I didn’t even notice the state of the city when I first came home after many years away. My parents had just died, leaving the family business to my sister and me. I’d led a quiet life for so long that it was all too much to cope with at once. I was completely preoccupied with my sadness at their death and delight at seeing my sister again. It was only later that the full impact of the place hit me.
They were still my childhood memories but, as the days went by, I saw more and more clearly that everything had changed, the slant of light, a feeling in the air as if they had been disconnected from life. Everything seemed grey and remote, as disturbing as a half-remembered nightmare. At night the homeless people lit huge bonfires in rusty petrol drums and I could see the shadow of the flames flickering on the storeroom ceiling as I lay on a mattress on the floor trying to sleep. I kept hearing their harsh voices, sudden jolting snarls of rage, the clink of bottles, a snatch of ragged singing. They were like voices from the dead, remote, an undercurrent of menace, a strange and ghostly community.
In the daytime there were no signs, just newspapers blowing in the wind and young guys walking past like cowboys, stiff-legged, eyes ahead, past the derelict shops.
‘They’re the ragged army,’ my sister Violet told me. ‘There’s thousands of them now. Families camped out in the streets, I old cars, under the freeway flyovers, in shopping malls, in cardboard boxes on the side of the road. There’s nowhere for them to go.’
Dark puddles of some unknown liquid spilled out onto the pavement, soaking the nests of wadded newspapers, syringes, rags lying everywhere. A lot of the shops around us in Kingsland were boarded up or had been turned into cut-rate flea markets, sex shops, strip joints and the people selling cheap jewellery on the pavements had the tough knockabout faces of the truly desperate. Big semi-porno hoardings were tacked over the facades of the buildings. Women outlined in neon with huge breasts and idiot faces leered and winked down onto the streets.
Queen Street was like another country. The streets around there were almost deserted. Mounds of rubbish lay in the Post Office square and weeds grew in the cracks , creating an air of desolation and unease. The buildings were all strangely corroded as if some toxic process was occurring continuously, slowly breaking up the surfaces, wrenching them apart like an earthquake in slow motion that stirred and cracked the walls before your eyes. The mirror glass on the office blocks was splintered and bleared over. The offices themselves looked like unloved plastic toys left out in the rain. I thought of the old Mid-City Centre, softened by giant indoor trees with shining green leaves, alive with children parading every Saturday night in their bright clothes. It was all gone, as if the streets had been emptied by a plague. But it was the main Auckland library which really hit me a blow to the heart when I saw it. The windows were boarded over, there was a broken padlock on the door, impenetrable darkness inside.
‘I couldn’t believe it,’ I said to Violet later. ’It was somehow the worst of all , even more so than the homeless people. It was like the end of the world.’
‘Round here there’s no-one left but street people and the only thing they want books for is kindling.’
‘Fires to keep them warm,’ she said. We sat at the table in the backroom of the shop, drinking cask wine, our elbows on the table , watching the rain and waiting for customers.
‘I’m going there to see if I can save some of the books,’ I said. ‘We can store them here. Or lend them to customers. There’s plenty of other kindling they can use.’
‘It’s too dangerous to go out,’ Violet said. ‘The kids prowl round the streets like zombies. They’re all wired up on stuff like crack and ice.’
There was silence on the room except for the sound of the rain.
I spoke at last. ‘We could make this into a small lending library. Maybe a bookshop.’
‘Sure, why not? ‘ Violet spoke heavily drunk from the wine. ‘We could call it “The Bookshop at the end of the Road.”’
But all the same she came with me the next morning. We had fallen asleep at the table and woken at dawn with rain still falling and the sounds of sirens in the distance. We put our overcoats on and got into the car without speaking, both of us sick from drinking. We drove to the Grafton Library because that was the one we both knew . Standing by the old stone steps
I felt a terrible ache as I looked up. The building had been like a sanctuary for us with its huge wooden doors, its silence, the librarians sitting like deities on their thrones. It had been a way out of the narrow world of our childhood, a polished, orderly place where horizons stretched, comfortingly timeless. Now it stood forlornly, shamefully filthy, glass in a winking trail through the smashed front door, a smell like the sour breath of a beast wafting out from the darkness inside.
‘We’ll knock out the walls then,’ I said half crying. ’Make our own library.’
‘Where?’ asked Violet as we walked through the littered hallway.
‘The empty shop next door.’
‘Oh hush,’ Violet said, amused. ‘Hush your mouth.’
‘Look at this.’
We stood in the Adult Fiction section, a sea of wreckage, broken glass, the desolation I would never be used to. The dark wooden panelling of the shelves still looked polished and intact. but littered all along the ledges were plastic coke bottles, idiot jumble, rats’ nests: a display that reminded me of a Warhol painting, vacant offerings of the undead. The gracious room stood above the rubble, the morning light coming softly through its crafty, lovely transoms.
‘Faith,’ Violet called me, trying to comfort. ‘There’s a shelf left back here.’
I went over to loo. The shelf was a little alcove at the back of the room, slightly hidden, and the books were stacked there in neat rows,. waiting for deliverance. I picked one up and put it in the carton.
‘Let’s just take all of them and then we can weed out the trash after,’ I said, starting to load more into the carton feverishly. ‘We can come back if we want to.’
We worked for a while in nervous silence before my eye was caught by a shocking burst of colour exploding into the room, a froufrou of lace and sequins, scarlet chiffon, husky voices, menace. I stood up startled, dropping a book, and there they were, crowding in at the door on the other side of the room. Impossibly tall drag queens, their faces made-up eerily in swirls of colour, dyed dancing feathers in their hair, perfume drifting in hot waves, each of them holding a shining knife.
‘What you doing?’ one asked in a sleepy voice.
‘Rescuing the books,’ I said.
‘Looting?’ one of them suggested kindly. ‘Taking what does not belong to you?’
Violet whispered to me very softly, ’Get the cartons and go out the back way.’
‘What’s that you say honey?’ Their voices were languorous and silky, violence was trembling in the air.
‘Books,’ one of them said at the doorway. ’You poor little girls. You only want them for firewood.’
Looking at them in terror, I saw that their eyes had no pupils at all, they were huge and milky and blank, terrifyingly blind. The queens were wafting together in some deadly sea of chemicals, they rocked back and forth in the currents, calling to each other, their voices drifting in an uneasy siren song. They were lost in a dream of violence and we were the victims floating in the undertow towards their swaying predatory dance.
‘Save me,’ I muttered at the sight, and in our panic we took off down the back alleys of the library and out into the light before they could even make a move towards us.
We leaned against the fence briefly to get our breath back ,shifting the cartons from one arm to another, but too frightened to put them down even for a minute. I imagined the queens inside, swaying, smiling at nothing, already in wait for another plaything.
We drove home fast badly shaken. In the back seat the books had a musty unloved smell about them that overwhelmed me.
It was the first of many trips to the city . At first we worried about seeing the queens again, but as we became addicted to our dawn raids, we were more daring, breaking into derelict schools, galleries, even private houses in our search. Afterwards we waited all day for customers, drinking, talking dreamily, staring out the window.
The rescued books gradually spilled over into every corner, piling up everywhere, filling the room with voices, the musky ancient smell of generations of grace, until the shop reminded me of an archaic ship so laden with treasure it could barely stay afloat.
Spring came, the rain fell every day, and the baby peach trees in the backyard sent out buds like paper flowers. The city seemed to be holding its breath, waiting for something. In the mornings the air was smoky with night fires and the streets had the same terrified calm as a deserted battlefield after the dead have been spirited away under cover of night. Every day when I went outside to take down the shutters the place seemed stranger to me. Once when we were going into the city before dawn I even thought I saw animals like horses in the Domain, great white beasts galloping away in the darkness, but Violet said I must have been dreaming.