Maria Majsa
93 Edgewater Drive, Pakuranga, February 1982

I’ve got the spirit, lose the feeling, take the shock away

The day Martin died was a humid summer day, like any other. He’d run out of cigs. The shop was three minutes away. He jumped on his motorbike to grab a pack of Camels. No helmet, no shoes. Our local traffic cop lived a few doors down from Martin. Everyone knew Mr Emmett, he taught all of us kids road safety at school. He was sitting in his patrol car in the driveway, just about to go on duty. Martin sped past and glanced back, worried that Mr Emmett had seen him. He hit a concrete power pole headfirst and died right there, on the street where he’d lived.

My older brother Paul had a close set of friends he’d known since high-school and he was generous enough to let me hang out with them. They did what bored suburban teenagers do – sit around, talk rubbish and finesse new ways to get trashed as quickly and cheaply as possible. I watched mostly, and listened.

I watched them grate and snort mountains of nutmeg and drink themselves to a standstill on pilfered spirits. I was there the night they did a masked machete raid on the psychoactive cacti in our neighbourhood and I saw them boil it up and drink it down, trying not to vomit. Between adventures they sat around in the dark, smoking and listening to music. They took their music more seriously than anything else in their lives, it seemed to me at the time. They listened to The Fall, Pere Ubu and Joy Division.

In someone’s darkened living room I heard Unknown Pleasures for the first time; felt its presence, fell for its wintry austerity before I knew the names of the songs. I was seventeen. This music had stature. There was a spatial quality to it – monumental, tender, brutal and precise. The singer sounded as though he’d gazed too long into the abyss. And though the gravity of the vocal took some getting used to, his words reached out to me from the first line: I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand.

One by one the boys left the neighbourhood; found work in cafes, shops and factories, scraping up enough for beer and rent. After sharing shabby flats for a few years, some of them travelled and others, like Martin, moved back home. Martin was the smallest, smartest and shyest of my brother’s friends. He had dark hair and big glasses, like a fun size Elvis Costello. I can see him in his grey school uniform, all elbows and knees, cig in his hand – a champion smoker, despite the asthma. Martin never said much, but when he did, his observations were lacerating. I remember him always in a corner, watching, smoking and sniggering like Muttley from the Wacky Races.

Martin’s relationship with his mother wasn’t easy and his father had died when he was young, so when he moved home, he converted a plywood packing case into a sleepout and lived in the back yard. He built himself a double bed over a stacked wooden base rigged with UV lights and farmed a small crop of weed. His treasures lined the walls, carefully balanced on the internal framing: army belt buckle, Zippo lighter, black obsidian, pineapple hand grenade. As dwellings go, it was basic, but Martin had everything he needed, and plenty of solitude.

None of us had lost a friend before. We went to see his body and he looked even smaller than I remembered. Paul tapped his chest and said it felt like wood. The hardest thing was the funeral. We all agreed that a song from Unknown Pleasures should be played because Martin loved it so much, but his mother refused. Instead we sat in church listening to a man talk about someone we didn’t recognise. Someone who liked children and small animals. We were saying goodbye to someone we’d never met. We swapped doubting looks and concentrated on memories of the Martin we knew.

It was right after the funeral that things began to happen. Heading back to Edgewater Drive for the wake, we talked about Martin, wondering what he would have made of the service. I was in the back of Doug’s old S-type jag with a bunch of others and as we crossed the Waipuna bridge leading to Pakuranga, the windscreen exploded. It crashed onto the dashboard like a frozen wave. Doug pulled over and we sat there for a bit, then he cleared the debris and we drove on.

At Martin’s house, we tried one last time to play a Joy Division track for him. His mother replaced the record with one of her own. It played for a few minutes, then the lights cut out and the music drained away like water leaving a sink. When they checked with the neighbours, their power was still on. In the back yard, someone had arranged a row of flowers alongside Martin’s sleepout. While we stood around talking, the vases fell over, rejecting their contents one after another. When we set them up, they fell down again. People started making jokes – how Martin liked flowers as much as he liked his mother’s music.

We ended up in his packing case – the only place that still felt like him. Smelled like him. We bunched up on the plywood floor and his unmade bed to share stories about him; smoking, drinking, laughing then crying. And when Martin’s carefully placed treasures began to fall, like the flowers, one by one to the floor, I knew he was there with us too.

Sometimes I listen to Joy Division and wonder which song we would have played that day if we’d been able to. No-one I asked could remember if Martin had a favourite track. Before writing this, I narrowed it down to two – Shadowplay and Disorder. My brother Paul and his wife Lee came over and we spent the evening sitting round the fire, talking about Martin. My iTunes library was playing in the next room. As we debated which song to choose, Disorder came up on shuffle. Remembering the chaos on the day of his funeral, Lee thought it had to be Disorder and, right on cue, the song went dead. We exchanged looks. I checked my computer, but no-one had touched it and there hadn’t been a power cut. For me, the best part of this story is that Martin got to make his own choice in the end. Martin, this one’s for you.

Until the spirit new sensation takes hold, then you know

© Maria Majsa

 

Originally from NZ, I spent the 80s in London working at Penguin Books [editorial assistant], living in squats and seeing loads of bands. Back home I was a scriptwriter for a local soap, Shortland Street, and have written features for blogs and magazines.