Paul reaches for Dawn’s hand and squeezes it roughly. He has a knack for interrupting her when she wants to be mentally alone. He points out the window at the sunbeams piercing the clouds below them.
‘Look at that, we’ve got ourselves a blessing,’ he says in his up-and-at-‘em drawl.
‘Yeah,’ she says, wondering if she sounds Texan now, too.
She rests her head against the plane window.
‘Remember when I found you?’
She turns to see his eyes wide and his pale eyebrows stretched upwards. She wonders if she should tell him he’s too old to do a puppy dog face.
‘My little peanut butter cup.’
She loved his Southern shtick when she met him, back when she was eighteen and easily impressed. Now he sounds like a skipping CD. She releases her hand and places it on her belly. Her diamond ring catches the sun and gleams like an eyeball.
‘Baby, I’m tired.’
Paul pats her stomach vigorously as she pretends to sleep.
Justin looks at the faded colour printouts blu-tacked to the wall beside his monitor. Him in front of the Eiffel Tower, before his hair started to fall out. Wearing novelty glasses at The Tate, before he’d needed the real deal. He shifts his gaze further left, towards Katrina.
Feel like a break? he types. I’ll shout you a coffee at Facultea.
I’m busy. Going to a conference tomorrow.
What’s the conference?
There’s a pause before he hears her computer keys clicking.
Russell never told me about it. Typical.
It’s not a uni thing; it’s a personal thing. About reaching your potential.
Justin returns to the stack of papers he’s inputting into the system.
There’s an evening session tomorrow. You can come with me if you like.
He looks over at Katrina and meets her eyes. She’s wearing a pink dress that, paired with her creamy skin and blonde hair, reminds him of strawberry ice cream.
Jetset Hotel’s restaurant décor looks like some suit’s idea of neutral – grey walls, reconstituted wooden chairs. Dawn would rather be sitting in her mum’s cosy dining room with the bright tablecloth and the vase filled with fake flowers. A dark-haired waitress approaches them and leads them to their table.
‘The sooner we eat, the sooner we can get some shut-eye,’ says Paul. ‘We just got in and we feel like we’ve been chewed up, spat out and stepped on.’
The waitress looks Dawn up and down as she takes their orders, taking in her thick caramel ponytail, the gold cross at her throat.
‘And can I get you anything to drink?’
‘Sparkling water please.’
‘Sparkling water?’ It sounds mocking. ‘Coming right up.’
The waitress turns and seats a couple in corporate attire. The woman has over-dyed hair and the man has none. Beneath the limp tablecloth the man slides his foot between the woman’s blue pumps.
‘Cannelloni?’ says Paul. ‘Doesn’t that have cheese in it?’
‘It’s cooked, it’s okay,’ says Dawn. She sees the over-dyed woman walk her toes up the man’s leg. They are definitely not married to each other.
The waitress returns, balancing plates like a circus performer. She sets the meals down and her shirt sleeves ride up, exposing the snarling face of a black panther tattooed on her forearm. She catches Dawn’s eye.
‘I know you, don’t I?’ she says.
Dawn looks at the waitress’s face – pretty despite the thick layer of foundation. There’s something familiar about those eyes. Something accusing.
‘I don’t think so.’
The waitress walks away. Paul bumps his seat closer to the table and puts his hands together.
‘Heavenly Father,’ he says. The middle-aged couple turns to look at them.
‘Tone it down a little, baby.’
‘Butter cup, did you just interrupt me during grace?’
‘You’re not in Houston, Paul. You’re in Mangere.’
Paul clears his throat and begins again, slightly more quietly.
‘Heavenly Father, we thank you for this food that we are about to receive. We thank you for all the blessings You have bestowed upon us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.’
Dawn cuts into a cannelloni tube. The identity of the waitress hits her brain at the same moment the scent of onion hits her nostrils. Kayla. Infiniti’s little sister. She puts her fork down.
‘Honey, are you okay?’
Dawn shakes her head, stands up and walks to the toilets.
Justin feels mildly sick. He managed to get a seat on the train but he’s crammed nose to bottom with dank-smelling standing passengers. He turns the pages of his novel, trying to block out the ‘music’ emanating from five different devices belonging to five different and slightly scary teenagers. A large kid in a red cap sings along to a bump n grind track. The train finally stops at his station. Justin stands and steps aside to let a pregnant woman disembark before him. The boy in the red cap jostles past instead, crushing Justin’s backpack against his hip. The door closing alert sounds, and Justin stumbles onto the platform. He walks the long way home through the darkening streets.
There’s a weightless sensation in Dawn’s head, as though lack of sleep has caused her brain to partially dissolve. Paul turns and jabs her with his elbow. She kicks him but he just grunts and moves closer, his breath hot on her neck. She slides out of bed, walks into the ensuite and vomits into the toilet. She’s good at vomiting now. Fast and neat, no dramatics. She rises, turns to the sink and rinses her mouth. She sees a movement in the mirror and looks up. The face staring back at her looks like her mother.
A clash of bells fills the air and happy voices chant ‘Jhoot bole!’ Justin sits upright in his bed and flicks on the lamp. He’s heard this song so many times he could sing it by heart. He twitches his bedroom curtains meaningfully, but he knows it’s not the interminable Indian wedding over the road that’s keeping him awake. That boy on the train. Why did he think it was okay to push him like that? Why does Russell think it’s okay to overlook him for promotion every year? He does everything right and what does he have to show for it? A unit in Mount Wellington and a single bed. He stares at his knuckles, taut and yellow in his clenched fists.
‘Wake up, sleepyhead.’
She sits up, squinting at Paul’s skinny silhouette against the bright windows.
‘Just let me sleep another hour.’
‘I’ll get back into bed with you then,’ he says, pulling his pants down.
‘No, I’ll get up,’ she says, easing her brown limbs off the white sheets.
‘I’ll join you in the shower.’
‘Not today baby.’
She locks the ensuite door. As she shrugs off her slip she can hear him start at it.
‘Lochorian, loch-de-loba, de-vitria, de-vitria, des goraba-junulla-vitira-lochona lobana.’
She turns on the shower. High-pressure hotel faucets are perfect for drowning Paul out. She’s suddenly grateful he made them stay here. He’d be a liability anywhere else. She steps under the water, leans back and drenches her long hair. Perhaps she’ll grow it back to her natural dark brown. What will Paul have to say about that?
Justin inhales the perfume of alyssum from the flowerbed clock as he reads. He’s up to the part where Guillemete has to swim through the river in order to find the sacred chalice. In his mind’s eye Guillemete is blonde and shapely with grey eyes, sturdy legs and a pink dress. He’s halfway through a passage about her emergence from the stream when his phone bleeps.
Conference going great. Meet you there at seven. Here’s the website.
He clicks the link and goes to a page filled with smiling faces. ‘Welcome to Celebrate Conference! Bring grace into your life.’ Justin double-checks the link. He’s torn between distaste at the website and pleasure at being let in on Katrina’s secret. This is part of her life she’s kept undercover until now. The clock tower bell chimes – the end of his lunchbreak. As he walks back to the office it begins to rain softly, one of those spring showers that clears quickly like happy tears.
Dawn steps out of the taxi, one pedicured, strappy-sandaled foot after the other. Fresh rain on the grass beside the pavement steams in the afternoon sun, and she feels as though she’s finally back on home soil. Paul catches her by the hand, and as they walk towards the conference centre she realises how out of place they look – she with her skinny jeans, expensive tresses and designer handbag, he with his cowboy boots, guitar case and cocky blonde quiff. When she was last in Auckland she looked like she belonged. Now she looks as though she could be from anywhere. They walk into the cavernous building, and it begins.
They’re surrounded by faces – Auckland faces – people who could be aunties or second cousins.
‘Paul, we are so pleased that you and Dawn have graced us today,’ says one of the women. She catches Dawn in a hug. ‘I’m Deanna. Thank you so much for coming to Celebrate. Of course we all know Paul from when he was here three years ago.’
A small girl stands behind Deanna. She looks up at Dawn, enchanted.
‘This is my granddaughter, Charity. What have you got there, sweetie?’
Charity holds out a CD case. Dawn looks down and sees her own eyes staring out at her from the cover.
‘Would you mind?’
Dawn signs the CD and hands it back quickly.
‘I’m sorry, I need a moment.’
She turns and stands in the open doorway. The light’s different in this part of the world, the colours are different, and they bring back uninvited memories. It was a day like this that Infiniti bought the first gram of crystal, not knowing it would turn her heart to ice. She hears Paul’s Cuban heels tap up behind her.
‘Do we have any time after sound check? I’d like to see my mum.’
‘Not today butter cup.’
‘Wouldn’t you like to meet her?’
As he adjusts his tie Justin realises everything in his reflection is brown. His suit, the wallpaper, the glass lightshades that cast a shadow of decay. No one’s into brown any more, they’re into that grey colour. He leans forward and touches the wall in the hip-stretching exercise the doctor advised. He presses his hands against the wallpaper for the full recommended five minutes. Cobwebby brown flowers bloom around his fingers.
Dawn leans against the green room wall, struggling to close the zip of her dress. The peach-coloured sheath has a gleaming collar of jewels, an inverted halo. When she bought it Paul said she looked as pretty as a pie supper, but now he’s giving her a funny look.
‘Is that appropriate for a woman in your condition?’
‘Sorry, I forgot to pack my blue robe.’
He stops snapping his shirt domes and stares at her.
‘Don’t sass me.’
‘Don’t tell me what to do.’
‘If I hadn’t told you what to do…’ He hesitates, and she’s not sure if he’s going to go through with it. If he’s going to say the words he’s held under his tongue for three years. ‘You’d have ended up like Infiniti.’
She stares back at him. She watches as blood rushes up his neck, into his face, his ears. He’s too blonde to look good angry. She turns to the mirror and puts on her lipstick. Paul simmers behind her, shoulders bunched like a prairie dog’s.
The auditorium’s dark, illuminated only by the big screen above the stage and moving beams of coloured light. There are hundreds of neat rows of seats but everyone’s standing up in front of them. Justin finds an empty chair down the back and hovers beside it. Everyone around him is singing. He wonders how many thousands of people are here. He wonders if it’s too late to leave. He turns around. There is now a crowd of worshippers standing between him and the doors. Justin sighs and looks up at the stage. A guy his age plays guitar and a woman sings.
‘Lord I come to You, come into me, let Your love fill me,’ she sings. Justin sniggers. Are the lyrics intentionally filthy? He looks to see if anyone else is laughing, but the faces around him are lit with devotion. He feels ashamed, no better than a boy in a red cap on a train. His hip twinges and he sucks in his breath. He doesn’t normally like to stand for this long. The man next to him turns and smiles. He looks like the kind of jock who used to tease him at school.
‘I haven’t seen you here before, friend,’ he says. He grabs Justin’s hand and shakes it. ‘Love this song,’ says the man. He turns back to the stage and punches the air. ‘Yeah!’
Justin spots a familiar blonde head a few rows up. Katrina. She sways from side to side, her body undulating through the coloured lights like Guillemete’s through the river.
Normally she feeds off the vibe of the crowd, but tonight her energy’s coming from within. She hasn’t felt like this since that day busking in the Mangere shops after she ran away from home. Halfway through the knock-out rendition of Survivor with Infiniti she caught the eye of the handsome cowboy watching her from the crowd and knew her life was going to change. Tonight the opening bars to the final song fill her body with the same charge. She bursts into the lyrics like a woman possessed.
‘I was lost in the shame of a sinner, when You showed me the truth in the mirror…’
She wrenches the mic from the stand and swirls around the stage. Paul doesn’t like her to dance like this – mostly, she thinks, because he’s tethered to his guitar.
‘You gave me light. You saved me with Your love and Your might.’
Adrenalin shoots through her and she realises it’s not the Lord she’s channelling, but white-hot rage. Paul strikes the last chord and turns to smile at her. She smiles back without feeling and knows that she’s going to leave.
‘Hello, brothers and sisters,’ Paul says. There’s a wail of joy from the crowd. ‘We’ve heard from Dawn tonight about how Jesus can lift you up. When Jesus found Dawn right here in South Auckland she was starting down a road of sin. He turned her life around and blessed her with the opportunity to share His love!’
Paul tilts his mic at the crowd and picks up screams of delight. Dawn feels sorry for him. Still, he’ll be able to use the story of his recovery from their divorce in future ministries, once he’s over the shock.
Justin feels as though the preacher is looking straight at him. As though they’re sharing something.
‘Now it’s your turn to go all the way with Jesus,’ says the preacher. ‘If you’ve been touched here tonight I want you to put up your hand.’
Justin’s hand rises into the air. Six rows up Katrina turns around and catches his eye. She smiles approvingly.
‘I want you to come on up and let Jesus into your heart,’ says the preacher.
Katrina moves to the aisle and holds out her hand. Justin goes to her, grasps her fingers, and follows her to the front. The preacher leans forward and touches Justin’s forehead. Light shoots through him, and rest of the evening is a kaleidoscope of coloured lights, friendly faces, Katrina’s smile, Katrina’s hand in his. When at last he arrives home he realises his pain has gone.
Cool hotel lights flick on automatically, as though they’re walking into a refrigerator.
‘You were great tonight,’ Paul says, nuzzling her. ‘Let’s go and see your mother tomorrow, hey?’
‘Sure,’ she says.
As he undresses, she notes the folds of skin around his elbows and his knees, the pocket of fat appearing under his fuzzy stomach hair and thinks that part of him must always have known it would end this way. When he gets in the shower she writes a note on the hotel stationery and leaves it on his pillow with her ring. She zips her suitcase and calls a taxi as she walks out of the hotel. A warm line of tobacco twists through the night air. Kayla sits on a bench nearby, partly concealed behind a screen of topiary. Dawn trundles the suitcase over and sits next to her. They breathe together in the still night, Kayla drawing on her cigarette with a regular hiss and suck. The taxi arrives and idles in front of them, orange headlights illuminating the road ahead. The driver pops the boot. Kayla stubs out her cigarette and grabs one end of Dawn’s suitcase. Dawn takes the other. As they lower it into the boot, Dawn sees the full length of the panther tattoo on Kayla’s arm, tail curved over her bicep, beautiful and dangerous. A red ribbon wrapped around the cat reads ‘Infiniti’. Dawn looks into the other woman’s kohl-smudged eyes.
‘I’m sorry about what happened to her,’ she says.
Kayla looks back at her, unblinking. Dawn opens the door of the taxi and gets in.
‘Hey,’ Kayla says. ‘Different people are destined for different things.’
Dawn shuts the taxi door, and Kayla steps back and flicks her lighter. As the taxi glides away, Dawn turns to look out the rear window. The tip of Kayla’s cigarette glows red in the night.