Home Theatre by Anthony Lapwood (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2021), 240 pp, $30
In the thirteen short stories that make up Home Theatre by Wellington writer Anthony Lapwood, the walls of the cold, rat- and ant-infested Repertory Apartments really do talk. Over time and genre, the overlapping lives of the residents in this former theatre turned radio factory turned apartment block tell stories of hurt and hope, marriage breakups, anxious parents, close friendships, straitened circumstances, and glitches in the imperfect art of time travel. Like a slow drive-by in an Edward Hopper painting, Lapwood catches glimpses of his characters’ lives through windows, tracing the backstories of those who call this dingy, recognisably Wellington block of flats home. The result is a beautifully crafted and empathetic debut collection.
In ‘The Universe for Beginners’, Scotty is trying to juggle work, solo parenthood and a renewed relationship with his formerly estranged mother. In keeping with the deep time trope of several of these stories, Scotty plans a day trip to the Big Bang exhibition at the Carter Observatory in the Botanic Gardens with Sally and her young son Sam who live in apartment 1C below him. He introduces her to the observatory assistant, Ashton, who lives in 4D. ‘Small world’, says Ashton.
Indeed, it is. We meet Sally and Ashton again in ‘The Difficult Art of Bargaining’, in which an older couple, Liv and George, downsize to the Repertory Apartments after an insurance scam robbed them of their home, most of their possessions and, for Liv at least, their pride. In the bargain of the title, George (pragmatic) and Liv (humiliated) negotiate the purchase of a second-hand sofa with the tenant upstairs—yes, Ashton, partner of history teacher, Dylan. A chance meeting with neighbouring tenant Sally and her son, in which Liv gifts Sam her rainbow-coloured scarf, signposts the thawing of her sense of aggrievement.
Lapwood weaves this intricate web of connectedness with a deft but subtle hand—Dylan, too, will re-appear later in the book. But while these links hook the reader into a gratifying game of character-spotting, they are secondary to the understated intimacy of the small hurts, familial breakages and clumsy first steps towards repair that haunt these stories.
In ‘They Always Come for the Sweet Things’, a five-year-old boy helps his mother vacuum up an infestation of ants, the bead-like strands of tiny black bodies dropping from the seams in the wallpaper, both obscuring and dramatising the stress of a solo mother struggling to build a home for her son. ‘A Spare Room’ recounts the interaction between Melati, a recently widowed Indonesian woman, and Ruth, an advisor for city council housing. Melati wants to leave her small apartment for a larger flat so she can accommodate her sister-in-law, the only family she now has in the country. The female characters have less depth than the male protagonists in this collection, but here the pas-de-deux between petitioner and bureaucrat is generous in its even-handedness. Ruth is on a pressing time schedule; there is a housing crisis and she has her own housing worries. Melati is nervous, alone and unsure. Their words glance off each other in a desolate game of powerlessness, frustration and moments of shared empathy:
‘You have no heating?’
‘I have an oil heater.’
‘Do you use it often?’
‘Yes.’ Ruth opened her mouth to speak, but Melati continued. ‘I put the heater in the lounge, but the lounge is open to the kitchen and the hall, so the heat goes out. Sometimes I put the heater in the bedroom and shut the door, and that’s how I stay warm.’ Melati stuffed the handkerchief back into her pocket.
‘I only meant to check.’ Ruth shifted in her chair.
The nuanced brevity of this interaction is even more apparent in the two-and-a-bit page ‘Being Neighbourly’, in which Lapwood sketches a whole series of possible plotlines from the anonymous posts on the Neighbourly platform. It is clever, funny, intimate and sad. A dubious character is seen lurking around the neighbourhood; the next update includes the theft of a smart TV. Someone urges a dog owner to clean up after their pet—later postings include a call-out for a dog walker and then the notification that a dog is being rehomed. More poignant is the assumed link between a funeral notice for a soccer star and ‘budding scientist’, followed by ‘Free desk, physics text books, other study items’. It is a feat of flash fiction: pulling together the ephemera of social media postings into an abbreviated script of community action and grievances.
In the longest story in the book, ‘Provided with Eyes, Thou Departest’, a science teacher is trapped in grief for his missing-but-presumed-dead wife June. Bryce’s despair, re-enacted every night in terrifying nightmares, plays out in the daily routine of a tatty staffroom, ill-equipped classrooms and cling-wrapped sandwiches. As the memory of his wife slips painfully from his grip, he is pulled back into his on-again, off-again determination to leave the home they shared: ‘He knew there must be places he could go—even some place down there underneath one of the rocks of the city. Somewhere cheap and manageable.’ We know where he is headed.
Bryce’s story touches on the hidden relationship between two male teachers, an anxious sexuality that recurs throughout the collection. ‘Journey to the Edge’ pivots on Adam’s farewell to his best mate Reece. On the grey stretch of the Petone esplanade, against a backdrop of blitzed skinheads and casual homophobia (all Lapwood’s urban settings are convincingly downbeat and somehow dilapidated), his unexpressed emotions are trampled by the arrival of his old archenemy, now identified as Reece’s lover.
This theme also sits behind the excellent ‘The Ether of 1939’, in which a radio console prototype, developed in the Capital Radios workshop (before its conversion into the Repertory Apartments), becomes the accidental transmitter for a future time traveller. Young factory hand Gregory Ford and some of his workmates are spooked when they hear a broadcast describing a ‘dreadful accident involving a boy named Greg Ford’. Is the large beacon further up the coast ‘disrupting the ether’? Is it a ghost? Afterall, the stage manager was said to have used the fire that gutted the original repertory theatre to rid himself of his disabled son. But these are no ghost stories. Hunched in front of the elaborately carved radio, now banished to the end of the ground-floor corridor, factory foreman Jack Newman tunes into an intimate conversation between two men discussing a planned trip to the past to sort out some ‘interference’ between their world and that of 70 years earlier. Like a man with a glass to the wall, Jack listens to a future world in which his own homosexuality would not have to be hidden. He is dumbstruck: two men, calmly going about their lives in an open relationship? ‘The idea that Jack might ever make a home with someone was transformed from something preposterous and obscene into something achievable, perhaps even ordinary.’ Here again, the threads that tie this cast of characters together tighten. We learn that the speaker from the future is Dylan, Gregory’s ancestor. His partner, too, we have met before: ‘Don’t worry’, Dylan says. ‘You’ll see me again soon, Ash.’
This confluence of faulty technologies and so-called ‘hiccups’ in the multiverse also drives the first story in this collection, ‘The Source of Lightning’, in which a time traveller (‘spaceman’, ‘shadow’) is stuck in a time loop, a thin slice of common space between two worlds repeating over and over like a stuck record in time, here a single day in contemporary Wellington. As in so many of these stories, Lapwood uses the city’s architecture to drive his plot—a lightning strike on Phil Price’s ‘Zephyrometer’, the 26-metre needle sculpture in Evans Bay, provides the required energy for one of the two versions of our stranded ‘chrononaut’ to leave this world.
This rich cache of character crossovers and palimpsests of time and place, grounded in a gentle sense of humanity, comes to a crashing and dramatic end in ‘Blue Horse Overdrive’. The narrator, bass player and songwriter Jay Storm, and his band perform their long-awaited debut in a dry paddock on his mate’s dad’s farm. Music, ‘like a fucked-up weed-whacker’, builds into an energy storm culminating in Adam’s vision of a blue horse charging right at him. He is sent for brain scans, a neurological examination to explain this clearly hallucinatory experience. The subversion of this diagnostic reading during band practice at Adam’s small flat in the Repertory Apartments is as surprising as it is triumphant. In an aside—future students will rake these stories for hidden asides—the song is dedicated to the ‘guy upstairs’, an occasional drinking buddy who writes stories about the residents in the block, ‘so it seemed fitting that he should get a song in return’.
It is a bravura finale to an excellent collection.
SALLY BLUNDELL is a freelance journalist and writer in Ōtautahi Christchurch. She holds a PhD from the University of Canterbury. She was books and culture editor for the NZ Listener and a judge (fiction) in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. She was awarded MPA journalist of the year in 2020. Her recent book, Ravenscar House: A biography, was published by Canterbury University Press.