Today was the time to work on the heavenly bodies and the Blackball bridge, designed by John. It was the usual welcoming committee at Christine’s, with Theo the rabbit at the door as I took off my shoes, with the tamariki greeting me in Māori (it’s always Māori Language Week at the this kura). We got down to work pretty quickly, discussing the best way to finish the three remaining elements of the design, coming round to what I felt was do-able, leaving for next week the complex Niuean ngāhere of abstract trees. The drawing on the skin comes first; Christine measures and begins the first assured strokes of the ballpoint, followed once she is sure she has right image, by the fine marker that will prove a guiding the line for the needles.
The Blackball bridge, with red and black rugby league colours.
The complex shapes of the stars needed a careful eye to calculate their path evenly around my arm, with sun and the moon interspersing. It is only when you see close up how integrated the pattern is, how simple and yet profound is John Pule’s draftmanship. Christine gets it spot on. The bridge, we decide, will have black in the central spans and red for the river and the sky – a reflection of the sweat and tears that made the mine and the rails and the lives of everyone who ever passed through there. The interlinking of the spans is another example of the literal image John worked from becoming figurative, enduring, powerful (“Urgent!”, he will call the colour red to me, in a later email).
Engraving the heavens on skin.
But first, it is the creation of the heavens that will overshadow the river, the forest and the bridge, everything manmade and godmade. All the shapes are first outlined with a single needle, to be filled in later with a wide, multi-tipped instrument. I settle back to listen to Hirini Melbourne kōrero Māori and sing; my mind settles into a low hum, abstract thoughts melting into the sensations of puncture. It doesn’t hurt in the way some might fear; it burns along my arm and takes me away from worldly cares. Now and then, in the thinner skin of the underarm, there is a wince, but I can live with this. We began at 1pm and it is well after 3 o’clock when this slice of heaven is done: “I looked at the world, and I saw it was good”. People get addicted to this.
Blood on the tracks in the stars.
Of course, the mind and the feelings are not my body, although we are in this together; the skin and the blood rush to do their work, repelling infection and closing the breached walls. I bleed. If that were not the case, all would not be well, but it is not as if every inch of pigment runs red – just here and there. Christine swabs and washes the completed design and we get ready to cross the bridge. She tells me that after some hours, the body will get tired of being attacked and you can get a bit impatient, looking for the end. It will prove true later on.
The bridge is now outlined and readied for colouring: I am very moved by this moment: that great monument to all bridge carpenters and their muscular skill has been inside me since 1957, and now, it will rest outside, on my arm, the same kind of arm that built the original karri masterpiece, the same arm that dismantled it at the end of its useful life. I salute these pioneers who opened up that world for me.
The fine work done, the wide brush fills in black and red.
We are both getting tired now, I know, but there is a river to cross. I tell Christine tales of the bridge crossings, thundering over the river in high flood in our Bedford school bus, the whole structure rattling and shaking as if attacked by waves of giants, willing us down to drown. We would jump off the bridge in high summer, into the black snag-infested waters below; the toughest nuts, full of teen bravado would leap from the highest part of the span (launching myself from the deck was all I could manage).
With my sisters, Jill and Elisabeth, swimming at the Blackball side, 1963-4.
That tiredness was really hitting me and the needles seemed sharper and more urgent, but I knew we were getting closer to Blackball, a place which Christine also knew well from her grandfather’s time there and her visits. There is always a story that comes out when two people who knew that town meet; it seems to have a life well beyond the closure of the mines and changing of the guard when old identities move away – and die.
Worse than it looks: the red is mostly ink, smeared when the excess is wiped away.
We are almost done: Christine cleans up the excess ink, smooths on healing balms and finishes with a karakia. I hand her the book I have brought as a koha: The late great Blackball Bridge sonnets, my mihi, hymns to the miners from back in 2004. She is delighted and is going to show it to her Mum. I wish mine were here to see the bridge on my arm, but we had a night for crossings that same year when the book was launched in Formerly the Blackball Hilton. All of us were there, save my late father – the Holmans sharing a family return to place once tainted with pain and shame. Dad, you drank here, but now we sing a different tune: survival.
The Holmans at the Hilton, 2004.
There is so much to be thankful for, not least the banana cake and gingernuts afterwards, when we all sit down and have a kai to whakanoa te hui. My arms sting, but not half as much as my heart sings. Next week is the bush; the place to which we came from the city was actually called Ngāhere. From small steps across the road, from the railway track to our railway house by the single-teacher school since swallowed by time, my West Coast journey began and now continues, into my arms.
I think of those now who came along with with me and it fills me with gratitude that I was somehow allowed to experience the kind of childhood barely possible to most kids in this country now. We ran, we roamed, we trapped, we chopped, we climbed, we fell, we fought and laughed – we lived life fully, right out to the edges and back again. Those riches endure, Lord – I thank you.
RIP, Frank Pendlebury, 1947-2007, on right.