We are just driving
We are just driving. Going south, looking for a place. I am not from here so it is all new to me.
The night before in the city, we sleep in the car. It is a mild night, but on the radio the weatherman tells us of a storm coming through from the south. It will bring snow, and rain to the ranges. He says it is coming from the Southern Alps and beyond, all the way from Antarctica.
For breakfast I buy him a sandwich from a tea-shop down by the port, open early. My appetite has gone. I cannot remember the last time I ate big. As he chews I listen. His mouth is open, and I can hear the sandwich being broken up and digested. I can hear his tongue, curling against the roof of his mouth with anticipation, his lips smacking.
Another time, this would disgust me. The sound of his teeth, and of the saliva in his mouth sticking to the bread. But now I am not disgusted.
It is a process. That is the noise of the process. At least I will not hear it when it comes out the other end. When we stay in cabins, he makes me go outside when he shits.
The first place we stop is out on the coast. There is a lighthouse, and next to it a small farmhouse. There are a few people around, a farmer, tying down the tin of a roof. He is expecting a big blow, at that point it is only a breeze, a bit of wind from the south.
I want to talk to him, I don’t know why. He is the kind of man who reminds me of when I was growing up. I grew up somewhere like this, but a long way away. But there were farms and the coast and farmers like him. They are all dead now. Not the farmers, the people I grew up with. Not my real mum, but she treated me like I was her daughter and I went to school there.
It feels funny to say that. They are all dead now. There is this pit in my stomach that opens and closes when I say that.
– All dead now.
But he doesn’t want me to talk with the farmer, so I don’t. He is not mean as such, and he doesn’t beat me, you need to believe that. But he is not a man I do anything he says not to. If he has a point of view, I have learned to accept it.
I don’t talk to the farmer.
I don’t think the farmer even sees us. Not really, not sees sees. He might see us as a car, and as a couple, and as tourists. He might see us as someone who is not part of him and his. But I don’t think he sees us as people.
There is a family too.
– Let’s go, he says. He is looking at the family.
– Okay. I need to pee.
– Later, he says. Hold onto it.
That is what I do. The family is one father and one mother and two little boys. They sit in front of the lighthouse, the wind beginning to blow at their hair. They have a blanket and a thermos and Tupperware containers filled with sandwiches and cake.
The family do see us.
The mother puts her arm around the smallest boy, looking out to sea. The sea is beginning to get whitecaps, and I can feel salt in the wind. This too makes me think of years ago, and time, getting to here and now. It is a winding road and I think I missed some signposts along the way.
But she is really seeing us. Seeing him more than me. Her arm is a barrier to us, not to the wind.
I cross my legs and he drives and I hold on.
He drives like he knows the country. After about ten minutes he takes a left into a road that runs along beneath the mountain.
– Looks good.
– Look, he says.
There is a cottage, and a mother taking nappies off the line. Her baby crawls at her feet. I worry about that baby, with the storm coming. But I know that doesn’t make any sense. They have a cottage and I can see a fireplace. They have a father who will come home out of the field at lunch for soup and bread. He will put that baby on his knee and the baby will smell of him. He will smell of the animals and the fields.
– And look, he says. I follow his hand backwards and forwards along the road. There are no other cars. There is just us. It is green either side of us. In some paddocks there are boulders from a long ago eruption.
I think of the family again and we do not stop there.
We drive on.
The ranger looks at us.
– Go back down, he says.
He doesn’t say anything.
The ranger is just one man. It is very cold up the mountain. But he has shorts and boots on. He has a woolly hat on his head.
– The southerly is going to hit in about an hour.
He is looking right in through the window, past him. He even looks at me. He can see the lightness of my clothes.
– You can’t go up.
He doesn’t say anything. But he has left the car motor running. There is some snow around the edges of the carpark. But it is dirty. The peak of the mountain, though, is white and clean. I have never been this close to a mountain before. The peak is beginning to be covered by the clouds.
– Or I’ll have to bring you down.
He pushes his foot onto the accelerator, thinking.
The ranger’s walkie-talkie comes to life and just as quickly dies again. He looks down at it, on his belt. He nods his head and we reverse back into the gravel, and slowly drive back down.
Without saying anything, he stops outside the toilet. It is a long drop. But I pee. There is no toilet paper. But my bladder has nearly burst. It is good to pee, and to hear it hitting against the mountain and waste below.
In the town, he stops at the petrol station.
I fill the tank. I pay the girl behind the counter. She is blonde and thin, too. I buy a packet of mints and pay for that.
The girl does not say anything. With me, she is mute. Is it because of the colour of my skin? Is it because I am not from around here?
She watches me out the door.
I do not tell him about her. I swear, I do not say a thing.
We drive one way through the town. At the last roundabout he turns around and we drive back through. I see a bakery and a coffee shop. There is a Chinese takeaway and another gas station, and two big dairies. One has a giant ice cream cone on the wall, and the other has a cutout of the mountain we have just come down from.
In the middle of the town there is a clock tower. Two people are standing next to the tower. As we go by I look at them and one of them looks back and she points up at the clock. Following her finger I look up, and two tiny figures have come out of the clock and are making gestures. They look like olden-day characters from a book.
The lady laughs and I almost smile. It is unusual to share a happy moment in time with someone new. I almost smile and the lady waves bye-bye at me.
He drives back into the petrol station. He drives across the forecourt, and pauses outside the entrance way. He pushes his foot onto the accelerator. Once, twice. We are still the only car.
– There is a man out the back.
I don’t know why I say it, but I do, and he drives out back onto the main road and we head south.
As we cross over a bridge, I see the weather coming in the distance. There is a bank of black clouds, and the wind is beginning to whip the trees as we fly past.
He has his foot down now.
At a honey store in the country, two men are covering a helicopter, preparing for the storm. They do not see us as we speed by, their focus wholly on their own situation.
I admire their industry and labour.
– I know you are lying.
I know that he will not ask why. That is not important. I have lied. That is important.
The country between one town and the next is very green. There are herds and herds of cows. At one point we stop, while a herd crosses the road. The farmer is wrapped warm against the wind. He has a dog and a stick. But he does not need to use them. The cows cross the road to the shed. The farmer follows and we drive off.
– I can’t trust you.
Again, it is a statement. He has processed the information and now he is letting me know the fact of the matter.
We are coming into the next town. Again, it is like he has been here before because he turns left off the main road without needing to look at the signs or make a decision.
The wind is very high suddenly. I imagine what it would be like on the mountain now. Where is the ranger? What is he doing?
The road is narrow and winding. It is surrounded by green on both sides and in the distance I can see a width of bush. I know that is where we are going. I know too that he has made a decision in his head. I try to interpret what he is thinking and what he is going to do.
Usually I can do this.
But today he is a man in a car driving fast on a narrow country road. I cannot see or feel anything beyond that.
I admit it.
I take the legs of the girl and he takes her head and body. He is not wearing gloves and neither am I. I am wearing a woollen sweater from the back seat of the car. The same one I am wearing now. He is wearing jeans and a hooded sweatshirt.
– She’s lighter.
The carpark at the lake is empty. It is a very bleak day now.
He has backed the car up against the bush.
I go first. The girl’s legs straddle me, her toes poking out under my arms. After a few minutes, she is not heavy at all, just a load I am carrying. My life has been carrying one load or another. She is no burden. A job, I will endure through.
For ten minutes we walk in, navigating the bush as it thickens. Then there is a slope. If I am being accurate, one hundred per cent, we are facing east. There is nothing to see but bush. There is a slope, facing east, and we tip her down the slope.
I watch her roll. She does not go far. She goes two or three meters down the hill. Then she is caught and stuck on the trunk of a cabbage tree.
Her head is at an angle and I can see her eyes. Her hair is blonde. Her eyes are blue. She is white, thin, Pākehā.
I turn to see if he wants to push her further down. One more roll and she would be gone forever down the hill. No tramper or ranger would ever find her. Rodents would get her and she would be forgotten.
But he has gone. Silently through the sodden bush, back the way we came.
That is his decision.
It takes me an hour to find the clearing again. It is dark when I get there and I am soaking. He has gone. He has driven back up the road. Right or left? I think you know as well as me he has gone right.
There is a small hut with a toilet and a verandah up from the lake. The door is locked. The verandah faces west. I pull the sleeves of my sweater down over my hands. I fold my arms. The wind comes from the south and it has rain in it.
I have no food. I am beginning to freeze. I wonder if I will make it through the night.
– Will you take us to her?
– Can you find the way?
– There is another one missing.
Is that a question?
If so, my answer is yes.