Flo was not dressed to be running. A man paused to gawk. His dog strained its leash. She reduced her run to a brisk walk. Dirty snow lay in the shade on the stones. Run! Stop protecting everyone from the sight of you, and run. The last bus from Arrowtown to Queenstown airport eased away. Flo waved a wave at the bus without enough help in it to halt the big, ugly thing. She could hitchhike to Queenstown, except don’t be stupid, she couldn’t hitch. What Flo meant when she said she wanted to die, what she really meant, was she wanted to lie down for a little bit.
Ross carried the dishes in a bucket to the campground’s communal kitchen. He was careful to avoid the slush remaining from last night’s snow drift. A couple in their sixties said good morning. Wife was washing, husband drying. They both had the same haircut.
Travelling around the South Island in a campervan, the husband told Ross, had been on their bucket list for years. Ross held up the dishes bucket, made a joke, and the husband gave him the tip that Ross must, absolutely must, spend a night at Lake Pukaki. Stunning! They‘d just come from there. Lucky with the weather. My gosh. Timed it just right. Someone caught a fish right out of the lake.
Ross was a fisherman, used to be anyway, when he was a kid. He told the couple how he was drawn to rivers, burns, glens, brooks. It must be his Scottish heritage. All that babbling. The water spoke to him. There’s poetry in the connecting principles of earth’s life-system. That’s where meaning is made, in the spaces between two things.
Every summer Ross spun for Salmon in the Rakaia gorge with his dad. That persistent blue whisper. The husband described to his wife the bridge they’d crossed over the gorge. Without looking up, she pointed a soapy spoon at the backlog of dishes. Ross had read that it was the worst salmon season on record. Water’s filthy, and warm, and the fish are disoriented and dying. They can’t find their way back to their natal river, even though scientists found magnetite, like a magnet, in a salmon’s head, which is how they map the ocean. Strange thing is, humans have magnetite in their brains too. Except, for some reason we can’t do true navigation. Ross blamed whoever it was who drew the first map. More confounding was trying to locate the source of a river. True beginnings were difficult to find, and here he was again – at the beginning of a love affair, true love this time, with Flo. Beautiful Flo. Had they met Flo?
The dishes couple were gone, zipped back into their puffer jackets, waving through the window. Flo said she would be back by lunchtime. Ross phoned her. He’d have her on about spending too much money in those expensive Arrowtown shops.
It wasn’t working. It wasn’t the age difference. Actually, don’t mention his age. It wasn’t Ross, it was her. The super close living arrangement might be making her feel uncomfortable, no, making her feel funny. Travelling was a lot of pressure to put on a brand new relationship. Maybe, possibly, they could try being together again in Auckland, where the vibes were better. Except, oh my god, there was no way any relationship was happening back in Auckland. Flo regretted every conversation, every piece of grabbed flesh, every yuck wet tongue thrust inside her, the whisker rash, ugh. So much to regret.
There was so much she couldn’t tell Ross too. She couldn’t tell him he actually looked elderly in his white undies, or that he was so unbelievably boring in real life, or that she was quitting at the shop, or she wanted to crawl out of her skin when she caught him leering, or she felt sick with guilt when she thought about his wife, Paula, who was actually literally the nicest person. She felt the most guilt for Jack and Holly. Especially Holly, who was adorable. She must be so super confused about where her dad was, and who Flo was.
Imagine all the billions of people alive right now, and then imagine everyone who has ever lived in the past, and who will live in the future, and now see Flo, alacrity herself, walk into Ross’s shop and ask for a holiday job. A design student with a work ethic. The girl was a miracle. She reinvigorated him. Flo was the embodiment of a second chance, and what a body. Gee Whiz. It did not seem possible to be at once so soft, and so firm.
Driving a rented campervan around the South Island was a great idea, his idea, a kind of extended sexy staff party. Sure, they were devastated to cancel the month-long European research sabbatical he’d planned – Hotel Bristol Berlin, Yerevan, Casa Batlló, the French Rivera to see E-1027 even before it was opened to the public. He’d promised Flo an education in mid-century modernism, but then Covid happened and you know the rest.
The truth should be easy, but it wasn’t. The door to their campervan was open, but darkened over with a mesh covering. Orchestral music played. Ross’s face was obscured by a furniture catalogue. A mole on his hand looked like deterioration. He said he was worried, and had tried to call her. Gross. She shook her phone at him and lied that she’d run out of battery. How was it possible that in his presence she felt physically smaller?
When one day Ross looked back on his life, it will be true that his greatest sale was the one he made of himself to Flo. Mid-century furniture sold itself. Aesthetic beauty was obvious. A person was different, a person’s design did not reveal itself so readily. A person’s lines were not so clean. He would not hide his passionate side from Flo the way he had hidden it from Paula. There were so many lessons he’d learned, all of which he’d learned the hard way, and which Flo would learn, with his protection and guidance, the easy way. Which wasn’t to say she hadn’t taught him a few lessons. It was true what they say about the quiet ones.
The campervan smelled like feet, or stagnant pond water. She didn’t mention it because when she said that the bathroom was kind of cramped and sort of, well, difficult, he threatened to drive them back to Christchurch that night from Hokitika.
A cup of tea was exactly what he’d felt like and in she flounced. Her freckles blushing. Delicate. Discreet. The focus when she lit a match, as though willing the fire to life. Six months making tea for him at the shop and Flo knew precisely how he took it; weak and milky. He’d drink his tea, finish this chapter, and maybe they could lie down together, do the old campervan shuffle.
Flo was sitting in the position she’d found most comfortable during the past eight days. Driver’s seat turned around facing the back of the Campervan, feet up on the seat in front, knees bent. Ross sat with his legs straight out in front of him on the bed, like a child. Look Ross, Flo said, there’s something we need to talk about.
With the light like that, in those tights, Ross could almost make out the texture of her vulva.
He was obsessed. Go away, so much go away. Modesty was a word invented by gross men. There was nowhere to hide. Flo lowered her legs.
Remember that time on the Hans Olsen lounge? Or on the Wegner sofa? Or their first time on LC4? The pleasure machine, you bet. Not for sale. Not for a million dollars. He was going to drive them both to Lake Pukaki today. They’d stay a night, then up to Christchurch. Buckle up. No, he wasn’t hearing it from Flo. No excuses. Life was for living. It was time to live.
Tarras on the right Flo. Look at that. Mining huts carved right into the rock. Shall we stop? No? Okay. Use a pot. If she sat up front, she wouldn’t feel so sick. But she wouldn’t listen to him, couldn’t be told. Lindis pass. Tick for the bucket list. Salmon farm, there on the right. That’s where Farro get your fifty-dollar-a-kilo salmon. Life would be perfect if it weren’t for the cutlery rattling in the drawers. He asked if Flo could sort that out. Look at those legs. Pulchritude. Praise be to the pliancy of youth. Flo, hey Flo. You want to sit up front? No? okay. They rounded a bend, and Pukaki! Holy moly, would you look at that. You beauty!
This was the last time. No more settling for ugly people. No more protecting herself from beautiful things. How to love a beautiful person, that’s the confidence people should be selling. Forget how to love yourself.
What Flo loved about modernist furniture design was the nobility of the work. Her favourites were the women; Ray Eames, Florence Knoll, Charlotte Perriand, Eileen Gray. Their male contemporaries; Le Corbusier, Bertoia, even Charles Eames, couldn’t help but be swayed by their penis, and so their work was soaked in legacy. The women worked under a code of honour—to offer respite from discomfort. They understood the pompous vanity of legacy seeking. Flo aspired to that brand of decency.
The blue dot on the map on her phone was pretty much bang in the middle of the South Island. She could not feel further from Auckland and still be in New Zealand. Her lips had never been so dry and look, another silly lake.
The windscreen was an oil painting. A Turner sky. Aoraki’s eastern wedge brooded in shadow. The mountain’s lower slopes dipped into the lake. Straw grasses swayed like an Andrew Wyeth, or a Rita Angus. The blaze of the blonde hillside reflected onto the water. If the windscreen was clean he might be able to snap a photo. After three squirts, the wipers couldn’t clear away enough bug death for a crisp image.
Only one night, thank god.
What a damn shame that they only had one night. This was living. Only one other campervan, and a young guy in a beautiful old car. The lake was a mirror. The sun was bright enough for a swim.
“Razor Love”, such a good song, spilled from an old car. A guy, young, about Flo’s age, sat in the driver’s seat. Something was off about the combination of young guy and old car. His foot stuck out the window and rested on the driver’s rear view mirror. She needed a walk to settle her stomach. Or a run, except she didn’t have a good bra for running. Ross offered to join her. No, thank you, but definitely no.
After twenty minutes walking with the lake on her left, towards the mountains, the sky turned a darker shade of blue. She headed back. Ross had been right, the lake was pretty.
Jack answered. Ross asked how school was going. It was okay. And his futsal final? Okay. Did he win? Jack couldn’t remember. Kick a goal? He couldn’t remember, probably not. Ross panned the camera for Jack to see the view of the lake. Jack said it looked cold, then asked if he was coming back to Auckland, or living in the South Island now with his new girlfriend. These were the moments of ignorance that broke Ross’s heart open. He told Jack to find his little sister, go find Holly.
Ross could smell Holly’s post-bath sweetness in her damp hair. He told them both he was coming home. To live with mummy? No, but he was coming home to Auckland, and he loved them both very much, he loved them more than anything else in the whole world. They looked disappointed.
Jack said mum was crying. Holly added that mummy won’t let Jack live with you dadah because you’re sick. Yeah dad, said Jack, why are you sick? Ross asked the kids to go get mum. Paula said she was there, she could hear him, what did he want? He couldn’t see her. Well, she told him, she was there, and she could hear him, and hurry up, what did he want?
He wanted the kids to know he wasn’t sick. He wanted Jack and Holly to remember there were two sides to every story. Mum’s side, and Dad’s side. Dad loved them very much, more than the world, and he hadn’t abandoned them. To prove it he promised to take them somewhere during the next school holidays, anywhere they wanted. Holly squealed and said she wanted to go back to that place where there was the pool, and the slide into the pool. Paula told Ross he was being irresponsible and cruel to make a promise like that, in these times, there was no way he could guarantee they wouldn’t be in another lockdown.
You have a think too Jack, anywhere you want to go buddy. Australia, Jack wanted to stay with Uncle Robbo again on the farm, and ride the motorbikes. Jack’s smile, there it was. Ross could live on the relief of it for days. True, the Covid situation made international travel difficult, but a bubble was opening up soon. Ross called it a deal. Paula said he was unbelievable. Which was exactly what he was, he was unbelievable. He’d swim the kids to Australia if he had to. The screen went black.
Ross went to find the guy with the classic car, get his story, ask him to keep the music down, find out the car’s provenance. How did a guy so young find himself driving around in a mid-60s Ford Mustang? A 66, the kid told him, and it was his dad’s. A scruffy dog, also used to be his dad’s, leapt from the passenger seat and took off running. It wouldn’t come when the kid called. If the kid wasn’t so good looking, Ross would’ve been suspicious of him.
The lake offered an invitation to cleanse himself. Cold water was great for blood flow. The Russians had been doing it for years. He waded into the freezing water. His body enlivened in the bracing cold. The reflective film on the lake wobbled and refracted in his wake. Woo! The cry, like most of what he did, was involuntary. This was living.
That wiry little dog was in the lake up to her belly. The guy from the car skimmed stones. There was nowhere to be alone. No chance of escape. The guy probably wasn’t some serial killer. Still, his presence was unsettling. For the first time in weeks, the sight of Ross was a relief, even if his head was only a pale buoy on the lake.
The guy’s little dog bounced up to Flo and pawed at her thighs. He apologised. He was cute. His dog was cute, too. What was she? A lurcher, the guy told her. Molly. Irish gypsy dog. She used to be his dad’s dog, and he sort of inherited her. Molly shivered. The guy took off his jumper and rubbed her dry. See, not a serial killer.
Hey, the guy pointed at Ross in the water, your dad’s waving to you. Nail in the coffin. It was so embarrassing. So hot in the beginning, then suddenly so not. Ross thrashed in the lake like an old fool. Wait, he wasn’t waving hello, he was waving help.
It happened in increments so that by the time Ross realised he couldn’t swim back to shore, it was too late. Tentacles of icy currents reached up out of the deep water. A tingle in the tips of his fingers, then numb toes, then feet. He couldn’t feel his legs to kick them. A wave and a scream took all his strength. He tried to float on his back, but his arms wouldn’t circulate. Some latent physiological waterborne response meant that his rigid body bobbed in the shape of a foetus a few seconds longer than seemed possible, then he sank.
He didn’t want to die. Paula would never forgive him. Jack would actively forget his old man, and Holly, despite her trying, wouldn’t be able to remember him. Oh hell. There were more than two sides to every story, there was a third side. An unassailable truth. His heart burst. Oh wow. Words were no use anymore. Even if he could speak, you wouldn’t understand.
A fish floated upside down with the dead eyes of a ghoul. Ross had not been so afraid since he was a child hiding from monsters under his covers. His chest swelled. Chemical flavours overwhelmed his senses. The sour taste of yellow. Iridescent specks turned to strings spiralling away from a central point. Then with frightening conviction, the strings were sucked, waving and threshing, back into the hole. Then that kid with the car was above him, pushing his face onto Ross’s face. The kid looked like Jack, but Jack in fifteen years. The prickle of his son’s stubble on his lips. A pensive face. Jack with a gaping mouth. The river’s source.
Ross tried to tell the kid it didn’t hurt, only the words sort of gurgled and bubbled inside him. He knew what the kid who looked like Jack meant when he yelled dude, breathe! Only, there was no air, no space between him and the universe. Please dude, please, your daughter’s here. She wants you to breathe.
An ambulance was on its way. Flo had to stay on the phone. Ross hadn’t moved since the guy flopped him down on the stones. The guy’s dog kept jumping up while he did CPR, then the guy couldn’t continue for shivering, and then the guy couldn’t speak. His lips went blue and he shook as though something inside him was trying to get out. Then he stopped shaking and looked sleepy.
The dog was licking foam from Ross’s nose and mouth. And the CPR guy? He was lying next to Ross now, maybe sleeping. The woman told Flo she had to wake that guy up, and keep him warm. But how? She had to take off his wet clothes, and her wet clothes, put him in bed, and get into bed with him. Wait, did they have to be naked? If she wanted him to survive, yes they did. Really? Yes, they did. Really? Because Flo didn’t actually know this guy. Could she at least keep her underwear on? The fastest way to warm him was skin to skin, so no underwear if she could bear it. Well, of course she could bear it, if she had to. She just didn’t want to.
When the guy opened his eyes, they were pale blue pools flowing over with what must’ve been the lake. He moaned with each step towards the campervan. She peeled his clothes from his body. Flo climbed in bed behind him, big spoon. The guy’s skin responded like suede where her breasts, stomach, pelvis, and thighs pressed against him. The coarse brush of her pubic hair against his buttocks made her face hot.
Outside, Ross’s frozen body reclined on the lakeside shingle. A relentless string of satellites pursued one another among the stars overhead. The night sky spread a callous white throw of frost over the land and over the body, and a trout rose, sending silent ripples out over Lake Pukaki.
Next week’s short story is “Dancing with Michael Joseph” by Otaki writer Renée.