Every family has a star. The one who has a certain glow, who is looked on with a special, different quality of love - this isn't necessarily a good thing. It can breed envy, resentment, a lifelong bitterness of the spirit, and no doubt these ancient grievances were played out all over the country between servings of glazed ham and garden salad a couple of weeks ago on December 25. But sometimes it's not like that at all, sometimes there's nothing dysfunctional or deformed about it. Sometimes it's just a pure happiness.
My brother Paul was the second oldest of six. I was the youngest. I looked up to him all my days, always felt a thrill in his presence. Wellington writer Damien Wilkins published a brilliant, very funny essay in 2002, When Famous People Come To Town, on the mania that New Zealanders have always experienced when the famous (royalty, pop stars, anyone who has ever had their name in the paper) visit these isles at the end of the world. Tongue-tied, excited, a bit dazed: I was like that with my own brother.
It's his birthday today. He won't be around to see it, he's currently indisposed. What's the weather like in Mt Maunganui? Beautiful, probably. It always is this time of year, the high summer sun shining on the blue sea and the green mountain rising out of the surf. He climbed the Mount every New Year's Day. It was his ritual, an act of loyalty to that seaside town where he was born and raised. "He was a true Mountie," people said onstage on a winter's day two years ago.
Birthday in summer, death in winter. My sister Jenny broke the news. She phoned and said he'd been taken to hospital. She phoned the next day, and the first thing she said was just one word: "No."
I took it pretty well. He was only 66 but his health was bad and death is often the best cure for suffering. His last couple of years weren't great. There were a lot of pills and an oxygen thing and his voice dropped to not much more than a painful whisper. I couldn't make out much of what he said. It made conversation a bit difficult. One of the last things I heard him say was how much he missed not being able to talk. "And the thing is," he said, "is that I'm bloody good at talking. It's my talent."
He might even have said he was world-class and if he did I wouldn't have had any reason to dispute it. I've only ever met one other person in Paul's league, a drinking friend from my days at the bar. He had the same kind of genius for talk, the same kind of delight. Come to think of it, they both had a very similar talent for drinking: they could put it away and enjoyed every second of it. It made them great company. Anyone can be a drunk but the whole world loves a happy drunk.
And then: "No." As death notices go, my sister's call on a winter's day two years ago was a bit on the succinct side but it conveyed the essential information. Well, I thought, that's how it goes. It hadn't exactly come as a big surprise. We'd been expecting it for a while. And so I got on with my day – work, feeding the cats, reading YOU WON'T BELIEVE lists online – in a glum mood, nothing more. The next day I fell to pieces.
He was very thin and wore his hair long. He grew a beard, and no one saw him without his green cap – there it was in the coffin, as much a part of him as his hands. The funeral director came up with a strange idea. I wrote about it in a collection of essays, Death and Dying in New Zealand, published in 2018. The blurb reads, "This book explores what a good death might mean today." You should buy it, it's a very lively read.
Anyway, I described visiting Legacy Funerals with my brothers the day before the funeral to see the body, and wrote, "The embalmer had done a very nice job. There was a chair beside the coffin. The lid was leaning against the wall. And then the funeral director came in, and said: 'You can write a message if you like.'
"He pointed to a black felt-top pen, which in memory was tied to a length of string, but surely I'm misremembering – this was a funeral home, not a Post Office.
"We looked at the pen. We looked at the director. He looked at the coffin lid and said: 'Write a message there. On the underside of it.'"
Is this what this story is? A message to my cool, dead brother, the first of us to go, the glamorous one in the family – how he went about achieving that glamour is a curious thing because it wasn't as though he travelled the world or anything like that. He never left New Zealand. He was such a true Mountie that he almost never left the Mount. He bought the house where we grew up. He took over our father's housepainting business. He was happily married to Joy, had three great kids, was a devoted grandfather.
A family man, a hard worker. One of the nicest things at the funeral was the way people went into raptures about his housepainting. They made it sound like a fine craft, that his skill and flair made him the best in the Bay of Plenty. I write minor books. My brother Mark has his paintings exhibited at dealer and public galleries. My brother Trevor plays guitar; there's a chapter devoted to him in Graham Clark's magnificent book published in 2005, The Right Note: An Insight into Tauranga's Historical Music Scene. But all along it was Paul who was the artist in the family, the most naturally talented.
"Each of us were in thrall to the brother who lay in the room," I wrote in the essay about seeing the body with my brothers. "His death had frozen something deep inside ourselves. There was something like a nervousness around him when he was alive, in the way that we're nervous around people who are vital, unpredictable, rebellious; he had that same glamour in death. What to say to him? How to live up to him?"
We dithered over what to write on the coffin lid. There was no mad rush to go to print. It wasn't as if Paul was going anywhere. It's the only time I ever saw him still.
We all know crazy people, the live wires who are always moving. Jack Kerouac's celebrated passage from On The Road remains the classic definition of the species: "The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk…desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles." These people are best avoided. They burn, burn, burn everyone around them, they're bad news. Paul was good news. He had some sort of wild and restless spirit but he was gentle, he was loyal, he never caused any harm.
After our father skipped town with the postman's wife, mailing themselves to live in the South Island, mum had two of us left at home. She had plenty of time to sit and feel deserted. Her favourite spot was a chair in the sitting room in front of the window, where she would look through the strips of the venetian blinds onto the driveway, two strips of concrete with a strip of grass in-between. I described the scene in my 2016 book The Shops, and quoted lines from the poet Robert Lowell: "As if she had stayed on a train/ one stop past her destination."
More likely she was waiting for Paul. He was always at the house. He looked after her. He looked after me, too. I used to sit in that chair by the venetians and wait for him, wait for the sight of his car growling up the driveway. I can't remember what cars he drove but they were usually something loud and vigorous. He was one of the original V8 boys, a potent but forgotten New Zealand cult – one of the few pieces of literature about them was The V8 boys: A case study of a delinquent gang, a University of Otago thesis written in 1979 by philosophy student Graeme Christie.
A delinquent: that sounds about right. All the V8 boys in Mt Maunganui were cool guys, and two of them formed one of the best bands in New Zealand music history, The Underdogs. They worshipped at the altar of English blues maestro John Mayall. They left the Mount for Auckland, and practised and played in a house in McGee Street near the railway yards in Otahuhu. Paul was there. He witnessed and was part of that wildly exciting scene. He looked a hell of a lot like John Mayall.
Not long before he died I asked him whether he had any New Zealand LPs that I could borrow. I got it into my head that I would publish a book of the best and worst record covers ever made here. He dug up some 60s classics – one by Larry's Rebels, one by Quincy Conserve, one by The Underdogs. I had them under my arm when I left. We are not a family given to big embraces and all the rest of it but we held each other and he whispered, "Take care."
Well, that was a bit much. We didn't say things like that to each other. Then I realised that I'd probably misheard, that he meant take care of the records. But maybe I got it right the first time. There were tears in his eyes. The next time I saw him was lying still. Dear Paul.