Southerly by David Haywood


A Tale of Two Iceblocks: Part 2 (Or A Hopefully Helpful Pointer For Politicians & Policy Makers Who Wish to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions)

In Part 1 of this post, I used the example of iceblocks to explain how well-intentioned efforts to reduce New Zealand’s ‘official’ dirty energy* emissions can actually increase the global total of greenhouse gases emitted to the atmosphere. I concluded that an approach to discouraging dirty energy in New Zealand must satisfy three criteria:

  1. Any disincentive must be applied to the embodied dirty energy for goods and services imported into New Zealand.

  2. Any disincentive must also be applied to goods and services within New Zealand.

  3. Any disincentive must be removed from goods and services exported from New Zealand.

In this second part, I’ll explain a possible approach that meets these criteria. I’m not a tax expert and a proper ready-to-implement scheme would obviously require extensive analysis and modelling. My intention here is simply to demonstrate the basic ingredients needed for an approach to New Zealand’s dirty energy that would genuinely reduce global greenhouse gas emissions—and to give a ballpark analysis showing that the numbers are probably feasible.

As soon as the subject of a carbon tax is raised, many people will say something like: “New Zealand doesn’t need any new taxes”. Good news for those people—I’m not suggesting a new tax. My demonstration proposal relies on the fact that the cost of energy ‘flows’ through the whole economy, i.e. since every good and service requires energy, then any cost applied to the production or importation of energy will flow through to the final price of any good or service.

To explain this in terms of the “ingredients” in bringing an iceblock to your local dairy (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • Energy embodied in the raw sugar cane arriving at the border

  • Coal and electricity required to refine the sugar

  • Diesel required to transport the sugar to the iceblock factory

  • Diesel and electricity required to manufacture the stick

  • Diesel and electricity and sundry petroleum products required to manufacture the wrapper

  • Electricity required to process water and deliver it (via the water network) to the iceblock factory

  • Electricity required to transport and mix the ingredients in the iceblock factory

  • Electricity required to provide lighting, heating, etc. in the iceblock factory

  • Electricity required to cool the iceblock mixture

  • Electricity required to store the finished iceblock

  • Electricity and transport fuels required to run the office and administrative services at the iceblock factory

  • Transport fuels required to deliver the workers to the factory (indirectly priced in via wages)

  • Energy required to feed and house the workers (indirectly priced in via wages)

  • Electricity and transport energy, etc. required to run the advertising company

  • Diesel required to deliver (and keep cool) the iceblock to the dairy

  • Electricity required to run the freezer at the dairy

  • Etc., etc., etc.

… the cost of all this energy is added up along the way and is a component in the final price of the iceblock in your dairy.

Those familiar with the horrors of GST returns will recognize this as being very similar to the way that GST accumulates onto the final price of a product. An obvious solution—and the one that I’ll use as my demonstration proposal here—is to replace GST with a consumption tax on dirty energy that will similarly flow through to the final price of good and services, i.e. to transform GST into PGST (Polluting Goods & Services Tax).

This would involve dirty energy (and possibly some greenhouse gas contributors arising from clean energy) being taxed on a per-kilogram-of-carbon-dioxide-equivalent** basis at point of production or importation. In comparison to GST, a PGST would therefore greatly reduce the administrative burden on most New Zealand businesses (who currently act as unpaid tax collectors for the IRD) by shifting the tax collection point onto comparatively few energy producers, importers, and exporters.

A PGST (as with the current GST) would then meet our criteria for discouraging the production of dirty energy in New Zealand:

  1. PGST would be applied to all dirty energy imports (including embodied dirty energy) as they cross the border into New Zealand.

  2. PGST would be applied to dirty energy originating within New Zealand at the point of production.

  3. PGST would be refunded on dirty energy exports (including embodied dirty energy) as they cross the border out of New Zealand.

Let’s look at each step in more detail:

1. Dirty Energy Imports

The carbon dioxide equivalent values of ‘straight’ dirty energy imports such as oil, coal, and gas are well known (not forgetting that these products also have additional embodied dirty energy from their production). But very few manufacturers of other goods and services can provide documentation showing the dirty energy embodied in their products.

These products must therefore be categorized, and dirty energy emissions estimated from typical values for each category. Happily the techniques to perform these calculations are already available (for example, from the input–output tables produced by Statistics New Zealand, the energy datafile, and the greenhouse gas inventory), which would then allows these goods to have PGST applied on a per-kilogram-of-carbon-dioxide-equivalent basis.

PGST could be collected through the current administrative systems already used for duties (such as the synthetic greenhouse gas (goods) levy, which would no longer be necessary, of course) on products entering New Zealand. It is important to note, however, that PGST is not an ‘import duty’ since—as with the GST that it would replace—it is also applied to goods and services produced within New Zealand.

We can calculate some ballpark numbers on the PGST that could be collected from dirty energy embodied in our imports. Taking our raw data from 2010 (the most convenient year in terms of aligning data sources), we can employ an approach based on the monetary value of the world’s final goods and services (i.e. world GDP) at US$63,048,823,000,000 and the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide equivalent) at 42,669,720,000,000 kilograms to give an average ‘carbon-dioxide-equivalent intensity’ for the world’s goods and services of 0.677 kg/US$.

Ahead of time I’ve worked out that a suitable PGST rate for our calculation year would be US$0.40/kg. In 2010 the value of our non-fossil fuel imports was roughly US$24,256,000,000 (based on this data) giving estimated embodied dirty energy of 16,416,000,000 kilograms carbon dioxide equivalent, and therefore raising US$6,566,000,000 of PGST at our chosen rate.

(It should be noted that the numbers above only cover embodied dirty energy imports. For ease of calculation the PGST on imported fuels burnt in New Zealand will be estimated as part of the next section.)

2. Dirty Energy Originating Within New Zealand

Emissions from dirty energy originating within New Zealand occur in three main forms: carbon dioxide (e.g. from transport, electricity generation, and industrial processes such as cement manufacture), nitrous oxide (e.g. due to fertilizer use in agriculture), and methane (e,g. from ruminant animals and landfill decomposition). From an energy engineering perspective, we view nitrous oxide as a by-product of the conversion of solar energy into chemical potential energy in food; and methane as a by-product of the conversion of solar energy into chemical potential energy specifically in the form of ruminant animal meat.

In all cases, the PGST can be applied at comparatively few source points. For example: fossil fuel producers and importers, cement manufacturers, fertilizer manufacturers, and landfill operators. Theoretically it could also be collected for agricultural methane emissions on a per kilogram basis applied to ruminant animal meat produced in abattoirs, and similarly on milk solids.

A PGST scheme could also, in principle, be used via a tax refund to encourage negative emissions, e.g. atmospheric carbon dioxide sequestered as carbon in forests. Various counter-productive results might be possible with such an approach, however, and careful analysis would be required prior to implementation.

In terms of ballpark calculations, I’m only going to take into account carbon dioxide emissions from the energy sector’ (as defined by the Ministry for the Environment) in order to provide a lower bound on the PGST that could be collected. Fertilizer production and agricultural emissions are outside my field of expertise, and would require detailed investigation to assess an appropriate rate per kilogram of fertilizer or ruminant animal meat.

Given the above assumptions we can use data for New Zealand’s total internal greenhouse gas emissions for 2010 at 71,270,000,000 kg (carbon dioxide equivalent) along with an approximate proportion originating from the energy sector (40 per cent) to give PGST of US$11,318,000,000 collected at our chosen rate.

(As mentioned previously this includes imported fossil fuels burnt in New Zealand that were excluded in the ballpark calculations for PGST on dirty energy imports.)

3. Dirty Energy Exports

In theory, the refund of PGST on exports could be calculated via a system of documentation that shows the accumulated dirty energy for any good or service (in the long term this may well be the approach taken internationally). However this would impose a considerable administrative burden on New Zealand businesses.

A simpler system—and one that has added advantages in terms of incentivizing a reduction in dirty energy consumption by exporters—is to refund the PGST collected from each industry category on a per export dollar basis.

Let’s use our iceblocks to illustrate how this would work in practice:

Imagine that there are two iceblock manufacturers in New Zealand: Mackenzie Country Clean Iceblocks manufactured using predominantly clean energy, and Huntly Emissions Iceblocks manufactured using entirely dirty energy.

During manufacture and transport to the border, Mackenzie Country Clean accumulates $5,000 worth of PGST on $100,000 worth of iceblocks. In contrast, the dirty energy Huntly Emissions accumulates $15,000 worth of PGST on $100,000 worth of iceblocks.

When the IRD totals the exports in the industry category of ‘iceblock’ it therefore obtains a figure of $200,000. Given the typical carbon-dioxide-equivalent intensity in the ‘iceblock’ category of, say, 0.167 kg/$ the IRD then calculates a category refund of $20,000 at the official PGST rate. They then refund $10,000 PGST to each Mackenzie Country Clean and Huntly Emissions.

Eagle-eyed readers will note that in actuality Mackenzie Country Clean paid $5,000 PGST but was refunded $10,000—since they consume less dirty energy to manufacture their iceblocks than the typical manufacturer in their industry category. In contrast, Huntly Emissions paid $15,000 worth of PGST for the same refund of $10,000, due to their higher consumption of dirty energy than industry average.

The PGST refund means that, on average, New Zealand iceblock exporters are placed at no economic disadvantage compared to countries that do not put an internal price on greenhouse gas emissions. But simultaneously, the New Zealand iceblock manufacturers that produce more dirty energy emissions than their competitors are punished by getting a smaller slice of the PGST industry category refund.

In other words, the very fact that Mackenzie Country Clean could sell $100,000 worth of iceblocks (while consuming less dirty energy than its competitor) proves that reducing dirty energy consumption in this industry category is possible—and therefore its competitor is incentivized to emulate this in an attempt to claim a bigger portion of the PGST refund for themselves.

In terms of our ballpark calculations, we can employ the data for New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions of 71,270,000,000 kg, and—in a similar manner to the calculations used for our ‘dirty energy imports’—estimate an average ‘carbon-dioxide-equivalent intensity’ for New Zealand’s goods and services at 0.563 kg/US$ (this figure is lower than the world average as a consequence of our greater-than-average use of clean energy).

Then taking New Zealand’s total exports for 2010 (including fossil fuels) at US$29,350,000,000 we obtain PGST of US$6,605,000,000 refunded at our chosen rate.

A potential problem with this approach to dirty energy exports is the possibility of transport of goods and services via New Zealand to take advantage of the PGST system, e.g. a manufacturer sells a product to a New Zealand importer significantly below cost, who then exports it back to the manufacturer at true cost, and thereby collects an undeserved PGST refund. Obviously the tax laws would need to be modified to prohibit this type of rort.

4. Reality Check Using Our Ballpark Numbers

So how much PGST have we collected in comparison to the GST that it replaces? Adding together our ballpark figures for PGST on dirty energy imports plus dirty energy originating within New Zealand minus PGST refunded on dirty energy exports gives a total PGST of US$11,279,000,000.

In comparison, the current GST collected (adjusted to US dollars at the 2010 rate) is US$11,266,000,000. So we can see that—in terms of ballpark figures—our demonstration proposal of PGST appears entirely capable of producing the same revenue as the GST that it replaces.

What about the final price of products with high dirty energy content? Would PGST make them unaffordably expensive? We can do some approximate calculations:

  • Petrol (approx. 2.4 kilograms carbon-dioxide-equivalent per litre) would go from NZ$2.00 to NZ$3.07 per litre after tax (note that since PGST would be collected at source then the illogicality of paying GST on fuel excise tax would be avoided).

  • Concrete (approx. 200 kilograms carbon-dioxide-equivalent per cubic metre) would go from NZ$250 to NZ$330 per cubic metre after tax.

It’s worth noting that while the above products would increase in price, other goods and services (such as renewable electricity and some wood products) would experience a relative drop in price when moving from GST to PGST.

We can also look at PGST in terms of an equivalent sales tax on total goods and services sold in New Zealand:

  • goods solely imported into New Zealand: an equivalent of 27 per cent sales tax.

  • goods solely manufactured in New Zealand: an equivalent of 12 per cent sales tax.

The difference in these equivalent percentages reflect the fact that New Zealand exploits more clean energy than the world average. Of course, most good and services sold in New Zealand are a mix of both imported and locally-manufactured products, and these equivalent percentages are average values (depending on dirty energy emissions from any particular product the proportion of PGST may be greater or less than the average value).

We should also remind ourselves that these ballpark calculations are... well, just ballpark calculations based on average values for emissions on good and services. It’s entirely possible that large numbers of products exported or imported into New Zealand may have very non-average values, which would lead to a significant change in the numbers estimated here.

Having emphasized the limitations to our ballpark analysis conclusions, it’s probably worth discussing the obvious way that PGST can be avoided in comparison to GST.

Dealing With The Effect of Tax Avoidance Via Reduced Use of Dirty Energy

But won’t people simply avoid PGST by using less dirty energy? Yes, exactly—this is the main point of this demonstration proposal! However, it does raise the issue of diminishing tax collection as less dirty energy is used in New Zealand.

Leaving aside the revenue split between income tax and consumption tax (I’d personally favour collecting more government revenue via income tax) it becomes obvious that the rate of PGST would have to be varied over time as the economy responds to price signals and moves away from dirty energy. Any change of tax rate in our current GST system does, of course, impose a major administrative cost on the economy, since nearly every business in New Zealand is required to modify their accountancy systems. In contrast, however, because PGST would be applied at comparatively few points in the economy—energy producers, importers, and exporters—then changing the PGST rate is a relatively trivial issue. It can quite easily be raised to provide increasing revenue (and increasing disincentive) as dirty energy consumption diminishes over time.

Furthermore, being able to easily change the rate of consumption tax offers an additional economic benefit. We can imagine the government being allowed to set a base rate, and then the Reserve Bank being allowed to vary that rate by a percentage point or two. This would give the Reserve Bank a very useful tool (i.e. in addition to the OCR) in order to effect change in the economy.

Needless to say that the PGST rate could (and probably should) also be used as part of a cap system. Given that New Zealand has signed various agreements to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, then it is not a stupid idea to have a year-by-year plan in order to reach the desired end point. Our PGST rate could therefore be varied in order to move the economy towards a target reduction in greenhouse gas emissions for any particular year.

As with any consumption tax, there are valid issues of inequity with my demonstration proposal for PGST. It’s certainly true that wealthy people would be able to avoid PGST by—for example—purchasing electric vehicles or low energy appliances. But viewed from another perspective these same wealthy people would be the early adopters who would bring this technology into the mainstream, and who would effectively subsidize the capital investment for the rest of New Zealand.

Also in comparison to GST—which the very poor (e.g. homeless people) pay on 100 per cent of their post-income-tax earnings—it would be possible for those with low incomes to avoid PGST. Many basic foodstuffs, for example, consume minimal amounts of dirty energy in their production. Buying most of your protein as legumes rather than beef could have a significant impact on your grocery bill.

Being taxed at only a few points in the economy means that PGST would also be more difficult to evade than either GST or income tax, e.g. no more builders offering their labour half-on and half-off the books. Viewed cynically, this also addresses an inequity issue with GST—in that small business owners (and those who can afford their services) have endless opportunities for GST evasion under the current system in comparison to low-income wage earners.

Final Comments

As I said at the beginning of this discussion: I am not a tax expert. This is not a ready-to-implement scheme. It is merely a demonstration proposal showing the necessary ingredients for an approach that would genuinely reduce New Zealand’s dirty energy emissions (while also reducing total emissions for the world as a whole).

Obviously the best solution to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions would be a binding global agreement for reduction. Also—quite obviously—there is no sign that this will happen in the near future. The next best thing, therefore, is to reduce emissions on a country-by-country basis, while ensuring that our solution doesn’t have the counter-productive effect of causing an increase in emissions from the rest of the world (as happens with our current ETS and the currently proposed alternatives).

Reducing New Zealand’s consumption of dirty energy also has benefits in terms of our balance of trade, economic productivity, and even health costs (dirty energy in transport imposes a huge health burden on the economy). And, of course, reducing our own greenhouse gas emissions doesn’t mean that we should stop working towards a global binding agreement to tackle the problem at an international level.

This has been a very long discussion—anyone who has read this far deserves a reward. You now have my permission (in my medical capacity as a doctor) to cast aside all dietary restrictions and treat yourself to an iceblock. Clean energy products preferred, of course.

Dr David Haywood is an energy engineer who is happy to offer pro bono advice on energy policy to any political party.

*An as energy engineer, I’d see greenhouse gases as being released due to energy consumption in three main ways:

  1. In conversion of energy from a useless form to a useful form, for example:
     Carbon dioxide emitted when the chemical potential energy of petrol is converted into kinetic energy in a motor vehicle.
     Methane emitted when solar energy is converted into chemical potential energy in cow’s milk (via chemical potential energy in grass).

  1. When energy is used to convert materials from a useless form to a useful form (this includes energy used to dispose of materials at the end of their life), for example:
     Carbon dioxide when energy is consumed to convert limestone into cement
     Perfluorocarbons when energy is consumed to convert aluminium oxide into aluminium

  2. Greenhouse gases emitted as a consequence of emissions due to energy consumption in the above two categories, for example:
     Methane released from permafrost due to climate change (which itself occurs as a result of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions).

This essentially covers all aspects of human activity in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.


** Carbon-dioxide-equivalent values refer to the global warming potential (GWP) of other gases in comparison to carbon dioxide over a given time period. For example, the GWP100 value for methane is 34, because methane has 34 times the global warming effect of carbon dioxide over a time period of 100 years.


A Tale of Two Iceblocks: Part 1 (Or How Analysis of Greenhouse Gas Emissions in New Zealand Can Cause Us To Do the Wrong Thing)

Here are two iceblocks that you can buy at your local dairy:

The iceblock on the left is made by Tip Top in New Zealand. The iceblock on the right is made by Streets in China.

Let’s estimate the carbon dioxide emissions from each iceblock. Most of the energy in manufacturing iceblocks from raw materials* of refined sugar and clean water will be down to cooling, so we can calculate the following approximations (assuming cooling of water from room temperature at 20°C to freezer temperature at -20°C):

Cooling energy required
TipTip Popsicle (76 g) = 35 kJ
Streets Paddle-pop (71 g) = 33 kJ

We can also estimate the proportion of dirty (i.e. carbon dioxide emitting) energy based on the average energy mix for electricity in New Zealand (around 80 per cent renewable) and China (around 25 per cent renewable):

Dirty energy component
TipTip Popsicle = 7 kJ
Streets Paddle-pop = 24 kJ

Then we can make some assumptions based on typical figures in terms of coal thermal power plants (typical efficiency around 35 per cent) and industrial freezers (typical coefficient of performance around 2.5). We’re rather unfairly assuming that all New Zealand’s dirty energy is sourced from coal (with an energy density around 30 MJ/kg), which it’s not:

Coal required in manufacture
TipTip Popsicle = 0.2 g
Streets Paddle-pop = 0.7 g

This finally allows us to work out the carbon dioxide emissions from each iceblock (using typical figures of 2.4 kg of carbon dioxide emitted per kilogram of coal):

Carbon dioxide emissions from manufacture
TipTip Popsicle = 0.5 g
Streets Paddle-pop = 1.7 g

But here’s something that you may not have considered before. Let’s look at the data that would be recorded in terms of assessing New Zealand’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions (at the end of the manufacturing process, i.e. excluding transport energy input):

Contribution to New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions
TipTip Popsicle = 0.5 g
Streets Paddle-pop = 0 g

When we’re attempting to reduce New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions this final set of figures is all that’s considered. So what happens when we ask the question (based on our data): “How can we reduce New Zealand’s contribution to global warming in terms of iceblock manufacture?” The answer is obvious. In fact, the answer deserves its own paragraph in bold:

Q: How can we reduce New Zealand’s carbon dioxide emissions?

A: Encourage importation of iceblocks from China and discourage manufacture of iceblocks in New Zealand.

While this answer seems completely stupid (because this strategy would actually raise global carbon dioxide emissions—since the Chinese Paddlepop emits more carbon dioxide than the New Zealand Popsicle) it is actually technically true. This strategy would lower New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions according to the accounting system that we currently use—and therefore be the desirable course of action to take.

The problem here is that greenhouse gas emissions from energy production are attributed to the country where the actual gases are emitted (which can be calculated easily and reliably using the guidelines of the UNFCCC). A more meaningful system would be to attribute the greenhouse gas emissions to the country where the energy is actually “consumed”, i.e. the country where the energy embodied in goods and services actually ends up. Unfortunately this would be impossible to accurately calculate at the moment (although it can certainly be estimated); and it would require a complicated global system of traceability to produce reliable numbers. So for now we’re stuck with the current system of attribution of greenhouse gases.

To repeat this last paragraph in terms of our iceblocks: under our current system the carbon dioxide emissions from manufacturing the Tip Tip Popsicle (0.5 g) are attributed to New Zealand (because that’s where they are physically emitted); the carbon dioxide emissions from the Streets Paddlepop are attributed to China (1.7 g). A more correct approach would be to attribute the energy emissions of both iceblocks to New Zealand (a total of 2.2 g of carbon dioxide) since this is the country where the manufacturing energy embodied in the iceblocks is actually “consumed”.

If we don’t acknowledge this serious flaw in the official system of greenhouse gas accounting then we can end up (as we saw with our iceblocks) in taking the opposite action to that which would achieve our desired goal. In other words: our objective is to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions—but by considering New Zealand’s emissions under the current system, we discourage a clean energy product from New Zealand (the Tip Top Popsicle), in favour of a dirty energy product from China (the Streets Paddlepop), i.e. exactly the opposite of our stated objective.

All of this seems so obvious that it’s hardly worth writing down here. The problem, unfortunately, is that the well-intentioned strategies suggested by our political parties (and some policy analysts)—such as an ETS or a “straight” carbon tax (even a revenue-neutral version) on coal, gas, oil, and limestone burnt in New Zealand—all have the effect of sending price signals to discourage the consumption of products manufactured in New Zealand in favour of imported products. And it’s entirely possible, as with our iceblocks, that these imported products may well make a greater contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions than the products manufactured in New Zealand.

The possibility of increasing global greenhouse gas emissions (in a well-intentioned attempt to reduce them) is true of anything we do that increases the price of carbon dioxide emissions solely from energy produced in New Zealand. Furthermore the same effect will also occur in terms of price signals exported across our borders to overseas markets. By increasing the price of New Zealand’s goods and services via any added cost to our dirty energy then we discourage the consumption of our products overseas.

To return to our iceblocks, if we levy a cost on the dirty energy component in manufacture of the popsicle then we will increase the total price for the exported product. A consumer in Australia, for example, would then receive a price signal encouraging purchase of the dirty energy Streets Paddle-pop from China rather than the clean energy TipTop Popsicle from New Zealand. This would also be true in terms of encouraging purchase of high-emissions milk solids from Britain rather than lower-emissions milk solids from New Zealand. Both would tend to cause a global increase in emissions of greenhouse gases.

Clearly, therefore, any disincentive that we apply to the production of dirty energy in New Zealand must satisfy three criteria:

  1. Any disincentive must be applied to the embodied dirty energy for goods and services imported into New Zealand.

  2. Any disincentive must also be applied to goods and services within New Zealand.

  3. Any disincentive must be removed from goods and services exported from New Zealand.

(An alternative, of course, is to incentivize clean energy in New Zealand, but that is much more complicated proposition—not least because the obvious place to fund such a scheme would be from taxing dirty energy, which puts you right back where you started.)

All of this sounds like a recipe for doing nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in New Zealand. But it’s certainly not meant to be. We can do something, and indeed we already have a tax on goods and services that meets the above three criteria in terms of price signals (though not specifically on dirty energy, of course).

In a follow-up to this post, I’ll suggest a way to tweak GST so that it only applies to the dirty energy component of goods and services, and therefore provides the correct incentives to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in New Zealand.

Dr David Haywood is an energy engineer who is happy to offer pro bono advice on energy policy to any political party.

* Depending on where the sugar is sourced there may also be a very significant dirty energy input in terms of harvesting and refining (the same may apply to water).  The source of sugar or water for any particular iceblock is hard to establish and so the energy input won’t be considered in our rough approximation here.


Happy to Help (If I Can)

A short while ago, a kindly Public Address reader sent me an email saying how much she’d enjoyed an old short story of mine, The Funeral. What with mass murders and governments in crisis she could do with cheering-up, she said. Did I have another short story in a similar vein that could provide further amusement and distraction?

Well, you don’t have to ask me twice for a short story. Indeed you don’t even have to ask me once. Just say anything that could be construed as a hint of interest—and I’ll immediately force one upon you.

So here’s another (hopefully amusing) short story that features two of the characters from The Funeral, and likewise set in the early 1990s. Indeed it could possibly be read as a sequel. I know it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I do hope that it will provide some much-needed distraction and entertainment for those tea-drinkers in need.

Disclaimer: As with The Funeral you may need to have experienced the Christchurch squatocracy in their native habitat in order to fully appreciate some details of this story.


The Dance Concert

A shaft of Timaru sunlight found a gap in the curtains. Kylinda had slept badly; she woke before the alarm clock.

“It’s today,” she said.

“Don’t worry,” mumbled Timothy into his pillow. “It’s bound to be a success this year.”

“How can you say that?”

Timothy opened his eyes, propped himself on one elbow, and gave Kylinda a consoling smile. “Last year wasn’t so bad. I thought the audience really enjoyed it—until the end, that is.”

“I’ll never forget their screams of fear,” said Kylinda. “That hall went up like a can of petrol.”

“Yes, but you know about Rupert’s behavioural problems now. And he’s improved so much over the past year. Besides, his social worker will be watching him like a hawk.”

“It wasn’t just Rupert,” said Kylinda hopelessly.

“No-one could have predicted the thing with Lucy,” countered Timothy. “And she’s not even going to be in the show this year, obviously. And Mr Deaker won’t be going off his medication either. That was much worse for him than you. He was church warden then.”

“It’s going to be another disaster.”

“No, it isn’t,” insisted Timothy. “Oh look, what can I do to help this morning? Breakfast in bed?”

“There is something you can do in bed. Again.” Kylinda said. “I really do need cheering up.”

* * *

Timothy skipped breakfast to avoid being late for work. Kylinda found herself singing while showering, and discovered her usual optimism to be almost entirely restored.

“It’s impossible that any concert could be worse than last year,” she reassured herself. “If I survived last year then I can definitely survive this one.”

Her colleague, Judy, arrived mid-morning for final costume alterations. She waved an airmail letter at Kylinda. “This was sticking out your mailbox. Are you all psyched-up for the big event?”

Kylinda glanced at the letter’s return address and sighed. “Just what I need, another guilt-trip from my aunt; she’s always blaming me for my ex-boyfriend’s diabetes. No, I’d describe myself more as psyched-out than psyched-up at the moment.”

“Your ex-boyfriend has diabetes?” Judy asked. “Is that the Australian boyfriend with the weird name?”

“Stanko. My only ex-boyfriend, ever.”

“Why is your aunt so worried about Stanko’s diabetes?”

“Didn’t I mention,” said Kylinda. “She’s his mother.”

“Hang on a minute,” said Judy. “Stanko was your cousin?”

“Yes,” said Kylinda gloomily. “That’s why I can never go back to Buronga. My family is at war with itself.”

Kylinda unpacked the sewing machine onto the kitchen table. “Everything went wrong when I was seventeen. This cute guy from school invited me to the Mildura Agricultural Show. He seemed genuinely nice, and I was flattered to be asked, so I said, ‘Sure, I’d love to come’. But then when Stanko heard, he thumped the cute guy and broke his jaw—like it was some bizarre family honour thing. And so, of course, Stanko was expelled from school. After that, for some reason, I just couldn’t stop thinking about Stanko. I used to wag P.E. and visit him in his bedroom at home. You know, sort of as a P.E. alternative. Then the school found out everything and my parents hit the roof.”

“Because Stanko was your cousin,” said Judy.

“More because I was a top student—the only good student in my family ever—and my parents were furious that I was truanting school. So then I became really stubborn and left home and moved into Stanko’s single bedroom at my uncle and aunt’s house. I honestly can’t explain why.”

“You moved in with your cousin?”

“For three years,” said Kylinda. “My parents stopped talking to me. And because Buronga is so small I kept running into them the whole time which was super-upsetting. But in those days I was so uncompromising. The truth is that it was a disaster with Stanko from the start. And at some level I always knew it would be. When he wasn’t being a total slack-arse as a plumber’s apprentice, he was slouching on our bed playing games on his Sega. It drove me crazy.”

“I’ll bet it did,” said Judy. “He sounds just like a slacker ex-boyfriend of mine. Apart from not being my cousin, of course.”

“So then I had the idea for my dance therapy classes. I’d always had ballet and modern dance, and I could see there was an opening for a therapeutic approach to rhythmic movement. It was a big success from the start, but Stanko made out like it was some self-indulgent hobby of mine—even though it was paying the board for both of us. And my aunt and uncle more-or-less went along with him, too.”

“Relatives can be so unsupportive,” sympathized Judy, “and when they’re in-laws at the same time it’s probably twice as bad.”

“Anyway, after a couple of years, I started holding classes at a primary school in Mildura. Tim was doing a job-exchange there as a teacher. He was so appreciative and supportive of my dance therapy with the problem children; he was like a breath of fresh air in comparison to Stanko. We’d have these wonderful conversations while we planned the next lesson.”

Kylinda remembered how she’d looked forward to those conversations. Tim had such a sunny disposition; he was so optimistic about the children; he seemed almost impossibly handsome. Her heart used to skip a beat whenever he looked at her. It still did.

“Then Tim had to return home to New Zealand—and I was invited to his going-away event at school.” Kylinda deftly ripped the stitches from a dress hem. “While I was getting ready I burst into tears; I couldn’t seem to stop crying. To his credit, Stanko was quite concerned about me, and his sympathy gave me the confidence to confess that perhaps I had feelings for Tim. So then, of course, Stanko smashed up all my stuff, and threw my clothes on the road, and turned up at Tim’s school to give him a thumping—while I screamed at him not to hurt Tim. The headmaster put Stanko into a headlock and called the police. As the police were handcuffing Stanko, Tim told me that he had feelings for me as well.”

“Oh my God, that’s so romantic,” said Judy.

“Afterwards it seemed simplest to move to New Zealand with Tim. I’ve always wondered if Stanko might get a passport and come over here to make trouble; but my aunt says he’s just been lying on his bed playing video games for the past seven years. And now that he’s got diabetes I don’t suppose he’s got the energy to thump people any more.”

“Probably dealing with Stanko is why you’re so good with problem children,” suggested Judy. “Look at how Rupert’s come on. His dance routine is going to be the highlight of the show. Who would’ve thought that a couple of years ago.”

“Yes, so long as there are no disasters,” sighed Kylinda, her doubts briefly resurfacing. “If it goes badly it’ll probably mean a step backwards for Rupert.”

The costume alterations were finally completed by early afternoon. After a late lunch Judy cycled off to collect her daughter from kindergarten; Kylinda drifted into the back garden with a cup of tea.

As often happened when she’d been thinking of her old home, Kylinda found herself surprised anew by her New Zealand surroundings. The lawn seemed a luxuriant expanse of emerald; the old fruit trees almost glowed under their early-summer foliage. The poplars on the back boundary stretched upward in towers of greenness, leaves rustling delightfully in the wind.

Kylinda remembered her arrival in New Zealand. The plane had flown over the West Coast, and she had been staggered by the endless multitude of trees. How could anywhere be so lush and verdant? Then soaring above the Southern Alps—for the first time she saw snow with her own eyes—it was like travelling through a nature documentary.

She’d been thrilled by the architecture of Christchurch, which seemed positively ancient to her. Her only disappointment had been the slight lack of enthusiasm on the part of Timothy’s family. Not that Laurence and Marjorie Holt weren’t politely welcoming, but they both seemed rather perplexed by their son’s choice of girlfriend. Kylinda had the sense that she didn’t entirely measure up.

She wondered if her Australian background were part of the problem. Several times Timothy had been required to act as translator; the words used by Cantabrians being subtly different to those spoken in Buronga. Marjorie Holt wore scent whereas Kylinda had only known perfume. The tearooms had paper napkins instead of serviettes. You asked for directions to the lavatory, never the toilet or dunny. Kylinda couldn’t restrain a suspicion that the Holt family viewed her Australian vocabulary as slightly inferior.

The toilet—or lavatory, she corrected herself—had been the source of another cultural faux pas. At home there had always been a box of matches on top of the cistern. How else did you get rid of bad smells? She’d been mortified when Marjorie returned to the sitting room on the first morning of Kylinda’s visit with a puzzled expression: “There seems to be matches floating in the lavatory bowl. Can anyone explain how this could occur?”

Yes, Timothy could explain. They do things differently in Australia. During his prolonged description of Australian lavatorial habits, Marjorie and Laurence turned to Kylinda and scrutinized her with almost anthropological curiosity. “Well, how interesting,” said Laurence finally.

“If you’re Australian it somehow doesn’t seem proper to visit the toilet and not light a match afterwards,” Kylinda had added as further clarification.

“Yes, perhaps I should have thought of that,” said Marjorie.

On the whole, Kylinda felt much less out of place in Timaru. Timothy’s friends and workmates at school were delighted to see him so happily settled; Kylinda immediately found employment as a dance instructor with Judy. And Judy had been instantly receptive to Kylinda’s suggestion of starting a dance therapy school. Her new life in Timaru had turned out wonderfully (with the exception of last year’s concert).

Kylinda drained the last dregs of tea from her cup. It was time to leave. “It’s important to think positively,” she told herself. “I must keep things in perspective: it can’t really go too badly wrong this time.”

* * *

“Now don’t worry, Kylinda,” said the vicar. “But Mr Deaker has taken an accidental overdose.”

The vicar and his wife were waiting for Kylinda outside Saint John’s Hall. “There’s no real problem, he’ll be fine to operate the lights this evening,” reassured the vicar’s wife. “He’s just feeling a bit woozy at the moment, so he’s asked us to come and help you in his stead. Of course, one can hardly blame him for going overboard with his medication after everything that happened last year. Tourette’s is a dreadful affliction.”

“How awful for Mr Deaker,” said Kylinda sympathetically, as she quelled the inner stirrings of panic. “Well at least it gives me the opportunity to thank you again for letting us have the hall. I mean, particularly after what happened last year.”

The vicar dismissed her gratitude with a wave of his cigarette. “It’s honestly not a problem, Kylinda. The old Sunday School Hall was a nightmare: rising damp, leaking roof, dry rot in the joinery. I used to joke that only the structural strength of the woodworm kept it upright. For years we’d been planning to demolish and rebuild, and now the insurance is going to cover everything. The parish council are delighted.”

“That’s the beauty of a good fire,” added the vicar’s wife. “Just scorched earth and a few nails and doorhandles left behind. The insurance company couldn’t prove a thing about the existing condition of the building. No evidence.”

Kylinda untied the coat-hanger that held shut the boot of her Hillman Hunter, and together they unloaded the boxes of costumes. The vicar lodged his cigarette between his lips so as to have both hands free for lifting.

“The worst thing was attending the restorative justice meeting,” he puffed through a plume of smoke. “Having to pretend to Rupert that we were grieving for the Sunday School Hall. It’s lucky for him that his mother’s a lawyer. She’s certainly a very capable woman.”

“Now that she’s stopped drinking,” said the vicar’s wife. She stood on tiptoe to unlock the double-doors at the rear of the hall.

Once inside, Kylinda couldn’t help a stab of disappointment at her stage set. The backdrop was a festoon of milkbottle-tops threaded on strings; the foreground an assortment of tinfoil-clad boxes. It seemed utterly lame in the cold light of day. Kylinda reminded herself that she’d thought it perfectly acceptable the evening before. Mr Deaker’s lighting would bring it all to life.

It took them a good half hour to set out the chairs. “Do you think we should squeeze another row at the front,” queried the vicar’s wife. “Perhaps it’s wiser to keep the audience out of firing range?”

“Poor Lucy isn’t performing this year,” said Kylinda.

“She was certainly astonishing last year,” said the vicar. “The front row were absolutely deluged. Maurice McTigue had to burn his suit afterwards. He was surprisingly good-natured about it, I must say.”

“One occasionally hears of these unfortunate people,” mused the vicar’s wife. “I’d always wondered how they first became aware of their condition—was there an incident when it actually occurred?”

“Now you know the answer,” said the vicar. “We all do.”

It wasn’t long before Judy arrived with her make-up trunk. Shortly afterwards, parents began to deposit children at the rear of the hall. The backstage area swarmed with activity.

Kylinda organized the children into their various groups and dispensed clothing from the boxes. Previous years had taught her that children (and parents) can’t necessarily be trusted to remember costumes for a performance. Once dressed, the children formed a line for Judy to apply make-up.

Timothy found Kylinda wiping lipstick and eyeliner from a small child. “This is ridiculous,” she complained to him in a whisper. “These children are supposed to look like dancers—not psychopath clowns from a horror film.” She raised her voice so that it would carry across the room. “Judy, I think perhaps you could tone down the make-up a couple of notches, okay? The lighting is pretty bright tonight; you probably don’t need quite so much.”

“Everything seems nicely under control here,” observed Timothy approvingly. “Have you looked outside? There’s a queue halfway down to Park Lane.”

“A queue?” said Kylinda. She paused mid-wipe at some particularly garish blusher. Normally the audiences at her concerts were limited to a scattering of proud relatives and a few reluctant civic worthies.

“Yes, apparently a bunch of students have turned up from the University of Canterbury. They chartered buses and everything. Should be a good audience; they seem like a pretty jolly bunch.”

“Why would university students be interested in coming here?”

“I couldn’t really say,” replied Timothy evasively. “They mentioned a write-up in the student magazine about last year’s concert or something. Actually I’d better check how many we’re allowed in here; fire regulations somehow seem more relevant with Rupert in the building.”

‘Where is Rupert?” asked Kylinda suddenly.

* * *

“Are you sure Mr Deaker is all right?” said the vicar’s wife. “He still seems a bit doped-up.”

They watched him shuffle down the aisle, and then begin a wobbling ascent of the lighting tower.

“He wouldn’t listen to me at all,” replied the vicar. “He said that the whole show depended on him. Perhaps I should have insisted?”

“It’s a long way to fall from that lighting tower,” said the vicar’s wife thoughtfully. “In front of all these children.”

* * *

“I simply can’t believe he’s not here,” said Judy. “I was only at his mother’s house an hour ago to double-check the fit of his trousers. He was all ready to leave.”

“No-one’s answering the phone,” said Timothy. “And the audience are getting awfully restless—we’re 20 minutes late.”

“We’ll just have to go ahead without Rupert,” decided Kylinda.

“But he’s dancing the big number,” Judy despaired. “Perhaps we should just cancel and send everyone home?”

“Cancellation is not an option,” Kylinda said firmly. “If Rupert’s not here then I’ll simply narrate his scene.”

She strode out onto the stage. For a moment Kylinda was taken aback by the size of the audience. The hall was packed; every seat was occupied. People were standing three-deep at the back and both sides. She drew a calming breath.

“Welcome to our end-of-year concert, everybody! You’ve all been waiting a while—so let’s get straight on with the performance. Our opening scene takes place in the year 1868. Timaru was a city divided into two halves: Rhodestown to the north and Government Town to the south. How could these two towns be joined together to make a city?”

Timothy hit his cue for the pre-recorded music perfectly; Judy gave the first dancers a gentle shove onto the stage.

Success is relative. As expected, during the course of the dance, several children forgot their routines. Kylinda winced at the pistol-like crack when Ermintrude’s head cannoned into Crispin’s face. One of the dancers (she didn’t see which one) accidentally urinated on stage. This happened most weeks during rehearsals, and Kylinda viewed it as an inevitable consequence of working with young children. Kenneth slipped in the urine and fell, busting his nose badly. He had to be helped off stage, dripping blood, by Judy.

But overall, Kylinda reflected, it went fairly well. The audience were smiling enthusiastically and there was a heartfelt round of applause. Most of the children left the stage looking pleased. This time last year the audience had been sniffing the air and wondering about the smell of smoke.

Kylinda’s only concern was the lighting. Mr Deaker seemed to be struggling to keep up with the pace of the show. As the second act began—a more complicated routine involving older dancers—it became apparent that he had entirely lost his place in the stage directions.

In rehearsals, the lighting of this act had been a spectacular success. Jemima dancing as the Spirit of Street Alignment had been illuminated by a follow-spotlight; other children representing the streets of Timaru had been lit in their various turns by fixed spotlights. Now the fixed spots were blinking apparently at random, while the follow-spot was brightly focussed on the stairs at the side of the stage.

Kylinda groaned as both the floodlights and fixed spotlights were suddenly doused. The sole remaining light in the hall was provided by the follow-spot, which now tracked a few steps behind Jemima and illuminated a patch of empty stage. Just beyond this pool of light, the audience could see a few hints of choreographed movement. Every so often, Mr Deaker would accidentally sweep the spotlight over one of the dancing children, giving a brief glimpse of what should have been visible.

Even professional dancers would struggle under such conditions. The sound of bodies colliding on stage was clearly audible to Kylinda; children could be heard weeping loudly in the darkness. A piercing scream came from centre stage, and after a few seconds of sluggish movement, Mr Deaker’s spotlight eventually illuminated Jemima with her teeth fastened into one of Corin’s buttocks.

Kylinda had once had her buttock bitten by Jemima, and didn’t blame Corin in the slightest for his screams. “Oh, put the spotlight somewhere else, Mr Deaker, you stupid man,” she urged silently. The spotlight continued to shine mercilessly as Judy emerged from the wings, made a valiant attempt at separation, and then eventually dragged the squealing Corin from stage with Jemima still attached to his bottom.

Kylinda walked smoothly into the vacated spotlight. “And now we have a short interval,” she announced. Her words were greeted with a surprising burst of applause; although Kylinda felt she detected a hint of pity in the clapping.

Backstage she discovered medical treatment being administered. “Breathe in,” said the vicar’s wife. “Now breathe out. Breathe in, Judy. Now breathe out.”

Judy briefly removed the paper bag from her mouth. “I’m so sorry, Kylinda, I simply couldn’t undo Jemima’s jaws. She was like a pit bull. Oh my God, my nerves are in tatters, I can’t believe you’re so calm. You must have no sense of fear.”

In a corner of the backstage area, Timothy’s schoolteacher diplomacy had persuaded Jemima to relinquish her hold on Corin’s buttock, and he was now attempting to negotiate an apology. He sent Kylinda a sympathy-filled look. “The vicar’s going to climb up and help Mr Deaker with the lights. Rupert’s still not here, but I’m sure—once the lights are sorted—that the rest of the show will be fine. Please try not to worry.”

Kylinda laughed bitterly as she swept through the side-door and into the lobby. She was several stages beyond worry now. She threaded her way through audience members congregated around the kitchen hatch, where the parish council were selling tea and buns. The glow of a cigarette-end indicated the vicar’s progress up the lighting tower.

“I don’t need any help, Vicar,” came Mr Deaker’s trembling voice from the rafters. “I’m in charge up here. The children are depending on me.”

“I think perhaps you should have a rest, Mr Deaker,” called the vicar soothingly. “I’m quite familiar with the lighting rig. I’ll just give you a short break.” He had reached the top of the ladder.

“I tell you I don’t need your damned help!” cried Mr Deaker.

Kylinda was horrified to see the two men wrestling on the lighting gantry. “Please be careful, don’t fall!”

“Mr Deaker, stop struggling, let me put down my cigarette,” shouted the vicar desperately. “Oh blast, I’ve set you on fire.”

A moment later a geyser of fire-extinguisher foam erupted from the lighting tower. The hall was abruptly transformed into a blizzard scene. Audience members gazed bewilderedly from their tea and buns at what appeared to be falling snow; a few quick-witted people used their plates as improvised shelter.

“It’s all right, Kylinda,” called down the vicar. “I’ve put him out again.”

Kylinda wiped her eyes with the collar of her blouse. Mr Deaker, a human meringue of fire-extinguisher foam, was slowly descending the lighting tower. “I’m quitting,” he announced through white froth. “I know when I’m not wanted.”

“Mr Deaker, please don’t leave like this,” protested Kylinda. “We so appreciate all your wonderful work on the lights.”

“Bugger the lot of you,” said Mr Deaker with bitter dignity. He shuffled through the lobby and out into the night.

The third act, without Mr Deaker’s talents on the lights, was a distinct improvement. The vicar turned out to have unexpected visual flair. His flashing, pulsing improvisations gave a tenfold increase in energy beyond anything that Mr Deaker had ever achieved. Kylinda felt that the sequence depicting the provincial government’s threats to annex Rhodestown achieved an almost demonic menace.

Of course, it was not entirely without problems. A brief fight broke out between two of the girls; Harriet fainted (it had been more than a month since her last episode and Kylinda had rather expected that tonight). But the audience might conceivably view the fight as part of the choreography, Kylinda consoled herself. And probably only a few people had noticed the vicar’s wife dragging Harriet off-stage by her heels.

As the scene drew to a close, Kylinda noticed Judy waving urgently from the backstage entrance. She was mouthing three words that sent Kylinda’s hopes soaring: “Rupert has arrived”.

Kylinda rushed backstage to discover a frenzy of activity. The vicar’s wife was stripping Rupert’s street clothing at top speed; Judy was standing by ready with his costume.

“Oh Rupert, sweetheart, why are you so late?” cried Kylinda. “I hope nothing’s gone wrong?”

“I can’t get anything out of Rupert at all,” said Judy, as she began frantically inserting him into his gold lamé dancing trousers. “Or his mother either.” She lowered her voice. “Mind you, his mother seems to be an awfully vague person. Is she always that way?”

The vicar’s wife paused with Rupert’s arm through one sleeve. “Now Rupert,” she said, “I wonder: has mummy been drinking a lot today—her special grown-up drink?”

Rupert, his eyes like saucers, nodded wordlessly.

“I see.” The vicar’s wife sighed. “Perhaps you might pop into the parking lot, Judy, and ask Rupert’s mother not to drive her car. I think the concert may have brought back difficult memories for her.”

Rupert was dressed and ready in the wings as the children representing the Unified Timaru Drainage Board danced off stage. Kylinda gave him a quick hug. “Now remember, Rupert, you’re the ghost of George Rhodes. I have so much faith in you. Your dancing is going to be wonderful!”

Kylinda gazed out at the packed hall and the expectant audience. Fire-extinguisher foam gleamed eerily on their clothing in the glow of the ultraviolet footlights. The curtains glided apart to reveal Rupert centre-stage as the first unmistakable bars of MC Hammer’s U Can't Touch This blared from the speakers.

“I can’t believe it,” thought Kylinda. “We’ve done it. It hasn’t been perfect, but it’s not going to be a complete disaster.”

It took her brain a few seconds to process the events that followed. The lobby doors exploding into matchwood; the lighting scaffold and wide-eyed vicar crashing down into darkness; headlights flickering crazily onto the ceiling; car horn blaring unceasingly over the screams of the audience.

Kylinda dimly recognized Rupert’s mother’s Range Rover protruding from a huge hole in the front of the hall. “Those screams from the audience,” she thought dully. “Where have I heard screaming like that before?”

“Oh yes,” she remembered, “at last year’s concert.”

* * *

Kylinda tucked Rupert into the spare bed. “I’m awfully sorry that you couldn’t do your dance tonight, Rupert.”

“Although we have to look on the bright side,” said Timothy. “No-one was hurt. Imagine the vicar falling all that way without a scratch.”

Kylinda perched on the edge of the bed, and patted Rupert awkwardly. “Mummy’s helping the police, you know, explaining how she crashed her car into the hall. But we love having visitors, don’t we, Tim? So we’re really pleased that you get to stay with us tonight.”

“We certainly are,” replied Timothy. “Actually, it’d be nice if you stayed a couple of nights, Rupert—maybe until your dad gets here? Now you go to sleep, old chap. You know where the lavatory is, don’t you? Just call out if you need anything.”

“Sweet dreams, Rupert,” said Kylinda, planting a quick kiss on his forehead.

When they finally climbed into their own bed, she lay utterly exhausted, staring blankly at the ceiling.

“What I want to know,” she said, “is where Rupert’s social worker has been all this time.”

“Norovirus, apparently,” said Timothy. “You know, honey, it really wasn’t as bad as last year. Try to focus on the successes. The hall was only partially destroyed. There was no fire, apart from when the vicar accidentally lit Mr Deaker. And that was put out immediately.”

“I’m literally inconsolable,” said Kylinda. “Please don’t attempt to cheer me up, Tim.”

“It will seem better in the morning,” he said.

After an indecently short time, Timothy fell asleep. Kylinda lay awake. The disasters of the evening replayed themselves on a continuous loop in her mind.

Finally, after what seemed like hours, she felt her body begin to relax. Her breathing slowed. Sleep hovered in the wings; gradually it settled upon her like a warm, heavy eiderdown. She was drifting into slumber, deeper and deeper, when a sudden thought jolted her awake: “The matches in the toilet.”

Kylinda slid out of bed, wriggling her feet into slippers. Opening the bedroom door, she was met by orange flames licking the wallpaper in the hall. Sheets of fire billowed up the staircase. A gentle crackling above her head told her that the attic was alight.

“Tim,” she called over her shoulder. “Wake up.”

© David Haywood, 2009.


Høstens Vemod

A few years ago, I was chatting with another father at a children’s playground in Trondheim, when the subject of høstens vemod came up.

Høstens vemod is a very important Norwegian concept,” he told me. “Perhaps the most important concept in our entire national psychology. Believe me: to understand høstens vemod is to understand Norway.”

He watched as my children circumvented the safety barriers of the guaranteed safe Swedish-designed playground and climbed precariously onto the roof of the slide tower.

“The literal translation of høstens vemod might be something like ‘autumn sadness’,” he continued. “Put simplistically, this is the sadness that you feel in autumn after the summer has passed. There is, of course, nothing wrong with autumn in Norway, it is perhaps our most pleasant season. But after autumn comes the oppressive horror of winter. Therefore we cannot enjoy the pleasures of autumn because of the unpleasant future event that lies ahead.”

“This, of course, can be extended to Norwegian life in general. How can you enjoy eating an icecream, for example, when you know that death is inevitable. Dying in a cancer ward, perhaps? Your own death ahead of you like an inexorable freight train about to crush you—that is the worst thing. This is why we Norwegians lack confidence; why we can’t properly enjoy our vast sovereign wealth funds. Even Frida Lyngstad experiences høstens vemod. Did you know she is Norwegian? People don’t warm to her because of her melancholic nature; she is the most depressing member of ABBA.

A long silence followed these words. Neither of us felt like talking. The sun had faded behind a cloud; the playground chilled as a damp gust of wind blew in from the sea. Perhaps this was the first hint of autumn, I thought. Why did I suddenly feel sad?

It is no understatement to say that this conversation has been a profound revelation to me. The høstens vemod of Norway finally put into words an emotion that I’ve suffered all my life. Perhaps not so much an obsession with the unavoidability of death, but certainly a Eeyore-ish inability to fully embrace happiness—purely as a consequence of the knowledge that, inevitably, all happiness must pass. It may even explain why my enjoyment of ABBA is only 25 per cent that of most other people.

Nevertheless—who knows how—I somehow manage to struggle on. For the last couple of years my little daughter, Polly, has been a great help with the building work to which fate has sentenced me. At first, I admit, her presence was a bit frustrating. But then she became rather useful: handing me tools, doing simple carpentry work, negotiating improved trade discounts with my suppliers. Eventually she became indispensable. In a few months, however, she will be going to school, and already I am overflowing with høstens vemod at the thought of her departure.

It is a fascinating thing, with your children, to be able to see another person’s life—a person who is often wholly different to yourself—in its full unedited format. Polly has a will of iron. Whereas her older brother had to be cajoled and persuaded (and, in some cases, threatened) through every stage of childhood development, Polly has been grimly determined to overcome every obstacle in her path. Toilet training was over in a flash; she demanded a grown-up girl’s bed before the thought had even occurred to her parents; afternoon naps were forsaken at the earliest possible opportunity.

It is perhaps only in her difficulty with bedtime that she resembles her brother. For several years Polly was unable to fall asleep except via the mechanism of an extended pushchair ride. There is a great deal of entertainment in the vicinity of our house: cows, sheep, horses, pigs, chickens, alpacas, a church, and a café where occasional icecreams are eaten. While we trundled along, Polly felt obliged to provide a travelogue of the various sights. Her disembodied voice would drift up from beneath the pushchair’s hood.

A street-light flickering into illumination could provoke an interesting observation: “I am a lighthouse. Whenever you push this button, my light goes on. And whenever my light goes on I lay an egg. These are all my eggs. Most of them are for eating, but we have to look after this one because it has a baby lighthouse in it...”

The combination of church and café and a passing police vehicle could provide culinary inspiration: “Welcome to my cafe. Would you like some steeple pancakes? They are made from church steeples. Don't worry, the church said they didn't mind. And the police gave me some of their special potion that you sprinkle over things to make them good to eat. Your baby could have a bottle? We have real breast milk. It came from my mother who died when I was a baby and all her breast milk fell out. We use the special police potion to make it taste nice and fresh...”

As the kilometres rolled by (a nine kilometre bedtime ride was not unexceptional) then Polly’s travelogue would gradually begin to fade. Long periods of silence would ensue. As I finally began to hope that our nightly journey was over, her voice would re-emerge sleepily, often with a particularly recondite observation: “Gerry Brownlee came along and tried to knock down our chicken house. Then the chickens all got free so they came and pecked his eyes out. He couldn't see so he stumbled around and around. Then he banged into his own house because he couldn't see it. And he knocked his own house down. Ha ha.”

This last item touches upon the main source of unhappiness in Polly’s life: the government. I suppose that when the government has razed your entire former neighbourhood then you are inclined to view them in a less-than-charitable light. The blind on the window next to Polly’s bedroom must always be pulled tight at night “to prevent the government getting in”; a trip to Christchurch was ruined when a shop clerk mentioned that John Key was visiting the city, and Polly hysterically demanded to be taken home in order to protect our house from government demolition.

A year or so ago, Polly several times refused to leave the house at all. “I have to stay home in case Gerry Brownlee or John Key come with diggers,” she protested tearfully. I attempted to counter her heartfelt arguments by explaining that our house was now under the jurisdiction of the district council, and therefore Gerry Brownlee or John Key had no power to make demolition orders (I admit to glossing over certain aspects of parliamentary sovereignty and the Public Works Act 1981). Polly countered my counter-argument by demanding to be taken to the district council in person for reassurances.

Our local councillor was thus proven to be a man of great flexibility in terms of job description. When Polly was ushered into his presence he immediately launched into a detailed explanation of the powers of his council in preventing Gerry Brownlee or John Key from demolishing houses. I think it was the man-traps baited with hamburgers that finally convinced Polly. We were both highly impressed by our local democracy in action.

Although Polly’s steely negotiation skills have been the source of much parental difficulty, they have certainly come in handy when visiting building and engineering suppliers. Employees in such establishments are psychologically unprepared for strong-willed customers wearing tiaras and fairy dresses. It is but a small step from praising Polly’s drawings to acceding to requests for the “junior builder’s trade discount”. Indeed I’ve had to ban Polly’s preferred farewell (“Don’t send my dad a bloody bill, okay?”) from fear that a sales clerk might actually follow her instructions and lose their job.

Grandmotherly sales clerks present an unusual problem in their tendency to praise Polly for her beauty. “Aren’t you beautiful?” is a common greeting (to which Polly would reply with devastating honesty: “I know.”). This necessitated long speeches from me about the inconsequence of exterior beauty in comparison with the vital importance of interior beauty. The devastating logic of my speeches has now prompted Polly to offer the compromise response, “I’m beautiful on the inside, too,” (sometimes ungraciously adding: “I have a brother called Bob who’s beautiful as well—but he’s only beautiful on the inside.”) A slight parental victory, I suppose.

The other awkward issue with grandmotherly sales clerks is their tendency to request too much information about Polly’s art works, which frequently produces distress in those unfamiliar with the macabre.

Grandmotherly sales clerk: What a beautiful picture of a flower!

Polly: It’s a poisonous flower.

Grandmotherly sales clerk: [in a tone of slightly mystified disappointment] Oh...

Mind you, this is exceedingly mild in comparison with some other of Polly’s artistic works. I have mixed emotions with regard to an overheard conversation about the well-known painting Daddy Driving Lawnmower, With Two Flowers.

Admiring adult: What’s this lovely picture about, Polly?

Polly: This flower and this baby flower have just been to a ball, then after the ball they got nice and clean. But now it is night time and they are asleep snuggling up to each other, but now this big one is being struck by lightning, there, see? And now it is going to die. And the baby one is dying too. The flowers are us, actually. They turn into us when they die. Over here is a baby squirrel with only one arm that we are looking after. It is going to die from the thunderstorm too. And this is the handy helper. He's watching but not doing anything. And this is Daddy, driving the lawn mower. He is driving it in the middle of the night because it has been raining and the grass keeps growing. There is more thunder coming and he is going to be dying too.

Above: Daddy Driving Lawnmower, With Two Flowers.

I feel a certain amount of guilt that my building work has deprived Polly of much of the attention that was lavished on her brother—there have been very few nature walks or rainy-day trips to museums in her pre-school years. But I suppose she has been educated in other ways. Polly recently built a stile of her own design between our property and the neighbours, and I had an embarrassing moment (half way through a lecture on how her planned structure could be improved) when I suddenly realized that her design was much better than the one that I was suggesting. It seemed a good sign that some sort of useful learning had taken place.

Polly attends the local kindergarten several days per week. I’m astonished by how much I miss her presence when she’s at lessons: the quirky observations, the surrealistic conversations, the fascinating details of her future plans. “When I go to school I shall build a beautiful gypsy caravan and live in our coppice. Then when I’m older—and if you’re not dead—I’ll live in the big house, and you and Mummy can live in my caravan. And then I’ll have children, and I’ll be the grown-up, and I’ll look after you!” It’s rather sad to think of Polly going to all-day school, and of my lonely builder’s future without her.

The head teacher at Polly’s kindergarten is an immigrant from Norway, and I felt that she—of all people—would be culturally capable of understanding my melancholy at Polly’s approaching departure to primary school. “Of course, your people have a word for this anticipatory sadness,” I added. “Høstens vemod.”

Høstens vemod?” replied the head teacher. “Really? I’ve never heard of that. I mean the actual words make sense in Norwegian, but I’ve never heard of it as any kind of cultural thing.”

She sent a text message to her brother in Norway. Her brother is a high school teacher who is known for his in-depth understanding of Norwegian culture and society. “He’ll certainly be able to clear up the mystery of høstens vemod for me,” she said confidently.

A few minutes later she received a reply. “Well no,” she said. “Apparently he’s never heard of it either.”

I now suspect that I’ve been a victim of the wry Norwegian sense of humour. My cultural informant at the children’s playground was perhaps indulging in a spot of Nordic hyperbole. All I can say is that it’s a shame to be suffering from a psychological phenomenon that doesn’t officially exist (though, if it doesn’t exist, then why does it make me so sad?). Perhaps there’s a word for it in Finnish.

Above: Polly running to school on her first day.


I Fell Down

The last time that I seriously put pen to paper (digitally speaking) was in September 2014, shortly before my grandfather died.

My grandfather had a good death. Until a fortnight or so before the end, he was in remarkably fine health: living in his own home and still driving his car all over Auckland. My aunt, a former chorister, was holding his hand and singing to him as he died. His funeral was on his 98th birthday. As I type I can hear him saying that a funeral isn't really what he wanted as a birthday present.

I'd always had a good relationship with my grandfather, but over the last few years we'd drawn even closer together. He had written two books; I had (inadvertently) become a builder. He would email me for advice on his manuscripts. I would phone him to draw upon expertise from his long career as a joiner and carpenter. A typical question from me would take the form: “I've figured out a way to do X, but I'm sure there must be a simpler method—is there a clever trick that I don't know?” There usually was.

My grandfather's absence has left a surprisingly large hole in my life; and there have been many occasions when I've found myself wishing that I could talk with him again. I certainly had a lot more to learn from him. Not only about joinery, cabinet-making, carpentry, and design, but also about the psychology of a long project on a limited budget.

My previous engineering jobs had been conducted more-or-less in series; a new project was started only after the previous one finished. But my ongoing earthquake relocation/repairs/restoration have been conducted massively in parallel: extensive landscaping, building a garage and sheds, repairing and repainting the house exterior and roof, and restoration of every single indoor room—all at the same time.

I find myself rushing from crisis to crisis, often working inefficiently as a consequence, occasionally making a rod for my own back by not dealing with a crisis in time. A recent example is the repair of a complicated bay window that I only managed to get finished and under-coated a few days before cold weather struck. In all probability the undercoat will lift over winter and I'll have to scrape it off and re-prep in spring—a depressing waste of effort.

Thrown into this mix is my son Bob's ongoing difficulties with the educational system, which has resulted in home-schooling him one day per week. We call this our Engineering Day—the theory being that Bob learns arithmetic, basic physics, problem-solving, and design via a series of small engineering projects (admittedly there might not be any actual educational evidence to support this as a theory of learning). In the evenings, a video is uploaded to his YouTube channel to prove to school that he has genuinely been doing something all day (a typical example can be found here).

I certainly don't begrudge Engineering Day with my son in any way, but the preparation and execution time further slows my building work—and, of course, makes any of my proper jobs (such as writing) even more difficult.

Undoubtedly, however, the most stressful and upsetting event of the past 18 months has been my father's near death. It seemed that we had scarcely buried my grandfather when my father became seriously ill with a bacterial infection that he contracted via a minor scratch. I know that he won't want me to dwell on any of this—but as a consequence of the bacteria infecting his heart valves, he had a stroke and then full heart-valve replacement surgery. He was left apparently paralysed (even down to his eyelids) for a frightening number of days; in a semi-coma for 24 days and under serious medical intervention in the ICU for 38 days.

Those who have been through a similar experience won't need to be told how shocking it is to see someone you love undergo an experience like this. Witnessing my father apparently paralysed and completely dependent on life-support machinery is one of the most harrowing sights of my life. As someone who finds conversation with even non-comatose people rather difficult, my attempts at cheerful and reassuring dialogue with my comatose father weren't a notable success (my brother likened it to someone saying something exceedingly stupid whilst leaving an answer-phone message, who then keeps on talking in the desperate hope of making what he's said seem somehow less stupid, during which time he manages to say a number of even stupider and more ridiculous things).

Astonishingly and thankfully—and despite the probably damaging effects of my attempted conversation—my father has managed to pull through his illness. Mentally he is completely unaffected by his ordeal; bodily he's made extraordinary progress. He has regained virtually full physical functionality, but his endurance is still very low and he must rest often. No doubt this will mend in time. He (and we his family) have had the nearest of near misses.

Perhaps this is all something of a dog-ate-my-homework-ish explanation as to why I haven't written for so long. At any rate, I should probably take this opportunity to apologize to regular readers of Southerly (if there are any left) for the very long silence. I feel that the February earthquake literally and metaphorically knocked me off my feet—and that somehow, unfortunately, I've never managed the metaphorical getting back up again.

I'm attempting to think of ways that I can provide material for this blog in my post-earthquake circumstances, but nothing is particularly coming to mind. I don't think that prose is the format for documenting my current life as a builder (my sole attempt was deathly dull); and regardless of its suitability (or not) as a format I fall asleep as soon as I sit down of an evening these days.

Something will no doubt come to mind eventually. In the next few weeks I do hope to post a few pieces of writing that have been nearly finished for some time. In the meantime I'd like to thank you all for your patience.