Authors: Owen Marshall
IT IS THE NEXT millennium and Aldous Slaven’s life is spectacularly and irrevocably altered after he hangs for an instant from a power line. While recuperating he senses a new-found gift; the gift of oratory.
Driven to hold rallies throughout New Zealand, Slaven astounds and alarms the ruling politicians. He too is astounded and often bemused by the response of the tens of thousands who flock to hear him. But what is his message? Is he a Messiah, a political saviour, or an idealist who conjures up forces he can neither understand nor control?
A Many Coated Man
is typically witty, eloquent and satirical. The lives of his characters are deftly and disconcertingly explored as he paints a vivid and often lyrical picture of a physical world that is startlingly, unmistakably New Zealand.
‘… this is the kind of author to have me, bailing up friends, demanding: try this!’
The Melbourne Age
Andrea and Belinda.
‘Like these, my many-coated man
shields his hot hunger from the wind,
and, hooded by a smile, commits
his private murder in the mind.’
‘The three most intractable beasts; the owl, the serpent, and the people.’
hangs for an instant on the power line of his home; his fine, pale hair a brief nimbus in response to the charge. As a vocal context there is seared in place the lyrics of the Hoihos’s
as a visual one see the blood clustered flowers of Kellie’s Earl of Athlone rhododendron. He was aware of the danger, has warned himself to be oh so careful in his movements with the brush. When the ladder betrayed him, there was a brief struggle in his brain between the rational, longer term choice and the instinctive action.
But the atavism of a million years can’t be denied and Slaven’s mouth forms a funnel of apprehension as he watches his freckled and hairy hand seize the wire. Another has the spouting.
In the Earl of Athlone’s clotted blossoms are bumble bees which growl with ecstasy as Slaven’s shadow flits past them.
Existence is never truly a linear progression: all overlaps, merges, partly conceals, as the scales of a serpent. So every moment is at once a beginning and an end as well as continuity, an assertion and a giving up, a revelation and disguise, a knapsack of the past trekked into new country.
Kellie hears first the clatter of the aluminium steps, then the more unpleasant thump and the impact driven exhalation like a grunt of savage laughter.
Habitual and trivial concerns persist even at the core of emergency. As she goes down on her knees to ease her husband’s pain, Kellie sees with resentment that the ladder has sheared the laterals from her favourite lemon bottlebrush and that Slaven himself has destroyed a fledgling camellia with his buttocks.
In a garden also, Kellie would tell you, there is constant flux, with half the plants being given every aid and opportunity to prosper and the others being rigorously
curbed to keep them within the bounds of the gardener’s conception. The ideal is static and so always a season or two further off. And anyway that particular camellia
is always a beggar for leaf curl caterpillar and the petal edges bruise with the passing roughness of a breeze.
None of this prevents Kellie giving her husband immediate and practical help. She puts her fingers in his mouth to check that his tongue hasn’t gone back to block his breathing and draws forward one of his knees so that he may be more comfortably rolled onto his side.
‘Ah, Jesus, Kellie, what a thump,’ he says. His hands shiver and the great burns there are the only signs of any damage. So he won’t be a concert pianist any more, but a dentist too needs his hands. Kellie puts her fingers high on his right cheek and wipes back a trickle of blue paint which is getting into his eye.
‘You’re okay now.’
‘Something’s happened to my heart. And Jesus, my hands hurt.’ Even lying amid the enveloping leaves and blooms of his wife’s garden, the well-worked soil soft beneath him, Slaven has the smell not of those surroundings, but of paint and of the sickening current which has escaped by way of him. It is a scent compounded of the vast ocean’s air — and the charnel house.
‘I’ll get someone. You just lie quietly,’ says Kellie and she goes inside to the phone. ‘I told you to be careful around the power lines.’ Not callousness you understand, but utilising the customary tone as a protection against tears. ‘I warned you.’
So she had of course: so he had himself, but that’s no help. Slaven lies in the summer garden and he shivers with the shock — yes! — and the agony of his hands. Don’t imagine any immediate neighbours to give succour. Pull back your mind’s eye and see Slaven’s older style house of the nineties on its four hectares of city outskirts as befits a middle-aged professional. And he has been made to pay for this display of course, Kellie’s garden spread round them and the hobby Romneys further out, for no houses in the
city have overhead power lines any more and the anachronism of his indulgence is almost the death of him.
The medicos differ in their opinions regarding the effects of electricity on the system; there are so many variables. Not just the nature of the current, amps to volts, and its intensity, but the point of contact, what you may be wearing, your physical condition, whether you are earthed and even the atmospheric humidity. Some people are hurled clear with a Batman KO punch, others seized to make complete a frightful circuit. There is a natural curiosity about our own afflictions. We become lay experts and augurers in wounds and diseases which we accumulate.
So it is with Slaven and his burns. There is even a support group for it, inclusive enough to accept burns from any source. Slaven finds that the burns are particularly difficult to heal by normal grafting practices. The neurological factors are even more interesting to the experts and Marianne Dunne is kind enough to spend time explaining to Aldous Slaven the modern discoveries of electro-chemical functioning and thus how subtle as well as brutal might be the repercussions of an accident such as his. There is a sympathy in this as well as a sense of mutual professional respect.
Yet Slaven doesn’t share the whole of his experience. Even when Kellie makes her first visit to Burwood and tells him when he is still groggy and in the worst of it that she has taken the responsibility of arranging for the power supply to be laid underground at their own expense. A decision made on the analogy of having your Alsatian put down once the malice of its disposition has been revealed by an unprovoked attack. As Kellie goes over the quotes with him, Slaven nods above the cradle of his bandaged hands, but sees in tableau the simple landscape torn asunder as he hangs for that moment from the living wire and the angels of both allegiances chatter their teeth in his face.
‘I’m going in to Evan at his office later on today. Don’t you worry about a thing,’ says Kellie. ‘You just concentrate on getting better.’ All his life Slaven has considered the visible world a mere dust cover, with the things of significant
meaning hidden and there have been occasions when the real world was on the point of revealing itself to him, when through the fatiscence of the conventional guise he caught a glimpse of the true shapes.
‘I should have almost the same dexterity as before, they say. Except for the thumb.’
‘You’re lucky that the left hand is the worst,’ says Kellie.
The mountains on the western skyline had erupted to igneous whorls and his hobby sheep made snide comments amongst themselves as he suffered. Columns of the damned marched down to the eternal grave, but with no theatrical repentance. They persisted in their old habits, they scratched their arses, malingered, blamed the government and gossiped second hand of hell. Warrant officer second class Slaven was getting dressed in the foreground. Ties were then more popular than cravats, or nushkas. He held a paisley one draped over his left hand and with his right ran over his cheeks and chin to check his shave as he always did, blowing his cheeks out to increase their tautness. ‘Let this be a lesson to you,’ he said in the voice of his wife. A half windsor was what he usually tied. On the plains in such breathtaking, electric colours there for an instant and forever, Lucifer and Gabriel drew up their hosts to face each other and waited for Yahweh to arrive. Even in the real world there is some waiting around. Almost in Slaven’s own space there was an ocelot which watched him with amber and limpid eyes and Birdy Knowles sat cross-legged with a smile before the hills, his hands on his knees as he leant forward for a better view, as if unaware he had drowned in the Wairau, his head caught in a driftwood fork below the surface and the soles of his feet pale in the moonlight when the searchers found him.
‘Kellie,’ says Slaven, ‘there’s going to have to be changes.’
‘Oh, I’ve worked that out.’
‘I mean in my intentions from now on. You know?’
‘That too,’ says Kellie.
‘I’m not talking about the tabloid thing; cheating death, realising each day thereafter is a bonus, something on trust. It’s such crap.’
‘But you want to come out of yourself more.’
‘In a way I suppose —.’
‘You want to be in the world more. I’ve seen it coming.’
‘Not influence for any sense of power,’ he says, ‘but more like involvement. Putting a stake down on things you consider are worth some risk.’ Slaven lifts his bandaged hands tenderly in some impatience that he hasn’t yet a clear idea of what he wants and why.
‘Anyway,’ says Slaven vaguely.
‘It’s the same in a garden,’ says Kellie. Slaven is pleased that Kellie looks classy on this visit; well, classy enough for who they are and their age. It is irrelevant and unfair he knows, but how nondescript, flaccid, Montgomery’s wife looks when she comes. Her face has the soft creases and the fine hairs of a caterpillar. ‘Often some sudden change in environment,’ says Kellie, ‘an extra wet spring, a prolonged southerly buster, an Indian summer, and the plants undergo a change in nature — profuse flowering when they never have before, or a sudden show of plain, green foliage when they’ve always been true to variegation before. I had arum lilies once which became tinged with blue after the stubble fires got out of hand and Elizabeth lost a wonderful maple after a hail storm.’ Kellie smiles at Montgomery two beds away and at the boy closer to the door who has the dark, Italian hair and eyes she wishes her own son could have inherited. ‘Who’s that curly boy by the door?’ she says.
‘I meant to tell you that you’ve lost a patient. Valerie Pratt who had all that orthodontic work because of overcrowding. She hid under the grill of the storm water drain in her street and was drowned in the tunnel when there was a release of effluent by mistake.’
‘Good god.’ All the work he had done on that girl’s teeth so that she’d have a winning smile. Slaven sees exactly young Valerie’s teeth and the x-rays of them even more clearly. There had been typical overcrowding with severe displacement of lateral incisors.
Kellie sits companionably and enjoys the anticipation of her first tour of the hospital gardens before going home.
She knows that, like fools, even institutional gardens have their story. The more extensive ones she likes for their comparative possibilities, when you see in three or four plots say, a double dozen varieties of modern roses and establish preferences because of it. ‘All that work done on Valerie’s smile,’ she says, ‘and now she’ll never captivate anyone with it. Her father is absolutely distraught.’ She knows her husband’s sorrow is at the loss of his artistry as well as Valerie. She admires Vincent’s ear amongst his Italian curls.
‘She was learning a poem by Frost for her speech exam and the braces made enunciation difficult. She said “walls” over and over to me, but never got it quite right. You’d better tell Heather not to send out the last account.’
‘I have,’ says Kellie. ‘And I rang Cardew and Sarah last night. They send their love. Sarah was upset and said she’d fly back if she could help. They’ve had snowstorms where she is outside Prague and she hasn’t been able to get a visa to visit Switzerland because of the troubles there. The Tell movement and so on.’
‘People have such a small, selfish view.’ Slaven isn’t listening to his wife’s talk of their children. ‘I see that now. Their own farting is more impressive to them than thunder at a distance. When my head clears and my hands stop giving me gyppo I’m going to work out how to spend my recuperation time.’
‘I’m going to have a look around the grounds as I leave,’ says Kellie. Through the window behind his head she can see in the middle distance a bald-headed man in shorts and boots walking towards the lawns and the display of dwarf conifers. His legs are extremely muscular and brown. He seems intent on subduing his energy so that he can keep himself conventionally on the path and not spring into the ether. Maybe he is the gardener.
Kellie puts her hand gently on her husband’s bandages as a gesture of affection and farewell.
Camille moaned softly, deep in her throat, and canted her hips for maximum penetration as her old mentor Count Glissor had taught her. ‘I never thought it would be so good,’ she whispered. Her tanned breasts trembled against the
cream satin sheets in the Hotel Lumbar, but on the tiled wall above her head a gecko was a lapis brooch in the glitter of the Singaporean sun. She had been wrong; it was never too hot to do it.
face down in front of him on the bed and watches Dr Marianne Dunne coming through the ward. Her title is higher in fact, but her burns people always call her doctor. In appearance she is not at all like Camille, though her face is smooth and regular like a pattern within a glass ball. She is short enough to be remarkable for it, but in status is a big doctor in the hospital and a wider authority on burns treatment and therapy. Vincent knows that although she will check the compression dressings on his torso and make jokes with him about the nurses, it is Slaven she enjoys conversation with — and Miles Kitson in one of the private rooms off the corridor at the end of the ward.