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Sport 38: Winter 2010

All at Once

page 171

All at Once

He was happy. It showed in his face. His whole body wore it like a soft layer over what used to be tenseness and bone. Everything about him, his walk, the tone of his voice seemed touched by the one dumb emotion. He held an ugly woman's hand and he kissed her on the cheek. She was the mother and he was the father. The twins took pots and pans from the cupboards of the two-bedroom downstairs flat they rented. All the fight in him was gone. He made things stumble now, made them confused. They tried to hurt him and he laughed quietly because he owned them and directed them where he wanted. They were small and obedient in the face of all his joy. They arrested him. Police woke his family in the morning and at night, in the dark. They listened to his phone and talked to his friends and he smiled and relaxed and continued his work in a slow revolution. He beamed and said hello to the people in the cars outside his home, took them coffee if they worked late and was always full of a lightness that gave him some kind of flight which made him hard to catch and impossible to predict.

She'd saved him twice from drowning. Once in a bath, years before they knew each other. A group of them had set fire to a butcher's shop and gone to a crowded party at a large house to hide They were trying to change everything.She'd shaken him to wake him up and when she shouted 'Why are you in the bath?' he had no idea. Was he killing himself, did she think? Was the water warm or cold? Was he cooling himself? She said it was cold now but she didn't know how long he'd been there, it could have started warm. She needed to pee. She'd come in there for a pee, could he sit up by himself? Would he prefer to lie down? She put a towel under his head and the colour came back into him.

It should have seemed grand, but if he had drowned, she told him, later, when he tried to make it sound heroic, it would have been a waste, page 172 and Frankie and Stella agreed, shaking their small heads and raising their large eyes. He wouldn't tell the story often, just sometimes when he wanted to show how they'd met, how it had been odd—meant to be. How if she hadn't saved him the first time she wouldn't have been there to save him the second time, in the river, when the current took him off his feet, when they were hiding. 'Like Smith's Dream,' he'd say. She would leave the room and he would follow her and she would say it wasn't romantic, it wasn't clever, it was just silly, it was an accident and it happened because he hadn't been paying attention and who knows, maybe if you can change things with your head like her needing a piss at the exact time he was drowning fully clothed in a bath in a big flat, then maybe he wouldn't have even been there in the first place. It was a foolish and a stupid game—infantile. 'It's not even throwing stones at the moon,' she said. 'Who's the romantic now?' he said, reaching for her large hands, hoping the disagreement would end.

There were always people over for dinner; long, involved dinners that started early and went late into the night. People arrived with plates and pots full of food which were laid on a table and, when the table was full, on chairs and on the floor. There was planning and paper, disagreement and finally, always consensus. To begin with she would nurse the twins and they would nod in and out of sleep; now they played at people's feet and climbed the couches around them, saying, 'Can we have some more bread?' and, eventually, someone would take something to the kitchen and find one of them or more often both of them asleep in a corner on top of each other, like mice.

What they were hiding from, in the bush, was a long story. There were snails—and a large coal company. No one believed they could move the snails and keep them alive but that's what the coal company decided to do. There were ten people in Christchurch and they said if anyone from anywhere else could help, it would help. They'd go ahead no matter what, but if others could find their way to the bush where the snails were and build themselves into the trees the coal company wanted to knock down and lock themselves to the earth-moving appliances, it was bound to change something. Slow things up at the very least. There were ten of them, and ten of them could climb ten page 173 trees or lock themselves to ten trucks or any combination in between but more people meant more trucks and more tree houses.

They'd left on a Thursday. Nine of them from all over spent the night on the floor of a shared house in Wellington. He was there, curled crawled into the warmth of the back of her under a couple of sleeping bags they'd opened up, on the floor, like soldiers. They drove to the ferry in the morning dark and as the large boat pulled out, all its lights were weakly on for a moment as a grey dawn came. They lay around outside in the cold wind that came off the capped waves, and ate packed sandwiches, and some of them fell asleep in the laps of others of them, and he talked to his friends and she talked to her friends, and always he would return to her and touch her pregnant stomach and kiss her on the cheek and hug her. They walked around the boat together and from a large glass window they saw cows in a truck and talked about everything that was wrong with everything.

The day the twins were born, winter came all at once, like a heartbeat. The sun set and it was summer and when it rose it was winter, like they'd slept through autumn. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been cold and she felt like she should feel cold now but she didn't, she still felt warm. In the first weeks, she sat on the couch with the babies for hours while he went to work and made gardens for people. She would read the babies anarchist manifestos and hum tunes she remembered from childhood. The babies would duck and sway and suckle, making small clucking noises like guinea pigs or something electronic humming away in a room that no one takes notice of except the person who keeps the machines clucking and the humidity low. She would doze, and as her eyes got to the bottom of the page she was reading she would slip into some place that seemed even more real, where the book merged with her life somewhere—a place where she couldn't quite see how everything would turn out for her and everyone she knew.

The coal company security guards came to the clearing in the bush and stood around talking for a while. From high in the trees, they could see them come to a decision. The guards took saws from a vehicle and walked in twos toward the people locked to the earthmovers. While page 174 the security guards worked, the people in the trees began to climb down, an inch at a time. Then they jumped and ran for the bush. The security guards looked up from their sawing and then at each other. One of them said something, then another, and they gave chase. If the people from the trees were in the bush but no one knew where, the contractors couldn't start work. There would be an imaginary perimeter where they could pull down trees and where they couldn't. They would have to do the whole thing on estimation—how far the people from the trees could run, whether they would stop occasionally, how much food they had. Wasn't one of the women pregnant? They couldn't run a bulldozer over a pregnant woman, could they?

In the bush, the people from the trees split up. Phil and Rachel would stay close to the edge of the bush but keep moving. It would be nice if the security guards could see them now and then, see she was pregnant, but if not, that was okay. Just keep moving side to side. The others went deep into the bush. Phil wasn't paying attention. He'd stumbled and fallen and somehow fallen into a deep river with a strong current. He'd hit his head and was bleeding. She'd gone in and taken him out. With her super-strength, he would say, with her super-strong arms and her super-strong legs and her special underwater breathing. He came to, wet and laughing, and said 'I'm like a god,' and for old time's sake and because she was relieved and the relief made her love him, she said 'You are.'

It was like fire that burned away everything he wasn't using and the clearing it left lasted and lasted all the way through everything. She was the tallest woman he'd ever met. She could lift him like a leaf; he was paper-thin in the bath and for a long time after that. He was paper-thin and angry and all the thinness and anger made him traipse circles into the ground and gave everything against him power. He was drunk, in the bottom of a deep hole in the ground. Some kind of outside hole, he had no idea—it was night, he'd gotten angry and wandered off, climbed a fence and fallen in. After he'd been there for a while, she'd fallen into it too, landing inches from him, spread out with a 'Hoof!' as she hit the damp earth. Was she looking for him, he said as she stood up; she didn't think so. She was looking for something in the sky but the lights in the city were too bright. He said page 175 people were looking for him, he could hear them looking for him, if she was quiet for a moment she would hear them, too. They sat and looked out of the hole at the sky and listened and in the distance, and also not so far away, they heard people looking for him. 'That's a lot of people looking for you,' she said. He hated them and he threw his bottle at them without letting go of it and he hated her. 'You're the ugliest woman I know.' She nodded, 'Likewise,' she said. She stopped looking at the sky and stood up to walk around the hole, looking at the walls of it. 'It's like a grave,' he said. She said it was probably to put a pier in; they were building a bridge for the motorway. 'You should have left me in the bath,' he said. She hummed and said probably, and did he want to get out? She could probably lift him up if he wanted to get out. He stumbled up and said for her to leave him and fuck off. She said she couldn't, but she could get him out and maybe he could get someone to get her out. 'You're the ugliest woman I know,' he said again 'no one's looking for you.' When neither of them talked they could hear the people, still calling his name. 'You're nothing' he said and threw his bottle again, at her this time, and spirits splashed out. 'I'm the ugliest woman you've ever met,' she said, touching a spot on the wall in front of her. 'I'm like a god,' he said.

'You are.'

'No, I'm like a god.'

'I said "you are". I'm agreeing with you.' 'I'm like a god,' he said quietly and to the wall of the hole. She tested the spot she'd been looking at as a toehold, and when it held she reached as high as she could above her and pulled herself heavily and noisily out of the hole.

He was sure, but she denied it vehemently, that she called back into the hole, 'What kind of god are you like, Phil? What kind of god?'

When he went to her the next morning, his face softened and his head pounding, he said, she was right she told him she had no idea what he was talking about and she kept saying it. She said it now to him laughing at her across the breakfast table while the twins packed their lunches for school. She said he was delusional and she wouldn't have wasted the time once she got out of the hole and why would she waste the time when she was finally out of the hole of the most evil person she knew. He said he wasn't that bad and she said he was, ask page 176 anyone, he was angry. 'I was hungry,' he said. She said she wouldn't know about that, and someone had asked if she wanted to be on the Board of Trustees for the school, and he stopped eating and they both laughed. 'You'd be great,' he said. 'You'd need to get a haircut' and they both laughed and the kids laughed. Well, he said, and don't avoid it, she'd thought it, beside the hole, that night all those years ago. But she hadn't, she hadn't thought anything, except: everything needs to change.