Lisa was standing on the top railing of the deck fence, holding the awning pole for balance, when Ned burst out of the house. ‘Dad’s here.’
It took her a moment to process – Miles hadn’t visited in the four months since they’d moved there. She jumped down and followed Ned to the corner of the deck, and there was Miles, walking jauntily towards them as if arriving home from some quest. He was wheeling an enormous black suitcase, and was wearing clothes Lisa hadn’t seen before, clothes incongruent to the season – blue-black jeans, scuffed black pointy-toed boots, and a long-sleeved top which hung oddly, as if there was too much material below his chest.
Ari appeared, and joined Ned’s chorus of ‘Daddy, Daddy,’ but both children remained at Lisa’s side, Ari’s arm curled around her mother’s thigh. Miles looked different. More intense. His hair was longer, his eyes deeper, and his cheekbones more prominent. But surely that wasn’t possible in so short a time? With her index finger, Lisa traced the side of her own face.
At the bottom of the steps, Miles held his arms wide, and the children moved slowly into them. Lisa let him hug her, briefly, noticing as he pecked her cheek that his breath smelt.
‘Where’s your car?’
‘I hitched,’ he said proudly. She refused to take the bait, and, eyeing the suitcase, asked, ‘How long are you staying?’
‘It’s a late Christmas,’ said Miles, and Ned cheered, echoed by Ari.
Obviously this was Miles’ reaction to their last phone conversation. He’d called, angry, probably drunk, accusing her of having told people he’d left her.
Lisa had laughed. ‘But you did.’
He was belligerent. ‘I didn’t leave. I just didn’t move down there with you.’
She’d wanted to tell him it was a false distinction, but he’d been talking too fast.
‘I don’t want everyone knowing, talking about me,’ he’d said. ‘I’ve got a professional relationship to maintain.’
‘What? I don’t want people thinking I left my family.’
‘But you did. You didn’t even come at Christmas. Or send presents. How d’you think Ned and Ari felt? I said they were from both of us, but Ned knew.’
Buying the house at the lake outside Rotorua had been Miles’s idea, to branch out, get away, shake things up. He hadn’t told her he wasn’t going to come until the removal van was packed. So it had turned out that the only thing he wanted to shake up was them.
Watching Miles heave the suitcase over the doorstep, Lisa was surprised that nestled in amongst her irritation, sadness and resentment was a sense of relief, that she could share the mantle of parenthood for a while at least. She watched the eagerness with which the children followed Miles, physically, or with their eyes, and there was plenty of movement to follow; he rubbed at his right arm, fiddled with the clasp of the suitcase, patted the seat next to him inviting Ari to come, but she didn’t, and Lisa felt proud of her, but stifled her annoyance when Ned did. And then Miles announced that the suitcase was ‘stuffed full of presents. Seeing as I missed the day, what with work and all.’
The children whooped and yelled, while Miles watched Lisa, defying her to contradict him, or perhaps pleading with her not to. She gave a slight nod, and didn’t point out that it was the end of January already.
Miles made a show of it, standing the case up, and slowly unzipping a few centimetres, pretending to look inside, and then jumping back as if there was something alive in there. For a horrified moment, Lisa considered the possibility that Miles could have brought them a puppy, but not even he would keep a puppy locked in a suitcase?
He let the front flap fall, and there, packed round with parcels, was a bike for Ari. One of those wooden running bikes. Ari jumped up and down in cartoon fashion, dark curls bouncing. She already had a bike.
Miles handed Ned a parcel which turned out to be an i-Pod, and another was a fold-up fishing rod and tackle-box, and then there was parcel after parcel of lollies, and necklaces, lego and books. The children threw wrapping paper around in an ecstasy of excess, and Lisa felt sick.
Usually, to gather her thoughts, Lisa walked to the lake, but now she went out to the deck, climbed from chair to table, and across to the top railing of the fence. From there she could see over the swamp, through the dead willows and ponga, down to the stretch of grass and reeds by the jetty. They were still there, the huddles of people sitting at the picnic tables or on the ground, the odd pup tent, a few vans and cars. They were just sitting, talking, hugging; there was no new intensity. They hadn’t found the boy.
Lisa stayed up there, watching a kererū eating tawa berries; the tree branches bouncing as it heaved and crashed among the foliage. Over this summer there had been a succession of local tragedies. To Lisa, who had been shaky since they moved, it confirmed how fragile reality was. Untrustworthy even.
Under the broad brown bulk of Mount Tarawera, an Indian man waded into the lake to retrieve a ball, stepped off a submerged ledge, and found himself out of his depth. Neither he nor his family could swim, and he had drowned before the locals realised what was happening.
Soon after, a boy fell into a geo-thermal mud pool in Kuirau Park, and died from his burns a few days later. His family spoke little English, and Lisa imagined the boy climbing the fence to investigate the grey bubbling mud, not understanding the heat, or the precariousness of the earth’s crust there.
And then, just three days ago, they had walked down to the lake to jump off the jetty and catch ‘cockabullies’, as Ned called them. Earlier they’d heard the Rural Fire Alarm and soon after, a helicopter, but there’d been no smoke. Near the lake though, there were crowds of people. Someone explained that two teenagers on a biscuit behind a motorboat had banged heads knocking one out, who, without a lifejacket, had fallen into the lake and sunk. Ned wanted to watch the helicopter rescue, but Lisa had insisted they leave.
That day the searchers had not found the boy. By evening his whānau and friends were camped by the jetty, and frequently during the next days as the police divers searched, Lisa checked on-line, or climbed up onto the deck fence, to see if anything had changed. She felt an affinity with the family in their grief, but was afraid to go down there, afraid she would show too much emotion.
Now Lisa heard Miles ask what the hell she was doing, and Ned explained.
‘Well, he’s dead by now, isn’t he?’ said Miles.
‘They’re trying to find his body, for his whānau.’
‘Do you know them?’
‘I think they’re from Ngongotaha. Mum gives me food to take them.’
‘Course she does.’
Miles placed his fingertip in the palm of the tiny stretching Buddha, adjusted the Inukshuk, and then bent to examine the photo of a sloth in Costa Rica. From the couch, Lisa and Ned watched, while Ari surrounded Thomas the Tank Engine with Duplo cows.
‘All very bohemian,’ said Miles, even though they’d collected the ornaments together. Lisa wished he’d just sit down, or help renovate, or even go out.
Last night he’d cooked paella. He’d taken Ned and Ari to the supermarket, and come back with smoked paprika, chorizo, chicken and mussels, but complained he couldn’t find saffron and squid ink. Lisa had laughed at him for thinking Rotorua’s Pak’nSave would run to squid ink, but told him Capers would have had saffron if only he’d told her what he was planning. He cooked, throwing garlic, paprika, jalapeños and shallots into the wok with the gas turned up high and the steam chugging off it. Lisa feigned interest just to confirm that the ingredients had blackened. The children wouldn’t eat it anyway. She sat at the bench asking him questions about the last four months, trying to catch out his ridiculously vague answers while getting tipsy on little bottles of cheap sparkly, so that by the time they ate she was willing to laugh when Ned and Ari finished their plates.
But today the mood had shifted.
‘We could play soccer, Dad?’ said Ned.
Lisa shifted her feet so they rested against Ned’s thigh.
‘Too hard, mate.’
Lisa wanted to say Ned wasn’t his mate, but she was determined to let this play out.
Miles continued prowling; standing at the built-in rimu shelves, slipping his fingers down the spines of books. Or perhaps like cats’ spraying he was trying to leave his mark. As if that was necessary.
‘I’m going to re-varnish that bookshelf,’ she said, but this comment proved as fruitless as the others with which she’d tried to lure him into a discussion of the renovation.
Miles held up a grey book. ‘I’ll take this home.’
Lisa could feel Ned look at her then, but she kept her eyes on Miles.
‘D’you remember it? About that Jazz musician?’
She shrugged, and straightened the papers on the coffee table. Ari was mooing; Miles flicked through the book. She remembered a love affair, how the ceiling above them could have been the sky, but he was reading something about being wasted and stumbling in a black room inside himself.
‘And the rabbit – yeah? Releasing the rabbit, the chase and at the end all you have is ‘the worthless taste of worthless rabbit.’ Christ, we’ve all been there.’
Lisa noticed Ned blush, and wondered what he thought his dad was saying.
‘Listen, this is the first time we see him – the Cornet player, at a parade.’ He read a passage about the musician playing, then disappearing into the crowd, before reappearing again and again. ‘Remember Lis, when we first came back, and I was playing my sax with those guys from Point Chev?’
‘Yeah, you and Buddy Bolden.’ It’d been another of his projects, like the film script.
‘That was a good time.’ Miles pushed the book back into the shelf.
‘Your saxophone,’ said Ned, as if it were the punch-line to a joke he’d finally understood.
Miles turned his full attention on the boy. ‘D’you remember? You’d swing your arms and groove.’
‘He was four.’
‘It’s here, Dad.’ Ned jumped up. ‘In my wardrobe. You can play it.’
For a moment Miles stared, but then they were rushing from the room, Ari scrambling after them.
The first weeks in Rotorua, Lisa had left Miles’s boxes in the corner of the sitting-room, imagining that he would appear, contrite, and move back into their lives. When he didn’t, she’d expected him to demand his boxes be sent to Auckland, but he hadn’t; he had sloughed off his belongings, just as he had his family. Eventually, she’d distributed his stuff around the house and garage – the surfboard, skis, some clothes and coats, and the saxophone. It hadn’t been touched since. Before that it had sat under the stairs in the Auckland house for six years.
Miles fancied himself as that musician. He wanted to flit in and out of their lives so they would want him, need him.
Reverently, Miles put the black case on the table. They gathered around, Ari standing on a chair. He opened the lid, and let the saxophone lie there exposed.
‘Whoah,’ said Ned.
Miles didn’t move or speak.
Ned shifted closer to Lisa.
Ari clapped her hands.
Now Miles began to talk, his voice soft. ‘It’s a professional instrument, crafted in Europe – Italy. A Gianelli. It’s a tenor saxophone so it’s bigger than an alto…’
‘Giardinelli,’ said Lisa.
She pointed to the name engraved on the bell.
Slowly, Miles traced the G. ‘It’s made of black nickel, that’s why it’s this colour.’
Lisa had remembered it as silver.
‘… and the keys are silver-plated, the buttons black pearl.’
Miles lifted out the mouthpiece and explained about the reed and the vibrations producing sound. Lisa could remember Miles playing, a dimly lit room, his fingers moving over those keys, the black pearl keys, and yet the saxophone in her mind was definitely silver.
Ned touched the mouthpiece. ‘Play it.’
Miles grinned. ‘Which neck?’ he asked, pointing to the pieces lying in their green velvet compartments. One matched the body of the sax, while the other was golden.
‘It’s rose brass. We’ll have to clean it all first.’
Miles instructed Ned to find string, a soft cloth, which they then cut in half, and finally, a weight; they used a sinker from the fishing tackle-box.
Patiently, Miles taught Ned to knot the cloth to one end of the string, the weight to the other, and to drop the sinker into the tube of the instrument and then pull through the cloth. He gave the other half of the cloth to Ari, and let her polish the outside of the bell.
He greased the cork on the neck and attached the mouthpiece. He took out the protector and wiggled the neck in, showing Ned how to line up the holes before tightening the screw. He clipped on the neck strap, and inserted the reed.
‘And that’s it.’
Miles held up the saxophone; the children cheered.
There was a pause.
Carefully, Miles took out the reed.
‘What’s the matter?’ asked Lisa.
He unclipped the neck strap.
‘What’re you doing, Dad?’
‘That’s enough for today,’ he said quietly.
‘Oh, come on, Miles.’ Lisa tried a laugh, but Miles continued to disassemble the instrument, lovingly storing each piece back in its compartment.
‘You can’t do that, Miles. That’s not fair.’
Ned was whining now, which made Ari sit down and cry.
‘Miles, they’re just children. Your children.’
As Miles finished packing the saxophone away and went to shut the lid, Ned grasped the side of the case.
Gently Miles brought the lid down so the metal rim rested on Ned’s fingers.
‘Stop it,’ said Lisa.
‘Move your hands, Ned.’
‘Not till you play.’
Miles pushed the lid down. Lisa saw Ned flinch, but his fingers still clenched the case.
‘What the hell are you doing Miles?’ she screamed, frantically pulling at him.
For a moment Miles kept the pressure on the lid, before he flung it back.
‘Worthless taste of worthless friggin’ rabbit.’
He slumped on to the chair next to Ari, staring, while Lisa rubbed at the indentations on her son’s fingers, and as she did, gradually, she became aware of a noise, outside, some distance away, a chanting. It took her a moment to realise that it was a haka. The people at the jetty. The divers had found the boy.
Note: The book described is Michael Ondaatje, Coming Through Slaughter (Picador 1984).