OSCAR TUNNICLIFF grew up in Newtown, Wellington. Now at the age of 21, he spends most of his time trying to grain something from observing the lives of strangers. He was influenced by Frank Sargeson and J. D. Salinger in the writing of ‘Country Pubs and Waiting Rooms’.

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Country Pubs and Waiting Rooms

I WAS at the Newtown Medical. I’d turned up late, but managed a new appointment by a smile and the line, “jeez I don’t think I’ve ever been on time to anything in my whole life”. Old ladies love to hear that stuff. But needless to say I had quite a wait ahead of me. I don’t so much mind the waiting room. I watch all those people you see in poor neighbourhood doctor’s offices. Like the deep-lined face of a man who looks like he could be from somewhere like Papua New Guinea and a great fat Samoan lady who holds her baby close to her breast. I tried to give her a smile – she just gave me a real confused look. There was a nice-looking young couple who were looking all clucky at these two kids on the floor. So I looked at them too. They were playing with some big rubber Lego blocks, a real pretty Maori-Pakeha girl and a polite Asian-looking kid. He was trying to build as tall a tower as possible and she was trying to match the colours together. That sort of stuff’s good – it gives everyone something to think about. The girl was taking the blocks from the boy’s tower and putting them onto her own construction without any conversation or anything. After a while he gave up and submissively started to help her match the blocks.
Then this old guy started over to the children and everyone watched him instead. He walked over and said to the little girl, “you all right?” She answers back all full of indignation, “Yeh.” And he sniffs and sits himself down on the other side of the room. A real tough old-looking bugger with grey hair and a face like stone, strong and straight, a to the point and vicious looking old bugger, of the kind who, upon arriving in New Zealand, found only the disappointment of a virgin land. But of the kind who just rolled up their sleeves and got to work pressuring this land into submitting to their new economy: iron, cattle, sheep. Cutting roads deep into the mountain labyrinth and burning the forests and damming the rivers and ploughing the earth. Until the lives of his kind fell into images of New Zealand lore. The kind who dragged their fists across the land to show their wives they weren’t empty. While she milked the cows and sowed the fields and made the bread and weaved and carved and waited for him and his like, while they built their railroads that all only ever seemed to lead to the corner of some God-awful pub where a scuffle might have broken out earlier, and where he and his like sat, white-knuckled, choking a beer around the neck. Alone, staring down the wall, waiting for the time to go home but having no way in sight to get there.
That’s how he sat in the waiting room, like in that pub, with wide legs, an even stare and a straight back. We all watched him for a while, a little in awe I think. Yeah, he had all the makings of a real New Zealander. A Swanndri, working boots and all.
He called out to that little girl. She sighed, put down her block and went over all stroppy. “Go get my coat from the car.” He gave her the key, looked at her eyes, said slow and authoritative, sounding out every word, “It’s in the back.” She said she would, and went.
Now that girl was only about eight years old, so I don’t think anyone would really blame her for being a bit naughty. Or for not being able to open the car door for that matter. That sort of stuff can be difficult when you’re young. But jeez, if that old fella wasn’t fuming when she came back with no coat. She came in real meek and told that old bugger she couldn’t open the door. Nice and quiet. I mean that sort of stuff’s hard for a little kid! But you couldn’t have told him that. His voice got real low and he bent down real low and he said real slow, all teeth, “Where’s my Coat?
This is it. Everyone gets tense.
She stood there looking at him sturdy, eye to eye she bore her teeth and she repeated her self. Real hard-nosed. Kinda like how I imagine that scuffle could have got started in that pub. Only, that old bugger was kinda dumbstruck and she just sniffed and went back to playing with those blocks. I never found out what he needed from his jacket, of course. But I don’t s’pose it really mattered, because he just sat and stared at the clock. Waiting for his time. While that beacon child played away with her blocks.