fair dues: a study for a dressing

There comes a time when all that has come before seems like a false start. Where does it come from, the sense of a false start? Since we can not choose how our narratives begin, only how they carry on, how they deal with each problem as it comes until an end is reached. However, the problems often come from the beginning, and in carrying on, even as we are solving these problems, or appear to be – the appearance having something to do with a sense of satisfaction, finding satisfactory, or adequate solutions – we carry on with the beginning. We carry the beginning on with us. Until we have lost it. There is, again, some measure of satisfaction or of reaching a point of sufficiency, an amplitude, in this: from the beginning we were meant to lose the beginning. Or, there is no getting lost. Or even, a narrative that begins from a determinable position, determinate for us, has somehow to lose itself from that position. It needs to free itself and in freeing itself it can also be said to be hiding, burying, making a secret of its point of departure.

A false start. A line that does not so much begin as mimic beginning. Equal in all its points. It stutters. The essential thing is making a false start. Isn’t it? Rather than reflecting on how from the point of view of the stutter, the leap forward that got us nowhere really, calls into question what comes before.

My paternal grandfather owned a Morris 1800, which had been specially built for the head of Todd Motors. I inherited it eventually and enjoyed driving as fast as I could under the influence of champagne, achieving the trip from Dunedin to Aramoana in under fifteen minutes. I had it until the family dog ate the seats, the car having been designated a temporary kennel to save visitors to the property from being bitten, since it was parked up with a broken clutch. After the seats were eaten there seemed little reason to fix the clutch. The point of the vehicle had been comfort, after all. That and handling like a drunkard on the curves of the road out to Aramoana. Being steered by a drunk. The purpose, however, of this excursion into biography, is to remember how my grandfather prepared the Morris, what preparations were ritually made before starting.

In this case, the end of the journey was known. It was usually a river, for a swim. This was Hawkes Bay. The beginning was marked by what can only be described as displacement. My grandfather loaded the car, picnic in boot, people inside, with towels and togs, and then he lifted the bonnet.

On some occasions, even before we came to get in, he’d been out, often early – he was an early riser – with his head under the bonnet. Regardless of these prior preparations, once we were in, the bonnet would be lifted. The essential ritual was the one which occurred once we were in the car. It was one without reason. He already knew the car was running well. He’d perhaps previous to our hopping in had the head off with the little metal gauge out measuring tappet play. He’d smelt the exhaust. He’d of course checked the oil and water. He’d already done everything to ensure that the car was absolutely fine. Still, at the very point that we were about to set off, he’d look again, checking. What? I was too young and too uninterested in the mechanics of the car, being too intent on reaching the river, in the summer heat, to ask exactly what he was doing under there. I recall that my grandfather was, however, certainly ribbed for this idiosyncrasy, this tic. His wife, my nana, would ask him specifically what he was doing, what he thought he was doing. I don’t recall any answer.

I may have once actually attended the sub-bonnet ritual, with my grandfather. Now I think about it, I’m sure that the car was running, that this was part of the ritual. No wonder then that the car had to be loaded up with people and their things and that whatever preparations had been made previous to the exact time of departure, the intended time, no matter how many checks and measures, of emissions and levels of water and oil and gas, and tappet play, my grandfather had performed before we were all in, now that we were and now that he had started the engine, the bonnet would naturally have to come up, given the new circumstances. Anything could happen. A car is an explosion, the containment of which is crucial both to smooth running and to the safety of its occupants, its passengers. My grandfather’s diligence is clearly explained by his caution around such a thing, an explosion occupied by his family, contained in a crude metal – no matter how specially appointed for the head of Todd Motors – shell, carapace, form, like a jerry-can or cake-tin on wheels, meant to go hurtling along at unnatural speeds. But was it necessary to check everything, often for the second time that morning, before leaving?

Once upon a time, the car bunny-hopped backwards and stalled. The engine stuttered, and spluttered, backfired, and stopped. Had my grandfather performed his ritual? Of course. What had happened? The unforeseeable. We were on that occasion unpacked from the car and made to wait in the blazing sun. I think my grandfather might even have enlisted our help, Dad’s and ours’, to push the car back up the driveway to the garage door, to the car’s original starting position. I can imagine Nana drawing attention to the ludicrousness of the situation by offering to help too. The driveway was completely level so it was a task easily accomplished, but, again, unnecessary, excessive.

It would be easy to get lost in the reminiscence and forget where I began, to lose the thread of a thread about losing the thread. In my grandfather’s case every start was a false start, both potentially and actually. I know this because although I used the word ‘performed’ his ‘performance’ of the ritual of checking the engine was not for the sake of an audience or a spectator, unless you count God; small ‘g’ or large, it makes no difference: it was a matter of satisfying something, this extra overly cautious step. I also called it a displacement, as if my grandfather were making a detour by way of checking the engine to somewhere, something else, some other object of psychic investment, or hiding exactly this: whence the departure was to be made. The beginning. Again. A, not to stress it too much, gain.

The ritual of checking the engine could then be said to constitute a gesture of hiding the beginning in order to leave it behind. There could be no falseness about it. We, in the car waiting, might have been wrong. Once one accepts that he was not under the bonnet, hidden from our point of view anyway, for show, for our sake, as spectators, one might be compelled to say that the disaster of making a false start was being averted by paying it due consideration, by investing in it, diligently, every time we wanted to go somewhere in the Morris. What else happened? Well, I have to admit, sometimes Nana had forgotten something and had to go and get it from inside the house; sometimes one of us had and meanwhile my grandfather was otherwise engaged sub-bonnet. So he was doing it for our sake as well. Had he been waiting at the wheel, the steering-wheel, and one of us had decided we had to get out and go inside for some reason he would have fallen into one of his silent furies. Our sake. And his sake.

I can say this: the car never broke down on the way. We need make no exception for stalling in the driveway that once, excepting as it proved, or tested, the rule: that a false start can be undisclosed by a false start. But this is too complex a formulation. In the economy of the unlost.

The initial problem of false starts gives way to a case study. However, in departing from itself, from that beginning, so many other questions are raised, or different formulations of the same question, to which, regardless, only different solutions could suffice. For instance: How do we conduct a ritual to pay attention to beginning? How do we honour the origin?

And: How much is too much?