A man was found dead in a creek in the Domain last winter. Steve Braunias traces the mysterious life of journalist Murray Mason.
I asked everyone who knew Murray Mason, found dead at the age of 76 in the Auckland Domain last winter, "What did he look like?" They described a tall, thin man, who walked everywhere and always at speed ("striding with purpose", one friend put it), had blue-grey eyes, thin hair, a bushy moustache ("that's how you used to see him. That's exactly how he looked, the little beer drops on his moustache," said another friend, standing in front of a photograph of Mason hung next to portraits of his parents on a wall in his house), and a drinker's red and haggard face. "A cadaverous face," said a guy who used to work with him. "A reasonably long face," said an old schoolfriend, who would meet him at a Queen St pub on pension day every second Tuesday morning. And then he said: "It was a sad face, actually."
Word went around after Mason's shocking death that there'd be a kind of wake, held at one of his watering holes, The Albion, a dark and quiet 19th century pile opposite St Matthew's church in downtown Auckland. It was thought that maybe four or five old codgers might turn up. But the place was absolutely packed; reports vary, but there were at least 60 people, maybe more than 100. They included a son he hadn't seen for over 30 years, and a brother he hadn't seen since he was 4. There were warm and emotional speeches. His life had meant something; his death was felt as a genuine loss. They came to celebrate a kind of urban legend.
No one knew the whole story of his life. He left his past behind, travelled light, moved in secrecy. His life was none of anyone's damned business. One thing about him: he hated being followed. If he said goodbye, went on his way, and saw you were keeping an eye on him as he walked down the street, he would not be happy about it. He operated in darkness.
The more people I spoke to about him, the guiltier I felt, because he would hate this story, hate the fact it was asking questions of him and tracing his whereabouts. The point of his existence as an old man who wandered the streets of Auckland at any time of day or night was to keep his head down, avoid scrutiny, live in peace. But I was also conscious that we shared a kind of bond. Mason, too, had worked as a journalist. He spent most of his professional career with the Herald. His face – as seen in the portrait on the wall at his friend Ivan Davis' house in Glendene – looked familiar. It's likely I saw him now and then at the newspaper's former, glorious premises in Albert St, where he worked as a sub-editor on the business desk.
Gavin Ellis was his editor. All journalists talk in stories; they may not be true, but they're based on real events. He said, "Have you heard the story of the Masonette? There was a room at the Herald that had been set aside for women members of the staff where they could go and lie down if they weren't feeling well. There was a rumour that Murray used to kip down there at night when he wasn't feeling up to going home after a hard night. It's all hearsay, but the room became known as the Masonette."
A "hard night": Mason smoke and drank. Everybody in journalism did, it was as compulsory as shorthand. But he chain-smoked, and drank as fast as he smoked. The smoking yellowed his teeth until they fell out; according to his ex-wife, it's why he grew the moustache, as deep cover. He stopped smoking. He never stopped drinking. I asked his oldest friend Peter Warlow, "What did he like to do?" He replied, "Drink! But he was good at it. He knew how to control it."
Not one person described him as an alcoholic, including an alcoholic. "See that guy over there, asleep? He might have known him," said a helpful librarian at Auckland Central Library. We approached the old drunk dozing in a chair in a quiet corner. The librarian gently woke him up. He gave his name as Jack; he was a large man who wore numerous layers of black wool, and he smelled bad. He said, "Yes, I know who you mean. He used to sit there."
He pointed to a chair in front of a small desk. It seemed like just about the loneliest spot in the entire library.
Mason waited at the front door of Central Library for it to open every morning. He was a familiar sight. It was where Gavin Ellis last saw him. "He was sitting there engaged in a book. He had notes on him, and he gave me the impression he was studying." Other friends thought he was completing a university degree – mathematics, someone said. Another wondered if it was a study of Egyptian hieroglyphics, which Mason could read. There were various other speculations made at his wake about his library project, where he sat surrounded by books and paper, and was intent on writing page after page.
Journalist found dead in creek at Auckland Domain battled with alcohol
Secret city: The invisible community in Auckland's Domain
Jack the library drunk said, "I thought he must be writing a book. He used to write a lot, he had all these papers and was writing on to them." He never saw him drunk, never saw him aggro; he figured Mason was some kind of scholar, on serious business. "He was here every day. This was his preferred spot." Jack looked again at the deserted table. "I used to see him every day, and next thing...yeah."
Mason had a map in his head of the pubs in downtown Auckland where he liked to drink after his long shifts studying at the library. There was The Right Track, a sports bar on Fort St. I called in one lunchtime and figured I'd come across someone who knew Mason. John Mitchell, 80, stood at the bar; he said, "Oh yes. A really good guy. He was always really polite and so nice. I'd see him here a couple of times a week and I tell you what, I never saw him drunk."
I walked around the corner to the QF Tavern, a sports bar at the wharf end of Queen St. Mason was a regular there, always sat at the end of the bar with a $7.80 pint of Speights Old Dark. It was where he met his friend from school, Peter Warlow, every pension day. It was Warlow who described Mason's sad face. Big Pete, they call him; an ex-butcher, he took up a lot of room when I called into then tavern on another lunchtime. He sat at the bar next to Mason's favoured position. He turned and looked at the empty stool quite a lot while we were talking. "I miss Murray," he said. "I still can't bloody believe he's gone. I expect him to come in any minute. He was a fantastic joker."
"He was that," agreed Michael Fenwick, who I met at QF on yet another lunchtime. I enjoyed these visits. There was something reassuring about standing at the bar with men who liked a tall, cold glass of beer at midday, and were in no hurry to go anywhere; it was as though they were maintaining a proud New Zealand tradition of masculinity in the heart of downtown Auckland. "He was quite particular with his friends and pubs," said Fenwick. "He could move around pubs quite a bit but if something ticked him off, he'd say. 'That's it, I'm out.' He banned himself."
Another of his regular ports of call was Spitting Feathers, on Wyndham St, where'd sit at the end of the bar and drink two $5 bottles of Heineken at lunchtime. If the seat was taken, he'd hover nearby. He occupied the same spot at the Albion on Hobson St, except that he had privileges and certainty. "That corner was pretty much reserved for him," said bar manager Julie Hanson. She pointed to a stool at the end of the bar. He drank $10 bottles of Lion Red, always from the same glass: "Every time he came in, we'd get the glass from the fridge. It's still in there. Everybody knew it was his. It was one of the first things that I learned when I started here."
She looked over at the empty stool. "He always came here before he went home," she said. "Every single night, he said, 'Thank you Julie, I'm going home.' For sure he said that on his last night."
I said, "His last night?"
She said, "The last time I actually saw Murray was the night he died. He said goodbye, and he walked out the door. It was about midnight."
There was a lot of conjecture after he died that he was homeless. Police made their first inquiries at the City Mission. None of his friends believed it; the Mason they knew looked after himself, dressed reasonably well, bought supplies from the supermarket, was never drunk or at least never so drunk that he was legless. But how well did anyone know him?
He seldom spoke about himself. Now and then he might mention a marriage that ended, a family he left behind.
"Murray would open up to me," said his schoolfriend Peter Warlow.
I said, "Like about his marriage?"
"He didn't tell me very much about that."
I really went to great lengths to talk to those who knew him, which is to say I bowled up to some people in the office. "He was always very secretive," said Herald sub-editor Mark Fryer, who worked alongside Mason for years. Well, not exactly alongside: he recalled Mason taking stories to the Shakespeare, and subbing them over a drink. "Guarded," he continued. "You couldn't get anything from him."
Bruce Morris worked with Mason in the early 1970s. His instincts for a newspaper story had remained sharp. Only a few minutes after I started asking him about Mason, he said, "You're obviously coming at from an angle of a bloke who nobody knew much about."
Morris didn't know much about him. "He never really spoke much about his family. I knew he had kids... He was just one of the blokes. I'd occasionally drop him off home. He was always a very quiet guy. Very popular in that no one ever had a bad word to say about Murray. He was always at the pub never saying very much...It was an odd thing, really. He was always like a loner within a circle. It's strange, isn't it?"
That was when Mason lived with his wife and their four children in Glendene, in West Auckland. He went to look at the house two years before he died with his good friend Ivan Davis, a barman at The Albion. It was Davis who hung the portrait of Mason next to photos of his parents on the wall of his lounge. He was cut up about Mason's death; the sadness was deep, and enduring. I met him at his Glendene home above the Whau River. He said, "Murray came here one day in 2017, and we had a few beers, and he said, 'Do you mind if we go for a walk around the area?'
"I said, 'Yeah, sounds good to me. So he took me on the walk he used to run. Cos he loved running, long-distance running.
"We went all over. He loved it. Hepburn Rd, Barries Rd... We went through the Glendene Reserve and he goes, 'I need to go see the old home.'
"So we got there, and you could just see in his face that the memories must have come back about that house. I thought, 'I'll just leave him here for a sec.' I just wanted him to have a moment to himself cos I could tell he was sort of standing there and thinking. After a while, he said, 'Right. Let's go.'"
Mason didn't say anything about it, and Davis didn't ask. "He was very, very private. I never delved into his personal life."
"He was always a very quiet guy," said John McCaulay, 74, yet another ex-journo who worked with Mason. We met at a tearoom in my neighbourhood in Te Atatu. He was a very urbane fellow from the other, richer side of town, Parnell. I asked him what he thought of Mason's work. I liked McCaulay at once; he was a journo's journo, someone who respected the trade, was aware of its limitations. He gave Mason the highest compliment you can ever give to a reporter. "He never made a mistake," he said. "He typed with two fingers and his copy was always clean. When he wrote, he only had to do it once. "
Mason's daughter Rachel Wise followed him into journalism and she acknowledged it was driven by some deep need to impress him, even to win his love, although she knew that was probably futile. She is associate editor at Hawke's Bay Today. I interviewed her on a Friday afternoon in Napier. We sat on the foreshore. The surf clawed at the gravel beach. It got dark. There were lights like fires at the town of Haumoana, across the water. We spoke for over two hours and just about every second of it was an unrelenting story of trauma and unhappiness and grief.
She said he abused her. He was violent, full of loud and hectic rage but equally as capable as tense and seething rage – he'd give her the silent treatment, the longest was six months. He came home plastered, and was either a nasty drunk or, preferably, comatose. It was a long and disturbed reign of terror which ended when he upped sticks and took off, leaving his wife and kids penniless in a shack in the King Country. He stayed in touch for a little while but only as a kind of threatening stalker, then he disappeared from their lives, completely, for over 30 years, until the police got in touch to say he was found dead face-down in a ditch in the Domain. "Mum looked at me," she said, "and it was like, 'Yes!"" She mimed a high-five, and laughed.
One after another of her stories crashed like the surf in front of us. This one: "One of his first stories in his scrapbooks was about mice they were growing cancer in, and he had these very gruesome photographs of mice with cancer. Knowing how much I liked animals, he took great delight in showing me those photos. And when we moved to Owairaka, there were wild cats living in the hedges and we tried to adopt a kitten. He told me in great detail how he'd killed it by putting a needle through its fontanelle. I would have been five then, maybe six. He was quite proud he knew how to do that."
And this one: "He'd come home after work drunk and dishevelled, very late quite often, shouting, hitting us kids. We never quite knew what we'd done to deserve it or how not to get into trouble. He was an imposing person, physically and psychologically, because he had very firm ideas on everything and prescribed ways of how things should be done. We were pretty good at sticking to the rules, otherwise he'd lash it, usually with the back of his hand, and he was quite deft at kicking you. "
There were other stories ("He didn't hold with fun", "He liked to call us imbeciles - he never used a short word when a longer word would do"), including one too heinous to report. They all came pouring out. "You're very easy to talk to," she said, but the compliment was misplaced. As a journalist, she would have known that a good interview is entirely at the discretion of the person being interviewed; if they talk, it's because they need to talk. Mason was a black stain on her life. She felt compelled to describe it. She said, "I have gone through my life disliking him immensely".
How does a life begin to unravel? Where do things start to go so wrong that you end up being despised by your own family until you disappear, and you move through the rest of your days as a kind of ghost? I spoke with his ex-wife Claudia. She was in good spirits when I called her at her Waipawa home; she wandered around watering the plants and calling out to various pets, and said in a sing-song voice, "It was a huge relief when I heard he died." Yes, she confirmed, she and Rachel had greeted the news with high-fives.
Her stories about his abuse were just as dismal as her daughter's but they had another quality: she made the narrative of Murray Mason's life sound gothic, doomed.
I asked, "What was his central problem, do you think?"
She said, "Apart from the drink? I think he had psychological problems and the drink made everything worse. He was adopted when he was 4. His father died of pneumonia and his mother was an alcoholic, and couldn't cope. He was the youngest of her children and so he was the easiest to foster out... He probably was an angry, bewildered little boy."
"I don't think he ever loved anyone," said Rachel, once again devastatingly. "I don't think he was capable of it."
But he had gone through trauma as a child. Torn from his family, he was taken in by a couple Claudia described as cold, remote. His adopted mother was often "unwell". When she was particularly unwell, Mason would stay with a family who were wealthy Hawke's Bay land owners.
His daughter Rachel said, "They had a beautiful mansion built from kauri. Murray used to talk about it all the time. He'd say. 'It had a hallway that was big enough for a cricket pitch.' I think that was where he got this idea that he wanted to be landed gentry, in particular Hawke's Bay landed gentry, which is a breed unto itself… He was green with envy that that wasn't him; that that was supposed to be his life."
Her mother laughed. "Yes, I've heard Rachel's theory. There may be something in it. He did seem to have a chip on his shoulder about life in general and his lack of success on it. He was hellbent to get money. He always had grand ideas about making a fortune and being someone important. But everything he tried turned to custard."
They met when they were working one summer at the Peter Pan icecream factory in Waipukurau. He was a catch: tall, handsome, athletic, he'd been Dux at his school, outstanding at cricket and athletics, and was studying for a bachelor in science. Claudia was a solo mum; Rachel, who was 4 when they got married, only ever called him Murray, never Dad. The couple moved to Auckland and had three children of their own. Mason got a job with the DSIR and moved over to journalism in 1969 when he was approached by the Herald to take on the science round.
One of the great attractions of newspaper journalism in the 20th century was that it was a refuge for scoundrels, wastrels, layabouts, loners, deviants and drunks. It didn't require talent, but it demanded stamina. It was like going to sea. The voyage took men away from their family and plied them with alcohol and kept them in tobacco. The trouble was it also returned them to their family. Claudia said, "He started spending more and more time at the pub. I used to hope – if he came home on time, that was fine; if he came home slightly late, he'd be belligerent and argumentative and nasty; if he came home really late, you'd hear him spewing up in the toilet and then he'd crash into bed. I hoped he would either come home early or come home late. I didn't like the in-between bits."
He created the one thing most drunk Kiwi men are best at: damage. "He became more and more violent and aggressive as the alcoholism got worse," Claudia said. "He was obnoxious to Rachel. Physical abuse. Psychological abuse... I couldn't stand to be in the same room as him. I'd have pushed him face down in that ditch," she said, meaning the Auckland Domain on the Friday night of his lonely death.
He'd had it all going for him. At school he was Dux, good looking, fast ("built like a sprinter", said his schoolmate Peter Warlow); as a young man, he had a university education, a steady job, was raising a family, and he had ideas on how to get ahead. It was the ideas that did for him. He was the kind of man who feels cheated by life – and he had been cheated, his mother throwing him out of the house like an unwanted chattel – and busily, angrily sets his mind to getting even. Some people fight their way to the top; with no less energy and wild ambition, Mason crashed and burned his way to the bottom.
His first failed venture was a macadamia farm in Okaihau, in the Bay of Islands. The family moved from Auckland and Mason got to work. "Murray had done a lot of research beforehand," said his daughter. "This was going to be his big money-making scheme." John McCaulay was impressed when Mason told him about it. He said, "He was ahead of his time, really. He did soil analysis and developed a concept to use unproductive land, in gulleys and creeks."
Thousands of macadamia plants were put in. Money was growing on trees. It couldn't fail. Rachel: "But then something went wrong, and we were pretty much frogmarched off the property." Claudia. "I never did find out what he had done that bust the whole thing open. We had to move out."
Mason had no choice but to pack up and leave – and then jump into his next big adventure, when he bought the Waimarino Weekly newspaper in Raetihi, that small, appropriately gothic town on the cold and exposed volcanic plateau. Again, the family were uprooted; again, it ended in disaster.
I spoke with Nancy Anderson, who sold the paper to Mason. She claimed, "On the day he was supposed to pay us, he took off to Nelson in the car - we supplied him with a car. We didn't know where he was. Couldn't find out anything. He came back a couple of days later and said he didn't have enough money to pay us. We ended up taking him to court... It was a really good profitable business when we sold it. But he drove it downhill in six months."
I think it would be fair to describe Anderson as somewhat bitter. She said she'd read a story about Mason's death. "I sent it to the kids, and they all just laughed."
Raetihi was the beginning of the end for Mason's life with his family. It stopped there, and so did the newspaper. "It got into bad financial strife, and he couldn't drag it back again," said Rachel. "He even had a donations bucket on the desk to try to keep it alive. The owners went from friendly to snakey and Murray started to disappear for long periods of time.
"He'd come back, and wreak havoc, argue, throw things - one night he held a knife at my throat. He'd done that when I was a kid; I woke up and there he was with a carving knife. But this night [in Raetihi], we were on either side of the ironing board, and I had the iron. He backed off."
They lived in a "hovel", Rachel said, next to the car yard made famous in the film Smash Palace. They froze, got by on a pittance; the walls started moving in. Claudia said, "It was bleak and his moods got worse and worse. He left, and we moved into the vicarage. I had to get on with it. But I do recall applying for family assistance. You had to line up in front of everyone at the Post Office to have an appointment with the social welfare office. I had to take bills to show how much electricity we used, that sort of thing, and that I spent $10 on petrol. Well, this young man, he'd come in from Taihape, he looked at me, and said, 'Do you have a receipt?' And honestly I'd never felt so miserable and put down and demoralised. I just went home and cried. I cried all the home. It was a miserable time but life was better without him in the family."
The macadamia king, the newspaper tycoon – years later, when he made his last stand, fighting for life in the Auckland Domain, he was found the next day with no proof of address.
If he hadn't died in such a tragic and mysterious manner, if he'd just lived out the rest of his days in the same quiet, undetected way he'd come to perfect, there'd be no story, no investigation, no digging. I was always aware there was something unseemly about my efforts to uncover his curious life. He didn't deserve it. He was just a nice old man going about his business, and he was so well-liked, too, so admired and respected; even his closest friends were surprised at the turn-out for his wake at The Albion. But he wouldn't have drawn such a big crowd if he'd gone quietly. The mourners were shaken by the nature of his death. They, too, were attracted by its tragic and mysterious manner.
It was a dark and stormy night. No, really; it was pouring with rain, cold as hell, and Mason set out from The Albion at about midnight. He'd settled in for the evening in his usual spot in front of the gas fire.
He always carried an umbrella. He needed it that night, with the rain lashing down as he said his farewells and set off into the night. His son Davin later followed his father's likely route. He walked through downtown, then up and over to Stanley St – and, finally, into the darkness of the trees and bush of the Domain.
I followed that route, too. Naturally, I did it in the daytime. It's very pretty to slip inside the Domain and follow the track that Mason walked – a loner, an ex, who went his own way, his last steps were taken on Lover's Walk. Steps lead on to the track. A nice, very shallow creek flows beside it. Sunlight winked on the water.
But Mason was there at night when it was pitch-black, and freezing cold, and the ground was wet, and the likeliest explanation is that he slipped and fell down the bank and into the creek. He tried to crawl back up the bank, but couldn't get a hold. He crawled along the stony bed of the creek and beneath a small bridge. He got to the other side of the bridge. The water would have been up, because of the rain, but probably not very deep. It would certainly have been extremely cold, and dark, and loud with wind – no one would have heard him if he cried for help. His torch was shining when they found him lying face-down in the creek. It was held tight in his hands.
"I've been there," said Ivan Davis. "It was hard. But I needed closure. You know, when I was told he was found in a creek, I thought of the Whau River. But it was just a little bit of water. Was he face down in mud? I wanted to find out."
He went there with a mate for support. I'd walked it the morning before I interviewed him; together we traced our movements, and Mason's last moments.
"Yeah. So Lover's Walk. He's walked down there. He's stepped a little bit to the left and gone down to where the creek is. You can see where he's taken out a sapling on the way down. He's tried to stop himself with his umbrella. You could see the marks where he's dug it in.
"He's tried to pull himself up. But shit, he's 76 years old and he just can't get up. He's got his torch and he's gone under the bridge, crawled along under there, and tried to get himself to where the track was lower. But he couldn't make it. And they found him with his fists clenched around the torch. When they prised his hands open, his torch was still shining.
"I said to my mate, 'Come whatever, Murray's time was up.'
"He said, 'What do you mean by that?'
"And I said, 'He's a fragile man, you know, and it's a shitty night, he's got wet, he's lost a lot of heat.' It just needed one person to be walking that way. But it was after midnight. His time was up."
No one to this day knows where he was headed. Someone said he had a room in Kingsland. Someone thought Eden Terrace. His schoolfriend Peter Warlow was convinced it was Parnell: "He used to always go through the Domain. He took a bit of a detour the night it happened. He was definitely headed for home. I'm sure it was in Parnell...."
Mason was found without any proof of address, or a set of keys. It's possible he was sleeping rough but it doesn't add up – Mason didn't smell, his clothes were clean, he looked after himself. Also, he was hardly penniless. "He always had money on him," said Albion bar manager Julie Hanson. "He would easy spend at least $70 a day here."
His entire manner and way of being was independent, self-contained. Ever since he left his family, his MO was bedsits and rooms in boarding houses. The only mention anyone made of a partner was when his friend, novelist Sue McCauley, told a strange story about him.
She and her husband Pat were living in the Wairarapa, in the late 1980s, when they ran into Mason. She said, "He came to stay with an apparent woman who drank quite a lot. I remember she took beer off to bed so she'd have a bottle there to drink first thing in the morning. She wore high heels all around the place; we were sort of semi-rural and she was there in stilettos. Later we visited them in Wellington and this person showed me her linen cupboard, which she said was her pride and joy, and what a pleasure it was to run around after Murray.
"I said to Pat on the way home, 'No woman talks like that. That is not a woman.'
"And he said, 'Well I knew that from the moment I first saw her. She's a man.'"
He moved back to Auckland sometime in the 1990s, friends thought, and resumed subbing at the Herald. When Ivan Davis met him in 2002, Mason was working as a cleaner at The Albion. His real occupation – his mission, his purpose – was the strict itinerary he kept of drinks and watching sport at The Albion, The Right Track, Spitting Feathers, QF and a few select other pubs, in-between his regular hours of study at Auckland Central Library, where he put pen to paper and made copious notes.
These last 20 years of his life were his halcyon years. He always had money for a drink. He sat at the end of the bar and was never short of company. "He was a good man. A very intellectual, very nice man. It was nice to have known him," said Karl Watkins, who drank with him at The Albion. "He could talk to people from all different walks of life. He didn't care if you were a doctor or a lawyer or you were homeless; he always treated people with respect. He was one of those old-school people with manners. He didn't like swearing in front of women. He thought that was bad form."
There was that Mason, the one who was wonderful with children. Ivan Davis said, "He loved reading, and my daughter, who is 9 and coming up to 10, she loves reading as well, and Murray would say, 'Please don't let that stop. Keep her reading. It's very, very good for her.' For her birthday last year he gave her a card and $25, and said to me, 'Make sure she buys a good book.' She used to call him Old Man Murray." He was Uncle Murray to John McCaulay's kids: "He'd read my daughter a story and the room would go all silent, and I'd go in and Murray would be sound asleep on her bed. He used to really love kids."
And there was that other Mason, from an earlier time, who was violent with his wife, and who his daughter said had abused her. Rachel Wise and her mother Claudia hated Mason. They had good reason to hate Mason. But the way he died – that was something else again, something that demanded a reckoning. "It was awful," Rachel said. "Awful. When they rolled him over, because he was face down, he had a torch clutched in his hands, and it was still going - that turned my monster into a sad little old man, who died cold and alone and unloved in a creek in Auckland Domain. Even my mother, once she got over thinking it was wonderful, ended up in buckets of tears and said, 'He was cold. I can't bear to think of him cold and alone.'"
According to quite a few of his friends, Mason had planned to visit Claudia, Rachel and his son Davin in Hawke's Bay in 2019. He made casual mention that he'd already reached out to his estranged family and as such planned to travel there by bicycle.
John McCaulay: "The last time I saw him, he'd been in touch with his family, and the plan was to bike down to Wellington and then bike to Waipawa and spend Christmas with his family. He was delighted." Ivan Davis heard much the same story. "There was talk of doing a bike ride to see them."
There were two problems with his plan. One, the likelihood of Mason, at his age, attempting such a long and arduous ride was somewhat...ambitious. I asked Davis, "Do you think he could have done it?"
He said, "To be honest, no."
The other problem was, to put a fine point on it, the veracity of his claim.
"Not long before he passed away, he got in contact with his boy," said Peter Warlow.
"They got very, very close."
I said, "Did Murray tell you that?"
"Yes," he said.
But he hadn't been in contact with Davin. He hadn't spoken to Claudia or Rachel. There was no reunion that anyone knew about, no emotional return of the prodigal ex-husband and ex-father. He might not have been telling stories he knew to be false. He might have been telling stories he wanted to be true. His friends believed him; Mason seemed to, as well. Police gave Davin Mason his father's possessions when his body was found. They included a 3B1 Warwick notebook. Mason had written a to-do list, which included, "Buy new phone and set up…Pack books in storage…Get prescription from doctor... Plan possible HB [Hawke's Bay] trip."
Davin said, "He was looking at building those bridges. He wanted to come back here. Well, he's right here, actually, in Waipawa. He's sitting on my mantelpiece in front of me. So in a roundabout way, he's come home."
I asked about what other papers or notebooks Mason had on him when he died. He said there were pages and pages of lined A4 paper. He'd had to dry them out. They'd got wet in the rain that night and in the little creek in the Domain.
His father made a record of every book he'd read from 2009 to 2019. He numbered each book as he went along and got to 570. They included classics such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain and Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene, modern New Zealand novels such as A Briefcase, Two Pies and a Penthouse by Brannavan Gnanalingam, and a lot of sports books.
There were yet more pages of A4. In small, neat handwriting, Mason had recorded English football results. Page after page, the teams and scores in blue biro, the dates in red, each page numbered in the top right-hand corner – this is what he'd been working on at the Auckland Central Library. This was his supposed thesis, his epic and enduring project.
In all the pages that Davin photographed and emailed to me, there's not a single spelling mistake. Mason, the reporter who only had to write things once; Mason, the journalist who went to work to record the words and actions of others; Mason, the sub who took pride in accuracy, with his love of statistics and facts, the beautiful tidiness of them, the way they were impervious to the mess and loose ends of the life people lead behind closed doors. Left alone, a ghost from a past he abandoned, he could bend his back to an important and consuming task for countless hours in a quiet nook in the library.
He'd come to a peace in his final years. He had friends who loved him. He had his itinerary, his routines. He knew where he was at all times but no one else knew – to others, he was always passing through, always on the move. He's managed to keep his destination that night in the Domain a secret.
Davin thought he might have come close to solving the mystery. Among Mason's possessions was a key to a storage locker on Waiheke Island. The combination was in a notebook.
He said, "I'd been planning to get up there and clear it out and was hoping to find a bit of information there. That was the only thing that could connect him to where he lived or whether he was living anywhere."
He left a pause. I was on the edge of my seat. And then he said, "But three weeks ago, it burnt down. The storage locker on Waiheke Island burnt down. It burnt down." He kept repeating it in disbelief. "I got a phone call from the manager and he said, 'It burnt down and nothing's been saved. Everything is lost.' So we don't know what was in it."
It was his final mystery. His friend Michael Fenwick had said of him, "If he didn't want you to find him, then good luck." Even in death, he simply disappeared. But it was the same when he was a small child: he was made to disappear, ripped away from his family, placed elsewhere.
His brother Richard showed up at the wake at The Albion. Davin had found about his father's past. "Murray Edward Wyatt was Dad's name," he said. "Murray Edward Wyatt, born December 27, 1942, at Takapau." Mason wasn't even his real name. He'd gone through his entire life as someone else.