He was almost too fast to track. From Riccarton through Hagley Park he walked without a break, not looking round, no gloves, no hat, his hair jutting up—Oliver Duff. 1930 in the Christchurch frost. I was fifty yards behind him, sweating in winter clothes, breath coming in panicked white puffs. I had to reach him before he made the Press building, coat-tail him inside, infiltrate his work-place. His office was my best chance—I could corner him there and make the contact.
He was quick, but I had one thing in my favour. I knew the route. Raised nearby, I knew these streets, though not in quite these shades or shapes. And by now I was experienced. I’d tracked many of his type. I was dogged; I had a reputation for it.
But he moved so fast. From the park he swept onto Deans Avenue and up Cashel Street. Most shops were still shut; some early storekeepers waved, then went blank as I came after, hatless and chuffing in futuristic clothes, openly giving chase.
Nothing stopped Duff. Across the Square he went, then up Warner’s Lane as if he owned it (and I admired him for this, because he walked that asphalt as one who’d laid it—if not this exact street then one just like it—and through sweat won the right to walk on such streets. Unionist, I remembered reading. Advocate.) Then he was in a side door and up the stairs into the Press. Sweating and somewhat fat, product of a more leisured age, I panted up behind.
Up three flights at the same relentless pace, then into the reporters’ room, where he swept past the empty desks with the approving glance of one who loves the work, loves to see a reporter angle a telephone against a shoulder and dash down notes, likes the set of a typewriter on a desk, potent and squat.
Then past his assistant’s desk and into his office. On the desk, that morning’s Press. He’d seen it already; I’d watched him lift it from his Riccarton doormat as I stalked him before dawn, but that was just a quick read, and this was the full check. Facing the far wall of his office he stood with head bent over the front page, scanning for mistakes.
Panting, I stood in the door, facing his back. He was still in his greatcoat, and so far, I judged, not upset. His shoulders had not flared at what he’d seen—a printer’s smudge, a typo in some advertisement. Quietly I leaned against the doorjamb, getting my breath. I was keyed-up, pulsing—about to make contact. This was always a tingling moment.
Still with the paper at his face, he went round his desk. Then he sensed me in the door and looked up.
I wiped off sweat and stepped forward. ‘Mr Duff.’
His look was part-surprised and part-irritated. The beginning of the business day was still a long way off. ‘Yes?’ he said. ‘I don’t remember an appointment?’
‘I don’t expect you to,’ I said. ‘I don’t have an appointment.’
He shrank just a little bit back.
‘I’ve got a claim on you, all the same,’ I said. ‘A claim of blood.’
Now he lowered his Press and glanced at the door. I saw him calculate the threat. He wasn’t scared, but he was alert. The desk was in between us; we were about even height; he was thicker through the chest. Ten years on a farm, I remembered, he’d done his share of manual work. He’d be tougher than me, if it came to a scrap.
‘I’ve got a claim on you,’ I said. ‘It’s family business.’
He glanced at the phone. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘Here’s a name you’ll recognise,’ I said. ‘Frank Duff—Frankie Duff, as they called him. Your contemporary, I’d judge.’
I studied his face while he searched the name, and one hand curled unconsciously into his Press.
‘Frankie Duff,’ I said. ‘Father to Evie—my nan. She died two years back. I’ve assumed you’re a cousin of hers, an uncle perhaps.’
‘You’re here because of this Frankie Duff?’
‘We’re blood,’ I said. ‘I’m from the Duffs—although that name’s died out for us. It was on my mother’s side. It died out with Evie in 2009. That’s why I’m here.’
Still wary behind his desk, he gauged me, gauged my jeans and Gore-Tex coat.
‘But what’s this about? What do you want?’
‘I’ll explain that,’ I said, reaching for the documents on his desk. ‘Let me establish the connection first.’
‘Wait, who are you? Where are you from?’
I rummaged on his desk a little more, then looked up, fearing a crack across the back of the head. ‘I’m from … elsewhere, let’s say. A fair distance.’
‘And you want this connection for?’
‘Like I said, it’s family business.’
I went back to his papers—proofing sheets, a stack of correspondence—but this time he pushed my fingers off.
‘Look,’ I said, annoyed. ‘It’s family business. It’s blood stuff. You have to let me look.’
He squared off at me now, and I recognised the look—the outrage of the subject at my impertinence, at my barging in to make contact. He wasn’t the first to react like this. I had a reputation. Many considered me dangerous. I was a family historian—self-appointed, but then most family historians are self-appointed—and my tenacity was what made me good. I’d hurt some people, offended a lot, but I’d published. I’d made a profession of it; I had a thirst.
‘Step back, please,’ he said now. ‘Get back.’ Again he fussed my fingers away from his documents.
‘Look, there’s nothing to worry about,’ I said. ‘Just let me look.’
Standing close now above his desk, we tussled for the papers between us. Soon he pushed me hard in the chest and I staggered back.
‘Come on!’ I said. ‘I’m a Duff, more or less. Let me look.’
‘We’re not related,’ he said. ‘Get back!’
‘Yes we are,’ I said. ‘What?’
‘I don’t know any Frankie Duff. I’m from the Dunedin Duffs. We’re not related, you and I—I’m a different Duff.’
‘Are you sure?’ I said. ‘Let me check.’ Coming forward again I reached for his chin and tilted it, looking in the adjusted light for a trace of my nan in his face.
‘Get off me!’ he said. ‘We’re not related.’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Frankie Duff’s not my relation. We’re not related.’
I looked about. ‘Damn it. I read about you—I thought… ’ I cast another look about his office. ‘Mind if I look around anyway?’
‘Yes, I mind,’ he said. ‘This is an office. Who are you, sir? How did you get in here?’ He waved to get my attention. ‘Sir?’
I was looking at the Press spreads and front pages framed on his wall—Victoria’s death, the opening of the Otira tunnel, Kingsford Smith. Not many, not as many as I’d hoped. In fact it wasn’t much of an editor’s office. Not very elaborate. Just a wooden filing cabinet, a stark desk. Nothing particularly 1930s, I thought.
‘But we’re blood,’ I said. ‘We have to be. We must be related. There must be something, if we trace far enough back.’
‘I’d like you to leave. I’m trying to run a newspaper here.’
I lunged towards him again. ‘I know—and I’d love to talk about that! You could tell me heaps of stuff. We could swap. I’ve done lots of research and we have better research tools now—in my time. There must be something you want.’
Still I lingered before his desk, searching his face, his office. It was going to waste—we’d made this contact, and now he was letting it go to waste.
‘Get out, please,’ he said. ‘This isn’t your place.’
‘Oh, come on,’ I said. ‘Wait a minute.’
‘There’s no family connection. You’ve got no right—we’ve established that.’
I fought the rising panic. ‘What, and you’re happy with that?’ I said. ‘We’re just strangers? Silence? You’d prefer that?’
But it was too late. His face had already frozen back to black and white. I clambered across the desk to get at it.
‘Come on!’ I said, reaching. ‘You don’t even want to talk?’
It was done. He’d receded. His clothes and backdrop and hair, it all went back to black and white. He’d thrown me out. Outside, I heard the street go back to it, too—to monochrome, to the already passed. It was all gone to waste. It was all flat again, all quiet.