'We want you to go,' announced Sandra's mother. 'So long as we can speak to an adult in charge and it's all above board. This is why we came to New Zealand, isn't it, Daddy, so you could do this sort of thing.'
Gary had trouble deciding who was in charge and who was an adult. 'It's the Young Farmers and young farmers are all bloody young,' he said. There was a truculent silence. Then, 'She can talk to Artie, I s'pose. He's the president and he's twenty-five. He's a dill though.'
'What a pleasant young man,' said Sandra's mother, hanging up with
satisfaction. 'He said it's very well organised and a big place with separate
rooms for boys and girls. You'll have a lovely time, darling.'
They travelled up in a windowless furniture truck. They lay in their sleeping bags like rows of chrysalises. The boys—Sandra did not believe for a minute they were farmers, some of them were not much older than her—drank from beer bottles and guffawed. The girls—fewer of them—said 'oh Kevin' or 'don't Bruce'. Their tones were reproving, their smiles encouraging.
She lay next to Gary. Sometimes he held her hand. Once she dozed off against his shoulder. From a long way off she heard the others: 'Hey Coxy, have another beer. Are y'scared of brewer's droop?
They stopped in a small town and Gary came back with two pies. She bit into hers and the contents dribbled down her arm. They stopped again. Desperate to orient herself, she got out while the boys formed another row at the roadside and relieved themselves of several pints of beer. She supposed the fact that Young Farmers did things in herds was what her mother might call an occupational hazard.
The air was sharp. She pulled her new padded jacket around her and looked up at the sky. It was vast and deep. She could see all the way into outer space and didn't like it much.
'Great, eh? It was the gangly man—the word came naturally, he wasn't a boy—who had lain at the end of their row, sometimes reading, sometimes page 123 smiling at the boys' antics.
'Look. Up there. The Southern Cross.'
She frowned into the chaos of stars. The sky over Hendon had been modestly suburban. 'Where are we?'
'The Desert Road,' said the man, pulling his straggly beard.
'Desert ... ?' said Sandra. But the boys were piling back into the truck and the driver was revving impatiently.
They arrived at midnight. 'Put your boots on,' said Gary, lacing his own. 'It's a fair walk to the hut.'
Sandra had imagined something like the forts she used to build at the bottom of the garden. She had assumed they would pull up at the door. Instead she was given a carton of baked bean cans and another of beer to carry along with her pack, and expected to stumble in a crocodile of drunken yelling boys and dazed girls through the dark and several feet of snow. Up ahead someone waved a torch which kept blinding her. She fixed her eyes on Gary's back and plunged on. Once her leg sank icily up to her thigh and she dropped the box. 'Here, give it to me,' said Gary, and she passed it over, grateful for his kindness and relative sobriety. She felt sorry for the other girls.
The but was huge and cold, like a school hall. 'Where's the toilet?' whispered Sandra, when she'd finally hauled off her sodden boots and socks.
'Outside,' said Gary. She put them back on again.
When she returned there were a only a couple of boys and the gangly man left in the big main room. 'Night,' he said. 'You look bushed.'
She peered shyly into the darkened bunkroom marked Women. It was full of thumps, yells and giggles, by no means all of them female.
'What'ya doing?' said Gary from across the hall. 'I've got us a bunk in here.'
She felt the flimsiness of her shortie nightie and stuffed it back into her pack. It seemed inappropriate for a ski hut, especially a room marked Men. She climbed up to Gary in her jersey and knickers.
She struggled with the zip of her new sleeping bag. 'You don't need that,' said Gary, 'Get in with me.' There was an explosive noise in the darkness and a 'Shh, Barry.'
'I don't think. . .'she began.
'You're frozen,' he said, grabbing her hand. 'Come on. Rattle your dags.'
She wormed her way in. It was unbelievably cramped. She sighed with page 124 relief when he put his arms tight around her and the sides of the sleeping bag retreated by several inches.
A few minutes later, she was forcing herself against them again.
'Because I don't want to.'
The darkness was full of muffled sounds. A bunk juddered for several seconds and when it stopped, a male voice said, 'That you, Coxy?'Someone else honked with laughter.
The two of them lay still and Gary held her hand. Sandra wriggled the other one out of the sleeping bag and saw the luminous face of her watch at quarter past three. Gary sighed and slipped their joined hands deeper into the sleeping bag. At last he was going to sleep. Then like lightning his grip tightened, and for a few incomprehensible seconds, she was grasping an unwrapped, warmed up chub of luncheon sausage.
She uttered a loud noise of disgust and outrage. 'Whoa, Coxy.' 'Shh, Kevin.'
She kicked her way out of the sleeping bag. 'Where'ya going?' said Gary in astonishment.
'Away from you,' she hissed. He grabbed her arm. Halfway down to the next bunk, she yanked it away, lost her grip and planted a foot firmly in the face of whoever was lying underneath. 'Ooofuck,' said whoever it was. Sandra didn't say sorry. They were all as bad as one another.
She felt her way through the darkness to the big main room, dragging her sleeping bag. She groped around the furniture and finally identified the long back of a couch. She got into her bag standing up and lowered herself with a groan.
'Couldn't sleep, eh?' It was Artie, the gangly man. 'I'm on the other couch. Too much snoring and carrying on in there.'
'They make me sick,' said Sandra, 'I thought Gary was different. But he's disgusting.'
'Oh dear,' said Artie's disembodied voice. 'I wondered if you knew what you were in for. When I hung up from speaking to your mum, I said, "If she goes up the mountain a virgin, she certainly won't come down one."'
Sandra gasped. 'Do all the girls, you know ... ?'
'Buggered if I know. The boys say they do.'
'They didn't in England,' said Sandra and her eyes watered.page 125
'I was homesick once,' said Artie. 'They sent me to boarding school when I was ten because the farm was in the wop-wops. I used to lie in bed after lights out and pretend I was home. It made my bones ache.' There was a rustling as Artie rearranged himself in his sleeping bag. 'How'd you meet Coxy, anyway.'
And Sandra told him.
'Why don't you get a job until school starts. You'll meet people,' her mother had said. And Sandra, reeling with jetlag, homesickness and fear, had walked numbly into the nearest factory.
She sat on a tall stool at a bench. On her left was an enormous sack of red plastic things like coathangers. In front of her a tangle of white cotton tapes. And on her left a growing pile of the red things with the white tapes looped through each end. She did hundreds, maybe thousands a day. Nobody bothered her. Her boss was a smiling man with a bad leg and more on his mind than the red things. Now and then he'd duck in and grin. And that was all. She never met anyone. And at tea time—she would never be able to call it smoko—she sat in silence so her accent wouldn't give her away.
One day a boy came into the room. He had the twinkliest blue eyes she had ever seen.
'You're a Porn, eh?' He sucked on his unfiltered cigarette and grinned.
Sandra blushed—'Yes'—and kept tying the tapes on the red things.
'D'you know what those are?' His voice rose up at the end as if he was going to burst into song.
Sandra blushed harder and hoped he would think it a reflection from the heap of red plastic.
He inhaled greedily and leaned closer. 'But d'you know what they're for?'
'Not really,' mumbled Sandra, fumbling with the tape.
The boy sprang away, delighted. 'Hey, Bluey'—that was her boss—'tell her what they're for, these Saveyous.'
Bluey's amiable worried face appeared at the door. 'Leave her alone, Gary. She's a nice girl.'
Sandra was gratified, embarrassed and confused. Gary grinned and disappeared. She was uncomfortable with the red things now. They taunted her. She wished she'd gone to work in a shop.page 126
Two days later, Gary returned. 'Gidday,' he said. His eyes dazzled her. 'Ever seen a New Zealand weta?'
'No,' said Sandra, sounding interested and intelligent.
Gary came closer and opened his hand. It crouched on his palm. She gasped and lurched backwards. An avalanche of red things hit the floor.
'Now what did I tell you?' said Bluey, limping in at speed. 'Leave her alone.'
Sandra wanted to cry. Gary was putting the thing out of the window but she would never be rid of the sight of it, there in his hand. Or the stupid feeling that she had brought it on herself.
'Don't worry, girlie,' said Bluey, as they stuffed the red things into a sack.
'He's a dag, Gary. No harm in him.' And he limped off.
'Doing anything Saturday night?' said Gary, lighting another cigarette. And that was it. They'd been going out ever since.
'He showed you a weta and scared the shit out of you and you said you'd go out with him?' repeated Artie.
And Sandra suddenly understood why he had no girlfriend and why Gary called him a dill.
'What's a dag?' asked Sandra, emboldened by the darkness.
'Gary's a dag,' said Artie. 'Dags are where all the shit clings to the wool on a sheep's bum. Sort of shitty lumps.'
Sandra recalled the chub of luncheon sausage in the sleeping bag and decided dag certainly was an appropriate term for Gary.
She took a deep breath. 'And what's a Saveyou for?'
'Sometimes when ewes are in lamb, their uteruses pop out. Specially if the feed's too lush. So you push it back in then you insert the middle bit of the Savewe and tie the tapes around her legs. Though some blokes just push them back and do them up with a safety pin.'
'Thank you,' said Sandra and fell into a deep sleep.
They sat around the but all the next day. The fog had come down. Going outside to the toilet, Sandra was scared of being swallowed up by whiteness. People played cards, drank beer, made coffee. The boys arm-wrestled on the floor. A couple of girls knitted. And Gary refused to speak to her.
She sat next to Artie and watched the back of Gary's emerald-green jersey. She wondered what she would say when Artie asked her out. He was page 127 old. Very old. But he'd be easier to manage than Gary. The tricky thing would be getting her mother to understand this.
'Why aren't you speaking to me?' she whispered in the kitchen under cover of the screaming Zip.
'Why d'you think?' Gary wouldn't look at her.
'Because of last night, I suppose. Because I slept out here.' But he turned on her. 'What the bloody hell did you come up here for if you weren't going to. You must have known what it meant when I asked you to come. You're just a bloody little cock-teaser.'
That night, lying peacefully feet from Artie, she said, 'What's a cock- teaser?' And the voice in the darkness told her.
There was fog all the next day too. Three of the young farmers and one girl who had no knitting decided to go out anyway. Half an hour later, they returned. Two of the boys had careered into each other. One had twisted his ankle. The nose of the other bled copiously all over the but floor.
At four o'clock they stumbled back through the snow with depleted boxes of supplies, and piled into the furniture truck. Gary sat with half a dozen boys up the other end. They drank what was left of the beer and Gary threw up outside Bulls.
Sandra sat next to Artie so he could ask her out.
Her mother was waiting in the car when they arrived. As Sandra yanked her pack from the pile, Artie said, 'See you, Sandra,' and was gone.
'What about Saturday night then?' said Gary, in passing.
'OK,' she said.
'Well, darling,' said her mother. 'Tell me all about it. I bet you've had a lovely time. And you must have seen so much of the country.'