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For the longest time I could only get sliding jobs. It didn’t depress me, though; it seemed like a natural place to start. There was still time.

I was sleeping rough in Wellington when I got my first job. I hitched from Palmy into the Hutt and started walking towards the city. I doorstepped a squeaky bicycle, and before long I was rolling along the long curve of the harbour, sparkling water on my left, traffic on my right, rusty bike chain rasping in my wake.

I slept in a park, charged my phone in the library, browsed trademe for jobs, and walked around the city picking up butties. That bike was on my mind a lot—while out job-hunting, I buried it in a bush, hoping it was too paru to nick. Wellington was nice.

That first night in the park I was scared I’d be jumped. But the one other person I saw sleeping on a bench that night didn’t move at all.

I found a small open space ringed by tall bushes. As I got into my sleeping bag, the full summer moon came out and lit up my dusty little moenga vividly, and I started to feel pretty good. I had my eighteenth birthday in that spot.

A labour agency put me on their list. They loaned me a hardhat, steelcaps, and a hi-vis. I made up an address and gave some fake references. Next to the line, “Do you have any objections, medical or otherwise, to temporal sliding?” I ticked “NO.”

They told me to be at a site in Petone 6:30 a.m. the next morning.

It was a drizzly morning. I wandered into a muddy yard lined with box-like offices and shipping containers. A White South African man strode out and gave me some paperwork.

In the bathroom, there were pictures of disfigurement: a hand with two fingers, next to a picture of a little girl who looked sad (the man with two fingers wouldn’t be able to pick her up).

Under a dripping white tarpaulin sat all the labourers waiting for the slider: smoking, looking at phones, or already in line. It felt like school. Not wanting to hover on the edge of any group, I lit up a durry, leaned against a post, and stared at the yard. I had only two on me, rolled from baccy squeezed out of butties off the street. Around me people laughed and carried on.

Someone tapped my shoulder. “Hey,” he said, and pointed to the slider: the line was almost done. We made our way over. “New guy?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“Oh,” he said.

He was next in line though, so that was that.

I watched closely. He grasped the handles of the slider and pressed his face into the eyepieces. He had to stoop. He stood motionless a few seconds before his grip tightened—then his hands slowly released and he straightened up. He then strode off to the site entrance. I thought he’d shuffle off real dopey, but he was gone before I got a good look at his expression. And then it was my turn.

I walked up to the slider and grabbed the handles.

I looked around, and then I let go. I could either go to where the spaceheads were gathering at the site entrance, or I could go to a little circle of conscious labourers in the yard. I jogged towards the little circle.

Why didn’t I slide that day? Partly I guess it was the whakamā around it. Partly I guess it was fear, although I knew it didn’t hurt at all—just flashing lights, and then … But also, I guess, it was embarrassing not knowing how: when the South African man asked me, “You used the slider before?” I’d quickly replied, “Yeah,” and he’d said, “OK then—it’s over there.”

I approached the circle of conscious labourers. The South African watched while an Island guy gave a briefing. He was giving people stick for being late, and then he was telling people where they were working today.

“Oi!” said the South African. “What are you doing here, eh?”

Everyone looked at me.

“New guy?”

“You Mormon, bro?”

“You not sliding, bro?” said the Island guy.

“Fucking hell,” said the South African. I said nothing. “Well, Villiami, the fuck do you want to do with this one, eh? I told Karen only to send us sliders, are they fucking useless at that office or what, eh?”

Villiami looked at me for a bit.

“Na, it’s cool, he can go with Jarred. Jarred wants some more hands at the yard, he’s always bitching about it—he’ll go with Jarred—no worries.”

“Oh-ho-o, you’re not sliding, eh?! You a Mormon? Thought they weren’t sending us any more fucking Mormons!”

And so began my first day with Jarred.

Jarred was a weird dude. He was a Pākehā guy, maybe in his forties, skinny, with a lined, haggard face. He spoke fast and he spoke a lot, always yelling and always angry about something. But as you got to know Jarred, his anger began to seem strangely inconsequential; maybe because he was always angry, you just kind of ignored it, and when you did, you realised Jarred was actually a pretty chill guy: he was easy to work with, he didn’t ask much, and he wasn’t over-critical. He was chatty and generous with his smokes, and, after only a short acquaintance, he seemed to be looking out for you, making sure you got a good deal. He was always going on and on about how everyone around him was useless, everything was hopelessly mismanaged, and he couldn’t catch a fucking break. In between though, he’d break the flow of his rant to ask you weird questions, like what kind of music you liked or what your favourite colour was, before he’d go back to raving about whoever had most recently pissed him off, or about how he was once a contestant on the Block and how fucked that had been. Conversations with Jarred were great, as you only had to give minimal input to keep the thing going, during which you could down tools—and you’d get some baccy too.

The job was perplexing. Jarred ran the yard and the toolshed. Most of the day he’d be telling you to unpack some new delivery, or some old delivery that had been laying around the yard for God knows how long, and then to put it into a container. To do that, you might have to move some other shit into another container to make space, but then later he’d tell you to move the new stuff into another container, and then into another container again, and then sometimes back into the container you’d started with, and so on and on, double-triple-quadruple handling everything for no apparent reason. I spent one afternoon throwing toilets and other bathroom fixtures into a skip bin, because they’d sent more than was needed. I tried to throw them at an angle so they’d hit the walls of the skip and smash noisily. No-one was allowed to take anything either—if it wasn’t needed, it had to get skipped. The rest of the job was restacking the stuff in the containers (tools, miscellaneous fittings, loads of wood or metal) or wandering around the yard looking for trash.

Aside from Jarred, I had company: Wiremu. He was a spacehead, so I never really got to know him. When I didn’t know how to do something, I’d watch him to pick it up—but I couldn’t ask him how to do something, ’cos he couldn’t reply. We carted things around together, like big rolled up carpets or scaff, from container to container. Jarred was generous with his baccy with Wiremu too: after rolling his own, he’d throw the packet to Wiremu, who would catch it with a surprisingly sharp movement and then slowly (very slowly) roll, silent and expressionless, eyes half-closed. We’d usually be in a container, sheltering from the rain, standing inside the door so the South African couldn’t see us smoking, with Jarred raving about the Block or how stupid Rymans was—and all the while I’d be listening and nodding and Wiremu would be saying nothing, just staring between his boots at the floor of the container, puffing his durry, while the rain pattered down on the roof of the container and Jarred droned on.

Most days were a drag, but the end of the day was fun: this was when the tools came back. They came thick and fast, and me and Wiremu had to receive everything, make sure it was packed in its case properly and then stash it in its correct place in Jarred’s container, while a line of people with more tools to hand off, impatient to sign out, would be forming, shoving more and yet more tools at us. I looked forward to it: it was a small pocket of fast-paced work, and it meant home-time. When the day’s poor grey light began to fade from the sky and the first spaceheads started shuffling back to the yard under the weight of drop-saws and green Makita toolcases, I was thrilled—soon, I’d be fucking outta there.

Gainfully employed, I decided to splash out on a McDonald’s breakfast.

Everything was closed along Lambton Quay. I went past streetsweepers in blue and orange hi-vis overalls, working by the light of the street-lamps: some were in little golf-cart vehicles that sucked up refuse from the gutters, and some were on foot with long-handled brush and dustpan—all with the familiar vacant glare.

Inside McDonald’s, it was warm and bright. More spaceheads were at the fryers. There was one conscious worker, a sleepy lady in a hairnet, for customers to complain to.

I ate my McMuffin and read about sliding on my phone. I had mostly stopped getting texts asking where I was and what was I doing. I was mostly, but not entirely, pleased. I looked at flats on trademe—the weather was getting wetter, I needed a proper place. Everything looked expensive.

In the afternoon the lunchtruck man would pull up and his boy would jump out to give the spaceheads their lunches (if you were sliding, you paid the lunchtruck man in the morning and he gave you a tag to wear with your order on it). The rest of us lined up—he got a good chunk of your wage, the lunchtruck man, with his pies, fizzy drink, fried chicken, sausage rolls … The spaceheads would have their feed under the shelter, standing shoulder to shoulder, silently staring into the muddy yard, chewing slowly and messily.

The conscious workers would eat in groups based on a hierarchy of what sort of work you did.

Us labourers were at the bottom. Even Villiami, who was the head labourer and had more responsibility, was counted as one of us. Everybody was young—most of the labourers lived close by and knew each other, at least a little, from school or mutual contacts, or from church. I managed to fit in fine: we played tinny music off our phones, we smoked, joked around—one game was to put stones or rubbish into the spaceheads’ pockets. There were only two White guys in our group, one of whom was pretty slow and everyone made fun of him but he just took it meekly for some reason. The other guy was a traveller from the UK, where they didn’t have sliders, who kept to himself.

The other conscious workers did skilled work and hung out with the people they worked with. There were more White people in these groups, and there was also one woman. Most of these workers ignored the spaceheads during lunch, but some occasionally lost their cool, like the crane operator who would suddenly be screaming, “Get out my fucking way, spacehead!” when one was only marginally in his way.

“We don’t have ’em on our sites,” one of the brickies said, sniggering. Apparently, there was a shortage of brickies, because they flew these three guys over from Aus to work for just a few days. They got paid by the brick. “Safety hazard, they are,” he said, trying to wind the crane guy up.

At the top were the South African guy and some other White guys who worked in the offices. They didn’t have lunch with us.

By the second day, I was sick of the yard. Soon enough though, even Jarred had to admit that there wasn’t enough bullshit work for both me and Wiremu, so he let Villiami poach me for jobs on the site proper.

It turned out that it was a retirement home. I had forgotten to ask what we were building.

Being on the site was fun for about a day before the novelty wore off. Us labourers mostly just moved trash around, or fetched things. There weren’t many conscious labourers. The skilled workers would occasionally chat to us, but mostly they treated us like spaceheads and ignored us. Some even considered us worse than spaceheads, as we were more likely to goof off, or to disappear for covert ciggy breaks.

It was boring work.

One time, an old Tongan hammerhand had me and another conscious guy help him hammer some steel rods into place—that was fun. He spoke little English and mimed what he wanted us to do. Another time, I got to go inside the completed parts of the building to fetch Villiami. I had to take my boots off, and sliding around in my socks I got thoroughly lost in a maze of blandly expensive cream hallways. I went into an apartment. It had a little balcony, from which I could see Jarred’s yard. Even unfurnished, I could tell that this little apartment was flasher than any place I’d ever lived.

That was about it for highlights.

One sunny day off, I cycled around some of central Wellington’s beaches, then up into the leafy suburbs where some houses had little carports on their roofs. I cycled up and down past compact colonial houses painted cheerful colours. I passed through a lot of roadworks that day, past TCs holding Stop/Go signs, standing in the road with a familiar, surly expression on their faces as the sun bore down on them.

The job was physically exhausting, so I started taking the 6:15 a.m. train out to Petone every other morning instead of cycling. I always saw the same ticket inspector, a girl about my age, shuffling along the carriages. On the walls, between the windows and ads, were signs warning of fines for trying to confuse the ticket inspector: these showed a schematic figure in a uniform with half-circles for eyes and drooping posture. These signs repeated every couple of meters on each side of the carriage, presenting a silent workforce of glazed-over faces bearing the minimum amount of detail necessary to represent human faces, staring vacantly at the passengers and at each other and at the grey sea placidly lapping alongside the morning train, while the ticket inspector slowly made her way between them.

It didn’t take long before I was done with being conscious.

There really was nothing to it: you just looked into the eyepieces of the slider, and then … and then? Well, it was kind of like taking a nap. When I started to regain consciousness, I was in the yard, it was evening, and the tools were being handed back in. I had some vague memories of where I’d been and what I’d eaten. I had a vivid image of the lunchtruck man’s gold tooth, which I’d not noticed before. Feeling groggy, I clocked out and got my bike. Technically, after coming out of the slide you had to wait fifteen minutes before you were allowed to drive (one of Villiami’s jobs was to enforce this rule). This probably applied to me too, but nobody stopped me.

On the slide, work became tolerable. Still, I swore I’d find another job, something better, cooler—I’d like to work in a bar, where you could meet cool people. I would be eighteen soon.

Coming out of the slide, the physical tiredness doesn’t hit you right away—but it does hit you eventually. You don’t feel mentally tired, though. After a slide, you may feel alert and energetic. You’re warned not to give into this feeling, to go to sleep early, or else you’ll exhaust yourself.

I didn’t really feel like following this advice, so I began to spend a lot of nights walking around Wellington again.

I often went to Courtenay Place, to watch the people go into bars. I wanted to go in too, to meet people and have fun and have adventures and get up to mischief, but I didn’t know how: could I bluff my way in? Even if I could, what would I do in those places, alone? How would I approach anyone? Anyone I approached would clock me right away for a spacehead and turn away in disgust and irritation. Still, I found it absorbing, watching all the loud, self-assured boisterous people going in and out of the bars. I sat in bus stops, watching people not much older than me laughing and yelling. I didn’t stay in any one spot for too long: the bouncers intimidated me, and I didn’t want the street people, who wandered up and down huffing glue and calling across the road to each other, to recognise me either (rightly or wrongly, I did not consider myself one of them).

Soon I would feel conspicuous and would retreat up into the darker suburbs, up into the hills, past glowing windows and loud TVs and student flats with bins full of bottles and more loud young voices.

I soon found that the best way to avoid feeling things was to cycle: you had to concentrate on the road and used up energy pedalling, and it felt more like having a positive adventure exploring the city. I cycled out to the Miramar peninsula, towards the airport. Despite the warnings, I felt fine. I wandered around supermarkets and went from bottle store to bottle store, trying to find one that consistently wouldn’t ID me. I kept my hi-vis on and frowned a bit to crinkle my forehead—I even rubbed dirt over my face. One night a bottleshop out at Island Bay served me, so that became my first stop after work: I’d grab a bottle and cycle somewhere I hadn’t been before, find a park, and have a drink and then sleep. Some nights, I’d feel depressed or anxious, but usually, a wave of optimism would come up and carry me through the rest of the evening: I was having experiences, I was proving myself—in what way, against what measure, who knew, but undeniably I was doing something—and, if this kind of sucked a bit, sometimes, well, that was only natural—things wouldn’t stay like this forever, things would improve sometime, and if the waiting felt excruciating and impossible, well, that too was a test of character, that too was an experience valuable in itself, and showed I could stick these things out and endure and ultimately, succeed.

The cheapest place I could find was $100 a week for a “room” in a tall apartment building in town (it was actually one proper room divided into two by a bit of gib board that didn’t even go completely up to the ceiling). The single bed took up most of the floorspace and my bike took up the rest. On the other side of the gib was a student from Ghana. In another room, there was a student couple (she was from China, he was from Sri Lanka); in another lived a man from Jordan who was looking for work; and in another lived a middle-aged man from the UK who was a security guard (no sliding for him). The kitchen gave onto a little living room, in which an Argentinian student slept for $60 a week. While everyone was friendly, we all considered the apartment just a place to sleep and did not interact much. While it was definitely a bit shit (and not even that cheap, for what it was), it still felt like another successful step in the direction of independent adulthood—and I’d soon be moving on to something better anyway.

I started sliding in November. New Year’s came around fast. If you went to sleep right after work, then you really felt the days going past double-time: sometimes you’d wake up and space out, forgetting what time it was—did you just come back from work, or did you have to go in shortly? You’d grasp for your phone, or look out the window: was it light out or dark?

So, even though they said you shouldn’t, I usually preferred wandering to sleeping.

The day before Waitangi, the boss let us knock off early and put on a feed. But on the day we were due back, loads of people called in “sick,” which pissed him right off. Villiami was pissed off too, ’cos he copped a lot of stick for it. People got the axe. I did too, but it wasn’t my fault: that weekend, I was cycling around Karori when I just crashed out—felt dizzy, blacked out and woke up in a bush. I was fine, but next day I slept through my alarm and didn’t make it to the site—and then they told me that I was no longer needed there.

My next job was kitchen hand in a cafe in one of the big government buildings in town. It was a massive white stone thing that if you stood right outside it and looked directly up, it felt like it was looming forward to smash down on you. All day, people in suits flitted in and out. In one of the downstairs meeting rooms, there was a big crack in the wall from the earthquake.

Originally my job was a slider job—but then Ngahuia began to pull me off the slider for catering jobs. These jobs involved preparing and delivering trolleys of food and hot drinks up to the other floors, for meetings and conferences. It was a job a spacehead could handle, no sweat, but Ngahuia didn’t like to send spaceheads upstairs where the government people worked.

From the higher floors, you could see the harbour. On sunny days it would sparkle, and surrounded by busy, smartly dressed people, I felt a kinship: I felt I had more in common with these successful office people (the youngest of whom didn’t look too much older than me) than with the spaceheads in the kitchen downstairs, or even the conscious people working front of house in the cafe. One time, when catering for a meeting that had something to do with Palmy (I recognised some street names), I felt a bit … well I don’t know what, but a bit wrong, like I’d slipped out of track: I started to feel like the upward trajectory I must have always assumed and believed in and been sustained by, had suddenly begun to parabola dirtwards, and there was maybe even a bit of panic, or dread, there. But I also felt superior to these upstairs people: they looked smart, sure, but they’d probably never done any hard work like I had, obviously they’d never touched a slider—and while it was natural to look down on spaceheads, you needed a kind of toughness to do that sort of thing.

Ngahuia was a kind person, but she was also a tough person who could handle a lot of pressure and who wouldn’t take any bullshit. She had a tough person’s kind of sentimentality, too, in that beneath a hard exterior, she had a lot of sympathy for the people around her, and despite a kind of fatalism about the general and inescapable shittiness of life, she’d still go out of her way to help people. She was not much older than me and had worked her way up through a series of hospo jobs, from slider to conscious. She was both protective and demanding of her workers: she wanted them to work hard and to enjoy it, like she did—but the front of house staff (girls from the Hutt or students from Vic) couldn’t be motivated to work that hard (not unfair, mind you, considering the pay). So Ngahuia worked even harder to cover for their shortcomings. This took a toll on her health: she always had a cold. Ngahuia was ambitious: it was her idea to have conscious front of house people and only allow spaceheads in the kitchen, in order to give warmer, more “personal” service. Problem was, they only attracted slider-tier workers, who got bored shitless and would’ve given better service as spaceheads—so there were a lot of stuff-ups and squabblings.

If there was a function, I had to stay conscious the whole bloody day. But sliding couldn’t stop you dreaming of the repetitive motions you’d been doing all day: you’d load the dishwasher facing one direction, and then facing another direction you’d unload, and all day long you’d pivot on that one spot, back and forward, back and forward … You tossed and turned thinking you were still loading and unloading the dishwasher, and these motions would wake you up a bit, and for that second before you fell back to sleep, you’d think you were still at work, still loading and unloading …

These dreams were worse when you couldn’t remember doing the work in the first place.

I had my smoke breaks with Ngahuia. We sat under the cover of a parking complex, in front of a big NO SMOKING sign. The office people smoked out here too, and man, if only I’d known about this spot before—it was butties galore. An old man came towards us, methodically picking through scrawny bushes, collecting butties in a tin. Ngahuia gave him a taily.

Drinks usually started with a pub quiz. Ngahuia was convinced that she was good at the pokies, and she spent the time before the quiz trying to prove it. Everyone had a story about a time they’d seen Ngahuia walk off with a big win—and to be fair, I did see her win big once. We placed poorly at the quizzes but sometimes, you got a joke prize (a small bar tab) for last place.

Wherever we went next, Ngahuia made sure we always ended up at karaoke.

Ngahuia liked to sing 2000s pop and R&B jams: Usher, P!nk, Alicia Keys, Kelly Clarkson—and the odd classic, like Smokey Robinson. It was a weeknight. One half of a middle-aged couple stood rigidly on the stage and squeaked out an “Islands in the Stream” that went on forever. Me and Ngahuia sang “Proud Mary”; later, I sang Spawnbreezie. Some girls from the Ministry sang Rihanna and Beyoncé. We all got sloppy drunk: before going up onto the sticky little stage, Ngahuia would be looking for a drink that had already been spilled, and would then drop her phone trying to give it to one of the baristas, yelling “Film me, film me, I gotta know how it sounds like—I gotta know, OK?” And then, after the song, she’d laugh about another spilled drink and ask us to critique her performance, but to do so honestly—she wanted to know.

And then it was Christmas again.

I’d be nineteen soon … I wondered if Ngahuia could get me something non-sliding. That’d be difficult—there was a rumour going round that the cafe owners were pressuring Ngahuia to revert the floor staff back to sliders, who were cheaper. Some had actually requested the slider option, and may have been going behind Ngahuia’s back to the owners. The Christmas party fell a bit flat. We’d booked a bowls club and hired a mini-karaoke setup, but nobody could find the bowls, and the sound on the karaoke machine was staticky and barely audible.

Still, we got drunk, and as night fell while we were waiting outside the long driveway of the bowls club for the taxis into town, we were all feeling pretty good.

We piled out of the taxis onto Courtenay Place. Under the amber glow of the streetlamps, we loudly discussed what bars and what clubs we’d go to. The night air was crisp. I wished a fun night on all the knots and clumps of random people that we were gently pushing our way past, and I felt pleased with myself for wanting that.

We were in line for a place when I saw someone that I recognised but couldn’t immediately place.

It was Wiremu.

He was alone, about to walk past us. He was dressed for a night out, with a black button-up shirt, baseball cap and a chain.

As he got closer, I tried to catch his eye.

He returned my look for a few seconds. His expression, which was neutral, did not change.

And then he was gone, without any sign of recognition.

Blaze Forbes is from Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa New Zealand, of Samoan and Scottish descent. His work appears in Tupuranga Lua: A Whole New World.
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