Sport 38: Winter 2010
In the Bush
The glob of jam was alive with wasps. Alan crouched beside the feeder. They were German wasps, their stripy abdomens punctuated with little black spots. They were jostling for position, those on the outer layer attempting to burrow past those underneath, and as a result the jam itself was convulsing on the bottom of the ice cream container. He leaned closer. The wasps were kneading their legs on the jam and kissing it with their mouths and waving their antennae. Alan took the lid and carefully placed it on the container. A few strays, left outside, circled angrily. He picked up the talcum powder. On the side of the bottle was a faded picture of fairies or nymphs sitting in an oak tree, their wings open and their slim little legs crossed at the ankles. He had requisitioned it from Flick's dressing table, which was silted with plastic jewellery, beads, those silly ponies of hers with their ridiculously long acrylic manes and tails and come hither eyes. Everything in this house was covered in an ectoplasm of femaleness. Sometimes Alan wondered how it could have happened that he had ended up as the father of four daughters. When they were babies it wasn't so obvious—Pippa with her feminist ideas had resolutely dressed them in androgynous green, brown and red—but over the years the house had pinkified. Lately, he had felt the unmistakeable wash of a rising hormonal tide. Chloe, who had once been his secret favourite, who had slept next to him in her goose-down sleeping bag under the stars while he waited to ambush the hedgehog that was pilfering their duck eggs—that Chloe was gone, replaced by a foul-mouthed and histrionic teenager. And where she led her sisters would follow.
The talc smelt sweet and a bit off, like old ladies in rest homes. It would do the trick though. Alan had cut a hole in the middle of the lid, just big enough for the wasps to escape through. He sprinkled the talc around the hole and waited.page 16
Kate was watching Chloe's father through the kitchen window. 'Dad's a scientist,' Chloe had apologised to her earlier; he wore walk shorts and knee socks, had a bushy beard and rectangular gold framed glasses that were always smeared with fingerprints, making his eyes look distant and bleary. At this moment he was crouching next to the old water pump at the far end of the section where it bordered the bush, head bent forward as if he were praying or stricken with grief. Every so often he leapt to his feet, high-jumped the sagging wire fence that bounded the Williams's garden, disappeared for a couple of minutes into the bush and then returned shaking his head, only to start the whole process over again.
'What's your Dad doing?' said Kate.
Chloe shrugged. 'Dunno. Don't care.'
She plonked a bottle of Coke on the kitchen table next to a container of ice cream and then lined up two glasses and two dessert spoons. There were six delicately balanced stacks of folded washing in the way, five feminine, one masculine. She pushed them to the back of the table and they collapsed into a jumbled heap.
The ice cream looked like it had melted and reset, icy and yellow around the rim. Chloe crammed chunks of it in the glasses. She poured Coke on top, and it fizzed and spat. She passed one to Kate, and they speared at the floating mounds of ice cream with their spoons.
The door banged open and Chloe's mother came into the kitchen.
'Hey, what do you think you're doing?' she said.
'Um. Having a drink, Mum,' said Chloe, looking up at her.
'Do you think you could ask first? That ice cream was supposed to be for pudding.'
'Sorry, Mrs Williams,' said Kate.
'That's okay, Kate. You didn't know.'
Chloe's mother looked pointedly at Chloe, and then filled the kitchen sink and started rinsing the dishes. Kate, embarrassed, concentrated on her drink. The snow-brown froth dissolved on her tongue, and she drank gulps of the cloudy liquid underneath.
'Aren't you girls going out or something?' said Chloe's mother.
'No,' said Chloe.
'I thought you were going down to the tennis courts.'
'Well can you go and put your clothes away then?'
Chloe ignored her mother, tossed her head back and drained the last of her drink.
'Come on,' she said to Kate. 'Let's go, before we die of boredom.'
She grabbed a half-full packet of gingernuts from the bench and stalked out the door.
'Chloe!' her mother shouted. Kate hovered in the doorway and smiled apologetically, but then ran after Chloe, who was already half way across the lawn.
'Sorry, Mrs Williams,' Chloe said when Kate caught up, in a tinny voice like she'd been inhaling helium.
'You're so rude to your mother. I'd never talk to my mother like that.'
Kate was half repelled by her friend and half admired her. She seemed born to play the role of sullen teenager, one which Kate slipped in and out of uneasily. Her own domestic outbursts, which were rare, generally had a hollow ring to them. Her mother had a way of shaking her head gravely in response to her attempts at selfrighteous indignation, but Kate always got the impression she was secretly laughing at her.
'Watch out for the duck shit,' Chloe said too late. Kate's foot slithered, and the shit squelched up the side of her jandal onto her heel.
'Oh, gross,' said Kate.
Chloe smiled. She had a tanned, oval face, a high forehead and eyebrows plucked into thin arches. She was slightly plump, but in a rounded, taut way, as if her limbs were modelling balloons that had been overfilled with air.
'Wipe it on the grass. It'll come off.'
There was a sharp bark and Kate turned to see Chloe's youngest sister Flick in a tug of war with the dog under the sycamore tree. There was something wild about Flick: she had long clay-coloured hair, grey eyes, and was wearing a black-and-red-checked bush shirt, a muddy pink ballet tutu and gumboots. The dog was a black-and-white mutt. Flick was trying to pull it by the bandana it was wearing around its neck.
'Quiet, Chook!' said Flick.page 18
'Leave him alone, Flick,' said Chloe.
'Mind your own business,' said Flick.
'You're hurting his neck.'
'No I'm not.'
The dog barked again; Flick loosened her grip on the bandana and the dog took his chance and pulled away from her, streaked across the yard and disappeared under the house.
'Chook!' screamed Flick, and ran after him.
'Serves you right,' called Chloe.
There was the remains of a tree hut in the sycamore—the roof had rotted away and one of the walls was missing, but its rain-warped floor was still solid. The two girls climbed up into the hut, ate gingernuts and talked about boys; they went to a girls' school, but both played in the regional youth orchestra—Kate the violin and Chloe the clarinet—the chief appeal of which was that boys made up over half its members. Kate had a fledgling crush on the first violin, which she was trying unsuccessfully to shield from the glare of Chloe's curiosity.
'I could tell him I know someone who likes him,' said Chloe.
'Just someone. I won't say who.'
'No! I don't even know if I really like him.'
There was a sound from below, and Kate peered over the edge of the hut. It was Flick, trying to climb up into the tree.
'Piss off, Flick,' said Chloe.
Flick ignored her and pulled herself level with the hut.
'Flick! Can't you get the message! We don't want you up here. God.' Chloe rolled her eyes at Kate, seeking recognition of the annoyingness of little sisters. Kate smiled noncommittally. She wouldn't know. She told people that she was an only child, although she had in fact had a brother, who died when she was two. Cot death, her mother had explained to her when she was old enough to understand. She reassured her that although his life was short no one could ever take away from Kate the fact that she had a brother. Kate nodded solemnly when her mother talked like this, and swallowed her guilt that she felt nothing for the sleeping baby in the faded photograph on her mother's bedside table.
Flick climbed into the hut and squeezed tactically into the corner page 19 furthest from her sister, who was now, Kate realised, not just pretending to lose but actually losing her temper.
'Flick!' said Chloe. And then louder, 'Mum!'
'I'm not doing anything,' said Flick.
'Oh, for God's sake,' said Chloe. 'Come on, let's get out of here.'
Chloe and Kate shimmied back down the tree, sauntered across the lawn, climbed over the front gate (which had sunk on its hinges and was stiff to open), and set off down the road. After a few minutes they turned right. A little way ahead they saw a woman jogger emerge from one of the tracks that radiated off the road into the bush. She noticed the two girls, ran towards them and then stopped, leant forward and propped her arms against her knees, trying to catch her breath. She had a large round bottom and was wearing clingy blue satin shorts. She looked up.
'Don't go in there,' she said. 'There's a man—exposing himself.'
'No way,' said Kate.
The woman nodded. Her face was red, not evenly, but in blotches— on her cheeks especially, and then along her temples and forehead, and also her neck.
'What happened?' said Chloe.
'He—you know. Just don't go in there, okay?'
'No, of course not,' said Chloe.
'Thanks for telling us,' said Kate.
'Yeah, thanks,' said Chloe.
They watched the woman run off down the road. Kate looked at Chloe. Chloe looked at Kate.
'Shall we?' said Chloe.
Kate felt a starburst of adrenaline.
'Yeah,' she said. 'Yeah.'
They set off down the track. They walked for five minutes, giggling, exchanging looks of mock horror. Chloe ran ahead, hid behind a tree, then jumped dramatically out in front of her friend. Kate screwed up her face, pretended to evaluate Chloe's groin.
'Sir, you appear to have a Cheerio sticking out of your trousers.'
'Huh!' said Chloe.
They walked on. The track narrowed and began to drop into a steep gully. The ground here was damp, covered by moss. The canopy page 20 was thick and the light was muted. At the base of the gully was a stream; below the waterline, whorls of weed shimmered darkly. Kate picked up a handful of pebbles and plopped them into the water.
'Do you think he's still in here?' said Chloe.
'I dunno,' said Kate. 'Maybe. Probably.'
Chloe's eyes glinted in the green light. The bush itself seemed to hold its breath. Every fern frond was clear and sharp. What if they saw him? What if they didn't?
They crossed a makeshift bridge, a plank of wood balanced across two large stones. The track began to rise again, zigzagging up a bank and then levelling and widening. They walked more slowly, began to talk about other things. Then, as they rounded a bend, Kate heard a noise. A scrabbling noise, like someone slipping on loose shingle.
'What was that?' she said.
'I heard something.'
'Oh my God! Run!'
They ran. At first Kate's fear was real; she saw, with great clarity, that it had been stupid and childish of them to come into the bush, that this was serious, not some silly game; but as she ran, and even as she formed these thoughts, they came unstuck somehow, like air bubbles on the bottom of a glass of water which nudge free and float to the top, so the game became one in which you pretend that things are serious—a game in which you tell yourself this is not a game, just as Kate used to have dreams in which she would say to herself 'I am awake now'.
They sprinted, but you can't sprint for long, you can't maintain the intensity of it; and as they put ground between themselves and the sound, stumbling and laughing, looking back over their shoulders, they slowed to a jog and then a walk.
'Oh God,' said Kate, to keep the game alive.
'We've got to keep going!' said Chloe. 'He's probably after us!'
They came to a fork in the track.
'Let's go this way,' said Chloe. 'To the water reservoir.'
She led Kate down the path to the left.page 21
'Maybe I didn't hear anything,' said Kate after a while.
'No, you did, I think I heard it too. It was footsteps, right?'
'Ye-ah?' said Kate. 'Maybe. Yeah.'
The two girls looked at each other, faces flushed, heart beats slowing, suspended perfectly between possibilities. The track widened into a clearing, in the middle of which was a large, cylindrical concrete structure. There was a metal ladder hanging over the wall. It had rained in the night and there were wide, deep mud puddles around the ladder. Kate and Chloe picked their way past them, the mud sucking at Kate's jandals. They made it to the ladder, hoisted themselves up onto the lowest rung, and climbed to the top. They paced the perimeter, looking into the bush, searching for movement.
'I can't see anything,' said Chloe.
'Me neither,' said Kate.
There was a fresh breeze, but the concrete had soaked up the heat of the sun, so they lay on their backs, legs and arms outstretched like silhouettes made by cartoon people who have fallen from a great height. Turning her head to the side, Kate could see minute red mites crawling across the concrete. She squished one with her finger and it left a rusty smear. The surface of the concrete was covered with tiny round pebbles the colour of plasma.
'Want one?' said Chloe, waving the gingernuts at her.
Kate sucked on her gingernut until it went soft and disintegrated in her mouth. Chloe let go of the empty packet which, caught by the wind, scudded to the edge of the tower, then disappeared.
'Nothing ever happens,' said Chloe.
Kate closed her eyes. The sun was making her sleepy.
'No,' she said.
The punga, when you looked at it, had grown massive. Pippa wondered how this had happened without her noticing. Or, strictly speaking, it wasn't that she hadn't noticed—she looked at it many times every day after all, and she had complained often enough that it blocked the winter sun from the living room—but somehow she hadn't stepped back and gained perspective on the problem. It made her of think of how for years she had complained to her friend Lavinia about Alan. He was negative, pessimistic. He ridiculed her hopes and enthusiasms.page 22
He stonewalled her attempts to breech the gap between them. One day Lavinia said to her: 'Pippa, this is all true. Alan is depressed. This is how depressed people behave.' Pippa had stared at her friend open-mouthed, all her words rendered redundant.
A skirt of dead fronds hung around the punga's trunk. Pippa tugged at one, and it came away in her hand. She pulled off several more. Higher up the trunk, the newer fronds were anchored more firmly. She shook one, and plumes of green-winged insects rose into the air. The uppermost fronds formed an umbrella that rested on the roof of the house. She would have to lop those off. She went to the shed and extracted the saw from the muddle of tools on the workbench. She put on her gardening gloves, which were old and dirty and moulded to the shape of her hands. On her way back, she noticed Chloe and her friend Kate were holed up in the tree house. Pippa liked Kate. She was gorgeous but didn't know it yet. She was tall, skinny, all arms and legs, and hung her head apologetically—one day she would grow into herself. Pippa used to worry about Chloe's friends leading her astray; now, she realised ruefully, it was probably Kate's mother who was wary of Chloe. Pippa stopped for a moment and watched her eldest daughter, deep in secret conversation with her friend, and felt an unexpected rush of loyalty to her—rude, confrontational and selfish as she had unarguably become. Pippa had never been more content than when Chloe was a baby. Everything had been the same but different, infused with meaning somehow. Alan had felt it too, Pippa knew he had. She remembered the two of them, standing over her bassinette, and Chloe, pink and dimpled, snuffling in her sleep, and Pippa's hand in Alan's, and both of them looking at her and thinking the same thing: can she really be ours?
Pippa walked back to the punga. Ellie and Josie were practising gymnastics routines on the lawn. Pippa wasn't sure where Flick was— that child was like a cat, silent of foot and prone to disappearing and then reappearing unexpectedly. Perhaps Pippa's energy for the socialising of small humans had waned by the time Flick was born, but there was something untouched about her, and Pippa cherished that in her—of all her children, Flick was somehow closest to her natural state.
Pippa attacked one of the tallest fronds. Its stipe looked substantial, page 23 thick and black, but it gave way quickly under the saw—it was like cutting a baguette with a serrated knife. The frond didn't fall until Pippa wrested it free of its fellows. She sawed off two more. The punga looked lopsided now, mauled. She stood back and scrutinised it. It was, after all, a stupid place for a tree—far too close to the house. She approached it again and fingered its trunk.
'I think,' she said, 'you might have to go.'
Like the frond stipes, the outer layers of the trunk were soft and easy to slice. Pippa felt an illicit thrill. To think the punga had been encroaching on the house all this time, and this was all it took to cut it down. But towards the centre, she hit something hard. She gripped the saw with two hands but couldn't make any headway. The saw was wet and its teeth were clogged with brown tufts. She tried from another angle, again cutting swiftly through the outer layers, but again was pulled up short. She made new cuts, a third one and a fourth. Eventually she had encircled its heart, and tried pushing against the trunk, hoping it might snap, but it wouldn't budge.
She blinked. There was something in her eye. Something gritty and painful. She went inside to the bathroom mirror, pulled down the skin under her eye and saw it: a curve of brown punga fibre along the gutter of her lower lid. She pincered it between her thumb and index finger and pulled it out. A transparent film, mucus or the top layer of the cornea itself, adhered to it. She studied herself in the mirror. Her eye was pink and swollen. She brushed debris from her hair—frond spores and dirt and several of the green-winged insects—and went to the shed for the axe.
Pippa hacked at the tree. There was no grace or technique to her efforts, only grim determination. Drips of clear brown sap oozed from the punga's wound. She was awash with remorse, but it was too late to stop. Though still standing, the tree was mutilated. She came at it on an angle from above and then again from below, like she had seen men do in competitions at the A&P show, remembering how the dry wood splintered under the force of the axe, and sawdust puffed into the air. But the punga was wet, and the axe repeatedly stuck as she chipped out a shallow wedge on one side and then a deeper one on the other. Finally, she felt the punga teeter, and realised very late that she must ensure it didn't fall in the direction of the house—it would page 24 smash the living-room window and possibly the wall itself. She leant against it with all her weight and it crashed to the ground, clear of the house.
Pippa went inside. The house was quiet. Ellie and Josie were still outside—they had finished their gymnastics and were ensconced in an elaborate chalk drawing they had sketched out on the concrete under the clothesline. Chloe and Kate had disappeared off down the road half an hour ago; Pippa had weighed her fury that Chloe had not told her where she was going against her relief that she was at last going somewhere, and had not intervened. Alan was still buggering around with the wasps. Flick, Pippa guessed, was in her room, since there was no sign of her outside.
She removed a dirty plate from the couch in the living room and lay down. Sun was pouring through the window; it was only now the punga was gone that Pippa noticed how dirty the glass was.
She should get up and put on the oven for dinner. She should cut out the fabric for the pukeko costumes she'd agreed to make for Josie's school play. She should go and check on Flick—there were no signs of life coming from her room. But, thought Pippa, if she looked in Flick's room and she wasn't in there, there would be no excuse not to go and look for her.
I will do it in a minute, she told herself, and sank back into the couch and looked out the window at the miracle of an unobstructed sky.
Flick waited until Chloe and her friend were a good way down the road before she began to follow them. She'd learnt about stalking at Brownies. The game was this. Half the girls got to be targets, half got to be stalkers. Flick was a stalker. She had picked her target, a slow, plump girl called Anahera who smelt of wees and had once actually wet her pants when they were singing 'Brownie Bells'. The targets had to walk around the car park outside the church hall, and the stalkers had to follow them without being noticed. When a target said the name of her stalker, the stalker was out. There wasn't much cover in the car park, and the targets kept looking around because they knew someone was following them which Flick thought was stupid because it went against the whole idea of stalking someone. Flick was page 25 the only stalker not to get caught. Some of the stalkers got into a gang and backed some of the targets into the kowhai tree. Jasmine Farlow ended up crying, not for any reason, just because she was a cry baby, but then her mother complained and after that they weren't allowed to play the stalking game anymore.
Flick crossed the road. There were houses all the way down the hill on their side, but on the other side there was a paddock with alpacas in it. Flick thought if Chloe turned around and saw her she could pretend to be feeding them. They trotted over to her and the black one, who was the bossiest, turned his woolly head side on so he could watch her with one brown eye. He curled his lips back and bared his long, stained teeth at her. She ignored him. The first rule of stalking was not to get distracted. You had to focus on your target.
The road ahead sloped down into town, but the targets turned right at Papawai Rd. Flick knew where they were going. As soon as they turned, and were out of her line of sight, she sprinted to catch up. The gravel skidded under her feet, which some people thought meant you had to slow down, but actually leaning forward and going faster was how you didn't fall. The wind swooshed in her ears. This was how you flew. You had to run this fast and then there was a moment when you tilted your chest into the air and let your feet stretch out behind you. Flick didn't do it, but she knew she could do it. You had to save your powers for when you needed them.
Flick ran and ran. There was a taste she got in the back of her throat when she ran really fast, a kind of phlegmy bitter taste that reminded her of the school cross country. But she didn't slow down. If she wasn't fast enough she would lose them: there were lots of tracks into the bush off Papawai Rd and she wouldn't know which one. And then there was a patter behind her and it was Chook, racing to catch her, and they were friends again and everything was okay. Chook ran alongside her, his mouth open like he wanted to swallow the air, his pink tongue trailing out the side like a streamer. He knew not to bark. They slowed as they reached the turn-off. Flick bent down, took hold of Chook's bandana and peered around the bend.
The targets were about two hundred metres ahead. There were quite a few cars parked along this bit of road, mostly belonging to people from town who drove up here to go running or to walk their dogs.page 26
Flick used them for shelter, crouching behind one, then sprinting to the next. Chook sat wagging his tail behind each car, looking expectantly up at her for the signal. They were behind a maroon station wagon, about to make a break for a white van, when someone came running out of the bush ahead of the targets.
'Wait!' whispered Flick sharply. She grabbed Chook's bandana and retreated below the line of the car. 'Good boy.'
She peered around the back bumper. The person was talking to the targets. She was pointing back into the bush. The targets were nodding. Flick thrummed her fingers on the maroon paintwork, which was bubbling and flaking in patches around the number plate. That was when she noticed. The registration number was WF8325. She felt a flash of excitement. WF around the other way was her initials! But not only that. If you minused one from all the numbers you got 7214; seven was Flick's age, fourteen was Chloe's age, and there were two targets (and two stalkers, if you counted Chook).
'Look!' said Flick to Chook. Chook wagged his tail.
Flick put her hand in her pocket and took out her magic trefoil. It was an old fashioned Brownie badge which used to belong to the Witch. It was in the shape of a clover, gold coloured, but sort of tarnished and dirty in the crevices between the leaves. In the middle was the figure of an imp, a little creature naked except for a hat. The way Flick got the trefoil was this. The Witch, who was also Flick's mother, had been sorting through a big tin of buttons one day trying to find a match for one that had come off Ellie's cardigan, and had picked up the trefoil and held it up to the light.
'I had no idea I still had that!' she said. The Witch was always saying things like that to put Flick off the scent. Actually, she didn't forget anything and neither did Flick. 'It's called a trefoil.'
'Can I have it?' said Flick.
The Witch hesitated.
'Okay hon,' she said. 'But look after it.'
That was the Witch's big mistake. She should never have shown it to Flick because the rules were the Witch had to pretend to be nice, so when Flick asked for it, she had to give it to her. And it gave a big bit of the Witch's power to Flick. Because the secret was, if you had the trefoil, no one could hurt you. Flick carried it with her everywhere.page 27
She kept it inside her pocket, and when she needed extra powers, she rubbed it.
Flick touched the trefoil against the number plate, to charge it with the good luck from the numbers. Chook sniffed at it.
'Geddout of it, Chook.'
Flick put the trefoil back in her pocket and checked again to see what the targets were doing. She watched them disappear into the bush. The woman they had been talking to was running down the road towards Flick. Flick tightened her grip on Chook's bandana and they edged around the car onto the traffic side, keeping low until the woman had passed.
'Go!' she said.
Chook tore down the road with Flick close behind, keeping her eyes fixed on the point at which the targets had disappeared. When she reached that point there was a track, just like she knew there would be. Chook, who had overshot by a hundred metres, ran back and circled Flick's ankles, panting. Then he looked at her with his simple, trusting eyes and trotted off down the track. Flick hesitated. Now she was actually standing here, she couldn't help remembering that she wasn't supposed to go in the bush on her own. But she wasn't exactly alone. For one thing, Chook was with her. For another thing, Chloe was in there already.
So she gave her trefoil a little rub, and followed Chook down the track.
After a while the track started to slope downhill. Flick ran swiftly and lightly, stopping every hundred metres or so to listen for clues. A tui called, its throaty clack giving way to peels of liquid song. When it quietened, she thought she could hear the burble of water. And then, faint voices. She kept low and crept silently. She came to a point where the track jack-knifed back on itself and it was possible to see down into the bottom of a gully. The targets! She could see them. They looked small down there, little doll people. Flick swelled with the excitement of seeing and not being seen. She held onto Chook's bandana, and somehow he understood because he didn't whine or try to pull away but lay down meekly. Chloe's friend was throwing stones into the stream, but Flick was too far up to hear the noise when they hit the water.page 28
The tui began to sing again and Chook pricked up his ears and whimpered.
Flick patted his head. The targets were crossing the stream. They continued up the path, and when they disappeared behind a bend, Flick and Chook went down into the gully. At the bottom Chook jumped into the stream, drank, splashed and ran downstream chasing ghosts. When he came back he had water weed on his snout and his coat was soaking. He ran to Flick and shook himself, spraying her with water. It smelt green.
'Hey!' she laughed. Chook ran back into the water and turned to look at her, his tongue lolling.
'No,' she said sternly. 'We have to keep going.'
There was a piece of wood across the stream. Flick put her foot on it. It wobbled. She put her hand in her pocket and stroked the trefoil. It would protect her against falling. She had to be on her guard all the time. The Witch mostly tried to poison Flick, but she laid other traps too. The poison didn't work because Flick always touched the trefoil three times before she ate; if someone else ate Flick's food they would die. She tried once just to see, swapping her plate for Ellie's and the Witch saw her and made her swap them back again. The Witch really wanted to kill Flick but Flick wasn't scared because she knew she would do everything right and the Witch couldn't harm her. It was like walking a tight rope. Other people would be too scared, they would look down and see the chasm and feel its yawning tug. But not Flick. She knew she couldn't fall. And somehow the Witch knew too, and at the end of each day when the Witch had tried to kill Flick and Flick had outsmarted her, the Witch always came into Flick's room and sat on her bed and read her stories, olden days fairy tales like the Little Mermaid and the Snow Queen, and the Witch stroked Flick's hair and Flick snuggled into her, safe, like a clown fish caressed by anemones.
Flick stepped nimbly across the bridge. Chook, grinning, splashed straight through the stream. He dripped up the hill ahead of her, darting every so often into the undergrowth. At the top the bush thinned out slightly and mottled sunlight lit their way. They came around a bend and, towards the end of a long straight stretch, Flick page 29 caught sight of the targets. She waited till they had disappeared again, then sprinted to catch up. The track here was deceptive, shingly, sloping, and as they neared the bend she lost her footing, skidded and fell. She was okay. She jumped straight back up to her feet and peeped around the bend. The targets were running and looking behind them. She waited till it was clear and ran after them but the gap widened, and she lost them.
Flick cried furious tears. She walked until the path forked. Chook put his nose to the ground and then trotted up the path to the right. She followed. She knew if she continued up the hill she would come within a couple of hundred metres of her house. You had to go through some bush where there was not exactly a path; but she knew the way. She darted under bushes and scrambled up banks. The incline grew steeper. She found herself at the base of an almost vertical rise. She considered what to do. She could go back the way she'd come, or try to find a way around, or she could go up. Chook had run to the top and stood there watching her with an air of dumb superiority. She decided to go up.
She scrambled on all fours, grabbing at chunks of grass. The soil of the bank was crumbly and there were loose stones. She slipped, her legs shot back behind her, and she ended up flat on her stomach on the dirt. She took out the trefoil and rubbed it against her cheek. Chook barked and wagged his tail. She grabbed the gnarled root of a tree and continued her climb. She slipped again, and then again, but each time she managed to hold on. She made it to the top and pulled herself over the rim of the bank. Chook sniffed her. She checked herself. Both knees were grazed, one deeply. Pieces of dirt and stone were embedded in the wound. Instead of bleeding it was weeping clear fluid specked with red. She touched the fluid and then put her finger in her mouth. It tasted salty. The graze hurt but she had a way of making it not hurt.
She looked around. She recognised where she was now. If she veered slightly left she would meet a track which would then take her up the hill almost all the way home; then she would just cut through the scrub and be able to climb through their fence. Chook, as if trying to tell her the same thing, ran towards the track and then back again, wagging his tail. She pushed her way through the undergrowth and page 30 sure enough, she could see the track. A little way ahead, and coming towards her, was a man. He was walking like he was in a hurry. Flick had reached a small clearing next to the track, and stepped sideways behind a tree so she could spy on him. But as the man approached, Chook barked. The man stopped and looked around.
'Hello?' he said.
Flick stayed perfectly still. She didn't breathe. But he saw her.
'Hi,' he said.
Flick stepped out into the clearing.
'Is that your dog?'
'Yes, his name's Chook.'
'That's a funny name for a dog.'
'Are you lost?'
'No,' said Flick. 'Are you?'
'I was following my sister, but she ran away.'
Chook was whining.
'Shut up, Chook,' said Flick.
'Yeah,' said the man. 'Shut up Chook.'
Flick didn't like him saying that to Chook. She knew she'd said exactly the same thing, but it was different—Chook was her dog. He crouched down low, and backed away from the man.
'He does that when he's scared,' said Flick.
'There's nothing to be scared of.'
'I know that.'
The man took two steps towards her. He was wearing tracksuit pants and a T-shirt, but he didn't look like a jogger. Flick was close enough to see the gingery hair on the back of his arms. She thought she heard a buzzing noise.
I don't like you, she thought.
'I can help you find your sister.'
He smiled with his mouth, but not with his eyes.
You'd better not come any closer, she thought.page 31
'Hey!' said the man suddenly, swatting at his hair. 'What was that?'
There was something dive-bombing him. It was a wasp, but white. I know where you've been, thought Flick. It came at the man again, then changed course and disappeared into a crack in the tree behind him.
'What the fuck—?' he said.
It was only now Flick noticed the tree trunk was split from its base to the lowest branch. Dozens of wasps—normal yellow and black ones—were flying in and out in a steady stream. The man looked around and Flick could tell he'd seen them. He was directly in their flight path.
'Shit,' he said.
'My Dad's been trying to find that nest,' said Flick.
It was huge and grey and filled the whole inside of the trunk. The wasps were entering and leaving through a hole the size of a fifty-cent piece.
'You have to wait till night-time and then you pour petrol in it,' she said.
'Uh huh,' said the man quietly. He was standing very still. From somewhere in the bush, Chook barked.
Another white wasp appeared and circled the clearing. And then Flick heard a whirring by her ear. It was in her hair. There was a pause, and then a whirr again. It was loud and terrible but also sort of okay if you didn't think about it too much. She felt it creep across her skull and onto her forehead.
The man was watching her.
Flick squeezed the trefoil in her sweaty, dirty fist. She shook her head, her hair swished around her as if in slow motion, and the wasp lurched across the clearing towards him.
Alan was in his shed, hunched over the workbench, which was covered in tools and electrical components: computer motherboards, a soldering iron, a radio with its plastic shell removed and its guts exposed, a box of fishing tackle. He was mixing Araldite with a toothpick on a piece of cardboard. Pippa was standing in the doorway with her hands on her hips.page 32
'I haven't seen her for nearly two hours,' she said.
'She's probably around somewhere.'
'Well I don't know what you want me to do about it. You were supposed to be looking after her. If you'd been paying attention.' He was still feeling pissed off about the punga.
'Just let it go, okay? It was a tree, for Christ's sake. I'm talking about our daughter.'
'Maybe she's with Chloe.'
'Chloe got back half an hour ago. She hasn't seen her.'
The possibility occurred to Alan, dimly, that Flick might really be lost.
'I'm going to phone some of her friends,' said Pippa. 'Maybe she's gone to someone's place without telling us. And can you go for a drive around, see if you can see her anywhere?'
'She's definitely not in the house?'
Pippa disappeared and Alan carefully screwed the correct lids back on the resin and the hardener. He dug in his jeans pocket for his keys, and headed for the garage. But on the way he noticed Chook cantering out of the bush at the top of the section, and as he watched, Flick emerged and clambered through the wire fence. Alan walked up to intercept her. Her face was covered in dirt and tears or possibly snot. Her clothes were in tatters—her skirt was just a few shreds of pink shiny stuff. There were huge grazes on her knees.
'Where the hell have you been?' he said.
'You're mother's been worried about you.'
'You know you're not allowed to go off into the bush.'
Flick jutted her chin defiantly. She'd always hated being told off. When she was two or three she'd become molten with rage over the tiniest things, the wrong spoon given to her at breakfast, the wrong word innocently used in some throwaway sentence—'It's not cool!' she would scream, 'it's pretty!'—and over the years Alan had grown resentful at being held hostage to her temper.
'And just—well—put some proper clothes on, will you?' he said.page 33
She ignored him, and as usual he was at a loss as to how to make her obey, short of picking her up—was she still small enough for him to do that?—and carrying her to her room. Pippa let her do whatever she wanted, and it was impossible now to control her.
Flick stomped down the grass towards the house. Pippa appeared at the door, and came running up to meet her.
'Oh my God,' she said. 'What happened to you?'
'I fell over,' said Flick.
'But look at your knees. Look at her knees, Alan.'
Flick looked down and her lower lip began to quiver, as if she had noticed her injuries for the first time.
'It hurts,' she said.
Pippa crouched and opened her arms. Flick launched herself at her.
'Mum,' she sobbed into Pippa's shoulder.
'Well anyway,' said Alan, 'at least she's okay.'
Pippa took Flick by the hand and led her inside. Alan remembered the feeder, which was still sitting on the grass where he had abandoned it. He peeled the lid off. It was nearly dusk, and most of the wasps had already returned to the nest, wherever that might be. Alan catapulted the jam with the remaining wasps still clinging to it over the fence into the bush.
He went into the kitchen to get himself a beer. Flick was sitting on a wooden chair in the middle of the room, like a princess on a throne, and Pippa was kneeling on the floor with a bottle of Dettol and a hank of cotton wool, dabbing at her cuts. They ignored him as he walked past them to the fridge.
Chloe came in.
'Mum, is it okay if Kate stays for dinner?' she said.
'As long as it's okay with her mother,' said Pippa.
Chloe's friend watched from the doorway. She didn't say much, that girl. There was something unnerving about her, with her long, coltish legs and cut-away denim shorts. Her feet were bare and in between her toes there were little wedges of white stuff—what the hell were they? For a preposterous moment, it seemed to Alan that the girl's feet were blooming with fungus. He saw that Chloe had them too, and that both girls' toenails were painted the same lurid pink.page 34
'Ouch!' cried Flick. She curled her knees up towards her chin out of Pippa's reach.
'Sorry, lovely,' said Pippa, coaxing them back down. 'I've nearly finished.'
'I hope that teaches you a lesson,' said Alan.
'Alan!' said Pippa.
Flick fixed her pale eyes on him. The corner of her mouth twitched.
'So Dad,' said Chloe sweetly, 'did you find that nest?'
'Yeah,' said Pippa, 'did you?'
Alan opened his beer and took a long swig. Out the window the trees swayed; the wind seemed to be picking up.