Next year, Rex thought, I shall use all this. He looked out of the window. I'll tell them to imagine they're driving north and give them the fat sheep of now and the thin sheep of then. I'll fill the landscape for them with hovels and starving peasants and the two-handled engine at the door. Maybe. Or maybe not. 'Pathetic,' he said aloud, a soft explosion in the 'p', a dying fall, the sharp dismissal in the last syllable trailing into the feeling he'd end up teaching the same way as all the others.
The woman walking along the side of the road wasn't starving. He looked at her in the rear-view mirror. She was enormous. In the cloud of dust she was throwing up she seemed barely to be moving forwards at all. Her weight fell from one side of her flowered dress to the other, from the big suitcase in her right hand to the smaller one in her left. He slowed down and pulled over to the verge, stopped the car and took plastic-wrapped sandwiches from the passenger seat. He ate with his eyes on the rear view mirror and felt the pleasure of eating a good sandwich—brown bread, a creamy and nutty and slightly exotic filling—slide away from the sadness he suddenly felt, a sadness on behalf of all single men perhaps, as the woman he was watching got nearer. The sandwiches are so much better here and the women so much worse. He'd try this out on Quentin. And then he remembered Quentin was married to one of them.
She was getting nearer. She stopped and he thought, for a moment, she had seen him—a man alone in a car, parked on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, waiting for her. But all she did was put her cases down, take a handkerchief out of her pocket and wipe her face. She picked them up again and walked on, straight at him, not slowing down, not raising her head.
He got out. 'Can I help?' he said.
She turned towards his voice and at once tears spouted out of her eyes and fell on her cheeks, her dress and in little dark spots on the dust at her feet.
'I've left my husband.' Her legs gave way and she sank onto the largest page 164 of the suitcases. Bare feet spilled over the edges of sandals into the dust, legs rose to knees far apart and guarding a cavern only half hidden by her clothes. Her dress was vast, its promise of summer delight, its peonies, roses and carnations, stopping abruptly beneath her face.
If I leave her here, he thought, she'll fall apart altogether, the head bowling down the highway, the legs taking root at the fence like young trees, the dress billowing and sailing over the green fields.
'I've left my husband.' This time she spoke in surprise.
'What a terrible thing. Where are you going? I could take you to Auckland,' he said.
She gazed at him. 'You could too.' And she was on her feet, suddenly coordinated, opening the back door of the car, putting her cases on the seat with practised sweeps of load-bearing arms. She got in the front and he imagined her hot body bursting through the flowered paper-bag of her dress all over the seat like fast food left too long in its wrapping.
Rex got in and started the car. She settled at once as though she had spent her life accepting situations she hadn't chosen. When they were up to speed she lifted her head and looked out of the window.
'Pigs,' she said. Or pegs. Or pugs.
'Look.' And there were pigs in the field they were passing. She started to cry again. 'We're past his land now. It's gone. Jem doesn't have pigs.'
'Jem's your husband?'
'Jem's the boss. My husband said he'd make a tidy bit on them, but the boss was never one to listen to him. Sheep. Friesians. But pigs, not him. Pigs are work, eh. He'd have been in for overtime or an extra man. Or getting off his own backside. You wouldn't catch him making our lives easier.'
Did the dead, once they found themselves well and truly dead, look back at once on their past lives and make them into stories? He glanced at her old woman's hands clutching the handkerchief in her lap and then at her young woman's brown hair.
'He called me his little bit of crackling,' she said.
'No. Him. His slice off the joint. His pink pork sausage. The tasty morsel near the bone. That was before.'
'Yeah. Before.' There was another silence and she lifted her handkerchief page 165 to her mouth. 'He said he was going to fatten me up. I'd have kids, no problem, once I had a bit of weight on me. But I didn't.'
'What was the use of me, he said, if I couldn't have a litter. That's what he said after.'
When he got to this part of the story, Quentin would look at him sideways. He could be taken unawares by the stories Rex told. A hot after- noon, a Sunday, and he shouted that the story Rex was telling had nothing to do with anything, ran across the playing fields towards the school, missing the story's end, demanding it later and getting a better one.
For the stories depended on him; they were like spinning tops whipped into strangeness by Quentin's life and ways. They needed Quentin hunching over the stamps he was about to swap, throwing his head back before he cheeked a master, lifting one shoulder when he ran with the ball, lazily folding himself in half on the rings in the gym.
Quentin left school and the stories started to slow down. Quentin emigrated and they could barely be told at all. Now Rex was on his way to him once again. With this woman beside him.
'What'll you do in Auckland?' he asked her.
'I've never been to Auckland.'
'Where do you want me to drop you off?' He saw himself stopping, screwing up the top of her tightly so she didn't leak, putting her in a rubbish- bin, sending her suitcases after her.
She said nothing and put her handkerchief to her mouth.
There were houses, a sign in the middle of club insignia—Lions, Rotary, Junior Chamber of Commerce—and they were in a small town strung through the hills like a necklace. The woman turned from the window and the people on the pavement, slid down in the seat and closed her eyes.
'Could they recognise you?' he asked.
'They'd put him on to me.'
'No,' he said. 'They couldn't do that. This is a hire car. Nobody knows who I am.' But he too felt relief when the eyes on the pavement slid away in indifference once they saw the car was strange, just passing through, heading north, not one of them.
She fell asleep before they were in open country again. Now all of her was slack except her hands. They gripped the handkerchief as hard as ever, forcing white cotton through thick fingers. Her hands must have been page 166 broad from birth. They had spent their time holding what came their way, from her mother's breast to her death-bed sheet. Only she wasn't dead, she wasn't even old. The cracks running across them were a calligraphy of working years, an ideograph for a useful past. On the fourth finger of the left hand there was a gold ring, embedded in deep flesh, an inlay of precious metal in filigree. He glanced at his own hands, long-fingered, smooth, effete, unused.
She was a large animal imperfectly tamed, a bear with its collar held by a thinning chain. Then, as he watched, sleep tamed her, making its slow way to her hands till they fell apart and the handkerchief slipped to the floor. Her stillness became part of his quiet driving of the car.
He jumped when she heaved herself up in the seat. The colours of her dress bounced like balloons. She felt for her handkerchief, groping in her lap, her fingers inflated condoms encouraging safe sex. He felt himself smiling at this thought and her face broke into a returning smile as she opened her eyes. She found the handkerchief on the floor, wiped her face and looked out of the window.
'I don't know this land, I don't know whose it is,' she said.
'You've been asleep for a long time.'
She looked at her man's watch.
'I've missed my morning-tea,' she said wonderingly. 'He'll've been in for his lunch and found my note. And me gone.' She fell silent for a moment. 'There's plenty in the tins and in the freezer. When he's peckish he'll think of that. Then again he might go straight to Jem's missus.'
'He might not feel like eating. Once he knows what's happened.'
'Not feel like eating?'
'Do you feel like eating?'
'I haven't had a bite since breakfast. Nothing. All that time.'
'We'll stop at the first place we see.'
The next settlement had a shack that was a café and they both went straight to the lavatories. When he came out she was in front of plates piled high, taking money from a big purse, paying. She carried the laden tray on her strong arms to a table.
They sat down and he saw she had splashed water on her face; wet hair curled round it.
'You shouldn't have got mine,' he protested.
'I didn't,' she said.page 167
He was used to thin girls in his passenger seat, a little wan and wasted by the time they stopped, giving him time to order for them both after he came out of the loo. In the Ladies' their beguiling frailty was re-created with their make-up; he made things ready for them to sit opposite him and sip and crumble and do a little nibbling. And now there was this woman, the first he'd driven since he came to New Zealand. She piled and sorted deftly, sandwiches on one plate, cakes on another.
He decided on tea as the coffee was instant. 'Nothing to eat?' the woman behind the counter said. She too was enormous. 'Get the pie,' she shouted without turning round. 'The pie-warmer's busted and the lady ordered a ham and egg,' she said. 'One of the kids is heating it up in the kitchen.' She took an oblong of yellow pastry on a plate from a young girl's hand and put it on his tray. 'The lady's paid. So it'll be just the tea.' The lady, with no hesitation. In the tea-rooms at home, in Rottingdean or Tomes, a departed wife might be guessed at, forcing him to travel with a Nanny and leading to an unchosen democracy in cars and eating-places. Now he saw that the two of them were already slotted into place. Where? Did she think the woman was his mother? Could she possibly think she was his wife?
It would all fall into place once he arrived. When he got to the bit with the laden plates and the pie, he thought, there would be Quentin's smile, a precise smile evoked by a precise absurdity.
'You shouldn't be doing that,' the woman said as he put the pie beside her. She got up, and with the ease he'd seen when she loaded her cases into his car, took the tray from him, put his tea on the table and the tray on the floor. 'I didn't know what to get you,' she said.
'I'm not hungry.'
'Have some of mine. I'll get some more.'
'You must eat,' she said flatly. For the first time he felt she was looking at him with curiosity. 'Where'd you have your breakfast?'
'At a café. The only place I could find that early.' And then he said: 'Since I came to New Zealand I've done most of my eating at that sort of place. This sort of place.'
'You poor man. No wonder you look peaky.' She looked as if she wanted page 168 to get up, come round to his side of the table, pick him up and take him to the kitchen for a proper meal. 'You're from overseas?'
Why're you going to Auckland?'
'My cousin lives there. With his wife. They've invited me for Christmas. The Christmas period, they said.'
'You must keep up your strength. I'm getting you some sandwiches.'
The sticky sweetness of cheese and pineapple stayed with him mile after mile, long after she had sunk back into sleep again. The landscape he was travelling through was growing familiar—the flow and greenness of the hills, the endlessly grazing livestock, the paint peeling from the wood of old buildings and slapped in bright colours onto newer ones.
And then he saw a goblin farm. Gnomes were growing in rows. He stopped the car and saw a sign, 'Drive In and Choose Your Garden Ornament'. A shop-front was cut into a house, a field was made of concrete and a plinth stood beneath each figure. Like well-kept tomato plants the gnomes were all the same size and shape. They had hands on hips and beaked noses arching towards jutting chins. Their hats were tipped at exactly the same angle, the tails of their cut-away coats identically lifted by an imaginary wind, their boots uniformly bulbous. Their bodies were all the same but each face was different. Black lines painted by hand across smooth brows of salmon pink and between sky-blue eyes made each glare or frown, each threat or little wickedness unique. The gnomes were children grown wizened through small persistent acts of malice, pointing bright hats at the unchosen adult world, deep into manhood and still in cut-away coats. They were there to raise an absent and half-willing smile. Rex had seen that sort of smile before. He knew, suddenly, that Quentin's smile would remind him of this moment when he was there at last and telling him the story of the woman.
He turned on the ignition and saw the sun was lower in the sky than when he'd stopped the car. He drove slowly. There was a plant climbing in fleshy green and purple heliotrope over the farmhouse. It was like nothing he had ever seen before and it made him think of Quentin's wife, unknown, a creature of the semi-tropics, following the sun, making a difference.
No part of the woman beside him had moved. Her hands were curled in
infant fists on her lap, there was a crease in the skin of her wrists and dimples
in the flesh of her elbow. The hair resting on her face had curled and was
damp; she must be sweating. He turned on the air vent to cool her. She isn't
my child, he thought. And she isn't my mother or my wife.
The road curved, the sun struck his eyes and everything outside the car whirled in light. Quentin, school, the goblin farm, Quentin's wife were sucked into the brilliant vortex. The muddle in the seat beside him, the child, the wife, the mother, went in too. Rex could see nothing inside the car or on the road ahead. He drove blind as long as he dared and then lowered the sun visor and put his foot on the accelerator.
Quentin and his wife were waiting at the top of their long drive. Rex stopped the car in front of them. Quentin's wife was in shorts and a tee shirt and her long legs and arms were brown and glowing. Her straight yellow hair shone. Quentin looked as if he'd been got up to appear on stage with her; he too was tanned and shiny and in shorts. He waved. Rex got out of the car and put out his hand. His cousin took it and squeezing Rex's shoulder with his free hand American-style, said, 'Great. Great to see you. This is Jan.' She kissed him on the cheek. 'Rex and ... ?'she said, nodding towards the car. He said, 'I told you I'd bring you something special for Christmas.' They all looked into the car at the size of the sleeping woman, her red face, her open mouth grey with fillings. Quentin said, 'Where the hell did you get her?' and Jan said, 'Does she do anything but sleep? Does she say Mama? Can you wind her up and make her go?'
Rex's bag was out of the boot and on the ground beside him before the woman started to wake up. She opened her eyes and looked at the three of them through the windscreen. 'She's powered,' said Quentin as she began to straighten up. 'State-of-the-art electronics. Almost like the real thing.' She got out of the car, opened the back door and took her two cases out.
'She doesn't think she's going to stay here, does she?' and Jan walked towards her, leaving the two men.
'Watch Jan get you off the hook,' Quentin said and Rex knew in sudden relief his cousin was married to a woman who put things right.
Jan stood by the car. She and the woman talked. The woman was shorter than Jan and, as Rex watched, her dress began to tremble and billow like floral curtains in a sudden breeze, she put down her cases, dropped her face into her hands and sobbed. To think they were both covered with human flesh, Rex thought, the woman's arm and the thin brown hand with scarlet nails Jan had put on it.page 170
Jan started to walk towards the house and the crying woman stumbled after her, a submissive and exhausted beast, not raising her eyes to Rex as she passed him.
'We're going inside to sort this problem out,' Jan said. 'Take Rex to the pool, Quentin, and give him a beer.' The women went in the back door.
Quentin took Rex beyond a hydrangea hedge to a bright blue swimming-pool, sat him down on a recliner chair and pulled the top off a can of beer he took from an ice bucket. He handed him the beer and the low sun beat on his legs covered with thick English trousers. Quentin squatted on his heels and drank. He jumped to his feet as soon as he heard his wife calling. 'That didn't take long,' he said to Rex.
'We're going,' Rex heard Jan say.
He swung his feet to the ground, put down his beer, and followed.
'There's a hostel. Run by the YWCA,' Jan said. 'They'll take her.'
Quentin went with her into the garage. Rex and the woman were left alone. They were being separated as people do get separated: the sick from the well, the weak from the strong, the unlucky from the lucky. They said goodbye as if an ambulance-man was waiting to slam the door between them and then stood in silence while Jan backed a car out of the garage and Quentin put the woman's cases in the boot.
'Jan'll be back for dinner,' he said when they had gone. 'I'll marinate the chops and make the salads. You could get your togs and have a swim.'
His hold-all, Rex thought as he put it down on the carpet, was like a muddy gardener's boot in a boudoir. The room that was to be his was all cream quilting, pink frills and white curly furniture ornamented in gold. He got out of his clothes and stepped into his new swimming trunks as if he were stepping into Jan's underwear, pink and white as the room, barely covering ribs that he could count, breasts neat as cup-cakes.
Outside he plunged into the swimming-pool. He swam lengths and parted the water at every entry as if he were parting the clefts in her skin.
Rex had always wanted what was Quentin's. When he and his cousin were sitting again, they eyed each other to the slow ripping open of beer cans and began to settle down. Quentin started. He stretched his tanned legs into the space between them. His business was going well, very well. Jan was his partner. Import export you might say, and Quentin rocked his hand back and forth to show a little of this, a little of that: keeping an eye on the market here and on production in Taiwan, making the most of deregulation, page 171 steering clear of the bimbos who'd copped it in the ' 87 crash, waiting to buy a house till those same bimbos were selling up. He'd met Jan at a management conference. Quentin swung his sun-glasses between them and they became a triumphal conker on a string that had blasted Rex's smaller one to smithereens.
'My wife.. .'Quentin said and Rex interrupted him. 'You're lucky.' So that was settled. Quentin drew in his legs, put down his sunglasses and turned to his cousin, telling him to stay for their New Year's Eve party and meet some of Jan's friends; he needn't think he had to settle for a Canterbury blue-stocking, he wouldn't be stuck in a South Island university for long. 'That job got you here,' he said. 'The next move is north.'
Jan returned and had Rex on his way to the shower and Quentin getting charcoal for the barbecue before she went inside to change. Rex wondered what he was expected to wear and put on the English trousers again. When he got back to the pool Quentin was in denim and Jan in a backless dress. The evening began with a new ice bucket and new drinks: martini, bloody Mary, whisky sour, mixed by Quentin at a trolley Jan wheeled from the house.
Jan sat close to Rex. The woman had cried again as though tears were stored in her fat and came pouring out in a kind of lipo-suction. She, Jan, was sure that, with her own build—and both men looked at her body—she just wouldn't have that many tears inside her. 'The hostel's OK,' she said. 'But she'll have to go after three days. Unless they give her extra time with Christmas coming up.'
'What'll she do then?' Rex asked.
Quentin and Jan had plenty of ideas. She could get a job in a side-show wolfing cream cakes to a stop-watch, emigrate to Latvia and drive a crane, start a nursery for fattening the children of anorexic mothers. Over their third drink Jan and Quentin imagined the husband she had left, fatter than her (impossible!), skinny, yes, a runt, Jack Spratt, pacing the floor now, ringing the police, or perhaps—Jan threw back her head and showed her fine white teeth against the hydrangeas darkening in the evening light— getting as drunk as they were. Alone? Quentin fed her the question. No, not alone; he'd had his eye on Jem's missus all these years.
'How d'you know,' Rex asked them, 'how did you know when I arrived that you could joke about her?'
'What else could she be but a joke?' Jan said.page 172
She laid the five red stars of her painted hand on Rex's thigh and Quentin handed him another iced glass. Jan twisted away from him in an invitation to run it down the bones of her bare spine. The glass bumped like a car on cats' eyes in the middle of an English road. Then Quentin was on his feet asking Rex for help and they were behind the garage taking the plastic cover off the barbecue. Heliotrope flowers and fleshy green leaves gleamed in the dusk and brushed against their faces and arms as they lifted it up. 'Mind the bougainvillea,' Quentin said.
'Growing over your garage. That amazing plant,' Rex said to Jan when they were back at the pool and Quentin was lighting the barbecue, 'like something out of a fairy-tale. I saw one today. On the road. It made me think of you.'
'Quentin.' Jan raised her voice. 'This strange cousin of yours thought I was like a bougainvillea. Before he even met me.'
'The plant at the goblin farm.'
'The goblin farm?' Quentin lifted his head in a movement of quick expectancy at the beginning of a story. Then he frowned to himself and came over to them. He looked Rex in the eye. 'A real little money-spinner,' he said. 'Slap on the main road. There's still a crust to be made if you corner that kind of market.' He swayed a little. 'I'd advise you not to knock it,' he said. 'What the fuck's a goblin farm, anyway.'
Then there were pork chops on paper plates. Pig. Or peg. Or pug. The salads didn't come and, now Quentin and Jan were quarrelling by the barbecue, Rex thought they were unlikely to come. He ate two pork chops and wondered if the woman had been given enough for dinner. He closed his eyes and when he opened them Quentin and Jan had gone, to quarrel properly or make love, and he was alone by the pool surrounded by darkness, under spotlights, amongst dead glasses and chewed bones. He didn't know how to turn off the lights and was too drunk to clear up. He went inside, undressed and got into bed.
He was creeping into the heart of the woman's sleep and curling up there, safe now the goblins were kept out of their shared and secret valley by her fleshy mountains. He woke and groped till he found a light. He was thirsty. He found his way to the kitchen. There were two wilted salads beside the refrigerator. Rex drank glass after glass of water and took the directory from underneath the telephone. He fell asleep at once with it under his arm.
The second time he woke to daylight. The telephone directory was on page 173 the bed beside him. It was early, just after six. He looked up the address that had been important in the middle of the night and found himself writing it down. He got dressed and made his bed, sorry that the duvet and the frills prevented the envelope corners and absolute alignment he had learned at school. His bag was still packed and standing on the thick cream carpet. He picked it up and there was no sign it had ever been there. The bag was with him when he opened the French windows. He was faintly surprised he was taking it out of the house with him when all he'd decided was not to push his luck by risking a dirty mark if he put it down a second time.
The garden was full of the early-morning pulse of tamed growth; last night and its mess lay hidden behind the hedge. The spotlights he'd failed to turn off then shone pointlessly now. Hydrangea blooms were white and weighty, edged with blue and pink like sheep silhouetted against a summer sky, like the sheep on the hills above the road where she'd been walking yesterday—solid, fat, unsuspecting, pastoral. Change your image of the sheep you see all the time, he'd say to the students, make them ill-fed, offering little promise of wool for your backs or meat for your bellies, as near starvation as the people who tend them. Form images of war instead of bucolic peace. Or that's what he'd say if, after all, he found himself teaching next year.
The car was waiting for him in the drive and he felt a leap of pleasure at the thought of slinging his bag in the boot, easing himself into the driver's seat, feeling the upper smoothness of the steering-wheel with his palms and its bumpy underside with his thumbs, savouring the blankness of the dashboard before he turned the key and the clock came on, the petrol gauge went up, the engine started to pulse.
The map of Auckland showed him where the hostel was. He eased his way down the drive and the car filled him with its power and comfort. When he got to the road he turned towards the city and speeded up. Hostels start their days early and she would already be thinking about breakfast and the moment when she could cover corn-flakes with milk and sugar and put the marmalade where she could reach it. Soon she'll be sitting over her food, he thought, nourishing it with a tender and total attention, centring her powers on the imminence of eating. And then she'll start and, as her bowl empties, anxiety will come into her face, the fear of having had enough. Then what? Sleep. The sleep she sleeps for me.
With her beside him in the car, with her eating sleeping presence giving page 174 him the substance of companionship, he could stay forever on the open road. She could become his way of never having to arrive at all. 'Pathetic,' he said aloud, a soft explosion in the 'p', a dying fall, the sharp dismissal in the last syllable dropping into the void that was his life.
He remembered the swimming trunks Quentin had called togs. They must still be where he'd left them on the rail above the shower. They couldn't stay there and he wondered what would happen to them. He might try a laugh as he asked Jan to give them back for his next swim. He might drop her a note sometime and see if she would send them on to him. Or he might simply cut his losses and abandon them altogether.