“I found something today on his computer”: a walk in the mountains
“You’re spending a lot of time away from your place,” Faith says. “I don’t want you to feel like you have to spend every night with me.”
He frowns. “It doesn’t bother me.”
It’s a surprise when Drew holds her hand across the table later that night and says he wants to come to New Zealand with her. His face seems kind in the dimly lit bar. Four or five times a week for the past six months they’ve met up for a drink, then spent the night. She’s been thinking of going home for a while, sick of paying so much rent for her tiny London apartment. Though the apartment has been one of her most stable relationships over the last five years.
“I’ve always wanted to go,” he says. “All those bush walks, that mountain that looks like Mt Fuji. And I can work anywhere.” He orders an expensive bottle of wine and talks some more, making a good case, including London being filthy and Boris Johnson. That moment feels a bit like a completed puzzle, and she surprises herself by agreeing. They’ll try it for a year, two at the most. They drink the wine and it’s like he’s lit up.
They walk to her flat and stop in a doorway to kiss and touch. They go to bed. He usually likes to get deep inside her but tonight he’s too gentle and he comes, and she doesn’t. Afterwards he slips his hand in hers and talks about things he hasn’t before, his family who she hasn’t met, his father, who was a brain surgeon.
“We didn’t get on,” he says. “He’d asked me to go hiking with him and I said I was too busy. He’d been dead for days when a ranger found him.”
Faith pictures her own family tree, rolled out across the lounge floor at her parents’ place. Her eyes are heavy.
“We’ll be fine,” he says, and she doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and she falls asleep.
The New Zealand flat comes furnished and Faith gets a job with a staff car. New houses have been built along the seafront since her last visit, huge modern boxes made from wood and corrugated iron. The shadows on the sea have a stark, vivid quality. The mountain is covered in snow already and everything below the snow line is green and she can feel the sea air in her lungs.
On their first date, Drew talked about his job as an independent programmer. Because it was online, he explained, it was hard to meet people, and though he wanted people to know him, online he couldn’t really be himself, so instead he gave Tinder a go. So far it had only made him feel more alone.
“Going out for dinner on your own – it’s depressing,” he’d said, waving a hand. “Really, I just eat a lot of takeaways.” Faith had been sitting on the couch beside him, and though he’d muted his phone, sometimes it vibrated, and he’d stop talking a moment, and Faith sat there looking at him – fuck he was handsome – waiting for the story to end. Months later, she thought how typical that was, him telling her about a problem that existed only in his head yet making her wait while he checked his messages. She’d later questioned a lot of things.
Back in Aotearoa, her parents and her old friends are a reminder of who she used to be. In her friends she sees all their previous selves, just as they must see hers in her – teenage girls at the White Hart, confiscated hip flasks, crimped hair and house parties they weren’t invited to.
The mountain flows with cold and he complains incessantly about the lack of central heating. They binge-watch true crime shows under the duvet and eat takeaways and fuck and sleep with their bodies pressed together. Faith leaves for work in the mornings when he is still curled up warmly in bed. She doesn’t know what he does all day. When she asks him about work, he says it’s not interesting, that she doesn’t want to hear about that. She can’t tell him she misses him when she’s at work, although she does and at the same time wishes he’d go away.
It’s hot in the living room when Faith gets home from work on Friday. She makes her way across the debris on the floor, computer magazines, barley sugar wrappers, a pizza box – to turn the heater off. She flicks it off at the wall and calls out but there’s no answer. His laptop is on the sofa. She’s not sure what prompts her to flip it open, but she does, and sees a conversation not meant for her. There are more girls, all slim and dark and pretty, like Faith at that age.
Renata and Jon invite them to a Matariki party. He’d rather stay home tonight, he says.
“They’re good friends,” she says. “You’ve hardly left the house.”
He drives with one hand on the wheel, the other resting on her thigh. It’s not until they’re almost there that Faith knows what it is. He’s ruined everything. Did she even know the whole of it? The more she knew, the harder it was going to be to salvage things. Would she want to? She wants to push his hand off her leg, tell him to stop the car, let her out. He’d probably say she was making a scene. Instead, she almost crushes the container of puriri seedlings she’s balancing on her lap with a salad. They pull up to a row of parked cars in the drive. There’s smoke from the bonfire and it’s a full moon.
Renata opens the door. Behind her, the hallway is crowded with people and strung with coloured paper lanterns. The last time Faith saw some of these people they were teenagers and it’s strange to see them now, in grown bodies.
“We were just saying how good looking he is.”
In the past, Faith’s friends have accused her of being picky. She hands Renata the seedlings. They watch Drew shake hands with Jon. She thinks about all the years she’d lived in this place before he came here, all the time they’d been strangers to each other – were strangers.
“Babe,” Renata says, seeing Faith’s face. “What’s wrong?”
Faith puts the salad on the table. She hasn’t decided whether to tell Renata the girls were young. She has no way of knowing, not exactly. There’s no way to get into it all here.
“I found something today on his computer,” she says to Renata. “Now that I think about it, maybe I jumped to conclusions.”
“Don’t tell me – he’s into hardcore,” Renata says.
“They looked pretty young.”
“How young?” It strikes Faith that her oldest friend is concerned. Renata who will say yes to most things because she can’t say no. It’s a good enough answer.
At the kitchen table, he sits with his legs crossed, reading the paper.
“I thought we might go for a drive,” he says. “Stop and get another coffee somewhere.”
She stirs some milk into her porridge, can’t bring herself to ask him. This isn’t like him to suggest an outing, so she nods. What to say? A change of scene might help her figure it out. After breakfast they drive around. He leaves New Plymouth and heads south, towards the mountain. They pass the crematorium, then stretches of trees and farmland. They begin a slow, winding ascent. Trees bend over, forming a tunnel over the road, and they follow the road until the trees finally part. The Visitor Centre sits above the car park, where two other cars are pulled up.
He’s paying at the tearoom counter and his driver’s license falls onto the floor. He looks moody in the photo, the same stubble, but taken a few years ago. But it’s the date that gets her attention. When he turns, she hands it to him. His shoulders lift and fall like he’s trying to relax but he doesn’t say anything.
They sit in the window. The expanse of farmland is vast from up here, dwarfing the city. The coast sweeps around to Ngāmotu Beach and the port where the old power station chimney stands out. Paritutu rock, and the smaller islands around Back Beach. The silver sea is too bright to look at for long. Faith coughs, clearing the dry feeling in her throat and says, “I thought you said you were thirty-three.”
“Sorry?” He looks as if he hasn’t heard right. “What made you think that?”
“Your Tinder profile?”
He looks blank. Not playing.
“Come on, you put your age at thirty-three.”
“Faith, I haven’t a clue what you’re on about.”
“You could just tell me.” She’s not sure why but the way she says it sounds like an apology. She stares across at him. She wants to take hold of him by the shoulders and shake him. Tell him he didn’t need to lie to her, not to lie to her.
“You must have read it incorrectly. You do realise how crazy this sounds?” He smiles when he says it, but he’s fed up with this, whatever it is.
“I just wondered why you lied.”
“You don’t get to talk to people like this, Faith. It’s childish.” Faith closes her eyes. It’s as though he thinks she’s trying to trap him, make him tell something other than the facts.
“Christ, we’ve wasted the best part of the day. Can I assume the ridiculous questions are over now? Let’s go for a walk.”
“I’m hardly dressed for it.” She’s in a merino shift and slip-on shoes.
“There’s some gear in the car. Although I’m not sure why everything is my responsibility.” Back at the car he pulls out new looking tramping boots in her size and thermals and jackets. She is at fault, somehow. He’s standing behind her, holding out a jacket. He doesn’t say anything, but Faith holds out her arms and he slips the jacket on. She lets him zip it up. “About time you walked off some of those takeaways.” Faith reaches hard inside herself, and finds it – finds a smile, and nods.
At first, it’s beautiful. A bush track, clean air, the sound of tui and toutouwai. They pass another couple, coming back down and say hi. Twenty or thirty metres up, towards the top of the curve, is a smattering of snow, starkly contrasting against the deep green of the tree line. They walk in silence. She’s trying to figure it out. She lies sometimes, without planning to, or knowing why. The boots are heavy. Her footprints leave dark marks on the track, fading to chalky white beneath them, worn into the snow. Ahead of them stretches a line of smoothly eroded footprints, set at regular intervals, and she walks in these until she is about halfway up, and the prints are lost in the snow. Maybe she’d read his age wrong, like he said. Faith looked younger than she was. Maybe the girls were old enough. He’s further up the track and he turns and does that smile. The track is steeper here, and sloping. The trick is not to look down, and not to stop. Stopping makes things worse. She’d made that mistake once rock climbing on school camp, and her body had seized up. The words press at her mouth.
“Why didn’t you introduce me to any of your friends?” she says.
“You met Owen, didn’t you?”
“Only because we ran into him that day in Camden. What about your family?”
“Where are you going with this, Faith?”
“Nothing. Nowhere.” She says it too quickly. It occurs to her that she’s scared of the lie, what it represents.
The wind gets up. The jacket feels too tight on her body. She takes her phone out of her bag and checks for a signal. It’s low. Wind pushes her hair into her eyes, her mouth. She begins to descend the path and the slope propels her forward, so she half runs.
She goes into the gift shop at the front of the tearoom. The woman behind the counter is maybe sixteen, maybe younger. Her hair is scraped off her face and she isn’t wearing any makeup. Faith can see the outline of her bra under her T-shirt. She tries to remember herself at that age. She’ll just sit at this table for a moment and get her head together. He will tell her she’s in the wrong, as she’s been so many times before. The young woman is restocking the teas on display behind the counter.
“Excuse me.” It’s him. He’s in the gift shop. How did he slip in here, unnoticed?
The woman stops what she’s doing, turns and smiles. “How can I help?”
“Well, that depends,” he says, looking at his watch. Faith wants to watch without thinking, but her thoughts spiral. He hasn’t seen her. “Quiet in here today.”
The woman smiles, nods. “It is quiet.”
“Are you still doing coffee, by any chance?”
“I can do that for you,” she says.
“Good!” he says, as if approving of her. “I thought you might be closing early.” He’s looking, growing his smile and there’s nothing else in the room and Faith wonders what she’s given away.
Te Herenga Waka University Press announced this week that Ruin, a short story collection by Emma Hislop, will be published in April 13.
Next week’s short story is by Emma Sidnam, whose story “Sex Thoughts between 1am and 2am 26/08/21” is the most popular short story published at ReadingRoom in 2022.