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Everything is Not Enough



A man and a woman, out of doors. The television tells them the world has changed – which may be so, but to this couple it is as confusing and as inequitable as ever.


Autumn winds are blowing; I sing a plaintive song.

So few people in this world understand me.


Our couple would not know that a great eighth-century Korean poet, Ch’oe Ch’iwon, wrote these lines. But an experience does not have to be known to be experienced. The man and the woman are being misunderstood thousands of miles away, hundreds of years later. Their spirits brush against the falling leaves of a New Zealand autumn.


A weekend it is, and they are taking a Northland walk with only a poorly drawn tourist brochure map to guide them from Waitangi across the Hutia Creek to the Haruru Falls.


There is an eerie atmosphere and an invisible, unidentified bird singing in a lilting minor key before they cross the bridge over the creek.


The boardwalk meanders in and amongst a tight cluster of mangroves. Their roots are like tiny spears lodged in the deep, low tide mud.


She says, “Those breathing roots, like pegs, are called pneumatophores and they take in air at low tide.”


The periodic snap made by the closing claws of a colony of snapping shrimps – impossible for the ear to isolate and invisible to the eye – provides percussion from all directions.


Reading from a faded sign planted on the edge of the boardwalk, he says, “They’re about the same size as the common shrimp, apparently, but distinguishable by one large, unevenly developed claw. It says here it’s the moveable ‘finger’ that makes the snapping sound.”


Beyond the swamp, the man and the woman are swallowed by the giant tree ferns when the track disappears into the bush. Further along the rough path, from the banks of the estuary, they watch two girls who are not wearing life jackets paddle a wobbly open canoe towards the sea, trying to pacify a dog that seems determined to jump overboard. Shags nest and regurgitate for their insistently crying young in the treetops alongside the path.


It’s hard to hold a conversation walking in single file, so they seldom speak and stop only to drink bottled water and re-tie bootlaces.


At the falls – which are muddy and swollen by the heavy rain of the night before – a one-armed man passes as they sit in the spray to eat their vacuum-packed sandwiches.


She says, “Do you remember how things used to be before the shopping malls? You hardly need to go out of doors to shop any more. You’re a captive, a prisoner in an endless loop of identikit stores selling things you don’t need. Is there any wonder there are casualties?”


His answer seems cryptic because he is reading from the newspaper he has been carrying in his rucksack. “The Japanese are always going on about how they need to kill whales for scientific purposes and then they present all this disgusting whale food – cold whale with bacon, for heaven’s sake – for the delegates at the International Whaling Commission!"


On the return stretch, the world from the low wooden bridge over the creek is one of crusty browns and sparkling greens, the colours shimmering like the leaves of an olive tree in the stillness.


The soundtrack of the day is hollow: The popping of the shrimps emerging from the silence along with the forlorn song of the invisible bird and an occasional twittering in the trees beyond the Hutia Creek. But the only disturbance to the natural, irregular rhythms of the swamp – and the only sound that could not be prehistoric – is the clomping of the man and the woman’s 21st Century hiking boots on the deck of the bridge.


Until he says, “I feel ashamed to be a human being sometimes.”


“Why?” she asks.


He says, “Some moron keeps dumping their junk mail in the doorway of the building – just dropping it on the floor underneath the mailboxes. What makes people so inconsiderate?”


She says, “It’s hard to believe there’s any hope for humanity when the Warehouse sells giant plastic wasps for people to hang in their gardens. Who in their right minds...?”


He interrupts. “People are immune to their own shallowness. Desensitised.”


She says, “Men with guns shooting people indiscriminately, burglaries redefined as theft to make the Police look better, forensic evidence sold as the new truth and viewed as incontrovertible by the courts.”


“Crime just goes on and on, generation after generation. I blame bad parenting,” he says. “But there’s no dialogue. We don’t talk.”


She says, “They don’t want to talk! There’s no helping them.”


He says, “It’s a struggle just staying alive, just getting through the week, getting up to go to work every day. There’s no incentive to help.”


She says, “Especially when they refuse it.”


“On Saturday night somebody broke into a Mitsubishi in the car park. Broken glass everywhere and all over the passenger seat. Personal possessions in disarray. It makes me feel so depressed! What is wrong with people? I’m so emotional and it’s not even my car.”


After a few moments punctuated only by birdcalls he adds, “To think that we’re marginalizing vast sections of our society so Remuera housewives can pose in their four-wheel drives full of designer label carrier bags.”


She says, “Have you noticed how they make you swipe your own Eftpos card in Foodtown these days?”


He says, “They used to clear your tray away for you in McDonald’s. Nowadays, you’re ‘encouraged’ to clear up after yourself. That was a job for somebody, once.”


She says, “Whole families unemployed. To them, going to work isn’t normal – not working and claiming a benefit is normal. What chance do any of them stand with that kind of mentality?”


He doesn’t know.


She goes on, “They think society owes them something.”


While they are looking out from the bridge at the bush stretched taut over the hills on either side – the silence swallowing their words but failing to overwhelm them – a yellow-eyed mullet leaps from the creek three times, flying through the air in a silvered flurry against the trees and the banks. The world-weariness melts into the stillness and disappears momentarily with the gleaming fish as though it were never there.


They retrace their steps in the direction of the Treaty House car park.


He says, “It’s so futile. What’s it all for?”


She says, by way of consolation, “That man with no legs climbed to the top of Mount Cook, you know.”


He says, “Well, it’s all relative, I know that,” before tripping over another tree root and slipping over in the mud, stopping his backwards fall with the palms of his hands. “We should be back at the golf course by now. How much further is it?”


She doesn’t know how much further it is. And neither of them is there to see another yellow-eyed mullet leap for joy in the creek or to witness its brief glittering of fish scales.


The snapping shrimps applaud unheard.






© 2003 Chris Bell


Chris Bell is the author of the short story collection The Bumper Book of Lies and the novel Liquidambar, which won the PABD/UKA Press Search for the Great Reads competition and is available from Amazon.


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