Felice Quail's truncated journey
a long and occasionally amicable dialogue I'd had with the writer and cartoonist Rachel Fenton about a character named Felix Quail. As the employee of a World War Two radar station, Quail had listened perhaps too obsessively to the crackling and blipping that flowed through his earphones, and had developed an obsession with poltergeists and alternative dimensions. Later, with the help of a fellow inmate of Tokanui Mental Hospital, he'd invented and - allegedly - visited a series of alternate versions of our world, where history, and in particular the history of New Zealand's nineteenth century land wars, had worked out differently.
Many of Quail's alternate worlds converged on the Great South Road, that route pushed bloodily into Maori territory by an avaricious colonial government in the 1860s, and I had briefly wanted to make him the focus of the film-art project-book that Paul Janman and I have been working on intermittently. As Rachel Fenton observed in her tenderly merciless way, though, Felix was an uncomfortably romantic character, a piece of wish-fulfillment.
Although Paul and I quietly marginalised Felix Quail, we replaced him with Felice Quail, who briefly seemed to us a more credible character. Felice was a young driver for an antiques dealer who was thrown through the windscreen of her yellow lorry at Rangiriri, where the Great South Road runs over the ruins of the pa on which the greatest battle of the New Zealand Wars was staged.
As she recovers from her injuries, which are mental as well as physical, in an Auckland hospital, Felice discovers the pleasures and obligations of books, and becomes fascinated by the literature on New Zealand's nineteenth century wars. Pushing Auckland's fifty-five public libraries and her hospital's mail system to the limit, she reads, in the clarifying haze provided by generous doses of dihydrocodeine, everything from the diaries of homesick Yorkshiremen shivering in redoubts beside the Great South Road to the megalomaniacal memoranda of Governor George Grey to the heretical anti-war tract prepared by Grey's one-time agent, John Gorst, to the historiographical manoeuvres of contemporary scholars like Jamie Belich.
Felice's peculiarities were based partly upon my own. At the end of 1999 I was involved in a serious car crash, and while recuperating I exchanged my undergraduate interest in philosophy and airy art and literary theory for a fascination with New Zealand history. Like Felice, I bothered librarians.
Paul and I decided that, once she had recuperated, Felice must make some sort of pilgrimage down the Great South Road to the site of her 'accident', and do something incomprehensible over the tarmacked ruins of Rangiriri. Paul talked about gelignite. Our documentary, which had become a mockumentary, would show Felice reconstructing her journey in the presence of an avuncular yet sinister police psychologist named Lloyd Wright.
We shot the opening segment of our film in the Auckland Domain, with the dancer Megan Ilgenfrentz playing Felice, but I soon realised I knew nothing about scriptwriting, and Paul realised that he would need two million dollars to tell the story of Felice Quail properly. We've reverted to the documentary, and Felice, like her ancestor Felix, has gone into quiet retirement. Here, for the sake of documentation, is a fragment of script.
EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW WITH FELICE QUAIL, RECORDED ON 09/08/16 BY DR LLOYD WRIGHT
Before you made this little journey of yours down the Great South Road –
A pleasant little historical ramble –
Not so pleasant. Before you started down the road, you visited the Auckland Domain.
I wanted to go back.
You spent a bit of time there when you were younger –
When I was a kid?
When you were a patient. I know about the therapy programmes the hospital runs for patients recovering from trauma –
The Domain is an overflow ward. Take your lorazepam and sit on that bench and be a good girl and feed the ducks. Here’s a piece of bread, some stale stuff from the hospital galley, don’t waste it, crush it between your fingers, crush it and spit on it, then feed the little pills of bread to those ducks, one at a time, one at a time, one pill per bird, that’s the rule –
You didn’t like the therapy? Wasn’t it pleasant to be out of doors, with trees and the birds and some water –
It’s funny. I kept thinking something terrible was about to happen.
That sort of feeling is common amongst trauma victims, but it doesn’t have to –
Doesn’t have to what?
Let’s think back to last winter. You went back to the duckpond?
I stayed as long as I could bear it, then went through the bush, down the hill, to the ruined railway station, the wrecked workshops – that’s where I used to go when I ran away from the therapy sessions –
You didn’t think of going in the other direction, to the museum? With your interest in history –
I hate history. I’m interested in reality. Museums make the past unreal, and call it history. The rust on the old carriages, the smashed windows and bird shit in the workshops, the winos and escaped psych patients bedding down there –
You felt at home?
We live in wreckage. We are wreckage.
I don’t understand -
It’s your job not to understand.
I’m trying to be patient, Felice. I could be a lot less patient. I could send you to talk with a detective, if you’re bored with doctors.
I sat on that bench, in my civilian clothes, not my hospital gown, in that bohemian duffelcoat, those boots – I sat on my bench and fed the ducks and felt the sun on my face and heard the wind in the trees – and I remembered that the Domain, this place where kids learn to run by chasing birds and teenagers root and old men walk dogs…well, there’s a small, dirty plaque beside the bench where I used to sit, there’s a plaque that commemorates commemorating the construction of this pond and the nearby gardens by the Auckland Acclimatisation Society, which marshalled its army – its gorse bushes and willow saplings, its blue ducks and Jersey cows – in the Domain, on the eve of the invasion of the Waikato Kingdom. It was these forms of life which would continue the work of the solider, in the decades after the conquest of the Waikato, by occupying and subduing native ecosystems, until the only autochthonous creature in parts of the Hauraki Plains was the eel, which hid deep in the mud of the canals which had drained its old swamp home.
Did you memorise all that? It sounds like something out of a book. It sounds like something you didn’t need to be worrying about. Your injuries – that’s what you were in the Domain to heal. The car crash –
The past is a car crash. Rangiriri, Rangiaowhia, Orakau: listen carefully to those names and you can hear brakes screaming, you can feel metal tearing, you can taste shattered glass –
Why did you go back to the Domain last winter, then? And why did you go on down the Great South Road? Surely you knew it was a bad idea? Couldn’t you have stayed there, in your room – We can’t avoid travelling. I can. I haven’t had a proper holiday in years. You should talk with my wife, she’s always complaining –
You sit at that desk with that pile of textbooks and pull the curtain and think you’re safe. You’re not. You sit at that desk and the earth rolls at your feet. The earth travels ten thousands kilometres in a minute. It carries you with it, whether you want to go or not –
Alright, very poetic. But surely I’m travelling into the future, away from the past? Those things that obsessed, that have gotten you into trouble – they’re history.
Time is like the Greek serpent – it eats its own tail. We rush forward into the past. We run away from ourselves into ourselves.
What time is it now, then? I think it’s time to break. You’re on a manic –
It is July the 11th, 1863, and the invasion of the Waikato Kingdom will begin in a few hours, when Cameron’s army jumps the Mangatawhiri. The signal’s been sent by George Grey, who’s drinking whiskey in Government House with Thomas Russell. The signal’s been sent. Can’t you feel the earth throbbing like a telegraph wire? Can’t you smell Martyn’s cottage burning, beside the Great South Road?
[A rustling noise, and then a crash. The tape cuts out]
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]