December 05, 1984, New Zealand.
The arse end of the night. Not a time to be awake, never mind up, but best they hit the road before Mum and her too-old-to-be-fancy man creak out of bed. They’ll call the cops if they even sniff a suspicion she’s taking the kids, so she needs to put some distance between them and the dead-zone of boredom and respectability, aka Helensville (vaguely famous for its hot springs and not much else). Sunup is still a couple of hours away.
Caoimhe leaves Neil snoring while she crams the rear passenger wells of his Mustang with rubbish bags, fat with thin towels and mismatched bed linens of lurid florals and a synthetic sheen that makes your teeth itch and your skin creep. But Jesus – she lights a fag for calm – this beggar is no longer a chooser. Not of sheets, not of men and not of any particular life.
The kids put paid to choices. Their tees and shorts, togs and sandals she shoves into her ex’s busted zip-up sports bag. When he walked, Evan took her security, certainty and hopes, leaving her with three things in their stead – his kids, that bag and her still white-hot desire for him. The bastard. Only the baby’s clothes deserve a suitcase. She packs them with the care of a bride fingering her trousseau. Finally, she packs Neil’s bag and folds her own shirts and jeans straight from the clothes horse into a plastic laundry basket, slings her stained toiletry bag and make-up pouch on top before shoving the lot in the boot.
Outside, when she really looks for it, light leaks into the indigo sky. A second cigarette, one of Neil’s specials. A sip of tea. Untroubled air. Why didn’t days feel this clean?
As a kid, she’d always thought there was night, there was day. Until the nightmares started. Until Dad took her out on the back porch, cocooned the pair of them in his old kit blanket, the darkest of blues, like the night sky, and as scratchy as it was under her chin, she wouldn’t budge or complain, for fear of losing his magic. Together they’d watch the birthing day.
‘Watch Keeva, darling,’ his voice burrowing between his hug and the blanket into her ears. ‘Morning astronomical twilight, then morning nautical twilight. We’ll wait until morning civil twilight to make the tea for Mum.’
Twilight didn’t belong to just evening. Who knew? Sunrise and sunset weren’t so simple. Bing, dark. Bang, light. Nope. They came in stages. Dusk following the mirror pattern of dawn.
‘Symmetry, darling. Think of it. Everywhere you look. Symmetry. So as not to frighten the world.’ She’d loved his language but she sure as fuck couldn’t see much symmetry these days, and fright was making a comeback.
Her daddy knew about stars and constellations, moons and planets, tides and scanning horizons. A navy man on the outside, he was a poet on the inside. His whispers spun mythic tales and described strange shapes in the distances, all friendly, all good. All good. Until he left, taking the stories and leaving the nightmares.
She grinds the stub under her sandal into the gravel and goes inside for the last black bag. She’s filled it with tinsel, a shitty fold-down, four-foot Christmas tree and the new Rupert Annual, a Cabbage Patch Kids doll, Teela and He-Man figures, and a Connect-Four game in mint condition from Saint Vinnies’ in town, each wrapped in plain brown paper, tied with tartan ribbons. Well, she isn’t a monster despite what the crumblies think and what Evan says. Evan. No better than Dad. Loving her. Fooling her. Then poof, gone. But even from afar he keeps her money tight out of spite and under the microscope because he doesn’t trust her with the kids. Who the hell is he to preach? He walked away. Not her.
She takes Neil, who neither loves her nor fools her, a cup of tea and rollicks him awake. ‘C’mon, get your arse into gear. We’re leaving now.’
‘Shit, Keeva, it’s the fucking night.’
‘Good, there’ll be no traffic and no nosy eyes.’
She wakes the girls, bundles them still in their nighties into the cramped back seat and lays Stefan, cradled like the sacrificial lamb he is, the seat between them.
‘Watch him,’ she whispers. ‘Don’t let him fall. Don’t wake him.’
Once they hit the southern corridor, Caoimhe relaxes. In the back seat, her heart burbles in his sleep, not ready yet for the warmed bottle of formula she has nestled in a towel at her feet. She turns to check him. Despite his undergrowth noises, he sleeps soundly bolstered by the linen bags.
‘Mummy, I’m hungry.’ Eebee’s whine kills Caoimhe’s smile.
‘Shush,’ she hisses through her teeth, turning back to crack the window. She lights another cigarette and watches everyman dawn slide up over the hills.
‘The kids will need breakfast and the toilet soon,’ she says in a low voice, holding on to the peace a while longer. ‘And a wash. I’ll have to get them dressed.’
‘Taupiri should be good,’ Neil says, overtaking a milk tanker. ‘Got a mate who runs the tavern there. He opens early to clean up and take deliveries. He’ll let us wash up. Maybe make us a brew and a bite to eat.’
‘Couple of hours, if there’re no holdups. After that we can motor through to Taupo for lunch.’ He holds out his hand and Caoimhe slots her cigarette between his fingers.
The Taupiri mate is long gone and the present manager, not given to mateyness, tells them as far as he’s concerned there is no room at his bloody inn. Neil drives on to Hamilton and pulls up at a McDonald’s for Egg McMuffins and a kiddy scrum in the toilets.
Back on the road. “I Spy”, and “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral” work for about twenty minutes, until Tildy’s fury and punchy pinches at Eebee’s inability to spell or categorise release a siren of outrage from Eebee which chain reacts to Stefan squirming on Caoimhe’s lap up front, tripping a goddamit from Neil who turns up the radio to drown the kids, but Stevie Wonder doesn’t have the right shutthefuckup quality as his Anthrax tapes.
Caoimhe twists and delivers an over-the-backseat stretch-whack, drained of any sting, on both girls’ legs.
‘Another sound until you see a white horse and you’ll get the belt.’
Silence. Sniffling. Gulpy sobs. Caoimhe reaches into her handbag.
‘The winner gets bubble gum.’ She waves a squished pinkalicious pack of Hubba Bubba in the air.
Caoimhe grants a pardon after forty minutes and no white horses later, swapping the weird freighted silence with the sound of wet gum and snapping bubbles. Just after twelve, they cruise past the Monopoly-board motels, decked with hanging baskets and VACANCIES! banners, fringing Lake Taupo. Neil overshoots the shops, eateries and pubs, and pulls into the parking bay opposite the Domain on Ferry Road. Too early for the summer holiday and Christmas migration; there is only one camper, blinds drawn, parked up. The girls burst from the car like fake snakes from a joke box.
Caoimhe watches her daughters run to the fence and look out over the lake. Her body pulses with envy at the coltish Celtic blood coursing through their freed-up limbs. Mathilde Guinevere’s dark hair and dark eyes are pure Evan, smoky Welsh with a touch of rebellion. But Eleanor Berengaria – Eebee – is something different. She is all Caoimhe. Red hair, freckles and storm-cloud eyes that disturb the daylight. Eebee canters back, crouches to pick at the tiger-headed flame decal Neil’s car door until Caoimhe slaps her hand and pushes her towards Tildy.
‘There’s a park across the road. Go play. And keep an eye on your devil sister. Eebee’s cute but not in a good way.’
‘Not really my lookout but don’t you think they’re a bit young to bugger off on their own?’ Neil asks.
‘You’re right. It’s none of your business.’ One arched eyebrow, one bite-back pout and a five-seconds-too-long stare before he shuffles his feet and looks away.
‘What shall I get them to eat?’
‘We passed a KFC. Get a couple of kids’ meals, extra coleslaw and corn on the cob.’
‘Righto.’ Neil trots off to the block of shops they passed further back, promising to be two ticks.
Caoimhe stakes out one of the green metal picnic tables, nestles Stephan in her lap, his wobbly back warm against the flat curve of her belly, and spoon-feeds him a jar of ready-made gloop smelling of peach and looking like puke. He yaffles it down.
Across the road in the park, a gigantic silver trout leaps, challenging the trees, dwarfing mere mortals. Truly a fish out of water, it draws the girls’ heads back, mouths agape staring, the sun sparking its scales creating an illusion in their eyes undiminished by outrageous size, poor artistic interpretation or the rods supporting the piscine pirouette. Tildy soon bores and wanders off to watch a bunch of kids work their skateboard tricks on a smoothed-out area of concrete and ramps but Eebee stays, thrilled and a little frightened until the fireworks of glinting sun on metal hurt her eyes and she goes in search of her sister.
They straggle back, hungry and thirsty just as Neil, having downed a couple of sneaky pints at a tavern, returns with hot cheese-and-mince pies in oily paper bags and a big bottle of Fanta. Tildy peers into the greasy bag like it contains rewarmed roadkill.
She turns her evil eye on Neil. ‘Mum said we could have Kentucky.’
‘Clearly the pub was out of Kentucky,’ Caoimhe says.
‘The Kentucky had a queue; I went to the dairy.’ Neil tosses a gigantic bag of liquorice allsorts on the grass at their feet. ‘Here you go, kids. Be good while ya mum and I wet our whistles. C’mon Keeva baby, I need a drink, a piss and a blow, not necessarily in that order.’ He jigs around Caoimhe, pretending to whistle. She thinks he’s hilarious.
‘Watch Stefan, he might need changing. If it gets too hot, or he gets sleepy, put him in the car and use a towel on the window to make some shade. And don’t let Eebee wander off. You know what she’s like.’ She tucks the car keys in Tildy’s shorts pocket.
Neil grabs Caoimhe’s hand and they dart between the traffic on the main drag laughing and whooping to the tavern down the road, just short of the KFC.
Tildy flops on the grass, annoyed, annoyed, annoyed. The backs of her legs swoon with the coolness. Eebee shadows Tildy, echoing her diva sighs, frowning her best imitation of older sister angst. When Tildy lies back in the shade of a big old tree, Eebee does too. Tildy ignores her and plays peepo with the baby, her viper tongue testing the pies every so often until they’re cool enough not to scorch the roof of their mouths. She uses a pillow and his grubby tiger blanket to prop Stefan against a tree trunk, gives him his bottle and hands Eebee her lunch.
Flakes of pastry scatter in the grass drawing hordes of ants and gurgles of delight when they crazy run over Stefan’s little weisswurst legs. Eebee turns her fist and thumb into Godzilla, squashing, stampeding and killing the panic in the grass until a tang of formic fills the air.
Bored, Eebee rolls over and over on the grass until Tildy drags her back to the tree.
‘Sit and don’t move.’ Eebee opens her mouth for a whine but Tildy cuts her short. ‘And don’t bloody speak.’
‘You said bloody. I’m going to tell Mum.’
Tildy whacks her head, gently, but Eebee does a good howl anyway. Always stuck with the little ones. Wasn’t that Mum’s job? Anything happens to Stefan or if Eebee gets into mischief, then it’ll be Tildy who’ll get walloped. She loves them, course she does, but it isn’t fair. She feels like the goat she saw in some cowboy film, its leg tethered so all it could do was bleat and skitter in circles, bait for the big bad whatever waiting to strike. Since Eebee and Stefan were born, she is never free.
A Holden estate pulls up. Mum and dad, gran and grandad decant stretching backs and shaking limbs; in a warning to her son-in-law, the older woman creasing up and collapsing in on herself a prescient glimpse of the future awaiting her daughter still confident with plump middle age. Twin boys and an older girl erupt yahooing from the car and chase each other to the lakeside. Before the grownups have riddled out all their cricks and aches, Engelbert Humperdinck and a guttural engine pull them to attention like wary meerkats. A ute slams to a stop behind the locked-up campervan. The engine and Please Release Me die. A splinter of silence before the two Footrot Flat mutts in the flatbed begin yapping. The kids in the back with them drop the back and jump down as four – no six, no eight – grownups spill laughing and yelling from the cab.
Tildy watches, senses an advantage waiting for her to pluck.
‘You better behave yourself, Eebee. That tribe of savage Māoris are heading to the King Country and if you don’t behave, I’ll sell you to them as a slave.’
The adults dole out money to three older kids who head for the same dairy next to the pub Neil bought the pies from. One of the men loops string around the dogs’ necks and tells the two younger boys to take the dogs to the shoreline for a crap. That causes raised eyebrows amongst the Holden crowd. The younger Māori blokes leave the oldies to flip open deckchairs in the shade of an enormous oak to keep an eye on the kids and dogs, and follow Neil and Caoimhe’s car-dodging path to the pub. The two younger women wander off to the shops.
The Holden mums squint carbon-copy eyes and purse similar lolly-pink mouths at the noisy invasion as if weighing up whether they should prepare for a raiding party. After a couple of whispers, they spread a tartan blanket and the dads haul cool boxes and deckchairs from the boot. A security perimeter of drinks, plastic boxes of cold chicken drumsticks, bags of celery, carrot and cucumber sticks, and wobbly paper plates like giant communion wafers of cheese rolls and buttered date scones is established before the ladies sit on their tartan territory, legs tucked under neatly, skirts pulled down, and drink tea from squat thermos lids, keeping an eye on the rag tag mob of feral children and dogs as their own men and kids play a round French cricket. The Māori crew cheer when Holden grandad legs it to run down the ball and the resulting détente gives Tildy ample opportunity to snitch a couple of scones and a bag of cheese and onion chips.
Somewhere in the after-lunch hiatus while the adults nod off, all the kids – Tildy, Eebee (Stefan happy to be passed from lap to lap by the ute ladies), the barefooted smilers, and the matching shorts and tees – join forces to play a girls-versus-boys free-style cricket match, with no clear winners but plenty of laughs. The ute and Holden families pack up, leaving Eebee, Tildy and Stefan hand-in-hand to paddle in the water before dozing off in the shade until Neil and Caoimhe finally pitch up.
‘Jeez, we should have been on the road an hour ago,’ Neil says shaking Tildy awake, like it’s her fault for nodding off.
Caoimhe lifts the sleeping Stefan into the car and tells Eebee not to wake him.
Neil’s Mustang burns up the Desert Road, trailing a plume of scorched exhaust fumes. Windows down, engine roaring, Caoimhe kicks off her sandals and perches her feet on the dash. Her fingers, faintly bruised with nicotine and ink, rub the dark welts of friction etching her instep. She wiggles her toes, admiring her Chinese-lacquer red nails.
‘You shouldn’t be driving and drinking and smoking that shit.’ She takes the spliff from Neil’s mouth, leaves him the can of beer. ‘Not with my kids in the car.’
‘Like you fucking care.’
‘You don’t know what I care about.’ She sucks on the joint, tips her head back and eyes closed, smiles.
In the back seat, Eebee swallows down the wash of mince and pastry swilling up her throat. Unlike Mum’s la-de-dah Benson & Hedges Special Filter in their gold box, Neil’s rollies smell different – stinky sweet like a plastic bag of damp dead roses. Eebee fills her lungs; she’s practised underwater at the Tepid Baths back in Auckland, matching the hold of her mother’s breath when Caoimhe takes another drag. Eebee’s meagre breath slides out of her four-year-old chest, gobsmacked that still Caoimhe hasn’t exhaled, amazing writ over her tiny face. Her mum is unbeatable.
It is the game Caoimhe played with Tildy and Eebee on hangover-free mornings, when she devoured B&Hs as a substitute for breakfast until Neil moved in. Now she plays it with him. Caoimhe leans over and releases the dam of smoke at Neil’s face. They both laugh like it is the funniest, most brilliant feat in the world. Eebee agrees and joins in until a gurgle of liquorice washes up her throat. She swallows hard and concentrates.
New problem. She wants, needs a poo but can’t say that in front of Neil. She reaches across Stefan crumpled between her and Tildy, his closed eyelids a road map of teeny tiny blue veins and sheeny with heat. She shakes her sister’s arm.
‘Tildy, I need… a number two,’ she mouths so Neil doesn’t hear.
Tildy gives her a so-what look before returning to The Famous Five. Eebee waits. Forever. Until she can’t hold out much more.
‘Mum, I need a wee.’ This time loud for everyone to hear.
Caoimhe turns, but her eyes are elsewhere, dreaming. ‘You’ll have to wait.’ She blows another mouthful of smoke, this time towards the girls.
Tildy’s face scrunches up all sniffy. ‘Yuk! You stink.’ She wafts Five on a Treasure Island over Stefan’s head.
‘Don’t be such a bloody diva.’ Caoimhe puts the rollie back in Neil’s mouth. Her left arm slopping out the window rises, palm up to finger the hot wind. A few minutes further down the road, she says, ‘I want coffee. When are we going to stop?’
‘Bulls is another couple of hours. Eebee’s not the only one who wants a piss.’
‘And I’m not going to navigate Wellington in the dark. We need to make the last ferry. We hang overnight in Wellington there’s a bigger chance we’ll be picked up.’
‘So what? They’re my kids. It’s not like I’ve kidnapped them.’
‘Yeah, but I don’t think Evan sees it quite like that. The kid’ll have to hang on.’
‘Evan’s in outer bloody Mongolia or whatever. He has no say. And his bloody mother has too much say. The most the police can do is keep tabs and let them know where we are.’
‘Unless they find the stash in the boot.’
‘Jesus, Neil. You’re such an old woman.’
‘I need the toi-let, Mum. Now.’ Eebee loads the word with as much power and meaning as she can muster. ‘And I feel sick.’
‘Jeez, Eebee Davis. Stop whining.’
‘I really, really need the toilet Mum. Nooooow!’
‘Cross your legs and wait. Tildy love, read your story to Eebee.’
‘But I’m halfway through. The Five are stuck in a storm and there’s a ship in trouble on the rocks.’
‘Start at the beginning. Loud and clear. We want to listen as well.’
‘Fine,’ Tildy says. ‘Five On A Treasure Island:Chapter1AGreatSurprise.Mum,have youdecidedaboutoursummerholidaysyet?saidJulian,atthebreakfasttable…Fannysaidthatshe’sthinkingofgettingalodger—’
‘Slow down, Tildy. It’s not a race,’ Caoimhe says, finishing off Neil’s lager.
‘What’s a lodger?’ Eebee asks.
Tildy tuts and rolls her eyes like Granny Davis. She reaches down to prise the almond-eyed doll with hair the colour of ink out of the jumble of pillows and overstuffed bags and shoves it at Eebee. Her sister hugs Tiger Lily under her chin. The doll wears an imperial-red tunic embroidered with blue and green peacocks. Daddy Evan bought it for Eebee on his last leave from somewhere far away. Tildy got a too-small blouse stitched with pink peonies and dragons. Caoimhe has tucked it away saying it’ll do for Eebee in a year or so.
‘Read me Rupert? I want Rupert Bear,’ Eebee returns to the whining because it works.
‘Do it, Tildy,’ Caoimhe says without turning, basted beyond belief, beyond care, beyond regret.
‘Why can’t she read her own book?’
‘Because it makes her throw up. You want that?’
‘No.’ Tildy opens a battered Rupert Annual and begins to read, holding it in the middle so Eebee can see the pictures.
Mum twiddles the dials on the radio. Static, talking, classical, static, Girls Just Want to Have Fun.
‘Stop!’ the girls shout.
Caoimhe sings, Tildy and Eebee wave their arms in the back seat and Neil jigs, swigs his beer and swerves the car back and forth across the empty tarmac until they are all laughing. Until Eebee pukes. All over her tee and shorts, all over Stefan, all over the sheets and towels.
‘Yuk. She’s done it all over the baby!’
The car screeches to a stop on the hard shoulder. The baby wails with the suddenness of the jolt and the warm mush coating his cheeks and neck. Eebee screams, Tildy’s arm shoots out to hold her sister bang up against the door, the hard corner of the 1984 Rupert Annual jabbing Eebee’s eye, raising the volume all round.
‘She told you! Eebee told you a hundred times, Mum!’
‘Christ all fucking mighty, Keeva. I told you to leave them with your mum.’ Neil pounds the steering wheel. ‘I am bloody, fucking sick to death of kids, kids, kids. Why the fuck am I still here?’
‘Yeah, I wonder. Why the hell are you?’ Caoimhe flings herself out of the car, slamming the passenger door.
‘Watch my bloody door, you cunt.’
‘Watch your bloody language.’
Baby, Neil, Tildy, Eebee.
‘Fuck him,’ she mutters under her sour breath. ‘Why am I still here?’ She pulls open the back door and hauls her tiny daughter out. ‘Don’t you dare spoil this for me,’ she whispers in her ear. ‘Tildy, clean up Stefan and give him a drink.’
Neil gets out, cracks another can of DB with his pocket knife and lights a cigarette. Caoimhe rips off Eebee’s tee shirt and shorts, unconcerned and secretly satisfied at the chunks of liquorice and pie smearing her face and hair. When a squishy lump goes up Eebee’s nose, she gags.
Caoimhe shakes her. ‘For Christ’s sake, don’t be so bloody dramatic.’
‘Leave off,’ Neil says. ‘She’s only fucking four years old.’
‘Shut up. She’s my kid, not yours. I have enough shit without you adding to it.’
Over Stefan’s shoulder, Tildy pokes her tongue at her sister just as the Wellington bus rumbles to a stop next to the car. The passenger door hisses open.
‘You alright mate,’ the driver shouts.
‘Yeah. Kid’s been sick. She’ll be right, thanks,’ Neil calls back. ‘Fuck it,’ he tells his beer away from the girls and the car. Caoimhe’s fun on her own and the sex is good, but he didn’t sign on for all the kid shit, and decides to drop them at the ferry terminal in Wellington, then bugger off.
Ruapehu shimmers in the distance.
Tildy sobs and rocks and shushes Stefan.
Caoimhe rakes through the laundry basket in the boot for clean clothes, as the tacking holding her straining seams together unravels.
Faces in every window of the bus watch Eebee standing on the open road in her white Farmers’ bargain basement knickers lumped with involuntary stool. Urine trickles warm and wet down her legs.
A heat, hotter than the sun carried on a desert wind, burns her fair skin.