Hamish used to say, ‘I’ll poke your eye out.’
He always burned the sausages, right, so Lucy’d start pricking them before they were even half done and he’d be waving her away, flapping his arms while the long fork pranged around in his hand.
‘You’ll poke an eye out with that thing,’ Lucy said every time, and he’d say:
‘I will if you’re lucky.’
And we laughed, like it was real funny, the idea of poking someone’s eye out, and then one of us would say, ‘hold on, we can’t be joking about violence,’ and that was funny too, although it shouldn’t have been.
Now Hamish is dead, and Lucy lives in Woodville and doesn’t call. We buried Hamish on April first. ‘April Fool’s,’ he’d say, ‘ha ha,’ and he’d point at us, only this time no one was laughing. I didn’t kill him or anything. Don’t worry. No, he got cancer, just like Dad before him and his dad before him. ‘But he’s so young,’ people would say when we told them, ‘how can this happen to someone so young?’
It happened. It was melanoma, and it was on his head. That hot sun seared a bad spot right into his skull. It happened to a boy my year at school as well, only he lived. He had this fluffy afro hair, and he loved telling the story of how he sat in the salon chair and the hairdresser peeled back the layers of his afro and peered at the sliver of white scalp beneath. Except part of it was black. ‘Oi,’ she said, ‘this doesn’t look good.’ Everyone thought that was just great. Cancer caught with an oi.
When Hamish got it, I thought maybe we’d find something to laugh about, but he stopped laughing right away. His eyes went cold. ‘Dead fish eyes’, Lucy said, ‘he’s got dead fish eyes’.
I’m climbing the hill we used to climb, the three of us, back when we had homework and Archie snapping at our heels. Except I’ve lost our old track, so I’m guessing my way in the half-light. The old track has crags and buffets, but these hills are smooth, mounds piled and doubled over on themselves, and when I put my foot out, it slides on the smooth grass.
At the funeral, Sharni gave a speech. She wore pink. ‘A meringue,’ said Lucy, but she sounded tired, like she couldn’t be bothered to make fun of Sharni anymore.
Sharni said something about the dates on Hamish’s grave, those two numbers, and how they weren’t what mattered, what mattered was the small dash in between the numbers and what you did with it. But what did Hamish do? He spent half his hours in a classroom training for a life he never got to hold. Sharni clasped her hands on the lectern and asked us all to pray, but I looked at her hands instead, with their spots and small veins bubbling along the surface of her newspaper-thin skin.
After that I watched the ceiling fan. Funny how on hot days those old fans always look like they’re struggling. That day the fan gasped its way around and around. One two three four. And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze. One two three four. Then sings my soul. One two three four. How great thou art.
And in between breaths I’m singing it, that song, up here on the hill. Mostly it’s quiet. Sometimes I startle a blackbird and it flies off twittering. Whenever I hear that blackbird call, I know it’s evening, or autumn, or both. It’s April again, so the trees still have half their leaves, but they’re all brown now, and some of them have fallen and they clog the path. Is that just my excuse for walking slow? ‘Oh, the leaves are bogging me down,’ I’d say, but no one would buy it.
What can you do at first, but run at it head-on? We did. We scheduled the surgeries, the appointments, the drugs, like it was all some long exercise that we’d come out of okay. And everyone was nice and helped us to forget the bunched yellow curtains over the window and the stench of Hamish pissing himself. The nurses were cheerful and brisk.
He was completely fine, and then he wasn’t. He started to fall over. His skin turned into a patchwork of bruises and Mum had to cover them up with her powder brush. She was good at that; she’d had practice. ‘I was a makeup artist,’ she told the nurse, and I think we almost believed her.
Only, there was one doctor who walked into the room clipboard first and his eyes were full of things he didn’t want to say. He looked too young to be a doctor. ‘Hey Mum,’ I said when he left, ‘that doctor’s pretty cute. Reckon you should ask him out.’ Then I saw Mum’s eyes were like the sea. You know they say eyes are windows to the soul? Well, we saw Mum’s soul that day, and it was all churned up.
It’s almost dark now; there’s a purple hush over the valley and soft folds rippling down to the Heretaunga Plains, like crests to the sand. I’m walking slowly, counting the steps, as if I can stitch myself back together again. Once I saw Mum sew up her own lip, threading the needle in, out, in, out, all with scraps from her sewing kit. Only later they told me it didn’t happen like that. ‘One of my teeth went bad,’ she said, ‘and they had to take it out.’ That was the summer we went to the beach.
Have I told you about the beach?
I remember walking out into those cool blue waves with you, and the tumble of legs pulled out from underneath me.
‘The sea is not an ally,’ you said later, but beneath the surface everything was still. Your shouts became echoes, and even the light was kind. Light refracts under water, right? Well, under the waves, the light bent softly. It enveloped me. But when I told you that, you shook your head.
‘Never turn your back on the sea,’ you said.
How’d you know, Hamish? You were only five years older, and you were wrong. You were looking the wrong way.
The thing is, Sharni’s wrong too, because it’s not what happens in the dash between the numbers, it’s how it starts and how it ends.
When they brought Hamish home that last time, we crowded around his bed. We said, ‘any regrets?’, and I thought that maybe this time he’d laugh. But he was solemn. He said ‘no, because remember that driftwood you found at the bay, Lucy, with the knots in its back?’
‘Yeah,’ we said, ‘plaited timber. And we tried to do our hair like that.’
‘And you could stick your finger through the middle,’ Hamish said.
We said yes, we remember.
Hamish said, ‘I don’t remember what that beach looked like. Or the sea. But I remember that driftwood.’
We said okay.
He said: ‘my mind has lost its expanses now, all I remember are the small nooks where I hid my body.’
And okay, it could have been dirty, but no one in that room even breathed. After he said that, there were just hours left, and maybe he was gone already.
There are caves up here, if you go slightly off the path. It’s all limestone. Sometimes, when you stride out too hard, bits of the cliff crumble beneath you.
We lost Archie up here once. He ran too far into a cave and couldn’t find his way out. All we could hear was his bark’s echo. ‘Mum will kill us,’ Lucy said. She acted tough, but underneath her skin she was just bones and sinew held together by small worries, muscles stitched with tiny sadnesses. I guess because she’s the oldest. She was the one who heard all the screams and the crying, and she absorbed it into her skin.
So Lucy was worried. But Hamish just laughed. He stuck his head into the cave and slid down the rocks at the back. You didn’t go that far, not without a torch, but Hamish didn’t care. And five minutes later he came out with Archie in his arms. ‘You shouldn’t have done that,’ Lucy said, though she was smiling.
Lucy wanted to tell that story, but Sharni said no and Mum agreed. Because the dead don’t do any wrong, do they? They’d already flattened him out, ’cause a 3D version wouldn’t fit through the funeral home doors.
Alright, so there was the driftwood, but what about the sand that summer, that black glassy sand that got in everything and made the floor all grainy and the shower floor sticky? You said nothing about that Hamish, and you might not have remembered the sea, but couldn’t you remember the sky? We said the clouds were castles, which wasn’t that original, but they went banking on forever, layers and layers of castle walls with princes and dragons crouching on their turrets. And at night we watched the stars spinning their way across the blackness, listening to the moreporks haunting the trees.
I’m up here now watching the dark suck away the light, swatting at mosquitos and running my hands through the tall grass.
The sand-flies? They wouldn’t leave us alone all summer. Lucy got a trail of bites up her ankle all the way to her knee. There was that red-streaked night, remember, our feet were on fire, and we went and stood in the water, because Mum said the salt would help.
You found that dead shark, way up on the sand. It had been dead for days. You could smell the warm rot. And we couldn’t find its eyes, ’cause the birds had taken them. Pete and Sharni dug a shallow grave and they hefted the shark into it. Do you remember, Hamish? You wanted to help, and Mum said no, because even then she thought death was something she could contain, protect you from.
One hot day the sky turned black and boiled over with angry clouds, and we went back to the bach early. I have this memory of Mum standing in the doorway, rain dripping around her, and her talking softly on the phone. ‘It will be different,’ she said, and it sounded like a question.
Only that can’t be right, because we didn’t have cellphones then. We were meant to stay another week, but we packed up the next day and went home, even though Sharni wanted us to stay.
The sky is an expanse and the cave is a nook, but I don’t see you in either of them, Hamish.
At the top of the hill I stand and watch the dusk touch the tips of cloud. When it’s night all around, I call Lucy.
‘Remember the ocean that summer?’ I say. ‘Out at Blackhead Beach. And the waves were so rough. They knocked me over.’
After the day of the wave, the water churned and turned green. Hamish and I sat on the porch and watched the thunder ripple over the bay. There was a round white cat, she’d come and rub her back against the boards. ‘She wants fish,’ Hamish said, and he fed her scraps of flesh, white as her fur. Even in the rain she came.
‘We never went back in,’ I say, ‘not after that big wave.’
But Lucy says we did.
‘Look at your heel, you have a scar from standing on some broken shells brought in by the tide. On the last day. Mum still has them in the garden.’ The scar is a small moon. Now I remember the shells, in their jagged rows. They were pale and dirty.
‘I didn’t want you to take them home.’
‘You cried,’ she says. ‘Even Hamish couldn’t calm you down. You said, the ocean has lost her teeth and now we are taking them away.’