The Reversal or, The Stirring of the Taniwha

by Vincent O'Sullivan / 03 January, 2004

Susan of Karori was plumpishly attractive, thoughtful, and wore a bone carving before it was a sign one now earned sixty thousand a year, and had attended a compulsory course on the Treaty. She was also just a little bored with life. The children were doing well at school, her husband Simon had joined a club only a notch below the Wellington. Yet she wondered, sometimes, what more life might have to offer, as even Joan of Arc, before her voices, may have wondered amidst the clattering of pots and pans.

The trouble with Susan, her sister-in-law Melanie said, was that she took reality for granted. She had never been calibrated, politically. Yet it was from all that so easily defined her, from suburbia, from the conventionally half-contented, that her world, like some great scrum, quite literally would turn round.

When the Dominion Post, a few days after Black Saturday, ran its ten reasons for New Zealanders not to despair, she sat at the kitchen table, and thought deeply. Simon, who had never played much more sport than table tennis twenty years back at a student camp at Otaki, lay in bed and refused to face the day. When Susan rang in to his government department to say he was ill, the two telephonists and their senior administrator failed to answer their phones. The country was not only hurting. It was failing to turn up. When Susan took her husband a herbal tea at noon, he said "Only al-Qaeda can explain a thing like this." He wondered when Helen Clark would make her move against the Axis of E. He told his wife to switch off the Concert Programme, which was playing Verdi's Requiem for the second time.

Susan went back to the kitchen and again sat at the table. Her fingers played at the bone pendant at her throat. Absently, her forefinger traced the intricate swirl of the carving, one, two, three times. Her mind too began to turn, circle, consider things as though from a distance, from an ascending yet enlightening height. There was a clarity that freed her, one might say, from contingency and quotidian dross. For Susan was experiencing what later became known as the Moment of the Fern. It was the moment, she said, when the doors of perception swung wide, and the revelation came to her. When she saw, and saw as well its train of implications, the heave of the Taniwha.

And from the vision came the reality, and in the reality the freshening of green paddocks made greener yet. For something of the abovementioned Joan had entered her. And a fair dollop of Colin Meads. Susan's reaction was immediate. She spent an afternoon with the Prime Minister. An evening with the Chief Justice. Janet Frame sent messages of support, not cheerful, yet nevertheless uplifting. In Auckland, Pam Corkery on the airwaves talked of thinking of considering the possibility of thoughtful silence. From London, Our Kiri offered a gown for multi-coloured pennants. While Susan's sister-in-law Melanie, from her office in Gender Studies on Kelburn Parade, took the idea and ran with it, "The mere handmaiden," as she said, "of the New Covenant." The top brass at Rugby Union HQ were shocked, but carried by the logic of what was put to them. "It has to be said," Susan said on television, "it has to be said that menfolk by and large have accepted a new and challenging role."

In the family itself, life changed profoundly. Melanie called for Susan at six in the morning. They worked out in the gym till eight. There was talk of weights and pumping and pecs and quads. They swam at the Freyberg Pool on the way home. Simon had breakfast waiting for them.

"I'm not so sure, Simon," Melanie said, taking in the room, "whether roses and tulips go together like that?" She edged the vase aside as she spoke.

"Go easy," Susan defended. "He didn't know a rose a fortnight ago."

Simon laughed good-naturedly as he set down the eggs benedict from the warming drawer. He found he was smiling a lot more than he had ever done before, especially if there was a note of criticism. Andrew watched his dad and wondered was his face hurting, moving it like that all the time? But Aunt Melanie broke in and told the boy if he wanted a lift to school he had better pull finger. "And put those ballet tights away neatly," he was told. "You can't expect your father to pick up after you."

"And the dishes," Andrew cheeked her under his breath, "remind me to load those into the dishwasher too, why don't you?" While his sister already sat in the car, her jersey and shorts just tossed any old how across the back seat. When Aunt Melanie let them off she scarcely spoke to Andrew. "You'll be right for walking home?" she said. But she told Alice she would pick her up after practice, was five all right?

"Just make sure you're there," Alice told her. "I'm fair rooted by then, so I don't want to have to hang round."

"I'll be there," Aunt Melanie promised.

So The Reversal went. The nation's entire psyche, as Kim Hill put it in her new "Mild Considerations" slot, had not only gone up a notch, but regrouped, re-formed, was ready to take it to them, whoever "them" might be. The day of those swirling dervishes at centre-field was history, mate.

And Susan was the first to take the needle. A TV sequence that became iconic showed her lying on a leather-topped table as the artiste poised above her thigh with what looked like a dentist's drill. So the populace watched as the first prick rose into a dot, the dot flowed to a line, the line wound towards a whorl, until her buttocks were transformed to two intricately incised mounds. The country followed suit. Shabby tattoo parlours along K Road and in South Dunedin, Cuba Mall and Worcester Street, opened premises at St Heliers and Maori Hill, in Khandallah and Fendalton. A Mrs Muriel Perkins, the oldest resident in any retirement home in the North Island, told Holmes she had neither seen nor heard of anything to compare with it, since the queues she remembered for enlisting back home in Glasgow in World War One. (She thought it better to put it like that than allude to condom queues

in Cairo she had heard of from her husband, long deceased.)

But to keep a short story short, destiny took its way with sprigged and irresistible steps. Lemon & Paeroa became sponsors for those who would wear the Fern; men made sausage rolls for aftergame functions in a hundred junior clubrooms throughout the land. Lingerie firms competed for corporate boxes at Eden Park. While Susan's game plan, apart from its obvious gender exchange factors, was officially kept under wraps. Although the country had no doubts. This time it would be different. This time we would be ready. And in that way we have been taught to read the greater by the smaller, the big picture by the telling fragment, take note that Susan and Simon had never been happier, nor their offspring more typical of national family life, as Andrew complained how nothing mattered now that prize dork Alice had been made vice-captain, and how he was the one who copped it for leaving his music on the bus.

"YOU RECKON IT'S A GOER THEN?" Melanie said, raising her voice above the blaring talkback.

"Goer?" Susan said. "Will it go?" She turned and called to the woman behind the bar, "Turn that Marie Deeker squawk down there will you, sport?" Her hand then raised the frosted Steinie as her lips pouted to meet it. "Better in than out," she said, downing the amber.

"As the actress said." Melanie completed the routine. Their tilted stubbies glinted in the afternoon sun. They watched for a minute in silence the distant group of four men on the fairway. At least two had try-hard written all over them.

"I'd prefer the days when they're not here, mind," Susan said. Then she held her sister-in-law's gaze. "I'm surprised you even asked that, Melanie. As if it could be anything else? Except a goer."

So to the day, and the occasion, of the first trans-Tasman rematch since the Cup. Small businesses changed hands in the frantic bidding for tickets. Susan was asked, from the Beehive itself, would she appear on TV for an all-channels simultaneous telecast. To ask for calm and order, whatever

happened. And then, unscripted, she went on to add, "As if 'whatever' comes into it!"

Eighty seconds into the game one knew exactly what she meant. The game had started in a fairly typical way - the opposing team bored rigid by the terrors of the haka, a kick-off that went to the wrong side of the field. There was a groan from the Male Standing Room Only corner of the ground. Was the Reversal already a flop, a con, another disappointment we would have to survive? But the ungendered stands, the Sisters' pavilion, the lingerie boxes, none of these were fazed by that sad little flurry of testosterone.

Epiphany was not long in coming. The daughters of the Taniwha were indeed on song. After the first breakdown in play, the first scrum set. For as the eight splendidly physiqued and confident black jerseys levelled and engaged, the already skimpy black shorts rode high, then higher still. The whorls and scoops and intricacies of massed tattoo seemed to stir, to shimmer, with a potency that went beyond mere sixteen-sided mortal haunches. The individual markings moved into one being, a being that seethed and heaved and undulated with unleashed intent. The erupting stadium realised that this was no mere test match. What they saw in front of them, in the coruscating heave of thighs, was something else again. What they saw were the scales of the Taniwha aroused to avenge!

The backline too bent to reveal, beyond the wink of flesh, the markings and the signs. It flickered like a tail behind the scrum and across the park. The mythic scales coiled and unclenched, retracted and crushed beyond mere human strength. For forty minutes they irridesced and elongated, compacted and flowed out. As one, a nation buttocked into glory.

The opposition did not take the field for the second half. "I knew from the first," Susan said. "I knew straight off it was sacred site territory we were moving into, and that they'd know that too. That there was nowhere left for them to go but off."

She faced the bank of TV cameras and microphones tiered in front of her. A journalist from the ABC put to her, with a reverence quite out of character, the question of where then did that leave New Zealand rugby?

"I'll tell you where," Susan said, her intensity searing her interlocutor like a blowtorch. Her legs were crossed and her rucked shorts displayed a runic cosmos that spoke for itself. But as she put it into words, "I'll tell you this for free," she said. "If there's no one left to play - and there isn't - and the Taniwha gives them all the arse - and it does - then we're un-, that's what I'm saying, we're un- and don't you forget it, we're totally and forever unbloody playable."

She looked at the media of the world. "Am I right?" she said.

No one spoke.

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