I walked up Castle Street, a fat man in sandals, at two in the afternoon. The engines in the station yard sighed and shunted behind me like hot asthmatic bisons. A raiding gull riding high on the harbour wind crossed invisible bomb sights on my floral shirt; then changed its mind and glided off to practise aerobatics over Anderson’s Bay. The sun bludgeoned down from a dusty sky on the new, black, puddled tar where the tramrails had lately been. Nobody else was out in the glittering afternoon, except one boy of five, bolstered and terrible behind a bath tub in a vacant section, and an elderly she cat mewing for admission outside Queen Mary’s Maternity Hospital.
Suddenly a quick wind, from a ten-year-broken bellows, blew down the pavement and scattered no leaves. A rocking tram clanged and bucketed down Castle Street in the curdled adolescent weather. A girl ghost stood on the kerb, brisk as a nanny goat, with check coat and skirt and orange lipstick. The tram screeched to a stop. With a backward smile she skipped on board. My floral shirt and the spare tyre under it were blown off me in a magician’s moment. Lean as a poker, nimble and blushing, I scrambled on to the moving tram and sat down beside her, afraid to say a word. The conductor, captain of the Castle Street tugboat, lurched up to us. I paid her two-penny fare.
— What did you do that for? she asked. You’re so silly.
But her smile revved a dynamo in my chest and exploded tombstone clouds in the vague Otago sky.
At Frederick Street I turned to the left. My traveller’s compass began spinning as I neared the magnetic pole of Dunedin, the student’s home from home, the Bowling Green Hotel, where Mahomet’s coffin hangs between earth and heaven waiting for the six o’clock judgment hour. In the shabby side bar one could eat bread and cheese and cold sausage, talk sex and politics and religion and poetry, drink raspberry portergaffs and listen to a medical student with a handlebar moustache blow a fine spray of Scotch from his whiskers and tell a highly clinical story to the barman. So I pushed open the swing door. There was no side bar. Instead of bread and cheese, an advertisement for Vodka; instead of the blurred picture of Phar Lap, a plush lounge. I drank a lemonade and went out into the street again.
Beyond the Varsity bridge, in the bed of the Leith Stream, thick willows were growing. Two little girls waded upstream. A boy with a pole and line, ready for giant swordfish, was flogging the water savagely. Too real for nonsense, they scared away the ghosts. I went on toward the quadrangle, under the archway where Tubby Matheson hung six hours in a basket for riding a motorbike without an exhaust. Echoes of supernatural music reached me from Allen Hall, and the louder shouts of mining students being happily sick in the basement. But these faded as I read the examination lists under dull glass on the wall that faced the shut cafeteria:
English I: Class C:
ASKWITH-JONES, Judith …
The tall clock above the quadrangle struck half-past two. Its voice reverberated and grew in the Presbyterian silence.
— You’re late! You’re late! You’ll be late when the trumpet’s blown. I’ve seen you, I know you. Where were you on Monday? Drunk in the Bowling Green. Where were you on Wednesday? Smooging in the town belt. Where were you on Friday? Nobody knows. What would your parents say? What will the examiners say? No application. No team spirit. No sense of decency at all …
Grey as a hangover conscience, the old clock looked down on me; but as the chimes died irreverent sparrows flew back in a cloud to squabble and skitter and nest in his elder’s hat. I walked on and over the footbridge where day by day the same twigs tumble at the bottom of the worn cylindrical weirs. A girl ghost in an overcoat stood waiting at the bridge, with dark hair and a voice like weir water. Another dressed in corduroys, with fair plaits, came round the corner as I watched. They both walked beside me to the dark trees swaying on the far side of Cumberland Street.
— Forget me, said one.
— Look after me, said the other.
Then the bell of All Saints swung slowly in its steeple. ‘Requiescant. Requiescant in pace,’ it tolled. Faces and voices died. The ordinary sun stood over me in a blue sky of crumbled quartz. It was very pleasant to be a fat man of thirty walking down Cumberland Street in the sun.