One of the group, Jane, didn’t flat with us. She lived with her mother near the ice cream factory. She’d been good at maths as well as English and was school dux and head prefect. We all liked her anyway. Often all five of us went to lunch at her mother’s flat where we devoured a huge bowl of steamed green beans fresh from the garden. It was the best food I had ever tasted. We didn’t often have vegetables at home and they were always old. That summer I alternated between feeling queasy from hokey-pokey and the relish of those beans, soaked in butter, both against a background of the scent of roses. An odd mixture, not altogether comfortable.
Jane’s mother was divorced, which was romantic. None of us knew anyone else who had divorced parents. But she was a short stubby grey haired ex-farm woman, which was not at all romantic. Whereas Jane’s father was most romantic. He was a Welsh remittance man who seemed dashingly bohemian to us flatmates. His name was Herman and he rented a red brick two-storey terrace house in Wynyard St just down from the University. We gave up our suburban flat, where the four of us had shared one bedroom, and moved in.
Herman belonged to an esoteric philosophic group based on Ouspensky and Gurdjieff and we used to go together to their meetings. Ouspensky was the disciple of Gurdjieff; a mystic philosopher from Armenia with impressive curled mustachios in the frontispiece to his book. Their philosophy was a mixture of Zen Buddhism, psychotherapy and Christian mysticism. I read his Fourth Way in bed at night with the same diligence I applied to my zoology texts. I hoped I would develop a higher level of consciousness, some sort of spiritual wakening.
‘Self-remembering’ Gurdjieff called it. Katherine Mansfield had been a disciple of Gurdjieff, had in fact died at his ‘Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man.’ I couldn’t decide if this was in Gurdjieff’s favour or not. The leader/guru of the Auckland group was a short fat red-faced retired engineer from India, a kind of modern Buddha, who chuckled as he read from Gurdjieff and made enigmatic wise-sounding statements about how to lead a transcendental life: ‘Man lives his life in sleep and in sleep he dies,’ which led onto ‘When one realises one is asleep at that moment one is already half awake.’
I felt humble and inferior as I sat on a hard wooden chair in the circle of acolytes in the dimly lit room swathed in scarlet curtains. I was sure I was asleep, and that he seemed to be chuckling because what he was saying would be obvious if only I were higher on the evolutionary self-development scale. The other flatmates seemed more impressed by Ouspensky and Gurdjieff than I was. I supposed they were more spiritual than me. I couldn’t find any inner certainty, any awareness of the purpose of it all, which they seemed to have.
My boyfriends came and went. None lasted very long. Waiting for the bloodstains to appear, and panicking about being pregnant was a monthly phenomenon. No way did I want to end up like my mother. Jane and the flatmates said it would be good for me to go out with a fellow Gurdjieff disciple, plump thirtyish brylcreamed mathematician, Leonard, who sniggered rather than chuckled when the guru pronounced. He talked to me about inner growth and self-development and after a few outings to movies and on bush-walks, we slept together on the sofa in his flat. He had difficulty putting the condom on as his penis was only half-aroused and I had to help him press it into me. I disliked the feel of his fingers, slimy with anti-contraceptive cream, squeezing himself in. I felt claustrophobic, imprinted into the lumpy sofa, under his continual wet kisses. He was heavy and sweaty on top of me. I was worried the condom might slide off, and despite his moans I didn’t think he had come. I didn’t feel I knew him well enough to ask him.
The next day was clear and sunny, an inappropriately beautiful day after the night before, and he took me on the back of his 150cc motorbike to an east coast beach. He had a flagon of golden Dalmatian sherry in his saddlebag and we lay on the sand against the marram grass, with a peanut butter jar each, drinking our way through it. The mathematician had a sweet tooth. I was thinking about how to tell him I didn’t want to go out with him again without being impolite about the unpleasant sex, when he proposed to me with semi-drunken sincerity, frowning and pursing his lips.
‘We only have a few moments of true self-awareness. This is one and last night was another of them. We will work together to increase them. I asked Gregory and he thinks you would suit me.’ Gregory was the guru.
The sun had warmed me and the sherry had made me feel pleasantly woozy, but in no way numinous or spiritual. Leonard was not attractive or sexy and last night had been a damp fiasco. His hair was untouchably greasy. Gregory had a nerve mating us up and Leonard had been presumptuous asking Gregory about my suitability.
When my friends next went to the Ouspensky-Gurdjieff group I refused to go with them. When Leonard rang I told them to say I was studying and mustn’t be disturbed. After this I went out with a fellow student named Colin, whom I met at the Film Society. He supposed there must be a God and an afterlife, but was not particularly concerned about either and certainly couldn’t describe them. He believed one should be a virgin until marriage so being with him was restful.
The flatmates and I also tried the Church of the Golden Light and the Spiritualist Church. The Church of the Golden Light was in New North Road, just opposite Tongue’s Funeral Parlour. It was a small nondescript brick building, painted white with amber glass windows. The Spiritualist Church, which was upstairs in a photographer’s studio, seemed to have interchangeable congregations and mediums with the Golden Light. As far as I could work out from their sermons the main difference was that the Church of the Golden Light thought their spirits were unhappy and in limbo, needing to communicate before they could move on, whereas the Spiritualists were more optimistic and felt their spirit guides had altruistically returned from a higher level to help us. The mediums were grey-haired women, who would give a short exposition on the souls who still surrounded us, trying so desperately to be heard. Then they would stare intently around the congregation, finally saying who was there with a message for whom.
The departed soul would be standing behind the person focused on. The waiting made the atmosphere dense with anticipation. I once felt a presence behind my right shoulder. I didn’t dare turn round and look, but the medium didn’t notice it. I had thought it might be God, although I was scared it could have been my father. I had always hoped for a message—it would be a relief to know there was life after death—but was terrified I might receive one. Liz once got an elderly man whom she thought could have been her great uncle. He was worried about her. There was indeed a lot to worry about in Liz’s life, but the spirit was never more specific. Several times Maria got a Maori warrior in a grass skirt and feather cloak with a mere, telling her to stand strong. But since Maria was dark skinned because of her Spanish mother, it was my opinion that the spirit had got confused and had intended to stand behind someone else.
All my friends had been brought up with some sort of conventional religious belief which they had all rejected. Each was searching for a more alternative one. I assumed my father’s atheist indoctrination had proved the validity of the Jesuit maxim: ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,’ and had left me permanently stranded on godless shores. I wanted some sort of belief, wanted the comfort and security of being able to say, like Jane, ‘Of course there is a God. I know it.’
If only my parents had pretended that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John had protected the bed I lay upon. Instead, my father had taken me and my brother out from the warm comfort of our beds onto the back lawn and told us about the geological clock. We were tiny specks on a tiny insignificant planet on the edge of one of many galaxies, waiting for the end. ‘We’re right on the edge of the outside of the Milky Way,’ he said, ‘the cold of nothingness at our backs, and soon our sun will go out and that will be it for mankind. One day our universe itself will be wiped out. But don’t worry, you will both be dead long before that. Your death is just as certain as the irrefutable fact that you’ll wake up tomorrow.’
The sky was crowded with thousands of galaxies, infinitely distant but pressing down upon me as I pressed up against my father’s legs. When I was depressed I knew that less than a second separated me from the black cold of oblivion, that one day everything I knew would cease to exist as I ceased to be conscious. When I was a small pigtailed girl clutching my heavy woollen blankets around me so that nothingness could not get in through any accidental openings, I was afraid to go to sleep in case I never woke up. I had to stay awake. Fifteen years later, under my down comforter I was still afraid to go to sleep. The flatmates looked puzzled when I tried to explain this. They were fascinated by the various forms of belief, but could not comprehend unbelief.
Living in Jane’s father’s house meant we spent hours sitting round the dining table drinking coffee and talking. In our third year at university Jane’s father married a woman not much older than us and moved into the bush where he built a gloomy log cabin lined with esoteric philosophy books and Russian novels. She had a pale thin mean face and none of us liked her much. Every time we went out to visit Herman in the dense second-growth bush there was a new disgusting, wet, grubby, baby. It must have been hard for her with no electricity and no running water but we thought she was not worthy of Herman, who smoked a pipe and had a beard and would talk to us for hours. No one else’s father had a beard, or read philosophy, or would talk to us as if we were rational beings.
As soon as exams finished, four of us drove in Liz’s sputtering V-Dub down to Nelson. An ex-schoolmate’s father was someone high up in the mental health service and he had suggested that nurse-aiding in psychiatric hospitals was a lucrative way of earning money in the holidays. And it was. Double-time, time–and-a-half, triple- time at Christmas and New Year. We applied at the Mental Health offices and were allotted positions down in Nelson. None of us had been to the South Island, so it seemed as if it would be a holiday as well as a way to make money.
We were given rooms in the Nurse’s Home and each allotted a bundle of starched pink uniforms with white collars and two stiff white nurses caps. There were three sizes. Medium was too tight, so I had the large size uniform and had to bunch it up under a safety–pinned belt, which was humiliating as I didn’t think of myself as fat.
I’d read Janet Frame’s just out Faces in the Water and had assumed mental hospitals would be like that—‘the raging mass of people performing their violent orchestration of unreason’— but the first thing we naïve nurse aides were told was that we would not be working with the mentally disturbed. They put us in the hospital in town, which contained badly handicapped children in two wards and senile old ladies in another. We didn’t know where the senile old men were. Were there any? I was first put in the ward with the bed-ridden children. It was a long room with three rows of large cots and big windows, too high for anybody outside to look in. At first I could not comprehend the reality of what I was seeing; it was like something out of some impossibly cruel horror film. Most of the children were grossly deformed. There were enormous cephalic water heads, tiny pinheads, huge slobbering mouths, bent bodies, contorted hands waving in the air, grasping blindly, clutching as if there was something to reach for. They could grip me with such desperate strength that I had to pry their fingers off. Many were blind. I couldn’t tell how old they were.
‘He’s twenty-one,’ the head nurse said of one boy whose rigid body was set in a foetal position. ‘He came here as a baby. Here, put your hands under him and lift. He’s not heavy.’
I did. He was completely stiff; his twisted limbs were tight, with yellowed skin covering skeletal bones. He was so light I was scared I might drop him and he was twenty-one, the same age as me. I turned him as directed and put him down in the reverse position. I did it three times a day. Nurse gave me a bowl of soapy water, a shaving brush and a safety razor and told me to shave him. I’d never shaved anyone before, not even my own legs, so my hands shook. After I’d nicked him twice the nurse said, ‘Here, I’ll do it. Don’t worry about it. He doesn’t bleed much. Not much blood there. You just wash him down. Can’t do much damage with that. Not too much soap and try not to get the sheets too wet.’
Like the others he needed constant changing, wiping down and encasing in huge nappies. We threw the soiled cloths into canvas containers suspended on frames on wheels, and an aide in a brown uniform would take them away at the end of each shift. Someone, somewhere, must have hosed them down and washed them. Some, not many, of the children could stand, clutching onto their cot or the nurse, and stagger blindly for a few steps, but the nurses were usually too busy changing the sodden nappies or wiping the faecal, shrivelled bottoms to encourage this. They’d pick them up and plonk them back in their cots.
‘You don’t want them underfoot, dragging on us. We’ve enough to do without falling over them.’
There were three nurses on each eight-hour shift. We’d start at the top of the row and work our way down then, if there was time, start over again. It was exhausting filthy work. I had to keep asking advice: ‘She’s got a raw rash on her bottom. What should I do?’ The other nurses were patient with me.
‘That cream there, on the trolley, that’ll do for anything where the skin’s broken. Happens all the time. Constant abrasion. Don’t worry about it.’
The only regular events were feeding times, when a kitchen aide in a green uniform wheeled in a stainless steel bin from the main kitchens, ten minutes away. They’d stop for a smoke on the way so the food arrived barely lukewarm. All the staff, nurses and aides, smoked whenever they could.
‘Just off for a fag. Back in a minute.’
The food was soft pap. Sometimes mashed potato or scrambled eggs were distinguishable. A few children would grunt and slaver with excitement at the sound of the approach of food, but many had to have their mouths pried open and the food spooned in. They’d often spit it out onto the white wrap-around aprons we wore, or let it dribble out. They could bite, clamping down with astonishing strength. After being caught a few times I would insert the spoon, scrape it against the usually decaying teeth or the bare gums of the upper jaw and whip it out quickly. I asked the head nurse whether some of the moans and screams might come from toothache.
‘You must remember they don’t feel pain the way we do. The dentist comes to do extractions once a year. Messy business. They have to be knocked out of course. Anaesthetised. Don’t worry about it.’
‘Don’t worry about it,’ was the nurses’ refrain.