from Kith & Kin
The waves rolled against the shingle bank scattering the stones, which clattered down towards the sand. Tarquin picked up a rock. It was warm and smooth, fitting neatly in his closed hand. It had white lines of quartz running across it like a map. The sun was high and the sky was cloudless and bleached. The sea was green and uncommonly flat; on each wave tip a glint of silver.
He thought, when the day came, he’d have been depressed or racked with guilt or worse, felt nothing. To his surprise he felt joyful, an overwhelming and rare emotion for him. The moment he got off the phone from Gordon he helped himself to Dom’s bicycle and rode to Makara Beach. One of these days he’d have to learn to drive.
The bay was a horseshoe curve that usually copped the north-west wind. It was a wild, rocky beach with steep barren hills on all sides — a place where plants were low and tangled, more branch than leaf. Lots of things got washed up, torn sailcloth, broken oars, sometimes even a dead penguin. Thick hills of black seaweed were turning crisp in the sun, causing a stink. This was the place he always ran away to. The air was strangely still for him.
He threw his stone out into the bay and cried out. ‘Rosa.’ That was the name of his baby daughter.
‘She’s beautiful,’ Gordon had said, ‘like a rose bud unfurling.’
‘And Gretel?’ he dared to ask.
‘She’s tired and sore but she looks great.’
Tarquin didn’t know anything about what it took for a woman to have a baby. He still found it improbable that a baby could actually be pushed out like one of those big round gobstoppers from a vending machine.
‘She’ll have to stay in hospital for a few days because of the caesarean,’ said Gordon. ‘That’s when they cut the baby out of …’
‘Yes I know about those,’ said Tarquin. He wasn’t a complete idiot.
‘She’s going to need a lot of help once she gets out of here.’
Was Gordon trying to infer he ought to be the one to help or was he reading into things? He wondered if Gretel would be angry with him if he turned up at the hospital. He wouldn’t blame her if she told him to leave. She would think he’d forgotten about her, that he didn’t care about their baby, which wasn’t true. He’d thought about the two of them every day but there was no use telling her that. It was actions that spoke and he’d done nothing. The only thing he’d done right recently was to stay celibate.
A car drove into the carpark — a large gravel wasteland which sat between the sea and the closed down café. There were a handful of vehicles huddled together but nobody in sight. Tarquin was camouflaged, sitting in a hollow below the carpark. He was on the rocks, the waves a metre from his feet.
He watched the car drive towards him, stopping on the loose rocks beside Dom’s bike. He recognised it as belonging to the old couple who lived upstairs. The engine died and the couple inside opened their doors to let in the salt air and the sound of the waves.
Both of them had fleshy sagging faces and puffy chins. The man wore a suit and a baseball cap. The woman had long brown hair, piled haphazardly into a bun. She wore sunglasses, big black plastic ones.
The man lit a cigarette and passed the packet to the woman. Then he switched on the radio. Two men were talking about cricket. She switched it off. He switched it back on and said, ‘Leave it.’
She switched it off saying, ‘We have to talk.’
‘OK you want talk, here’s some words for you. We’re in a right fucking mess.’ He threw a piece of rubbish out of the car, probably a chip packet.
‘We can work this out,’ she said, popping a chocolate in her mouth. Chewing and smoking at the same time.
Tarquin had no idea how long he’d been there before the old couple arrived — ten minutes, one hour, maybe longer and he hadn’t moved from the hollow. A shadow of a seagull moved over him.
He’d never seen a newborn baby before. If babies were like newborn kittens then she’d spend her time drinking milk and sleeping. He knew about kittens from the time they lived with Stephen’s father, Johan. Johan found six kittens in a sack by the river and brought them home. Tarquin remembered cradling their soft black bodies in his arms and feeding them warm milk from a baby’s bottle. If Rosa had hair, it was probably dark brown or black. Like the kittens. He tried to imagine what it would feel like to hold her.
‘We’ll find the money,’ said the woman. She threw a handful of chocolate wrappers out the door. They fluttered down towards Tarquin.
‘I’ll ask Tania or Sharon or Nigel. They’ll lend it me.’
‘No they won’t,’ he said. ‘Your children hate me.’
Way out to sea on the horizon, Tarquin saw a flash of silver, a boat or a light perhaps. He liked being on the boundary between the world of solid objects and the immutable world of water and air.
‘How’s your head?’ asked the woman.
The man took off his cap and bent toward her. He had a thick brown plaster on his head, just below his hairline. She touched it and he let her.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I know you don’t believe me but it was an accident.’
‘I was asleep.’
‘You were yelling at me,’ she said. ‘I was watching my programme. I heard you through the wall.’
‘I had a nightmare. You could’ve just turned up the volume.’
‘You called me names.’
‘I didn’t know what I was saying,’ he said.
‘“You stupid bitch,” you said, “why did you do that you stupid bitch?”’
‘How did you know I was talking about you.’
‘I just knew,’ she said. ‘And because it was me who spent the money.’
‘You tried to kill me.’
‘I nudged you with my wine glass,’ she said, ‘I leant over and nudged you. I didn’t know it would break. I would never hurt you on purpose.’
‘I saw the look on your face.’
‘When you’re pissed you hate me.’
‘I don’t hate you,’ she said and sighed.
‘Every time you see him you get pissed,’ he said. ‘You wish it was me in there instead of him.’
‘At least I go and see him.’
‘What’s the point, he doesn’t know us.’
‘You don’t know that.’
‘He can’t speak, he can’t move. Can he even blink?’
Tarquin couldn’t move. He was fascinated and repulsed by this couple and their story. He heard the high-pitched whine of an outboard motor and saw a small silver boat moving into the shore.
‘I have some shopping in the boot,’ she said.
‘I could make us a sandwich, get us a drink. There are pears too, they were cheap. I was thinking of bottling them just like my mother used to do, remember?’
‘I never ate your mother’s pears. I never met your mother. You are thinking of Owen.’
She pulled herself out of her seat and out of the car. She stood for a moment, holding onto the door, as if catching her breath. She was wearing what looked to be her best clothes, beige polyester trousers and a brightly patterned blouse. Tarquin had only ever seen her in track pants. She took in the land and the sea and he saw a softening in her face. She caught sight of Tarquin and smiled, she was wearing pink lipstick which had stuck to her two front teeth. Her smile was unexpected, wide and sweet like a young girl’s but her teeth were crooked and stained; there were lots of empty spaces.
‘Its nice to get some sun,’ she said and shifted her sunglasses to the top of her head.
‘Yup,’ said Tarquin.
‘Hey I know you,’ she said and fixed her eyes on him. They were a washed out brown.
‘Who ya talking to?’ said the man in the car.
‘I’m chatting to that nice young man from downstairs,’ she said winking at Tarquin. He pretended not to see the wink.
The man in the car raised himself off the seat, trying to see Tarquin. He looked him over and satisfied himself that Tarquin was indeed the man from downstairs. He let himself drop back into his seat.
‘I thought you were getting food,’ he said.
The woman sighed for Tarquin’s benefit and walked to the back of the car. The man popped the boot. Tarquin heard the rustle of supermarket bags and the tearing of plastic.
‘I made one for you,’ the woman said. She was walking towards him, offering a sandwich.
She slipped and slid on the rocks, her black sandals too dainty for the beach and her feet. Those feet were in bad shape. Her toenails were long and ragged, poking out the end like wood shavings.
‘Thanks,’ he said, taking the sandwich, noticing the chocolate and lipstick smears on her fingers. She wore a plain gold band on her wedding finger, given to a much thinner bride. The sandwich was a piece of luncheon sausage slapped between two bare slices of white bread.
He took a bite. He hated luncheon sausage. The meat was slimy and gristly. It reminded him of dog roll. She watched him eat, as if he was her son and she had made him a hearty meal. He smiled up at her, too scared to swallow.
She lifted her face when she heard the motorboat and watched it come into shore. There were three men on board. One of the men jumped into the water and waded towards them; he was a tall, heavyset man in cut-off tracksuit pants and a soiled white t-shirt. His arms were too long for his body and hung as if dislocated, swinging out of step with his stride. The man clambered up the rocks and past them without any acknowledgment. He walked over to a ute which had a boat trailer attached. He got inside and backed it right next to the old couple’s car, coming in so close that the old man had to shut his door, swearing quietly to himself. His wife was mesmerised by the silver boat and the two men inside. She stared at the thin redheaded man with hair so short it looked sketched on and a teenage boy who must be his son.
‘What did you catch?’ she asked them.
‘Not much,’ said the redhead. He cut the engine and the boy climbed overboard and held the side.
‘Blue cod? Tarakihi? Snapper?’
‘Eleven trevally and a barracouta,’ said the redhead as he straightened the fishing rods and buckets of fish.
It was a flimsy-looking craft, really just a rowboat with an outboard motor and a plastic windscreen. It looked like it would crush as easy as a can.
The dark man came back down to the water’s edge. He said, ‘Ready?’
The redheaded man slid into the sea and helped his son guide the boat so its tip was on the rocks. Together with the dark man, they pulled the boat out of the water and carried it up the slope, their feet slipping on the stones. The old woman stood swaybacked, hands on hips, delighted at the spectacle. She tried to catch the eye of the boy, but he kept his head bowed. The fishermen lifted the boat onto the trailer and secured it with rope.
Tarquin buried the remainder of his sandwich in the rocks. His mouth tasted of wet bread and animal fat.
‘I’m thirsty,’ said her husband.
She didn’t hear him.
‘I’m thirsty,’ he said, louder this time.
The men had climbed into the ute, the dark man was in the driver’s seat with the engine going. He edged forward, waiting for the trailer tyres to find traction. The rocks crunched and slid under the pressure.
‘I’m thirsty,’ the old man shouted. He sounded forlorn as if he were trying to compete with the men for her attention.
She watched the ute leave the carpark with the boat and the redhead and the boy, speeding up when it reached the sealed road.
‘Norma,’ said the old man.
The ute disappeared from view. The woman went to the boot and returned with a six pack of beer.
‘Would you like a drink?’ she asked Tarquin.
‘No thanks,’ he said, and held up his bottle of water.
She passed the man a can and Tarquin heard him rip off the tab.
‘We’ve been together seven years today,’ she said, opening a can for herself. She had a peculiar drinking style, like a girl drinking from a tiny teacup.
‘Congratulations,’ said Tarquin.
‘We aren’t married,’ she said.
Tarquin heard the sound of a can being scrunched up. He saw the man toss his can out the window. It clattered along the rocks.
‘I’m married to his best friend,’ she said, pointing to the man in the car.
‘Shut up Norma,’ he said.
‘Owen was Welsh,’ she said.
‘He still is,’ said the man.
Tarquin wanted to leave. He didn’t want to hear her story. He’d come to the beach to soak up the landscape and sea, to feel small and incidental. He wanted to forget for an hour what it was to be Tarquin, and to try and imagine the face of his daughter.
‘He loved to fish,’ she said.
‘Will you leave it Norma,’ said the old man.
‘Owen had a stroke.’
‘I know Owen wants me to be happy,’ she said.
Tarquin noticed that she was onto her second can of beer.
‘I wish that one,’ she said, nodding her head in the direction of the old man, ‘I wish that he liked fish, even the smell makes him heave.’
‘That’s it,’ he said, unbuckling his seatbelt and getting out of the car. ‘I don’t need this.’ He started walking across the carpark. He favoured his left side when he walked. He was going to get hot walking any distance in his suit.
‘I don’t know what his problem is,’ she said, staring after him. ‘He thinks I don’t love him but I do.’
They watched the old man walk past the café and up the road, getting smaller.
It took a few minutes for the old woman to work out what to do. She walked around to the driver’s door and slid behind the steering wheel. For a few moments she adjusted things — moved her seat closer to the pedals, unwrapped herself a lolly and found a place for her can of beer. Finally she started the engine and backed up in a large arc. The passenger door was open and swung about. She stopped suddenly. Tarquin heard the thump of something heavy falling to the floor. He bet it was that can. The car bonnet was facing the road, the boot was facing the sea. Tarquin noticed a lackadaisical family of large knitted dolls, lying shoulder to shoulder, crowded in the back window of the car. Some wore hats, others carried baskets of flowers; all smiled. It surprised him that he’d not noticed them before. The woman reached across and pulled the passenger door shut, then took off in the direction of the man.
This was his moment, he decided. His one and only chance to make a go of things. There was no more running away. He climbed out of the hollow and got on Dom’s bike. He mightn’t ever find himself a proper girlfriend let alone a wife but so what? Out there was a newborn baby and she only had one father and he had a choice. He cycled slowly away from the beach, conserving his energy for the big hills on the way back.
He passed the old couple half a kilometre from the carpark, over by the estuary. The two of them were standing beside their car, still on the road, engine running and the driver’s door wide open. The woman had her arms around the old man, his head was bowed and his arms were glued to his sides. He was sobbing.
‘Who else would have us,’ she was telling the man, in that voice that mothers use with children.