THIS GENERATION NEEDS A WAR
from Hell of a Thing: Sixteen Stories (The Sager Group, 2020)
I’m standing around a rectangular hole in the ground and 40 rain-soaked Māori crying outside the marae and I totally have to get the fuck out of here.
Jeez, man. I drove six hours to stand here on the muddy grass with my so-called people. The deceased is Willie Wētere, a 120 kilogram professional bully who I’m reeeeally not sad to see dead. He was drunk and drove his farm bike into a wire fence and choked. Meanwhile here’s me, about to graduate with honors from law school down in Wellington. I’m starting to think natural selection takes your life where it’s meant to go.
I check my watch, sing a few bars of Whakaaria Mai to fit in, cast my long neck around. There are sheep less than ten metres away. This is hillbilly shit. Little Huria’s rubbing peoples’ hands and bending her spotty face in sympathy, 21 going on 55. I can’t tell if she’s enjoying herself or just playing the part.
We were head boy and head girl together, me and Huria. Duxes of the school, us two. They gave us special blazers with badges sewn into them. We always ended up eating lunch together when we weren’t feeling like rugby or fist fights. Jerks tried to force our heads together at the school dance to make us pash. As if we were the same. As if our destiny was written.
Huria spies me and sashays through the black suits and hats and puddles. Anxious midget body, frizzy black hair pulled back into a tight hard arrogant bun, showing that big wide brainy forehead.
‘Can’t wait for our holiday, huh Tama,’ she squeaks, all short and hunched and smily like a grandmother. Huria runs her hands up my suit jacket, making adjustments, smoothing crinkles, straightening my breast pocket handkerchief. She’s a month older than me but tonnes shorter. I’m like a giraffe, looking down on her. Since we were born we’ve known each other inside-out. We’ve top-and-tailed in each other’s beds, swum naked in the creek. I have this memory of Mum putting a bowl on Huria’s hair and cutting around the edges. I buried her pet lamb when it died. She stitched my eyebrow shut after I fell off the quad bike. I’ll never get inside her pussy, that’d be awkward and weird, we’re too tight for that, but it’s on the edge of my mind, woo-whee. I can’t stop thinking about partying, lately.
‘Europe’s 25 days away and counting,’ I say behind my hand, blocking out the song that’s erupted as the coffin sinks into the earth. ‘And I’m meeting you in Monaco, was it?’
Huria stands back. She’s constantly finding reasons to be disappointed with me, this girl. Getting geography wrong is a war crime to her. ‘It’s MONTREUX, dude. The Chillon Castle’s 800 years old! It’s on an island in the lake! Didn’t you get that itinerary I sent you?’
‘Honest, Hu, I’m trying to be itinerary-free. I don’t need paperwork, y’know – I need a blow-out. Need to get away from all this.’
The black mob moves, everyone squelches through the mud and gets in their cars and drives to the RSA. Ever the Girl Guide, Huria says goodbye to like twenty kuia and ten kaumatua, kissing each one and helping them bend into their cars. Me, I hit on a couple of cousins sitting in the front of a lowered Subaru, ask them if they’re coming over to the pub. I was starting to get some panache during my time in Wellington, growing out of my teenage dork phase. I had a 50/50 success rate getting my dick wet, which was pretty good. In this inbred little hometown, though, I’m just some overachiever who’s never killed a pig. No cred. The Subaru girls hide in their black hoodies, giggling. I move on.
The pub’s so full of mourning Māoris the windows are white with fog. People’s soaked shoulders steam. People have to suck their tummies in and squeeze each other with their handfuls of beer. I hit my head on the door frame as I enter. Head too high-up. My body hasn’t caught up with my brain.
Grampop sloshes a handle of beer in front of me, grinning insanely. Grampop’s been shrinking and his pants have soaked up mud from the tangi. He’s dripping on the floor.
‘Here’s to your trip!’
I toast Grampop but Dad doesn’t join in. Dad’s been against my O.E. since I announced it. Dad’s afraid of what’s outside his super-boring small-town Māori life. Mum reckons Dad went wild in Singapore back in the 70s after he served in ‘Nam but he clamped a lid on it for some reason and I’ve never seen Dad cut loose once.
Grampop rolls a smoke, even though you’re not supposed to smoke in here.
‘Sorry about him,’ Dad says.
Grampop bumps his fist on the table. ‘NEVER APOLOGIZE FOR NOTHIN’!’
Some of Willie Wetere’s Neanderthal mates are filing past our table and they snigger at Grampop’s outburst. I only see these guys when I come home for Christmas and funerals and their only progress is they’ve gotten fatter or been to jail or had another kid. Another rugby championship lost. Another pig stuffed. Another marlin mounted. Tennis courts with weeds growing out of them. People riding horses to the shop to buy bread. Nothing ever changes here.
Dad tilts his head at Philip Ropitini, whose wide arse has bumped our beer and his cup of tea. Philip Ropitini’s great great great grandad fought heroically against Hongi Hika, so the legend goes. Ran into fire, ate the flesh of his enemies, if you believe the bullshit. Meanwhile jocks like the Ropitinis think my family are wusses ‘cause dad’s tupuna were kupapa and fought alongside the British. Soft, apparently, ‘cause we do constructive stuff in the community, like Dad’s a volunteer firefighter and he gives poor families food parcels. Families including the Ropitinis, actually.
We watch our wobbling beers slow down and still. The raffle wheel is spinning in the corner. Some old guy holds a meat pack triumphantly in the air. It’s noisy as a waterfall in here.
‘They’re looking for trouble, I take it, those delinquents who bumped our table?’ Dad goes. ‘Remember, Tama: Queensberry rules if you plan on fisticuffs. And shake hands afterwards.’
‘RUBBISH, NOW YOU LISTEN HERE, TAMA,’ Grampop shouts over the noisy pub, squashing Dad out with his elbow. A medal swings off Grampop’s chest and dips in his beer foam.
‘This generation needs a war, y’unnerstand? Son, I had the best time of my entire life when I was stationed in fuckin’ Europe after the war. Europeans looooove a Māori boy.’ He raises his beer. ‘We’re good niggers to them.’
‘And son, tell you what: nobody knows how to party like them Europeans. If I had a shilling for every Fräulein I rooted in Düsseldorf, jeepers creepers… .’ Grampop squeezes Dad’s wrist. Dad shakes his hand free, looks away, adjusts his tie and cuffs.
‘And a course I met the foxiest young lady in Sheffield and the rest was history. HISTORY! Traded her some pantyhose for a wedding ring, didn’t I. Mattera fact you can claim yourself a passport through your British side, provided this Brexit malarkey doesn’t go ahead. Betcha didn’t know that.’
I look Dad in the eye to see if Grampop’s bullshitting.
Dad plays with his teabag.
‘Not factually incorrect, though I’d say your Kiwi passport’s safer than the British.’
Grampop thumps his walking stick on the floorboards.
‘Have two passports, why don’tcha!’
‘Regardless,’ Dad goes, ‘You’re going to take precautions while you’re over there, yes?’
‘Yeah pop. Totally. I’ll probly just fly into London and hang out there a couple months.’
‘You’ll be needing a crateload of rubber Johnnies!’ Grampop goes, laughing till he starts coughing into his elbow.
Dad’s not even listening to Grampop. He’s looking at me hard. I dip into the secret plans in my brain and pull out a report that will satisfy him.
Yes, Dad, I’ll be looking for an internship in a good law firm as soon as my plane touches down, and I’ll email you and Skype too.
Yes, I’ll drink lots of water before I go to sleep each night, and eat a big kai, and I’ll keep my hand over the top of my beer so kidney thieves don’t whisk me to some dodgy warehouse in Serbia.
And yes, perfect squeaky little Huria can report back on me if she wants.
Honest, Dad, there’s nothing to fret about. Just a quick O.E. then I promise I’ll come home safe.
There’s an African dude grinning down at me, tickling my armpits, saying something about playing, swings and slides, Come to de sandpit, mon. I can’t understand his accent, at first. I’ve been sleeping for 30 hours. It finally turns out he’s Jamaican and he’s dragging the whole Commonwealth to this pub called Outback which is dripping with Australian-themed shit. There’s a stuffed kangaroo at the door and a painting of Uluru and a lot of Fosters and Steinlager and VB Bitter on tap. A bunch of us huddle round tables sharing photos of Stonehenge and Iceland, making plans for predictable shit.
Outback Bar stops serving hot chips at 8 o’clock and ravers pour in as they cut the lights and the ceiling glitters and there’s fingertips and pills and glowsticks and I’m talking to this chick from Perth in a Kombi van photo booth that’s in a dark corner of the place with boomerangs glued on it and trying to make plans with her, it seems the polite thing to do, we’ll go to a full moon beach party on Ko Samui, what’s your email address, I’ll write it down, but she laughs when I ask her name and tells me to quit my yapping and pulls her jeans down and braces against the wall, showing me her back, no kisses, no intimacy, and after a few minutes I’m pulling my pants up then bouncers chuck us out into Trafalgar Square and we’re stumbling and the cold wet stone walls are pressing against us and JOEY’S BEEN ARRESTED! AUSSIE AUSSIE AUSSIE! OI OI OI! and we’re playing rugby around Nelson’s Column and I run smack into this huge Pakistani fella and his mates chuck a couple punches in and I get my arm twisted like a noodle by the cops and the sun’s coming up and I’m puking a full English breakfast at the table then we’re spending the morning in a pub playing darts and singing and they shake me awake miles away and we’re watching Chelsea thrash Amsterdam and my phone is buzzing and it’s my dad calling and Jacob takes the battery out of my phone while my dad’s ringing and biffs it into the throng.
Oxford in summer is slow and hazy and quaint and warm and the trees drizzle petals and leaves. Squirrels sniffle and women push prams and the river is thick and green. Students in white shirts and wide brimmed hats are punting long wooden boats, falling in love. Their lives are safe and golden.
Huria sits across the café table from me wearing a straw hat that makes her look tinier than ever. She’s smirking cause she’s sipping lager and lime at 11 am. It’s pretty much the naughtiest thing Huria’s ever done.
I’m sighing and drumming my fingers on the table.
Huria has been doing kapa haka with this group called Nga Hau E Wha from the New Zealand embassy and her bus has arrived in Oxford and, lo and behold, I’m in Oxford too, at the Oxfordshire Folk Festival. It’s actually not lo and behold whatsoever cause Huria’s pretty much stalking me. She got epic-flustered when I was without a cellphone for a week. Fucking overachieving SuperMāori. I get enough of that cultural stuff back home. I’ve gone to the opposite side of the world to be European, to be hip, to be cool. Here, I’m something sleek and caramel and hip. The other day some honey at the train station mistook me for Italian. Another person thought I was from Malta. I am reinventing myself. I am a brown James Bond.
Huria slides a handwritten letter across the table for me and I take a peek. It’s Dad’s unmistakably square handwriting leading up to some whakatauki proverb at the end.
I slide the letter back, toss my drink into my throat and light a cigarette. ‘Right: time to jet.’
‘But you just got here?’ Huria’s saying, looking stung. ‘And since when do you smoke?’
‘I’ve got this thing. Up in Newcastle. I booked this Contiki party bus and I’ve just gotta go.’
‘Newcastle? But we’re meeting in Switzerland next week? Then you’re looking for an internship, Ta-’
‘WOULD YOU QUIT TELLING ME WHAT TO DO?’
I pull a wad of money from my jacket and chuck it down. I make sure the bank notes spill across the table and flutter onto the ground so Huria has to get down on her knees and scrabble after them.
I didn’t want to do that to poor Huri – she’s a homegirl, after all, she’s like a sister, but it’s not her I’m walking out on. It’s me.
I get on my bus and head north for Newcastle with buds stuck into my ears. Six60 are jamming this fucking bongo-bongo dub tune that goes ‘Don’t forget your roots, my friend / don’t forget your famileee.’ It’s so god damn saccharine I have to switch it off. I find some angry beats instead. I am the Firestartah / twisted Firestartah / I’m the bitch you hated / filth infatuated/ I’m the self-inflicted mind detonator. Yeah. That’s my mood.
I watch the signs flick by on the motorway, watch the kilometres change, envisioning every shot of sambuca I’m gonna pound, every Marlboro I’m gonna suck down, the Jäger bombs, the vodkas and cokes and the so-called llello I find myself snorting from some Portuguese guy’s credit card in the toilets while the black inferno shakes and rattles and I spill out sideways onto a dancefloor made of blue glass and I haven’t eaten and my stomach bubbles and there are a hundred thousand people beneath me and this Norwegian chick’s yelling into my ear and it takes ten repeats til I finally understand her accent over the bass, she’s asking where I’m staying and I give her a comical Jim Carrey shrug, screwing up my rubber face.
I haven’t a fucking clue, honestly. All I know is I have a backpack of underwear and books in a rental locker at the bus station.
She tells me I have to get on this overnight ferry from Newcastle to Oslo leaving at 10, arriving at breakfast, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, the northern stars reflect on the black sea and you can see Ursa Major and Taurus and I’m sold, this is really happening, we’re kissing for five, ten seconds at a time, and as we wobble down High Street leading to North Shields Ferry Port (eh? Shield what? Where am I?) and stumble onto some gangplank and some boat I’m like Sweet, lespardy, wuzzat, you won me to take little baggy in my sock, okay, Tama’s a good boy, Tama takey baggy in de socky. I don’t know which part of Newcastle Oslo is in, like some kind of a seaside suburb or something, but I enjoy the ferry ride, at least until I wake shivering on a slatted bench and we’re bobbing on a dark indigo sea and there are some Germans bowing Thank You and scampering away, holding something triumphantly up under the moon and I wake with icy breath and diesel stench and rusty water dripping on me and the Customs cops are reaching inside my hip pockets, touching my nuts, just about, and I’m recoiling in the corner going Hey hey heyyyyy, who the fuck d’you think you’re feeling up, boys?
Foghorns. Salt air. Seagulls screaming.
There is no little bag of crystal shards in my sock any more, just a smudge of lipstick where some gorgeous Norwegian chick has kissed my ankle. The last chain of tourists is filing off the ferry onto land, sneering over their shoulders at me.
The Customs cops don’t put another hand on me, but they surround me so I can’t run. I’m the last person on the ferry, the only one without a huge hi-vis jacket with reflective strips on it and it’s obvious I’m in trouble. They politely invite me to follow them up the bridge and get in a brand new Prius so they can drive me to a holding cell and I’m like Sweet, bro, sweet. Free trip around – where’d you say this was again? Ostend? Onslow?
The holding cell has wide windows, double glazed. It’s warm as a lounge in here. The view is of these narrow streets lined with birch trees filing down to the harbour. The buildings are all made of glistening granite or glass and steel. This city looks like Starfleet Academy. Best part of being locked up in Norway, though, is the fruit juice, because my body is miserable from being fed alcohol for days and my stomach is twisted and my breath is rotten. The juice comes on a tray with a salad and fruit and crumbed chicken. The Norwegian feds have put me in a detox spa, pretty much. Well, when I say ME, I mean US – I’m in here with these football hooligans called Gremlins, from Newcastle. They have the word tattooed on their necks. They’re saying they’re from Tyneside and I’m not sure I’ve been there then their leader with hurried, demanding eyes is saying to me ‘Ow the fook d’ye get yer arse o’er here if it weren’t froom Tyneside, like?’ and after a few moments translating, I’m realizing Newcastle is where I’ve come from, and it’s like on the port of the Tyne river.
‘I think someone must’ve slipped me– ’
‘Loads of English here,’ the hooligans’ leader interrupts me from his bunk bed. ‘We’re due out tonight. Slap on the wrist, aw this. Four star ’otel, meart. Oi: ye want to squeeze in a little sparrin?’
I tell him no thanks then watch as the boys fill the day boxing, practicing ugly combinations of knees and elbows and headbutts. The toughest ginger twin, all hunched and acne’d, shakes the flowers out of the vase and he mimes cracking it over the head of his youngest droog. The secret to winning a fight is apparently to end it ASAP using whatever shortcuts or surprises you can get your hands on.
I roll away on my bunk, face the wall. I’m still yawning the party out of me. My brain needs to chill for a week. My liver needs to process whatever weird chemicals I’ve had.
A polite, cheery woman with red hair comes in once with hot chocolate on a tray and invites me to a private room, away from “these people.” I know she’s going to ask me about the girl who gave me the meth to smuggle in my sock. I’m about to leave the room when I feel the hooligan leader’s eyes burn holes in my back. I can tell that if I tell her anything, I’m going to get my arse kicked. I take the hot chocolate and close the door on her.
She returns an hour later in a foul mood.
‘We are needingk one description of your friend,’ she goes. There is no warmth in her face.
‘Just deport me,’ I go, shrugging, ‘I can’t remember that night.’
After lunch and dinner, I’m signing a form promising not to return to the Kingdom of Norway without going through Customs then I’m driven to the docks and released. There are these big white iceberg-looking ships with glistening portholes. I try to scuttle up a bridge and board one but the albino guard-boy in his fluffy sweater makes a commotion and I back away and go roaming the streets, desperate for dinner. I’ve got my passport and my wallet and my new phone and the rest of my shit is in some locker somewhere. What status update are you supposed to put for a situation like this? I don’t have tonnes of friends following me anyway. Fuck Facebook.
In a sinkhole just beyond the chainlink perimeter of the docks is a sailors’ pub, anchors and lifejackets nailed to the exterior. I get an advance on some cash from the AmEx machine with a massive withdrawal fee that my dad would tell me off for agreeing to, then I’m shouldering open the door of the pub and walking into the centre. Anyone wants to jump me, jump me. I could use a week in a fancy hospital.
Someone puts their hand on me immediately and I flinch and seize the neck of the beer bottle I’ve ordered, ready to attempt to fight. Turns out the dude grabbing me with the long goatee and sideburns and shaved head is Gremlin, the hooligan from the cell with the impatient eyes. His chin beckons me into the booth and we hunker down low over the table top and get into a conspiracy with his boys. These dudes explain they sailed into Oslo cause they’re waiting on a delivery from some Danish lads that’s supposed to arrive. If I want to go ahead and speed things up and take two ferries down to Copenhagen to receive a delivery then fly back to the UK, they’ll support me.
I’m trying not to blink, but it’s a fuckload of information to take in.
‘Ye got ye Kiwi passport ’n all, meart?’
I slap it on the tabletop.
‘Fookin’ five hundred thou for a good’un,’ the guy explains to his boys. ‘Oi: give us ye mobile, like.’ I hand over my cellphone and he types some numbers into it for a quiet, tense minute. ‘Nem’s Poofin.’
‘Like the bird,’ I finally go, after decoding his accent for a few awkward seconds, and neck the rest of my beer, ‘You’re name’s Puffin, you’re saying… ?’
‘Ah dorn’t tend t’repeat mesel, pal. On ya bike. Ye’ve got yer orders. Good lud.’
Seems the right thing to do now is get up on unsteady legs and leave. It’s 10 o’clock and the city’s buried under glowing snow and I’m wandering black ice streets down to the docks and thank fuck, this Somali-looking woman with an unexpectedly bouncy accent is telling me the last ferry is at eleven. I fall asleep in a bundle of coats, keeping an eye on these dodgy-looking Egyptians wearing puffer jackets like armour. They begin texting as soon as they spot me. Fuck.
I find a safe booth and endure ranted conversation from this old Japanese witch who’s climbed the highest peaks on four continents. She’s been here exploring the fjords with nothing but a bumbag full of figs. Thanks, lady. Keep me company. Keep the hyenas from closing in.
When I wake up, it’s summer morning in Denmark and I fall into a conversation with some crazy Swedish metalhead in an Opeth t-shirt who says I simply HAVE to go to Roskilde. It’s one of the world’s best heavy metal music shows.
We do it. It takes three days out of my life and I sleep in a tent with mud beneath us, getting all my calories from beer, but I do it.
Midway through the Rammstein set, I realize Puffin wasn’t just putting his friends’ contact details in my cellphone to be friendly.
He was memorizing my phone numbers.
I leave the concert and catch a taxi to the airport and get a flight to England before Gremlin kills my dad or tells him I smuggled drugs. I don’t know which one’s worse.
Heathrow breaks every backpacker except me. I watch two Kiwi dudes arguing with British Airways about their surfboards. I watch a pair of Canadian sisters crying in the corner cause they’re out of money and have to wait two days to board a plane, sleeping on the carpet, living off coffee and crackers.
I score a ride on this insanely cheap Irish discount airline called Aer Grand, buying a ticket on my phone from this website where you play poker for discount airfares. My ticket costs just ten pounds, thank God. I’m lucky, that’s it. I’ve been blessed. Nothing bad can truly happen to me.
The flight from London to Belfast is only ninety minutes and when I get off, the air tastes like smoke and seaweed. I’m in Northern Ireland, and there’s a skinhead in a bomber jacket and kilt with his arms folded in front of the luggage carousel, except I can’t remember where my luggage should be. Newcastle or Oxford or Oslo or –
‘Ye’d be Tama then,’ he says to me, yanking my bag out of my arms and marching efficiently away like a soldier. On the back of his shaved head is a wobbly green tattoo saying F.T.P.
His car is parked in a handicapped space and he’s left the engine running.
‘So oi understand yer not whoit, through and through,’ the skinhead says as he starts the car. ‘Listen: oi won’t tell if ye won’t tell.’
He plows through a gaggle of shocked tourists, honking the car horn.
I try to speak but I’ve lost my voice.
We take an elevator in silence up 20 floors, then 25, 30 then 33. The skinhead leads me to the apartment at the end of the hall and does three knocks, then two, then one, then waits. The door opens and fingers pull us inside.
We’re ushered onto the couch and given a cup of tea each. Two pissed-off looking freckled guys in denim jackets are pacing the tiny flat, kicking children’s toys out of the way.
I wish they would begin the conversation by asking me who the fuck I am and how the fuck I arrived here because I’m not sure myself. A friend of a friend… of a stranger…
‘Guns cannae be bought or sold in Belfast,’ they begin telling me. ‘Only reliable place tae git yesel a gun in Europe is Switzerland, She’s liberal as fook o’er on the continent,’ they continue, lighting fresh smokes from a mountain of Benson & Hedges behind the couch.
After they’ve talked and talked about Uzis and Kalashnikovs and modifying trunnions and receivers, whatever the hell those are, the twins squat on the ground in front of me. I’ve finished my cup of tea and I’m busting to go to the toilet but afraid to ask.
‘So how d’ye ken Parfin, eh?’
‘Ye ken Parfin,’ they say after I’m silent for too long, ‘Tell us how.’
I realize they’re asking how I know Puffin. Ken must mean know around here.
‘Met him at f-football,’ I stutter.
‘Not much football where you’re from,’ the ginger twin on the left winks.
‘There’s nothing where I come from.’ I’m surprised at my own words. First confident thing I’ve said in ages.
They take my wallet away and leave me to talk to the cat for an endless half hour. My FTP friend is asleep with his stinking black boots on my thighs. When they return, all the cards in my wallet are out of order and the photos of my dad and Grampop are where I usually keep my library card.
‘Nice view,’ I nervously say.
‘Ye tryina be foony, meart? We’re top o’the fookin council esteart.’
I nod at the Union Jack flag on the walls, the Fenians Must Die poster with a picture of Lord Kitchener, the WANTED and R.I.P. and BOBBY SANDS ROT IN HELL posters.
‘So you guys are like enemies of the Irish….?’
‘We ARE Irish, ya eejit. Did ye not cross the water when ye came here?’
The kinder of the denim ginger twins pulls me to a corner of the room while his brother smokes his glass pipe.
‘Oi, this town, roit, she’s fookin’ starfed to the gill with Albanians, fookin’ Pakis, fookin’ Ukrainians, meart. We can’t beat em so we’re fookin’ joinin em.’
‘All that Brexit’s shite’s set tae majorly starf up our business loik, make it harder to get stoff off the continent and over to the UK,’ the methhead brother adds.
‘…which is how come we’re garn with the away crew. Supporters, that’s us.’
They wrap a Chelsea scarf around my neck and punch a blue and white chequered t-shirt into my chest and that’s me, apparently. A football hooligan.
The Shipyard is the best club in Belfast and the twins pull me through the bouncers’ wall of shoulders and push me into a corner and three bottles of vodka appear. Some guy who claims to be a friend of the twins keeps hassling me about the All Blacks.
‘Yous Merries think you’re the best in the feckin’ wirld with your haka, trying to intimidate us, but we invented the feckin’ game, meart,’ and tries to convince me Ulster are the best rugby side in the world and I tell him ‘Righto’ and do my best to bury myself in the music, watching girls.
I’m sleepy and grumpy from smoking speed with these guys and I want to go home.
‘Think you can intimidate me, pal?’ he says out of nowhere. ‘Try some of that haka shit right now, I’ll fookin’ drop ye.’
The guy makes fun of Chelsea. I reach out for support, grasp an ice bucket and hit him with it while my crew watches me, arms folded. I kneel on the guy I’ve hit and bash his skull till his hair sticks to a flap of bleeding skin hanging off his face like potato peel. The boys haul me up and push me into an elevator with a bored-looking Russian girl. She fucks me in her hotel room. I roll over, sleep for a year, wake up and gasp, stunned to find myself hundreds of metres above the ground in a sea of yellow plastic seats, looking down on a chorus of booming Chelsea supporters singing ONE MAN WENT TO MOW, WENT TO MOW A MEADOW.
There is a rectangle of grass in the centre of my giant bowl of seats and Chelsea fans. I scan the stadium walls. The Credit Suisse signs are in …German? Holy shit. I think I’m in Zurich.
A whistle blows. The words Auf wiedersehen! materialize on the billboard. A wave of moaning collides with a current of cheers. Rolls of toilet paper arc through the air. A terrace seat lands on the grass. There’s plasticky smoke coming from a fire somewhere. Bottles breaking. Another whistle. I hear English accents. Somebody shoves me in the back and I have to follow the tide out.
England supporters ooze onto the clean stone streets. We wash over everything. I see an old man get punched from behind, his scarf torn off and taken by some little kid. Guys are running at each other doing kung fu kicks. A paramedic is flattened with a paving stone. A police horse drops steaming shit as a bunch of guys pulls its bridle, ripping the rider off, punching the horse. The cops sprint to safety. We stampede after them, spilling into alleys, restaurants, pubs, a chocolate café. There’s a Greenpeace thrift shop and the hooligans form a queue, sending out baskets of ammunition, shoes, bottles, dinnerware. People hurl plates and mugs at the police. The porcelain explodes in white puffs on their riot shields. The police retreat. England supporters file into a McDonald’s. Men in yellow scarves are running out screaming and throwing trays and milkshakes and Wet Floor signs.
Clinging to a statue on a stone island with frightened tourists is Huria, looking miniscule under a thick woollen hat and a giant backpack, holding her mobile, stabbing it with a fingertip.
Something buzzes in my pocket. It’s a text from Huria.
I HAVEN’T HEARD FROM U IM SCARED R U COMING 2 SWITZ?
I try to cling to the iron rails around a rubbish bin but I’m sucked downhill and I only stop when I slam into the arms of a grinning ginger twin who tells me he’s been looking for me everywhere. Time to get back to work. This isn’t a holiday, pal.
Armurerie de la Gare is right across the road from Lake Geneva. There are wet footprints leading up and down the stone. The doormat is moist.
Inside it’s a palace, or it used to be. There’s a chandelier, thick green carpet, shields and spears on the walls and a suit of armour. The staff are three blondes, 18 to 20-ish, standing at attention like hoteliers and wearing lederhosen and big leather boots and oversized name tags. They welcome me with big grins and flapping lashes. A guy carrying a stack of boxed rifles grunts as a grinning girl holds open the door for him.
The dude I’m following for the transaction is named Markus Thommen. I don’t know if that’s his whole name. It’s just the name the ginger twins told me to expect as I waited on a park bench beside the lake, watching its jagged waves, wishing I could send pictures to a friend. Huria would love to sit with me and watch the wind shaving curls of water. She’s emailed to say she’s disappointed but she’ll wait for me in Montreux on the 23rd then move onto Lausanne on the 25th, then I can get “back on track,” as if I’ve derailed.
In a corner of Armurerie, amongst floor to ceiling racks of protein bars and silver canteens and fishing jackets, Markus Thommen bends his head down and gives me a hard look.
His accent is dictionary-perfect English like Hannibal Lecter. His hair is sheep-white. His accent is dark and hard.
‘Don’t fucking embarrass me. We get out of here, we get up the street, you get out of Switzerland.’
Markus Thommen pulls shades over his eyes. I don’t understand why he’s so jumpy. ‘Kent Terrace in the city of Ka-waka, this is where you are coming from?’ He grabs my collar and twists. Our noses press. ‘I AM RECEIVINGK FIVE YEARS IN PRISON IF YOU ARE FUCKING THIS UP.’
I follow him as if we’re in a three-legged race together. He moves metres away across the store then I let myself be elastic’d over towards him. The salesgirls don’t seem to care. Markus Thommen asks for a trolley and they bring him this expensive wheeled table contraption made of stainless steel and wood with shiny golden fasteners. He fills the trolley with a few AR15s, then asks for a huge thing called an SG550 which sticks way out of the trolley like a giant folded music stand. He then wheels his trolley inside the elevator, moves up to the first floor, up on a deck by the chandelier, and stacks handguns into the trolley too, all Sig Sauers. By the time he’s asking the milkmaids to put ammo in the trolley, he’s having trouble moving it. There must be 80 kilos of metal in there. At least 30 guns. The trolley’s wheels are getting stuck in the plush carpet.
Some baron-looking dude in an elaborate felt jacket with lions and fleurs de lis converses with Markus Thommen as the girls scan each gun at the counter. All I understand in the conversation is ‘Lizenz under papierschein.’
Part of my job was to spill Coke on Markus’s permit before we came into the store then dry the paper off, shaking it into the wind over the lake. I wanted to let go. I wanted to step into the water and disappear. But we got the fake permit and the fake licence looking used and authentic and now we’re sliding it across the counter. This is me, now. Helping creepy strangers buy guns. Pointless to back out.
I leave the store first and wait on a park bench as they fill Markus Thommen’s rental car with guns. He drives 500 metres up the street. I jog along the waterfront then arrive at his driver side window, panting. I’ve been smoking too many cigarettes.
Without leaving his seat, he unlocks the back of the car. He’s transferred half of the guns into two suitcases so heavy they seem to be stuck to the ground.
‘Here,’ he says, handing me a raw, naked plastic-y feeling handgun with a label hanging off it, ‘Your money is in de case. Two thousands. You are having fun in Knabenschiessen.’
He snorts and rolls his eyes.
‘You check into your hotel, you check out. If you are seeing the football supporter, you are not to approach. You put the suitcase on the bed, you check out of the hotel. Don’t do a single other thing or I am cutting your fucking throat out, ja?’ He reaches out from the steering wheel and slaps my cheek. I curl my fingers into a fist, ready to hit back.
‘Ub ub ub!’ He waggles a telling-off finger at me then takes out one of the duffel bags and dumps it at my feet. ‘Your father, you are not wanting him to get punishment, no? We are having men in your country. Your father, his house, 371 Puriri the street, it is built of wood yes?’
‘I – I guess so… ?’
He flicks his lit cigarette at me. ‘Wood burns like a motherfucker.’
I’m linking arms with this Malaysian princess to get into Club Lange & Söhne in the medieval catacombs beneath Geneva, then I’m texting Dad cause I’ve forgotten his 60th birthday, then I’m holding the drunken walls of a passageway leading into Absolut Dungeon which is a medieval torture chamber with weapons and flaming torches on the walls and strippers and short thugs with wide elbows and big stomping boots then I’m boarding the 10.05 TGV Lyria to Paris which is apparently a high speed train doing 200 miles an hour which makes me feel sick and dizzy and I squeeze the arm rests and finger my phone, desperate to phone Grampop or Dad. Talk me out of this, you guys. Guilt me into stopping.
Under the Eurostar counter at Gare du Nord station in Paris, the ginger twins are waiting for me, dressed in their denim armour. Sewn on their blue jackets is a yellow flag with a red hand. They’re behind a metal stand, peering past some cops’ shoulders. I think they’ve been ordered to get back on their train to England, like there’s some law that stops them from setting foot on the continent. They press against the barrier hard, though, and once their eyes lock on me, I’m captured.
‘YOU’LL GIT ON THIS FOOKING TRAIN WITH OOS OR THERE’LL BE NO MORE WORK FOR YE, MEART!’ one of them is bellowing at me across the station.
I disappear behind a pillar and catch my breath. Fuck. I don’t wanna do the gun stuff with these guys any more. There was a documentary playing on the train about people bringing arms into Belfast. A seven year old kid got caught in the crossfire at a playground. He died with his face in a drinking fountain. Women are being sent death threats. Kids are in the gutters are addicted to smack.
‘They make a lot of noise, your friends.’
The man in front of me has every inch of his face shaved except for his fluffy black eyebrows. He looks like a polished hazelnut in purple tracksuit suit. He must be Turkish or Greek or Azerbaijani or something. So are his bros, who detach themselves from their own pillars and bat their folded arms with newspaper and bottles of iced tea.
‘You are lookingk for work?’
There is a tiny, shivering woman Mr. Eyebrows needs to get on the Eurostar from Paris into London. She cannot travel with her real people. They turn you away if you’re in numbers. Luckily this woman comes from wealth back home. All she needs to get over the water into the UK is a pretend-boyfriend whose passport is from a neutral country. There is 20,000 Euro in it for me if I’m interested in helping. I’d like to find a backpacker hostel and think about it but the men nudge me into the tiled toilets and I’m surrounded and there’s only one answer. They ask me to hand them my backpack. They finger my passports, my wallet, my letters from home, the medal Grampop gave me to keep me brave. They take me with them to a huge ugly Humvee and we drive into what looks like Morocco or Tunisia or something, except I know we’re deep within Paris. Smoke and rugs and mezze and coffee and a market selling melons and cucumbers. I can just see a few skyscrapers leering over, but this is a ghetto. A foggy underworld.
They tell me to wait in a little woodshed. Three hours later it opens and she’s standing there, the woman who’s paying tens of thousands to get into the UK. I’m given a Manchester United flag to drape over us both, and ticket stubs from a match we supposedly attended. Proof of a quick jaunt to Europe for a typical backpacker couple, now let us back into England, please.
I bury us in red and we return to the train station and I present my NZ passport and she presents an Australian one and we bite our fingernails till we’ve got our tickets to cross the Chunnel and we’re tunnelling through the blackness, barely breathing till the train surfaces and she falls into the arms of her family.
They remind me of Huria, these women, the way they look anxiously at the world, expecting hurt. I bring them into England from Paris or Antwerp or Amsterdam. We practice our lines, our banter, our fake accents, we fill our phones with photos of football and fountains and Euro Disneyland then we smile through customs, make small talk about the Cup final with the guards then take our seat on the Eurostar, draping colored scarves and flags on our laps. Yobs and thugs and shirtless fat white men invite us to get up and dance and belt out Millwall or Arsenal songs. The women look at me with drowning eyes. They’re really from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea and this is the only way they can connect with their family in England. Well, for most of them. Some of them are only crossing the water because men are pressing something back in their backs.
Two women I smuggle in have legitimate-looking families who they fall into, hugging and weeping and wailing. One other woman is picked up by a young Russian male who looks at me with wolf eyes. Another is led away by ten Bangladeshi guys. I limply follow, calling out my supposed girlfriend’s name until we’re out of the station and free in the city and we’re in a grotty alley and one of them pulls two wheelie rubbish bins into the passage and blocks me off, looking at me hard.
Go home, son, he’s saying.
Puffin finds me in a backpacker hostel in sleepy Norwich, even though I’ve changed my cellphone and my email address and I haven’t told anyone where I am. Puffin’s version of making up for the death threats is to take me out for a meal. We eat soggy nachos in a Wetherspoons pub.
Puffin promises that the “ragheads” I’ve been working for are out of the picture. They’ll be getting a solid hiding next time Galatasaray crosses the ditch. Well, a hiding and a sit-down. No point in stuffing up business.
Puffin drives me all the way up the country to Leeds in his Fiat with the cracked windscreen to vouch for Markus Thommen and the ginger twins who are selling their guns to this seedy, stoned Indian student with an Isis flag on the wall of his dorm. The kid paces angrily in from of his bunk bed, ranting. He has the money though – shitloads of money, actually. He says it’s his inheritance and he doesn’t need it because he’s destined for paradise. He hands over 30,000 Euro for five guns which we’ve smuggled into his apartment block in Christmas tree boxes. While my so-called friend tries to calm our excited roommate, I stare down at a nearby swampy farm. Pretty, down there. Hedgerows. Peaceful lambs nibbling buttercups. 30 minutes later, as we’re about to get in the car and leave with two backpacks stuffed with Euros, I’m switching my phone on. Puffin is looking at me unimpressed.
‘You really want to leave a trail ay fooking footprints, pal? Cellphones ping towers, that’s you and me down the loo.’
‘Ssh. I’m talking to my sister. Yo: Hu. It’s me.’
I can hear her waking up and yawning. Her bed creaks. ‘What time is it? Where are you?’
Puffin punches me in the stomach. I drop the phone. His knee breaks my skull open. My brains spill out into the wet gravel of the parking lot.
‘You’re sitting in the back,’ he growls, kicking the side of his own car then swinging the backpacks of money into the trunk. I scramble for my mobile. It’s been swallowed by a pothole filled with milky coffee water. I roll back my sleeve and begin reaching in to retrieve my phone. Puffin charges his car at me, stops with a squirt of the wheels. His bonnet growls like a dog.
I get off my knees and stagger into the car. We race north. I beg Puffin to turn on the radio. I want to hear on the news if there’s been a mass shooting at the University of Leeds. If it’s not today it’ll happen tomorrow, or maybe next week, oh God, what’ve we done, what’ve we DONE?
Puffin burns my hand with his cigarette, stomps on the accelerator and keeps driving north.
I’m woken hours later with a slap in the head.
Puffin drags me out of the car, plus my bag, and dumps me in front of X-Base Backpackers Edinburgh.
My job is to party with naïve drunken backpackers then rob them while they snore in the bunk beds. I slide their passports out of the arse pockets of their jeans like sliding cheese out of a mousetrap. I lock myself in the bathroom and take high resolution photos of each passport page. I sell these on a website I access with the slow, exhaustive wi-fi in the hostel. One guy I rob is a young music student who sleeps with his guitar in his arms. He has photos of his whanau in his wallet. The tokutoku written up his arms says he’s from Ripiro Beach. Ngati Kuri. Half a world from home.
On top of the Gremlins and the fucking Ulstermen, the Albanians have been asking where I’m living. I haven’t told them. But they know Dad’s address.
I’m out of this. I quit. I can’t get any more dirt on Dad.
It’s breakfast when they invade. I’m at the buffet, filling up on eggs, and there is a tiny view of the street that gives me a five second warning I’m about to get fucked up. They’re wearing black Kathmandu puffy jackets and gloves. I watch in a mirror as they walk behind the reception counter and demand to examine the computer to find out which room I’m in. I sneak out through the swinging door of the kitchen.
The Exit door tips me onto a pile of black bags filled with bottles. I sprint down Queensferry Road, then Ferry Road, avenues with lichen growing over the street signs. Spraypaint on an HIV billboard says Welcome 2 Muirhouse. The streets shine with broken glass and rain. There are weeds wrapped around ancient rubbish bins with mounds of bottles and cans. Concrete towers leer down at me.
I beg a woman walking a pramful of junk mail for help. I can see frightened eyes inside her burqa. She shakes her head. They’re coming, the Albanians are, chasing me down red brick alleys, endlessly winding, no street signs, no numbers. Trash cans. A pitbull bellowing at me, straining its chain. I’m about to die.
I arrive in the middle of some nameless road, desperately lost, exhausted. Out of breath. Out of time.
An Uber squeals to a stop. Its door falls open.
‘Tama, I take it?’ calls the voice inside, ‘Get in, meart. Your old man sent fae ye. Got you a plane ticket ’n all.’
from Hell of a Thing: Sixteen Stories (The Sager Group, 2020)