There’s a sail on the horizon. Not really a sail. More like a blanket on a stick.
And today is suddenly going off-script. The trauma of others intrudes. And I’m to be their savior.
They’re all sleeping now, for the second night; and for the first time in these strange few days, I have time to sit and reflect. But not on what I came up here, specially, specifically, to reflect on.
But, still, it’s nice that the bach is full again, up to summer capacity. All the bunks are being used. Even the sleepout.
Only these are all strangers, not the usual teens – my teens – and their raucous friends from that last, cut-short summer. (Not that I think they’ll come back here for a while – they’re still unsettled by the whole thing).
And these strangers in the house now are all a shade of bus driver brown – as those same teens would have said. When they still would have laughed.
So here I sit, alone, nursing a late-night merlot, in a house full of the snoring of strangers. And it’s better, I believe, than drinking alone.
I’m alone, yet elevated. Something has come to jolt me, something from the place most unexpected, from far outside my own obsessions, something complete with moral examination. And with angles upon angles. It’s probably what’s needed in this, my first trip back here since that day.
So I get up, to fetch another drink. I nibble distractedly at a biscuit too, then flop down again in the armchair he loved. I sink into the shape he left in the tired old cushions. And try to put things in order. Where to start?
I remember driving up here three days ago, leaving the office after work, encountering the great northerly in the dark just beyond Whangarei, and braying out loud: How would you describe this storm?
I answered myself in a weatherman voice: It’s big-time climate change stuff, people, a cauldron of Pacific on slow boil. It’s the heat up there that drives this storm. It’s the tropics coming visiting.
I couldn’t hear the radio because of the storm. The voices of others, for once, drowned out. But I could hear my own voice – and it was kinda refreshing to get it out of my head, where it had been bouncing about in self-referential pity for so long. There are only so many sad echoes you can live with.
But to raise my voice above the buffeting of the storm, the rattling of sodden flax leaves, the thrashing on manuka, the frantic slapping of the wipers at full tilt – I suddenly had to talk, no shout, out loud to myself. Hence my manic weatherman schtick.
And for a minute, I thought I was funny. Tragic. And then I thought, No this is good value, good for me, talk out loud. Thanks to the storm. Keep it up, Kate, keep it up.
I could do with a new world that’s different, I thought, in a cave of silence deep inside me, well hidden from the weather. I could do with something different, yes.
But I kept on driving to that same old bach.
There’s a sail between me and the headland. Only it’s not a sail, it’s more like a tarp on a stick.
It was the first time I’d come back to the house since the accident. I felt I had to face it. And besides, there was maintenance to do. And I suppose I’d have to do it all now.
The hardest part was seeing the still-there-but-faint marks on the lawn from the helicopter skids.
I stood, frozen in the embrace of a half-opened car door, as those marks caught my eye, their contours exaggerated by the low beam of the headlights. The rain shafted in, wetting the car seat. We always arrived at this time, about ten-ish at the bach after driving up after work; only now it felt much later, much darker. But the car lights still picked out those dents in the soft front lawn.
Suddenly I recall the added weight of the body in the helicopter, the others clambering in after me, the tight fit for us all, the dispassionate commands of the pilot, the urgent clattering of the rotors as we heaved off and whirled around for the hospital – all too late, all too numb.
And I thought of the white faces looking upwards, wide eyed, as I looked back down from the lift-off of that futile flight. Averting eyes, we all were, yet I was still clinging to one cold hand.
The others had hurriedly locked up, and driven home in a ragged convoy. And never come back. That’s what a heart attack on Christmas Eve does. It rattles even teenagers, and their robust friends.
And they never come back.
Till me. Till now.
It’s hardly a sail, it’s hardly a mast. But it’s all they have left to push them to the shore. The motor is dead. The boat is grubby. The people are disheveled. They also look exhausted. They have come so far.
Toothpaste. That was my first thought. They need toothpaste.
Funny how the mind works, running away faster than itself. I correct myself with a more rational thought. Food. They must need food and water. There’s plenty at the bach.
But first I must tow them in.
Then I saw the baby. And if it wasn’t for knots to tie, practical stuff to intervene, my heart would have collapsed, too. Like his.
The storm blew through in the night; and in the morning, I found I had arrived to silence, of the human kind.
At first I tiptoed – literally. Then I spent as much time as I could outdoors. Although the rain had cleared, the entire earth seemed ragged and wrung. But the sky and the sea were bright, glossy, hopeful. There were two parts to the world.
And then the usual late summer sonata slowly reasserted itself, playing around the old place – oystercatchers on the beach, the distant rhythmic shirrup of surf, the clawing flight of a tūī, feathers rasping as if losing their grip on the air in the same way I have.
And the sound clouds would make as they slide past our lives. And the sighing of an unoccupied house, seeing people again – well just me for now.
The soundtrack continued : mood music from my own sad movie, was my thought. I had stopped talking aloud. My voice was retreating inside my skull again.
So here I was, haunting the rooms along with memory.
After a few days, I was moving freely – except to that room, our room. I did go in once, briefly and briskly, to rip the curtains open. The double bed, an immensity of loneliness, was too big for me. I knocked my shin on the base of it as I slid hurriedly past. I would sleep in another room.
So I fired up the old lawnmower, and bravely bumped over those marks on the front lawn. Kept moving, mowed that grass cruelly low, even took grim pleasure in the way the blades hacked off the tops of the little sod ridges that defined those marks. Removing them, at right angles, I thought We’ll find a surface again. This will be my new existence.
I find myself acutely observing the tiniest details: the excess nose hair of the paramedic (an overlay to his moustache), his gaudy red and yellow overalls, the balance of the bank logo – nice graphic design, I observe professionally – on one side of his chest, his surname on the other.
He has strong, square hands, just like those I know so well. Like the cold hand that falls from my grip. The convulsing of my shoulders, of my entire being, is in time with the gross whumping of the helicopter blades.
I’ll phone someone immediately, I thought, when we make the land. There must be ways of handling this.
But you know that blankness of sound when you pick up? – no dial tone – as if
There it was, a blankness of sound, and a surfeit of things to do.
First, a big meal.
I was going to try phoning later. And then I didn’t. It didn’t seem to be as easy as saying it, as things evolved.
Besides, that next day flew by.
The breakfast. I’m surprised at the continuing popularity of the Watties baked beans on toast, and the disdain – or is it ignorance? – of the Very Berry Nice cereal from the nice Mr Hubbard.
The washing. The handing of clothes through half-opened doors. The remembered idiosyncrasies of the old washing machine. In the meantime, finding clothes to fit, from the sliding drawers under the beds. We manage.
The incomplete explanations. The shrugs. The shy smiles. The toothpaste.
There was extra shopping to do. And the extra miles to go. Here’s the tree, the culprit for the blankness of sound. Lines down, about a mile from the bach. I’ll have to break a few topmost branches to get around.
In the end I use the car to crunch them, but score a few squealing scratches down the sides of the doors. I drive on, half elated by this breach of propriety.
I went way beyond the local dairy, to the Four Square by the main road crossing.
They wouldn’t know there, that I had arrived at the bach alone, and wouldn’t draw conclusions from all that food, those eight toothbrushes.
It would mean less to explain, and more time to figure out what to do, beyond the immediately obvious. But for now, I suppose I was enjoying the provisioning, the taking charge.
In the shed, his tinnie.
I usually hated fishing. Usually let him manhandle the boat out of the shed, fighting with the rusty bi-fold doors, ripping down rampant jasmine, let him do the cursing, the endless tugs on the outboard starter cord, just to test it. Drag stuff down the jetty. Myriad trips, forgetting this, forgetting that. Hand him a sammie, and a thermos. Let him go out alone. Watch for him coming back. I’d wave from the porch, my good book on my lap, empty tea cup on the deck beside me. I’d let him gut the fish. Let him put the boat away. Only hug him after he’d showered.
At the bach, I prefer walking to fishing. Sometimes I’d watch him from the hilltop, the little grey dinghy sometime almost indistinguishable from the sea. He’d sit so still in the boat. I preferred the moving, the exercise, the unequivocal support of the land.
But I enjoyed eating the fish.
But something (maybe the yearning memory of the blue two-stroke fragrance he so often joked about – said it motivated him to dominate nature – Secret men’s business, he said), something made me get that boat out, manhandle like he always did, and head out, away from the solid edge of the land.
And the outboard motor started on only the third pull.
It’s the kind of day that would sparkle, if it could. But there is no breeze to liberate those shards of light from the surface of the sea. It’s as if someone’s left the grater behind.
So the sea stays as its famous muted turquoise, and smooth, the colour of the new airline uniforms. To punctuate this fact, a distant jet arcs overhead, on its way to the islands.
So here I was, bobbing. No, more like heaving. As if on top of the slow breathing chest of a man.
With no bites. But then I did have no bait in the water when I checked.
So I moved, around the headland. Me and this motor, we’re getting on. We could be friends. And baited up again.
There was this sail. Only it wasn’t really a sail. More like a blanket on a stick.