Sport 12: Autumn 1994
Tina Shaw — Favourite
There are no secrets, no surprises. I shall tell you immediately that our father has brought himself back from the dead. He vanished without trace when I was fourteen, murdered as one theory went, for $20 and a signed photograph of Mickey Savage that he kept in his wallet. The police were tactful. ‘Was he happy at home?’ they asked my mother, who promptly broke down. And now, after all these years (fifteen) with no warning, no signs falling from the sky, I discover him again. My father. Dad. Alive and well and living in California.
And so I present it to you, a trick gift, small and insignificant: a toothbrush perhaps, sellotaped to the inside of a glitzy box: my story. Because you see, I was the favourite, and my life has been coloured by that. Let me tell you everything.
His truck, an old red Bedford that he won in a game of cards years ago (the stuff of family legend), was found abandoned down by the lake.
A manmade lake, it was the only body of water in the area. We called it Lake Poopot, because it was actually a sewage lake and, downwind, it stank. The council had planted flax and ti-tree in a beautifying programme, so that in time it was fairly attractive. On Saturday nights there would be a line of vehicles along the dirt service road that overlooked the water. A flasher was said to have been down there once, showing himself off to the jeering kids, yet it was enough for respectable citizens to consider the lake a menace. But that was after our Dad’s truck was found parked facing the water. A time warp vehicle, a truck from the 50s lost in the 70s.
There was no sign of a struggle, a body having been dragged to the edge of the water, or anything else. The truck was unlocked, the keys in the glove box. Amazing really that it was still there, untouched. The police even dragged the lake, poor things. You can imagine it, tampons floating white and eerie as jellyfish, old rubber tyres and gumboots on the bottom.
At first, my mother tried to work out a logical explanation for his being at the lake in the first place. It was in the opposite direction to the workshop, so why should he be there at all? Had he met someone there? Another woman? Did he owe money? Had he been playing cards with the wrong page 91 people? They arranged to meet, Dad didn’t have the money owing, they put him in the boot of their car … Eventually she allowed her deepest convictions to surface: he had been ‘taken’ by aliens. He must have sighted the craft from the road on his way to work, turned, and tracked it to the lake where it had hovered above his truck.
When Mum was seventeen she saw a big cigar floating in the sky over their isolated King Country farm. It was a glowing orange she said, and illuminated the sheep dip below in a huge circle of light. She was never the same after she saw the UFO. Innocence and youth can be lost like that, in the space of a few minutes. We think it is a gradual process, but really it can be more like dying.
Mum belonged to a UFO society which met once a month and had discussions about extraterrestrial life forms. Dad, on the other hand, was sceptical. UFOs, he would say behind her back, are like flying pigs. He leant an air of reality to the household.
Charlotte, the eldest and the most practical of us all, swore that Dad had been murdered, and daily expected news of his body having been dumped in the bush, or found up North. ‘The druggies are all up North,’ she said cryptically.
My younger sister, Sandra, bought a small white prayerbook that she kept under her pillow at night. She went to a church once and was gone for so long that my mother called the police. ‘Check the lake,’ she implored them. They looked unimpressed. Sandra came home, delirious, an hour later. Mum hid the prayerbook. The next day we heard nothing more about Jesus, or Dad.
And what did I think? I said nothing to my mother and sisters, but went through the house erasing the obvious clues to Dad’s disappearance: the spirals. I ripped out several sheets of the Yellow Pages and threw out the latest copy of The Angler’s Friend. He drew them unconsciously, revolving into themselves, these little doodlings like the blueprints for seashells. Earlier, when I was thirteen, I was sitting next to him on the couch, my arm lying along his leg (we were watching Hogan’s Heroes) and he drew one on my arm with a hardnosed biro. At school the teacher thought it was a tattoo.
To me, the spirals stated quite clearly that he had run away.
Six months after he had gone I turned fifteen and began to devise casual excuses to take the truck out. ‘I’m taking the truck out,’ I would say, ‘to see Lyall’ (my cousin who lived a few miles down the road in Parau).page 92
‘Take the Morrie, why don’t you—’ Mum would say.
‘No, it’s OK.’
And they would glance at each other, then, with raised eyebrows, ‘Poor Maggie,’ my sisters whispered behind me. ‘Delayed reaction,’ Charlotte said knowingly. ‘To what?’ queried Sandra. Charlotte, of course, would protest at this stage: ‘You can’t let her drive that thing—Mum—?’
But Mum always turned away. It was her nature not to get emotionally involved. She trusted that, eventually, higher forces would solve our problems: the aliens would return and take the rest of us, and we would all live happily together on Mars, or wherever.
So I would back the truck (that great clanking beast) slowly out of the garage, turn it on the gravel in front of the house, and drive out onto the main road. Dad had been giving me lessons in the truck before he vanished, but as yet I had no licence. The first time I went out by myself I swiped the letterbox off its curved chain. The old chain remained upright, quivering like a charmed cobra. Each time I took out the truck my palms sweated. But I went anyway.
I only ever went to the lake. It’s as you might imagine: a dark skinny kid, perched high in the cabin of an old red truck, staring at the water. I would wind down the window and smoke Black and Whites, tasting the tar in my mouth, ignoring the smell of shit outside. The rabbit’s foot that hung stiffly from the rearview mirror. I watched the changing patterns of the sky on the surface of the lake. And what did I discover, you wonder? Nothing more than I already knew in my heart. That he had run away. The bastard. There was a question the police never asked me, but which played on in my mind: Where would he go, Miss, if he had run away? America, I answer without hesitation. The one country in the world where Dad could feel free. The great melting pot. His soulmate from Borneo, Bill Mahoney, had been an American. People used to think that in New Zealand you could set yourself up and do anything, but Dad felt that way about America. Land of the free.
Yet I hung on for him to come back for me: at dawn when I was out on the road training (junior long distance champion, 1977)—I expected him to appear. To be standing on the road. Come on, Maggie, he would say, let’s go, and I would run away too. The bastard. Why did he go without me? I was his favourite. He could at least have told me.
When I realised that he wasn’t coming back for me I stopped running, stopped being the school champ, and spent all day down at the lake.page 93
Was it so awful with us? I shall ask him when we meet. I will divine the truth, like divining for water on a scrubby bit of land among the gorse.
The night I discovered dear old Dad was fairly typical. Picture, if you will, an exhibition opening—not mine—no, a photographer, Larry’s. He had done a series of studies of penises (whose? I wondered idly. His own, or was that too narcissistic? A friend’s?) variously bandaged with gauze. They were huge enlargements, four or five feet high and tinted luridly red. A small group of Larry’s friends (brave boys) were cheerfully discussing the photographs, attempting to elevate them into art.
I was resting my backside on a small wooden table at the back and leafing through an American art magazine. There was a snapshot in the magazine, at first glance a little ludicrous, of a man standing on a wharf, a shark suspended by its tail beside him. The caption explained that the man, one Bill Mahoney, had won a State lottery and donated several thousand dollars to set up a trust for at-risk teenagers to study art. Bill Mahoney. My father’s old war friend. I was wondering about the connection between the trust and the shark when the room shifted, and I realised that I was looking at my father. How bizarre, I thought, a State lottery: Dad’s finally hit the big time. At that moment Tinker came over and touched my arm in her caring and sharing way.
‘Are you OK, Maggie,’ she said.
I managed to show her the photograph (so much more shocking and revealing than those hanging on the walls around us) and pointed, silently, with a quivering forefinger, before I vomited over Tinker’s red suede shoes. You see, I tell you everything.
I woke the next morning to find myself on the futon in my studio, with no recollection of how I got there, clutching an art magazine to my chest. All around me, on the walls, hanging, and propped on the floor, were my paintings: skyscrapers and trees. They represented the last ten years of my life. A rut, I hear you mutter? Yes, but at least it was a successful rut.
Rolling over onto my side, I remembered Dad, with a groan. How could he do this to me? Appear out of nowhere? Perhaps if I did nothing, I could still think of him as dead. Non-existent. In the corner by the door was one of my New York series, the only one that hadn’t sold in fact, a wavy ultramarine interpretation of the Empire State Building. What would Dad think of that, I wondered. The Americans love my paintings. I am, they say, page 94 very modern. Which is funny, because really I am in a time warp; real time stopped for me in 1978. Back home the critics usually called them ‘grotesque’. To me they were messages of trees and tall buildings, messages about my life. Perhaps I would send one to ‘Dad’.
My father. Dad. He was a craftsman, a cabinet-maker, with a passion for gambling. ‘Life, Maggie,’ he used to say, ‘is a dull enough affair without a bit of spice in it.’ He would have the racing going down at the workshop and had a telephone account with the TAB. On Saturdays we would go either to see the dogs, or the horses. ‘So what’s good today, Lucky?’ I studied the form more than my homework—the horses, the jockeys. ‘Brixton’s Lass,’ I would say, ‘in the third, she likes a hard track.’ In the truck on the way home he would call out suddenly, ‘Change down to second, Maggie,’ or, ‘take the wheel Maggie,’ and shivers would run up and down my spine. I would guide the hurtling truck, a skinny kid sitting by his side, while he rolled and lit a cigarette. On the nights that Mum went to her extraterrestrial meetings, he and I would play poker in the kitchen with matchsticks while Charlotte and Sandra watched television. ‘You’re a great kid,’ he would say, ‘you could beat the pants off most guys I know.’
On his birthday, a month before he left, I gave him my first real painting: the red truck driving up the side of a luscious mountain. A mountain because of our driving song: she’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes. Tropical birds hang in the air in this painting and there is a waterfall that shimmers with Winsor and Newton Flake White. Rousseau, eat your heart out. The small painting, with the plain wooden frame that he made for it, hung in his garage workshop for years, like a peeling virgin at a roadside shrine, until one day I took it down and hid it away in a cupboard in my studio.
He taught me the things that caught his interest. How to play pool, about fishing and cricket, and how to use a hammer so that even now I can make my own frames. How to design a chair, how to hold a pencil and capture light with a line of lead, about messages, and how to read the turning and roiling of spirals.
Suddenly I could no longer paint trees and buildings. Was this crisis territory? I tell you, yes. Could this be the end of life as I knew it? No more exhibitions, no more New York. Would anyone blame me if I drank a little more than usual? Painting was my obsession. And what if, I thought, that page 95 obsession was over.
I discovered Wade in Vulcan Lane on an overbright afternoon, dull but glarey, as if the ozone hole had taken up residence over Auckland.
He was busking (I wasn’t the only one in a time warp), juggling with scarves (for goodness sake). A handful of people stood watching. I had written to ‘Dad’ care of the magazine, ‘from your daughter, Maggie’, and now I was regretting it.
The busker held up his hands and called for silence. With great seriousness he began to take off his clothes, a mock striptease, you could practically hear the music: ba ba ba ba boom boom—until he stood there in his boxer shorts. I found myself transfixed by the sight of his chest. Smoothly rounded, it glowed in the overcast light, as pale as dough. I could imagine drawing … with a 2B perhaps, lightly, on Ingres … I could feel the pencil’s solid progress, like a physical sensation, dragging across the surface of the paper. Strange, though, when I didn’t do models, haven’t done the form for years, not since art school. He was pulling silken scarves out of his shorts like a dance. The people watched quietly. The scraps of bright colour floated effortlessly through the air.
When he had finished I went over, walking carefully so that nothing unexpected would come rushing out at me, the pavement for example. (Have you ever been this drunk? It is not a pleasant sensation.) He was chucking the scarves into a flax kete and putting on his clothes. I smiled, swaying ever so slightly. Close-up he was older: there were wrinkles around his eyes, and when he took off his baseball cap to wipe his forehead there were widow’s peaks.
‘Oh hi,’ he said enthusiastically, ‘my first groupie.’
What a comedian. ‘Cut the crap,’ I offered in return, ‘I want to give you a bit of work, modelling, a couple of hours perhaps.’
‘Oh yes?’ He waited then, his head to one side like a bird.
There was a skinny building behind him that was expanding and contracting as if it were breathing. I was a write-off. ‘Let me buy you a coffee,’ I said.
We headed up the hill, his shirt flapping with each step, that pale glorious chest exposed to the gaggle of High Street, and I felt vulnerable on his behalf. ‘Cover yourself up,’ I muttered, ‘you’ll get arrested, or something.’ He looked at me in surprise.page 96
‘Oh that poor woman,’ whispered Mum. ‘I should go over and talk to her. Herbalgo would make such a difference to her life.’
We both studied the woman who sat in the middle of the otherwise deserted coffee bar, rolls of fat obscuring the chair. Herbalgo was my mother’s latest obsession: herbal drinks that you had instead of eating real food. She had become something of a weight evangelist: sister, let me help you along the road to salvation and a slimmer figure, hallelujah, with this miracle Herbalgo—
‘Talk to her later Mum,’ I said, ‘choose something first—’ She chose, unconsciously, a pink cupcake with a single bit of jelly cherry on the top, which looked like a toy breast. We sat by the windows. My mother kept glancing over to the fat woman. She had, I noticed, the most beautiful lips. Like a cut pear. I considered a painting with the woman and her lips, juxtaposed in some way with Wade’s beautiful chest. Something huge and voluptuous perhaps, bordering on the religious. It was a worry, this sudden obsession with figures. What would my New York dealer think? I pulled my eyes away from the fat woman.
Mum picked up the cake from it’s paper nest and was eyeing it quizzically. She put it down, and revolved her cup of coffee in the saucer. ‘I forgot,’ she said, ‘I’m not supposed to eat cakes.’ She pushed it across the table to me. ‘You have it Maggie.’ She blinked and sipped her coffee, glancing across at the fat woman.
I opened the art magazine and laid it on the table between us. Then passed her the letter.
She stared blankly. ‘Is this some sort of a joke, Maggie?’ He had written back in a familiar rounded hand, that he would be pleased to see me and would I care to stay a few days at his home. The firm politeness of a travel brochure.
‘California—’ My mother’s voice like an echo, her mouth falling open. ‘How—?’
The fat woman was looking at us now, little glances, so that we wouldn’t think she was staring. When I looked at her, she looked away quickly and moved in her seat, her elbows resting on the flimsy formica table.
The buildings and trees were now all stacked, as if in disgrace, with their faces against the walls of the studio. The floor was scattered with motorbike parts, like the wreckage of a fatal accident. Wade was a vintage bike enthusiast. The jigsaw pieces on the floor were of a 1926 Harley Davidson page 97 Peashooter which he had brought up in two large suitcases, the frame over his shoulder. It was, he said, a basket case, which seemed to make him extraordinarily happy. I had tried to get rid of Wade (I can live without men, I told myself). But nothing would make him go. I abused him and ranted, I teased him about his scarf dance, it made no difference. He had adopted me.
He liked to walk around the studio, completely naked, an opalescent male Venus of Milo, his penis swinging, pink and flaccid like a specialty sausage from the deli. The dear boy.
‘I’ll pack for you,’ said Wade.
‘Pull down the blinds,’ I groaned from the bed. ‘I’m not going.’
‘Of course you’re going,’ (how could Wade be so cheerful) ‘your cold is just psychological. In fact,’ he pondered, his foot resting on the chassis of the Peashooter, ‘I would say that all illnesses are psychosomatic. Although the symptoms are real enough.’
I blew my nose loudly into a towel.
Wade tied his hair back, looping it with an elastic band. He took out a selection of underwear from the drawer and dropped it into my leather valise. Why did he even bother? He took out two white T-shirts. He found my camera under the bed, and a notebook in the drawer with the new paints. ‘You never know, baby,’ he said, ‘you might want to play the tourist.’
Sandals, togs, suncream, towel, jeans.
‘I’m not going,’ I said through my nose.
He turned his back so that I couldn’t see what he was putting in the bag.
‘What’re you doing?’ Rustling noises. ‘Wade?’ My psychic age was about five.
Ignoring me, Wade said, ‘Did you have that dream again last night, love?’ He folded my black hotpants into a tight baton.
The dream where the painting of Dad’s truck on the mountain came alive, in technicolour detail. Every morning, for the last week, it had woken me. I longed for normal dreams about phallic symbols and houses. Wade went into the bathroom and returned with a packet of Tampax. ‘Do you need these?’
‘Oh Wade—’ I trumpeted miserably into a wad of tissues.
So here we are: Carmel (By The Sea), California, 1993.
My father’s house is long and flat, like an elongated matchbox, and page 98 surrounded by a jungle of small-leafed trees. There are pots of orchids scattered about in the shade. I can smell horses on the dry shift of air: manure, my father tells me, that they get from the valley. We enter the house by the side, through an outdoor patio that features a mosaic floor of shiny broken tiles. It is a blue mermaid, her tail twisting like seaweed, playing with two fish.
‘This is nice—’ I say, my eyes burning, ‘—Dad.’ In the car he has already asked me to call him Bill. Bill, for Christsake—
He stands beside me, looking down. There is the sound of running water. ‘Do you like it,’ he says, ‘we’re pretty proud of it, to tell the truth. I did it myself.’ He has an American accent.
‘Really?’ I say: pure NewZild. ‘Still got the old Kiwi ingenuity, eh Dad?’
He shrugs, not knowing what to say. He looks like the man I remember, yet he holds himself differently, loosely. His hair is white now and when he smiles there are flashes of gold. He rubs the toe of his sandshoe over the tiles, as if to see them more clearly, his hands in his pockets. ‘I am aware,’ he says, in his bland-faced American way, ‘that you must feel some bitterness, but I want you to know that I understand how you must feel, and—’
‘You understand fuck all,’ I snap back, surprising myself. And when I had planned to be so sympathetic. He is upstaging me with his compassionate father role. I look away, embarrassed.
My father frowns and glances across the trees that hang over the patio like a group of nosy neighbours, and carries on: ‘I am hoping, Maggie, that this time we have together—this fortuitous time—will help to resolve any feelings, any residue, that we both may carry from the past—’ and he focuses his calm blue eyes on me then, along with a guru-type smile. It hits me like a bad hangover: my father, the craftsman, the gambler. A New Age fanatic. Of course. My heart plummets. This man is a complete stranger to me.
There is a sharp rustling in the bushes behind us. A reptile? I half expect a snake to loop itself over a nearby branch and offer me an apple. I am about to tell him to stick his residue from the past (what would he know, he was the one who ran away) when a plump blonde woman, possibly in her fifties, comes out from the ranch sliders and introduces herself as Leila. Is this bigamy, I wonder. We stand in a circle, with the mermaid in the centre, at our feet.
‘So what now,’ I hear myself saying, ‘shall we hold hands and chant OM?’
They both smile: my father in a benign and pitying way, Leila more page 99 cheerfully. She moves her head, ‘Come on in,’ she says, ‘you must be tired, after your long trip.’
And I realise, as soon as she says it, that I am in fact exhausted.
Inside, there is a large rectangular lounge with deep cream sofas and kilim throwovers and cushions. It is very tasteful, not at all what I had expected. Suddenly the room seems to be swimming with fish. ‘Ah,’ I gasp, waving my hands about my head, fending off fish—
‘Bill, quick,’ says Leila.
They each claim one of my elbows and propel me onto the cream sofa. ‘It’s all right,’ I mutter, ‘dizziness, jetlag, probably.’
The fish, I see now, are behind glass. There is a big tank, as long as the wall, full of fish. The water is lit in a surreal way, with small coloured spotlights so that there are patches of green, red and blue water. The fish swim theatrically in and out of these coloured areas. A group of long beige fish with rounded shouts are huddled in a bunch near the glass, watching our human spectacle. There is a sudden pale thrashing at the far end of the tank, and two tails turn away from each other like the stamping skirts of flamenco dancers. The beige fish look towards the fight, without blinking, then turn their attention back to us. Most unnerving.
‘Nice fish,’ I say, reminded of restaurant fish tanks and the futile lives of small crayfish, ‘do you keep them to eat?’
My father coughs, and attempts a laugh. Do I detect a crack in the New Age veneer?
‘They’re our children,’ smiles Leila.
‘I had it put in after we won the Lottery,’ explains my father. ‘These fish here,’ he points to the beige ones, ‘are Oscars.’ And he explains how the coloured lights help to recreate an undersea world, make the fish feel at home, that the different light areas are stimulating or relaxing for them.
‘And it makes the tank pretty to look at too,’ Leila chimes in.
My head is swimming again. ‘I think I might—’
‘Let me show you your room,’ says my father, getting up.
Alone in the cool blue spare room at the other end of the house I am reminded of the coloured areas in the fish tank. Would there be a red or an orange room if I wanted more stimulation? What colour room did my father and Leila sleep in?
I sit on the end of the bed. Where is my father? The man calling himself Bill resembles my father physically, but I can see no other connection to the page 100 man I knew. I had thought that we could reminisce about ‘old times’, chew the fat. But that seems impossible now. Could a man change so much in fifteen years? Had I? I seem to have remained the same, still that skinny fourteen-year-old girl, struggling against a barren world.
The bag is beside me on the bed. I decide not to unpack. I will go to a hotel the next day. I open my bag to get out the Lemsips. Inside, wrapped in bubble plastic, is the painting of my father’s truck on the mountain: oh, Wade. Then, further down, nestled within my charcoal sweatshirt, I find the horn from Wade’s Peashooter. I know it is the horn because he has named every part for me, as if they were elements of a very important map. Oh, Wade. I hold the piece in my hand—the smell of stale oil clings to it (and my sweatshirt). He has made a sacrifice, sending this precious cargo through the air with an unpredictable messenger. I turn the thing in my hands—bluntly silver, cylindrical—and burst into tears.
We have dinner in the kitchen: vegetarian goulash, green salad and cornbread. My childhood painting, which by right belongs to my father, sheathed in the bubble plastic, is propped against the wall behind my chair, a silent witness, my trump card. My father’s eye, out of curiosity is drawn to it, but he glances away quickly.
‘So you’re an artist,’ says Leila.
She has been covering for us, my father and me, anticipating a fracas of some kind and has sought to delay it. For surely, after fifteen years, what else could happen but an emotional outburst? My father sits quietly, as if meditating. He has stilled himself.
I fidget with the cutlery. It looks like I must begin. How could I just go to bed, after all this time, without knowing. ‘So what happened, Dad?’
It is enough to send Leila scuttling for the door. ‘Time for my stint in the Jacuzzi.’
My father sighs and clears the table. He explains quietly that Leila lost her own father when she was little, he died in an abandoned salt mine, and she has a thing about dragging up the past.
‘Ah,’ I say. A wounded swan. There are patterns here after all.
It is dark now, the stained glass lamp which hangs over our table is reflected in the black window. Outside there is the movement of trees. My eyes prickle. Apart from that, I am wide awake, on the white edge of clarity. And finally we are alone. My father and I. This is the moment I have been waiting for for all these years. Somehow I must find a way back, to my real page 101 father, I must peel back the onion skin of years and discover the man who deserted me. His favourite. His lucky charm. What the fuck happened? And, like the Girl Scouts, I am prepared.
On the red woven tablecloth I place the pack of cards from the airport: scenes of Rotorua, bound tightly in clear cellophane. He frowns, looking away from the cards. ‘We can’t go back, Maggie,’ he says. His hands are those of an old man.
‘I don’t agree. It’s important, to go back.’ (I am sounding like a Californian.)
He sighs. And he cannot help himself. He sits opposite me, at the table, takes the cards, and tears off the cellophane. ‘What are we betting for?’
I take a box of matches from my pocket. ‘We can use matchsticks,’ I say, ‘but we’ll bet on secrets. Kiss and tell time. Winner asks the questions.’
‘You’ve got it all thought out.’
Again he sighs. Yet it is inevitable. He cuts the cards. We play poker, as we used to play it when I was fourteen, twos wild. (The pile of matchsticks by our elbows, the voices of my sisters in the lounge and the blare of the television, the UFO posters on the walls.) I expect him to roll a cigarette and light up, before he deals the cards, and it is a sudden difference. The cards slap onto the table near my hands.
‘You don’t smoke any more.’
His eyes, even bluer than I remember, but weary. He glints at me suddenly. ‘You have to win first, remember, winner asks the questions—’
I pick up the sharp shiny cards, geysers and mud pools, pleased with him, with myself. He is playing the game. There is a two, five, six, a queen and a nine. I decide to risk it, throw out the five and six, at the worst there would be a pair of queens, enough to bluff with.
‘Two.’ The cards turn up a jack and a ten.
‘Dealer takes four,’ he says.
My feet move happily. I am back in my element. You could beat the pants off those guys. The smoke seeping out from between his lips and his narrowed eyes as he studied the cards. He is frowning again now, holding the cards modestly, moving them around, trying different combinations. He is so open and child-like that I am moved. I am tempted to lay down my cards and call it quits, not force this ludicrous game on him.
But then he looks up, suddenly sly. ‘Go on,’ he says, ‘call.’
‘Two for kitty,’ pushing forward the matchsticks, ‘and raise you five.’ I page 102 play with cast down eyes, a straight in my hand.
My father grunts. ‘Five, huh?’ He counts out the matches and pushes them forward. ‘And raise you three.’
‘Match you and raise you five.’
He folds. ‘That’s me out,’ he says, shaking his head. ‘I should’ve known better than to play poker with my daughter.’
Gathering up the cards, I shuffle lightly, feeling the sharp new edges. ‘I win … So, what happened?
The awkward movement of his shoulders. ‘You’ve got to understand, Maggie—’ A desperate shrug. ‘Oh heck. Ask me an easier one first.’
‘The truck, the lake—how did you do it?’
‘Oh that, well—I had an old motorbike, hidden in the garage—it was all planned, I’d been planning it for, well, a couple of years probably. Had been saving, putting a bit aside each week into a special account. So one morning I put the bike in the truck, under a tarpaulin, dropped the truck at the lake, and rode out to the Airport. Dumped the bike there—it wasn’t registered, there was nothing to trace it back. I already had my ticket, under a false name, the passport too—’
He nodded. ‘I saved his life that time in Borneo, you know that, and then he got shot anyway. I had his papers, he didn’t have any family back home— you could say that he repaid the favour, and saved my life too—’
‘Shit.’ How could my father have been so devious? All the planning, the forethought. It denoted a completely different man to the one I had known. ‘Why didn’t you just get a divorce, or something, like normal people?’
‘You’ll have to deal again to find that one out—’ The hint of a smile. (Take the wheel, Maggie, and don’t run over any little old ladies now will you—)
And I do. You see, bloody-minded to the end. I slay him: three queens and a pair. Full house. I throw the cards, slap, onto the table, and suddenly I am tired of the game. ‘But why? Did you hate us? Was that why you left?’
His eyes, darker than a summer sky, shift nervously around the kitchen, then rest on my hands. ‘No, no. It was just one of those things, Maggie. There didn’t seem any way out. It was, like a game, in a way. I kept having flashbacks to the jungle, me and Bill fighting on the same side. I just had to get away.’ He studies his own brown and lined hands. ‘With hindsight, of course, I can see other possibilities.’
‘Didn’t you ever stop and think what you were doing?’page 103
‘Look,’ says my father, scraping back his chair, ‘you want revelations. All right. Let me show you something.’
He comes back with a painting, larger than my own, and holds it in front of his chest for me to see. His face peers down over the top of it like a sideshow joke. It is also a mountain, only barren, a parched wilderness, the mountain that Moses climbed to God, and clumsily painted in acrylic. But in the very centre is a dark-haired girl, her hair streaming behind her, running down a straight, steep road. The perspective too is a little askew, although the effect is quite attractive. She wears a pink summer dress (an old favourite) and her arms are flung out behind her as if she is about to launch into the shimmering blue of the sky. I am both shocked and moved. It is like a glimpse of a possible future. Like visiting a gypsy clairvoyant to be told that you really will meet a tall dark stranger.
‘Leila got me into it,’ he explains, ‘painting. She thought it would help us both to express the past, in positive images. We did classes.’
‘In positive images?’
‘No, beginner’s introduction to painting.’
I take out my own painting from the past and lay it on the table. My last card. Dad places his painting on the table beside mine. And the two paintings are like a mirror reflecting two different aspects of the same view. Or, two parts of a coded message, so that finally some sense could be made of it: message received. Beyond the black windows a bird calls from the trees and a shiver runs through the house.
‘I never forgot it you know, that painting. I never meant to hurt you, Maggie.’ He turns away then. His hair is silver beneath the light and his face is a map of lines.
‘I know.’ The jetlag has hit me and I sway slightly. ‘It’s OK. The painting’s yours by the way, you left it behind.’
‘Thanks,’ he says. ‘And you must have my one, amateurish as it is. Will you take it?’
I nod. Of course I will take it. The game is over. ‘So you always loved me.’
He clears his throat, suddenly awkward, and touches the table with his fingertips. ‘Sure I did Maggie.’ The American drawl but the diffident New Zealand light in his eyes. ‘You were always my favourite. My lucky charm.’
We embrace, briefly, as if at a train station and the train has just been called. His chest is hard beneath the shirt and his cheek smells of cologne. I step back, away from him, and everything falls into place.page 104
I wake to the muted sounds of birds and traffic. Someone is whistling intricate patterns of Mozart. There is a clear pale light in the room from the rice paper blinds. It could be very early, but it is either near midday or late afternoon.
The dream woke me: I am coming out of the automatic airport doors into a sunlit day, pulling a recalcitrant camel by its rope. And Wade is outside, sitting on his gleaming Peashooter, waiting for me. ‘Hi,’ calls Wade. I let go of the camel, who saunters away past the taxi ranks. Wade has a huge white plate of cheeses. We sample the cheese together.
So you see, happy endings. You scoff, perhaps. Yet life can be like that sometimes, thank God.
What more can I tell you? All the messages are here. You hold them in the palm of your hand. There are no secrets. No surprises.