A long afternoon by the river – Annette Edwards-Hill
A Machete, a Plastic Bag and Mum’s Gumboots – Caroline Barron
Dorm – Tracey Slaughter
For an instant by Mia Gaudin
Like Gods – Mia Gaudin
Secret Women’s Business – Margaret Moores
Surprise Peas – Janice Marriott
Uncle Hugh – Stephanie Mayne
Unleashed – Bill Bradford
We peaked – Keith Nunes
Wear the Pram Wheels Down to the Rim – Maris O’Rourke
Yes – Phoebe Wright
NFFD Youth Competition
Gunshots Are Too Common
Regional Prize, Auckland
Gunshots are too common in the woods during hunting season though never so near the boys’ college. Luke’s dad has instilled a staunch detachment: It’s a tool, not a toy. Like a hammer or a fist, it serves a purpose. Luke has been taught well. Even the overhead crows in their undertaker clothes watch with stoic intent.
Luke marks time from that drizzly drowsy Saturday afternoon when Martin said Luke’s neck tasted like hot chips, salty and moreish, and Luke finally knew the power of a true thing. The laughter came later. Photos ran riot through brutal beardless corridors. Taunts sprinted the length of the sports field. There were behind-the-back whispers and to-your-face slurs and Martin’s Judas kiss. However, true humiliation is his dad’s look-away glances, making Luke crave the bluntness of tools.
So, the single-barrel shotgun.
The morning is little boy blue and straight-edged shadows. Luke wonders who will find him first. He can’t help but hope it will be Martin, but worries if it’s his dad.
Underfoot, a gentle give from the rusty pine needles almost makes him believe it’s a sign that gives another day.
A hush of wings disrupts the vigilant stillness. From his monochrome brotherhood, a crow breaks rank. Luke follows the ascent. The deserter pierces the tangled net of limbs and seems to hang suspended in a piece of sky so immaculate it hurts his eyes. In wiping them, Luke misses the moment of disappearance. Head back and searching, he cracks the shotgun, ejects the red-cased shell. These are tools but their purpose no longer serves. The kiss was not true but is his blunt truth. His arms become lighter. The muffled thud of abandoned metal meets the resiliency of dirt. It startles and scatters the remaining mourners.
When Winter Comes
Regional Prize, Canterbury
When winter comes we’ll be ready. He says it like a line out of the movies, like winter is going to arrive on horseback in the middle of the night and I will run screaming from the house in my nightie. It was only Mum who ever wore a nightie.
Dad slides the handle on the wood splitter back and forth, back and forth. Watch for the blade, he says. It’s slow though – I wonder how you could miss it.
I stand back, listen as the wood screams, its heart split in two before it tumbles to the ground. Keep up, he yells. I scramble, throw pieces of firewood onto the trailer.
Sap congeals in thick drops along the cut edges, adheres to my fingers. I rub my hands together, spread it like glue across my palms, and raise them to my face. It smells like fresh winter mornings, her hand soft in mine.
When we’re done I run water in the basin, so hot it hurts, and plunge my hands deep. I scrub and scrape, peel the sap away to find the fresh pink skin beneath.
Tonight, when Dad cries in the dark like he thinks I can’t hear, I’ll find my way by firelight. Slip into his bed, hold those roughened fingers tight and whisper in his ear.
Tell him of all those hundreds of pieces of wood that search each other out – sap-mended heart and slender branches stretching out into the crisp morning air.
It won’t happen again
Regional Prize, Wellington
Max’s father finally answers the phone. He’s so shocked it’s several minutes before he can talk. He starts making plans to return to New Zealand. Max’s grandmother screams: It’s not right! It’s just not right!
Word is starting to get out. A friend of Max’s puts something on Facebook. Stella calls. She’s heard the news and is crying hysterically. She keeps saying something about a photo she’s seen on Instagram.
Max’s sister walks out of her lecture feeling numb. She tries to contact their father who is visiting family in Edinburgh. It’s the middle of the night and no-one’s picking up the phone. She calls other relatives while she’s in the taxi going to the hospital. She’s never been to the morgue before.
Max’s mother has been leading a workshop about risk assessment at her government department. Just before they break for lunch, she is summoned to reception where she’s told a police officer is waiting. Her heart beats wildly – police?
Rosie puts the photo on Instagram.
Max sees it. With his headphones on and face buried in his smartphone, he steps in front of a yellow bus. The driver slams on the brakes and the passengers scream. By the time the ambulance arrives, he is dead.
Rosie sends him a selfie she took last night in his bedroom. They’d both drunk too much. He tells her not to show anyone. He worries; she can be impulsive.
Max waits until his flatmates have gone to work before sneaking Rosie out of his bedroom. The flatmates know his girlfriend Stella has gone to Auckland for work. It won’t happen again, he tells himself.
Bird Man in Aotea Square
I found Bird Man in Aotea Square, plugged into a private disorder. Years before, he’d caught a bird between his blades, etched in ink a hand-span wide. I sat beside him and waited for him to speak.
He’d been a hailed architect. His patron, a king, owned whole islands. His last commission was a labyrinth of rooms, none opening to the outside. Only the architect knew the escape, so to keep the secret, the king exiled him and his son to a tower on a far sunburnt island.
Seabirds wheeled above the foam tide. Nights, they roosted on the tower’s roof.
A plan forms.
Bird Man perfects a way of binding feathers without disturbing their pristine blades. Row upon row with a dorsal pivot and breast yoke. The seams he mantles with wax.
One morning he wakes to a favourable wind. He slips his arms through the yoke and bears the weight of his invention. He arches the wings, finds the rhythm of their beat. When his toes leave the floor, he weeps in exultation. His son claps his mouth to see the second brace of wings. Together they hasten up the stairwell to the roof, toes to the edge in the face of the sun.
* * *
It’s late. On the steps of Aotea Square, suits give way to backpackers and musky perfume. An African thrums a djembe drum. Brown boys pick up the beat, their singlets twisted into garlands.
In Minoan culture, a young bull would be adorned with flowers and led into the arena. Naked acrobats would somersault over him, grasping his horns for handspring. Some would clear the span, some would leap and fall.
Bird Man lies back, quiet. I finger-count his feathers till I reach the sum.
As he lived, he remembered the skin-friction, the soft-muscled arch of her back, sweat
beading crystalline across her collarbone. But as he died, all that remained was the
defenceless kiss she offered his shoulder, afterward, before sleep.
Day eight, early hours. They’re in his metal bunk when she feels the engines’ deep throb fade to a hum. She knows what that means. It’s her third season. But it’s his first, and though he’s talked of waiting for this moment, she sees he hasn’t realised it’s come.
Deciding to surprise him, she flips the blankets back and tells him they’re going up. He’s reluctant, and no wonder: it’s cold and their shift starts at five. So she whispers, warm in his ear, that kissing in the moonlight really turns her on, and he doesn’t know her well enough to recognise the lie.
The ladder to the weather deck is narrow, and he’s right behind her, grabbing her arse, mock-growling that this is crazy and she’d better make it worth his while. But once they’re through the outer door, that handle cold enough to burn, he pushes past her to the rail and falls silent. They’ve hit the swarm. Five hundred, she heard the purser tell the sous chef. Double last year’s count, with global warming probably to blame. Five hundred icebergs, hunched and sharp in the moonlight, ghastly white and every shade of grey.
They watch, in thrall, as omen after omen passes slowly by, until he says, ‘I love my wife.’ She knows what that means. It’s her third season. And she thinks it best to just play deaf. There’s still time to make it worth his while, and hers, before they have to don their whites. Then he can shape another day’s breakfast rolls, and she can crack another dozen trays of eggs, while on the upper decks the passengers begin to stir and emerge in pairs from their padded shells to marvel at the spectacle.
The wind lashes your back, flings the sea at your face and dries it there in a film of salt. Listening to the thrum of the engines, the shriek of gulls, you see why they call this the Sounds.
Jellyfish flock in a sea that’s the black of Spanish olives. A gannet plunges, straight as a plumbline. You lurch to the ferry’s bow, where a couple in beanies are trying to light a joint, his gloved hands cupped around her lighter. You stagger back to the stern, wondering if your eyeballs might be blown right out of their sockets.
Last ferry trip, it was you trying to light up in a secluded corner with a woman who laughed while the wind whipped her hair against cheeks crimson with cold.
You hope she got your letter. Full of all those things you couldn’t say before you left. You hope she’ll be at the ferry terminal, searching the crowd for your face. You hope you haven’t stayed away too long.
The sun sinks and in the gloom, a ghost ship passes – a sister ferry – faintly luminous where the dark of the sea meets the dark of the sky. You wonder if it’s an omen and hope for something good.
You close your eyes, and there’s her face. That smile that was always about to break; her long, black hair that made you think of horses.
When you look again, you can make out the familiar backdrop of the Wellington hills, lit like glow-wormed stream banks. Home. You should have done this sooner.
You recite the names of the islands that lounge under the failed light: Taputeranga, Mākaro, Matiu, Mokopuna.
Yeah. You reckon she’ll be there at the terminal. Her kisses will taste like peppermint. It’s enough to keep the wind out.
The Math of Me
Regional Prize, Otago
Driving home from Aoraki, I asked my mother a flow of questions.
She tapped the steering wheel thoughtfully, answered with great patience. I drew my arm beside her own to compare the difference in our colour.
“What do I do to become who I am?”
She stroked my pink skin with long, earthy hands and we both sighed.
I am not sure when I will stop counting the drops of my blood, blood within blood within blood, and checking my face for proof of my heritage, but stories always helped.
The story of my great grandmother riding a horse with a shotgun, the story of my grandfather beaten by nuns for speaking Te Reo, a language I used to play with all the time. We vowed to be best friends, swam in the ocean and had sleepovers together, until my other friends said it was weird. Te aha? you said, te aha? and I left you in the classroom to play on the slides. Sometimes we worked together when we absolutely had to, but we stopped talking as much. I always liked Te Reo’s stories, though. Alarming ones, with monsters and fierce women, songs and poetry. It’s no wonder I returned, a poet myself, to ask a few questions.
“What percentage are you?”
“You can’t be Māori – you’re the whitest girl I know!”
I went to the bathroom to cry.
Imposter. I began to whisper more, afraid that everything I said was really a lie, an Iago inside. I wore my Pounamu beneath my collar and read the names of places, phrases in the supermarket, but did not commit them to memory.
“What do I do?”
“An absurd question,” my mother smiled. “It’s not who you’re trying to be, it’s just who you are.”
We turned into the city in silence.
Peace and Quiet
When she bought the bach, Louisa’s budget determined many of her own beach-house-buying rules were broken: on a bend, in a cul-de-sac housing several permanent residents, and above all, no fence.
Early one morning, as Louisa had just begun gardening, Rose and Mike introduced themselves.
“Welcome,” said Rose.
“Corokia hedge,” Mike observed. “Two metres fully-grown. Keeping out the riffraff?”
“Watch for John and Moana,” said Rose. “Drink like fish. Mary and Dave at number 25 will chew your ear off. Don and Carole, the blue weatherboard house, good people.”
“Pete, number 31, a lovely guy,” said Mike
“Anyway, lovely to meet,” said Rose. And they were off.
Later, John and Moana wandered up to a wrist-deep-in-soil Louisa.
“Will you holiday often?” Moana asked. “You’ll find Mary and Dave are salt of the earth types, Don and Carole run hot and cold. Rose and Mike enjoy a drink…”
“Or five,” said John.
“However, steer clear of Pete,” Moana offered.
“Ex-con,” said John.
“Anyway, we must do dinner,” said Moana. And they were off.
That afternoon, Pete came bearing chocolates.
“Gidday,” he said. “Bit quiet around here. Tend to keep to ourselves. Need anything, just yell.” And he was off.
By evening, Louisa was pleasantly weary. Her hedge was taking shape. She gazed across the road at the incoming tide.
“Hi-de-ho!” Don trilled.
“Met the street yet?” Carole asked.
“Word to the wise,” said Don. “Mike and Rose. Just saying.”
“Jail, apparently,” whispered Carole. “Mike, not Rose.”
“John and Moana? Dull teetotallers,” said Don. “Pete’s a nosy parker. Mary and Dave? Quiet as mice.”
“Mostly, everyone’s nice,” said Carole.
“To a fault,” said Don. And they were off.
Soon Mary and Dave headed Louisa’s way. She began digging up Corokia and planting Karo. Pittosporum crassifolium, read the label. Mature height ten metres.
Regional Prize, Hamilton
The rusted outboard motor, sitting in the corner of our pristine garden, is as out of place as a shark in a swimming pool. Every six months Mum would urge Dad to get rid of it. He would ignore her or placate her with words that never turned into action.
Every morning Dad picked up stray leaves, briefcase in one hand, papery brown trespassers in the other, and scattered them in the gutter out on the street. He tended to the white roses every weekend and joked that a petal didn’t fall without him knowing.
Every night after dinner and a glass of whiskey, he would crack and whip the newspaper into submission, reading from the front-page headlines to the obituaries.
I was pencilled in for 8.30.
I brought him the photo I’d found of him years ago, shirtless, hair shoulder length, sitting in an aluminium boat, one hand on the tiller. A tiger’s head was tattooed on the inside of his forearm where a pink puckered scar now rested.
“Where was this taken?” I asked.
“Where did you find it?” On purpose or not, he placed his thumb over the tiger.
“In an old photo album.”
“It was your grandad’s boat,” he said. “Lazy Dayz.” He traced a finger across the boat’s side.
“Is that the outboard around the back?”
“Yes. Always meant to get that going again.”
“I could help.”
The following day he was dead. A car accident, on his way home from work, same route, same time.
I pick up the leaves now. The roses aren’t so easy and petals litter the garden, roasting in the sun.
Mum gave the outboard away to a cousin who lived at the beach.
I told her I wanted to keep it.
She said there was no point.
Robyn Maree Pickens
Pah pop – that’s the sound my back makes when I stand up. I’m like that bent-over fern that the forest lets ping. Teacher says she sees that line on my back like it’s knots on a bit of rope.
I say, “How you see that?”
Teacher divides her mouth like a fraction, head on one shoulder, and points to my t-shirt. “Through your t-shirt, Scout, you’re skin and bones.”
I am skin and bones? I am skin and bones and other stuff. Can the teacher see that too? What does a teacher see? What does the sky see? And the sea and clouds?
And everything else in the world? Pretty much everything’s got eyes. Even the big rock by the sea has got eyes.
The sky tumbled down over Scout’s head into a pile of carbon out to sea. She threw a hand into its tumbling and caught the smell of birds keening. “They’re back,” she thought, as their cries ran through her fingers. She could feel the keen bathe in its own sound before sinking and rising with the sea below. The keening belonged to the wind as it whipped her t-shirt over the raised knucklebones of her spine.
Inching her toes over the cliff edge, Scout sent sprinkles of soil and small stones clattering down to the sea below. Behind her on the bare, salt-eaten cliff top, the first drummer pounded out the signal rhythm. Turning to meet the new sound echoing around the bay, Scout felt the cliff echo sound to the sea, and registered, with the drum knocking on her sternum, that the sea folded the drum beat, the keening, and the wind into its own listening. With all that sound pulsing and striking the air, she knew she was part of the listening.
The Chlorinated Mermaid
While trying to block out the shrieks of splashing children, I dodge a plaster and toddlers with bulging swimming nappies. A long strand of black hair has entangled itself in my fingers. It comes away stubbornly, as if not wanting to be parted, and drifts on the confused current.
I walk through the water avoiding the groups, kids riding on fathers’ broad shoulders, lovers in corners, slippery limbs entangled.
A girl splashes over to me, half-dolphin dive, half-misguided freestyle, a chlorinated mermaid.
“Hi,” she says with a mosaic smile made up of gaps, missing milk teeth and oversized adult teeth.
Lithe legs tread the water, creating a mini whirlpool around her.
“Who are you here with?” I ask, not wanting to be responsible for her if those legs tire.
“My dad.” She points to a man ploughing his way up and down the pool.
“Who are you here with?” she asks.
“No one,” I admit.
“Do you wanna know where my mum is?”
I settle the look of shock on my face to one of sympathetic pity.
“She’s up in heaven. I have a step-mum now.”
“And is that OK?” I ask.
“Of course,” she said.
She dived down, her legs flicked into the air, the soles of her feet worshipping the sun. I watched as she popped up metres away, talking to the first person she saw before even drawing her first breath.
Mother was a twirling medley of florals. Most times I don’t even remember her face. All I knew her by was the magnificent drapes hanging from her.
When I’m feeling bad I flick through magazines showing off celebrity women on the red carpet. Dresses flow down their curvy bodies. Gorgeous enough to be printed onto glossy paper. It makes me feel even worse. That is who I’m supposed to be.
A dress is hanging off the back fence. The wind jerks it from left to right.
Mother would spend an hour at her vanity trying on jewellery and applying lipstick. She’d always wear the red one. Her heels would clink against the tiles when she headed out shopping. The way she walked made her and the dress appear like they were floating.
Closer up, the dress looks pale yellow. It dances like there’s no tomorrow.
My mother impressed the neighbourhood too much. When she danced at parties, the patterns decorating her body blurred. Her hips would shake and lift the skirt of her dress to show above her knees. Other ladies wouldn’t invite her anymore.
At night when I pretended to sleep, she would cry and talk to my father like he was still there.
I tiptoe past my mother in the kitchen and disappear into my room. The plastic bag is cold against my stomach. I rush over to open the wardrobe.
I pull out the parcel and yank the plastic off. The red satin unfurls effortlessly before me. I hold it up in front of my body.
My hands shake trying to throw it back into the bag. I shove the parcel behind the suit Dad bought me. I shut the door as if trying not to disturb the dress.
A long afternoon by the river
After four days of camping Bill promised Mum and Dad a trip in his raft, before these kids bloody destroy it, he said. I’ll drive you upstream; you can make your own way back to the campsite.
They left the next morning, three with legs pressed together in the front of Bill’s ute, the raft loaded on the tray. I watched the truck bounce along the metal road, sending up clouds of dirt. The dog chased them, a black streak in grey dust. The ute continued its bounce then stopped. A door opened; the dog was let in. I wondered where he would sit. My brother said, Mum packed luncheon-sausage sandwiches, and then walked away looking for something to do for the afternoon.
I took the track down to the river and sat listening to the river bubble over the rocks as it flowed down towards the gorge.
Bill returned. They’ll be another hour at least, girl, he told me. The dog took a look at me and followed Jim back up the track.
The sun had just touched the hillside when Bill returned to the river bank. Don’t worry, he said, they’ve probably stopped for some nookie. What’s nookie, I asked. But he was walking away. You’ll get cold there, he called out. That water is straight off the mountains. Come back up the hill, I’m going to cook.
The sun was starting to dip behind the hillside when I saw them floating down the river. I could kill a beer, said Dad as he dragged the raft out of the water, Mum wading behind him. I could kill your father, said Mum. Just a little dip, said Dad. We walked for two hours, said Mum. The dog wagged his tail joyfully. What’s nookie, I ask.
A Machete, a Plastic Bag and Mum’s Gumboots
For years, the click and yawn of an opening car boot filled me with dread. As kids, when we drove over the Pae-koks to Foxton in Dad’s Telstar – brand new, white, with a maroon racing stripe and burgundy velour upholstery – and Mum saw a creek flanked by pillows of green, or an autumnal field blooming with white puffs, she’d shout, ‘Pull over! Pull over!’ in her Chinese-Kiwi accent. Dad always did, relishing the gravel skid before yanking the boot latch.
We loved to help Mum who, out there, marched the roadside in her gumboots, a different Mum to the apron-wearing one tending the bamboo steamer at home. This Mum wielded a machete with super-heroine ease, lopping off bunches of watercress and tugging dusky-gilled mushrooms from dank soil, pressing them into plastic bags my sister and I held open. Back at the car she’d wrap the watercress in The Evening Post to later boil for soup. The mushrooms she’d sauté with garlic and bacon and serve on rice.
After I turned eight, I refused to help. She’d yell for Dad to pull over. I’d groan and fold my arms. It might have been okay in Guangzhou, but here Kiwis didn’t scavenge for food on the roadside.
Yesterday, I walked across the school field holding my daughter’s hand. She pointed at the line of shade hugging the fence.
My high heels sucked in and out of the soggy ground. I glanced around. It will only take a minute, I thought. She crouched down, gathering her skirt beneath her knees – a family of white mushrooms dotted the grass – and lifted a spongy edge to peer beneath.
“Brown gills!” she said. “We can eat these ones.”
I reached into my handbag for the plastic bag I always carried, and held it open.
He’d turn up at my dorm room, having woken in the next strange bed. He’d still be too drunk to be subtle about it – he’d blunder our corridor, slurring for me, before his palm belted the door, and I kicked from bed, flicked the latch, and let his body tip in. He’d land on the carpet, muttering, prop himself back so the story could spill, his skull a dozy topple against my desk, knocking my essays slithering. He wouldn’t know the man. He’d just have come around, in a clinch, piled with limbs, off his face in some gulley of bed. He wouldn’t stay. It still shocked him, to wake up nowhere, fucked and stripped. He’d bolt to me instead, break in the way I’d shown him, making a racket on the stairs with his wasted cartoon stealth. He’d talk me through the lead-in, pieces of streetsign, dialogue, skin shots that all the drink had blitzed. He was so dazed with happy shame, dumbstruck with being touched, using my pages to clean out the blood that was gluey at his nostrils, or stuck once, going blacker, along the hem of his shirt. Sometimes the clothes that he’d grappled off the floor, half-lit, weren’t even his, yanked on, smelling backwards. And I tried not to want to load him on a bus out, as if there were a fare we could pay to go home to the highschool where we’d held hands three years solid in smalltown boygirl love. The bruise of smile on his split lip shone and shone. When he could stagger straight, he’d take me out to breakfast, we’d shovel something homely out of a bakery warmer, and then passers-by would watch us on a parkbench, trading alternate nuzzles of pastry out the soft mess in each other’s hands.
For an instant
Her father asked her if her flat in Wellington had a fridge or just an icebox. It was two thousand and six but this was his nature. She called her mother, asked her if it was true, she needed to stand beside the stove for eighteen minutes, stirring the risotto. Yes, she said, don’t look away for an instant.
They were all about it, food. Her mother said her first two words were gorgonzola and goodbye. She’d smile at this, pull a cake out of an oven, soak sultanas in rose water.
When the three of them went travelling to Peru, there was deep fried pastry, dulce de leche, pisco sours every night, the threat of guinea pigs, and a diagnosis.
The vegetables became organic and little bottles of tinctures sprouted up like mushrooms: indica, sativa, dtosin, cesium. Peanut butter jars filled with garlic, fermenting.
She held her mother’s hair back until it came off in her hands like a cat. On the sharp edge of summer the paper in the loo looked like a jellyfish bleeding. Her body had settled into a bad mistake, the shape of putting things off.
Her father told her twenty-one is the age he feels as he tried to feed his wife slippery elm and psyllium husk, pressed garlic onto her feet at the end of the sheet. She never walked barefoot again. Everything felt cold despite the heat, she said. Goodbye, she said.
And for an instant, that felt timeless.
When I travelled in those hot nights of Venice, I wore my mother’s glasses, her shoes, her pants, one of her jackets. I wore her wedding ring.
Each night the foreshore was full of bodies moving through the late evening dampness that wrapped into the corners of eyes. The island’s sides were full with palaces and cruise ships, large cakes of buildings atop each other. Deeper in, the streets wound in sameness with dead ends at silent canals and walls of tiny salty crabs that slid in packs.
When I met you at the pier, your t-shirt was soaked through and I could see the tattoos on your back like memories. We walked around the city and saw sculptures, gods, serpentine on plinths in public courtyards. We drank Aperol and smoked on the balcony of the apartment I had rented. The air was still, thirty-five degrees at midnight, large wasps landed on our table looking for sugar while we talked.
You told me I looked like your mother when she was younger. It’s funny, I said, I look nothing like my own mother. The bones around her neck were more pronounced, her shoulders finer and longer, sloping down her back with the elegance only tall people have. But my hands, I said. I have my mother’s hands. Her wedding ring made me more aware of how I moved, I felt mature, held my glass like I knew answers to things.
That night I fell asleep thinking how strange it must have been for her to know she was dying. But mothers, she had said, we don’t know the answers. We aren’t gods. I dreamt it was me who was dying, that the strong air had pulled me under and my body turned to stone in a forest.
Secret Women’s Business
Gloria was woken in the night by clattering in the hallway as if the dark-haired women in red high heels from her dream were running up and down the wooden floorboards. Peter snored and snuffled beside her. She nudged him with her elbow to make him turn over and lay watching the moonlight and shadows on the curtains. Something bulky and heavy was outside the bedroom now. There was a sound like bodies brushing against walls and she could smell something earthy and sweet; almost milky. A door opened, then slammed shut.
When she got up to make breakfast, Gloria found a pile of glistening black droppings by the kitchen door. They were pea sized and smelled of grass and earth and fennel. She threw them into the bushes beside the back steps. They ate in silence; Peter read the business pages while Gloria stared at her reflection in the bowl of her spoon. She rubbed her nose with fingers that smelled faintly of aniseed and barely looked up as he carried his plate to the sink and picked up the car keys. She waited until he had driven away and then went into the bathroom and applied lipstick and mascara.
The lawn was still wet with dew when she carried the laundry basket out to the line. There was a black heifer and three coloured sheep in the paddock between their house and the neighbours. While she pegged out Peter’s white shirts and underwear, the heifer came to the fence and rubbed against the straining post. It had the kind of eyelashes that she had once tried to attach to her own; thick and slightly curling. The heifer and Gloria exchanged glances, or that’s what she thought later. At any rate, she was sure that it winked.
Through the kitchen window and through steam from the draining potatoes the grandmother watched her six sons, one partner, one grandson, lined up from tallest to shortest, eating peas in the garden.
Four solitary sons, married to computers. Edward and Ben, his partner, just returned from Europe. We came back to get married, Edward had said on the phone. Not a real marriage, she’d thought, like Sue and John’s who were always bickering but at least they had a child out of it, her one and only grandchild. He was standing at the end of the pea-eater row, wearing nothing but a disposable nappy.
She turned to check her daughter-in-law lying on the couch.
“I’m knackered,” Sue said. It was her favourite word.
“Dinner,” the grandmother shouted. Eight pairs of bare feet returned inside. The grandchild wailed, “Gone.” His pod was too mangled to eat.
While she distracted the child, her sons took over, collapsing the leg of lamb onto a serving platter, setting the table. Clatter, and chatter.
“Look!” She held up another pod, shiny, and crazed. Tiny greyish creases showed the effort of expansion. Inside were six peas, a perfect zigzag of symmetry.
Sue shuffled to the table. “Are we drinking to my babe?” She looked for wine.
John rushed to oblige. “He’s two tomorrow. Imagine!”
“We’re throwing away all his baby stuff,” Sue cut in. “No longer needed.”
The grandmother thought of the kauri cradle she’d disassembled and stored in the attic. Anger swirled in her as John filled each wine glass.
Then Edward whispered something in her ear and she fell and ended up in hospital.
Now Edward’s siblings want to know what he’d whispered that had nearly killed her. All he’ll say is, “Wait and see.” Ben just smiles, like the Mona Lisa.
Uncle Hugh lived above his fish and chip shop in Avondale. He was enormously fat. Piggy eyes glittered above the hammocks of his lower eyelids. Whenever he pushed down his hallway to meet me, his vast bulk scraped walls. Hugh hated three things – bossy women, horses losing races and killjoy doctors criticizing his weight.
He had a girlfriend, Marge, owner of the cake shop opposite. She was an easy-going woman, plump, with butter-yellow hair. Visiting, she’d bring a plate, covered with a tea towel and, magician-like, she’d whip it off to reveal macaroons, lamingtons and other fancies. I’d be invited to join in – big, hot mugs of coffee, booming laughter and absolutely unsuitable and entirely wonderful jokes.
Hugh let me wrap fish and chips in his shop. There was a plastic lobster on one wall and a net with corks on the other. Hugh had placed shells in its weave. The place was popular. People would come from miles around because he always shovelled a scoop of extra chips for free into their parcels. I loved the fat-laden air, the vinegar smells, the joking and jostling of the customers. So different from home and my teacher mother, always brittle and marking, marking! Hugh would lift great fillets of floured fish, sink them in sizzle and scoop them up swiftly. He was wonderful to watch. He always had one ear out – the good ear, not the cauli one – listening to the races on his leather-covered transistor.
Hugh died in a fire at his shop while I was studying at Medical School. A faulty vat thermostat caused an oil fire. He was a mate. It took me ages to get over it.
Fat got him in the end, I guess.
I spend my days walking now.
A hero, perhaps, people whisper as I shamble past them looking only at the pavement.
The shrink said that being able to succeed in the small matter of placing one foot in front of the other, then repeating the process, is a real breakthrough.
I understand what he means, but dispute the usefulness of all achievement now.
“Keep walking anyway,” he said.
It was my involvement in an unspeakable event on a remote beach that unhinged me, yet this morning, as always, I gravitate to the sea.
I stop to rest on a green curved wooden park bench, reminiscent of an earlier century.
One hand placed above my brow fends off the sun that is interfering with my eyesight, but my gaze, like my mind, remains unfocused, unattached.
A small child totters toward the sea.
Just above the waterline, it stops and turns to gape at a large dog that is charging menacingly towards it, dragging a chain attached to its studded collar.
A woman screams.
Springing to my feet, I leap down the stone wall on the beachfront and hurtle across the sand as the dog moves ever closer to the child.
A tiny hand raises and points at the dog.
The child cries out something that is carried away by the sound of the waves, then veers into the water and wades out too far.
The dog halts, snarling, hair bristles along the backbone above its rigid muscular body and its tail thrusts aggressively skyward.
The mother beats me to her son.
Cooing, she scoops him up and tosses him into the air, making it all a game.
Something changes deep within me as the delighted laughter of the pair ripples across the soft breeze and the black dog slinks away.
Catherine says she loves me as we scale the hillside at the southern end of our lush green, humid valley.
Then as we reach the summit she lists the reasons she doesn’t love me – suggestions of how I can improve our relationship just by following these simple instructions.
I don’t know if I love her but since she stripped for me in her bedroom and allowed me to touch her naked breasts, belly and pubic hair, I’ve been unable to stop thinking about her.
“I’d really appreciate it if you stopped talking about sport, cars, your friends, TV programmes, school work, actresses you admire, your family, your pets, poetry, big books … anything other than me I guess,” she says.
I put my hand in my shorts pocket and pull out a pen and my notebook which I carry everywhere and start writing.
“What’s that you’re writing, David?” she asks leaning into me to see what I’m scribbling.
I tear out the page and hand her the piece of paper.
“Arthur Dempsey’s phone number?” she says quizzical and a touch annoyed. “Arthur is a drip, why would I want his number?”
“He doesn’t have a life and would happily devote himself to you Catherine,” I say, “and he rarely speaks so that should suit you too.”
I start lumbering down the hill and can hear her shouting from the top: “And you shouldn’t talk to a girl about politics either.”
Wear the Pram Wheels Down to the Rim
He left in the dark as usual. The day stretched ahead. I took the baby into bed and fed him. I could feel my body lightening and tightening as he sucked. His expectant gaze was faintly intimidating. I tidied the tiny unit. It was all we could afford. I washed up, staring at the concrete-block wall filling the window.
I got the pram ready for our usual daily walk. I noticed the rubber on the tyres was almost worn to the rim. I sighed. Could we afford new ones?
There was no one up in the park. I lay the blanket on the grass and put the baby on his tummy. He got up on his hands and knees. I put my hand gently under his stomach to steady him. He rocked for a moment then flopped, sticking his arms out wide and pointing his feet like Superman, arching as if to take off. Then he pushed up again rocked, flopped and arched. Silently, seriously, he did this over and over.
Around me, Auckland glittered. It was high tide on the Manukau, a smoother, darker, greenier colour than the postcard blue of the Waitemata. In the distance, I could see the heads at Whatipu and the line of white signalling the dangerous sandbar before the open ocean to the west.
I pushed the pram back down, following the volcanic cone around Mount Wellington above the huge gap of Winstone’s quarry. I wondered how much scoria had been excavated from there.
Back down at the highway, I paused. My parents lived on this road. I pictured the small nicotine-stained lounge, windows never opened. My mother reading, smoking, drinking sherry. Silence. My father would be home. I turned away. I could get a free cup of tea at the Plunket rooms.
The first time she saw him, he was wearing a kaftan, playing croquet.
They protested the Springbok tour together, sitting arm in arm in the street.
They married in a garden, and were saving for their pilgrimage to India when they got pregnant.
But he didn’t tell her why he sometimes became depressed and for silent days, would not even look at her.
The cottage they bought grew a second storey, a magnolia tree, two small beds for children to garden in.
And there were fairy wings, clay pinch pots, hair ties, small shoes, and lunch boxes.
There were Christmas crackers and birthday cakes, mumps, snow, sunflowers, cat funerals, another coat of paint.
But she never told him how she hated it when he talked to her like one of his students.
And his depression moved into her side of the bed.
They drove their teenage daughters to parties and scholarship exams.
She left a book in the bathroom, called Too good to go, too bad to stay.
He split kindling and washed the windows.
She did what she had decided to do years before, and left.
And before long, they all had the width of the earth between them, talking via satellite.
But no one ever told them the secret: that time is nothing. So they didn’t know that in the world to come, in the singular, humming moment, in the wink of the gaping universe, he is always twenty years old, playing croquet in a kaftan.
They are always sitting in the sun under a protest banner, and holding laughing babies up in the air. Their hearts are always breaking, the fire is just about to catch, the magnolias are always opening. He is always saying, crying, Will you marry me, and she is always smiling, saying,