An excerpt from a novel-in-progress
Early that morning, Emma Taupere left the apartment and drove to the Museum.
While Siaki was still getting dressed, Emma was already huddled under a flimsy umbrella on the wet stone ledge of the Cenotaph, looking out towards the harbour. There was an irony in her visit here today, she supposed, driving up to the highest point in the Domain on a wet Sunday morning like this just to gaze at the slate-tipped waves of the harbour, when she was staying in an apartment built on a wharf. The sea lay just beyond the tip of her terrace, filling the square shape of her window, every day of the week.
But there she sat, knees hunched up, chin resting on her fists, watching the rain and the sea and the sky. High above her head, words swam in the brindle-coloured stone of the Cenotaph: The Glorious Dead. Sitting this way, she couldn’t see the Museum at all—just the carpark and the cannons, the green lawn tipping downhill towards drooping ranks of pohutukawa, the awkward angles of the city. She’d have to stand up to see Rangitoto in the distance, its nobbly head in a pall of cloud. The trees crowded out the inner harbour, cheating the glorious dead of their view. When she was a child, Emma saw the Cenotaph as the grim centrepiece in some stark communal cemetery: each paving stone concealed a flattened unknown soldier. She’d scamper across the no man’s land of the forecourt towards the Museum; every step felt like a sacrilege. She knew better these days, of course. The Museum, from its airy rooms to its concrete bib, was just a place of commemoration, a show-mausoleum decorated with flags and medals and names. The glorious dead were buried elsewhere.
Emma was a short, slender young woman with an arresting cartoon of a face. She was both Chinese and Maori, with sharp cheekbones and a fluted nose, but looked neither in particular. In China, people stared at her because her skin was too brown and her lips were too full, and because she was such an inept speaker of the chiming Shanghainese of her mother’s family. Back home, here in Auckland, her accent sounded right, but her face never seemed to fit. Both sides of the family thought her a mongrel. This morning, her long black hair was scraped behind her head and bundled into an elastic band; some of the shorter layers had already escaped, drifting across her ears. When she got up, she’d dressed in whatever came to hand: a pair of jeans, the T-shirt she’d slept in half the night, her charcoal-coloured raincoat that was really too warm for this time of year. Emma often came up here early in the morning, when she couldn’t get back to sleep, or hadn’t gone to sleep at all. She’d grown familiar with this time of day, when the city still felt random and empty, before the Domain became untidy with activities and outings and cars taking a short cut on the way to the Newmarket shops. She wasn’t sleeping well these days, no matter how late she stayed up or how tired she felt. It was a month since she moved into the apartment on Prince’s Wharf and she still felt disoriented, unsure of the light switches, confused by the intercom, counting her way through each step needed to unlock and open the terrace doors. She crept around the apartment’s pale, soundless rooms, trying to take up as little space and make as little noise as possible. It felt like a suite of rooms in a hotel, impersonal and formally dressed. The bedroom and bathroom together were larger than her entire flat in Shanghai.
Like all the apartments in the complex, the place she was staying had a dark and a light side. It was shaped like a long finger, pointing towards the grand terrace off the living room and into the harbour. The upstairs bedroom, where she slept, had its own little terrace, like a look-out high on a mast. Its gossamer-thin curtains leaked light into the room every morning, even on dull days, nudging her out of sleep.
The sensible solution would be to sleep in the back bedroom, which only had one small window. The U-shaped white building on the wharf, designed to look like the hollow carcass of a ocean liner, overlooked less picturesque innards: the back doors and delivery bays of all the shops and restaurants on the lowest floor. The window in Emma’s apartment had heavy blinds, always closed. She’d seen it from the ground, the first time Siaki drove her there to see the apartment from the other side.
But she’d never been inside the back bedroom. It was locked, and Siaki had the key. He’d unlock it when the time came, he told her the day she moved in, patting the door with the flat of his hand like he was slapping the haunches of an expensive race horse.
This morning the light was bleary, but the sound of rain outside her window had woken Emma early. She lay in the broad bed, eyes as red as the numbers on the bedside clock, watching the minutes tick over. Today everything was beginning, she’d been told, but all she could think of now were the things that were ending. She’d have a new routine to follow from next week, and driving up to the Domain to watch the city wake up would not be part of it. And, like the locked room in the apartment, the Museum was completely off-limits. Siaki told her this in the new tone he’d adopted lately, mysterious and self-important. Whenever he spoke, she felt the city contract around her to fit this smaller, more regimented life, in which certain streets and routes and views would be out of bounds.
Emma caught the elevator down to the parking floor, shrugging on her raincoat and feeling in her pocket for the car keys. Grey scraps of harbour were visible through diamond-shaped gaps in the parking garage fence. She drove down the curving ramp onto the wharf. The only other traffic at this time of the morning was an empty taxi or two, and a bus with steamed-up windows. The nightclubs and bars of the Viaduct had closed a few hours ago, and the dregs of the revellers had drifted home to the suburbs. In the brief lull between night and day, emptied out and blank-faced, this corner of downtown felt charmless to Emma. When it was busy, which was most of the time, she liked the people and noises of the place; or, at least, she found them reassuring, because she’d become used to crowds pushing in around her. After five years living in Shanghai, Auckland seemed thin and watery, only half-formed. It leaked north and south and west, pinched between its harbours, but it never threatened to overflow. On a map, Shanghai was the beak of an eagle, grand and indomitable, hooking out into the East China Sea. Auckland on the map looked like a sea horse, still curled in sleep.
Today the Domain was jewel-green in the drizzle, empty of everything but trees. The Museum stood on the highest point of the hill, as square and firm as a castle keep. It hadn’t changed since her childhood, etched all around with the exotic names of foreign battles: Passchendaele, Krithia, Romani, Amman. She had an early memory of standing at the foot of the stairs, holding her father’s hand and gazing up the fluted pillars to the unfamiliar words decorating the building’s crown. She could read the letters but didn’t know what they meant; they seemed to resemble real words rather than make sense. She didn’t think to ask her father. He wasn’t someone of whom questions could be asked, anyway, because he preferred conjecture and story-telling to facts. To him, the Museum was a place of strange treasures and fantastic creatures, and its objects were remote pleasures, best glimpsed like scenery, in passing and through glass. Emma had to wait until she was a teenager, visiting on a high school trip, before the building’s nonsensical frieze of mythical names was explained to her. The answer to its puzzle seemed depressingly mundane.
She slumped back onto the base of the Cenotaph like a bored child and gazed at the day taking shape above her head. The rain had grown heavier, and she was starting to feel hungry. Emma looked at her watch: she was already late for Siaki’s call. The simplest thing to do now would be to drive straight to his apartment at the foot of the hill and hear the news, whatever it was, in person. But turning up at his place now might be against the rules, and she couldn’t face him this early in the day, or listen to him scolding and chastising, pacing his little grey flat like a scowling panther. Emma was already tired of his secrets, and almost sorry she’d agreed to become one of them.
The Museum was still quiet. Emma stood up, the umbrella pulled close around her head, and turned to look at it. Carved into the slab over its vast doors were other words she once puzzled over. Her father had pointed them out one day, high in the sky: The Whole Earth is the Sepulchre of Famous Men. For a long time, she’d confused sepulchre with sceptre, and imagined the world as some impressive bauble, brandished like a giant jewelled rattle by the Queen. Nowadays she knew better.
A sepulchre was a tomb. For the famous, according to Pericles, it was as vast and diverse as the whole earth. For the infamous, it was a different story—a borrowed apartment on Princes Wharf, narrow and white, with locked doors, unseen neighbours and too many stifling secrets.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Paula Morris (Ngati Wai) is an MFA student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She completed an MA in Creative Writing at Victoria in 2001. Her novel, Queen of Beauty (Penguin, 2002), won the Adam Prize and, more recently, the Hubert Church/NZSA best first book of fiction at the Montana New Zealand Book Awards. She shares a landlord (and assorted Thanksgiving-related recipes) with Anna Livesey in Iowa City.