Carla’s daughter helped her with her dating profile. They were couch-side at home, sharing her laptop. “I don’t like this one,” Carla said. “Too squinty.” It had been taken in the sand dunes not far from where she lived. She was looking into the sun. “Don’t get hung up on the photo,” her daughter, Skye, said. “Pass me your glass. You’ve put meditation down as a hobby?”
“Is that a problem?”
“Would threesomes be better?”
Skye held her hand out. “Give that back. No more wine for you.”
Skye had been raised on memes and YouTube channels. That was why Carla had finally succumbed to her urging, and to the technology that would, in theory, find her a life partner, someone to “🖤”. Skye clicked on a profile. “What about him? He’s a surveyor. He plays disc golf.” She turned the laptop to give Carla a better look. His face was long. He was wearing glasses. Not smiling or squinting, just head-and-shoulders against a blank background, no mountains or city or anything.
“He looks a bit—strait-laced,” Carla said.
“His favourite movie is Close Encounters of the Third Kind. You made me watch that.” When Carla was Skye’s age, she’d been dancing off hangovers and driving all night to festivals on the banks of West Coast rivers. She hadn’t been managing her parents’ personal lives. First came the festivals, then the soft swamp of cloth nappies and pastel jumpsuits.
He was late. Carla waited in the beer garden near the Arts Centre, where a band played every Sunday afternoon. Places like this, where there was no risk of falling concrete, had become popular since the quakes. This week’s musicians were Argentinian or Chilean, maybe—millennials with tans and coloured wristbands. Carla moved the used ashtray in front of her onto the next table. A man in the booth opposite was looking over. He was bearded and wearing a suit. When she’d arrived her gaze had slid over him without stopping. Now he leaned forward. “Carla?”
He’d been clean-shaven in his profile pic. Once Carla had settled into the booth, she homed in on the sharp cheekbones and grey eyes. “What have you been up to?” she asked him. “Have you come from work?” They had already performed their first negotiation: should he join her or should she join him? The concept of a man and a woman sitting at a table together was completely mundane, generally speaking, but not for Carla, not when she was the woman.
“Actually, I’ve been at a memorial service,” he said.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Were you close to the person?”
“He was the uncle of my ex-wife. My ex-uncle-in-law, I guess you’d say.”
“Okay. You must have known him quite well.” His beard concealed the bottom of his face. That was the difference. His face was cropped.
“Sorry, I shouldn’t have—I know that’s a downer. I didn’t know him that well but we try and stay on good terms, you know.” He gulped back beer.
“Sure, I get it.”
He put his glass down, half empty. “How about you?”
“Well, I went out on my boogie board in the morning.” A toddler ran along a strip of cobblestones between two sections of tables. The boughs of an oak reached over the back fence.
“Nice,” he said. “Sounds good.” All of his speech had a strangely equivalent tone. He was having a horrible time and wanted to leave, was what that probably meant. Face-to-face was difficult—conversation with the potential for nudity. Suck it up, she told herself. Box on.
“Hey,” he said. “Funny thing happened at work last week. Well, not funny exactly. They uncovered all these old bottles at the site where I’m working. It’s been happening a lot, apparently. We have to step back and give the archaeologists access.”
“So what else have they found? Do you know?”
He put his glass down, finished. “Mainly the bottles, and broken bits of crockery.”
“Why did people throw crockery away?”
“They used to dump rubbish in the river, too. Actually,” he leaned in, more enthused. “All kinds used to drain into the Avon. Kitchen scraps, heaps of stuff.”
“So it’s all under there now?”
“The stuff that doesn’t break down I guess.” That was it: the moment when she knew for sure that he didn’t have sex on his mind. When he moved on to talking about boxed timber culverts, she began to visualise her porch and a pot of tea.
For their next mother-daughter “date” (Skye’s term), they hired paddleboats. At first the river ran behind the hospital, alongside car parks and service entrances, but the scene soon became more picturesque. They paddled past lawns and a band rotunda. Their legs were occupied, but Skye still had the use of her hands. “How about this one? He’s a DoC ranger who’s into home brewing and world cinema.”
“World cinema. So, not American?” Carla dipped a hand into the river, which hustled and rippled in its courses.
“I’m not in a big hurry to link up with someone right away.” It was peaceful on the water, peering into the layers of green, at least it was when they stopped paddling and let themselves drift. They passed an envious curly-haired toddler and Labradoodle watching from the gravel. She’d never pictured her own city as Victorian, populated by buxom women in layers of aprons and skirts, pouring out their buckets of slops. “I”m glad we got you out,” Skye said.
“You make me sound like someone’s old mum.”
“Did you know the city’s wastewater used to flow into this river?” she asked.
“Kitchen scraps, heaps of stuff.” She should have met him here in the botanic gardens, or at the beach in the salty wind, not at the pub.
The company Carla worked for did work-station assessments, mainly for medium-to-large businesses. She’d originally trained as a physiotherapist but had developed repetitive strain injury in her wrists. At high school she’d been a gymnast. Her body had performed for her, once. The first time she’d landed a backwards somersault her legs had stretched out to meet the sprung floor and her feet had found it. Here I am, the floor had said. Here. Like magic.
Her last job the following week was the kind she didn’t have very often—a private client, working from home. He lived on a street between a private school and a shopping mall. The house was brick, semi-detached. There was a single car parked in the driveway. He let her in and led her past a peace lily, woven wall hangings and painted masks to the small room he was using as an office. “I’m under contract with a company in Adelaide,” he said. “In the past all of this would have been done for me at the office. I’ve probably developed some bad habits.”
She had him sit at his desk and type. “I’m quite sore here,” he said, and pressed into his trapezius.
“That’s very common.” Neck and shoulder tension was public enemy number one, and it wasn’t all down to faulty ergonomics. The people of the city were storing a lot of stress. “You’re lucky,” she said. “You can use the mirror on this wardrobe to check your angles.” He knew it all already. He had the micropause software. He just needed reminding. She gave him the brochure with the stretch diagrams. “Some people use oil burners,” she said. He didn’t seem the type. “Some people get a massage once a month.” He looked at her more intently, then. Oh God, she thought. What if he’s seen my dating profile? He could be on the same site. He was in his fifties, give or take. He looked like anyone else. He had eyes, a nose and a mouth. Shoulders, hips and feet. His favourite movie could be The Sound of Music or something with James Bond.
“Is that a service you provide?” he asked. “Massage?”
She told Skye about it on date night. Dinner and a movie. “It says so on the company’s website. After my name it lists my qualifications, including my massage diploma.”
“So he read your individual profile? That’s creepy.”
“If it’s so creepy, why do we have them?”
“I don’t know, but it is.” A server came with their noodles. Her top was the colour of a fluorescent melon but she looked tired. Skye asked, “What did you tell him?”
“I told him I don’t do it anymore.”
“No kidding you don’t. Back off, Harvey.” Skye stabbed her pile of noodles. “What happened to the disc golf guy?”
They ate their noodles. They filed into their reclining seats in the cinema and watched as, one by one, a group of college students went crazy and strangled one another until there was a lone student remaining, and that was where the movie left things— with one maniac still wandering the earth. Carla dropped Skye home and kissed her goodnight. When she checked her phone there was a message from Nathan, the disc-golf guy.
She met him at South Brighton. They bought ice creams and took a track through the red-zoned land beside the estuary, past wading birds and Do-Not-Swim signs. He was wearing jeans and a T-shirt this time, but with the T-shirt tucked in. He was so clean-shaven he looked waxy. “Have you heard of Naughty Boys’ Island?” he asked. Weird to hear him say the phrase naughty boys. Weird to see his tongue graze his ice cream. She looked away towards the pōhutukawa next to the track, the occasional ruin of a wall, the hillside suburb across the water.
“Up ahead. Two boys got killed building a tunnel there in the sixties. It collapsed on them.”
“No, that’s awful.” This set off her quake memories somehow, the same tired old loop. There wasn’t much violence in them anymore, mainly aftermath—damage, silt and mud she couldn’t trust. For weeks nothing clean, nothing straight, over and over again, relentless. Not now, she told herself. Change the subject. “They have a good view now, these people,” she said, and crunched into her cone. For the houses behind the track, it was a kind of unglamorous Riviera. There was nothing between them and the water anymore, only this communal lawn, practically deserted, silent as the grave.
“Just sea level rise to worry about,” Nathan said. She didn’t answer right away. There was a risk of brain-freeze if she spoke too soon. “I used to build tunnels as a kid,” he said. “The Great Escape. I loved that.” He hadn’t mentioned movies that old before. He was going off-profile.
“How? Do you just, like, dig down and then turn sideways?” She looked up at him.
“You have to brace it with something. In sandy ground like this you wouldn’t even bother.” He lifted his hands to face each other, palm-to-palm. Shy biceps swelled on the underside of his arms. The track was about to curve around and meet up with suburbia again, hopefully a cup of coffee. “It might seem firm with moisture in it. They might have even propped something up down there.” She eyed the frame he’d erected with his limbs, willing it to hold. “It might take the earth on either side a while to loosen, once the pressure is released. But it will correct itself eventually.” He moved his arms and down it all came. “Here, or here, or here. It would have happened instantly.”
Their little hearts going. Like rabbits or rats, bolting for the open air.
“Stop,” she said. “Sorry. Please.” Her heart.
Taken with kind permission from the short story collection Signs of Life by Amy Head (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $30), recently (and very favourably) reviewed by Sally Blundell.