Len Brown hitched up his pants. Well, he thought, here we go. Here we go again. He surveyed the scene before him like Caesar in the senate of Rome. As mayor of Auckland, he had been in this room many times, countless times, at the top of the stairs in the Auckland Town Hall. He felt good. He was confident. He sized up the table one last time, and chose the chicken in a piquant sauce.
The buffet lunch also featured a stir-fry, crackers, a bland cheese, three kinds of melon, and a five-bean salad. He smiled. He knew who the salad would appeal to. It might even put a sock in her incessant humming.
He ate quickly, a small, trim man filling a sensual face. It was a face that had pleasure written all over it in piquant sauce. He dabbed it away with his napkin, and studied the councillors as they arrived for Tuesday's 1.30pm extraordinary meeting of the Auckland Council.
Sir John Walker came early. He was always prompt, and he promptly fell asleep. Cathy Casey helped herself to a five-bean salad, took her seat, and hummed a pretty tune. Denise Krum stared straight ahead. She had such a quality of stillness about her. It was amazing, Brown reflected, the way she didn't seem to blink. Or breathe.
He smoothed his tie. He took his seat. To his right was council chief executive Steve Town. Brown and Town, Auckland's winning rhyme - he saw in Krum's unblinking eye no appreciation of verse. She had the eye of a vulture. Whenever it fell on him, his blood ran cold. He bowed his head, and listened for the beat of his heart. He found it, and followed it. When he looked up, more councillors had arrived. In all, 20 people sat at the tables arranged in a circle.
The meeting had been called to discuss, once again, the vexed question of how to budget for "Len's train set", as the stupidest of his critics referred to the proposed rail network.
The wheels of Auckland's epic $2.4 billion City Rail Plan (CRP) go round and round, slowly, distantly, almost noiselessly - but he was alert to every sound. Sometimes, he thought, it was at a pitch that only he could hear.
There had been a set-back. An interruption, a small nuisance. The meeting was called to acknowledge it, and deal with it. In fact, they were there to remark on the philosophy of presumptions.
What had happened was that Auckland Council presumed the Government would commit to spending money on the CRP from 2015-16. But the Auditor-General, Lyn Provost, warned council it could not presume that. What, then, could Auckland Council safely presume of the Government? Something? Anything?
"Do not presume," advised Saint Augustine; "Presume nothing," declared Sherlock Holmes. But Brown was not having any of that. "Let's presume," he told the solid burghers of the Auckland Council, as they sat in their circle of hell and stared at him, some with petty dislike, others with a dislike bordering on obsessive rage, "that the Government will commit to spending money on the CRP from 2018."
He put forward the motion that council defer a start on the main tunnelling and construction of two underground stations until then. Because what was another two years? He said, "While it delays the construction timing by a couple of years, it has a only a relatively minor impact on the financial situation."
But he had not finished presuming. He was in talks, he told the staring burghers, with new Transport Minister Simon Bridges - confidential talks, "good long phone conversations", and he couldn't give away too much or tell tales out of school, but he hadn't given up on presuming that maybe the government would actually commit to spending money on the CRP even before 2018.
Bridges, in public, said the Government wouldn't cough up till 2020. Brown was undeterred. He took the Government's commitment on trust. The point was to believe it would cough up half the cost, sooner or later, and in the meantime, get to work on the track. He said people came up to him and said, "Len," they said, "Get the job done. Do not back off."
He knew his right-wing opposition wanted to back off. "But we have to move this project forward with pace," he said. He shouted, "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!"
He folded his arms. There was silence. Casey ate one bean, two, three, four, five. Brown waited to be challenged. A hand was raised. He looked in its direction. Auckland Council operates on a strict first-name basis; he said, or rather sighed, "Councillor Cam."
LOOK AT him, Brown thought. Just look at him. Cameron Brewer, "Cam", sat in a bath of perspiration. He began his speech as he meant to continue it " by complaining. He complained that Auckland Council had to rely on Brown's private discussions with Bridges, and with the Auditor-General. There was a word for that, he said heatedly: "Hearsay."
Bitter, fatuous, petty, he soon overheated. His bath of perspiration was full to overflowing; beads of sweat shook on his top lip, and dripped from his chin. Like a drowning man gasping for air, he took a deep breath, and declared: "We have to rely on hearsay to determine the biggest project in New Zealand local government history!"
Brown stroked the last remaining strands of hair on his head. He just had to wait for Brewer to finish. Finally, Brewer finished. Was that the worst they could throw at him? No. Waitakere zealot Linda Cooper took the floor.
She complained for a very long time. Like Brewer, the uncertainty of the government's financial aid drove her mad. There was nothing in writing, nothing firm. Why rush in? Wasn't it best to wait? "The other thing I want to ask..."
Brown slumped in his chair. He put his head in his hands. He looked up; she was moaning, "I want the truth..."
It got worse. She was followed by old George Wood. "This is a very big project and we have got to make sure we get the financials correct ... I have real concerns..."
Brown puffed out his cheeks, mopped his brow. It got worse, much worse. Denise Krum called for an amendment to Brown's motion. She asked that council defer work till 2020. Park it down the track. Back off. Act with prudence. And so on and so forth - she talked at such length it seemed possible she would talk until 2020. She was doll-like in her floral dress, and her flawless skin and lovely long hair; and she had pulled the cord in her back that made her speak. It was a very long cord.
Casey, fortified by beans, set off on a rescue mission. She shouted, "Standing orders say you cannot read a speech!"
Krum said she wasn't reading a speech. "These," she said, "are notes."
Brown stared into the distance. He was occupied by other thoughts. He had got a shock that afternoon when he stepped into the Town Hall from Queen Street to attend the meeting, and realised he was about to walk past that infamous venue of his mad fling - the Ngati Whatua room.
The door was open. He glanced in, saw the plastic flowers, the two-seater couches, the portrait of a Maori chief looking sideways.
He kept walking. He had been held hostage to an erotic delirium, but it belonged to the past. It had as much value as the awful junk displayed further along on the ground floor - the gifts from foreign delegations, that glass vase from Galway, those two hideous dolls from Korea. Everything looked like it had been bought from a dollar shop, or from Geoff's Emporium in Dominion Rd. His affair, too, was kitsch; as the first and most spectacular victim of Cameron Slater's dirty politics, his private life had been held up for ridicule, and shame.
He hated downstairs at the Town Hall. He always bounded up the stairs.
KRUM HAD actually stopped talking. Brewer, now rowing in a sea of perspiration, was advocating that council adopt her "pragmatic amendment". Brown zoned in and out, only heard the occasional phrase. Brewer said it was "reckless" to have faith that the Government might one day "come to the party". To go on "hearsay" was "mischievous", a kind of "Cloud Cuckoo land" ... Brown listened for his heartbeat. He heard it, but he wondered if he was dying, slowly, not entirely of boredom, but of that form of sickness known to all public officials - the sickness of spending a lot of time in rooms with ambitious and hideous people.
A hand was raised. "Councillor Callum," said the mayor. Callum Penrose, a son of the sod from Papakura, took the floor. He commanded it for the next 15 minutes.
He said, "Sometimes I wonder about why I'm here and what's the point of it. It's not because it's a job. It's not about the wealth. I sure as hell can make better money if I returned to my previous life. I worked from 6am yesterday to about 11pm. I don't know what that works out to be, but it was probably about $3 an hour. So it ain't the wealth. It's for the love. But sometimes I wonder about that, too."
Brown, now fully awake, curious to know what was coming next in Penrose's compelling speech, smiled and said, "There's a lot of wondering going on!"
Penrose said, "You're right! There is. But what I want to say is this. People come up to me and say, 'Callum, the city's congested, Sort it out.' And that's what this CRP is all about. How many people come to New Zealand every year? 50,000. And the bulk of them are coming to Auckland. Now we've got to do something about the congestion that causes. I wish the Government - the Government I wanted, I'll admit it! - was doing more. They've got to step up, man! But right now it's up to us to get things moving. So I am not voting for this amendment."
His oratory brought the room to life. It restored Brown to health. He took heart; he was ready for Howick zealot Sharon Stewart, who took the floor, to complain that the rail link "is not the be-all and end-all", and came very close to dismissing the whole thing as "Len's train set".
Well, he thought to himself, of course he wanted the CRP. It was his great thrusting subject. A subway, unto Caesar; he was the short controller, with a whistle at his lips, pheeping in shrill bursts as he made the trains run on time - but the CRP wasn't his idea in the first place, generations of Aucklanders had called for it, past mayors going back to Robbie. He told Stewart, "I'm going to send you the 10 volumes of the CRP and on top of that 60 to 70 years of analysis of an underground rail system, including the work done by Sir Dove-Myer Robinson."
Christine Fletcher called out, "And John Banks!"
"And John Banks," repeated Brown, without much enthusiasm. "So I'll get all those documents together, and send them to you for you to read. Because you need to do your homework."
She said, sourly, "The city rail doesn't matter to Howick and Buckland's Beach!"
He smiled, and said, "I'm sure you're absolutely right."
The meeting finished at 4pm. Krum's amendment was defeated, 17-3, with only Brewer and Cooper adding their support; and Brown's motion was carried, 14-6, opposed by Krum, Brewer, Cooper, Stewart, Wood, and Dick Quax. Brown put away his papers. He bounded down the stairs and left the Town Hall without a second glance, moving forward with pace.