The Concentrators - 2009 Open Division Winner

Open Division Judge Elizabeth Smithers Comments: 'At first I thought I might have been drawn to the winning story since I was a librarian (without wings). But what really captured me was the Betjeman-like bounce of lisping tennis-playing Jane. And when Shelley rejects mysterious Stanley it is because ‘there was an aura about him that reminded me of shiny paper sewing patterns slipping through my fingers’. I stopped for a moment and thought of those patterns.’

The Concentrators

The summer I met the man from New York I had just turned 22. I had my first real job, assistant librarian in a little town that sat in the middle of the countryside on the plains like a jumble of child's blocks tossed on a bare wooden floor.

After work I sewed, played tennis with my flatmate Jane, and wrote drunken poetry. I had come from the city to Temuka for the work experience. Unlike other girls around my age who lived there, I wasn't worried about my future in connection with the place: there was no future there past the year I needed to complete my library cadetship. I was waiting to be part of something, to be the empress of a bigger destiny.

The town was proud of its rugby team and award-winning volunteer fire brigade, its botanical gardens and pipe band. Many people worked at the pottery factory making unbreakable brown tableware and the ceramic discs used on power poles. The locals called this factory 'the insulators'. It belched smoke into the blue light of the plains and gave the place its characteristic odour of burnt rubber and hot brakes.

The other big employer was the Concentrators, where the man from New York was in charge.  In this factory, carrots were reduced into a colourful, concentrated sludge that was exported to Japan, where it was reconstituted into juice. The paddocks on the plains were thick with special varieties of juicing carrots grown for their rich colours of deep orange and blood red.

 Temuka was on the main highway, but most of the traffic bypassed it. There was an atmosphere that the older locals called solid and dependable, and which the younger ones found claustrophobic. Those who had been away and returned sometimes wore resigned or lost expressions on their faces as if a hole in time had sucked them in and spat them out again in a place they associated only with the past.

My neighbour Manu had grown up on the marae just over the river to the south. He was a policeman who'd come home to work for the youth aid section. He said Temuka was much more real than the big places he'd lived in, and that people could be more true to themselves far away from the city. I thought the opposite. Still, we were smoking buddies. Both of us associated the drawing in of smoke with relaxation, liberation, and reward.

That summer the town was jerked from its gentle existence when a farming family reported seeing flying saucers hovering over the river and zooming at great speed into the starry sky. Weather experts from Wellington said the lights were caused by atmospheric conditions. After that, Jane and I spent a few evenings on the floodbank watching the sky and listening to the sound of water pushing against the river stones. We hoped to see something unusual, but we were looking in the wrong place.

Then there'd been a series of crank calls to the mayor and the councillors - hang-ups, all of them, and unsettling in a place where everyone knew everyone. Shortly after that there was a burglary at the insulators factory.

'Someone got into the office,' Manu told me. 'They went through the drawers, switched on all the computers. They didn't take a thing. Probably after money.' At the library, I noticed more books about home security, and unexplained phenomena, were going out on loan.

One quiet afternoon, the man from the Concentrators came into the library looking for poetry. He wore tight black jeans, a white shirt, and a tan suede jacket. His skin was the colour of dried flax pods. He looked like a guy who ironed his own clothes.

I pointed him towards the literature stack. I was going through a punk-goth phase then. It was before I got my hair extensions and started dance classes. I wore a lot of pale make-up, dyed my hair black, and attached angel wings to the backs of my dresses. I liked to look at myself in the shop windows when I bounced along the street.

 'You going to a funeral?' he asked me.

'Yeah,' I said. 'Yours.'

He put both hands on the desk and leaned towards me. 'It's later than you think.'

'I don't know what you're talking about,' I said, clicking the mouse and scrolling through the overdue books on the computer database. The library was owed more than $10,000 in fines, all in little bits and pieces, from people that had moved on, and forgotten to pay.

'It's later than you think,' he repeated, swishing off in his sneakers and riffling through the poets.

I watched through my fringe as he selected a handful of books and brought them over to my desk.

Dr Stanley Kowalski was the name on his library card. Stanley. I could hear my mother saying 'thinks he's someone'.

'You ever been to the Village?' he said.

I raised an eyebrow.

'Greenwich Village, New York City.  Used to live there. You'd fit in with your wings n'all.'

He'd selected Shakespeare's sonnets, ee cummings, Baxter, McQueen.

'Have you read any of the New Zealand poets before?' I asked. 'There's an anthology you might enjoy.'

'It's my first time,' he said, and winked. 'Be seeing you.'

After he left I went over to the window and watched him get into a black sports car - a Porsche. It drove away, throaty, strangely explicit, almost pornographic on the plain main street. The guys I knew drove hotted up Holdens and big motorbikes.

I was about to hunt for Stanley's details in the phone book when the high school receptionist arrived. She looked me up and down, with her eyes blinking rapidly behind her glasses.

Stone Face was my secret name for her. She had once told me that she loved her job, not that she needed to work of course, but she loved her job because she enjoyed seeing how the kids turned out. Liked to see them on the street, all grown up, liked to see what they would do with their lives.

'Shelley,' she said. 'The women's institute ladies would like you to be guest speaker at our next meeting.' She crinkled her big powdered face at me.

'I thought you did home crafts,' I said, 'and shared inspirational thoughts?'

'You could talk about books, why you became a librarian,' Stone Face said. 'We want to know all about your education and so on.'

'You wouldn't find me interesting.' I said. 'But that American guy?  The one who runs the Concentrators? He'd be perfect.'

'Why do you say that?'

'Everyone who comes here is talking about him,' I lied. 'He's been all over the world. Worked everywhere.'

 'Oh,' she said. 'He sounds splendid. But you'll still come, another time?'

'No,' I said. 'I'm not into public speaking.'

There was a long silence. It was one of those silences control freaks use to try and get you to say something conciliatory.

'It's only a little group of ladies,' she said.

'The American guy,' I repeated. 'By the way, did you know you've got a big clump of mascara on your cheek?'

That was a Friday, and on Friday nights Jane and I played tennis until it was nearly dark, sipping gin and tonics in between games. She was a blonde giantess with a slight lisp doing her second year of teaching while engaged on a focussed hunt for land-owning bachelors.

I was down 7-3 when I decided to tell her about the American. She struggled to concentrate on more than one thing at a time, and if you put males in the mix, she was all over the place with questions instead of dealing with what was right in front of her.

'How old is he?'

'He looks ten years older than us. Different though.'

'I don't like different.'

'How d'you know?'

'Because,' Jane said, duffing her backhand, 'I like planning, I like knowing what's going to happen. I don't like different.'

'Oh. But you like me, don't you Jane?'

'I know you. You just dreth funny. You'll grow out of it.'

I gave her the fingers, and won the next couple of points whacking the ball down the tramlines into the corners. We had another gin and changed ends.

'A Porth?' she said. 'I haven't seen it. You're having me on.'

I was up 8-7 when I saw the slim figure of the American sitting in the park - not close enough to hear us talking, but close enough for him to watch.

'Is he good looking?' Jane said. 'What sort of books does he read? He's probably done it lots of times.' Jane liked sex, the more the better. Her lisp and blonde hair cancelled out any fears men may have had about her height, her Amazonian poise.

I was about to serve for the match, but I put down the balls and went to the net.

'Jane?' I called. She skipped up to centre of the court, flouncing her skirt like a can-can dancer.

'What?' she squealed. 'Shelley, I'm feeling a bit drunk.'

'That's okay,' I said. 'The American. He's just over there, see, in the park?'

She waved at him, fishing around in her pocket for her lipstick, and hurriedly applying a smear of blood red to her mouth.

'Don't you want to finish this game?' I said.

'Of course I do, but let's invite him over for a drink. Mr Different.'

'He's coming anyway, since you waved.'

By the time I'd won he was sitting on the steps of the tennis pavilion. Jane cantered from the court as I tidied away our glasses and bottles into a chilli-bin of ice. She giggled and patted Stanley Kowalski's hand.

'Oh you funny man,' she said. 'Shelley, he liketh your wings.'

I poured more gins. We chinked glasses and laughed at Jane's stories about how she'd connived her boss into giving her more classroom resources and more days off.

'Shorter skirts,' she said. 'Lower-cut tops. Too easy!' She tossed her head and swallowed her drink.

'I'm amazed he doesn't see through you,' I said.

'Oh you'd be surprised,' Jane said. 'Seriously, you have to make the most of things to get ahead.'

'To feminine wiles,' Stanley said, nodding and raising his glass. 'It's the way of the world.'

He told us jokes in a quiet drawl. A warm breeze rustled the leaves of the oak trees bordering one side of the court. It was dusk. A peach silk velvet settled on the air.

It was late when he dropped us back at the flat. No-brain Jane vomited into the flax bushes beside the house. I made her a cup of tea and helped her to bed.

The next morning I woke up to the black car's throaty purr. There was a knock at the door.

'Hi,' Stanley said. 'You wanna come flying today?' He had the use of a plane and wanted to see the high country. 'I'll buy you a coffee in Teak-a-poo,' he said.

'Tekapo,' I corrected him. 'Do you have your pilot's licence?'

'Come on,' he said. 'You'll be safe with me. What about Jane, you think she'd like to come along?'

'She won't be up until after lunch. You want to wait?'

The day was clear with a nor-west arch of high cloud in the sky to the west where we were headed. It was rough up top. The high winds bounced us along, swooping the little plane up hundreds of metres and dropping it down in a roller-coaster ride. Stanley shouted at me that he would get us out of the turbulence. I had never been in a small aircraft before, but he appeared a confident pilot turning knobs, banking the plane and flying us into a smooth patch of air. As we flew over Burkes Pass towards the lakes and mountains I watched our shadow scooting along the hillsides. I rested my head on the cool perspex of the window. I felt light, as if I'd emerged from a chrysalis.

Stanley pulled a digital camera from under his seat when we could see Tekapo's shining rooftops beside the blue jewel of the lake. He took photos as he circled the plane over the grey dome of the night sky observatory and a cluster of satellite dishes.

Later, over coffee in the village, I admired his camera.

'Thanks.' He lit a long, thin cigar. 'It's just a hobby.'

'Looks like something the paparazzi would use.' 

'I'd like to take your photo,' he said.

'Why don't we get someone to take a photo of us,' I said. 'A record of our visit.'

He put the camera in its bag. 'Never mind,' he said. 'Let's get going.'

On the way back he took more photos: carrot fields, big irrigation systems spidering over the countryside, the familiar black smoke, chimneys and zig-zag roofline of the insulators.

At home he bent to kiss me goodbye. I pulled away. Up in the sky I had studied his mouth and wondered what it would feel like. But there was an aura about him that reminded me of shiny paper sewing patterns slipping through my fingers.

'Come and have a cup of tea,' I said.

Stanley shrugged his shoulders and sighed.

'Just one little kiss?' he wheedled.

'Bugger off,' I said. 'I'm not going to kiss you because you took me for a plane ride.' In truth, I found his interest in me a little bit thrilling. He was, at that moment, the whole unknown world to me.

'Flight. A plane flight.'

'Whatever,' I said. 'But, thank-you, anyway. Would you like to come in for a minute?'

'What are you doing here Shelley?' he said.

'My work experience.'

He thrummed his fingers on the steering wheel.

'I like things to be straightforward,' I said. Another lie.

'I thought I was. Jeez.'

When we got inside, Jane was lying on the floor in the sun.

'Stanley!' She jumped up with quite a look on her face. She pointed her tits at him and smiled with all her teeth.

Manu appeared outside the window miming 'do you have any smokes?' He was in uniform, and he wandered along to the sliding doors to let himself in.

'I'd better be going,' Stanley said. 'Gotta few things to tidy up at the office.'

Jane tagged along with him and that was the last I saw of her for nearly a week, as she decamped to Stanley's flat somewhere in Timaru.

Stanley phoned me a few days later to complain about the women's institute's probing enquiries.

'I ah, I'm a private kinda guy,' he said. 'I thought you would have realised.'

'Sorry. I didn't notice your shyness particularly,' I said.

'Talkin' to a bunch of women, that's one of the last things I'd ever do.' And he hung up.

The next day I found an old issue of the Village Voice newspaper in my letterbox. One of the poems, by 'anonymous', was circled in biro. I went around to the Concentrators to thank him. It was a poem about time passing, and wind eroding stone.

'You like the cheerful themes,' I said.

'What else is there?' He pulled out a chair for me.

'Lots of things,' I said, looking at a picture on his desk. He was standing with a red-headed woman holding a tiny baby. My mouth was dry.

'I tried reading 'em to Jane,' he said. 'But she finds it hard to concentrate.'

'Really?' I picked up the photograph. 'Who's this? Your wife?'

'Get outta here.'

'Another Jane?'

'Yeah. Another Jane.'

I scowled at him. 'What are you doing here?' I said.

'Work experience,' he said. 'You get to a certain point, Shel, everything is experience.'

I went back to work and phoned Jane. Yes, she said proudly, she'd been bonking her brains out every night with Stanley. Was I on for tennis on Friday? She hoped I didn't mind but she'd been to the flat and borrowed my red halter neck dress. Stanley was taking her out to dinner.

I couldn't tell her. What difference would it have made?

A few days after that, the Concentrators was burgled. Stanley disappeared. Manu told me the cops were worried he might have been kidnapped.

'You know him, don't you Shelley? You heard anything?'

'No.' I felt protective towards Stanley and the taint of dark acts that hung around his shadow. I've always enjoyed surprises.

Jane said she supposed it had been him that had done the burglary. He'd told her he was going out to get some cigars, but he never returned.

Months afterwards, Manu told me about a report from Interpol.

'Kowalski was a spy for the United States, but he went to work for the other side, some eastern European country. That wasn't his real name.'

'But why would he come to a place like this?' I asked.

'Even spies go on sabbatical. He kept his hand in while he was here.'

I'd been paying the overdue fines for Stanley's library books, which came in the post the following spring. A postcard of an observatory in Chile fell out of the sonnets.

I spoke to the country women's institute before I moved to a job at a big library in the city. I told them how I'd learned that small towns aren't as conservative as you might think, and I thanked them for making me welcome. I left that place ready to unfasten my wings and move in formation with what was around me.

Jane was blooming when the poetry books arrived. She'd married a dairy farmer from Clandeboye who was happy to take on an instant family. Jane's son had his mother's length, and his father's colouring.  I gave her the postcard to keep.  Stanley had written on the back in block letters: 'You must hurry. It's later than you think.'