty tunnel. Alone.
I write auto-centric argument,
privileging my thoughts and my investigations
as though some phantom potential awaits my discovery,
as though my discovery might actualise some untapped force,
as though I might discover the simplest cup among grails simply
by re-expressing the quest itself,
by exploring the very concept of discovery,
and in so doing come to terms
with being and time,
with a critique of pure reason,
with the phenomenology of spirit,
with meditations on first thoughts and god’s existence.
If in the parts the whole,
then in the piano,
all human consciousness.
Notebook: “An empty quest is still a quest, even if its object is a Maltese Falcon.”
in the company of a derelict piano in a disused military tunnel,
I know my actions have no say over this space or over its contents.
Here has always been here,
and so it shall remain long after I’ve fallen to dust.
Here my quest ends,
resolved in its irresolution.
Here a piano.
Daylight shines outside the passage, the landscape crisp before my eyes readjust. The greens and blues are the emeralds and azures of travel brochures. A dog barks on the beach below. A pink hulled sailboat blows across the channel in front of Rangitoto, the view from the North Battery spectacular. Someone upwind is smoking.
I climb back from the gun emplacement to the grass where I notice a rusted bolt and some crumbling concrete above me. A story within a story: I imagined the labour, the digging, the precise measurements with archaic folding rulers and protractors, tinking together forms and pouring hand-mixed concrete, lugged up this hill tonne by tonne, day in day out, a piano’s weight at a time, as though sacks of flour. Nothing special.
Off to the side, clumps of mowed grass yellowed to straw, and in a clump a shred of a coca cola can chewed and spat by the machine. They’ll mow it again next season, and the next, until the shrapnel diminishes sufficiently to penetrate the natural thatch. Another hundred years under the grass and its history will close.
Up the side under an elm tree is a new teak bench, a replacement of one rotted by the easterlies. I sit there and I watch the paragliders take off from the flat roof over the emplacement, and from horizon to horizon the skies clear, the breeze gentle as a child’s goodnight kiss. A paraglider jumps and his shadow cools me as it passes in a blink, in silence. I notice he wears a helmet, and that seems a good idea. That and a little sunscreen and even Icarus might have made it through the day.
I watch. Icarus flies. The tide lashes inward, the motorboats whoomping, a container ship’s rumble through the shipping channel, tourists’ cameras set to actuate a compressed audio sample of a true snapshot, the clinking wine glasses as the McHughs gaggle starts their trek back. None will know how close they had come to an iron birdcage upright piano, H. Hicks & Son Ltd., London SE, #13839, circa 1909. No matter. The piano changes nothing.
The paraglider lands, straightens the ties of his chute, and begins packing his gear. I walk to him and tell him how I watch the gliders from my kitchen window, but I’ve never seen one up close. “You should try,” he tells me. “It’s easy really. All you saw me do, you could do all that day one. Of course, you spend your whole life perfecting it. But day one you’ll be up in the air. It’s the most peaceful feeling. A bit too windy today though.”
“I suppose you just avoid trees and plummeting.”
He laughs and agrees. “And other people,” he adds, then introduces himself as Roger and we talk about the wind. As we talk, another glider, a bearded young man in a singlet, comes up the hill with his pack and begins unloading and setting up. He eats a sandwich while he talks to us, adding details here and there, favourite places to glide, the tight community.
I ask Roger about the piano. He doesn’t know anything about it, but he isn’t surprised. Somewhere, in some other tunnel around the island, he’d seen a piano some years back, he says. “Maybe it’s for the art festival — isn’t that coming up.”
“Ah yeah. It is, it is. Well, that’d make sense. I mean, who’d lug a piano up here and dump it in a tunnel.”
“Yeah, that’s a waste isn’t it. You know, you could ask the DOC guy.” The Department of Conservation, who still oversees the maintenance here, has an office up by the summit. But I won’t go. I needn’t ask. I have no further questions.
I take a path leading south from the paragliders’ jump point. A man on a mowing machine lumbers toward me. This man was the source of the cigarette scent earlier, another dangling as he bounces down the path. He waves me on and stops the machine to let me pass.
The fresh cut grass turns to rock turns to old steps. At the base of the steps a cave and in the cliff above the cave, pigeons nest, their guano staining a rock outline of an extinct building. It’s a rugged spot, as a jungle. “Jungular,” I write.
Here a group of olive-skinned men in costume prepare to act for a television advertisement. I snake around crewmen pouring light from umbrellas. Out of frame a director calls for action and at once the olive men’s movement changes from ambling extras to choreographed professionals and as suddenly the shot ends with cut. I, unnoticed, walk on.
Around the bend a concrete path reascends the maunga. A viszla trots toward me, red and playful and wet-nosed. Her person comes around the corner, a woman in her early thirties, floral printed bucket sun hat with a matching dress and she smiles at me and I at her and I ask her “is that a viszla?” and she says yes and I mutter something about “great dogs” and we all walk on.
Up this hill I’m reminded how stiff I am from rebuilding my little boy’s bed over the weekend, making it into a high bunk with its own staircase. I’m happy I get to build things still, lots of hand cuts and hefting, harking good old days I never lived. And I’m not getting any younger, I remind myself half aloud as I huff up the hill.
The path levels out on the south side, opposite the beach from which I ascended. From here I can see the Auckland skyline across the harbour, and the tips and troughs of the volcanic field turned city. Cranes on the skyline build buildings that will change the skyline itself. Waves from a big boat have crescented their ways to shore and they aerate and spray across the rocks, sprinkling the path.
Up the stairs to another series of tunnels, the South Battery, and I notice an old handrail rusted out of a concrete wall, the new stainless steel rail just below. This old. This new. These artefacts. The things fossilised and the things fossilising, one day only to be distinguished by the ancient sorcery of radiometric dating techniques, or whatever future chemistry has supplanted today’s precision. The things we’ve lost, left behind, threw away.
Up a pitch black tunnel, back out to the daylight, up around another corner, following the yellow beige tour blazes, there’s an old generator room, still stinks of diesel. In this room they made the electricity whose main purpose was to detonate mines across the harbour on command, the final line of defence. The command would have originated at the lookout just above the aerated sprinkling tides of the South Battery, grapevined up the chain to the generator room, where a switch would ignite massive destruction. Now, a concrete room saturated in fuel, doorways slightly shorter than my hat’s crown, metal studs that held the machines in place poked up through the floor as daises after death.
In the sunlight again, ascending the path to the summit, the path freshly mowed. Clean. The tunnels behind, the long bright world ahead. Along the edge of the path, a white faced heron, its feathers electric grey, proportioned as a giraffe with that neck, a spear of a beak, dinosaur legs and claws. It hunts in the tall grass, shaky necked but steady headed, lancing at insects. It stalks. It waits. So patient. So still, at times it might be a kitsch lawn ornament. And so must I be still, as still as it, else I’d disturb the insects, the predating bird, the maunga itself and the history embedded in its scars. And in this part, the whole.
I follow the path to Takarunga Road and I walk along the shady side under the olive trees along the root-torn sidewalk. At the corner and across Cheltenham Road is Devonport Domain, home to the local cricket club. Midday on a Wednesday and there’s a match going on. A bunch of old timers whacking the ball around, lots of brimmed hats and lots of white pants, lots of shin guards and wickets. I reckon after a few overs they switch out and have a drink or a few. One fella’s had his share already, standing along the sidelines changing his trousers, not a care in the world. From afar I had noticed a pair of legs the colour of underpants, and a pair of underpants wrapped around the top of a couple old legs. I looked away and looked back in an ineffective effort to make what was happening stop happening. Sure as bird shit on fresh laundry, there was a man not only changing his trousers, but giving himself a good old fashioned arse scratching with such enthusiasm you might have thought the cricket game dislodged a decade of itchy dags. His satisfaction, I stopped to note, seemed immense. His cricketing colleagues noted my noting, and I picked up the pace.
Across Cambridge Terrace is the Vauxhall Domain, home of the North Shore Rugby Football Club, established 1873. The field is freshly trimmed, the goal posts erected, and some tradesmen work inside the clubhouse tidying up, because come the weekend, it’ll be a mass of fans, foes, and the who’s who of Devonport praying to Saint Lager after the season’s first home game. I’ll be there to tithe with them.
Across the street on Vauxhall Road, I live in a section of a big old house that used to be a merchant’s house a hundred years ago. He died in the early twenties and the Littler House became a boarding house, and remained as such until the early seventies. Around then the owner split it into titled units and developed houses on the rest of the land, now called the Littler Estate. We’re in the corner of the old house overlooking Rangitoto, Cheltenham Beach, and most prominently Maungauika — North Head — with its disappearing gun, its paragliders, and its abandoned piano.
The space we live in is small and odd. The house had four metre ceilings originally, but they took those out and built lofts in the seventies renovation. The exposed walls stretch up to the roof now, and they added some separations here and there to create bedrooms and a bathroom, and they took out one side of the fireplace, and they turned the old grand hallway into nooks and crannies and the main plumbing line through the house. In short, it’s the best place I’ve ever lived. I want for nothing here.
Though I haven’t the space for anything the size of a piano, I overlook this world of beaches and volcanoes. I guess that’s why I write these landscapes, if it’s alright to self-appelate my own work. In a place so notoriously small as New Zealand, I still find myself as awestruck by the largeness and the details, as struck as I ever was as a kid in a small town, in a little world, in a little house, in a ten by ten room with a bunk bed. On my bunk I’d build treasure boxes out of stuffed bears and dogs, and in those treasure boxes I’d hide lozenge tins filled with Hot Wheels and bicentennial quarters. This space. This tiny space, as large as my imagination allowed, filled out my life.
We’ve got our second little boy on the way now. A couple months on, he’ll be here in the house. I’ve been trying to figure how I might rearrange this odd space of ours to accommodate another human, and I had this idea. With these tall ceilings, I thought I could build a frame to hold Charlie’s bed up above his closet door. Make him his own loft, more or less. So I drew up a plan, picked up some materials at the timber yard, bribed some help with a couple beers, and we held Charlie’s bed up over our heads and stuck some two by fours under it and bolted those to the frame and bolted the bed to the wall and added cross bracing and measured some measurements and triangulated some trigonometry and cut some angles and built a staircase. Now the whole floor space of his little bedroom is play space, and I’ll tell you what, it’s as fun for me as it is for him. We’re a couple wild imaginations in a scrunched up room of a little flat in the corner of a great big world that’s but a blip in the history of any grander universal scheme.
We put sides on the bed to prevent tumbles out. And in the back corner, just above the closet door, to fill a gap between the edge of the bed and the wall, I built a treasure box. If it were me, I’d do exactly as Charlie has done. In the box he lined up his collection of Roald Dahl books, he stores his D-cell camping flashlight, and tucked into the corners and piled on one another, bears and dogs and kitties and chickens, stuffed with a little boy’s imagination.
Last night he had trouble settling. He asked me up for a cuddle and a story and please leave the light on just a little while more. So I climbed up the stairs and snuggled up with him and told him the story of
Charlie Potato and Windy Nickel, who were best friends. They had met at the bicycle park, doing the wildest bicycle tricks they could imagine.
One day they went sliding down North Head in cardboard boxes. While they were sliding, they met a strange man who seemed to be looking for something.
It turned out the man was a detective, and he was there with his daughter, Monica Harmonica who wore musical shoes. Music followed her wherever she walked or ran or danced. They were looking for a mysterious piano.
The four found the piano. And they also met a photographer, Phillipina Marina, who was there with her little boy, Andy Hammer, both also looking for the piano. Andy had a bottomless backpack, and in his backpack was everything he needed to fix absolutely anything.
Phillipina had been hired by Johnny Razor, a man of questionable character, to take a photograph of the piano. You see, Phillipina Marina’s photographs came to life, and Johnny Razor wanted a photograph of the piano that he could play.
In an old compartment in the tunnel near the piano, Andy Hammer found a map to a secret treasure room. The map said that if you played just the right tune on the piano, you’d find the treasure room. This was the legend of the Forgotten Keys — and I bet that’s why Johnny Razor wanted a picture of this piano, come to life.
Monica Harmonica played the same tune that came out of her shoes, and the mountain started to rumble and grumble. The piano started to shake and shiggle and it started moving away from the tunnel wall. Behind the piano was the doorway to the secret room, and in the secret room was a ladder that led down into the Valley in the Mountain, lush and green with giant fruit trees, bustling with exotic birds.
They all climbed down the ladder, explored the mysterious Valley, and you wouldn’t believe what they found. The legendary hidden aeroplanes, Bluebird and Mallard, the first two seaplanes Boeing ever built.
Well, Andy Hammer, who could fix anything, put the aeroplanes back together so they could fly again. Of course, in his bottomless backpack, he had everything he needed.
Windy Nickel, who could operate any air-driven craft, could fly the aeroplanes. So they took off on an adventure to Waiheke Island to save a magical tree that Johnny Razor wanted to steal for his own….
“Wait, what about Charlie Potato,” Charlie asked.
I thought about the piano.
I thought about this worthy pursuit orchestrated by an apparent man of leisure, drifting and uncertain of his own place in this grand world of beaches and volcanoes.
I thought about my journey up and around the maunga.
I thought about my impulses and my occupations.
I thought about rebuilding this bed and remaking this space,
and all that’s yet to come,
and where I’ll be when it does.
Soon this little boy will be my big boy,
and Raymond will be his little brother,
and he’ll show Raymond how to brush his teeth before bed,
and they’ll wake up together on Saturday mornings,
and they’ll pour out bowls of sugary cereal and milk,
and they’ll fight over spoons and cups of juice,
and one day they’ll tell stories like these.
They’ll have grown up together,
as I have with them and
as they shall with theirs,
in the shadows of fathers,
relived and retold.
I shut off the light and told the little boy that
Charlie might not be able to fly aeroplanes. He might not be able to play piano. He might not be able to fix anything in the world with all the stuff you can imagine in a bottomless backpack. But on this adventure Charlie discovers what he does best. It turns out he’s really good at finding answers to the quietest of questions; he hears whispers in the wind. He’s the best listener you’ve ever met, and he’s clever and he’s kind. I’ll tell you for sure and I ought to know, if you ever need to figure something out, or if you feel sad or bad, or if you just plain old need to cheer up, well this kid’s better than ice cream….
Charlie’s eyes were fading closed. Just before he drifted off he said: “Dad, you should write that story.”
So I did.