It bubbles like a phenomenon, in a liquefaction of green-black cream. But is just a humble meal. A fixer-upper. Gathered, shelled, hammered, sliced. And simmered. Fix you up. Fix it all up.
Johnny’s mother runs her hand along his jaw checking for stubble.
His father had grown himself an inch of it before tossing himself from a boat, his feet tied together. Stubble reeks of impending suicide. Johnny stays clean-shaven, always, even in his sleep.
Johnny wants Ma out of his kitchen.
“Dinner smells good. Like your pa used to make,” she says.
Johnny inches up under his own skin a little, like pāua lips receding behind a freshly plucked up shell. He hopes that his mother will not deduce from the preparation of his father’s dish the statistical likelihood that he will tie his feet together tonight and find a boat to toss himself from. Johnny sold his boat. His beloved one. Anything that reminds his mother of his father is reduced to a thick syrup of impending suicide. And that meant the boat. That means Johnny. That means everything Johnny does.
Johnny taps his mother between her shoulder blades, trying to place as little of him on her as possible. The contrast of their body temperatures often burns him. “Go Ma. Go sit at a table. Like a customer.”
“Is that all I am?”
If only. “Of course not, Ma. Just go. Sit. Enjoy.”
Johnny brushes his hands, once, twice, up then down his white apron.
“Light in here is too harsh, any-hoo.” She walks between the double swing doors, which fold as if shocked behind her again. They squeak. Johnny makes a mental note to oil them as he turns back to the phenomenon simmering like salted tattoo ink in the oversized pan.
Marcy bangs through the doors. No squeak. Her hair is pink today and due to the heat she sports a muscle top revealing the anchor on her arm. Once, Johnny had wanted to have one of those himself. At first he didn’t because of the cliché, then he didn’t because that was how his pa had died. Like an anchor. The less he reminded Ma of all that the better.
“Sorry I’m late Johnny. Those fucking goats!”
“Again.” Marcy folds an apron around her mermaid hips. “Can’t work it out. Got them tied up and all.”
Johnny stays quiet. Marcy will get more animated if she forgets he’s there.
“But fucking break a dawn. There ‘e is. Bangin’ on me door. ‘They been at me garden again!’ he says. I look out the winder, Johnny. And there they are, one, two, three…bloody four of ‘em, tied up just like they been all night. And I say to Benny, ‘How you explain that?’ And he says…” Johnny deposits a bag of potatoes and a peeler in front of Marcy. Busy hands will keep her talking. He loves to hear her talk, her saltiness is the only thing that can rinse clean the syrupy residue his mother leaves behind.
“…he says, ‘You explain it.’ Squints up one of his pervy ol’ eyes and says, ‘Whatcha up to at night, Miss? Lettin’-em-loose? Tryin’ to make an old man feel crazy?’ I tell ya Johnny, I looked out that winder at them four goats just blinking at me. All I could do was blink back. Just wondered if I was going bonkers m’self.”
Johnny waits for it. Hopes for one more. Just one more.
“It’s a fucking mystery!”
Ma is poised. Composed. Not at all likely to commit suicide—or use profanity—is a perfect way to describe her. The candlelight in the restaurant suits her better than the fluorescents of the kitchen. Johnny slides a plate in front of her. Creamed pāua, a small mesclun salad, and buttered rice. Understated. The pāua will speak for itself. Only needs cream, garlic, onion. Salt. Pepper. Ma smiles up at Johnny. She places her hand on his. “Sit with me a moment, Johnny. Marcy will be fine.”
The candlelight flickers.
Johnny eases into the seat opposite his mother.
He keeps the table leg between his own. Sits at an angle like he won’t be stopping long.
“Marcy!” Ma hollers. “Marcy!”
Marcy’s pink-haired head appears above the swing doors. Ma rolls her eyes. Then turns to Johnny. “Pink,” she mouths. Then back to Marcy, “Bring us a bottle of champagne.”
“Ma…” Johnny goes to stand. She puts her hand back over his. He inches away again. Like he is a cold bloodless mollusc and her hands a hot dry sun.
“It’s my birthday.”
“Happy Birthday, Grandma.” He hands her a card.
She opens it smiling. Soon though, her face looks like it had under the fluorescents of the kitchen. Johnny kicks Alexander under the table. “What have you done?” he mouths to his son.
Alexander smiles and mouths back, “You’ll see.”
“It will be good Grandma,” Alexander says, smoothing a napkin on his lap as Marcy slides the pāua dish in front of him, “you’ll see.” Alexander winks at his dad.
Johnny’s fingers move like they are lips trying to find rock.
Ma snaps her head up, and smiles. Neither the candlelight nor the ember of last sun behind them help to shroud the smile’s content.
“Where is your girlfriend?” She runs a quick hand over Alexander’s jawline. Johnny notices his son has not shaved.
“We broke up.”
“Sex is paramount to mental health,” she says as she takes a small, ridiculously small, piece of salad to her mouth. Nips it. Keeps her eyes on Alexander. “Paramount.”
“Well, if that’s your concern…”
Johnny stands. His knees knock the table. Candle wax spills and crusts on the surface in one movement. Ma takes his hand, pulls him back into his seat.
“Don’t be such a prude, Johnny. It is. I keep telling you. Keep the blood flowing. Happy,” she grins, “Healthy. Stable.”
“Tell him, Grandma. Tell him about the surprise you are yet to thank me for.”
Her fork hovers above her plate. She stops grinning. “Right. Johnny, we are taking a trip.” She turns back to her grandson, “God, Alexander. You have the same blue moons of eyes your grandfather had.” She crosses back to Johnny. “Maybe it skipped a generation.”
Alexander mumbles, “Blue moon eyes or suicidal tendencies. As the story goes.”
Ma flashes a look at Alexander. And if it could kill.
Johnny’s blood halted what feels like several minutes ago. Like he became - really and truly - a vein-less creature and all at dead ends, his own blood has got nowhere to go.
Nowhere to hide.
Once, Johnny had decided to diet. He abstained from his evening beer. Jog slash walked mornings. Ate salads. Quinoa. Chia. All the health-buzz jazz. His mother had quickly noted the weight loss. Marked it on her son’s path she had pre-mapped to either purgatory, or perfect stability. He was always only one poor choice away from the former. One forgotten vitamin, one omega-less meal. But he couldn’t win: “Your pa had lost at least a kilo before…well, I don’t need to remind you.” And Johnny gave up on his quest. He felt both exasperated and relieved. He had missed that evening beer. It was all he had to look forward to after Anna had taken Alexander and left him, those many years ago. Now, Johnny worried what Ma would notice in the time ‘taking a trip’ together would require. What would she notice about him that would need a running commentary? Plus there’s this, this, thing going on between his mother and his son that is making him feel like a child watching parents argue. Possibly over him.
Alexander smiled from his grandmother to his father. He dabbed the corners of his mouth, placed his napkin down, and folded his arms across the easy up-and-down motion of his lifted chest. “That was delicious. Just like Grandad used to make.” Though Alexander doesn’t know that, he’s only heard it over and over. Alexander might act like he is the oldest and wisest at the table, but Grandad killed himself before Alexander was even thought of.
When they had closed and cleaned up Johnny walked Marcy home. He hoped, one day, to be her ‘Good-morning.’ For now he was happy enough to be her ‘Good-night.’
“Come in, Johnny. You have to see.”
They walked the path along the house. Johnny saw Marcy’s own attempt at a garden. The lettuces looked crocheted.
“Goats been at yours too?”
“You know god-damn-well that is not what a goat would do to a lettuce. No. Goats haven’t been near my garden. Fussy fuckers.”
Marcy pointed. The Mecca. The garden of all gardens. Leaping vines and cascading jewels. A pumpkin big enough to cart them all off. Johnny, Marcy and her four goats bleating wildly from carved-out windows.
“Come with us Marcy,” Johnny took her hands. “You know my mother will drive me crazy.”
“What about the restaurant?”
“Electrics. Goats been at the wires. Closed for maintenance.”
“OK. We’ll come. See if that don’t shut ol’ Benny up. Can’t blame my goats if they away on a road trip.”
It didn’t bother Johnny at all that Marcy assumed the invitation had extended to her goats. It might have been the precise moment he fell in love with her, though he had pinpointed that exact moment many times: the time she arrived at his restaurant and had fished through her handbag full of hand-spun wool, looking for her CV, swearing not unlike a sailor; the first time he saw her anchor tattoo; the first time she said to him, “I am sick of having to tell those bum-bag-clad-Nordic-walkin’-stick-clackin’ cunts that pāua is abalone!” Then she had put on an accent. Not English or Kiwi, but certainly not Marcy: “Yes Sir, I would say the best comparison I can give you is abalone. Have you tried abalone? But this, this Sir, is different.” Then she had gone back to being Marcy. “Just fuck the fuck off!”
Marcy looked down at her hole-punched lettuces. “How’s he do it, Johnny?”
“He said he’s gonna shoot ‘em, Johnny.”
Two weeks later they drive off like the Clampetts. Though a little less well-cohered. Even the Clampetts only had a dog. A dog fits anywhere. Fortunately Alexander had managed to find a truck big enough after Johnny had told him: “I’m bringing Marcy.” And Marcy assumed her going meant her goats were invited too. She would have made a fine mother. Though, no mother would leave her brood with a premeditating murderer just a fence away. Clearly it was not even a good fence.
It took them three hours to reach Kaikōura. Marcy took a turn at driving. Alexander had insisted that his grandmother sit up front and enjoy the view.
“Dad will only snore, Grandma.”
Mostly because the goats hovering at the rear window unsettle her. They nibble at her nerves, crocheting them to pieces. For some reason she forgets they are along for the journey, and when she takes an over-shoulder look and hits a goat square in its glassy, dumb, but ever so knowing eye, it just bleats: “Mmmaaahh.”
Marcy has dyed her hair green, and driving along the coast with her window wound down as far as it will go cascades it up and out of the moving vehicle like seaweed. Ma is finding the sea air to be merely bothersome. She went to the hairdresser especially. Though the goats remain to be the most bothersome thing of all about this trip. Apart from the destination.
Johnny still cannot believe that this trip is the birthday gift from his son to his mother. How could Alexander consider a trip to the place where his grandmother’s husband—his grandfather—committed suicide, a birthday gift? Johnny wonders if his son is a sociopath. That smirk certainly suggests so.
Alexander tied his father’s shoelaces together while he snored.
When they pull up at the seaside villa Alexander has rented, Johnny wakes and stretches. Arm, arm. Leg… This alerts him to his son’s prank. Johnny will play along, just as he had when Alexander was a kid. Before his ex-wife took him away and married Hippy Dave. The busker, who turned out to be just a hippy for the summer. And not every summer. Money trouble, or more specifically, Dave’s haphazard way with the finances was the only reason Anna ever called the father of her only child. Money trouble could have been endearing if worn like a yin yang pendant by a nonconformist barefoot hippy. Less endearing when paired with Italian leathers or unexplainable hotel bills. Alexander’s mother lived in the stun of that discovery. Not the hotel bills, but that the man she tore her family apart for had never been a soulful hippy at all.
She had dropped Alexander for the holidays. White-knuckled at the wheel of her normal-person car, and not the VW van she had first made love to her ‘new friend’ in, she always looked stunned to Johnny. Pranked.
Johnny made a move to the door of the truck, quite aware of the Tied Together Shoelaces Prank.
“Ahh, back on solid ground.”
Alexander chuckled. “Stop, Dad. Stop.”
Johnny shone back, “What?”
He dropped himself out of the car and fell dramatically into the dirt. Alexander never got too old to watch his father’s theatrics resulting from the Tied Together Shoelaces Prank. He stood. Feigned a sprinter’s stance. Went to sprint, and landed, ever so gracefully despite his chef’s belly, face down in the dirt.
“Cut it out you two.” Grandma had no patience for the Tied Together Shoelaces Prank, even though she had taught it to her son many years ago.
The villa was beautiful. Fresh slick of white. Immaculate gardens. Passionfruit vines running up the cliff behind the house. Yellow fruit like the tea lights of the day. There was not a single daisy on the lawn. Just soft shorn woolly grass. They all stood before it.
Ma, Alexander, Goat, Johnny, Goat, Goat, Marcy, and one more Goat.
“They’ll wreck it,” Marcy said.
“It’s beautiful,” Johnny said.
Johnny found them a place out back. Under the passionfruit vines, where the ground was a little gravelly and the fruit was held up and just out of reach.
Only the front of the villa was on show. Behind the villa it looked different - the non-postcard side of the house. Paint peeled. Some daisies grew - the perfect stop for Marcy’s brood.
One yellow ovoid drops.
Marcy watches the quickest goat trot toward it and eat it up. She smiles at her quick one. Smart kid! She will shake the vines out later for the others.
From the deck of the sun-drenched villa they can see the ocean. They can feel it on their skin. They sit, with champagne. The flutes were easy to find in the kitchen, as if that was always the first thing the type of people who rented this villa looked for. The house seemed to want to please. They clink glasses, and even in this bright light, Ma’s smile looks honest.
The contrast between the house and the wild rocky shore is extreme, almost enough to provoke a sensory overload every time the eye moved from daisy-less lawn, to seaweed covered shore. It might be what a fault line would look like on the earth’s surface.
After the first glass of Moët, Guest Number One arrived.
Grandma squirmed in recognition of Guest Number One. Alexander noted this on his Truth Revealing Map he had not yet unrolled. Happy Birthday Grandma, his smirk says.
Guest Number One has an anchor tattooed on his forearm. “Hello Kathleen.”
Everyone finds it interesting to hear Kathleen called Kathleen, and not Grandma or Ma.
Behind the villa the goats bleat, “maaahhh,” as if they are being shorn.
Or they’re hungry.
“Hello, Terry. Long time.”
Terry doesn’t like champagne, which comes as no surprise. Marcy is the only person alive who might suit lifting a champagne flute to her lips by an arm tattooed with an anchor.
Alexander brings him a beer, “To family.”
Terry lifts his drink, “To family.”
But the Flute-Clad Clampetts are stunned. Bar Alexander. Alexander smirks. Bar Grandma. Grandma squirms. So it is just Johnny who stares like he is sensorally overloaded. His flute poised like he has forgotten what it was he was about to do with it. Johnny looks at Terry like he is an opening fault line. Or a ghost. But Terry’s eyes only open like liquefying blue moons. Which is not much less unnerving.
It was Johnny’s turn to squirm as he recognised Guest Number Two. And Alexander simply placed another imaginary pin on the Truth Revealing Map. Johnny wonders, for the second time in one day, if he has part-raised a sociopath. Alexander senses his father’s disappointment, but is sure his best intentions will be revealed. Not tonight however, he hopes for this to de-thread itself slowly.
Stop anyone from being stupefied into liquefaction.
Guest Number Two shrugs and declines the offered champagne. Declines a beer. Asks for water, then decides a champagne might be nice after all. Some hippy you are, Johnny thinks, and eyes his Italian leather shoes. Alexander is wondering if he should have asked his mother to be here instead of Hippy Dave, but he had decided his mother’s stunned stare would make her less reliable. In general her assessment of people is quite unreliable. Hippy Dave is not exactly an honest man. But in this case he has no gain to find in lying.
Marcy’s third champagne makes her confident she can pull off irony. A form of humour that has most of her life eluded her. She feels cultured by the expensive champagne, and drinking from a flute on the porch of the freshly painted villa by the sea.
“To family,” she holds up her flute, and grins. Alexander clinks his glass against Marcy’s like they are the only ones in on a prank.
“Mmmaaahhh.” Even goats can be ironic.
After 11pm another bottle is opened.
As the cork is popped Guest Number Three arrives. Hair like satin. Child-like nose. Torn jeans. High Nordic cheekbones. And those eyes. That makes three pairs of blue moon eyes. Only the fine lines around them hint that she might have an actual human age allocated to her time on earth. Her arrival causes a shift in perspective, an opening in the slowly closing circle on the deck of the seaside villa. She moves into it like she is merely a ghost, and is momentarily unacknowledged by the small champagne drinking flock; they are afraid to look crazy pointing out someone who isn’t really there. Bar Alexander. Alexander knows she’s there because he invited her. He pours her champagne, and offers her the glass. The secret relief that she is really there is breathed out by everyone. Her lips are almost blue, like she has come in from the sea. But her hair is dry. She is clothed. She has two legs.
No one lifts a glass and says: “To family.” But all of them are thinking about it. For shits and giggles.
Marcy dizzied first. Marcy felt the first wave of confusion-induced nausea. “OK, enough is enough. What the fuck is going on?”
Alexander smiles. He was glad Marcy had come along. He knew she was the only one who would eventually tire of pleasantries and polite chit-chat. The rest of them, well, the rest could have continued all night this way. Talking weather, and holidays, shop, crochet patterns. But Marcy, even with champagne’s balm, her unnaturally coloured hair, and the clear starry night above, needed an honest call. Enough was enough.
Marcy points around the circle, “Who knows who here?”
Kathleen excuses herself to go to the bathroom.
Johnny pours himself a drink on top of an existing drink.
Ghost Number Three stands. “I’m Johnny’s sister.”
“Well, fuck me!” Marcy says.
“Half,” Alexander adds. “Thanks for coming Half-Aunty Adele.” Now that things are getting real, Alexander is smirking less. It might have been nerves making him smirk. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone, especially not his father. The truth can be mean, but at the epicentre of all this is kindness. It will hurt. But it is kindness.
Marcy speaks again. “Why are they all here, Alexander?”
For some reason she takes Johnny’s hand as she speaks.
“I invited them.”
“That much is crystal fucking clear. Why?”
“They all know something.”
Midnight thrusts up through the earth with a drunk swagger. And a thick punch. From within. An overborn rage struggles up and out of the ground with violent intent. The guests are thrown from the decking. An inner palm, skyward facing, hits at earth’s crusty jaw and does not stop. A repressed fury juts out in a movement that allows not a latent latitude nor languid longitude of repose. The freedom to stand, walk, or think is refused. Try. Try to stand. Marcy does. Her goats bleat: “Mah. Mah. Mah.” But she is not given the freedom to do as she would. The ability to stand up and move from A to B has been shaken away from them. Like crumbs from a crocheted tablecloth. Things fall through the cracks. It seems to last an hour, but the earthquake lasts just minutes. The champagne flutes smash last. Last! Maybe not, but it is the only sound they understand, so it is the only one they remember. The only one they are sure of. The earth celebrates its victory over man by sucking back the drops of their drinks they might have wished to find. They might have needed. But the list of human Need versus Want has been revised this midnight clear. By force.
Sensory overload is the scientific term for what each of them felt as, from their prostrate positions, they moved their eyes from the cracked daisy-less lawn to the jutting-up seabed. Pāua, exalted on rocks once hidden, now look like little kings of the sea.
No one speaks for what feels-like-an-hour length of time. Time and space are mutually distorted. Taking a break. Holidaying by the sea, perhaps.
Kathleen returns from her trip to the bathroom, white as the foam on the tide. Higher ground is crumbling. It is something they consider seeking. But above them higher ground is nothing to ask safety of. It can barely hold itself together.
Guests Number One, Two and Three feel pranked.
They don’t know this yet, but no one is leaving for the next three days. And Johnny finally becomes Marcy’s ‘Good-night.’
“Sleep by me Johnny.”
He never notices her leave the bed. Sleep is a phenomenon itself.
On Day Three, unaware that it is the day the helicopter will come for them, and save them from all the confessions they are on the verge of making, they resume the midnight conversation of three days before. Three days they have quietly catered to needs. Water, specifically. Now, circled on the jaws of the mangled deck, flute-less, and reduced, an honesty unties itself from the strangulation of politeness.
Hippy Dave, shoeless the day he met and stole the heart of Johnny’s wife, is shoeless once more. He pissed his pants during the earthquake. Filled his Italian leathers with urine. He has gone barefoot to the river for water to boil every day. And has been glad for it. An aftershock rolls through them, and Hippy Dave says, as it exits him like a Mexican wave, “I’m sorry Johnny.”
“I understand why everyone else is here,” Kathleen says, “but I’m yet to work you out.”
“Johnny used to talk in his sleep. Anna told me.”
“Ah.” Base covered. By both Kathleen and Alexander.
Adele speaks next. “Did you know about me, Kathleen?”
“Of course. You’re, well…an entirely innocent reason…for everything.”
Terry turns to Johnny, same liquefying blue moon eyes as his father had.
“Don’t blame yourself, Johnny,” he says.
It is then the fault line opens up in Johnny’s heart, it is then that he realises he already knows what they are about to tell him. The memory he only ever acknowledged in sleep. That he has repressed, that he has been forced to repress.
Kathleen takes his hands, and it is the first time they haven’t felt sun-hot against his cool mollusc flesh. Her eyes shine. “You were my brood, Johnny. I only wanted to protect you.”
Marcy nods. Understands.
Kathleen turns to Alexander. Smirk-less now, he nods at her. It is time, his blue moon eyes say.
“We were docked.”
Johnny edges under his shell. He knows, he knows. He knows what he has said in his sleep. I tied Daddy’s shoes up, Ma!
“Your father told me he was leaving us. He was having a love child,” Kathleen nods softly in Adele’s direction. “We were supposed to be going on a lovely trip together, down to Stewart Island. For Christmas. I cried myself to sleep, Johnny. And you were curled up beside me in our bunk. And I said to you…”
Johnny interjects: “Hope he falls flat on his face.”
Kathleen nods. Everyone is still. Calm before the storm still, the stillness some people—and most animals—sense before the release of seismic energy.
“Your father had got himself good and drunk. He had fallen asleep on deck. You said to me, ‘I can do Tied Together Shoelaces Prank if you want, Mama?’ And I said, ‘That’s a damn good idea, son.’ ”
Kathleen begins to cry.
“In my head I thought: and I hope he trips overboard.”
Everyone rests on a moment of quiet. Kathleen eventually speaks again: “Your Uncle Terry was there the next day, for the search. And you kept saying, ‘I tied Daddy’s shoes together just like you said, Ma.’ You laughed, oblivious to the search divers, and that your father had not come to breakfast.”
Johnny turns to his uncle. “Ma told me you went crazy. That you had no time for us anymore.”
Terry bows his head. Then shakes it softly.
“I fell asleep without telling you the Tied Together Shoelaces Prank was not a good idea on boats. I fell asleep. You snuck out of bed…”
Johnny cries now, soft squeezed out tears.
“Johnny, you were my brood. I only wanted to protect you. I wanted you to flourish. Can you imagine what the guilt would have done to you?” Softer: “I only hoped to convince us.”
Johnny and Ma walk hand in hand on the thrust up shore. Kathleen’s hair is no longer ‘done especially’. Johnny is not clean-shaven. The pāua are being royally screwed over after their sudden rise. They pick away as many as they can and give them back to the sea before the hot sun dries them of their juice. Their lust for life. They return shellfish after shellfish until early evening. Gratefully they go back to the villa with half a shirt-full for dinner around the fire. The day’s bread. A fixer-upper. “Fix you right up,” Kathleen says, because that was what her husband once said to her. And it does. Though they have no cream or onions or garlic. They have a cook-fire and a pan. They have an honest hunger, and a circle around the light. Tonight the pāua speaks, really and truly, for itself. Needs no cream. Best it ever tasted.
That midnight: the helicopter flies over the green-haired woman on the lawn, sleepwalking. Her goats are off their ropes and the green-haired woman is tied to neither wake nor the sleep she makes strides through. Nights, she becomes a mother-shepherd, and her flock must have the best. They stay close, and nibble on the lovely lawn. The grass of the other-side. “Eat,” she whispers, in an accent neither English nor Kiwi. And certainly not Marcy. “Eat, my darling brood,” and she holds out the after-dinner-treat, squeezed to pulp, dripping down her hands: freshly picked passionfruit.
What luck that the earthquake tore up the lawn first. Destruction or no destruction, Marcy would have had her herd out there Night One. Rain, hail, or moon-fucking-shine.
The wind of the propellers stirs her. And then Johnny.
Johnny taking her hand, and whispering, “Marcy. Wake up.”