Ryan saw Olivia naked even before he met her. It wasn’t the intention of either. He was up a ladder cleaning windows at his uncle’s motel units when she came out of the bathroom, arranging a towel, but not fully draped in it. Both of them were surprised, but she knew there was no danger, that he had reason to be there and no access to the room. She just turned quickly and went back into the bathroom, leaving him at the window with the squeegee at half arc. He got down of course and went away, taking the ladder to another unit. He knocked on the door, as he always did, but this time someone came, a youngish guy with a beard and a magazine who said it was fine for Ryan to do the windows. Ryan did wonder how long Olivia waited in the bathroom before coming out again.
Olivia was in the process of leaving her husband and was staying at Blue Sky Motels until he moved out of the family home as agreed. She had her four year old son with her and a fairly new Mazda SUV. Ryan only learned about the separation a good deal later, but he did meet her the day after the shower incident when she came with little Archie to reception and asked for advice as to the best local garage for a warrant. Ryan gave his recommendation, and although she’d given no sign of recognition, or embarrassment, he apologised for being at the window. “I knocked before starting,” he said, “but no-one came.”
“That’s okay. I was in the shower,” she said. “Are there any playgrounds near here? Not schools, but public ones.” He was able to help her with that too.
As they were leaving Archie turned and said with childish emphasis, “I don’t like it here,” and both Ryan and Olivia laughed.
“Nothing personal,” she said. “He misses home.”
You get all sorts of folk in a motel and Ryan had his share of experiences from working at Blue Sky part time. He’d ceased to be surprised by how squalid some people were, how little consideration for others they showed, how likely they were to shoot through, or pilfer. Once the police came for a druggie and they found him half under the bed and unconscious. He didn’t die though. Most people were ordinary, decent and no bother. Olivia and Archie were unremarkable and undemanding guests, and she paid promptly. Colin, Ryan’s uncle, rather liked such long stayers, less work for the team he said. One nighters were something of a pain.
Olivia was part of the customer and communications team at the council and could do some of her tasks from the motel, which made it easier for her to work around Archie’s kindy hours. Her pod leader understood she was going through a difficult time. Little Archie soon became happier with the new life. He liked to follow the cleaners on their rounds, was always watching from the upper decking on the evenings when the bins went rumbling out and would call out the colours of their lids as they went past. He came to the office sometimes when Ryan was there and gave his view of the world with assurance. “A girl at kindy spits at me,” he told Ryan. Olivia would seek him out and they would go back to their motel.
It was a difficult situation for Olivia and naturally she didn’t talk about it much, but by the time she’d been there several weeks she felt comfortable enough to chat a bit with Ryan, even more so with his aunt – mainly about things other than her marriage. In age Ryan guessed she would’ve been about midway between his age and Colin’s. She asked him what he was doing at uni and said she wished now that she’d switched to law. “I’d be independent now if I’d done law,” she said, “and I’d be able to cut through a lot of the stuff that’s bugging me now.”
“It’s boring though, isn’t it, law?”
“Right now I’d settle for boring,” she said. She had a habit of looking away as she spoke, as if the words didn’t matter, or as if her eyes might betray her true preoccupation.
There were several women friends who came to see her, and her husband turned up one Saturday when Ryan was in the office. Maybe he’d been before, but not when Ryan was there. A short man, shorter than his wife, with receding soft hair and wearing a jacket despite the summer heat. A polite man who asked which unit Mrs Alpers was in. Ryan knew he was the husband because as soon as he went up the stairs to Olivia’s motel, she came down with Archie, came to the office. “I wonder if you could do me a favour,” she said. “Just have Archie with you for a bit while I talk to my husband. I don’t want him upset by anything that’s said.”
Archie quite liked being in the office. He could stack and shuffle the tourist brochures, ring the bell and play with Ryan’s scooter helmet. “Mum’s been crying again, but Dad’s here now,” he said, although no question had been posed.
“That’s okay then isn’t it,” Ryan said.
“Dad’s got a present for me, for afterwards.”
“You’re lucky then.”
“We don’t live in our house any more,” Archie said, “and my toys are all there.”
“Well I’ve seen you with the flash little trike.”
“Most toys are there though.”
“There’s not so much room here and maybe you’ll go back to them sometime,” Ryan said.
“I like presents. It’s not my birthday, but Dad’s got a present.” Archie put on the blue helmet and stood in the office doorway, looked up towards his motel unit. The helmet rested on his shoulders, but was still unsteady because his small head didn’t fill it.
Half an hour later Olivia and her husband came down the wooden stairs together, but not in conversation. He waited there while she walked to the office. She lifted the helmet and stroked her son’s head. “Run over to Daddy,” she said. “He’s got something special for you.” Archie trotted off without a word and his mother and Ryan watched her husband take his hand and walk with him to the car. “They’re going to have the afternoon together. It’s important they have time together so he doesn’t get upset, or confused,” she said. “And I really appreciate you spending time with him. There’s not a lot for him to do in the motel.” They watched the Lexus drive past, Archie smiling and waving, his father raising a polite hand.
“You didn’t think of staying in your house with Archie, and your husband moving out maybe?” As he’d been minding the boy, Ryan felt involved enough to be personal.
“Well it’s usually the one wanting the split who goes isn’t it. At least in the first instance, otherwise things just drag on. It would just be so much easier if it wasn’t for Archie, for what’s best for him and not just us. You love him so much, but you can’t have half each can you.”
“Yeah, that must be tough.”
“We’ll get through it,” she said with assumed briskness, conscious that Ryan was a part-time employee at the motels she lived in, not a confidant of her personal life, despite his kindness to her son. “But thanks again,” she said. “You’re good with Archie and he likes being with you.”
“He seems a happy little guy most of the time.”
“He doesn’t realise what’s going on. Kids are so vulnerable aren’t they. I hope we can go back to our own place soon and he’ll be more settled there. All his own stuff and everything. Anyway, I’d better tidy up and get off to the supermarket and chores while he’s away.” As she went out of the office, he wondered what it was that she needed to get away from, and the need so great that she was prepared to put so much at risk.
One of the risks was financial perhaps. Ryan’s uncle told him that Olivia’s husband wasn’t just Mr Alpers, but Dr Alpers, an anaesthetist. “Those boys make big bickies don’t you worry,” Colin said. “Really big bickies. But if it gets nasty she could find herself coming down a peg or two.”
“He doesn’t seem nasty,” Ryan said.
“We don’t know what’s gone on though, do we. If he’s playing around, or she’s playing around.”
“I haven’t seen any guys coming round.”
“No, but she’s not just here is she and she’d be extra careful while lawyers are on the job. And maybe it’s him, with all those nurses at the hospital and him an anaesthetist. You just don’t know do you.” Colin assumed that all marriage failures had a sexual cause. It was more interesting for him that way.
Ryan wasn’t at the motel when Dr Alpers returned his son, and wasn’t there the next day at all because he was working on a tutorial assignment, but on the Saturday when he was cutting back the line of blue agapanthus close to the road, Olivia came over and said Archie wanted to show him the present from his father. “It’s set up on the table,” she said. As they walked to the unit he thought she looked unwell. She was tall for a woman. Maybe her husband seemed short only because she herself was tall. Her legs were thin and so were her exposed arms, the round wrist bones clear beneath the skin. She was pale too, even though it was summer. All that was going on was dragging her down perhaps.
The toy on the table was something called a Marble Run – brightly coloured blocks, funnels and spirals through which a silver ball bearing could career. Archie was doing that with much excitement when they came in. “It has various configurations,” Olivia said. Archie wanted Ryan to have a go and so he put in the ball and they watched its convoluted descent.
“Do it again,” said Archie, so Ryan did. “Do it again,” said the boy, and Ryan did.
“You play with it yourself now,” Olivia said.
“Dad gave it to me,” Archie said. He was jiggling with excitement each time he made it work.
His mother and Ryan stood a while on the narrow wooden decking at the door and looked down on the asphalt parking area, the office, other motels, the line of blue agapanthus partly trimmed. “We won’t be here much longer,” she told him. “My husband’s going to stay with his sister and we’ll go back home.”
“You’ll be pleased about that.”
“In a way, and it’ll be much better for Archie. The bummer is that Barry’s going to contest custody.”
“I’m sorry,” said Ryan, “but the mother usually gets priority, right?”
“It means lawyers, courts, antagonism. A lot of stuff coming out that’s better not.”
“Well it is what it is, and I want to thank you for the time you’ve given to Archie. It’s been important for him and you’re patient with him. He wants to see you today.”
“This afternoon,” offered Ryan.
“It’s not a nuisance?”
“This morning I’ll finish garden stuff, but this afternoon I’ll be in the office. He can bring down the marble run if he likes.”
He did like, and came down with his new toy at two o’clock and set it up in a corner of reception, so in between dealing with customer needs, Ryan looked after him, rolled the silver ball and feigned excitement, altered the configuration at the boy’s request. A woman from Palmerston North who was taking a unit, asked him if Archie was his brother.
Olivia and Archie moved out five days later and Ryan wasn’t there, so never got to say goodbye. She left a card for him with his aunt though, thanking him for his help, especially his kindness to Archie. Although there was no personal goodbye, there was one last and indirect contact, of which she was unaware. The day before she left, the Wednesday afternoon, Ryan was in the unit below hers, replacing a microwave, when she and her husband came out onto the decking above in tense conversation.
“Fuck you then,” she said.
“Okay, whatever. If that’s the way you want it. It won’t be pretty. Just remember he’s my son too.”
“Who’d want you as a father.”
“I know you’d like me dead,” said Barry. “But I love him too.”
“No, I’ve never wanted you dead,” she said, “but I’ve often wished you more alive.”
“Yeah,” he said, the tone resigned rather than angry.
Ryan heard him come down the stairs and he passed the open door of the lower unit without a glance within, but Ryan could see there were tears on his face. Ryan never saw any of the Alpers again, never heard what happened about custody, or the division of assets, or anything else that came out in court, although Colin said there must have been some serious shagging somewhere along the line.
Next week’s short story for Matariki Holiday Weekend is by Becky Manawatu.