by Sandra Arnold
The skinny winding road up Takaka Hill left me in no doubt that I should not have attempted the eight-hour journey to Golden Bay without stopping. I needed to stop now and get out to clear my head, but there was a car right behind me. I glanced at it in my rear view mirror. A bright red Ferrari. Very flash. If Jed had been with me he’d’ve been salivating. I wondered how I could signal to the driver to drop back a bit so I could stop. I wound down my window and stuck my hand out then checked in the rear mirror again. Too late, I saw the bend. Then the sound of graunching metal and the crack of my head on the dashboard. The last thing I thought was that Evan’s sister was right.
When I came to, it was dark. For a few seconds I had no idea where I was, then my brain turned on an action replay. But the bit between driving up the hill and my head hitting the dashboard was a blank. ‘Oh shit!’ I groaned out loud. ‘I don’t believe this!’
The clock had stopped at 7.15. I rubbed my head and arms to feel for crushed bones, and, to my amazement, found I was still in one piece, though my body felt as though a steam roller had run over it. Gingerly I got out of the car and inspected the damage with a torch. The left wing was smashed. The rest looked okay so I got back in and tried the ignition. It started first time, so I drove away cautiously, listening for sounds that would indicate trouble. None came.
Half an hour later I arrived at Pohara beach. I stopped the car outside the cabin and climbed out, breathing in the cool night air. Faintly, over the dunes, came the shush-shushing of the sea. The shrill cry of a weka cut through the night. The sky was full of stars. I was so grateful to be here. Four whole days with no studying and no waitressing. My head still hurt and I had the feeling I’d forgotten something. Then two things hit me. First, that standing here in one piece was probably more than I deserved. Second that Evan’s sister was wrong. Not that it ever bothered me anyway, but it worried the hell out of Evan for a long time. I could get my brother Jed to fix the left wing before Evan got back from the shearing, so he need never know about the accident. On the other hand Jed wouldn’t be able to stop himself from blabbing. He’d been there at the tarot reading too.
I unlocked the door, went in and switched on the light, breathing in the familiar musty dusty smell. The old green sofa, the threadbare mats, the cracked cups with odd saucers. My parents had owned the cabin for as long as I could remember. It was very small and basic and furnished with well-used discards from home. Every cup and spoon and chair held a memory of holidays. My mother painting on the dunes. My father teaching us to swim and play cricket. My sister Hannah’s wedding. We’d made a bridal path right here on the beach with hundreds of shells for her to walk up with dad when they got out of the boat. Typical of Hannah to wear shorts and a t-shirt, even if they were white. Evan and I floating in the sea at midnight, last summer, planning our trip to Africa after graduation. Maybe we’d get married there, in the jungle. Churches and wedding dresses weren’t my thing either.
Tiredness was, by now, beginning to overwhelm me. I had barely enough energy to pull off my clothes and toss my sleeping bag on the bed. When at last I crawled inside, the ‘what ifs…’ danced through my head, like little black imps. I shook them out. That was Evan’s territory, not mine.
The screaming of seagulls woke me in the morning. I opened my eyes and blinked at the sunshine creeping into the room through a tear in the curtain. I stared for a moment at the faded blue walls covered with my mother’s paintings of sea and bush, then remembered where I was. I stretched and yawned. My head no longer hurt and my body felt as if it belonged to me again. The day was going to be hot and I didn’t want to waste a single second of it. I pulled on my shorts and t-shirt and opened the door.
The beach lay long and deserted and golden in the sunlight. The sea was as smooth as glass. I ran over the damp grass and pulled off my clothes. The first shock of cold water made me gasp and my laughter echoed in the stillness. I swam till my limbs began to ache and hunger made me abandon the sea and make for the shore. I grabbed my clothes, but as I didn’t expect to see anyone, I didn’t bother putting them on.
My head was full of sunshine, blue sky, green bush and the prospect of sizzling bacon and eggs as I headed towards the dunes, so when I heard the child’s voice I jumped in the air. I wheeled around to see a tiny pixie of a boy with blonde hair and huge brown eyes.
‘Where on earth did you come from?’ I gasped.
He gazed at me for a moment then pointed in the direction of a group of cabins further up the beach from mine.
‘But, what are you doing here? There’s never anyone here in March. Shouldn’t you be in school?’
‘Yeah, but I’ve been ill. I was in hospital. The doctors said I died twice on the operating table.’
I stared at him in astonishment, then remembered my nakedness. Quickly I pulled my clothes on. The kid couldn’t have been more than six or seven and here he was talking about dying on an operating table as if he were discussing having his knee bandaged.
‘Are you okay now?’
He nodded. ‘We’ve come here for a holiday to help me get better.’
‘Me and Dad.’
‘What’s your name?’
‘Jeremy. My dad’s Gilbert. Everyone calls him Gil.’
‘And where’s your mum, Jeremy?’
‘She died when I was little.’ Such a matter-of-fact tone for a little kid.
‘That’s terrible,’ I said. ‘I’m so sorry.’
He shrugged. ‘Sometimes I dream about her. And when I was in hospital she was beside my bed. Nobody believed me. They said I had a fever. But I saw her, I did. Do you believe me?’
I looked at him for a moment, not knowing to say, then I just said, ‘She was real to you, and that’s all that matters.’
He gazed at me as if he were expecting me to say more. I felt embarrassed to be having this conversation and horribly aware that I didn’t know how to handle it. I stood up. ‘Well,’ I said awkwardly. ‘I’d better get going. I haven’t had any breakfast yet. See you around, Jeremy.’
‘See ya,’ he said. As I walked away he called after me, ‘Are you married?’
I turned round and shook my head.
Back in the cabin I put some bacon on the stove to fry and began unpacking. My watch wouldn’t start and I had no idea of the time, but it didn’t matter. I drank my coffee and bit into the hot buttery toast. Honey dribbled down my chin. I breathed deeply. Four whole days. Bliss.
After my breakfast I decided to go for a long walk on the beach. The sand was warm and gritty under my bare feet. I crunched the shells with my toes and listened to the cracking. My brother and I had written Damien and Hannah in the sand surrounded by a heart of coloured pebbles for them to stand in with the celebrant. Over the heart we’d built an arch of driftwood and dried seaweed. As she stepped out the boat, into the water, Damien couldn’t keep his eyes off her and I couldn’t keep my eyes off his best man. Evan was the most gorgeous guy I’d ever seen and I was too terrified to speak to him till we were all roasting marshmallows on the bonfire that night and by then I’d drunk so much wine and eaten so much shellfish that I didn’t care that I sang like a frog and he had the voice of an angel. If he noticed he certainly never mentioned it. After the jokes and ghost stories his sister brought out the tarot cards for the few of us who were still hanging around the fire. Everyone had the usual brilliant careers, travel and lovers to look forward to. Evan would meet a plain skinny girl with blonde hair who would be the love of his life, but it wouldn’t last for long. Everyone looked at me and laughed. I didn’t know whether to be annoyed that they saw me in that description or pleased because Evan was smiling at me. Then she laid out the cards for me. She didn’t say anything for ages, just stared at the cards. Then everyone was telling her to get a move on because they wanted to go to bed.
She closed the pack and said, ‘Sorry. The cards don’t show any future for you.’
Everybody laughed again, including me, but I heard Evan whisper to her, ‘Stupid bitch! What did you go and say a thing like that for?’ And she stormed back to her tent, crying.
I kept telling him it was okay, I really didn’t believe that stuff anyway, and he said it was deliberate because she always got jealous when she knew he liked a girl.
I climbed up the dunes and looked along the deserted beach. A few seagulls flew overhead and glided down to the water’s edge. I watched the clouds form candyfloss mountains and valleys in the sky. Hannah said they hadn’t planned the baby and at first she was so shocked she was thinking about an abortion. Damien was thrilled, however, and was working overtime so they could save up the fare to fly back to New Zealand before it was born. In her last email I got the impression she’d kind of accepted the idea of being a mother but she said after it was born she would get sterilised. She didn’t want kids ruining her figure and stopping her from doing what she wanted. Typical Hannah. As soon as I knew she was pregnant I starting knitting a matinee coat. I had another three months to finish it and I reckoned it would take me all of that because it was so lacy and delicate. When Evan saw me knitting it he just stood in the doorway and stared at me with this soppy look on his face and asked me how many kids I would like one day. I said three or four and he grinned and said so would he.
As I passed the group of cabins behind the dunes I looked to see if Jeremy was around. Poor kid. Losing his mother at that age. And, judging from what he said, his father had almost lost him too. I felt bad that my responses to his revelations were so pathetic. Maybe he was a particularly forthright kind of kid but he’d seemed a lot more worldly than me back there on the beach. I decided to invite him and his dad over for a cup of tea, or maybe even a barbecue, considering we were the only ones sharing the beach.
I heard a door open and shut. There was Jeremy walking away from a red car, holding the hand of a tall, fair-haired man, obviously his father, as even at this distance the resemblance was striking. A red car. There was something familiar about it. A red Ferrari. The thing I had not been able to remember was right in front of me. But if they had been behind me when I crashed into the hillside, how come they weren’t there when I regained consciousness? Had they really just driven on by? I didn’t know whether to turn back the way I’d come to avoid meeting them or stay where I was and remind Gilbert whatever-his-name-was that failing to give assistance at the scene of an accident was illegal.
They were walking straight towards me. Jeremy’s voice had an insistent tone to it though his father kept shaking his head. I heard the child’s words and felt my face grow hot.
‘Daddy I’m not making it up. I did see the pretty lady swimming in the sea. I watched her for a long time and then she came out and she had no clothes on.’ He was so intent on his story that he didn’t notice me at first. When he did, his eyes opened wide and a grin spread from ear to ear.
‘See, there she is.’
The man followed the direction of Jeremy’s outstretched arm. I stared back at him unsmiling. If he recognised me I certainly detected no sign of surprise or embarrassment. Jeremy waved at me. His father looked down at him again and frowned.
Jeremy flushed. ‘I’m not making it up.’
As I was wondering if Jeremy’s father was blind or just incredibly rude, he knelt down by his son and held the boy’s face between his hands. He spoke very softly. ‘There was nothing we could do, son. The ambulance guys said it was instant.’ And with an arm around Jeremy’s shoulder, he walked right by me, over the dunes to the sea.
Sandra Arnold is a novelist, short story writer and essayist. Her work appears in numerous international journals and anthologies, including Bonsai: Best Small Stories from Aotearoa New Zealand (Canterbury University Press, NZ, 2018). Her story ‘The Road to Nowhere’ was a finalist in the 2018 Mslexia Flash Fiction competition. In 2019 her third novel Ash will be published by Mākaro Press (NZ) and her first flash fiction collection Soul Etchings by Retreat West Books (UK). She is on the advisory board and is a guest editor for Meniscus: The Australasian Association of Writing Programs and will guest edit the June issue of Flash Frontier.