Christchurch, 1972. I’m with husband Denis McCauley at a party with Mongrel Mob connections. There’s more drinking than conversation. We’re standing beside a table and a youngster with flowing black hair is hiding underneath in order, we are told, to avoid the gang initiation ritual of sculling beer from a gumboot. He’s not a joining kind of person and, besides, the gumboot is his own and disgusting – he has weedy feet. My first meeting with Pat Hammond. He was 15.
No doubt I’d seen him at other times among the clientele at 6A, a drop-in centre where I volunteered. It was frequented by a lot of young guys, almost all Māori or Polynesian. When its doors closed in the evening some would have nowhere to go (and some would but preferred to hang out with their mates.) A young man known to his friends as Johnny Sly had come to live with us and our two young children, and Chong Long, our Malaysian student boarder. Johnny was joined by a trickle of streetkid friends who would arrive to sleep for a night or two.
Lili came to us to some months later to plead Pat’s case. (She was another 6A regular and already the embryo social worker she went on to become.) He was more in need of a home, she said, than those who were currently taking advantage of our hospitality. She arranged for Pat to visit us. He brought along a mate for support. They both stayed that night, then Pat stayed on forever.
Since becoming homeless Pat had already hitch-hiked to Nelson and back to Christchurch. His mother Magdalene had died when Pat was nine – he remembers running up the driveway after the ambulance that took her away. He was the middle child in a family of nine and the eldest of five who shared the same father, Pat (Ernie) Hammond. Father Pat was brought in handcuffs from prison for his wife’s tangi.
The younger children were then divided up among Magdalene’s mother and siblings and (though it was many years before they would talk about it) were regularly subjected to abuse – physical, sexual and verbal. In his teens Pat – along with his half-sister Maryjane and, sometimes, his sisters Pauline and Annemarie – went to live in the safer but over-crowded home of his father, stepmother and the stepmother’s handicapped son. When Maryjane, the sibling he was closest to, left home, Pat followed. Some nights he was able to stay with Maryjane and her boyfriend, other nights it was the Christchurch City Mission – sleeping outside on the balcony because 16 was the minimum age for legal Mission hospitality.
He’d been with us a few months when his father died. Someone brought the news and details of the tangi. Pat wouldn’t go. Not even if someone went with him. Apart from one uncle he didn’t know his father’s whānau. For much of Pat’s life his dad had been absent. Pat Senior was a hard worker and an alcoholic who railed against hippies and layabouts and who (Pat suspected) engineered his son’s selection into the Canterbury Junior First XV rugby team.
If so, guile was not a quality the young Pat had inherited. He seemed, in fact, precariously transparent in a devious world. He was kind, constantly curious – What does that word mean? Why do you think that? – and inconsistent.
It’s maybe a year later. Johnny Sly has left us to live with his girlfriend. Others still drift in to crash for a few days or weeks as the need arises; there’s Big Joe and Little Joe, Foof and Caroline, Jimmo, Marie and a girl called Pat, so male Pat becomes Paddy for differentiation.
And Paddy keeps getting arrested for telling policemen to fuck off. They also arrest him for being drunk, then ring us to go pay a fine (I presume for the police social fund) and collect him. On one occasion when a couple of policeman stride into our home uninvited, Paddy asks to see a search warrant. They warn him how easily they could invent an offence with which to charge him. This is now our life.
My husband scores a freebie to the US with a one-night stop over in Tahiti. When he get home he tells me he has met the woman he wants to spend the rest of his life with. His soulmate. He leaves home, moves into a flat and quits his job. It’s a lot to take in. The children are bewildered, Chong Long and the resident streetkids are kind and concerned, but they seem like a problem I don’t need. I ask them to leave asap. They do. Well, all except Pat, who never quite seems to have somewhere to go. I don’t actually mind. His is a comforting presence. I am a mass of angular pain and I like that he is transparent. He plays games with my kids and occasionally manages to make me laugh. We are mates.
Weeks pass. The casual boarders drift back. Denis brings Tahitian Tina out to New Zealand and the children go to visit them. He and I see a lawyer. At home Pat and I teeter on the hazardous brink of ruining a good friendship. He is 16, and therefore legally seduceable. That, he claims now, is what happened.
Our house was in Merivale which at the time was in the throes of gentrification, and Pat had a nice mellow voice (which he used, often, to mimic friends or adversaries). The combination of voice and address scored him a number of job interviews for positions which were suddenly taken when Pat turned up. Thanks to a probation officer he eventually got work on a building site but it was temporary. Some of this made it into my novel, Other Halves.
A play I had written for television was being made in Auckland and I was flown up. In Auckland airport I literally ran into Denis who, with Tina, was about to depart for the UK.
I, too, was wanting to leave Christchurch. My oldest friend had moved Waiheke Island, so when I had a free day I tracked her down. Back in Merivale I announced that we were going to live on an island. Pat didn’t want to come, but neither did he want to be left behind. The terrifying truth was we were in love.
Waiheke wasn’t just an off-shore island, it was a whole new world. In Christchurch total strangers would stare, sometimes hiss or spit at us in the street if we dared to hold hands or even walked close together. On Waiheke we were unremarkable; a couple, two kids and a cat.
For the first few months Pat had nightmares in which ‘the boys’ from Christchurch would pile off the ferry and descend on us, dragging us back into the dreadful past. Even our poverty was an island norm. Marcia Russell, editor of Thursday magazine, had kindly given me a fortnightly column but that wasn’t enough to support a family of four. The only unskilled work available on the island was the intermittent PEP scheme in which Pat and other unemployed workers picked periwinkles off rocks or slashed the gorse which grew (and then regrew) on a Māori Affairs-owned farm where the Pākehā manager called Pat a “nigger” (and was later convicted of claiming payment for mythical workers).
We bought a house for $10,000, a wooden clinker dinghy, a permanently lame horse called Fred, and a rooster and hens. A friend gave us Toby, a rescue spaniel, and my daughter adopted two white rats called Elvis and Fonzi. Best of all, we made friends that would turn out to last a lifetime.
I bought a quarter share in the Gulf News and rode Fred to interview (sometimes jaw-dropping, never boring) Waiheke residents. A lady of newsworthy age told me that the only person she had ever hated in her long life on the island was the unseen drummer who regularly practised in a house nearby. I didn’t confess that this was Pat. He was about to join Island, his very first band.
And ‘the boys’ from Christchurch did eventually arrive, but only two of them. First Johnny Sly, then Jimmo. Johnny’s was just a sentimental visit but Jimmo, with his girlfriend and his addiction, was looking for somewhere to stay. Not, we said hastily, with us. Drugs were plentiful on the Island, as were solo mothers. I saw both as a threat to our happy home. There had been drugs, of course, in Christchurch, but not as various or easily available. And the Waiheke solo mothers seemed a particularly assertive species. As he reached his 20s Pat had become startlingly handsome – a fact he was well aware of.
The ease of life on Waiheke began to bother my Calvinist soul. I believed in the value of working; sitting around getting high on assorted substances didn’t seem like a route to self-respect. Plus there were those predatory solo mothers. We had been on a trip to the beautiful Hokianga where people were friendly and being Māori didn’t seem to mean you would never be offered a job.
After six Waiheke years, we rented out our little Palm Beach house and moved north. Not quite to the Hokianga where there were simply no houses available, but to the outskirts of Okaihau. Pat got a job with a forestry contractor. He was one of a crew that was mainly Māori. A few weeks in he said to me, “I know you wanted to get me here so I would be with my own kind. But it’s too late; I’m a brown hippy.”
He joined up with a band and they played in rural halls where trestle tables sagged beneath country suppers. Other Halves was published and we became a famous couple. But this cut no ice when it came to legal matters like buying a house. Denis McCauley had arranged an ‘in absentia’ divorce when he and Tina had visited Mexico, and sent me a copy. It was in Spanish and possibly not legal, but no one seemed to know. So Pat and I got married in Kaikohe with ex-Waiheke friends as our witnesses.
There was, at the time, national controversy over the use of the spray 2-4-5-T. It had been a central ingredient in the infamous Agent Orange defoliant in Vietnam and had been banned in many countries, but our Ministry of Health insisted it posed no danger. In Northland it was widely used on land designated for forest planting. One day, as Pat and two workmates were clearing a block with chainsaws, they were sprayed from above by a helicopter.
It was a few weeks before his health began to deteriorate and then it declined steadily. Chronic exhaustion, dizziness, depression. Alcohol made him collapse. No cause was found, and any suggestion of poisoning was brushed aside by local doctors. (People reporting similar symptoms were emerging in other parts of New Zealand. It was called, at first, Tapanui Flu. Then it become M.E. and now it’s known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.) Finally, admitted to Kawakawa hospital, Pat was told he was suffering from the aftermath of over-excitement due to the publicity for Other Halves.
They sent the hospital psychologist to his bedside. “Get out of here,” she advised. “They refuse to admit there is such a thing as 2-4-5-T poisoning, which is what I believe you have.”
We were told of a open-minded doctor in Auckland and went down to see him. He suggested Pat went on the (long) waiting list for Dr Matt Tizard. Tizard’s methods were controversial but anything seemed worth a try. I applied for a writing fellowship at Auckland University, and was given it when their first choice fell through. It was almost impossible to find an affordable rental home in Auckland at short notice. By now my son was a fisherman on Stewart Island but my daughter, with a final year of schooling ahead, still lived at home. We had some good friends in Auckland but it was a harrowing time.
The treatment arranged by Dr Tizard involved sessions in a diving chamber plus mega doses of vitamin C. We were less than optimistic but there was nothing else on offer.
It worked. Within weeks – a shorter time span than predicted – Pat was able to take on a job delivering whiteware in Auckland suburbs.
My year at Auckland University had ended and, even though Pat’s job was reasonably well paid, we couldn’t afford (and didn’t want) to live in the city. Nor would we risk the forestry and disbelieving doctors of Okaihau. Pat’s sister Pauline and her family were living in Masterton, which was not too far from my ageing father. Pauline’s husband was a freezing worker and confident Pat would get work there.
So we moved again, and Pat began work at Waingawa freezing works. After the first few days he came home and said, “Don’t tell anyone but never have I been paid so much for doing so little.” Waingawa was shut down 18 months later and Masterton became a town of dwindling redundancy payouts with no job prospects. Pat and I did research into establishing a recycling business and presented our plan to the Masterton and Carterton Councils. Carterton Council gave us the nod, but the much larger Masterton turned us down. Within a few months they were advertising for someone run a recycling programme.
By then Pat had been accepted for a sound engineering course with Polynesian Performing Arts back in Christchurch. He would need to board there and we had a mortgage in Masterton, and only had my freelance income. Social Welfare said Pat, being married, didn’t quality for any kind of boarding or living allowance; he would have to forgo the course. We explained all this to a lawyer who drew up a separation agreement which we duly presented at the welfare office. Pat was granted a benefit. I heard via the grapevine that welfare staff in Masterton were watching our house in case he visited.
The separation didn’t last long. Pat liked his classmates but was miserable. Christchurch was full of bad memories but I moved back with the dog and the cat. The following year Pat and three other class graduates were offered a follow-up work experience year. But after that, nothing. He got casual work unloading ships and picking apples. In the orchards he worked alongside a man who was in the process of setting up a forest consultancy business. He said that if Pat set up as a sylvaculture contractor, he could put work Pat’s way.
So began H & H Forestry Contractors. At first it was Pat and a mate, but it grew to a company employing 16 staff. They planted and pruned throughout Canterbury and sometimes beyond. There was no shortage of jobs. I reluctantly became the office worker and pay clerk for 15 years.
It’s 2004. My father’s farm near Dannevirke has been left to my sister and me. It is in need of much TLC and I am in need of some country living. We’ve been through this before; Pat wanting to stay in Christchurch but not wanting to be left behind.
He comes with me. Us, five hens, a dog and two cats. We’ve left behind our nice big house, neighbours with vicious dogs and some lovely friends, for a barren semi-derelict house and a badly maintained farm, still under lease. Pat builds fences and works in town at the carpet mill until we reorganise the lease and become unprofitable farmers. Then he’s back in another job as truck driver/ factory worker, despite the ever-increasing hand tremor that has been with him since adolescence.
At 62 he’s chainsawing firewood when a log slides down, crushing and piercing an ankle. At the hospital they build it back with screws and metal plates. He can walk again, but after a time his legs begin to behave as erratically as his hands. A brain-to-limb communication breakdown.
The eventual diagnosis is some unusual type of dystonia, which in turn is a rare type of motor neurone affliction. No cure – not even, as yet, any effective medicinal relief – and it will steadily worsen. The cause is likely to be genetic but 2-4-5-T poisoning has been mooted as a possible factor.
When neither your hands or legs are fit for purpose there’s not a lot a person can do. On the sofa where he spends most days I hear Pat talking to his older half-brother who lives in Brisbane. Pat’s recalling how, at the hands of their uncles, he was hit with timber, kicked, threatened with an axe. “But I hardly think about it any more,” he says.
We would both like to believe that society is now more enlightened; that children, regardless of circumstances or race, will be given the protection and opportunities they need and deserve. So far there’s not much evidence to support this.
Pat’s never read the books I’ve written but boasts about their brilliance. (I find this both endearing and embarrassing.) He also boasts about our children and grandchildren, but not about himself. After 50 years of being together in an ‘unsuitable relationship’ there’s one thing we’ve learnt; romantic love can last a lifetime.
His dystonia is cruel. At this point Pat can’t clean his own teeth or sign his name or raise a glass or walk unaided. But he can still play drums. Every few days his guitarist friend Craig from down the road arrives and they play rock’n’roll. On fine days they put the speakers out on the verandah and broadcast the lovely music of Van Morrison, Rolling Stones, Credence Clearwater etc to our animals, the hills and the dancing river.
Landed by Sue McCauley (Bateman, $37.99) is available in bookstores nationwide. Sue will appear on a panel alongside novelists Murdoch Stephens (Down from Upland Road) and Fiona Sussman (The Doctor’s Wife) at the Auckland Writers Festival next weekend in a session chaired by ReadingRoom literary editor Steve Braunias.