From The Way Light Falls
He picked Paul up early on the Saturday morning. The Kennys’ house squatted across from Otaki Beach, a slouching villa from which the paint peeled in long, curling strips like sunburnt skin. The combined effect of spray and abrasive sand had taken its toll on many of the dwellings along the beachfront. That’s why he’d resisted the growing trend to buy down here.
He honked the horn and sat in the ute waiting, watching a lone fisherman set himself up for the day in the lee of a rocky outcrop. The sun was yet to make an appearance over the back of the hills, and Kapiti Island basked in the pre-dawn blush which spread 360 degrees around the sky.
He lit a match for his first fag of the morning and jumped, searing his fingers, as a young fella launched himself at the passenger window. In the back of the ute, Blaze barked indignantly, running around in excited circles, causing the vehicle to rock back and forwards. Tom swore, stubbed out the cigarette and got out of the ute.
‘Gidday, can I come too? I’ve got my dad’s old boots!’
Tom looked down at the youngster’s feet; they were clad in dilapidated leathers, the tongues flapping free, the top of the boots reaching halfway up the boy’s skinny calves.
‘Hey mate, which one are you then?’ Tom asked.
‘I’m Alan. I’m eight. So can I come with you?’
‘Next time, eh fella. You need to stay and keep your mother company. She needs a man around the house.’
A dejected look crossed the boy’s face. It didn’t last long.
‘Mum says she’ll take me and Dave fishing though, once she’s done the shopping,’ he said.
‘That’ll be much more fun than hauling your arse up a hill,’ Tom answered. He chided himself for swearing and quickly said, ‘Where’s Paul then?’
‘I’ll go and get him. Mum was making his sandwiches.’
Alan ran off, tripping over the boots and eventually kicking them into the garden.
Paul was sullen and uncommunicative on the drive over the Haywards. Tom eventually abandoned trying to make conversation, wound down his window, and smoked in silence, one hand on the wheel expertly flicking the ute around the sharp razor bends in the road.
Paul finally spoke. ‘Can you close the window, please? It’s freezing.’
Tom didn’t answer. He finished his fag with a deep draw and rolled up the window before he looked across at Paul. The boy was slumped down in the seat, his arms hugging his slender frame. He was clad in a thin woollen jersey with worn leather patches on each elbow.
‘It’s going to be a lot colder up the top, fella. You got anything warmer than that in your pack?’
‘Yeah, I’ve got Dad’s Swan-dri.’
‘Jeez, that thing! Two of you would fit in that, eh? You better put it on though. And your hat. No sense in being cold before you even start walking. You’ll never warm up otherwise.’
Paul didn’t move at first, but finally rummaged around in his rucksack, pulling out a checked Swannie and knitted black woolly cap. He looked around at Tom’s quick intake of breath.
‘Sorry, mate. Just recognised those from my hunting days with your father, that’s all.’
There was another drawn-out silence. Then, ‘Did you and Dad hunt together much?’
Tom shifted in his seat and rolled his shoulders.
‘Yeah, a fair bit. And quite a bit of tramping. In the rugby off-season, you know. Mainly just shooting rabbits and possums, but we got the odd pig and a couple of deer. Your dad was a superb hunter for his size. If you looked back down a hillside once he’d bashed up it, there’d be no signs that a human had just been through. He was like a dancer, quiet and graceful. He’d curse me though, cos I’d come crashing through the bush like a hog on heat and scaring off his prey.’
Paul snickered. ‘He was going to teach me to hunt this summer,’ he said. He paused. ‘So why’d you and Dad stop going hunting together? And why’d you never come round and see Dad? He talked about you heaps. He’s got loads of photos of you too.’
Tom had been half expecting this. He cleared his throat. Clenched the steering wheel tighter.
‘Oh, you know, families and stuff. My wife died a few years back. I’ve been bringing up my daughter on my own. Don’t get much time to hunt or tramp nowadays.’
‘Grace. That’s your daughter, eh?’
‘Yeah, that’s right. Do you know her?’
‘Yeah, I’ve met her. Just down at the Otaki river, you know, with other kids from school.’
‘Yeah, she spends a bit of time down there.’
‘Why doesn’t she come tramping with you? Is it because she’s a girl?’
Tom chuckled. ‘Nah, that’s not it, and don’t let her hear you say anything like that. I’d love it if she came with me, but she’s not interested. She hates being cold and wet. And I won’t let her take books with her cos they weigh down her pack and I end up carrying it. You can’t drag that girl away from her books.’
‘I hate reading,’ Paul said.
‘I’m with you there, son. Waste of bloody time, having your nose stuck in a book when you could be out amongst it all!’
They both laughed, and when Tom looked again at Paul, he’d uncurled his arms and was sitting upright in the seat, looking lost and vulnerable in the bulky Swan-dri.
The walk up the Powell track and over Mt Holdsworth to Jumbo Hut had been uneventful. Even though spring flowers had been in abundance in the bush on the way up, patches of dirty snow still lingered on the top and the wind, though light, was chilling. Tom was impressed with the boy’s fitness, considering what the lad had been through a few months previously. He struggled to keep up with him on the unrelenting climb to Powell Hut, and there were no ciggie stops until the viewpoint at Rocky Lookout.
There, a nosy robin came up to Paul’s feet and he tossed it a scrap of crust from his sandwich. The robin examined the bread, head cocked, and while it decided whether the morsel was worth eating, another robin bounced up and nicked it, much to the piercing outrage of its companion.
Paul giggled, then clambered up to the highest and most exposed piece of rock he could find and stood gazing out at the undulating ridge, before jumping up and tearing branches from the trees.
Tom tried to quell his nervousness.
‘Leave those alone. They’re silver beech. Precious. Be careful, won’t you. You don’t want to slip there and break your bloody leg again.’
‘Yeah, yeah. Watch me.’
Paul stood on one leg, leaning out over the precipice, his arms spread. He looked just like his father, a miniature version.
Tom swallowed. ‘All right, you’ve made your point. Get down from there, we’ve still got some ground to cover.’
Paul practically jogged the gentle route from Powell to the summit of Holdsworth, pausing now and again at the clumps of grubby snow to throw icy snowballs at Tom, which Blaze tried to chase.
‘Cut it out, you little bugger. Anyone’d think you’d never seen snow before.’
‘I haven’t, that’s why.’
At the summit of Holdsworth, Paul’s exuberance was tempered a little by their view out over the blue haze of the Northern Tararuas. He gazed at them in silence, and was only prompted to get a move on by Tom pointing to the time and speaking of food.
There was no one else at Jumbo Hut. Tom lit the fire, and boiled up sausages and potatoes in his billy over the cast-iron stove. He gave Paul his tin plate and he himself ate straight from the pot, perching it on his knees and scooping pieces of meat and spud out with his hands. The pair of them crouched on the steps of the hut as they ate, Blaze lying panting on the ground in front of them. Their view was straight out over the thick bush to the distant lights of Masterton far below. A kereru cooed gently from somewhere nearby. Tom smiled.
For some reason that Tom couldn’t fathom, Paul resumed the taciturn stance he’d had on the drive over.
‘So what did you think of your first tramp?’ Tom asked.
‘Yeah, it was all right.’
‘How’d your legs cope? They hurting?’
‘Nuh. They’re fine.’ Paul practically spat the words.
‘You’re a strong wee bugger, I’ll say that for you. I could barely keep up with you climbing that hill. Reminded me of your Dad, you did. He always left me behind too.’
Paul abruptly threw his plate down on the step and leapt to his feet. Tom noticed his fists were clenched and his jaw was tight with hurt.
‘What’s up your arse all of a sudden? Christ, and they say girls are moody.’
‘Why’d you bring me here anyway? What do you want?’ The boy’s stance might’ve seemed tough, but his voice was full of youth and need.
Tom remained squatting on his haunches, chewing slowly. ‘Settle down, fella. I don’t want anything. Just thought you might like some time in the great outdoors, that’s all.’ He didn’t look at Paul, but he was aware from his peripheral vision that the boy was shaking, as if from cold.
‘I know you must be missing your Dad. That’s why I asked you along. I thought we could swap stories about him. Like the time we came up to Powell Hut and I got up in the middle of the night to take a slash and when I came back in, your father thought I was the legendary hut ghost. He was ready to deck me with his frying pan, till I pointed out my sleeping bag was empty.’
He noticed Paul relax a little out of the corner of his eye.
‘Don’t tell your mother I did this, but do you want a smoke? I find it helps to calm the nerves when I’m upset.’
Paul took the offered rollie silently. He lit it inexpertly and sat on the ground next to Blaze, puffing ineffectually, his spare hand resting on the dog’s heaving flank.
There was a long silence. Tom couldn’t see Paul’s face when he spoke at last. ‘Would you show me how to roll smokes properly?’
Tom snorted. ‘I don’t think I’ll be the one responsible for doing that, fella.’
Another lengthy pause. Tom didn’t speak, but he could feel the tension in the air easing. The boy sure had a temper on him. Well, hardly surprising. He’d been through a lot in the past year. He’d had to grow up in a hurry. In the distance, down in the township somewhere, a siren pealed and a sleepy tui answered half-heartedly from the dense crop of trees in front of the hut.
‘Can I come tramping with you again?’ Paul finally said.
‘Sure. I’d be glad of the company. We can try something more challenging next time if you like. Go a bit off-track, get ourselves lost. First step to being a good hunter is navigation. You have to be able to get yourself home from anywhere.’
‘Can we camp?’
‘If you like. Though you can carry the tent.’
Tom threw the end of his sausage to the waiting Blaze.
‘Cup of tea?’
‘I’ll make it,’ Paul answered, unfurling in one athletic movement. ‘Dad taught me how to make a mean cup of tea.’