Title: The Road Out of Town

Author: Tim Corballis

In: Sport 23: Spring 1999

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, November 1999

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Prose Literature

Conditions of use



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Sport 23: Spring 1999

Tim Corballis — The Road Out of Town

page 52

Tim Corballis

The Road Out of Town

I arrived in the town of G, on the West Coast of the South Island. The town was an etching or charcoal drawing, or a silent movie. Coal from nearby mines was in the clouds and rain. In this setting, the cobbled footpaths were unconvincing, new cafés sat uncomfortably next to bars with an American neon theme and pubs with old photos on the walls.

Elice's train arrived, with huge windows for the passengers to admire the view. I looked in through the windows, and saw passengers looking out at the town of G, but I did not see Elice. I waited on the platform, but Elice did not get off the train. I waited again the next day, and the day after that.

I knew that the police would want some sort of description of her. I could have said that Elice was an occasional smoker. She smoked (occasionally) to extend her body further into space. Ash trays would stray around her, her body would leak cigarette ends, smoke would pass into her skin and stay there. Smoke thickened in the air until none of her was visible. However, I didn't think this information would be of much use to the police.

Elice and I are different. My earliest memories are from travelling, in cars or planes. I would look out the windows at the land far below. Once we flew over a volcano, which was spewing cloud and ash into the air.

My mother said, ‘We shouldn't be flying over that. Ash and smoke could clog the engines or obscure visibility, make us crash.’ She pulled the shade down over the window.

Later, while we were asleep—I was only pretending—flight attendants walked up and down the aisles and whispered to the passengers, ‘We will not crash. Sleep peacefully now. Soon you will be in your new home.’

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But my new home was always another vehicle.

I phoned her number in Auckland from a phone booth. I said to her mother, ‘I know Elice isn't there, but …’

She said, ‘No she's not here.’

I said, ‘No. I was wondering …’

She said, ‘She's travelling with some friend down south.’

I said, ‘Yes, that's me.’

She said, ‘You're the friend down south?’

I said, ‘Yes.’

She said, ‘OK, she's with you then.’

I said, ‘No.’

She said, ‘You're travelling with her aren't you? What is it you want?’

I said, ‘Elice was supposed to meet me here, but she didn't show up.’

She said, ‘Why not?’

I said, ‘I don't know! I thought you might tell me.’

She said, ‘Why should I tell you?’

I said, ‘I just thought you might know something.’

She said, ‘What might I know?’

I said, ‘Aren't you worried?’

She said, ‘She's a grown woman, she can do what she likes.’

I said, ‘What if she's had an accident?’

She said, ‘She can look after herself. Why did you ring?’

I said, ‘To see … never mind.’

She said, ‘OK bye then.’

I said, ‘Bye.’

I understood that she may have been kidnapped or robbed and killed. I went to the police station and talked to a woman about Elice. I was told not to worry, that people go missing all the time, and that she's bound to turn up sooner or later. If I was still worried in a few days’ time, however, I could come back.

Elice and I have become lovers. It starts at the café where she works. I see her there often—then I start to spill things; a short black, latte or page 54 flat white, or sometimes soup or other items from the lunch menu. I try to clean up the mess, and she comes with a cloth and says, ‘Don't worry.’ But the stains on the tabletop remain visible, and grow more obvious with each visit.

I wonder whether this is an appropriate way to begin an intimate relationship. She is also not sure. We agree that uncertainty is inevitable. Love grows in this uncertainty. We argue about whether there is a rhinoceros in the café.

At her apartment, Elice asks me to enter and leave by the window. It is a second-storey apartment, and I am to reach the window by climbing the tree outside. Elice wants to avoid her mother, who shares the apartment, seeing me enter.

The walls are covered with an accumulation of posters, collected since childhood. One day anthropologists will dig into the layers of posters, and draw an evolutionary tree of her. We can hear her mother moving in the kitchen.

When I leave I open the window and climb out, into the upper braches of the tree, then climb down.

At the café the first time after I have been to her apartment, Elice kisses me quickly, then says, ‘We will have to be careful.’

I say, ‘You mean, HIV, and so forth—’

Elice says, ‘Yes that, but I really meant my mother. She can't see you with me!’

I wonder what her mother will do. Elice is short and thin, and it is surprising to think that her mother might be dangerous—but I know there are kinds of danger that are not physical. I say, ‘What will she do?’

Elice says, ‘There are kinds of danger which are not physical.’

I smile at her. I say, ‘It doesn't matter if I have to hide from your mother. That's all right.’

We agree that I will continue to come in and out of her room through the window. If her mother comes into her room, I will hide in the wardrobe.

I decided to stay in a backpackers’ hostel just outside of G. It was run by a man called Mr Milk, who was short and wiry, and wore a cap. He page 55 showed me around the hostel, and introduced me to his dog, Rover.

I said, ‘Your dog is called Rover?’

‘Rover,’ he said, ‘is more than just a time-honoured name for a dog. Rover here is the direct descendant of a long line of Rovers who served the royal families of Europe. He can trace his lineage to any number of aristocratic dogs.’

The dog looked up at me proudly. His coat was a glossy, uniform black.

Mr Milk said, ‘I know that one day I will lose Rover—as you have lost your friend. He and I both know that he is destined for greater things than …’ he waved a hand about, ‘… this.’

Mr Milk had opened this hostel in what was his home, and had moved into a new house at the back of the property. He took in tourists who sat in the lounge and waited for the rain to stop. One of them, a German called Florian, had been there for three weeks.

‘My longest current resident,’ said Mr Milk.

‘I want to get on my bike and go, but this rain,’ said Florian in an imperfect American accent.

‘I'm waiting here for a friend who has disappeared,’ I said.

Florian said, ‘Sounds like a good idea.’ He pulled out a cigarette and lit it, offered me one.

I said, ‘No thanks.’

Florian continued, ‘Sometimes I want to disappear.’

Mr Milk snorted.

I said, ‘Excuse me?’

Florian said, ‘Well why not disappear?’

I said, ‘Do you think Elice has just wandered off intentionally?’

He said, ‘No, I mean I want to just vanish sometimes.’

I said, ‘I see.’

Mr Milk said, ‘Smoking is a disgusting habit. And it's unhealthy.’

Florian said, ‘You're a real healthy kiwi, Mr Milk. Ha ha.’

Mr Milk said, ‘You will vanish if you keep smoking so much.’

Florian said, ‘Good.’

I said, ‘Um, so, why do you want to vanish, Florian?’

Florian said, ‘There is not much to keep me here, eh? It is pain and suffering.’ The rain pelted heavily on the window.

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I said, ‘That sounds a bit pessimistic …’

He said, ‘Pessimistic, yes. Pessimism is realism, you know. Nobody is happy for long.’

Mr Milk said, ‘I'm happy most of the time.’

Florian said, ‘No you're not.’

Mr Milk said, ‘Ninety percent of the time, at least.’

Florian said, ‘I've never heard such a thing! Happy ninety percent of the time! Ha ha.’

I said, ‘I think I'm pretty happy most of the time. Maybe eighty percent? Though not with Elice's disappearance, and so forth …’

He said, ‘But, look at the TV! You see wars and death and suffering and people being exploited! It never ends!’

I said, ‘Well there is that I guess.’

He said, ‘I bet you're only really happy about five percent of the time.’

I said, ‘Maybe eighty percent was too much, but it wouldn't be less than fifty fifty. Normally, anyway.’

He said, ‘And what's normal? Are times ever really normal? Most people spend their time worrying about this thing or that, and when it's solved, move onto the next thing.’

Mr Milk said, ‘Yeah yeah. But there's some fun in life too. You enjoy travelling in New Zealand?’

Florian said, ‘Yes it is beautiful and peaceful.’

Mr Milk said, ‘Not so peaceful sometimes. But that isn't acid rain out there, at least.’

I said, ‘But you're only happy five percent of the time?’

Florian said, ‘OK, OK, maybe ten or fifteen, but no more.’

I said, ‘I'm not prepared to go below forty.’

He said, ‘Too high. Twenty, twenty-five max.’

I said, ‘Thirty-five.’

He said, ‘Thirty.’

I said, ‘Done.’

Mr Milk nodded. I shook hands with Florian.

The tree is outside, splayed all over the air like the limbs of a dead animal. I can see it outside the window through the wardrobe's keyhole page 57 (I am inside), and Elice herself, though her mother is outside the range of vision allowed by the opening. Elice meets my eye from time to time.

Her mother, Mrs Cunningham, is talking about the people who offer free samples in the supermarket. She does not seem dangerous or aggressive, but people can be very different when provoked.

She says, ‘If you try a sample, is it necessary to buy the product? I always end up liking it, and the person with the samples looks at me as though to say, well why don't you buy it then.’

Elice says, ‘I don't think it's necessary to buy anything you don't want to buy.’

Mrs Cunningham says, ‘No, no. But I still find it awkward. I can't meet their eyes any more. I always end up pretending to be interested in some item on the shelves so I can avoid them …’

There are messy piles of shoes in here. I can feel them, but it is too dark to make them out visibly. I feel around them, while watching Elice through the keyhole. I pick one up—an old sandshoe. I try to find its mate amongst the other shoes, but have no luck. I am not sure what a single, unmatched shoe would be doing in here. I pick up another shoe. This time, it is a small leather shoe with what feels like a buckle. Again, I have difficulty finding its mate. The third shoe I try is also apparently unmatched. I am in my lover's wardrobe with a collection of single shoes. Elice meets my eye. Her mother is saying, ‘… I always end up with the same checkout operator. She is so young, and she appears really unhappy, and for a while she had bandages on her wrists. She laughed and said to each customer she served, it's not what it looks like, don't worry.’

I talked to the police again. They sat and listened to my story, and seemed to be taking more interest. We were in a small interview room with closed venetian blinds. There were two officers, the woman I had met earlier, and a man. They had paper, but did not seem to be taking any notes. A poster on the wall advised, ‘STEALING IS CRIME.’

The man said, ‘In your opinion, has anything, you know, illegal happened here.’

page 58

I said, ‘I don't know.’

‘Such as, someone breaking the law?’

I said, ‘Why would anyone have broken the law?’

The woman said, ‘Maybe you could tell us …?’

I said, ‘I don't know.’

She said, ‘Has your friend broken the law?’

I said, ‘No, I don't think so.’

She said, ‘And you—have you broken the law?’

‘Not to my knowledge.’

She said, ‘Good good. Make sure you don't, OK?’

I said, ‘OK.’

She said as they stood up, ‘Right, that's it then. Just leave it to us now.’

It is a Sunday afternoon. I arrive and am surprised to see her smoking.

The smoke emerges from her mouth, and the pores of her skin. Her mouth swims in the smoke, detaching itself from her body. The smoke forms letters in the air, as though she was blowing complex smoke rings. I find them hard to read.

O - T - N - O - W - L -

I say, ‘Hi, that's a good trick!’

- E - A - V - E -

She doesn't reply. I say, ‘Um …’

- M - E -

She seems unhappy. I have not seen her like this before. I begin to wonder if it is not Elice at all. Perhaps I have climbed the wrong tree. The branches outside look familiar, however. The letters are coming faster now, in an elaborate longhand which clings to her body. If I were to call from below, would she throw down hairs made of smoke for me to climb, instead of the tree?

Smoke is all around, and ash falls from her cigarette into a glass ashtray.

At the hostel, Mr Milk said, ‘People go missing around here.’ He indicated in a northeast-southwest direction, meaning the line of the West Coast.

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I said, ‘A lot of people? Why?’

He shrugged. His West Coast was a place of rain. The rain came and flooded rivers, water creeping in above the floorboards of houses and shops. People left their experimental livestock—buffalo, ostrich, llama—or sphagnum moss gathering, and got sandbags up along the banks. Bridges were washed out. ‘There is no crime here—the weather is too bad for criminals.’

I said, ‘Where do people go, who disappear?’

He said, ‘There are roads and towns—but in between, there is wilderness.’

But I imagined that Elice was not likely to get lost in the wilderness. In between pockets of wilderness, there was civilisation. It was here where Elice would have disappeared?

It is Sunday afternoon. She kisses me. Through the window clouds are visible, in shapes which we agree on. Later, in darkness, I fall asleep. She is asleep already. I have not been in her wardrobe, and there has been no sound from her mother. I wonder if her mother has gone out.

Later I am woken up by Elice shaking me. Her eyes are wide, and range about the room. I can see clouds still in the moonlight. She hisses, ‘Wardrobe!’

I stagger to the wardrobe, and Elice throws my clothes in after me. Her mother opens the door, and says, ‘Did you hear a noise?’

Elice says, ‘No.’

Mrs Cunningham says, ‘I thought I heard something.’

Elice says, ‘I didn't.’

Mrs Cunningham says, ‘Are you sure?’

Moonlight illuminates the branches of the tree outside the window through the keyhole.

Elice says, ‘Yes.’

Mrs Cunningham says, ‘There might have been a noise which you didn't hear.’

It is even darker than usual in the wardrobe. I feel a cardboard shoebox full of small, cold objects, which I have trouble identifying.

Elice says, ‘Probably nothing.’

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Mrs Cunningham says, ‘Aaah, maybe …’

Elice says, ‘I'm, sure there's no one there.’

Mrs Cunningham says, ‘Do you think so?’

Elice says, ‘No. No crazed killers or psychopaths for example.’

Mrs Cunningham says, ‘No, quite right …’

Elice says, ‘No one hiding in the shadows, climbing in through your open window.’

Mrs Cunningham says, ‘I think my window is closed …’

I start to feel very uncomfortable in the stale air of the wardrobe. Coats and dresses hang against my head and neck.

Elice says, ‘It's a hot night isn't it?’

Mrs Cunningham says, ‘Yes.’ I hear her footsteps move uncertainly from the room, and the door close.

The next morning, I climb out into the tree, but hesitate before dropping to the ground. Clouds scuttle overhead.

I say, ‘Elice?’

I enjoy climbing the tree on a Sunday afternoon, and climbing down later or on Monday morning, but do not enjoy rapidly hiding in her wardrobe when her mother enters the room.

I hear a movement, then Elice's voice says, ‘Yes?’

I am hanging from a branch by my hands. I say, ‘Um … I was wondering …’

She says, ‘Yes?’ again.

I say, ‘All this … secrecy, the tree, and the hiding …’

I hesitate. I find it awkward talking about this while hanging in the tree.

She says, ‘What was it you wanted to say?’

I say, ‘Why is it so important that I am kept secret from your mother? She can't be that bad.’ I am starting to run out of strength in my hands.

I say, ‘It just doesn't seem normal …’

After a minute, she says, ‘Normal? But you don't know my mother.’

This makes some sense, given my current situation. I drop to the ground and leave.

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Rover entered the dormitory. He wagged his tail and looked at me enthusiastically. He motioned towards the door with his ears, and I followed him out of the room, and out of the house into the rain. He dashed through it, over the sodden lawn to an old shed at the back of the back garden.

The shed was falling down—there was a hole in the roof, boards missing from the walls, and the door would not shut properly and swung on its hinges. Inside, there was a mess of old paint tins, stacks of rotting newspaper, shelves with tools and old wine bottles, and a derelict bicycle supported one wall. Rover turned and looked at me expectantly.

I wondered why he had brought me here. He began to pace about on the dirt floor. I steered clear of enormous spiderwebs. I asked ‘What is it, here? Do you want something?’ He didn't reply, but continued pacing and wagging. I searched amongst the shelves for something which might interest a dog—or me. It was unclear whether he was offering me something, wanting something himself, or trying to tell me something.

There seemed to be very little of interest. The accumulation of newspaper told less than the stored but useless tools and household items. Rover panted at me. I looked for something hidden, but could not find anything. Rover seemed impatient. Soon he left the shed. I left too. Rover was outside, waiting in the rain with a stick in his mouth.

There had been nothing of interest in the shed. Or: if there had been anything, it was history. I sat in the dormitory again. Rover had followed me back inside with his stick, and looked at me with sad eyes. It was possible that Rover had intended to point out something about the shed as a whole? A history of paint tins or a shrine to discarded items.

Florian said, ‘History, ha ha! This place has no history.’ Mr Milk was out—almost certainly, it seemed, to avoid Florian, who was fully dressed in lycra cycle gear but was making no moves towards leaving. ‘My home city was built by the Romans. You can feel something like that under your feet. There are no buildings here older than a couple hundred years!’

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I could say: we collect paint tins like Europeans collect old buildings? Our history is discarded objects, lying in middens or under the house or in wardrobes or sheds.

Florian stood suddenly and took the stick from Rover. The dog had taken me to the shed to say: Elice could disappear under this? A person could vanish under old bottles, dust, utterances, memories. Rover winked at me as he and Florian went out into the rain.

My history could always fit into a backpack or a car boot. My father drove, and my mother asked him to slow down. The inside of the car became a world. Anything outside the windows could have been far below, perhaps a volcano spewing cloud and ash.

She phones me. This is unusual, as we normally just meet at her place on a Sunday afternoon, or at the café. She says, ‘I don't want to see you.’ Her voice is faint and hesitant.

I say, ‘OK. When do you want to see me?’

She says, ‘I don't. I'm sorry …’

I say, ‘That's all right … that you don't want to see me.’

She says, ‘It's all right?’

I say, ‘Yes—but, when don't you want to see me?’

She says, ‘Please … don't make me say …’

I say, ‘But if you don't say I won't know!’

She says, ‘You don't know …?’

I say, ‘Elice! Please …’

Her voice is fainter than before, so that I have to concentrate to hear it. ‘I don't want … to see you.’ Traffic moves noisily outside my window.

I say, ‘All right.’

She says, ‘Bye …’

I am unsure what to do at a time like this. Outside, grey clouds move slowly across the sky. They seem close enough to touch. I open the window and reach upwards, but they remain out of reach. I look for Elice's face amongst the clouds, but can only see unmatched shoes— and an accumulation of smoke and ash.

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The police had become interested in my role in Elice's disappearance. It had been a few weeks. I pointed out that people go missing all the time. That it was pointless to try to understand such a disappearance, for there was no understanding to be gained. I wanted to continue my travels down the coast.

The male police officer said, ‘Why are you leaving? What about your friend?’

I said, ‘I'm sure she won't turn up now. I've been looking for her—even before she disappeared—and there has never been any sign.’

The woman said, ‘You can leave the police work to us, OK?’ They were watching my face closely. ‘Why did your friend, um …’

I said, ‘Elice.’

She said, ‘… right. Why did she decide to come travelling? Was there a purpose behind it? Was it in character?’

I said, ‘I suppose I persuaded her to …’

They looked at each other, and the man wrote something down on his notepaper. He said, ‘Tell us something about your relationship with her.’

I said, ‘Why should I … that is, that doesn't seem relevant. I didn't come here to talk about …’

The woman said, ‘Why exactly did you come to us again?’

I was not sure. They leaned back and looked at me. The man said, ‘I'd advise you to keep out of trouble, all right?’

I meet her at the café. We have not seen each other for several months—we are no longer lovers (if that is what we were). Instead we are friends. I have quit my job, and want to travel for some time in the South Island. The West Coast is one place I have not yet been. I know that it is safe to ask Elice to come with me; she will not agree—she has a layer of home about her which makes it impossible for her to leave.

But I ask her, and she does agree. After some thought, we decide that she will meet me in G.