They welcomed me with open arms even though they knew I was a signed up paid up and vocal member of the Labour Party when I was younger. Much younger, in my teens and twenties. But this is a desired stage of political awareness, as Churchill supposedly said, before we develop mature conservative brains and allow them to overwhelm our childish socialist hearts.
Through my thirties I let politics drift, not interested in it at all, not that I would tell that to the National Party. During those years I experienced a certain sense of hopelessness. The problems of the world – nuclear threat, pollution, overpopulation, rapid extinction, global warming – were overwhelming. Enough to depress anyone with half a brain, conservative or not.
Then I got interested again, saw the world in a different, more positive way. It was my whakapapa that fast tracked me, got me nominated to stand and then elected as the Member for —— . Not only the vast donations contributed for decades by my father and grandfather provided extra propulsion, but also my great-grandfather, Prime Minister Hector Hutchinson. Not many people remember him. They think it went Holyoake, Nash and back to tiny kindly King Holyoake. But our Hec came in the middle. Boom times and good times, National back in power after a brief Labour government, part of the accumulated 47 years of National administration in the 87 years the party has been in existence. We are, as has often been remarked, the natural government for New Zealand.
Hec has his picture on the wall in the party headquarters. We look alike, him and me – square jaw, spreading nose, wet mouth, slight stoop, heavy thighs and sinewy forearms, not that you can see all of that in the photograph. These attributes looked better on him than they do on me, being male, but they are features that have helped me advance solidly and rapidly. I am famously ugly and famously dependable. Gargoyle, the left-wing press call me, a play on my name Gayle Goyle, so not all that clever, not all that flash.
The election is two months away and this evening I am in Auckland’s CBD, meeting with disaffected CEOs, CFOs, CPAs and CMOs. The woman who greets me was in my year at Nga Tawa and possibly remembers my youthful tendencies. No sign of it in her face, which is almost exactly as I remember it, smooth and flawless, in those days from Roaccutane and now from blepharoplasty, rhytidectomy and dermabrasion. It was my husband Martin who taught me the proper terms, a celebrated plastic surgeon who quite possibly operated on my old schoolmate. He is necessarily discreet, as am I, his brave and ugly wife. People ask him “Isn’t there something you can do for her, poor thing?” He can only tell them what I have told him, that I am a feminist and philosophically opposed to enforced female mutilation. In some respects I outwardly retain my early liberal pretensions.
The disaffected corporate internationalists and I are dining at a waterfront restaurant renowned for seafood. Above the clouds of assorted perfumes rove aromas of ocean bounty, of chaperoning garlic and chilli, sweet basil and saffron; delicious promises that tantalise me throughout my speech and I am grateful that at its close I can join the milieu at the table. It’s another gene from Hec, apparently, my keen sense of smell and appreciation of flavour. All those wasted years I was terrified, a half-starved vegan in self-denial, trying to save the world. Pathetic. I remember, soon after my election, when Judith was in charge, some bleeding heart went to her about the destruction of wetlands – the nurseries of the sea – and Crusher said she couldn’t care less about swamps and for the bleeding heart to go and find someone who did.
I use this story to illustrate the nub of it, the reason I returned to my political roots. The deep comfort that is offered by the right. This is the world as it should be, not as it is. The bountiful hopefulness of the central message – eat, drink, be merry and trickle down. If you are middle class, why would you vote any other way? The world can be like that, for you. Don’t fret.
Yes, I assure these well-fed men and plastic-faced sweetly fish-smelling women, there is no cause of concern. The top 10 percent may be in possession of 85 percent of the wealth, but you are a very necessary ten percent. Without you we would be lost. Among you, the glorious 10 percent, are the movers and shakers, the innovators, the employers, the manufacturers. I promise to look after you so that you keep your money here, in New Zealand. We need you. We need you now more than ever after years of lolly scrambles.
The wine flows and the mood is buoyant. Everyone agrees Labour has made a pig’s ear of it, betraying core voters, dissipating Cindy’s cockeyed fairytale vision and acting like dickwads generally, and that this is an excellent thing. There is almost no doubt at all that National will win the election. I eat dessert – a perfectly caramalised raspberry crème brulee – with a man from —– Oil, who wants reassurance that we will resume private applications for offshore oil exploration permits. He is persistent – too persistent. Come and see me in Wellington, I tell him. Let’s talk then. The road ahead will be clear. A man from the agricultural industry wants reassurance that National won’t give any more money to the bloody Maoris and put a stop to the effing Waitangi Tribunal. It’s when I try to answer him that I realise I’m slurring.
A government car waits for me on the Quay, a 7-series BMW. The driver is a man I know, and whom I suspect of Labour tendencies. When I miss my footing at the kerb and fall into the back seat, banging my head, he catches my eye in the rear vision mirror.
“Few too many, Gayle?”
I maintain a lofty silence, sit myself up, strap myself in. To tell the truth, I do feel a bit queasy, which the driver possibly knows. He seems to be swerving around the corners and braking too hard, which doesn’t assist my equilibrium. It is suddenly very cold. Goosebumps rise on my strong forearms, there is an icy draft around the back of my neck. My head thumps.
“Turn the heater up would you Jake?”
He makes no move to do so. Instead, he brings the car over to the shoulder of the road and turns off the engine. It is bleak, dark mid-winter, a single streetlight blurring in misty rain, six weeks until voting day.
“Jake? This isn’t right. Not here. Take me to Paritai Drive. You know where I live, God dammit.”
We seem to be on a grassy headland, above the sea. Did I doze off for a moment or two? Is this Micky Savage Memorial? Bastion Point? I’ve lost my bearings. The driver is getting out of the car and coming around to open my door. He has a hard arm around me and he is walking me towards a looming obelisk.
It is the memorial! For Pete’s sake.
“I know what it says,” I tell him, snappy, but still slurry. “Savage’s name and dates and ‘He Loved His Fellow Men’. Soppy crap.”
“I don’t know where you think you are,” says Jake, but his voice sounds different. Old-fashioned. The way New Zealanders of a certain class used to talk. His profile has changed. His jaw is stronger, his lips wet. The arm around my waist is ridged with tendons and veins. He is shorter than me, a small square fighting dog of a man, his back stooped.
I am shivering with terror, struggling to hear what he’s saying. It’s raining heavily now and the wind is strengthening, harbour choppy with whitecaps in the encompassing gloom.
“No one comes here anymore because they knocked it down. I am forgotten. But you have a chance. The National Party wasn’t always like this, you know. We used to look after ordinary New Zealanders. Prided ourselves on our social conscience. Made provision for the old, the sick, the disadvantaged, the battlers. We didn’t sell off citizenship or make deals with foreign owned corporations. Prime Ministers lived simply. They didn’t brag about being worth 30 million.”
He’s blathering on, water dripping from his flattened nose.
“Jake? Jake! What have you done with Jake?”
“Don’t make me ashamed, girl. You have to look for it, find it. Promise me you will.”
“Find what?” I’m glad this ancestor died years before I was born. He’s bossy, annoying, a pain in the arse.
My husband on one side, Jake on the other, I am being helped into the foyer at Paratai Drive, head lolling, feet dragging mud across the white pure wool carpet.
“How did she get so wet?”
“Don’t know,” says Jake.
My husband sniffs at me, as if he’s making sure it’s just water. Of course it is, Martin!
“Was it raining when you picked her up?”
“Must’ve been. She banged her head as she got into the car.”
Tenderly my husband helps me upstairs, towels me dry and puts me to bed. I would like to tell him what happened but neither of us believe in ghosts, or any kind of spiritual life at all. Martin would lose his respect for me. I had a bang on the head. That’s what did it. That’s all it was.
“I’ll get you a glass of water.” Martin flicks off the lamp and leaves the room.
But I’m not alone. Hec Hutchinson is here. He’s followed me. I feel sick. I’ve gone mad. He’s smiling at me, sitting on the edge of the bed. Water drips from his clothes onto the duvet and pools around his feet.
“Leave me alone!”
“Promise me,” he says again. “The National Party is descended from the Liberals, who gave women the vote in 1893 and introduced the pension in 1898. We subsidised workers housing, helped the widows and the blind, introduced the family benefit so that every mother had a little coin of her own for the kids. We cared more about small businesspeople and your average working drone than we did big corporations. That’s who we were. Wasn’t just Micky who loved his fellowman.”
“Listen, Grandad. We haven’t been like that for a century. The world has changed. You don’t know anything about it. We’ve got trickle down. Go away.”
“Gayle?” Martin is so alarmed the water shivers in the glass. In the light from the door his shadow is quivering. “Are you all right? Who are you talking to?”
Great-grandfather Hec leans closer and pats me with his clammy white hand. “Promise me,” he whispers, “You must find the lost heart of the National Party. I won’t leave you alone until you do.”
Remember my name. Gayle Goyle. If you see me out on the hustings you might notice a certain dampness to my skin, a feverish fervent glint in my eye. You might detect a new depth to my voice, a growing reputation for subversiveness and steely businesslike resolve to save the world.
You might just want to vote for me.
This concludes our five-week election campaign series of five short stories imagining party candidates running for parliament.