I met Labour leader Phil Goff in his Parliamentary office. It was a dreary Wellington day, with a thick grey mist rolling off the sea and clinging to the hills – but Goff wasn’t downcast about the weather, or a new round of poor poll results. When his assistant showed me into his office he greeted me with an infectious grin, leaping out from behind his desk to shake my hand. ‘Ah! Time for another interview,’ he enthused. ‘Let’s get started!’
He sat behind his desk again and I sat in front, resting my notepad on my knee. Goff’s assistant closed the door with an unobtrusive click, and we began.
‘I’d like to start with the subject of asset sales,’ I said, and Goff nodded seriously. ‘You oppose the mixed-ownership model put forward by National, but for nine years the previous Labour government ran Air New Zealand on an identical model. How can you reconcile this contradiction?’
‘It’s an excellent question,’ Goff replied. ‘But . . .’ He paused and tapped his fingers on the solid oak of his desk. My pen rested above the notepaper, poised. The eyes of former Labour leaders looked down at us from the portraits spaced around the room. ‘Is that really what you came here to ask?’ He fixed me with a penetrating stare.
I looked away, unable to meet his gaze, and stared out the window. ‘I suppose not.’ I put away my pen. A sea-bird croaked outside, invisible in the oppressive mist. My gaze fell upon the drinks cabinet on the far wall. I gestured. ‘Mind if I help myself?’
‘Be my guest.’
I stood and crossed to the cabinet. I fumbled with the bottles: they felt heavy in my hands. The sound of the whiskey fizzing on the ice-cubes was unnaturally loud in the warm, dead air.
Goff said, ‘Fix me one too will you? Scotch. I like it with -‘
‘I know how you like it.’ I looked back at him over my shoulder.
He smiled, sadly. ‘Of course you do.’
I poured his drink. The expansive room felt somehow enclosed. Oppressive. I handed Phil the glass; our eyes made contact and he blinked and snatched the glass from my hand, a look of anger – no, of fear, pure fear – flashing across his face. Then his usual friendly expression replaced it, so quickly I scarcely knew what I’d seen. I stepped back and said, ‘Phil . . .’
‘Don’t.’ He shook his head, curtly, turned his chair to face the window. His hand shook, the liquor sloshing over the sides of the glass. He said in a mock-cheerful voice. ‘Don’t say anything. Just listen. I’ll tell you something you can put in your precious interview. You see that picture there?’
‘I see it.’ Mounted on a pillar by the wall was a portrait photo of former Labour Party leader Bill Rowling.
‘Bill Rowling is my hero,’ Phil said. ‘I’ve modelled my whole career on him. But you know what I most envy about him?’
‘That he died fifteen years ago.’
‘Phil . . . Don’t -‘
‘How lucky the dead are. No debates. No polls. There’s no Tuesday caucus meetings in the grave.’
‘Don’t talk like that Phil. Don’t. You know I don’t like it.’
He spun his chair around again to face me, his fake cheerfulness gone and spat, ‘I don’t give a damn what you do or don’t like, Danyl. Not any more.’
I did not reply. We sat in silence for a moment. Phil sent an email on his cell-phone. I looked at my notes. The words swam across the page. Superannuation. Assets. Compulsory. Millions. Billions. Meaningless hieroglyphics from a lost and incomprehensible civilisation. I cleared my throat but had nothing to say.
Eventually Phil broke the silence. ‘You look good.’
‘Thanks,’ I replied. ‘I’ve been running.’
‘You need a hair cut though.’
My hand automatically ran through my hair, and I laughed self-consciously. ‘I know,’ I said. ‘It’s hard to find the time.’
Another pause. But this one was warm. Comfortable. Presently I said, ‘You look good too.’
‘You don’t have to say that. Just because I complimented . . .’
‘ No. I mean it. Your hair looks great. The colour suits you.’
‘Thanks. Mary dyed it.’ Rueful smile. ‘The press gave me a hard time about it.’
‘It looks very distinguished. To hell with them.’
‘That’s what Annette King said.’
I knocked back the last of the whiskey. The drink lit a low fire inside me. I stared into the glass, and rattled the cubes, not wanting to look at Phil when I asked in a low voice, ‘And how is Annette?’
He took a long time to answer. I could hear his breathing: an irregular, human sound over the inhuman drone of the air-conditioner; the buzzing light, the computer fan; the distant cars on the distant roads. ‘She’s . . . as well as can be expected,’ he said.
‘Good. I’m glad. Really. Does she . . .’
‘Talk about you?’ He sneered. ‘No.’
‘I didn’t imagine she would.’
She thinks about you sometimes,’ he continued. ‘When she thinks she’s alone. I know some things remind her of you. The silhouette of the war memorial at sunset. A certain stormy cast of sky. The cattle lowing at night. Sometimes I catch her crying and she won’t say why . . .’
He gave me a nasty grin. ‘You asked how she was.’
‘I asked but I didn’t want you to answer. That’s your tragedy Phil. You never know when not to answer.’
He turned to the window and stared out at the city. The trees, barely visible through the mist, waved at us like drowning ghosts. He said, ‘My tragedy is that I have no tragedy.’
‘You’re wrong Phil. You know you’re wrong.’
‘So what if I am? It doesn’t matter.’
‘You’re so cold now Phil. When did you grow so cold? Was it when you became leader? Is this what leadership does to a person? Did running the Labour Party make you like this? Or was it . . . something else?’
His eyes glittered. They were wet with anger. ‘You know damn well what it was.’
‘Then say it.’
‘I’ve said enough.’ Phil stood, a look of cold disdain on his face. ‘And so have you. This interview is over. Will you leave quietly? Or do I have to call security?’
‘Call security?’ I laughed bitterly. ‘And say what? There’s someone in my office who knows who I really am? Who remembers what I want to forget? Go ahead and call your security guards. I dare you.’
Phil was furious, but he spoke with a terrible calm. ‘Forget the DPS, he said. ‘I’ll deal to you myself.’ He rounded the desk and towered over me, shaking with rage. ‘Go. Now. One more word from you and I’ll . . .’
‘You’ll what, Phil? Hurt me? Bruise me? Go ahead. I welcome it. I’d welcome anything other than this numbness! This horrible feeling of nothing! You’re just like that mist outside! Opaque and cold. You’re there but no one can find you or touch you!’
‘Get out. Get out!’
‘I’ll go.’ I sprang to my feet, my face millimetres from Phil’s. His eyes were cold and furious. ‘I’ll leave. You’ll never see me again. But first I want you to tell me how you really feel.’
‘Feel?’ His eyes flashed, the Arctic cold replaced with fire. ‘What does that term even mean?’
‘It means you believe,’ I cried. ‘It means you’re a man of flesh and blood, not air and mist. It means you say what you say because you know it’s the truth!’
‘Truth! Belief!’ Phil threw his arms in the air. He stumbled backwards. He raged, ‘Sophistry. You’re trying to blind me with words. Vile things that mean nothing.’
‘Words are all we have, Phil. Say the ones you know I want to hear!’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’ Now he was wild-eyed, reeling. ‘Speak them to me. Say them and I’ll answer.’
‘Then answer! Tell me! Are you really unconditionally opposed to asset sales?’
Phil let out an inarticulate wail, the sound of a mortal soul in unspeakable pain. He threw his empty glass across the room. It smashed open on the photograph of Bill Rowling, knocking it from the wall, splintering the frame. It landed on the floor face-down in a bed of broken shards. ‘I don’t know! I don’t know any more! Sometimes I think it’s crazy to deny ourselves the revenue stream, other times – late at night – I think it’s a good way to raise additional capital. But mostly I just don’t know. God help me I just don’t know.’ He sank to his knees, balled his fists and beat them against his forehead. ‘Are you happy? Is that what you want?’
I took a deep breath. I closed my eyes, opened them again and whispered, ‘Yes.’
When I walked out of the room I did not look back. I did not say goodbye. I did not wipe the tears from my eyes. The door swung shut behind me.
I walked out of the Labour offices into the cold, damp mist. It embraced me with open arms. Somewhere in the grey void a foghorn sounded, drowning out the sound of deep, shuddering, heart-breaking sobs coming from the office behind me, floating up into the deadening emptiness of the indifferent sky.
Tomorrow: Prime Minister John Key on how to make a handy spice rack for your home kitchen!