They told me there’s a Mountain there, crisp with snow, but as we slid out of the Mangakino gorge into Taranaki proper I saw no sign. He used to drive like a bat out of hell, one hand on the steering wheel one grasping at the visions of the way ahead as if he was already there. They say he was a visionary. Perhaps he was.
His son thankfully was more sedate. We slid carefully around the rugged hills and through the one-eyed tunnels until finally we saw the coastline laced with surf. At just that moment the late sun sieved through the clouds rendering everything silver – touched by God – as if we were in a travel brochure revealing un-touristed land where travellers ought to go.
“It’s beautiful when you can see down the coastline to the Mountain,” he quietly said.
I was sure it was. But still, no Mountain.
Later that evening in the church he lay in the box a perfect form that Madame Tussaud herself would deem one her best. I half expected him to rise like Lazarus and jump up with that trademark cheeky grin saying ‘Gotcha!’
But he didn’t. The rain and wind tore at the silence. I wanted to say something. To tell others of the hundred and one generous things he did for others that no one will ever know, now. That the private man his friends knew was the imperfect generous soul with a heart so big..
So big they say perhaps he wore it out.
I prefer to think he launched it into heaven. Heading there first, always the one to go on ahead to clear the trail for his family and friends to follow.
I wanted to say how the last time I’d seen him he’d filled the boot of my car with mysterious boxes that turned out to be a smart coffee machine and a crate of wine. I didn’t know until I got home and was then so flabbergasted by his generosity I wasn’t sure how to say ‘thank-you’.
I want to say ‘thank-you’ now. Can he hear me still?
The funeral was at times funny, at times heart-breakingly sad but always surreal. I felt for my friend and her kids grieving in public. I felt for the grown men who in suit and tie stood with tears streaming down their cheeks. I felt everything, like pins under my skin and fingernails in my eyes.
There is no doubt he lead a full life as only those who are indeed larger than life can truly do. Yet he’d never forgotten where his roots were and what kept him grounded. The ‘Naki lad. Always.
I have roots there too, my father’s family are from there. He used to tell me about walking in the snow up The Mountain when he was a child. Taranaki is the place of mythology. The real New Zealand where children keep their feet warm by thrusting them into steaming cow pats and milk a few cows before breakfast. Where everything seems so much simpler, as if this crowded life full of PS3’s and corporate boxes are some kind of testing appetiser for a deeper longer existence.
Out, out brief candle.
They laid his body to rest in the shadow of Mt Taranaki, so if he should wake he will see the heavenly peek keeping guard. He loved that mountain – it was a grounding stone and a stairway to heaven.
The relieved smiles of the mourners at the after-match function caught each other up with anecdotes and escapades. They lasted all night…there were so very many. At one point as the sun was setting, a new friend called me over to the window.
“See, you can just see the tip of the Mountain.”
I looked but couldn’t see anything.
“I’m starting to think there isn’t a Mountain at all, ” I told him. “I think it’s a group psychosis. They’ve put some hallucinogen in the water here. It’s something you’ve all told yourself to make things better.”
Things like mortality and lives cut short. Retired at fifty. How can that be? Three years older than me.
“Where’s this Mountain?”
But it wouldn’t show and I slunk back to the crowds with a glass of wine and sipped and laughed until I felt quietened.
We left town as quietly as we’d arrived, slipping over the farmland stopping once or twice to let stock cross the road, and to grab a pie from the roadside shop. Looking out the back seat window I marvelled at God’s Own – the green hills, the early mist rising like dispensed breath from the paddocks, the jewelled frost on leaves and fence posts.
And then quite unexpectedly I saw it.
The Mountain; hanging as if in mid-air in all its conical perfection. Sitting between two fence goal posts. A heavenly mountain. The stuff of children’s drawings, myths and prayers. And yet, there it was and for the first time I truly caught sight of something I knew I already believed deep in my heart.
The Mountain is real.
Vale my friend.
NB/ The Maori legend of Mt Taranaki, Ruapehu and Tongariro is here