The kauri tree didn’t last long. They scattered Alan’s ashes on a rosebush at Purewa, but Dad wanted a gravestone, or a plaque – something permanent, closer to home. Across the road from Howick Fire Station, leaves withered up into smoky carcasses, blew away with the wind. The soil, Dad said, was impotent; the roots never anchored and atrophied into shrivelled vasculature.
To Dad, his brother is tangible: ineradicable in the skin around his eye, implanted in places, feelings, like the skittering of his heart when the speedometer creeps to one hundred.
I see Alan in hypothetical ways. We are connected by DNA, our last name. Sometimes, the concept of him moulds into something discriminate, but detached, the way adaptations are glazed imitations of the gritty source material.
The sputtering of motorcycles. Dad’s oak-root eyebrows. When the nineteenth birthdays of us four kids come around, and then the twentieth – knowing he never got that far.
Other times I see it the way Dad does. A shimmering heat haze. If I blink, the mirage will evaporate.
My mother’s regrets stack taller than Mount Wellington. Leaving England. Marrying my father. Having too many children, then raising them in East Auckland. Every few months, she’s had enough of the doppelgӓnger houses popping up in grids, the Dannemora blueprint – grey slats, double-storied, probably leaky – and decides it’s time to move. A few years ago, the North Shore sounded nice. Cross the bridge, get away from the invasive housing frames and bad driving.
I didn’t tell her the hard truth: no-one in Auckland can drive. It’s in the air, the way the stench of salt thickens by the sea. One of the theories for Alzheimer’s onset is the inhalation of toxic chemicals through olfactory receptors. It’s the same concept: Aucklanders breathe in microparticles and after long enough we’re incapacitated, changing lanes on the South-Western without indicating.
Two of our cats were run over last year. Mum was convinced we needed to move, somewhere quiet, so our pets won’t get steamrolled by Hyundai’s travelling twenty over the speed limit. There was a house in Beachlands that, although not on sale, seemed destined to be ours, leaning over the piercing yacht heads in Pine Harbour marina. She nicknamed it ‘The Lighthouse’ for its roundness.
Dad wasn’t so convinced. Whitford-Maraetai Road has a gravitational pull for rolling cars onto their tops and crashing into trees. The body-count is something grotesque.
The most recent house we inspected was in Ararimu; it took forty-five minutes to get there. Thirty of those were spent on malevolent, curling roads. I almost threw up. Mum, before the drive, was absolute in her adoration for the place – terracotta rooftops and sun-kissed plastering. Much smaller than what we already have. Her investment in property, I think, is inversely proportional to the square metres required to vacuum.
It was only half-way through the drive that Mum decided it was too far. ‘Imagine driving this in the wet,’ she said, frowning at the sloping drop, thorn bushes crowded at its base.
Dad was relieved. His whole life is East Auckland. He remembers when Botany was a collage of grassy fields, where he and Alan could speed at two-hundred-and-twenty kilometres per hour on the dirt-track Chapel Road at a wheel-stand. ‘He could never keep his front wheel on the road,’ Dad said. There’s a photo somewhere, Alan upright, broad back to the lens, a caricature of Dad’s memory.
We toured the house for ten minutes. The carpet dipped in places, ghostly furniture imposing its weight. Mum ran a finger along the brick-red countertop. It was too small, she said. Dad’s snores would rattle the walls down. I felt homesick, trespassing on another family’s territory.
On the way back, the Hunua Ranges was a gash across the horizon, a void between the lines of ground and sky. Dad told me Alan used to go pig hunting there. I didn’t ask for more detail – that just seemed like something Alan would do. I watched as the Ranges shrunk into the rear-view, then disappeared entirely. The distance seemed impossible.
‘Whoever was up first got best dressed,’ Grandma says. Alan’s grainy behind the glossy glass, wearing a white button down, slacks smudged somewhere between grey and black, and, of course, his Chuck Norris moustache, slugged across his upper lip. His hair is a puff of Rothman’s smoke around his head. Middle-parting. ‘Like yours,’ Dad told me once. But it’s difficult to recognise any of myself within Alan’s permanent pixelation.
Grandma’s photos would offend a historian’s craving for chronology. Generations intermingle in a chaotic, heaving breath. Me next to Dad, both seventeen and smooth, the years ripped out so we’re side-by-side in our frames, with the same smile. I can’t tell who the small, creamy child is; Dad and all his siblings had the same Nordic look when they were that age. There’s Grandma: pre-Grandad, post-Grandad. My older brother Chris and I in our primary school uniforms, my hair pale and wispy, his dark and spiked. At first glance, we look nothing alike. He absorbed the creased grin of our mother. And Alan – hands on his hips, central in his square. He bursts the word ‘kid’ at its seams: if I hadn’t been told, I’d think Alan was twenty-eight with three toddlers and a mortgage.
For a moment, we’re looking at each other through this atmospheric fissure.
Grandma tells me they shared the same room, he and Dad. I already know this. There was only a metre between their beds: enough room for two bedside tables. Alan used to sleepwalk, and once jolted Dad awake by wriggling his six-foot-something frame under his duvet, then hooked him in the face after Dad tried to shove him off. In the morning, Alan asked Dad two questions: ‘What are you doing in my bed?’ followed by ‘How’d you get that black eye?’.
In my head, he’s permanently wearing a button-down.
In the heart of Picton Street, The Good Home is the shadow of The Prospect, the ancient bar that shrunk beneath the pressure of twenty-first century franchising. Chris argues that the soul of dingy pubs is lost with the installation of adequate lighting. Bar-tops should be sticky, pockmarked, scribbled with Sharpie hearts and phalluses. The branding outside, once beige and sallow, is now the same gaudy green as Elphaba. I’ve been there once, maybe twice. I remember sitting at a booth with thin cushions. Chris complained that the Prospect was iconic, and its metamorphosis was detrimental to Howick’s culture.
For Dad, Howick is a microcosm of his time with Alan. The Prospect was the first pub Alan took him to. Dad ordered a soft drink, avoiding the beers of his friends who were, in fact, also seventeen, and still within the shackles of adolescence.
When the cops arrived and kicked everyone out, they didn’t even check Alan’s ID. He stayed and finished his beer as Dad waited in the car.
Dad showed me a photo I had never seen before: Alan and his Suzuki GS1100 with the pale vein across the side. July 1984 was scribbled above it.
‘His helmet looked like a cracked egg,’ he told me.
I drive past the Good Home now. It’s blurred between two different forms. Scruffy edges against a pseudo-garden, where no one seems to ever drink; unseasonal lights twinkle across the canopy.
It seems impossible that Alan ever sat there, licking foam from his moustache, drowning in his own testosterone.
Grandma is the only person who calls our landline. It’s usually about the rugby, or what she ate for dinner (salmon, with a greedy glass of white wine), or her neighbour, who popped out her annual new-born and named it something offensive.
I think Grandma knows Mum isn’t conveniently walking the dog every time she calls.
All of the details I’ve learnt about the Wrights versus Mum is that, for the most part, it’s a one-sided ordeal. I’ve never found out what, but something insensitive was said years ago – whether Grandma’s tactlessness is a consequence of her deafness, it’s hard to tell – and Mum’s grudge against Dad’s family deepened into an infliction against the Wright name.
Her favourite insult is to tell us we’re just like Grandma.
Grandma’s boat was named Black Magic – she tells me Team New Zealand stole the name in 1995, not the other way around. It seems like she spent half her life travelling to the islands scattering the Hauraki Gulf: drunk, sunburnt, happy. There’s a photo of her in cut-off shorts on a yacht, sunglasses roosted in her cloud of hair, Grandad’s arm coiled around her waist. She’s only recognisable as my grandma in her basic geometry: the smooth skin and straight shoulders are those of a stranger.
Dad bought a yacht in 2018. He took Mum and I out, motoring over a satin sea, sails sprinkled across the horizon. We anchored near the milky hook of Rocky Bay. Mum spent the entire time in the cabin.
Dad and I didn’t talk much. We listened to Elton John. We ate broccoli salad, with chorizo and cranberries. It was too cold to swim, but we wore shorts anyway, soaking up any warmth relented by the frigid Auckland air. At night, we tucked into the stern of the boat, sharing a blanket and reading books. I can’t remember his – probably historical, with knights and temples and toppled crowns, or a finger-softened copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Mine was a ninety-nine-cent romance that I bought on my sister’s kindle.
Dad told me about the times he spent on yachts, not showering until a film of salt and sunscreen coated his skin. I didn’t know peeing into the ocean at night creates plumes of luminescence, thunderbolt blue. We poured water from the kettle over the side. The effect was fainter than I’d thought it would be.
When Dad was in school, he spent his summers with Alan painting the anti-fouls of yachts in Half Moon Bay. They were paid in cash. The best part, he said, was being out in the sun all day – and drinking beers on the boats in the evening, when the air was soaked with chirping crickets and nearby barbeques.
It’s difficult to organise boat trips now. Mum’s excuses for not coming: the garage needs vacuuming, there’s shirts to iron, the dog has separation anxiety and won’t survive the night. If we do go, she complains about seasickness and Dad’s snoring. On better days, she’ll sit in the stern, brown legs stretched across the gap between the seats, flip flops dangling from her feet. She makes sandwiches on plastic plates and brings out half-eaten packets of TimTams.
No matter how it starts, it always ends the same way. She’s tired, and she’s quiet, and she wishes she hadn’t come at all.
I think it runs deeper than sea sickness. It’s like she’s suddenly realised that enjoying herself on the yacht means, in this small way, she is like Grandma.
There’s a roundabout on Reeves Road, just up from Pakuranga Town Centre. Apparently, it was dropped on top of an old intersection after Alan died. Death is etched into the tarmac of East Auckland streets – everywhere I look, there seems to be white crosses propped up on roadsides, swallowed by fake flowers the same sickly pastels of Fruit Burst wrappers. There’s two on Stancombe Road, about a kilometre apart: both young men, both motorcycle accidents, both gone, after a car swung out or a cat darted in front or – I don’t know. Maybe they just crashed, for no reason at all, as some people seem destined to do.
In 1980, Alan was expelled from Pakuranga College. An honourable discharge, really, after tearing down a toilet cubicle to body-slam a classmate who had attacked my father with a baseball bat. Dad was heading home from his girlfriend’s house when a car pulled up and three boys flung out, intoxicated, and pestered Dad about a party around the corner. Dad knew nothing about it. He remembers the swing of the baseball bat, and the car chasing him all the way home. Telling Alan. Alan storming out the front door to check the number plate.
Dad doesn’t remember the boy’s name.
Alan got a job as a motorcycle courier. He began training to become a fire-fighter.
The day he died, Dad and Alan fought – Dad had wanted to go with Alan and his girlfriend, Janet, to watch a movie, but Alan refused, said he could come next time. He watched Alan sputter down the road, Janet’s arms threaded around his waist.
Back in 2018, Chris and I saw a blonde woman fiddling with one of the Stancombe Road memorials on our way to university. She was adding a birthday card. I couldn’t make out her face, but I imagine it as storm-wrecked. Chris said he didn’t understand why people would want to remember the place where someone cracked their head against the curb. The space, surely, is festering with grief.
It doesn’t matter if there are flowers or not. Even with only the roundabout, Alan’s transition from person to concept is a stain on Reeves Road.
‘I can even show you the fucking lamppost he hit,’ Dad said.
He can’t. The lamppost is long gone.
Grandma’s lounge is a pastiche of the centuries. Fleshy felt chairs, the colour of a sphynx cat, are tucked beneath a glass tabletop that’s smeared with a thousand-piece puzzle. China plates on the same shelf as leather-bound volumes of Dickens. A flat-screen TV. Mint wallpaper, sun-stained, matching the floor-length curtains. The croaky piano stands in the corner. It hasn’t been tuned for years. We used to dance along to the wobbling notes whenever Grandma played chopsticks.
When I ask Grandma if she ever gets lonely, she says she likes being on her own. She falls asleep in the La-Z-Boy in the corner, book nurtured against her chest. The air conditioning hums. Loneliness, after time, is reduced to a vestigial organ. You just get used to it.
Alan never existed here, but his footprints are embedded as deep as my own. A dot-work picture hangs on the wall above Grandma’s head, reconstructing his face, his moustache, the dance in his eyes, in buzzing particles. Dad showed me his funeral programme. They used the same photo.
If I breathe too hard, the quivering bonds might split, and Alan will drift away.
One of Dad’s favourite songs is (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay – Otis Redding’s version, not Michael Bolton’s. When we’re alone on car rides, I play it through the Bluetooth system. Dad drums his fingers on the steering wheel.
I tell Dad that Otis Redding’s plane crashed into a lake in Madison, a month before (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay was released. It isn’t news to him: had I heard of Buddy Holly and Richard Valens? John Denver, too.
Other times, Dad’s shutters crack open and I ask him things.
What was the last thing you said to Alan?
He doesn’t remember.
Where did Janet go after the accident?
Down south, maybe.
Was she hurt?
I’m not sure when Dad first told me about the car accident that killed two of his friends, only a few months after Alan. Four of them were on their way to Waiwera and a drunk driver swerved over the centre line. Dad’s best friend Dave, who was behind the driver’s seat, survived; the other was a girl, maybe a sister. The details have muddled with time.
Some things float on the surface, like Dave’s surgery, where he was flown to Auckland Hospital to untwist his heart one hundred and eighty degrees, and the name of the cardiologist who performed it – Sir Bryan Barratt-Boyes. Dave’s girlfriend was killed, and their driver, Hans. Dad spelt out Han’s last name for me: Durjintis. I googled German surnames. “Durjintis” didn’t appear on any list.
When I was asking Dad about the details, we were sitting in the lounge, the television muted. His hands wrapped around his knees. He rocked back and forth and looked away. ‘This is quite emotional’, he said. I wrote that down, then stopped asking questions.
Mum, I’ve noticed, never asks about Alan. I think she’s given up trying. The only photos of Alan in our house are tucked away in the sleeves of photo albums. I’ve never seen any of Dave, or Hans.
In 2011, my mother worked the night shift at the coroner’s office in Auckland’s CBD. I know this because the first page of Alan’s coroner’s report is a letter addressed to Barbara Wright, of the same house we live in now. I asked Mum why she requested it. She told me that Grandma, even after all these years, was convinced that Alan was still alive in the ambulance. I’m not sure if the report was supposed to give Grandma closure, or to prove her wrong.
The Deposition of Identification is photocopied on the third page. “I have known the deceased for life,” my grandad filled in the blanks. “He was my son.” Son, brother, boyfriend, an outline of an uncle. Defined by association.
Page four lists his height (189cm) and weight (76kg). This is quantifiable: he was 19cm taller than me, taller than Dad, who’s only 5’11”, and taller than Chris, who will tell you he’s 6-foot (just). If I hugged Alan, my chin would probably rest on the soft part below his throat.
On page six, the details of the accident are written down by the policeman on the scene. Words, reducing emotional truths to logistical evidence, like the distance he skidded, measured in metres, rather than the last dripping heartbeats or final, ringing thoughts. August 19th, 1984, 4:30pm. They probably rounded up.
Janet’s witness statement tells me that her middle name – Patricia – echoes mine. This is only coincidence. She worked as a dentist assistant, lived at 96 Elliot Street, and has compact, slanted handwriting. “Alan did not speak to me as we went down Pakuranga Road”, she wrote. “I would not have been able to hear him anyway.”
Final pages: a report from the Ministry of Transport, concluding that there was no mechanical defect involved; a ball-point schematic of the road, the lamppost, where the motorbike struck the curb; a death certificate, hereby certifying that Alan Charles Wright is now nothing more than a name.
Was it a warm day? Were there any clouds in the sky? They’ve forgotten the small things.
Dad says his grief has changed. He’s not angry anymore, and accepts the facts. He misses Alan. He regrets that his own children have never known him. ‘He would have liked you,’ Dad tells me.
Grandma’s wandered into the kitchen. I’m still staring at the photo. White button-down. Art on the wall. Close-up: particles. Far-away: a person. Not anymore; only a memory.
The layers between us: Glass. Air. Thirty-six years.
When I was eight, I often climbed a tree in Grandma’s back garden. It was crushed between the fence and patio. Branches curved like a ribcage around the trunk; twigs jutted out with fingernail leaves. I always climbed it in secret, but Grandma scolded me when I snuck back inside with scratches splitting my skin. It’s destructive, she would say. The roots slice up the flowerbeds.
By the time Dad cut it down, I didn’t really notice. The scratches had faded, and I’d moved onto other things.
I only miss it now when I trip over the puckered scar in the soil. The tree probably wasn’t as tall as I remember, and the scratches hurt more than I’d admit now, and I know, looking back, that I couldn’t see the world unravelling beneath me when I clung to the top branches, and the wind was the same substance on the ground.
I think it’s better this way.