Thea retrieved her rental car and got on the road, a bad takeaway coffee in the cup holder for company. The drive north was lovely, calm seas and soft skies, so different from her inner-city life with all that moving from one building to another. She thought of the yoga retreat she would be at in two weeks’ times, surrounded by trees and a group of casual friends. There was an indoor pool and spa services available. It would not be as hot or vibrant as Bali, where she usually went at this time of year, but her friends had encouraged her to come. And Angus would be skiing with his kids, like he did every winter. It was part of the arrangement. Angus had the winter holidays with his children, Angela hadthe summer. Although, they were hardly children; the boys were first-year uni and the girl, Tess, would be nearly fifteen. Thea cringed at the thought of Tess’s age; it always brought a stab of guilt. Tess had only been four when Thea and Angus had met and the world shifted; the same age Thea had been when her own father had left. Except Angus had not really left Tess; he moved between the family home and his life with Thea week on/week off, and Angela did the same. Thea sighed loudly, and took a sip of bitter coffee.
The GPS told her to take the next left. There was a road sign for Beach Road but nothing to suggest there was a campground down it. Thea did as she was told and arrived in a quiet settlement of houses where there were few vehicles, all of them stationary, but no people. At the end of the street was the campground, its double gate half opened, half closed. It irritated Thea. She resisted the urge to get out and shove the gate away, instead fitting her car through the half gap. At least Ruth’s dark blue Golf was there, parked outside a motel unit.
A man appeared at the glass door to the office and slid it open. Thea had no idea what she expected a camp manager to look like but this man dressed like a neat civil servant, maybe a librarian or a council official.
“You must be Ruth’s sister,” he said, coming towards her car.
“Come in and I’ll get you your room key.”
Thea left her car where it was; it did not appear to be in anyone’s way. There was no one else around. The man passed a pre-printed pad across the counter so she could fill in her details.
“Just the one night? That’ll be $85.”
She swiped her card through the machine and asked, “Have you seen much of Ruth?”
“Yes, in fact she’s been helping with me a spot of gardening. The grounds got a bit away on me.” He gave a wry smile.
“It’s hard to stop Ruth gardening.”
That smile again. “You’ll find her in Room Six. I haven’t seen her up and about today.”
“Thanks. Sorry, your name is?”
“I’m Lance. Hang on, I’ll give you a card.” He wrote his mobile number on the back. “Just in case you need anything.”
She left her car outside the office and took her small suitcase from the boot. She rolled its wheels across the gravel, hoping the noise might rouse her sister. Lance had put her in Room Four, a few doors along from Ruth. Why had he not put her next door? The room was clean, cold, and spartan. She checked her watch, 9:32. She sighed. She could really do with a decent coffee and something to eat. She had swum in the hotel pool that morning but it had been unsatisfactory; her form had felt wobbly, her rhythm off. Afterwards, the thought of a hotel breakfast, all those greasy strips of bacon and wet eggs, had not been appealing.
She would give Ruth till 10 o’clock before knocking on her door. She stepped out into a cold sharp breeze. The place was a dump. Everything needed a wash and a paint; a fleck of red fell to the ground as she closed the door behind her. She gave the closed gate a good nudge to open it and she followed the sound of the sea to the beach. There was a sandy track, wide enough for vehicles but it looked tricky to navigate. It was probably a popular place for grown-up boys with their grown-up tonka trucks. A four-wheel drive vehicle was making tracks along the sand as it headed south. A small, slow river wound its way out to sea. Someone in a raincoat was throwing a stick to their dog further along from where she stood; it looked like a pleasant activity. Last month, when Angus had begun being more distracted than usual, he had brought up the idea of them getting a small dog, to keep her company when he was away with his kids. The suggestion had made her angry in a way she still could not articulate. She had always been very clear about not wanting dependents.
Thea checked her phone, 10:01, and knocked on Ruth’s door. Ruth was drying her hair with a thick white towel; a drip of water had slid down her forehead and her face was far more pale than Thea remembered it being. Her dark eyes were hooded, puffy from either too much sleep or not enough, Thea could not tell. She wore a green and black checked work shirt like farmers wore, jeans, and massive oat-coloured socks on her feet.
“Wow, you’ve really embraced local,” Thea said as she hugged her sister, her hair a wet mop against her head. Ruth’s body sagged against hers, an unloading of grief, and she emitted a single sob, but then Thea felt her pull herself upright, back into herself, and she pulled away.
“Welcome,” Ruth said, turning her face away so Thea could not get a handle on how or what she was feeling. The room was far cosier than Thea had expected, much more so than her own barren cell. It was warm and there was a thick comfortable duvet on the bed and an abundance of pillows. A small stack of library books was on a bedside table and the bedside lights helped soften the room further.
“Do you want tea?” Ruth asked.
“No. I want coffee. Please can we go to town?”
“Give me a minute to brush my teeth?”
Thea sat on the sofa. It slumped under her and she noticed the blanket ready for Ruth to pull over her legs and feet. They both suffered from bad circulation and perennially cold feet, a shared inheritance from their grandmother and mother. Thea checked her phone for cafe options.
A message appeared as she scrolled. “Love you,” Angus declared.
“Me too,” she replied. She was not ready to engage yet. Let him be the one with an empty weekend stretching ahead of him for a change.
Ruth put normal boots on, leaving her thick socks on the bed for later, and Thea was grateful she had not just pulled on the gumboots that sat by the front door. The farmer’s garb was one thing but gumboots were a step too far.
As they stepped outside, an orange cat sashayed past the main building opposite.
“Is that El Capitano? You brought the cat?” Thea asked.
“I couldn’t leave him at home. Antonia would never have forgiven me.”
“She probably shouldn’t have left him with you in the first place. Do you even like cats?”
Ruth’s ability to put her own self to the side when it came to her daughter completely confounded Thea, it always had. She navigated the gates, half-closed again. They rode in silence; it was something else they had in common. They liked to be left alone with their thoughts when they travelled, unlike their partners who chatted needlessly when driving. Thea pulled in down a little laneway behind the main road and parked beside the rail line. On the other side was a rose garden, all sticks and stumps, pruned for winter.
“What’s funny?” Thea asked.
“Just, there’s been a spate of flower thefts in town lately,” Ruth told her.
“Geraniums from old people’s front porches.”
“Who would steal geraniums? They smell like cat pee.”
“Beats me. Maybe it’s personal, neighbours retaliating for loud TV or a dog peeing on their grass.”
“This really is a small town,” Thea said.
“Anywhere is small compared to Auckland,” Ruth retaliated.
The cafe was retro-cool, sideboards from their mother’s generation had been spruced up and were now used as storage cupboards. Thea ordered coffee, a pot of tea for Ruth. And she ordered a big plate of loaded fries. Her sister looked like she could do with some comfort fat and carbs. She sat with her body against the wall for support.
“Are you okay?” Thea asked.
“Yeah, honestly I am. I’ve been fine the last few days, I promise. It’s just today. I woke up feeling exhausted.”
“Weirdly, I am. Unmedicated too. But I’m sleeping ten or twelve hours, and it’s more like being unconscious than sleep.”
“And James?” Thea finally asked.
Ruth banged her head, gently, against the wall. “He’s gone. Sailed his precious yacht to go live with his bitch sister till winter’s done and he can go sail the world. Oh, and he slept with someone just before he left. And I’m not even angry about that, I’m angry that he told me.”
“I’m guessing my darling daughter got in touch with you?”
“She was worried. You keep turning your phone off. Either that, or you’re talking to someone all day and night. We decided that was unlikely.”
“I told her I was okay. I figured it was up to James to explain. It’s not like she can do anything.”
The drinks and food were delivered to their table by a trendy man with a genuine smile that elicited a small one in return from Ruth. They dug into the messy fries with their fingers and Thea watched her sister eat like she had not done so for a while.
“So, no more vegan food then?” Thea teased.
Ruth shook her head. “Bastard wasn’t even sticking to it. He emptied the whole fridge, filled it with tofu by-products, then never came home to eat it. I bet he lived on beef jerky while he was doing up the boat.”
“Wait. He’s been living on the boat?” Thea asked. How long had this been going on?
“Not officially. It was just, with the renovations, and him working, he found it easier to sleep there. He came home on Sundays for dinner and to do his washing.”
“What? Like a nineteen-year-old boy?”
“Ha. Never thought about it like that. But yeah.” Ruth went back to eating and Thea held back her opinions and ordered another coffee to take away.
As they got in the car Thea said, “I’d like to pick up a few groceries. Do you want to come in with me?”
“No. I bought some food yesterday,” Ruth said.
Thea eyed her warily but Ruth was looking out the side window. “You sure?”
“Actually, can you pick me up some Epsom salts, and maybe a candle? One of those thick ones that will stand on its own. Matches would be good too.”
“No. I’m happy waiting here.”
Well, that was obvious. Thea tried not to bristle at her sister’s ambivalence. She wanted to shake her into action but went into the supermarket instead.
Back at the camp, Ruth disappeared around the main block and came back with a bottle of Jif and a cloth.
“What are you doing?” Thea asked. She followed her into the disabled bathroom. The room was painted a dark green but it smelt clean. The bathtub in the corner looked more like a small therapy pool than something to relax in.Ruth scrubbed it and Thea looked away, uncomfortable. Ruth’s sudden aggressive cleaning looked like a form of self-flagellation. Finally, the taps were turned on and Ruth rinsed the harsh solvents down the drain before filling the tub for herself. Thea grabbed the candles from her room. She had found three large vanilla ones (their scent made her nauseous, but Ruth did not seem to mind it), and a box of tea lights. She handed them to Ruth along with some matches and the bag of glistening Epsom salts.
“Thanks,” Ruth said, and closed the bathroom door.