When Sun and Moon Collide
A short-story excerpt
Every morning she raced past Isaac’s tearooms towards the summit of Flanagan’s hill and he watched in fear as arms as legs grew as thin as toetoe. It was clear by her expression as the hair whipped her face and stung her shoulders that running could not be a fun thing for Ataria, that she was not training to be part of the New Zealand Olympic team like people joked. She was being chased.
But only the sun with its wide eyes spread all over town stood high enough to see what tracked her down. All Isaac knew was if the girl didn’t escape this place, she’d die. End up a pile of bones and skin wrapped in a tracksuit somewhere on Flanagan’s farm. Be shoveled into a mass grave along with the cows who’d died of foot mouth and madness disease and sheep who’d had their insides blown apart by maggots. Usually, on her way back from her run Ataria would call in. Slip under the door with the morning breeze so the bell wouldn’t ring and when Isaac came out from the kitchen to stare at the road, she’d be there. Ordering black tea with a sideways flick of her head and a paper with a bony snap of her thumb and finger. But she wouldn’t eat. Once in a moment of extreme weakness he’d laced her tea with powdered iron supplement, only the words on the packet had all been lies and the iron hadn’t dissolved as they promised it would. It’d floated. Its little green submarines submerged just under the swampwater surface of the tea. Ataria viewed them with contempt then pushed the cup to the very edge of the table where it’d lost balance and fallen, smashing violently and spilling its near-boiling contents. Searing the hairs on Isaac’s legs, turning his skin pink and proving that iron supplements weren’t always healthy. He hadn’t interfered again. After drinking her tea Ataria would stay reading the paper inside and out, up and down until lunchtime. Then she’d leave, dragging her skeleton behind her, reminding Isaac of a documentary he’d seen showing prisoners on death row making their merry way to the chair. Isaac didn’t know where Ataria lived or who she lived with. She was always alone and he wasn’t one to ask questions or attempt to pluck conversations outta thin air. And she might never come back if he surprised her and that’d be no good. He made a nifty profit out of Ataria. A dollar a day, once the cost of the teabag had been covered.
Since the new ‘Café Astounding’ had opened in town the locals had become partial to coffee made with beans, herbal teas and pumpkin muffins bloated with cream cheese. He only ever saw them now on Wednesday when the locks on the Café’s recycled matai doors knitted their teeth and a black and proud of it CLOSED sign swung in the window. Every other day of the week, except for Sunday when they were either at church or bent double from a night of sinning, they would sit on the snazzy stainless steel chairs and ease their elbows onto the metallic table tops that stood proudly above the footpath outside the Café Astounding. They would blow into latte foam, pop out their brown or white pinkies and toy with the glossy fashion magazines that the café had to offer. They blocked their ears to the sounds of mooing cows and the screech of Fraser Murdoch’s sewage truck as he veered round the corner on two wheels. They pinched their noses to the pong of the freezing works on a hot day and as they strutted their stuff around the counter, even dared to imagine they were dressed by some store other than Boon’s Family Haberdashery. Helen Cherry perhaps or Zambesi or even that big American shop, what was it? The Gap. The Café Astounding was the community’s own little slice of Ponsonby Road. It didn’t worry Isaac too much that his punters had sold out and moved on. The tearooms had nearly been going under from the day he’d opened and they’d never liked Ataria he could tell. They didn’t like her because she didn’t raise her eyebrows to them in greeting or share her table, which was by far the brightest. AND she was as skinny as the sideways view of a piece of number 8 fencing wire. When they walked through his door and saw her they shielded their faces, made the sign of the cross and moved to the other side of the tearooms. There they made up stories about her. Stories that helped them to comprehend exactly why she was too thin, and wouldn’t share tables. Ataria was a drug addict, an ex-prostitute, an escapee from the loony bin who thought she was special. They said these things then bolted them back down afterwards with a swig of instant. How she managed to step between the landmines they’d buried between her and her table in the sun and fall into her crossword without getting hurt amazed Isaac. Perhaps being as slim as she was got her through gaps and saved her life. Isaac himself rolled over and exploded just at the thought of being talked about in such a way.
His other customers included those who shuffled in from the motorway for a mindless break in their journey. Tired and tarred with fine sticky dust. Families on budget camping trips, salesmen selling laundry products or backpackers hitchhiking in pairs, riddled with accents and state of the art tramping gear. One night on television he’d seen a picture of a young couple who’d gone missing. He’d remembered them; they’d called into the tearooms a week before. Tall, with hay coloured hair, their pale complexions made rosy with health and with new love. He’d fed them up on bacon, eggs and tomatoes. They’d washed this down with a jug of cold water and their laughter rang as sweet and hollow as ice hitting glass. So he’d called them the ice people. That was when the dense evening sky had suddenly ruptured allowing the sun to brighten its cloak and wash the earth with one last solar splash. In this place where there was no sea, just flatness and mountain shade, the sky had always been greedy. Devouring every spare inch of air. Filling it with its sky cells. On a fine day Isaac could feel its blueness tickling his ankles, and he’d seen customers with the purple red juice of the winter sunsets they’d gorged still dribbling from their mouths. So normally he wouldn’t have thought about the sun’s sensational encore, had it not been the day the ice people had disappeared, had they not been so impressed with its performance they’d raced outside. Stamping their feet and cheering, clapping, jumping up and down and spinning around. Gasping for breath and dizzy with elation they’d come together and held each other close. For the fourth time that day Aotearoa had reminded them how incredibly fantastic it was to be alive. Assuming that the people were as generous as their environment, the pair had walked to the road, tempting fate with finely constructed thumbs. They were picked up by a mysterious camel-coloured Anglia and never seen again. Their faces appeared on Crimewatch. Their families were worried. Normally they heard from Stig and Zana once a week. But Isaac hadn’t rung the number the television had flashed on the screen. He’d made it a point not to become involved, but sometimes on summer nights when those delicate strips of diluted light filled the tearooms he’d see them. The ice people. At that table in the corner. Feeding each other bits and pieces of their last supper. ‘Not my fault’ he would say out loud to the empty table. ‘You took the risk.’
Then there were the bristly truck drivers, red-eyed from watching white lines on dark roads get sucked up like noodles into the jaws of their Big Macs. Full of talk after listening so long to the sound of engines and radios. Happy to see Isaac and his tearooms, ‘Gidday Isaac’ they would burst. ‘Gidday Isaac and howsit going mate? I’ll have a plate full of the regular and half a loaf of bread to mop it up. Oh yeah an’ a cup of instant, a bowl of water and a dozen bangers for me dog. Fang. The All Blacks are a pack of wankers and did you know you sell the best tucker south of the Brynderwyns?’ Isaac admired the truckers and their firm opinions. They knew good tucker when they saw it and it was very unlikely that they would ever be seduced by the ‘Café Astounding’, its frittatas and antipastos …
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Briar Grace-Smith is an award-winning writer of plays and her fiction has been anthologized in various books and journals. Her plays include Nga Pou Wahine and Purapurawhetu. In 2000, Haruru Mai was commissioned by the NZ International Festival of the Arts and she was a recipient of the Arts Foundation Laureate Award. Her latest work for stage, Potiki’s Memory of Stone, premiered at the Court Theatre before touring to Wellington and the Auckland Arts Festival ’03. Her television credits include Fishskin Suit. Briar was the 2003 Victoria University Writer In Residence.