I’ve been writing about Waiwari since the place and its inhabitants invaded my imagination for a short story competition in 2005. There are now three novels seeking a publisher and quite a few peripheral stories.
Title Genre Written Added
A Family Gathering General 2011 Mar 2013
All at Sea Adventure 2012 Jan 2013
Flock Together General 2006 Mar 2013
An excerpt from book three of the Waiwari trilogy. It’s from the POV of Hope, the same character wh narrates Flock together. I find it amazing how much she changed between the original story and the novels, but change she did. She’s stubborn like that.
A Family Gathering
I hadn’t really thought about the funeral itself. It was a shock to walk in and see a gaggle of women from the hospice in the front row and one man sitting near the back of the room. I wondered how he knew Jergen. Probably the lawyer. Jergen would have thought he was a young fool since he looked to be only about sixty-odd. He was immaculately dressed, his black hair brushed until it shone. He looked like he’d be quite tall if he stood up, which is good since tall people don’t make me feel huge and clumsy. I realised I was staring at him and looked hurriedly away.
“I’m glad you could make it, Miss Duncan.” It must have been the one who phoned to let me know he’d died and when the funeral would be. She was walking down the … aisle? Walking towards me with her hands out in greeting. “It’s a poor showing for such a successful man.” After clutching at both my hands, she turned and tucked one under her arm, making me walk with her.
Like a tanker guided by a tugboat, I let myself be led towards the coffin.
I hadn’t brought a flower or token to place on it.
A token of what? I’d met the man twice over a weekend and we hadn’t liked each other.
“There you are dear.” The woman walked away, having delivered me safely down the length of the room. When could I sit down? I wondered. Where? I wished I’d been as sensible as the bloke at the back of the room, slipping quietly into a seat instead of standing around like a fool and letting myself be made into the grieving grandchild.
At least it was a closed coffin. I’d have been tempted to laugh at the sight of Mr Halse not talking, at peace. I stared at the casket lid thinking that it was a lovely piece of wood, I might have made any number of things out of a good piece of timber like that. It would have been better with a nice beeswax finish, though… “Mum says ‘thanks’.” I murmured eventually.
“Finished your prayer, dear?” The woman was back.
She nodded briskly, pleased with me. She led me to a pew and sat next to me just long enough to hand me an envelope before she returned to the other hospice ladies. I stuffed the paper into my handbag and promptly forgot it.
The service was short. I sat at the front and kept my head down. I don’t know who it was that did the service, but he read my grandfather’s achievements off some cards and said that he was a godly man whose faith had sustained him through the loss of his family.
I didn’t laugh.
In my head she was ‘the bossy woman’, but I felt guilty about it. She was only trying to help me through what she thought was difficult time. I heard her whispering to the other ladies that Mr Halse had finally reconciled with his family mere weeks before he died. How sad it was. One should never leave these things – imagine if no-one at all had come to see him, the funeral home would have been quite empty.
The bossy woman fetched me again when the words had been spoken. The funeral home had organised the transfer to the crematorium, she told me. “And Mr Halse purchased a niche at the cemetery with a lovely plaque, so you needn’t worry about all those arrangements.” We were almost at the door, I could see daylight and freedom beyond the lobby. “I’m so sorry there’s no tea or anything. We weren’t sure if anyone -”
“That’s okay.” I said. It was tempting to tell her that my mother would have appreciated the tea, except she had just had another schizophrenic break and thought the flight attendant had been a demon and the nurses wanted to suck her blood to gain immortality.
The tea would have been poison and the biscuits anathema.
The man from the back of the room was waiting for me in the lobby.
“Yes?” I replied expecting to hear that I had been left without a cent.
He smiled, the way good-looking men do when they’re not entirely certain of their reception, but confident it will be pleasant.
“Miss Duncan, Hope, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Peter, Peter Black.”
He smiled pleasantly and waited for my reaction, seeming a little put out that his name meant nothing to me.
Still, he rallied round and smiled once more, just as warmly. “I believe you’re my daughter.”
This was the story that everything else grew from. Written for the Hawke’s Bay Today Short Story competition 2006. While at the awards ceremony, I won a bottle of wine for quickly calculating the sponsor company’s age. I’m still quite pleased to have won the maths prize in a writing competition.
We were trying to help Tui, really. We’d known and loved her for years, through all the shared holidays, all the evenings of backgammon and wine. She’d retired to the camp after that redundancy payout from the marketing company, which I could understand since I’d kinda retired there myself- though that was more to do with Bill. But Tui hadn’t found “that sickly goo-goo eyed love thing” like we had, and then after a year or so she started going a bit, well, stir crazy I suppose you’d call it. Waiwari may be a beautiful place for a month over summer, but if a change is as good as a rest, then Tui needed a break from her holiday.
First it was: “Those damned kids are too loud. Shift them” when she’d chosen the cabin between the playground and the path to the beach. She’d refused to swap cabins, not even when Simon and Annie closed up their saddlery shop by the highway, and took off back to the bright lights of Hastings, leaving their cabin vacant. Right out of the way it was, backing on to the boundary with the bush – better furniture as well. No, she wanted the playground moved – or the beach.
Later, after the flocks of visitors had dwindled away, Bill and I stood at the office counter, watching a blue Cortina detach itself from the sky on the ridge line and drop down the sun-baked hills to the bridge. Bill was dismissive, a single car, no trailer – single or a couple for a short stay he reckoned. This wouldn’t profit us enough for the new roof needed on the shower block.
I had a feeling though, as soon as the car parked, and it’s owner signed up for a cabin paying a month in advance, I had a feeling that it was all going to work out fine.
I invited Rob up to our place that same night, found out he was sick of the stress of Auckland, sick of the rate race in general. Promoted sideways out of a job he loved and into the administration side of the company, he was sick of paperwork, sick of the long hours and sick of losing all his accumulated sick leave. A month by the sea was almost literally what his doctor had ordered. From his chair by the backgammon board, Bill listened to Rob’s talk of electronics and the frustrations of office and city life, and Bill went from polite to interested, to as perked up and bright-eyed as a collie. I could see visions of Rob as a grounds keeper, Rob as a handyman, Rob as anything Bill could think of to keep him around.
A week of beach, bush and barbecues had Rob’s lined face smoothing out. By the following week Bill was actively seeking Rob’s advice on fixing stuff, and Rob was occasionally smiling. Even Tui was playing nice, and I want to make it clear that Tui wasn’t bad, or mean or horrid. Tui was at the other end of Rob’s overworked spectrum. Tui was bored. A bright woman with nothing to do but spin her wheels in the back-end of nowhere. The novelty of a new resident had brought out the very best in her again. We four hung together, walking up to the pub and almost rolling back down the hill scattering flocks of sheep – but that didn’t last. Tui wasn’t the girl to follow a bloke around with big doe eyes, she was the girl who got frustrated about those feelings and took it out on anyone else in the area.
Bill had copped the worst of it. I always had the excuse of serving in the office and camp shop, or answering phones, or cleaning cabins while Tui followed poor old Bill around the grounds harping on about some imagined slight or injury from the other long-term residents. Even when he went into the storeroom and pottered about the stacks of old furniture, his most sacred and personal space – Tui stood at the door. “And another thing,” she said, drawing in breath for an extended effort, “the name here, it doesn’t make sense. It isn’t a real word.” I happened to be passing with an armload of cleaning gear and fresh toilet rolls, hearing that statement, I stopped. This was where the crap was going down. “Waiwari,” Tui continued, without noticing Bill’s sudden sullen silence. “That bloke last August, he reckoned that it meant ‘generous waters’ or some rubbish, but it’s not real Te Reo. It’s made up!”
Bill and his dad named Waiwari. The land had been in his family for generations, nibbled at by the sea and river on two boundaries and protected by a long finger of National Park creeping down from the ranges to the north. Bill’s dad had helped him start it all, seeing the value in Bill’s idea of setting up a camping ground, small, gorgeous and remote enough to be virtually empty between holidays, buying up baches and boat sheds cheap to rebuild into the smart little cabins. The storeroom itself was the final legacy of Bill’s dad, stacked to the ceiling with things from a lifetime of garage sales and estate auctions. They loved it, and now we loved it, even with the perpetual winter months of maintenance and repairs and no income.
“It’s a pun” said Bill. I could hear his teeth clenched over the words. “Wai-wari is a pun. You called your cabin ‘Dun Werken’ and I don’t complain.” I watched Tui, she hadn’t got the joke until that moment. She was torn. She wanted to complain, to bitch about the disrespect to her culture and language. She also appreciated a good laugh when it was there for the taking. With all her brilliant mind she weighed the options while I watched, ready to bean her with a toilet roll if she made the wrong choice. She looked at me and she twitched. Imagine how the pair of us looked, she was still in the aggressive ‘shoulders back lead with the chin’ pose she’d been in when I arrived, while I watched with half a smile and missile at the ready.
“Bastards!” she said with a wide grin. Then she laughed and that was that for a while.
Once they’d both had a chance to get over themselves, Bill and Tui started plotting together. I kept out of that, Rob and I had taken to spending the afternoons playing around with the stuff Bill pulled out of the storeroom. The furniture came to me for cleaning and restoration, while Rob took to the electronics with a screwdriver and a smile. We all caught Tui staring, but we went easy and pretended we hadn’t. Her brain was working overtime, flicking her attention from Rob to the restored bits and pieces, glancing over me sheepishly before ducking away. Any time we asked how she was, she’d reply, “Why worry?” with a sly look. She’d taken to dropping the phrase into all sorts of conversations. It got a bit annoying after a week, I told her to stop after two,
“I’m going into town till the weekend.” She announced one afternoon. “Anyone need anything?” Tui had spent the day ‘heads down’ in the office with Bill. I’d been banished to the beach around the headland to gather firewood for the next bonfire. A storm was threatening to dump a new load onto the beach, so it wasn’t an entirely stupid idea to make a start. Rob had come down with me just for the sake of something to do. Windswept and half deaf from the thunder of two metre swells hitting the gravel at the low tide line, and flocks of gulls arguing over the wrack and ruins washed up on the beach, Rob and I stared at Tui for an extra beat before understanding sank in. She didn’t mean our local blip on the highway consisting of pub, petrol station and empty shop, she meant town down the road with chain stores and specialty shops. “I’ll be heading home myself next weekend.” Said Rob, slow from the noise. Tui looked hard at him for a moment before she turned and walked away, I thumped Rob in the shoulder before running after her.
Bill stopped me before I caught up with Tui. “Hey there gorgeous.” He said, catching me around the waist. “You look determined to interfere in something.” From around the corner of the office I heard Tui start up an engine and drive away. I let Bill lead me into our cabin while I told him; “Rob’s thinking of leaving his job for good. He’s just spent the last hour telling me how much he wants to stay here and now Tui’s gone off for four days thinking he’s about to leave.”
Bill laughed. “Just what we need, another frustrated overachiever around the place.” He was giving me that indulgent look that I hate so much. He thinks that just because I put up with him and his silly theories, I’m some stupid romantic who sees love everywhere. Well! As though Rob hadn’t fallen for Tui all by himself. Just because I’d seen it coming didn’t mean it was stupid, it just meant that it was blindingly obvious.
Tui got back on Sunday night, after the storm had blown through. Bill and I were snuggled up on the porch, Autumn being our favourite time of year for sitting there together. She pulled up in her ute with a spray of gravel and a grin for Bill as she hopped out of the cab. “Talk to you later.” She called out to us.
“Are we celebrating?” asked Bill.
“Wine, lots.” Ordered Tui, as she disappeared down the track towards the caravan where Rob was staying. I got out four glasses and Bill’s last best vintage of home brewed apricot wine. Bill arranged snacky bits on our best platter. He was grinning and wouldn’t share, not even when I threatened to withhold affection – he knew that was an empty threat. By the time we were heading back out onto the porch, Rob and Tui were arriving, both grinning.
So they got to be all smug and let me in last on the great secret. I’d been sent on the wild wood chase so they could pack up the ute. Tui had taken all the things Rob and I had been repairing to Simon and Annie, who now had an antique shop in town. All the plotting Tui and Bill had been doing was to time her visit so she hit a major auction. Everything had sold. Every last thing. With Rob and my expertise, Tui’s marketing skills, Bill’s store of gear and the lease on Simon and Annie’s vacant shop up by the highway, we had the makings of our own cottage industry, with the odd auction in town to boost income. Rob’s share of the profits was enough to cut through the last of his reservations about quitting the corporate world. The shop would keep Tui busy enough to be happy, or at least happily worried about the profits and paperwork. The way they looked at each other, I knew they’d both found “that sickly goo-goo eyed love thing”.
Later, when they’d left, and I’d prodded Bill enough to make up for keeping me in the dark, he showed me the cheque for our split of the profits. “More than enough for the roof on the toilet block.” He said. Looking at it I realised it was enough for us to do all the repairs we needed, not just the urgent ‘must be done this winter’ ones.
“Mind you,” I said when we’d finished our first round of celebrations, “I always knew it would work out between those two.”
“How?” asked Bill.
“Well, it’s that old saying isn’t it? Birds of a feather.”
Bill still couldn’t spot it, and I left the punch line as long as I could to enjoy the puzzle lines on his forehead. Then, just as he was about to ask, I grinned and said,
“They had to get together really didn’t they, Tui and Robin?”
In the first novel, Bill mentions this adventure to his girlfriend. It was just meant to be a single throwaway line…
All at sea
Karen Leslie, 2012
Billy McAllister wasn’t going to take any nonsense. “I’m telling you, just say I’m sick.” He pushed the blonde curls back off his forehead and they promptly bounced back again.
“But you’re not.” The younger boy replied emphatically. He swiped at the seed-heads of grass growing along the side of the road. The Norwest wind, already warm across the paddocks, exaggerated the result.
“Mrs Abercrombie won’t know the difference.” Billy was adamant, he wasn’t having his day ruined just because-
“She’ll ring Mum,” Benjamin said, just as determined to have his own worries addressed. “And Mum’ll go crook at me.” He saw Billy about to remind him that their mum was going out for the day and long experience ripped a protest from him. “I don’t want to lie to Mrs Abercrombie. I don’t want to lie to Mum.” His dark hair matched his expression.
Billy thought it was very unfair that the only person he couldn’t charm or convince was his seven-year old brother. Anyone else would have simply grinned at the audacity of the plan and gone along with it. Well, except for the grownups. He shrugged his resignation. “Don’t say anything, then.”
“She’ll ask me! When she takes the roll and you don’t answer.”
Billy thought about that, his mate Robbie might answer for him but he’d put on a silly voice and get caught. “Okay, you win.” Billy opened his brother’s schoolbag and rummaged through, pulling out a pencil and homework book. Over Benjamin’s protests, Billy tore a page from the back of the book and spun his brother round to use his back as a desk. “You’re so bony.” muttered Billy as he had to cross out a word and rewrite it. “Okay, give this to Mrs Abercrombie as soon as you get to school.” He quelled Benjamin’s mutinous look with a threatening one of his own and applied all the calm logic his ten years could muster. “Look, you don’t have to lie, just don’t tell.”
Benjamin wouldn’t touch the paper and looked like he was about to argue again. Billy wondered if it would be easier just to thump him. It wouldn’t change Benjamin’s mind, but it would make Billy feel better.
Luckily, Greg and his younger cousin appeared on horseback over the brow of the hill and Benjamin was saved from a bruising.
Greg seemed to be having just as hard a time of it with Aroha, who could even out argue Benjamin. She looked like she was going to beat Greg up if yelling at him didn’t work. Greg slid off the old brown mare and made a step with his hands. Benjamin clambered up and settled behind Aroha.
Billy went to work on her. “It’s all sorted; we have a note.” He ignored Benjamin’s howl of protest and ploughed on. “It says we’re helping my dad on the farm today.” He waved the crumpled sheet of paper and smiled his most charming smile for Aroha. “Can you give it to Mrs Abercrombie?”
Aroha gave him a somewhat suspicious look. “Why isn’t Benjamin helping too?”
“Because he’s just a little kid.” Billy caught a glimpse of Greg’s frantic expression and remembered that Benjamin was the same age as Aroha. “You know how girls grow up faster, that’s why you have to take the note to Mrs Abercrombie.” He gave her the piece of paper and she barely glanced at it before folding and putting the note into the pocket of her jeans.
“You boys are going to be in so much trouble.” Aroha said firmly. “Come on Benjamin, let’s go.” She hauled on the reins and turned the mare back onto the road. They kicked at her flanks and the mare whickered and sped up to an amble.
“She’s right.” Greg said gloomily. “As soon as Mrs Abercrombie checks with your folks.”
“That’s what’s so great,” Billie replied with a grin, “no-one’s going to be home.”
He explained to Greg that he’d heard his Mum complaining that Des had promised to go with her to some meeting in town and then at the last-minute, he’d decided that the fence in the southern paddock needed fixing.
“If she thinks we’re wagging, Mrs Abercrombie will ring your Auntie as well, but she knows you help out here sometimes.”
Greg looked doubtful. “I’ve never worked here instead of going to school though.”
Billy shrugged off the discrepancy. “It’s our best shot. We’re not going to get another storm like yesterday’s come through before next winter.”
Willing to be convinced, Greg grinned and the boys took off back towards Greg’s place. As their sandals slapped against the road and flicked small stones ahead of them, they planned their excuses for the only real danger; if Billy’s Mum drove down the road before they got to the safety of the park. Once there, they’d be out of sight until they reached the bush and could take any number of trails until they dropped down into the river valley.
“We could say I left some homework behind,” Greg suggested.
“Brilliant!” No-one would ask why they’d sent the younger kids on ahead and ran back together. “Still, better if no-one sees us.” The sun was already making the road steam. It was going to be a beauty of a day, too good for school anyway.
The boys cantered up and over the hill to Maraetawa. The pub was closed up tight, the petrol station too. The only open door was the dairy and Mr Wilson would surely be stocking the shelves. Billy considered the risk of running past the buildings but Greg decided the issue by vaulting the fence into the last paddock on McAllister land.
They trotted in a shallow arc below the brow of the road. The sound of a car driving past made them both fling themselves to the ground.
“I bet that was your mum.” Greg said. They waited till the sound of the car faded, looking down the valley to the only decent beach between Waimarama and Kairakau. ‘The Plan’ had hatched there. Billy’s dad had made a kontiki and they’d gone on a family picnic to excuse the fact that he was fishing. Greg had been fascinated with the little raft and Billy had noticed the usually dry stream bed flowing after recent rain.
It was going to be glorious.
They made their way to the bush line, jumping the fence again and pushing through the scrubby branches until they found the track.
“Have you got the pump?” Greg asked. “You remembered it, eh?”
“Of course I did.” Billy replied indignantly. He’d thought about this, planned it so many times, what if he just remembered thinking about putting the bike pump in there? “Stop a minute, I need a drink.” He swung his school bag off and opened it, so relieved to see the metallic tube that he almost forgot to fetch out his drink bottle.
Greg had his own bag open. “I got Orange Mango, what about you?”
“Lime, swapsie?” They exchanged bottles and sipped. Hoarding the drinks for later made it feel like even more of an adventure. They followed the track around the perimeter of the park, only pausing when they heard a quad, unseen on the road metres away from them.
“That sounds like your dad’s bike.” Greg said thoughtfully.
“That’s a lie!” Billy retorted, bristling. “He had to fix the fence by Protheroe’s place before their bloody bull gets through it. Otherwise he’d have gone to town with my mum.”
Greg blinked and shrugged away the accusation with a quiet, “Okay.” They reached the crossing on one of the main paths in silence. The boys paused for a moment; they could easily turn left up the path and arrive not far from Greg’s Aunty’s house.
Billy could fake a tummy ache. With both his parents out of the house, it would explain why he hadn’t simply gone home. But Bella Henare was notorious for home remedies. She’d brew up some kawakawa leaves and force him to drink the lot.
Greg’s face matched Billy’s and they simultaneously turned right and headed down the wide shallow valley. The path was wider, but still just beaten earth and the shade meant that it was still greasy in places, Billy and Greg slipped and slid their way down, finding every mud slide and puddle.
Soon enough, they came to a wooden sign at another crossing of the paths. They could already hear a distant roar. There was no hesitation this time as they swung to the left, even further away from school and home, over a final ridge and into the picnic area by the bridge over the waterfall.
It thundered and charged over the lip, many times larger than its usual volume.
“Glad we didn’t think of starting by the road, eh?” Greg asked after a hard gulp.
“Hmm.” Billy replied, considering it for a long moment before laughing. He leaned over the railing. “It looks good at the bottom, this is going to be great.”
Greg joined his friend and sure enough, below the tumbling water at the base, the river flattened to a slow boil, filling the narrow valley. The spray was making them both wet, clinging in dew drops to their hair and eyelashes. They laughed and scurried back to the picnic area scrabbling under the bushes for their previously stored stash.
Billy had found the boards, square metres of plywood rough and splintered on both sides. There were holes around the edges of the boards, at least where the edges hadn’t broken off completely. A couple of split planks, vaguely paddle shaped, from the same shed. The boys figured they’d only be needed for fending themselves off the sides if the riverbank. But the prize was Greg’s contribution, two large inner tubes and a good long rope.
They struck their first major problem. Billy had planned to build their raft on the small beach below the bridge, but river filled the narrow valley edge to edge. If they built at the top of the bridge, how could they get their craft down the steep banks to the water? They stacked their booty by the side of the bridge and sat down to think.
“It must be playtime.” Billy mused. “I’m hungry.” He rummaged in his school bag for his lunch. Leaving the apple, he dived straight for the sandwiches, slightly miffed to find cheese and Marmite. He glanced at Greg’s lunch. Lettuce and tomato Billy noticed, and bit into his own sandwich before his best friend could suggest another trade. Greg seemed not to care very much and bit into the food with relish.
Greg finished his first sandwich and put the other back into the lunch box. He put the lunchbox back into the bag and all the time he was thinking. Eventually he looked over at Billy. “You pump up the tyres, I’ll sort the rest.”
Billy grinned and set to work changing the inner tube pancakes into donuts. He still couldn’t work out the plan as he handed over the last tube and watched Greg tie it on the boards ahead of the other. Then Greg worked the rope through the front of the raft and nodded in satisfaction. “Let’s get our bags on and go.” He carefully strapped their makeshift paddles under the flap of his schoolbag and hoiked it up onto his back.
“Yeah, okay.” Billy wasn’t going to ask. No flaming way.
Kitted up, they carried the raft over the bridge. Billy finally got some small inkling of the plan when Greg said not to flip the raft over. Laying it just over the edge of the path, Billy started to see; not a raft, with inner tubes below for flotation, but a sled with cushioned seats. Sure enough, Greg clambered onto the front, holding the ends of the rope like reins on a particularly uncooperative horse.
Billy grinned and climbed behind him. “Brilliant.” he said as they hitched themselves forward and over the edge.
The sparse bush barely slowed them down.
Branches whipped them and small stones rattled as they rapidly gained speed. Billy held tight to Greg’s school bag, Greg held tight to the rope, holding the front board slightly up so it didn’t dig into the ground and flip them arse over kite down the steep hillside. Billy parted company with Greg and the raft just before they hit the water, flying out and into the churning base of the waterfall.
Billy swam furiously, fighting the lack of buoyancy, the swirling currents and the shock of the cold. His hand hit against the rough wood of the raft and he dragged himself above the surface, gasping and spluttering. Looking around in the water, he spotted a corner of Greg’s neon green school bag and hauled his friend out from under the raft.
Somehow they kept their grip on each other and the raft as the current pushed them beneath the falling water before spitting them out downstream. They struggled to flip the raft over, but it wasn’t until they’d drifted down to the first curve in the river and fetched up against a rock that they gained enough purchase to get it over onto the tubes. Then it was another massive effort to get themselves up and onto it. Greg pushed them off the rock and they floated free down the river.
The raft barely supported them; not riding high above the water, just enough to keep them above the occasional rapid and they rode over the submerged rocks with relative ease. They shivered with the cold, their shorts and t-shirts providing no warmth at all.
Greg unstrapped his bag and got the paddles loose. “Oh no!” He tipped his bag over and water drained from it.
Billy was dismayed to find his own bag had suffered the same fate. Even worse, water had got into his lunchbox and his sandwich had turned to glue. He peeled the cheese off and scoffed that, appreciating the savoury taste, if not the slimy texture. The shortbread biscuit he’d been saving was a puddle of goo. The apple appeared unharmed. He closed the box resignedly and stowed it back in the bag.
Greg’s lunch box had fared no better – he peeled the soggy cardboard from around his raisins and scooped the fruit into his mouth. He didn’t bother rinsing the lettuce, and the tomato was a lost cause.
But they’d done it!
Billy and Greg looked around themselves with satisfaction. Soaked lunch aside, the plan had worked perfectly. The recent rain had swollen the rocky stream to a navigable river. They had wagged school without being caught and they’d stashed enough gleanings from their respective homes to build a raft that kept them mostly afloat.
This was better than when Billy had snuck them a couple of stubbies from the chilly bin during a barbecue. It was even better than the time Greg had found a magazine at his brother’s place; a magazine with women in it. It was even better than the time they’d built a fort that couldn’t be seen from the road and pelted passing friends with mud bombs. The boys grinned at each other.
“It’s just like the book.” Billy gloated.
Greg looked around doubtfully. “I think the Mississippi is bigger than this.”
Billy almost shrugged but decided to ignore Greg instead. “Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, that’s us.”
“I don’t think we’re going to find an island big enough to camp on.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Billy replied with a grin, “we’re going to be home in time for dinner.”
It was a compromise to practicality, but Tuesday was chops and mashed potato night. Soon the sun would make it through the bush and near vertical walls of the valley and they would warm up before re-entering the shadow and make-believe primordial jungle.
Well, until the next bend in the river shoved them roughly through some trailing branches and against the steep wall. They pushed themselves off and used the branches to haul their craft back into the current, which promptly dumped them over a rapid and gave them another soaking.
Their adventure turned into a series of near disasters, their makeshift paddles became heavier and rougher with every futile steering stroke or fending push. They were both still soaking wet and thoroughly exhausted when the river grew straighter and they could stop and catch their breath. The grins they shared were not nearly so wide as they had been.
All too soon, before they’d had a chance to regain their energy, the surrounding walls began to open. The bush became looser, scrubbier, more coastal and then finally gave way to the coast. They could hear the distant roar of surf. Soon they could hear each unseen wave crashing onto the beach beyond the gravel banks. With a vague sense of anti-climax, the boys began to paddle towards the side of the river, ready for the long walk back and all the trouble that would need to be dodged, deflected or endured.
But no matter how hard they paddled, they couldn’t get to the riverbank. Billy wondered if it were even worth trying. Gravel banks rose above the boys’ heads and fell in irregular sheets, avalanching into the river.
Even if they could get to the banks, Billy doubted they’d be able to climb them. And that would mean abandoning the raft and any chance of returning the things they’d borrowed before anyone noticed they were missing.
The main current kept them held in its grasp, and to their horror they saw the mouth of the river approach, pass and slip behind them. They were on a brown outward tide, splitting the blue sea. There was nothing they could do about it.
“To the side!” called Greg, paddling furiously across the current.
Billy understood immediately and joined in. The man, during ‘safety week’ the previous term, had said that if you got caught in a rip while swimming, there was no point even trying to swim back to the beach. You couldn’t fight the current for long enough to make any kind of headway. But if you swam across, then you’d maybe find another current that could bring you back to shore.
So the boys paddled and soon the water cleared from its muddy brown and they sat back on their heels, panting, to reassess the situation as they’d been taught. They weren’t traveling any further from the shore, but running parallel to it.
“The wind.” Billy realised it first.
Greg licked an already wet finger and held it up. “Yes, from the north.”
They looked at each other, seeking reassurance they didn’t feel. There was nothing south except a cliff and they could both see the waves crashing against the huge rocks at its base.
“Paddle!” They went for it, sinking their planks deep into the water and pulling them back with all the strength they could muster.
The beach stayed beyond swimming distance but they could see themselves travelling down the length of the gravel towards the rocks.
“Wait, listen.” Greg tried to suppress his heaving breath and Billy gasped in a lungful to hold before letting it out explosively and scanning the shoreline.
“There!” A distant and familiar figure waved from the beach and Billy waved back. They followed the direction of the man’s gestures.
Greg spotted the tiny craft following in their wake. “Look, a kontiki.” The boys started paddling once more, now trying to hold their position against the wind while the smaller raft sailed jauntily towards them.
“The fishing line won’t be strong enough to drag us back in.” Billy said and saw Greg reaching for the knots over the boards. “And the rope isn’t nearly long enough.”
Greg shrugged and began feeding the end of rope back through the holes of the raft. “If we tie the rope to the fishing line, and paddle like mad, it’ll reduce the strain on the line. Until your dad can reach the rope.”
Billy shook his head furiously. “It can’t be my dad. He’s busy.” He paddled harder than before, shifting so Greg could reach the rope easier. “He said.”
The familiar figure, who looked a lot like Desmond McAllister, had satisfied himself that the little kontiki raft would reach the boys. He ran down the beach, fishing tackle held high, trying to get level with them
Greg waved a coil of rope over his head and saw a broad arm gesture that could have meant thumbs up. “I gotta get more rope.” He said. “We don’t need the boards.” They could both swim well enough, but the beach still seemed a long way off.
Still, Greg slipped off the edge of their raft and Billy kept paddling, watching carefully so he didn’t hit his friend accidentally as he came up for air. A call from the beach made him check the surrounding sea and he spotted the kontiki cresting a wave as it passed outside them. As Greg surfaced on one side of the craft, Billy dived off the other.
Reaching below, Billy hoped that this little fishing raft was like his dad’s. Treading water and hoping Greg could hold their disintegrating craft together, he carefully felt below the raft and with relief, felt a small circle. The mint was supposed to dissolve and drop the sail so the hooked line could be easily hauled back to shore. Snapping the mint between his fingers, Billy splashed his way back to Greg, holding the raft and slapping it down in the water with every other stroke. Greg was now holding the two inner tubes with their schoolbags looped by the back straps into the end of the rope tying the tubes together.
Billy wondered where the paddles were then realised that Greg must be sitting on them, using them to keep himself just high enough in the water to work.
Billy could see glimpses of the boards floating away. He wondered if his dad would be angry about that. They’d been only old sheets of plywood, with signs of much use. But Billy had dragged them from the shed, where possibly useful things were stored, not from the woodpile.
He reached Greg and hooked an arm over the nearest inner tube. “I got it, careful of the hooks.”
Greg nodded and put the paddles on top of the raft and hauled himself up before finding the loose end of the rope. Only then, did he take the raft from Billy’s hand. As Greg tied the line and rope together, Billy hauled himself onto the other tube and picked up a paddle.
He noticed several things at once.
The wind was less of an issue since they were lower, without the boards spreading their weight, both he and Greg were partially in the water. This made the going a bit less straightforward, it was harder to steer and the tyres dragged through the water instead of skimming over it.
The wind was freezing on his wet clothes and skin. He could see Greg shivering, finding it hard to make a good knot behind the raft with his hand shaking.
Greg’s hands were bleeding and Billy looked at his own. The paddles had driven splinters deep into his palms, he had blisters, split and raw. Once he had seen them, Billy couldn’t stop feeling how much they hurt, but he drove the plank of wood back into the water.
He was sure the beach was closer. It had to be.
With a final grunt and pull of his teeth, Greg tightened the knot at last and held it up so the fisherman could see. Then he tossed the rope and line into the water and reached between him and Billy for the other paddle. Billy heard his friend suck in his breath as his damaged hands took the pressure and they paddled in unison.
The fisherman hauled in line, he only had to walk to keep pace with them, for all the world like he’d hooked a fish. They could feel the tug as he took the strain and redoubled their paddling. Billy was utterly torn, if it was his dad then Aroha’s prediction had come true and they were in deep, deep trouble. But the only person Billy wanted more than his dad at that moment was his mummy, not that he’d have admitted it for the world.
The fisher- oh hell, at this distance, Billy had to admit that it was his dad. Des waded into the water to grab at the rope, but a wave sent him tumbling and Billy and Greg held their breath as the rope went slack.
Des heaved himself out of the water, and held up his fist triumphantly with the rope held high. The boys cheered, but kept paddling. They surged forward in rhythm with Des hauling the rope in great tugs. All too soon the surf rose ominously beneath them and they were dumped onto the gravel of the beach, dragged coughing and spluttering out of the water by Des.
Dropping the boys unceremoniously above the reach of the waves, Des retrieved the inner tubes and school bags, fishing rod and rope that the sea was determined to claim instead of the two souls it had lost to the land.
Greg and Billy got themselves onto their feet and didn’t wait to be told before helping to carry the gear up the beach. It didn’t seem quite fair to Billy that, even though he had his arms full of rope and Greg was dragging the inner tubes, they both got a swift kick up the bum as they went.
Des was silent, which Billy found more upsetting than his sore backside. The nearest his father came to speaking was a grunt as he stalked past them and headed back along the beach towards the DOC hut at the edge of the bush.
They stacked their gear outside the door, before wordlessly going inside. Des must have planned to spend some time in there. The fire was on and a pot of water was steaming on the stove, not quite at the boil, but not far off it. Des pulled a plastic jug up from beneath the table and added more water to the pot. Billy recognised the jug as the one his father kept on the quad bike when he planned to be away from the house all day.
Des grabbed the boys none too gently by the shoulders and knelt down between them. “Thank goodness you two are all right.” He said, his voice rough with emotion. Then he shifted his grip and smartly knocked their heads together. “You bloody stupid little buggers!”
He got them to strip down to their undies and sat them beneath a blanket as close as they could get to the fire. They were still shivering and their teeth chattered uncontrollably. They tried to get as close as they could to each other without looking girly. Des himself had a towel and some spare clothes in a duffel bag which he must have stowed in the hut earlier with the Tupperware container of mince and veg that he dropped onto the table with a half loaf of bread.
He went outside and round the back of the hut to dry and change into his spare clothes. He came back in, checking the boys hadn’t found some other mischief in the minute or so they’d been alone. With a warning glance to continue what they weren’t doing, he gathered up all the wet clothes and shoes and went outside again to hang them over bushes to dry.
There were tin mugs lined up and he made three mugs of tea. When Greg gave him a hesitant smile and thanks, Des grunted again and turned his back on them. Billy nudged his friend and made a quick zipping motion across his mouth. He knew his father and reckoned they should just keep quiet, unless they wanted another head clonking.
“Get that down you.” Des ordered and the boys alternately blew on the tea and scalded their lips taking hasty sips. Soon enough they stopped shivering and hummed over the sweet tea.
With only a cup or so of water left in the pot, Des dumped in the mince, stirring it roughly while he waited for it to heat on the stove. Silent minutes passed. Des cleared his throat every so often, but whenever he turned to the boys and took a breath, he’d end up shaking his head and turning back to the pot on the stove, giving the contents another rough scrape around the sides of the pot.
Satisfied that the mince was heating through, Des set himself to sawing hunks of bread off the loaf. Billy’s mum would have made the slices smooth and even, Greg’s Aunt would have made them paper-thin. Des cut big fat rough slices and didn’t seem to care that the remainder of the loaf was squeezed out of shape when he was done, though Billy knew he’d have been told off for leaving a loaf like that at home.
“Get up here, ya little ratbags.” He pointed the knife at the bench seat at the table and the boys scrambled up, getting tangled in the blanket and having to sort themselves out. Billy thought he saw the briefest smile on his dad’s face but dared not look long enough to be sure.
They sat at the table, wrapped and ready while Des spooned out mince and gravy evenly between the three plates. The gravy was thinner than Billy’s mum would have intended but it sank into the bread and there was a generous portion for all of them. Des then chucked a dessert spoon on the table by each boy and used the pot spoon to start eating his own meal.
They didn’t wait to be told to get it down them, and ate quickly, sucking in air to cool each mouthful till it could be swallowed. Des still wasn’t looking at them, still trying and failing to put words together.
Greg took a moment away from eating to surreptitiously blow on his hand, but Des caught sight of him and held out a hand to each boy. They dutifully showed their wounds and he inspected their splinter laden and broken skin.
“Finish up and I’ll get those sorted.” he said roughly, and went back to his own meal, scraping off the last spoonful of meat and veg before dropping the spoon and using the bread to mop up the gravy on his plate. He doubled over the savoury bread and ate it in three big bites. Billy stared, if he’d tried that at home, his mother would have told him off for trying to choke himself and Des would have backed her up. He ate his own bread in smaller bites and this time definitely saw a smile, fleeting but there.
Billy realised with some surprise that he felt warm, all the way through to his bones. After the food he was starting to feel a little sleepy, but he reckoned that wouldn’t make his dad smile, not at all.
“We can do the dishes.” he said, not looking up. “Me and Greg. We’ll wash them off in the river.”
“For Pete’s sake, just don’t fall in.”
Without another word, he and Greg gathered up the dishes. Now that they were dry, the wind felt warm on their skin. They grinned like fools while they cleaned the dishes, but paused outside the door, and walked back inside like penitent prisoners.
Des eyed them narrowly, making sure they were putting in a good effort. He’d been busy too, the quad bike was by the front door and packed with their gear. The wind had dried out their t-shirts and shorts to merely damp and he got them to dress again while he checked his first aid kit.
“You first.” he said to Greg and their lunch table became a surgery as Des deftly removed splinters. Some other dad might have done the job roughly, making it an extra punishment, but not Des. He worked gently and swiftly, finding the end of each shard of wood and drawing it out with tweezers.
“You’ve made a right bloody mess here.” he said to Greg softly, almost as though he were talking to himself.
“Thank you, Mr McAllister.” Greg replied, he drew in a big calming breath and added, “I’m really glad you were here to save us.”
Des almost replied and then stopped. He glanced at Billy and looked away again, but it was too late.
“Yeah dad.” Billy chimed in. “I’m really glad you were here too – instead of in the south paddock.”
Des’s expression stretched, not a smile but a grimace. “So am I.” he said and them his face grew downright grim. “We wouldn’t have known where to look for you.”
Billy started to protest that Benjamin would have told, but his father turned a haunted gaze on him that stopped Billy’s voice dead in his throat.
“What would we do if we lost you? How would your brother feel if he knew he should have told sooner? Your mum?”
And Billy remembered all the threats he’d made to Benjamin, that telling just wasn’t an option. And how he’d figured that beating the kid up would have stopped the whining. He felt his own lip tremble, he could see his mother’s face crumpling into tears, hear her laments as she mourned over her best and favourite son.
“It’d be my fault if he didn’t tell.” Billy told his dad, genuinely contrite. He was shocked to hear the words come out of his mouth and even more shocked to realise he meant them. “It was all my idea, I had to talk Greg into it.”
“Not much.” Greg said loyally, through tears which both McAllisters pretended not to see. “I wanted to do it, I got the inner tubes from my brother’s.”
“He’s been blaming every man and his dog in Maraetawa for stealing those.” Des told the boy, not unkindly. “I’ll have a word with him and set him straight.” This didn’t have the desired effect.
Greg wailed. “Aunty’s going to kill me!”
Billy was shaken to his core. “Dad, she’ll ban me. Again!” Now he began to cry as well. Through bubbles of snot, he told his dad about the note they’d given Aroha to pass on to their teacher.
Through his tears, Billy could see his dad mulling that over. Greg had been helping more and more at the farm with Billy. Mrs Henare would be sure to tell Billy’s mum why the boys were banned from seeing each other again. Des would have to explain why he was so luckily on hand to save the boys.
“Enough!” Des said firmly. “Men don’t blubber and men don’t blab.”
Billy grabbed Greg’s arm and shook him until Greg also stopped crying.
“Now,” Des said, “this only works because we’re telling the truth, we just need to be very careful about how we tell it. Got it?”
They rode up the track, arriving low in the valley below the pub, down by the bay where they’d first had their crazy idea.
“So far so good, boys.”
Which was not really how the boys were seeing it. They could never boast about their ride down the river. None of the kids at school would ever admire their exploits, it couldn’t be risked. They looked up at Mr Wilson’s dairy, where Aroha and Benjamin would be getting ice-cream after school, and Billy and Greg would not.
They arrived at the school just as the bell rang for the end of lunch. Mrs Abercrombie saw the trio coming through the gate and went to meet them.”Mr McAllister,” she said in tones that made the boys tremble, and him grin charmingly. “Can you please explain to me what’s been going on this morning?”
“Certainly.” Des clapped the boys on the shoulders and said, without hesitation or drop in his gaze; “I had some important plans for this morning. As soon as I saw the boys I decided they should be with me. It was very hard work, but they put in a good effort. I’d still be there without them.” He pushed the boys forward. “Show her your hands boys. I’ll have hell to pay from the women folk when they see those.”
Mrs Abercrombie went from suspicion to concern as she saw their cuts and blisters. She gathered them to herself, for all the world like a mother hen with threatened chicks. “Thank you for bringing them back to school and explaining, Mr McAllister.” She paused, mid turn and added. “There was a note..?”
“Ah yes.” Des hitched his smile up a notch. “The boy wrote it. I had my mind on the job at hand, I’m afraid.” He shrugged, suddenly a chagrined little boy. “Which reminds me, could you ring Bella Henare and let her know that Greg’s been with me?”
“Oh, certainly, I have to call her again anyway, to let her know he’s turned up.” Mrs Abercrombie said, happy to collude with the charming farmer, so busy he’d forgotten to even let people know – “And Mrs McAllister? I couldn’t get hold of her this morning.”
Des had turned and was almost out the gate when she asked. He stopped in his tracks and Billy could see that, while everything else had been easy for Des McAllister, lying to his wife would not be.
“She’s been away today. Probably why we weren’t all in our proper places.” Des smiled, a little crookedly. “We’re all at sea without her.”