“Harry had a list of spots across Auckland based on wind”: doomed love on the isthmus
We were renting a room in Malibu, a block of art deco flats near the top of the rise across the road from Mount Eden. Our room wasn’t too bad except the agent had forgotten to mention that at night the road became a trucking route, or that our flat was on the corner where the trucks changed gears, meaning the whole place, with its cheap windows and thin walls, shook from midnight until morning. Jane didn’t mind. We put on a fan and used blinds and curtains to muffle the road. She was just glad I had moved out. This was during the winter of 2013.
That morning, after rising late, I opened the curtains and pulled the blinds and saw another cold grey day; fronds flew down the footpath, trees swayed across the street.
“There’s no breakfast for deserters,” she said. Sunday through Friday I made toast and coffee but on Saturdays, when I wasn’t in the dogbox, she cooked us a big breakfast with sausage and avocado.
All week I had promised to help make candles. She said it was easy. All you did was melt the wax and oil, mix in the scent and pour it into jars once the wick was secured. A few days earlier, she made a few alone and discovered you had to warm the jars first or a hollow formed at the centre. Don’t ask me why, it was just what happened. In the corner of our bedroom, beside the failures, there was a box with everything we needed—beeswax, coconut oil, wicks, vanilla and sandalwood. She was sure if it worked we could sell them, we could make some money. She was excited. I knew this was important to her but I didn’t like her making threats.
She kept away from the window as she got dressed. We had been living together for a few months but seeing her in the midmorning light still gave me a jolt. She made me dizzy. I leaned against the wall and blinked.
“Come on,” I said. “She’s been harassing me for weeks.”
“Is he going to be there?” she said.
“What?” I said.
“You don’t live there anymore,” she said. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.”
“That is simply not true.”
I was in the kitchen helping Mum transplant supermarket goods from plastic to plates when he strolled in. “It’s looking pretty good out there,” he said.
“Harry,” I said.
“Do you know why today looks so good?”
It turned out though MetService told you what way the wind was blowing, you still had to go see it for yourself; you had to sit and watch and work out whether it was worth it. That’s where I came in. On windy Saturday afternoons I drove him around Auckland in his old Jeep. He left it parked in her garage and she didn’t appear to mind. In fact, once, I’d caught a bus over to see how she was doing and the garage door was wide open, like she was correcting her neighbour’s assumptions, like she was showing her street a man’s car was parked there.
His Jeep was an old model, I don’t know the year. It had covered 300,000 kilometres, its brakes were tired, its tyres worn. For a car so big and chunky it was surprisingly cramped inside. Our shoulders touched on sharp corners. I hated driving that thing.
“Listen, I think I’m tied up this afternoon,” I said.
“What are you tied up with?” he said. “What else could you possibly have to do?”
I didn’t want to explain my plans. I waited for Mum to tell him to leave me be. Instead, she said, “Go on honey, it’ll do you some good.”
Mum and Harry were from a large North Shore family. They had three brothers, who, along with Harry, were well known for a look of meaty athleticism. For fairly obvious reasons, they were less well known for the value they placed on poetry; not that stuff written about beautiful stretches of countryside in thin books by weathered men, but what Mum called the small poetry of life—like the gum tree over their dad’s driveway that dropped spiky balls which were sharp and shocking to a child’s foot; like the green grapevine he had planted along the roof of a trellis out back so that in the summer it was cool and shaded and everyone loved to be there, talking and laughing, until the day he died and there was suddenly nothing to say except who got what.
Mum didn’t speak to those brothers anymore. She refused to raise her voice. She liked silence, she liked to move slow; her great pleasure was a cold glass of wine at four in the afternoon. Harry was quiet too, but it was a different quiet. He liked to be alone, moving fast. He liked a loud silence if that makes any sense. He loved skiing, kitesurfing, diving; anything that involved a good chance of getting him killed. He used to be worse too until he failed to take a corner at an open day at Hampton Downs. After that he stopped driving altogether.
“So, where’s your lady?” Harry said.
Rain sprayed against the windows. Mum’s old lamps struggled to light up the dining room. She was in one of her moods. Jane once told me our family had the ability to suck the life right out of a room and I had never forgotten it.
“She works Saturdays,” I said.
Before we sat down to eat, I messaged Jane saying Mum needed help moving furniture. She had responded with a thumbs up.
“And the newspaper, how’s that going?”
“Fine,” I said. “Tiring.”
“You know, Harry,” Mum said. “He got a front page story on his first day.”
“That right?” he said. “What about?”
“The army was dropping bombs at South Head,” she said.
“The air force,” I said. “It was nothing. All I did was show up and write what they told me. A glorified press release.”
Harry didn’t care about any of that. He had flipped the chicken over and was hunting for dark meat when he said, “You ever do any weather stuff?”
“Only updating the blog five times a day,” I said.
Harry had a list of spots across Auckland based on wind, traffic and tides. I never learned to work out the wind’s direction but I can still recite them: Snells Beach for a North Easterly, Shakespeare Park for a South Easterly, Tamaki for a south-westerly, Bucklands Beach for a pure southerly, Point Chevalier for a pure westerly. I have forgotten so many important moments and conversations and people yet I remember all of this perfectly useless information.
The early months were the worst. He spent those afternoons trying to convert me. The problem was I didn’t like being told what to do, I figured better to have no passions than to take them second-hand from someone else. Yet even after I decided this I still felt the pressure. He thought the whole thing was obvious. He didn’t believe I couldn’t grasp the fundamentals. I tried in my own way. I looked it up online. I watched men in Canada and women in Fiji explain it. I listened to their tips and attempted to replicate them on Auckland’s beaches. But it never worked. Harry didn’t help. He sighed and shook his head. He made it obvious he despised the YouTube techniques—the ungainliness of a licked finger stabbing the air, the ridiculousness of turning your head to listen to the wind. It was hopeless. Anytime I thought I was getting close the wind would die and I would have to tell him helplessly, once again, I didn’t know. I had no idea.
As we drove away from Mum’s house, he said, “Well?”
I told him Takapuna.
“Perfect,” he said. “You’re finally getting it.”
I nodded, but I had only suggested Takapuna because of how close it was to Mum’s.
We parked down the end of the beach and looked out. This was how it went. At each of his spots, usually sailing clubs or car parks or the lawns of empty mansions, I would look through the rain-splattered windscreen trying to see what he saw and you know what? The whole thing depressed me. I was a baby, I still believed there were two sides to everything, that anything I did and felt was trivial, that it was all a trial run. I understood nothing about my life, and yet somehow I knew that people like Harry, odd people who lived their own way and saw the world and everyone in it differently, were disappearing. I felt the loss but I wasn’t prepared to do anything about it. And that depressed me.
It was our first stop of the afternoon so I left the engine running. The Jeep rocked in the wind. The trees down the beach leaned backwards and forward. Behind us, couples and young families lunching at the beach café stared through tall windows.
He watched the water and I watched him. I was working out how to tell him I couldn’t keep doing this.
“What was up with her today?” I said.
“You haven’t been over in weeks,” he said.
I didn’t know why we were wasting our time. The gusts were too strong and inconsistent. The water was a frothy, dirty white. I was so sure it would not be up to his standards that when a kite surfer burst through low clouds I almost refused to believe it.
“It’ll do,” he said.
“You sure?” I said.
He didn’t hear me. He had stepped out into the rain and was pulling off his t-shirt. As he untied the sail and board from the roof I stared at the goosebumps covering his arms and belly. I didn’t get out. No, I sat in the driver’s seat, telling myself what I always told myself— that if I tried to help I would only get in the way.
I was watching Harry getting thrown around when I called her.
“Honey?” She sounded surprised. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I just wanted to check you’re okay.”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Just about to put on a movie.”
“A perfect afternoon for it,” I said. I wasn’t meaning anything by this but that didn’t matter, she liked an open interpretation.
“What was I supposed to do? Should I have told him to leave you alone? Should I have said you’re too busy now?”
“Forget it,” I said and hung up.
An hour passed. I scrolled for a while. I messaged Jane, she didn’t respond. Occasionally I looked out and saw Harry and the other guy getting thrown about. Their kites came close a few times, they almost got caught up, but every time I was sure they were done for one of them would race off down the beach.
I started to feel claustrophobic. I was sure everyone in the café was watching me. I was sweating but when I put the window down I got drenched and had to close it again.
At some point I switched the Jeep back on. I told myself it was for the air, but soon my seatbelt was on; I was leaving Takapuna; I was merging onto the motorway. I was going home. I would pick up Jane and bring her back. She would wait with me, maybe then she’d understand something about us.
Who knows how it happened. I was thinking about everything, about the hole in the centre when you don’t warm the glass, about our silence, about telling Harry I was done. My head was all over the place. Sure, I was watching the traffic, but I wasn’t focused on it and in the Jeep in the wet weather you had to focus.
I got lucky. The seatbelt caught my chest and held me close. It was just my poor big head that embraced the wheel.
Somewhere nearby a girl was sobbing. I heard her so clearly I wondered why her window was down.
I hopped out of the Jeep. The driver of the old Mercedes I had gone into the back of was already out, appraising the damage. When he saw me he stood up and started yelling. His face was soaked and I wondered, how long had he been out there?
“What the hell’s wrong with you?” he said.
“It’s got bad brakes,” I said, and walked around to the other side of the Jeep, away from him. I felt owed some leeway. I had spent my whole life making sure everyone was happy that, had it not been for this old guy berating me, it might have been a pleasure to stand there alone, enveloped in the hush. I could hear the traffic and feel the rain and wind but only faintly. I was thinking about Harry’s crash at Hampton Downs, how I had nearly gone and done the same thing.
I only came back down when a cut on my forehead began to bleed into my eye. I thought of my first night with Jane; the blood reminded me of the lamp she’d covered with red cellophane. I saw her small and curved and gentle and pale. I remembered her looking back at me and realised then I hadn’t appreciated her courage, her willingness. I had taken her for granted. I had been too nervous—about going soft, the condom, whether her parents knew what their daughter was doing while they watched Coronation Street downstairs. I finished in moments. She fell forward and as I collapsed down beside her, I thought next time I’ll do better. I have always relied on a next time. I have always liked an excuse.
And for some reason, as a police car pulled over, as the pain began to spread from my neck up into the back of my head, I was thinking in short sentences, in convincing declarations. I was thinking about Jane and how we would last forever.
I felt obliged to tell the policeman, a reasonable guy in his sixties, that I was my uncle’s ride. He nodded and told his colleague to park the Jeep at the station then he drove me back to the beach. We parked and waited awkwardly for Harry to come in.
He said he wanted to keep an eye on me, in case I was concussed. He said we could discuss everything else later.
I said I felt alright and didn’t mention the headache. I looked back at the café. It had closed. No one was watching. When I remembered Jane I messaged her. I wouldn’t be able to pick her up after all.
“Huh?” she wrote back.
It took me a while to click; I had never told her I was coming to get her.
They say a concussion is caused by a blow to the head that causes the brain to move rapidly back and forth and I realised then I was concussed and that the concussion had happened before the accident. It had happened in the Jeep, in the silence after I hung up on Mum; or maybe in the night, when, at the sound of a truck changing gears, I sat up and hit my head. I didn’t know. All I remembered was a muted day of dizziness and confusion. All I knew was that no one cared about the specifics. So I kept them to myself. Warm and dry and not all there, I enjoyed the possibilities as we waited for the tide to change or for the wind to finally die.
I was still thinking about it later that evening as Jane and I lay in bed, hungry but too lazy to cook. We were watching the candles flicker as buses passed by. They were scentless, the flat’s pasta pot was ruined, but there were no holes at the centre so she was happy, and that made me happy. I was thinking about everything again, about the silence at Mum’s house, about the lack of traffic on a dead end street. I was thinking there is a freedom in a lack of serenity, there is a beauty. I wasn’t thinking about how lucky I was. I didn’t know there weren’t many nights like that one left. No one told me that on another cold, windy Saturday not long after the crash she would meet someone and in less than a year they would be married.
It’s okay, though. I don’t think about her too often these days. Not really. The last time I brought her up was at one of our Saturday lunches a few months after she moved back home. We were in one of our silences and I mentioned her without thinking. Right away knew it was a mistake. Mum and Harry tried to help; they meant well, it’s just what they said was dull and obvious and honestly kind of unsophisticated. They couldn’t relate. It was like I was the only one who remembered that feeling when your first love snuggles up to you at three in the morning while the whole world shakes—we were asleep, and we stayed asleep, yet we were perfectly aware of every passing truck changing gears just outside the house.
Next week’s short story is by Emma Sidman.