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Lloyd Jones: a history of silence

An exclusive extract from Lloyd Jones’s new memoir, in which the Christchurch earthquakes and the author’s many visits to the city in their wake prompt a quest to uncover long-buried family secrets.

Lloyd Jones: “Great wreaths of silence were wound around our lives and stuffed in the windows of our parents’ house.” Photo/David White

The photograph on my desk is of a country road near Christchurch ripped apart on September 4, 2010, along the Darfield fault line.

The tree in the photograph appears to be completely unmoved by the event. It retains with its single-mindedness a sovereign sense of occupancy in a world torn apart.

The photographer’s main interest, however, is in a small boy crouched by the violent crack in the road. It looks like a flesh wound made by a cutlass. The boy peers into the pits of the earth, while hanging onto his mother’s skirt. A young woman with the pained look of a teacher burst in on a classroom of trouble has rolled the front wheel of her bike to the edge of the abyss. I have an idea she is a teacher – the way she leans over her handlebars looking for something that she already knows. The same cannot be said of the boy. He has just grasped the startling reality of a world rolled on, and paper thin.

It astonishes me that none of my siblings, myself included, ever asked the kind of questions that would open up our parents’ past. But nothing much was offered to us.

Lloyd Jones’s mother, Joyce. Photo/Lloyd Jones collection

In a beguiling way, however, nothing was actually something. It was an absence that encouraged an over-respect for our present circumstances and what we made of them. To remember went against the grain of progress, an attitude more commonly associated with pioneering forebears who juggled impulses to destroy with a need to create.

Christchurch sat on similar foundations. It too had grown out of a deliberate forgetting of what it sat on. Swamp. Peat. Trapped water. River gravels. And before the experts emerged to remind everyone that the top of the spire on the Anglican cathedral in the square had fallen three times to previous earthquakes, the idea that the city squatted over an area with a lively seismic history had been conveniently forgotten.

But water has a memory. This was one of the more devastating lessons from the February 22, 2011, earthquake, and was graphically illustrated on a YouTube clip. A man shovels a pile of more or less solid soil into a wheelbarrow. He picks up the handles and begins to wheel it over a bouncy cobbled drive, and within twenty seconds the grey sludge has turned to liquid.

This is what happened to the ground bearing the foundations of the city’s buildings during the earthquake. In a few minutes a history of peat and swamp flooded a landscape thought to have drained its past.

We grew up unable to see much beyond the birth of our parents. There was no big narrative to cling to, nor tales repeated from generation to generation until they acquire their own truth. The only story to come close was about my older brother Bob shooting himself in the foot after a night of rabbit shooting, an event repeatedly described as a tale of great mirth.

There might have been more to tell if more had been shared, if questions had been asked, if information had been offered and passed along at the moment it lit up in memory. But the family trait was silence. Great wreaths of it were wound around our lives and stuffed in the windows and hallway of our parents’ house, and that is what was absorbed, that and, speaking for myself, a finely tuned ability to gauge the air in the room which at any moment might explode with the slam of a door. Someone had taken offence at something said – usually my mother. A seemingly innocent remark to her by someone commenting on the lousy weather had led her to say, “Well, don’t blame me. It’s not my fault.” Now cups of tea would have to be ferried in and days of penance paid in silences that would not be broken until my mother’s emergence from the bedroom.

It never occurred to me to ask my father if he remembered what his mother looked like, or if he had any memory at all of his father, or how many houses he lived in as a child. He did talk about his time on the goldfields, and I knew – without knowing how or why – that he was politically active in his thirties. And years later, when someone who had known him at the Wormald factory in Naenae said he was a “shit stirrer”, I was pleased to hear that, because it was not a side of him that I ever saw. I also heard that political meetings used to be held in our kitchen and that the Labour Party once asked Dad to stand in Hutt Central but he didn’t because he could barely string two words together. Why? Nobody asked or offered a reason. It was just Dad, like the hills covered with gorse that packed in around our lives, a bit rough but capable of bloom. His ability with language improved after Bob’s first wife, Ginny, a beautifully spoken part-Maori woman, gave Dad elocution lessons. By then, though, he was a man in his fifties.

Lloyd's father, Lew (far right), during the goldfield days. Photo/Lloyd Jones collection

I cannot hear his voice any more. I can hear my mother’s, but only just, a whisper, her head held to one side, querying, suspicious that she is being got at. But Dad’s voice has gone. A photograph is left to represent him. His eyes are round and motionless, like caves hollowed out by the wind. I cannot hear him speak, partly because there is always a cigarette in his mouth.

Often he is standing at the kitchen sink, staring out at the street. Mood and language moving about in their separate states. And this scene is often succeeded by another memory of him, in a bar in Kings Cross, Sydney. I am twelve or thirteen; we are on our way to Surfers, but first there is this night at the Cross to get through. And, more pressingly, there is this large thick-set American buttonholing Mum and Dad with his clean-shaven smell, his troubled eyes, and his desperation to win over my father. “Do you understand how many troops we have over there in Nam?” His voice rising and tearing thin at the stupendous thing that he is about to share. “Five hundred thousand.” My mother responds in her usual way, with disapproval, not at the information, but the intrusion, at the unwanted company. It isn’t political engagement she fears, but engagement full stop. And, as well, there is the strong whisky breath of the man. She draws in her lips and looks away to lose herself in the smoke. A heavy man tucked inside a black suit smiled and sweated over a piano. The American leant forward to get my father’s attention. “Five hundred thousand men.” He sounded amazed by his own news.

Foundations come in all forms – texture, language, heritage, entitlement. Some things are buffed to be remembered while other things fall away. One world of upheaval gradually gave way to another. I saw not so much the things that remained standing but the gaps and fissures. Like the boy in the photograph, I found myself concentrating on a portal of memory that offered, at different moments, some incidents with startling detail and others that had been cast off but lingered defiantly, as if waiting to be hauled up from the abyss where all lost things lie.

One thing became clear. The sequencing employed by the stonemasons I had seen dismantling the cathedral basilica stone by stone in order to put it back together again was not available to me. Not all the bits and pieces had been accounted for. Nonetheless a picture began to emerge of the world as I had found it, as it does for an immigrant setting his eyes on the distant heads for the first time, before he sails through and ticks them off as known.

This is an edited extract reproduced with permission from A HISTORY OF SILENCE: A MEMOIR, by Lloyd Jones (Penguin, $38), released on August 23; Jones will be appearing in Wellington on September 9 and in Auckland on September 17 in events hosted by the Listener (click here for details), as well as in Christchurch on September 11 as part of the city’s arts festival.