The first time she went out to Jocko’s, she was drifting and he seemed to be carved from the very rock.
She hadn’t been in that part of the country for years. She’d been away, amongst books, amongst others who were amongst books. And now, the so-named “Heart of the Desert” was no less barren, no less forbidding, for the evidence of change and the intimations of new wealth. The road over the bridge and up the incline of the Bannockburn Road still lay bare and sun-bleached, an exposed throat of dusty skin. The land still retained its crumpled silence, desiccated and wheat-gold next to the Kawarau River. The rising slopes of vines, ordered and green in their rows, drew further attention to the character of the place by contrast; yet, for all their difference, they did not seem out of place. Their bright lines met the solemn procession of poplars along the roadside peaceably. Even the suggestion of industry, of the people and activity invested in the production of such straight green rows, was not entirely incongruous in the sweep of untamed space. The river flowed past a continuum of human activity, as the fresh green strokes of viticulture took over from the jagged silhouette of the old gold sluicing. The Chinese prospectors, who had once scrabbled along the rough banks, scorched in the summer and frozen in the equally harsh winters, would recognise the principle alive in the neighbouring vineyard. To extract something from the land, to use its brutality, knowing it held beauty. A thousand lonely deaths in mud huts and rock caves hadn’t roused the attention of this place, just as a thousand stretches of leafy vines hadn’t tempered it. The grey and brown rose and fell, airless below a taut sky.
Sabine knew the Bannockburn Road, the pull up the hill, and the brief crest with its outlook over the Carrick Range. The satisfaction of driving that road was a feeling less outwardly emotional than arriving back in New Zealand two weeks ago and seeing her home town, Wellington, from the air again. It was more of a stirring, something that felt ancient. As though her attachment to that place had in fact preceded her existence, as though her childhood holidays had merely located an association and an affection that was already within her. She wanted to pull over and touch the grass. It would feel hot and prickly.
“You’ve come,” Helen had greeted her at the Queenstown airport, after the brief flight south from Wellington, skipping over the alps and lakes with her book unopened in her lap. “I’m just so pleased. I thought you might just change your mind once you were back.”
That Helen had assumed she would have options upon her return to the country made Sabine more comfortable. Her aimlessness was her own to consider, privately.
“You okay?” Helen had then asked carefully, and so Sabine knew that her mother had briefed Helen after all. Her astute mother knew that her daughter was experiencing the conclusion of her travels as a death of sorts. The decision to return home had been Sabine’s own. She had cast her chips in with her homeland, chosen connection and belonging over exploration and independence. But once the decision was made, after six glorious years away (five summers of travel in Europe and Africa; four jobs paying between minimum wage and three times what she expected to earn here; two tattoos, neither planned; one Swedish boyfriend who played the flute and smoked his own fish), she was afraid that those connections were a product of sentiment, imagined, and could only be glimpsed from afar. Was she setting herself up for disappointment? Her mother had suggested that maybe a working holiday at Helen’s would give her some space to think. Space to readjust. Space to make some decisions about The Future.
As they had driven away from the airport, the physical space of Central Otago had been mercy itself, stretching wide and high till Sabine felt herself to be nameless and unobserved. The unmoving massive of the mountains and the arid patience of the land folded her into its anonymous embrace.
And so she was here, with two days of November sun on her skin, winding along the Bannockburn Road in Helen’s car, the directions sketched on a leaf of PGG Wrightson notepaper lying on the passenger seat. He would be expecting her, Helen had said, and would have the painting ready for her.
The driveway, when it came, was really just a track. It was rutted earth, where clumps of dry stalky grass yielded a break between scrubs and low trees. Parallel marks showed where a car swept up and into the property the same way every time. The parting trees revealed a flat shelf of land and a long, low cabin holding its back to the hillside. The veranda looked cool and dark under the generous eaves, and old, like the wood would feel smoothed from years of bare feet. Sabine parked next to a hoary Land Rover. The pleasure of climbing out and stretching her legs, twisting her back slowly and comfortably from side to side, made her forget for a moment that she hadn’t just arrived home after a long and hot journey, but that she was here on business. Someone else’s business, moreover. And her client was emerging from the house.
She took a deep breath and called out a hello. “Mr Haines?”
The old man squinted down at her, one eye shut against the sun. He twisted his hands in a rag, oily with brown paint. “Jocko.” He corrected her gruffly.
“I’m Sabine Jacobs. I’m helping Helen out in the gallery for a while.”
He shrugged, clearly not that interested. He turned and walked into the house, where Sabine presumed she should follow. Sabine’s dazzled eyes struggled to adjust to the much softer dusky light. A large table, an impressive cross-section of some ancient tree, filled most of the space. Crosswords lay half-filled, smudged with greens and browns, under an old teapot and a ceramic cup the size of a tankard. Pencils and medicine bottles, Scrabble tiles and sketch pads were strewn about. A kitchen bench and a large fireplace watched gravely over all. In its comfort and masculinity and hallowed solitude, she felt she shouldn’t speak. But as Jocko kicked aside an empty box and swore, the illusion lifted.
The next room must have been half the house. French doors stood open at the far end, with a prospect of purple mountains beyond an undulating landscape of brown and green. But it took Sabine’s eyes several moments to find that view, flooring though it was, because there was so much else to take in. Four large easels were draped with splotchy sheets. Boxes, cloths, old newspapers, encrusted brushes, and all manner of bruised flotsam and jetsam lay in archipelagos between the easels. The walls were crammed with paintings of all sizes, all in the natural palette of the surrounding landscape. Some were places she could name, but all were places that felt familiar. One in particular drew her. It looked like white cliffs around a blue lake. It was bright, almost glaring.
“This is St. Bathans, isn’t it?” She felt the urge to touch it, to feel whether the cliffs were chalky, and had to stop her hand mid-air.
Jocko didn’t respond, but was pulling a canvas out from a pile against the wall. It was wrapped in brown paper, with HELEN scrawled across it like a very careless Christmas present.
“I like it,” she added.
“It’s old,” was all he said, and the visit seemed to be at an end. He held up the canvas a little higher, to draw her attention. “I’ll carry this out for you.”
Sabine hesitated, worried. Was there something else she was supposed to do? To get him to sign? She didn’t know anything about art, about this job-that-wasn’t-a-job. Helen hadn’t asked anything more of her today than to fetch the painting. She would head back to Helen’s house at Glendhu Bay, go for a swim, enjoy the quiet. She could relax and know that that was enough—she could try, at least, until the yawning ache of a future in flux once more suffocated relaxation and smothered it to idleness. Who shall I be? And how shall I be it? In London, she had never spent time trying to “know herself”, though she’d suffered through plenty of smug speeches on the subject from fellow tourists in various hostels. She worked long hours. She spent everything she earned. She met new people. Saw new things. It was time on pause, time that just was. It hadn’t been anywhere and it wasn’t going anywhere. She never thought about a career, or a future, or savings, or a plan. But then she just woke up empty one day. The play button had been pressed again. She looked around her at the other ex-pat Kiwis and Australians in her circle. Nobody else had looked lost. Just her. She was a nowhere person.
At the car, Jocko levered the painting into the boot, and patted it shut. His hands were so big, and brown, and dirty in a very pleasing way. They reminded her of a book she’d had when she was little: about a young girl, who spent idyllic days on her grandparents’ farm, making jam with her grandmother and visiting the animals with her grandfather, until her grandmother died, and she was very sad. At the end, the grandfather had taken her to see the baby animals, to show her that life goes on. There had been a photo of his big hands next to the young girl’s own small and pale hands as she gently cupped an egg.
Jocko saw her staring, and she blushed in embarrassment.
“It’ll be you again next time?” The note in his voice hinted that this prospect was one of disappointment.
“Probably.” She muttered and headed for the driver’s door, but forced herself to look up with a smile. “I’m not sure how long I’ll be helping Helen. But it was nice to meet you.”
He kept her gaze, and eventually nodded. “Righto.”
She hit the rabbit, and the thump was big. Bigger than seemed proportionate to the rabbit. It had run out, appearing in a flash of brown as though from the soil itself and so quick, like it wished to die. The sound of the thud had frightened her, sickened her with a sob.
Sabine pulled over onto the verge and got out shakily into the hot sun. She took in deep, slow, shuddery breaths as the nausea eased and her heart rate slowed, keeping her back to the little carcass. Rabbits were pests, she knew, pests brought to a land that could not naturally constrain them. Dead rabbits were not to be pitied, she knew. It was just the sound of that thud. She hadn’t expected anything to be so suddenly near in this place of distant horizons.
An old Toyota Hilux appeared over the rise, blurred in heat shimmer.
Sabine shifted her body language as seamlessly she could, from queasy rabbit-killer to casual day-tripper. Someone enjoying an intentional and unremarkable stop. Someone who didn’t need assistance. But the streak of blood in the road screamed in her peripheral vision as she pretended to stretch out her back and enjoy a deep lungful of Bannockburn air.
The ute slowed, and stopped in the middle of the road. The engine jiggled a steady note of eagerness to be off again. A man leaned out the window.
“You need a hand or anything?”
He was a young Maori guy, thick curls of black hair, and a small slab of greenstone at his neck. But he spoke with the broad understatement and flattened tones of the typically blokey Central Otago farmer. The sort descended, through layers of oilskin and jute sacking and corrugated iron, from hardy Scots with freckled noses and cracked white lips. The sort who drove utes, who drove the sheep over the ranges on horseback, who drove home from the pub despite having had a few. What a racist little middle-class white girl thought to think, she berated herself. Did she expect him to talk like a gang member from South Auckland? Or did she want him to be out gathering flax and hunting pigs as he followed the trails of his ancestors?
“Thanks,” she stepped closer to the car, shielding her eyes against the dazzle of the white paint. “Just a bit of car sickness.”
He nodded, not showing whether he believed her or not, and put the humming ute into gear. “Alright. See you.”
Her phone buzzed in her pocket as she watched the Hilux round the bend. It was her mother. Policy job going at Ministry of Ed. Want me to send the link?
Sabine looked at the glistening rabbit now. Flies were already finding it. Pest or not, it seemed a tragedy for a creature of flesh to die upon the gravel and not in the grass and dirt of its adopted home—she remembered she had wanted to stop and touch the grass. She knelt and ran a hand over it. Yes, it was hot and prickly.
The second time she went to Jocko’s, he was the one drifting and she felt she was growing back into the rock.
Helen had sent Sabine back there some few days later, having forgotten that there was another task needing to be done. Helen, fancying herself an artist also, was planning a photographic exhibition in the gallery she owned, one of portraits of local artists in their work environments. Indoor, outdoor, cluttered, nude; however the work was done. It would be, Helen said, really just quite an insight. Sabine thought Helen said “just” too often, and was embarrassed to have noticed it.
“I haven’t got time to go out there by Friday, and I really just want to start planning it all out this weekend. Can you just take a few snaps, just to remind me of his set-up out there? I haven’t been out to Jocko’s for yonks, so just get a feel of the place for me, would you?”
It seemed strange to Sabine, but what did she know? She wasn’t an artist, and she knew nothing of art. As she grabbed the car keys from the gallery office and headed for the door, Helen called after her. “Hey, love… he may just tell you to get fucked.”
Even without that caveat, Sabine hadn’t relished the thought of going back to him and his surly hospitality. But it was a beautiful morning to drive out there and the solitude of the journey appealed. It was about an hour from Glendhu Bay, through Wanaka (serene on the lake) and Cromwell (heavy with stone fruit), to that heart of the desert, Bannockburn. Flowering blue borage stretched out in purple swathes beneath Mount Pisa, surreal against the brown tussock, while stands of prickly matagouri stretched barbed arms in defiance of such beauty. Out her car window, Lake Dunstan freshened the thirsty palette all around, and the sheds and trucks and wooden crates of the passing orchards struck a reassuringly mundane chord amid the angel choir of soaring mountains and endless skies.
Jocko’s cabin stood there as it had the last time, still and solid with its thoughtful gaze to Carrick Range. Jocko had come out on to the veranda, as he had the last time, twisting his hands in the painting rag.
“Who are you?”
“It’s Sabine Jacobs, from the gallery…. Remember?”
His frown was unchanged, and his squint did not relax. “You from the council?”
“No, I’m from the gallery. I’m Sabine. Helen asked me to—“
“Did Lachie send you?” His voice became sharper, worried. There was resentment in his wariness this time around, and an aggression that hadn’t been there during her first brief visit. He seemed older, and Sabine thought of the grandfather in the book again.
“I don’t know who that is, I’m sorry.”
They were at an impasse. The sun grew uncomfortably hot upon Sabine’s bare shoulders, and she stepped cautiously towards the shaded steps of the veranda. “Jocko, I don’t know a Lachie. I’m here about painting.”
“About painting?” He repeated it back with a more hopeful note. He relaxed his guard a fraction. About painting. It had clanged awkwardly as a phrase, but it was what came out as she searched to trigger his memory of her, as she sought an offering to prove she came in peace. It was the right thing to say, she realised, as she watched his clouded face slowly clear.
“Yes,” he said, back to his gruff equanimity of the previous day. “I have some paintings. Come on then, I’ll show you—even though you know nothing about art.”
The crosswords and cups were still languishing in the soft darkness, in new arrangements of absentminded neglect. The medicine bottles weren’t there anymore, she noted.
“What makes you say I don’t know anything about art?” It was a fair cop, but did he have her mistaken still?
“You liked that picture of St. Bathans best.” He turned to her, frowning again. “It’s not a good piece.”
“Oh. Well, why do you keep it up then?”
“Because I painted it. Sometimes we paint bad things.” He shrugged.
In the studio he was quite talkative. Didactic, more than friendly. With a tone of reprimand he pointed out to her various pieces that hung on the wall, naming for her subjects that she should readily identify: the remains of the stamper battery on the Carricktown Trail; the chimney shapes of the sluicings; the old water wheel at the Young Australian workings; a lonely view down the Nevis Valley, with its shingle faces and tailing heaps.
“Do you ever paint people?” She asked.
“Why would I want to do that?”
“I just wondered. You seem to like scenes from all the old gold mines. But I guess there is so much of it around here.” It sounded disrespectful once she had said it, like she was accusing his work of being obvious or boring.
He was quiet for a long while, working his painting rag again and looking out to the ranges. “The way we broke the land in the past has left so much unintended beauty. It’s needed so much forgiveness. The ruins are quiet. Dead. And then there’re these wildflowers, the tussock, reclaiming it all, softening it. You’re painting the afterlife when you paint that—” he pointed at a picture of an old miner’s cottage out at Bendigo, “—you’re painting the soul of our land. If you paint one person, you can’t see their home in their face. But you paint the valleys and the lakes and the shearers’ huts and the old irrigation dams, and you see the whole lot of us. You see our beating bloody heart.”
Sabine held her breath, wanting him to say more, wanting to hear more of how this place encompassed her. How she belonged to it. How she originated from it. That she was anchored.
But Jocko’s face had clouded again. “Some people don’t want to see themselves in crumbling stone though. They don’t want to look at where we’ve come from, just where they’re going. Where money could take them. They want glass and steel and fancy gates that you open with buttons. That boy of mine… but—”, he remembered her suddenly, and his eyes focused back upon the present moment, “—but I don’t have a painting for Helen.”
He went to canvases leaning against the wall, and looked through their number. “It’s not here. I gave it to that girl of hers.”
“No, that’s fine. That’s not why I’m here, sorry, I should have said—”
“You want to buy it, is that it?”
Her eyes went to the St. Bathans immediately, thinking he meant the painting. “Uh… no, not really. Thank you. Helen asked me to take some photos of the studio, of you where you paint.”
“You paint in here.” He tapped his chest, his voice rising. “You tell Lachie, you paint in here. And in here is fed by out there.” His arm swept towards the mountains. “And if he wants to sell the house out from under his old man, he may as well just put me in the grave now. You tell him… you tell him this….”
Jocko stormed off into the next room, kicking things out off his way in high agitation. He seemed to be looking for something, muttering to himself, yelling odd snatches, maybe to her or maybe to himself.
“… that ungrateful bastard thinks he can… his mother would have… no conscience… like it has no meaning…”
Sabine flicked the lens cap off the camera that hung around her neck, and shot the covered easels and the brushes and the walls of paintings.
“… cold in my grave… can burn around me… nothing to sell then…
It felt wrong to “steal” the photos, but she didn’t want to return empty-handed to Helen because she didn’t want to have to explain Jocko’s behaviour. She wanted to protect him. She wanted to look at his paintings again, and hear him talk about them again. She wanted to see what he saw, feel what he felt, when he looked at the valleys and the lakes and the shearers’ huts and the old irrigation dams. She wanted to stay still, face to a shared past.
And then she noticed she couldn’t hear Jocko stomping around in the next room. The sudden silence seemed troubling.
“Jocko?” He wasn’t there.
Nor was there any answer from the bedroom and bathroom beyond. She went out on the veranda, blinking in the light.
He was standing out alone on the grass, bent backwards awkwardly and staring skywards, so that his mouth gaped open with the effort of it. A falcon wheeled overhead, looping noiselessly above the tussock and the schist outcrops and the gorse and the shingle fans. Jocko’s hands, feathered in streaks of tawny paint, hovered away from his sides and echoed the bird’s arcing flight in trembling communion.
As she drove away, Sabine thought of the water wheel from the painting. It was out there somewhere close by in the hills, parched and silenced, its own unmoving pride a salve against passing time.
Sabine let the Bannockburn Road take her where it would. The sweep of the river invited her not to cross the bridge and not to head back to Glendhu Bay. She had turned off her phone so that she would not have to answer her messages from Helen and her mother, so that they could not drag her back into the present, let alone into the future. The road arched around the inlet, sunk like a brilliant into a copper crown, and back to the Kawarau. Elegant willows and poplars clung to the water’s edge, gratefully turning their backs to the russet slopes of this barren land to which their colonial lords had brought them so long ago, this land in which they were never meant to grow. It was a vista of harmony and quietude, and it sickened her with its easy and guilty allure.
I should not see the beauty of the poplar more readily than I can see the beauty of the earth-risen matagouri. I should not pity the plight of the rabbit more easily than I can look into the face of a man in a ute and see that this is his home.
I want to cry, she thought. I want to wallow, she thought. I want to feel this really deeply. And so she pulled into the shade of a winery carpark and rested her face on the steering wheel to wait for tears. A welcome breeze found her through the open window. There was no sound, save for the faint noises of people and tractors off beyond the vines. The hot blood drained back out of her face. It was midday, and her life-craving hunger asserted itself as her defeated self-pity subsided.
In the winery restaurant, the air conditioning was a loving caress. Smooth bottles bearing identical labels were exhibited with perfect geometry. Framed awards sparkled gold and silver above the clear light refracting off arrangements of burgundy glasses and champagne flutes. The cool white space opened through columns of ancient schist to a picturesque terrace, where lunchers in sun hats enjoyed salmon pâté and Riesling against the turquoise of the Bannockburn Inlet and the leaf-green of the vines. A glass panel in the centre of the restaurant floor gleamed in the noon-day sun, dark shapes just visible beneath. Sabine hesitantly placed two feet on the blue square of glass and gazed down, light-headed, at old wine barrels and rope coils and wooden pallets in hues of brown and shade and dusty memory. They slept below the floor like kings in a catacomb.
“It’s great, isn’t it?” The smiling proprietor appeared beside her. “I feel like I’m looking into the roots of the place, when I look down in there.”
Sabine smiled down at their reflected faces. “Our beating bloody heart.”
He handed her a menu and lead her blinking out into a baptism of sunshine.
“So,” he said, “do you think you know what you’d like?”
The third time she would visit Jocko, he would remember her with gruff kindness. He would tell her about his son. She would tell him she was leaving at the end of the month, to find a job back in Wellington. She would tell him she needed to stop thinking about it so much and just get on with it already.
“I can’t stay, unfortunately.”
“And I can’t go.” He would reply, but not to her.
He would offer her the St. Bathans to take with her, and she would politely refuse. “Could you paint me the Bannockburn Road instead? But with the vines as well as the ruins.”
And he would shrug his shoulders and remind her that she knew nothing about art.
All photos by Liesl Nunns.
Header photo of Bannockburn Inlet by Liesl Nunns.