Friday night, the Kauri Arms, the same old thing – pruning gangs come out of the forestry and commandeer the pool table. We settle accounts, talk the talk, take the piss out of Parrot and carry on the way guys do with a beer or two inside them. But when the band fills up the pub with noise, my brother, Jacko, suggests we each grab a six-pack, go back to the house where the music is at least in tune.
Parrot’s a starter, like always, and Billy Nehu. Jacko puts in for Alison, who he’s been chatting up all evening. I collect the money, make up the balance, go to the wholesale, buy the booze. It’s a job I’ve fallen into. While I’m gone, he’ll tell them that, when he was eight and I was five, he already had me doing his running around. They’ll laugh at that. I’m twenty-six now. I’ve been out of his life fifteen years but nothing has changed between us.
We live together, Jacko and I, in the old family bach at Waipapakauri: two bedrooms, tank water, not so flash to look at but comfortable enough and walking distance from Ninety Mile Beach – same place we came with Mum and Dad in the summer holidays when we were kids and described ourselves as a family. ‘The good old days,’ Jacko calls them, then makes a sound like a fart. He’s lived in the house ever since Mum took off – me with her, eleven years old – to shack up with a bloke she’d met from Porirua. Jacko chose to stay with dad, never forgave her, blamed her when the old man died. He says, ‘Breaking his heart was as easy for her as splitting firewood.’ She’s married to the other bloke now, and still not happy.
Outside, while we’re loading beer in the car, Liddie Matich, with another girl I’ve never seen before, comes out of the dark to tug on my arm.
‘How’s about we come along?’ says Liddie.
Jacko shrugs, the way he does. I think, what the heck, what’s the harm, and tell them to get in the back. ‘Hilda’s from Germany,’ Liddie says. ‘She can’t speak much English.’ Which has me wonder how she comes to be with Liddie, who knows less German than Billy Nehu’s dog.
‘Hulloo,’ sings Hilda. Her hand on my shoulder is cool and smooth.
Myself, I’m in between girlfriends and, to be truthful, I’m not too much put out by that. I have a baby daughter in Porirua who I think about but don’t visit because, put together with her mother, and her mother’s talk of permanence, they scare me shitless. That’s how I come to be stopping with Jacko, six months or more now, convinced I’m running ahead of another calamity in my life. What did he say when I arrived? ‘Good on yer, mate.’
Back at the house, beer in hand, Clapton on the stereo, I get a closer look at Hilda: tall, athletic, pretty, with freckles and tight blonde curls, blue eyes and nipples that stretch the cloth across her sweatshirt. She smiles at me, and then she doesn’t. She grins and the grin turns into a frown. What are they on? They can’t keep still, either one of them, and when Liddie comes close, wanting a light for her cigarette, I can see tiny blisters around her nostrils.
‘You’re just a slut like the rest of them.’ These were Jacko’s words, spoken to Liddie when he brought her home one night from the pub and, in the morning, found her in bed with me. And I’d have to admit, with the exception of Parrot – that legend of innocence – I doubt there was a guy in the pub tonight who Liddie hasn’t blown and borrowed money off.
And Parrot? He’s a professional student, works in the forestry on summer breaks: Lennon spectacles, long lank hair, op-shop clothes, owes thirty thousand in student loans and, when you stack it up, he’s not that bright. ‘What do you guys think? Should I take Philosophy next year?’
The question has laughing Billy take out his pouch. ‘I’ll need to give that some serious thought, bro.’
It’s always good gear Billy brings, grown out back of the Kaimaumau swamp, full of heads that pop and sparkle, guaranteed to have the party swing, all of us hoofing and goofing in no time at all.
And, when midnight comes, restless Liddie recalls how we never did take her floundering when we told her once we would.
‘We could have fish for breakfast.’ She rolls her eyes at Hilda, becomes persistent, stands over me, hands on hips. ‘You’re all talk, the both of you.’ She looks across at Jacko who has Alison draped all over him doing something to his neck.
‘Who’s up for it then?’ I ask the room.
Clearly Jacko and Alison will not be travelling any distance from his bed and, as for Billy Nehu, a tow truck couldn’t drag him onto the Ninety Mile at night. ‘Full of ghosts, bro. Fuckin’ kehuas heading for Cape Reinga.’
‘I’m a starter,’ says fearless Parrot.
The four of us then and, while I sort the gear, I’m thinking this expedition might put me – the intrepid hunter of small flat fish – alongside Hilda and those intriguing nipples.
On a moonless night, I need to hook up the light and use its beam to guide us through the dunes and onto the beach. As we go, I explain to Hilda how we catch the flounder, how we hold this long handled spotlight under the water to search them out. ‘We need to see the bottom, right? That’s where they are. They’re flat, right? And sand coloured, right?’
She nods, but I know she only halfway understands. The spear she holds is a miniature Neptune’s trident. She tests its three barbed points with a finger. ‘Poor fishes,’ she says.
Liddie has the second spear and her free hand hooked onto Parrot. He’s carrying the sugar sack we’ll use to carry the catch. She chatters up at him. He puts his arm across her shoulders and she puts hers around his waist.
At the top of the beach the girls take off their shoes and pants. They fold them, make a pile and I mark the place with driftwood. In skimpy knickers, they turn their backs, do a shimmy side by side, all of us giggling like kids on a dare.
We form a line, four abreast, and begin to wade through the shallows, going south towards Ahipara, the glimmering streetlights, ten miles away. I carry the light with the battery in a satchel slung across my shoulder. I have Liddie on the ocean side and Hilda closest to the beach. There’s not half a metre of swell but she grabs me whenever a wave comes through. Parrot is out beyond Liddie, singing, ‘Hey fishy. Hey fishy,’ and Liddie is screeching how cold it is.
We have a clear view of the bottom and see flounder right away. I keep the circle of light on one of them and call out for Liddie to spear it. She misses and the fish shoots away into deeper water. ‘Bastard thing,’ she says. She’s stomping and splashing, she stabs the spear down into the sand.
There’s a yelp from Parrot and, when I swing the light around, Liddie is sitting in the water.
‘She stuck my foot,’ Parrot says.
And truly, his left foot appears pinned to the bottom. The three points of the spear have gone into the flesh an inch above his toes and strings of blood drift in the current. He is holding the spear’s wooden shaft. His knuckles are white, his face made from marble.
‘You have to get out of the water, mate.’
‘I can’t move it.’
Liddie struggles up, hair streaming, hands clamped across her mouth.
I shine the light on Parrot’s foot. ‘Can you lift it?’
He puts one hand on my shoulder. When his foot comes off the bottom, a cloud of blood puffs out from beneath it. Still holding the spear, he makes a noise in his throat and his fingernails sink into me.
‘Now I can’t ever put it down,’ he says and he laughs. Even with a spear through his foot, Parrot acts the clown.
‘For Christ’s sake, pull it out,’ screams Liddie.
‘Can’t pull it out, Liddie. The barbs have gone right through. We need to get out of the water. Grab the other side of him.’
What I need is for someone to hold the light. I look around, yell into the darkness. ‘Hilda. Where are you? Help us.’ But she doesn’t come.
Somehow, Liddie and I carry gasping Parrot onto the dry sand and lay him on his back. I have a closer look at the barbs, how cruel they are.
‘We need to cut them off.’
I leave them the light. Parrot holds onto the spear as if it’s a part of him now. Liddie kneels beside him, hands fluttering like moths.
‘I’ll be five minutes.’
Back at the house, Billy’s car has gone. Jacko has Alison in his room – is he sawing off her legs? When I yell out, ‘We’ve had an accident,’ the recital stops and I wait until Jacko opens the door. All he has on is a shirt.
‘What’s going on?’ He scratches his head as if I’ve woken him.
I tell him how Liddie stuck a spear through Parrot’s foot and I need to cut off the barbs.
Jacko says, ‘You’re joking.’
I wonder should I hit him, but instead I say, ‘Have you got wire cutters? Anything like that?’
‘In the truck,’ he says. He goes back into his room, says something to Alison, then comes out with the keys. ‘In the tool box.’
I go out to his truck and find the cutters. When I return, he’s still there, standing in the doorway. ‘We could do with some help to get him off the beach.’
He stares at me.
‘There’s only me and Liddie,’ I say.
‘What about the German girl?’
Jacko shakes his head. He says, ‘What a fuck-up.’ Then he says, ‘You go on. I’ll follow you down.’ But he doesn’t move.
Two minutes is all it takes. The barbs are cut off and, with a small grunt, Parrot pulls out the spear and throws it aside. Blood runs from each of the three wounds and Liddie grabs hold of his hands. He can walk on his heel but she helps him anyway. We go back slowly to the driftwood marker, where she puts on her jeans then picks up Hilda’s Cargoes. She searches the pockets, pulls out a small plastic envelope with powder in it. ‘This is mine,’ she says. ‘She was holding it for me.’
‘But where is she?’
‘How the fuck would I know?’
We walk back into a silent house. It’s two o’clock in the morning, all the lights are on and Jacko’s bedroom door is shut. Liddie takes charge of Parrot’s foot, washes the sand from the wounds, finds antiseptic and gauze in the bathroom and makes a bandage from a torn up pillowcase. She looks at me and says, ‘You think I’m a dumb-arse don’t you?’
I shake my head. ‘I’m going back to look for Hilda.’
Parrot’s blood has stained the sand. I start from there, walking north, then south. I shine the light across the swells, calling her name and I find her spear rolling in the surf. I search the dunes, hoping she may have lost her way and fallen asleep. But nothing. No sign of her. When the battery flattens and the light fades, I begin to wonder was she ever with us? But her clothes are at the house, on the table, her pants and a pair of flat sensible shoes. Wherever she is, all she has on is a thong and a sweatshirt. It’s cold. The wind is up, the surf is crashing.
Parrot and Liddie are asleep in my bed, clothing scattered across the floor. I uncap a beer. It’s four o’clock. Why am I alone in this? I can hear Hilda’s voice, as if she’s beside me. ‘Poor fishes.’
I call the police. A man answers, his voice filled with sleep. ‘We’ll send a car as soon as there’s someone free. We’ve been flat out since the pubs closed.’ Then he says, ‘People go missing all the time. They mostly turn up when they’re sober.’
Jacko’s clattering wakes me. He is boiling a kettle in the kitchen, and I have retained the thought I had when I hung up the phone – she could be drowned, and nobody gives a shit. What is there beyond that? And there’s daylight on the windows now.
‘What’s happening?’ Jacko says.
I tell him Hilda is still missing and that I called the cops.
‘That’s all we need,’ he says. He’s angry. He looks at the mess from last night: empty beer bottles, roaches in the ashtrays, the smell in the place tells a story. ‘They’ll love all this,’ my brother says. Then he shrugs. He’s made two mugs of tea. He takes them both into his room and shuts the door.
The warm flat beer has me retching. When I stand up I need to hold on. The house has floated out to sea. It’s listing now, sinking and if I don’t move quickly I’ll be going with it.
All my things go back into the bags the way they did when I left to come north. Liddie opens her eyes, looks at me over Parrot’s shoulder. ‘You going somewhere?’
‘Maybe you and Parrot can rent the room from Jacko.’
Liddie frowns for a moment then closes her eyes. Parrot sleeps on.
I stop at the petrol station in Awanui. I buy a pie from the warmer and a can of Coke. I’m eating the pie right there in the shop when Billy comes in. ‘How’s it shaping?’ he says.
‘I’m heading back to Porirua.’
He looks at me in a hazy way as if he’s not sure I am who I am. Then he says, ‘Did you get any flounder, bro?’
‘Not a one.’
He giggles. ‘I’m going up to Kaimaumau. I’ll call at the house on the way through, see what’s what with Jacko.’ He giggles again.
He buys a Jelly-Tip out of the freezer and, before he goes outside he comes across and shakes my hand. ‘Drive carefully, eh?’
I look out through the window and she is sitting in the front seat of his car. When Billy hands her the ice cream, she looks up and gives me a little wave. I wonder should I go outside and speak to her, but I don’t, because there’s nothing left in me to say.