The Thing Like a Crowbar


The father gives the daughter detailed instructions on a sheet of mathematical paper. He goes through them with her. Point by point.

   1.    Take cover off. You don’t need help with that, right? 
   2.    Unchain outboard motor. Padlock key on hook in house. So far, so good. 
   3.    Make sure motor up and locked in place. Or it will swing down and break off when you
          launch the boat. 

   4.    Check bung is in. Tight! 
   5.    Remove wooden chocks from trailer wheels. Or it’s not going anywhere. 
   6.    Fit brake – the thing that looks like a crowbar – over the winch drum – the thing that
          looks like a giant cotton reel. 

   7.    Have one person ready on brake and two people guiding boat. New boat heavier than 
          Skippy, be ready for it. 
   8.    Slowly push boat out of shed. Keep wire taut using brake. 
   9.    Shed on different angle to ramp. Push on the boat’s nose to line it up with the slope. 
   10.  Will launch in a bit of a rush. That’s okay, just apply more pressure on the brake.


Tina takes the instructions and drives to the lake with friends. Three boys and two girls in two cars jiggling up the daisy-dotted grass driveway. The bach is just as always, its stained timbers slowly greening in mossy solidarity with the surrounding bush. The friends follow Tina inside. They note the ancient basin to the right, the tiny bunkroom to the left. They clump through a curtained doorway into the main living space. The kitchen and its family-sized table populate the near end. Day-beds line the walls of the far end. An elderly dartboard is mounted on a backing that has more holes than cork.

‘You’ve got flying ducks!’

‘Yeah, but their necks are broken.’ Tina chases away the dusty, curtained gloom with brisk sweeps and throws the bolts on the French doors. The friends step out on the sagging cantilevered deck. They feel its sun-cracked planking underfoot. As one they cover their mouths. ‘Ugh,’ says Jonno, speaking for all. ‘Doom.’

Before them the languid afternoon lake ripples in its frame of ponga and kowhai, mature tanekaha and rimu – the trees Tina’s grandfather planted decades ago. A precipitous bank of hydrangeas drops away from the balcony to the grass far below. The peeling boatshed and lichen-furred jetty poise on the edge of the lake. The water’s perfect tension is unbroken except for the tiny wakes of a swan and her cygnets. Unseen birds flap in the marshes of the lagoon’s far side. A coot releases its plaintive call. It seems astonishing this place could have existed before they arrived.

‘Doom,’ they breathe in chorus.

Tina leaves the instructions upstairs. She never does anything in steps. Manuals are a last resort, needed only when you can’t get any further without them. The group clatters down the cinder-block steps from the house to the foreshore. Rob volunteers to help Tina get the boat down. He is older than the others. He’s not like them. He’s constructing a shed in his backyard. He knows about engines. He’s a good man to have around.

‘I’ll help too,’ says Jeremy. ‘I’ll man the brake.’ He flexes his arms, strongman style. Jeremy’s gangling, stick-insect frame looks as if it could blow away on a strong gust, but he has the personality of Caesar. The daughter agrees.

They open up the boatshed while Fi and Jonno take spectator spots on the bank by the jetty. Jeremy skirts the upturned dinghies Tina’s grandfather built. The smaller pram rests on the varnished kauri clinker like a baby animal on its mother’s back. Tina steps down the side of the speedboat. She unknots ropes and removes the cover. It’s a Golden Hind, only slightly less aged than Skippy. It is orange with a white hull. When Skippy skipped her last, Tina’s grandfather drove to the boatyard. He got this one for a song because the windscreen was cracked. It hasn’t got a name. Rob unchains the outboard and checks it’s locked in place.

‘Okay, Jeremy,’ she says. ‘Dad said this boat’s going to be pretty heavy, so once we get to the slope you’re going to need to push down on that big lever thing as hard as you can.’

Jeremy nods from the back of the shed. He manfully hefts the iron brake. He takes up his position at the winch. Tina and Rob lift the trailer’s nose off its wooden block and begin to push. The trailer’s wheels crunch over the dirt floor. The wire rope attached to the trailer spools out and the winch drum turns.

There are perhaps thirty metres between shed and water. Once the boat is outside, they put their weight against the hull and push sideways to get the angle right. The boat offers a surprising amount of resistance. It picks up pace. The trailer wheels come to the steeper part of the slope and the boat takes off.

‘Push down on the brake,’ Tina yells. Jeremy already is pushing. Surrounded by shelves of tools and paint cans and ropes and other tokens of a grandfather’s unthinking self-sufficiency, he pushes. Tina turns to see – they all turn to see – his legs flailing like flax in the wind as he leaps off the ground. Each leap is a committed attempt to exert more than his puny weight on the brake. His desperation matches his surprise. They are all surprised. Except for Rob, none of them are used to manoeuvring objects larger than paintbrushes, guitars. The wild winch drum spins unchecked.

Tina has been keeping pace with the boat but now it is completely out of control. She abandons the rumbling juggernaut to its fate. The trailer careers down the slope. Its wheels find the wooden ramps by sheer luck. The trailer smacks into the water with such force it snaps the wire securing the boat and, with a loud crack, it heaves itself into the water, the trailer-bed’s rollers rolling, ducks scattering, the boat now gliding with a final smooth grace.

In the beats of perfect silence that follow the commotion, all on the bank clearly hear a gurgle coming from the boat’s stern. Tina has forgotten item four on the list of instructions. The vessel begins to sink.

It is the second time in her life Tina has run, gasping, up the hill to her great-uncle’s. The first time was when her grandfather collapsed. It was the first of his turns. She had been standing on the jetty about to dive in when her mother had called her. ‘What?’ she’d shouted back, irritated by the interruption and then by the lack of further response. There had been something, though, in her mother’s voice. It propelled her across the grass and back up the stone stairs and past the vanquished hydrangeas. The wreckage of her grandfather’s early pruning stint still littered the ground. In the living room he subsided, greying, on a day-bed. Her mother clutched his arm. His eyelids fluttered. Froth bubbled on his purplish lips. Tina’s father and brother were in Rotorua with the car. They wouldn’t be back for hours.

This emergency is less urgent. The boat has already sunk. Still, Tina is out of breath when her great-uncle opens the door.

‘Gidday, Uncle Warren.’ She doesn’t muck about. ‘You got a spare bung I could borrow?’

He hasn’t seen her in six months. His face creases with the conflict between wanting to answer her question and asking a question of his own. ‘Well, now – ’

A giggle sputters from Tina’s lips. ‘I’ve – sunk the speedboat.’

He opens the door wide. ‘You have, have you?’

Uncle Warren takes a bung from his own boat in the garage. He accompanies Tina back down the hill. She is relieved. The presence of her grandfather’s brother means she can relinquish responsibility for fixing this mess.

In her absence, Rob has organised the others to get the boat out of the shallows and back onto the trailer. He’s tied it on with a rope from the shed and winched it out of the lake to drain. It languishes on the trailer-bed. It is still half-full of water. The water trickles in a piddling stream from the bunghole, a mere few centimetres in diameter. The boat is a ridiculous, pathetic sight. Jeremy stands on the end of the jetty, looking out at the lake.

The others seem highly energised by the disaster. Fi is whacking Jonno with a reed to emphasise her point. ‘All I’m saying,’ she says, punctuating each word with a swing of the reed before Jonno captures her arms, ‘is that girls have a better grasp of consequences.’

They turn their sunny faces, thrilling with post-catastrophe cheer, to greet Tina’s great-uncle. They compete to tell him the story. He joins the banter, laughs, an actual adult witness to their witlessness. Tina rings her father on the mobile.

‘You did what?’ booms the tinny speaker. She holds the phone away to protect her hearing from the first tempests, brings it back to her ear.

Later, the quiet boat is tied to the quiet jetty as if nothing has happened. Uncle Warren has gone home. The friends relax with drinks on the deck. Fi sits in a wicker bath chair. She sips a gin and tonic and flips through the dated women’s magazine she found in a bookshelf. ‘My mother made me have a Lady Di haircut,’ she says, holding up the magazine. ‘Just like this.’

Tina is inside emptying packets of crinkle-cut chips into bowls. Rob has mixed a marinade for the steak he will barbeque when the sun goes down. Jonno and Jeremy perch on the railing to catch the last rays. Their bodies cast elongated shadows across the lawn below. Jonno starts it. He makes shadow dogs with his hands. Before long, they are all lined up in curious poses. They titter. They spell ‘fuck’ in human shadows on the grass.


A whole decade has passed since that first tiny turn. Since the grandfather came to and looked at the paramedics’ serious apparatus and their St John’s epaulettes and voiced his embarrassment. ‘What’s this in aid of?’

He lives with Tina’s aunt now he can’t look after himself. In Matamata. Senile dementia has delivered him back into childhood.

Tina, Rob and Jeremy drop by for an early dinner on the way back to Auckland. Jeremy came down with Fi and Jonno but they seemed keen to leave by themselves.

Over dinner, Auntie Flo talks about Tina’s grandfather as if he weren’t there while, at the table’s head, he preys on his food. Eating dinner poses no problem as long as there are clear ways in and out of the meal. The sausages’ strong verticals form a driveway in. Clumps of peas and beans form cul-de-sacs of sustenance amid a shrubbery of lettuce leaves. These can be negotiated and completed, in turn.

‘He’s going great guns on this lot,’ says Auntie Flo. ‘I made a beef casserole a few days ago, and he just sat there looking at it. Didn’t you, Dad?’

‘Hur, hur,’ the grandfather sing-songs his assent. Rob and Jeremy sit quietly and politely answer the questions Auntie Flo addresses to them. They clear plates. Dessert is served. Rhubarb and ice-cream. Something as home-made as stewed fruit is a rarity on the dinner tables of Tina and her friends. Another skill lost. They gobble it down in great gulping spoonfuls.

Tina’s grandfather has hit a pothole. He chops the creamy vanilla hills into the fruit with a listless spoon until the contents of his bowl are a milky pink mess.

‘Go on and eat it, Dad,’ says Auntie Flo. Tina’s grandfather holds the spoon aloft and stares into the bowl as though it contains the question he has, all his life, been trying to answer.

‘Just put your spoon in and lift it to your mouth.’ Auntie Flo watches him. She was a teacher before she retired. She is used to giving instruction. Out of long habit, Tina’s grandfather wants to be agreeable, but he and the pudding are at an impasse. This food has no pattern. He cannot identify it. He cannot allot it its proper place in the once-fastidious specimen racks of his mind. This dessert defeats him.

Neither is food his only dilemma. All his life, all things have yielded their names to him. Named, they have existed more fully. He has striven to understand everything.

Now the whole world is losing form. The sub-categories have gone. Patternlessness is taking hold. He is assisting this process. If he can’t name something, he’ll erase it. He’ll tidy it all away. He wants to flatten and smooth, to trim, to clear any awkward items so there won’t be a mess for anyone later. He’s never liked mess.

He clears his throat. ‘Thing is, you see, there’s nothing to be done with it.’

Tina can’t speak. This is the man who created her environment, who taught her its history, who planted trees and planned a city, who classified rocks, who built houses and caravans and dams. She has never done anything on this scale. She couldn’t. The only things she can create are words and pictures.

Auntie Flo stands up and removes the bowl and takes it to the kitchen. Her father stares at the tablecloth where the bowl was. He has failed his daughter in some way he cannot comprehend.

It is still light outside. Auntie Flo comes back. ‘Why don’t you take Tina for a walk around the garden, Dad?’

‘Sounds good,’ says Tina. ‘Come on, Gramps. Let’s stretch our legs.’

Ever so slowly he pushes himself up. He grips his cane. The skin stretches rice-paper-thin over his knobbly knuckles. The veins on the backs of his hands are like the state highways on a roadmap. Tina guides him to the back door. ‘Won’t be long,’ she says to Rob and Jeremy. They are good guests. They have lovely manners. They shoo Flo out of the kitchen and start on the dishes.

Tina and her grandfather tour the fruit trees in the back garden. He halts underneath the plum. ‘Blasted thing. Look at it,’ he says. ‘No one’s pruned it for years. Branches halfway to the ground. Poke your eye out. That’ll have to go.’

They continue round the side of the house to the front and he stops at another old tree. ‘This one – ’ He tips his head back to look at its top. He releases a long cry of frustration. ‘Oh, what’s it called?’

‘It’s a rimu.’

‘Gave that to your aunt and uncle as a wedding present. Silly bugger planted it right next to the window.’ He looks up at the heavy, healthy fringes of foliage. ‘It’ll have to come out.’

At the edge of the drive another shrill squawk of indignation wracks his shrunken frame. ‘Will you look at these shrubs!’ He invests this last word with the maximum power he can extort from its constituent letters, its single truncated syllable. Spit flies with the final sibilant ess.

‘Pesky things clogging the letterbox.’ He lifts his walking stick and hacks at the lush greenery, each stab all the more vicious for his frailty. ‘They’ll have to go.’

‘Gramps! Auntie Flo might like the bushes the way they are.’ Tina places a restraining hand on his bony arm. He allows himself to be escorted back into the house.


At home, Tina’s mother and father have been dining out on the boat story. Over free-flowing reds and fiery scotches they laugh voluptuously with their friends. Forgot the bung! Oh the follies of youth. Heh heh. Kids today. Can’t do anything for themselves. Sure they go to uni but they don’t know their arse from their elbow. And blowed if they’ll still earn more than their old man by the time they’re thirty. What’s the world coming to? The national character is at stake! No more Kiwi ingenuity!

A week later the phone rings and Tina’s mother answers it. She returns to the lounge where father and daughter watch the news and snack on nuts. Tina’s brother is upstairs practising the drums. ‘That was Auntie Flo,’ she says.

Tina’s grandfather went into the bathroom to perform his ablutions. Auntie Flo was reading the paper. She read the paper a long time before she realised the bathroom door was still closed. The quiet alerted her. It was an ominous quiet. The sort generated by small children up to no good. She knocked on the door and opened it.

The grandfather was still standing at the sink, staring at himself in the mirror, razor in hand. His face wore an expression of terminal surprise. He had shaved off both his eyebrows.


Melissa Firth was born in Auckland in 1972. She is an information architect and freelance writer based in Sydney.