I am standing in the kitchen of a house on Upland Road in Kelburn, Wellington, when Claire Pope’s mother says of Claire’s netball team and the Lion Foundation Charitable Trust, they won’t give us any funding because this area is too well-off, and Claire probably doesn’t know yet because we’re only eleven, but I do.
I don’t belong.
Eighteen years and three countries later, I meet her again at a gig in a loud, dark bar in a basement in Shoreditch in London, and by now she’s a lawyer at a glass-and-chrome management consultancy in Moorgate, and her uni friend Alex is there and she asks where I went to high school and arches an eyebrow back to street level at the answer. We ran out of money entirely before I turned twelve. Are you an official Old Girl if you left before the tuition bankrupted your parents out of their rent, pawning your blazer and kilt quickly before they changed the uniform again and you were left with eight hundred dollars’ worth of obsolete clothing, good for nothing more than cleaning rags.
Towards the end, school office staff would personally hand me the overdue notices, payment plan suggestions and the intended chagrin, as if I wasn’t firmly on their side. I wanted to be free of them as much as they wanted to be rid of me. A month before my thirteenth birthday we were rid of each other, and the government paid from then on. In the basement bar, London’s East End dripping its cold midnight sweat through ancient floorboards, the tilt of her forehead and precision of her contempt might sit between my fingers like a wide, thin envelope, stamped red, my parents’ names in angry black scrawl. I turn it over in my palm and watch it cling to my hands with its ink seeking entry under my fingernails, through my dry winter skin, paper on the paper-thin, but somehow the shame never penetrated. Not belonging is not the same as wanting to belong.
I am tired though, my tongue searching the farthest corners of my mouth for a reply to the eyebrow. Yes, frightfully pov, wasn’t it? Nobody ever actually says it. For thirty years, eyebrows have arched and lips have twitched, warmth has been rescinded and looks exchanged but no one has ever said to them, it’s shameful to scorn people who aren’t as rich as you are, Alex, not to not be rich. No one says it; I am not no one.
They order whisky sours and bob beside the bar, a vintage dance move from the socials with Scots College at the church hall opposite school, halfway between disaffected and ironic, every bit as effective as it was in Year Six. I climb the dirty stone steps back to Great Eastern Street. It’s wet, January, late, Sunday morning now. The wide flat stone slabs of pavement gleam in black cabs’ taillights, grey city rain washing Saturday night into grey city gutters. I’ve been in London for a week. I had been in Idaho for a decade. The gaudy American-themed car wash under the brutalist parking garage opposite the bar sighs at me, its wanted-poster font and five-pointed spangled stars as fake a costume as the one I wear in my mouth to appease my antipodean past. I’ve remembered how littered the streets of this city are with my original compatriots. I’ve lost my accent. That was an accident. I’ve searched my memory, trying in vain to find the vowel sounds and the shapes of words that I had forgotten. I’ve rented a one-bed flat fifteen minutes’ walk west. I go home. They’ve got a guy coming by the bar soon, they said. He’s from Central Otago, New Zealand, and he runs a brightly-lit, abominably filthy internet cafe beside Liverpool Street station and Claire calls him Uncle Drugs. She met him at Ascot. Square peg, round hole, me and the girls from Upland Road in Kelburn.
In New Zealand, we don’t do class warfare like the British do, although we bring it with us. Ours isn’t as refined. But it’s just as complex and many times more insidious. It’s harder to identify and every bit as impossible to surmount, a typical colonial take and just as soaked in bigotry as colonialism itself. Distilled for fewer years, devoid of ancient giveaways like title or regional dialect, our classism is harsher and brasher and meaner, surviving a rugged new-world landscape where deliberate construction is necessary for the standards of snobbery.
It involves fewer people, too, networks of raised eyebrows closing in like nightclub gig wristbands pulled taut around stinging wrists as you wedge nail scissors under the stiff paper and snip, scrolling social media friends-of-friends lists in the bathroom of the one-bed flat and blushing like the child in the kitchen to see how six degrees of separation is superfluous by the order of five for another Kiwi in London. Eighteen thousand kilometres flown, eighteen years, why am I surprised to find them here; where did I think they’d gone? Did I think they’d evaporated like seawater pooled in the dark flat sand at Waikanae beach where they had weekend houses and bicycles, where I was sometimes invited to watch Ghostbusters and fall asleep homesick?
I was the one who evaporated, disappearing with a scholarship and a suitcase into the walled garden of America’s flyover states where no old girls’ network ever penetrated. Roasted by the inland northwest sun and freeze-dried by its arid winter, my origin story was sometimes a confusion, a Burger King drive-through attendant once asking me where’s New Zealand at? as I ordered curly fries. I think that’s like where they did Lord of the Rings, her colleague replied, and I took my meal and drove away, finding the quaint appraisal of my homeland a delight. We are earthquakes and wine. We are rugby and hobbits. We are bungee cords of rosy nostalgia, every plunge into an icy Queenstown river forgotten on the way back up. We are time’s insatiable desire to forget. Once I reemerged in a country with a Union Jack on its flag, of course they were still there, still here, on the merry-go-round of commuter planes from Auckland to London, a regular flight every five years as visas expire and law firms rehire. Every profile picture: a cauldron of Panama hats, floral midi dresses, wayfarers and flutes of bubbles, flanked either by the Parade Ring or the Remarkables.
I don’t mind. I never did. I understand now, not just my lack of belonging, but the way in which it wasn’t my relative hardship that raised eyebrows and narrowed secretaries’ glares as they handed me another envelope. It was that I didn’t want to belong. I peel the wristband away from my arm and it leaves a wide pale mark in the small Hollywood lights of the bathroom mirror, a strip of withered skin from a kitchen on Upland Road finally exposed to fresh air.
Jane Copland is the creative nonfiction editor at VirtualZine. Her work has been published by The Independent, Newsroom New Zealand, Ellipsis Zine, Spelk, Fairlight Books, Intrepid Times, Reflex Fiction, Entropy Mag, trampset, JMWW and Tandem Press. Her stories were also shortlisted for the Fresher Prize, New Millennium Writing, and the inaugural Nobow Press short story competition and longlisted for the 2019 London Independent Story Prize. She is a former national representative swimmer from New Zealand, and she now lives in Oxford, England.
Rebecca Taubman Schnitzer is a painter based in Dallas who mostly works with acrylics. Several of her paintings have appeared in ACM.